Know Your Words

Of Enemies and Intertextuality


You know Trump’s penchant for referring to the media as the “enemy of the people” is reckless (at best). [For more on why it’s reckless, see our previous post about rhetoric.] You know that adherents of ideologues throughout history have used that phrase to ignite ire in the hearts of their followers (Nazis, Marxists/Leninists, etc). But did you know there’s a word (from the discipline known as Cultural Studies) that refers to the phenomenon wherein a commonly used phrase dredges up the cultural baggage of those people and/or movements who used it in the past?

That word is intertextuality and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, it is defined as:

… a theory of meaning and meaning production. It holds that all texts (in the widest sense of the term – e.g., written works, films, art, etc) are composed of other, pre-existing texts held together in a state of constant interaction. It means that there are no original texts, no complete texts, and no singular texts: all texts exist within a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other texts. This is not simply a fact of language, but a necessary precondition.

The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory credits Julia Kristeva with coining the term in 1966 as a way of “denoting the interdependence of literary texts, the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all this talk of literary terms, and texts is kind of high-brow and smacks of intellectualism. This isn’t exactly Trump’s forte. I mean, he doesn’t even read.

I agree. It seems somewhat outside his grasp. He does, however, have advisors and maybe even a speech writer on his staff (although I wouldn’t want to cop to having that job), and one or two of them are likely aware of it. If that’s the case, the President’s use of “enemy of the people” would be an example of what’s known as “obligatory intertextuality,” which occurs when “the writer deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts.”

And what about the audience (those hearing the president’s words)? What if they don’t understand or catch the reference to the earlier uses of the term?

In this regard, intertextuality is like the Washington Post in that, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.* In other words, for those that understand the phrase’s cultural significance, they get the full force of it, with all its cultural baggage. If they don’t, then they take it at face value.

This brings us to another intriguing term that’s been getting a lot of play lately: dog whistle.