Intertextuality: surface signs, gestures & play

A good place to look for illustrations of postmodern culture, in terms of media studies, is the music video. As Shuker notes, two points are frequently made about music videos: ‘their preoccupation with visual style, and associated with this, their status as key exemplars of ‘postmodern’ texts.’ (2001:167). Shuker refers Fredric Jameson’s (1984) notion of the ‘metanarrative’ (discussed in more detail below) that ’embody the postmodern condition’ (168). For example, the fragmentary, decentred nature of music videos that break up traditional understandings of time and space so that audiences are ‘no longer able to distinguish ‘fiction’ from ‘reality’, part of the postmodern condition’ (ibid). Alongside their similarity to adverts (essentially the music video is a commercial tool to sell music products) ‘making them part of a blatantly consumerist culture‘ (ibid). And of course, the ‘considerable evidence of pastiche, intertextuality and eclecticism‘ (ibid) which is the focus of this next section.

BRICOLAGE is a useful term to apply to postmodernist texts as it ‘involves the rearrangment and juxtaposition of previously unconnected signs to produce new codes of meaning’ (Barker & Jane, 2016:237). Similarly, INTERTEXTUALITY is another useful term to use, as it suggests signs only have meaning in reference to other signs and that meaning is therefore a complex process of decoding/encoding with individuals both taking and creating meaning in the process of reading texts. In other words . . .

. . . the concept that the meaning of a text does not reside in the text, but is produced by the reader in relation not only to the text in question, but also the complex network of texts invoked in the reading process.


If you listen to the distinctive guitar chord riff that starts the song above and the distinctive guitar riff that starts the song below you may recognise that the one above has copied the one below! It’s not exact. So it is the same but different. This accounts for a lot of ideas around genre theory (follow this link) which also has, at its’ heart, the idea of SIMILARITY & DIFFERENCE. However, as already shown in the parody/pastiche videos above, it seems as though postmodern culture is a deliberate, self-conscious, re-working one that prioritises the idea of the copy. As such, one approach to understanding postmodernism is to try to contextualise and understand the meaning of copy and reference.

Postmodernism can therefore be understood (more than other creative movements) as deliberate, intended, self-conscious play (about play?), signs about signs, notes to notes? Often (and again unlike other creative movements such as modernism or structuralism – see below) this may be frivolous, trite, casual, surface, throw-away. It may even be ironic, joking, or literally, ‘just playing’. However, it is always a deliberate copy (of the old). Therefore, the old has been re-worked into something new, which clearly entails a recognition (a nod and a wink) to what it was and where it came from. In this sense, postmodernism works in terms REITERATION, so in the example above, the guitar riff in one song is a reiteration of the guitar riff in another. The key question is why reference other cultural artefacts? Is it just play? Or is it indicative of something else?

Surface and style over substance

If it the priority is play, then the emphasis is on the surface, in other words, if the main focus is the idea of just connecting one product to another, then the focus is superficial, shallow, lacking depth, so ‘in a postmodern world, surfaces and style become the most important defining features of the mass media and popular culture‘ (Strinati: 234). The emphasis of style and surface over substance, means that what something looks like becomes more important than anything else, as opposed to what something might mean, or what it could be used for.

In terms of the key principles of art and design the priority is in formal elements: of shape, colour, texture, movement, space, time and so on. As opposed to more discursive principles of: narrative, character, motivation, theme, ideology. Or put simply: STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE. Put another way, are we more interested in the surface of an object than its’ inner meaning?

For example, The Art of Noise were a group of white experimental musicians from the 1980’s who presented themselves through abstract, impressionistic videos (see below). The focus is therefore on image, surface, style. Meaning and interpretation is obtuse, disguised, removed and difficult to apprehend. No surprise then that this group of middle aged white art-school musicians ‘were voted the second best new black act’ because ‘they think we’re blackAnne Dudley band member interviewed on BBC breakfast time (link here)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.