Saturday, 10 September 2011

Genotext and Phenotext

Lately I've been concerned with the dynamics of literature and the context in which it figures. Elements of a hypertext may resemble elements of a hypotext (Genette's terms) but the issue on my mind is which of these elements are specific to the cultural context of the hypotext and which are specific only to the hypotext. Literature enters into a contemporary cultural discourse in which several elements, be it motifs, plot structures, issues or conflicts to name a few, are pervasive. Based in this, I wondered what in a hypertext would be elements of direct literary intertextuality and what would be a result of inherited cultural norms, principles and perspectives.

To state it blatantly, is Kurtz in Coppola's Apocalypse Now an echo of Conrad's Kurtz or is he a representation of the cultural stereotype of the brilliant but misguided outcast inherent in Western culture? Is Nick Hornby's socially challenged and alienated protagonists representative of a cultural type or do they hark back to earlier literary social outcasts (Frankenstein, Heathcliff, Dorian Gray etc.)? The main issue is, succinctly stated, whether there is a real, direct intertextual connection between hyper- and hypo-text or whether both are in fact echoes of the same cultural signified.

One approach to resolving this issue which I found helpful was distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic mode of language in Julia Kristeva's split subject, especially as represented through the terms genotext and phenotext. Building on the work of Jaques Lacan's dichotomy of the imaginary and the symbolic and Freud's work on primary processes, Kristeva's split subject concerns concepts of symbolic representation and infancy. The semiotic mode prevails is the infant state where the subject, unable to distinguish himself from the significant other (the mother), understands his environs without the use of language. This state comes to an end as the subject interacts and has to make sense of the world. This can only be done through the language logic inherent in society and thus represents the onset of the symbolic mode of language.

Transferring the focus to texts, Kristeva offers the terms genotext and phenotext. Genotext refers to those elements in a text which appeal to the psychological processes from the semiotic mode, be they love, despair, alienation or other drives. Phenotext, on the other hand, is those elements which tie in with the symbolic mode of language, i.e. those dependent on language, presentation, logic and which try to convey meaning.

This distinction, then, might assist somewhat in the above intertextuality problem area. If we assume a connection between genotext and those latent values, principles etc. in the culture with which hypo- and hypertext engages, phenotext would then be those elements specific to the text. This cojunction, of course, requires an understanding of culture as a form of socially shared psychology and it also represents the extremes of a sliding scale but taking this into account it might assist the researcher of intertextual dynamics in establishing the nature of relevant elements. Thus, when reapproaching an issue such as that of the Kurtz character, we might find that while the elements of character confidence and resistance might be products of culture, Kurtz's situation, action- and reaction patterns are specific to Conrad's hypertext. The social alienation felt by Hornby's protagonists would appear to be an echo of culture, while their interaction with that society could be an echo of earlier literature.

Source: Allen, Graham: Intertextuality, New York 2001

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