2.6 Texts that Get Their Meaning from other Texts

60D7A53A-E5AF-4A3A-AB10-2B021589E4B2If you run a google search on “Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration?” the results immediately point to other authors, other authors’ works, and a slight suggestion of someone who isn’t even Shakespeare writing Shakespeare’s plays.  To downplay what Shakespeare accomplished and replace it with what results in just shy of “plagiarism” seems extreme. The fact of the matter is that almost all “text” gets meaning from other “texts” just as words get their meaning from other words: https://thresholdresources.wordpress.com/1-4-words-get-their-meanings-from-other-words/.  As  Roozen points out, it is not merely the text alone that forms our interpretation of the text (Roozen, 2016, pg. 44).  It is life experiences, moral compasses, nature/nurture, content, and language that guides us to a meaning. And as Stanley Fish addresses in his piece, “Is There a Text in this Class?,” any act of interpretation, is not an individual act but one that has been created from a social construct, which he calls “interpreter communities” (Fish, 1980, p. 322).  Much like the interpretation of anything else, we can see the justification for these interpretations from Fish, “… because in order to grasp the meaning of an individual term, you must already have grasped the general activity… in relation to which it could be thought to be meaningful…” (Fish, 1980, p. 304).

We are inundated with movies, television shows, and books that are constantly recycling “old” into “new” but does that diminish the quality of the “new”? Surely, the “new” has to be given an opportunity to be successful. And what is even more interesting is that these concepts are being mocked within the actual “new” thing that has been created.  In the remake of the 80s television show, 21 Jump Street, Deputy Chief Hardy laments on this concept, “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas…” (Lord & Miller, 2012).  

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas…” (Lord & Miller, 2012).

And if you’ve happened to notice a surge in reboots, revivals, and remakes, there is a reason.  There is familiarity in concepts that we already understand. From the standpoint of an interpretive community, this makes sense.  We want to feel connected to the “text.” To the thing we read, watch, or listen to. And if you can’t find a connection, you tend to shut down quickly.  There’s excitement we get when a piece is alluded to in another piece. Interestingly enough, we may never have been exposed to the original “thing” in the first place.  For example, the Jaws theme song? You may have never even seen the movie but you definitely understand the reference and the tone implied when someone starts in on the horrifying melody.  As Josh Walbert writes in his blog- Prequels, Sequels, Reboots, and Remakes, it is easy to come in with preconceived notions about what a movie (or text) should be, “Movies, like any art form, are meant to convey something; a passion, an idea, a sense of joy, of despair, of hope, humor, or sadness” but it is within these inspirations that we should continue to strive towards the creation of something unique.

In, “A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Contemporary America,” Don Abbott notes how even during the Renaissance, students depended on imitation which required “great authors to imitate” (Abbott, 2012, p.158). Students even created commonplace books, which were collections of personal compositions as well as analysis of other works, quotations, and illustration.  These books, used in conjunction with other anthologies and collections, gave students an array of works from which to draw in order to focus on a theme of his or her own. Grammar school students were ever rarely expected to move outside of these suggestions; however, older students were required to be original in thought, theme, and discourse.

Roozen understands that this is not a popular Western thought but one that is “vital” in “….the continual making and remaking of knowledge, selves, and society” (Roozen, 2016, p. 46).  We may want to believe that our “text” is completely unique and original but the truth is we have been influenced so greatly by other texts, images, and life, that it is likely impossible that we have journeyed into a completely unknown territory.  But what we do have control over is the recognition of this fact, and, in turn, moving forward with the knowledge that we have a vast array of materials in which we can rely on in order to create something new.  


Abbott, D. P. (2012). Reading, writing, and rhetoric in the Renaissance. In A short history of
writing instruction: From ancient Greece to contemporary America (Third ed., pp. 148-171).
Taylor & Francis.
Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer present ; in association with Relativity Media ; an Original Film, SJC Studios production ; screenplay by Michael Bacall ; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Stephen J. Cannell ; directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. (2012). 21 Jump Street. Culver City, Calif. :Columbia Pictures Industries.
Fish, S. (1980). Is there a text in this class? In S. Fish (Author), Is there a text in this class?(pp. 303-321). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Junger, G., Lutz, K. M. C., Smith, K., Stiles, J., Ledger, H., Gordon-Levitt, J., Oleynik, L., … Touchstone Home Video (Firm),. (1999). 10 Things I Hate About You.
Roozen, K. (2016). Texts get their meaning from other texts. In L. Adler-Kassner & E. Wardle (Eds.),
Naming what we know (Classroom Edition ed., pp. 44-47). Utah State University Press.
Walbert, J. (2018, July 26). Word press. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/124898887/posts/2283

2 thoughts on “2.6 Texts that Get Their Meaning from other Texts”

  1. Hi Courtney,
    I hope you don’t mind that I went into your post and turned on the commenting feature. After trying to comment on yours, I realized that I didn’t turn mine on either, but it was really easy to do.

    I really enjoyed reading your post, especially when you noted how excited people get when they understand an allusion. This is one reason I still love reading the classics in class. I feel like as soon as we finish a book my students are inundated with references to Of Mice and Men or Lord of the Flies in shows they are watching or posts they see on social media. They get so excited and they feel intelligent when they understand a reference. It goes back to that whole idea of making a connection that you talk about. We DO get bored if we can’t make a connect. There isn’t a purpose for us to continue reading (or watching). You were wise to connect this idea to Fish! People remake texts with the interpretive community in mind. If their audience was someone outside of the community, they wouldn’t bother to remake a text because it probably wouldn’t be as powerful or as successful as it would be with a population of people who belonged to the interpretive community.

    You pose a question about whether or not a lack of “new” diminishes the quality of a text. I don’t think so! Often I find remakes or parodies to be brilliant, and again, sometimes it is because of an emotional connection, but isn’t that why we love to read and to write? Because it creates emotion and drives action?



  2. This post is both intriguing and sad. It is sad to think that no one can really have a new idea because someone has already had that idea. We only think we are creating something new because we haven’t been exposed to everything in the world. But it is intriguing because if I haven’t been expressly exposed to a storyline, for example, and I create a plot that I find exciting and new that happens to remind someone of this earlier work, is it mine or have I stolen the idea? This seems to be at the heart of some recent legal cases involving the accusation of a musician stealing parts of the music to songs from a few decades earlier. Once one person creates a specific sequence of notes does that mean that no one else can ever use that same sequence of notes again without paying royalty fees? Can that be applied to the plots in novels and short stories and movies too? Should artists (and I use this term to encompass all forms of creative arts) be fearful of subconsciously drawing inspiration from a text that they heard or saw or read years ago when creating new art? Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or has society gotten so focused on money and copyrights that people stake their territory in such a wide scope that there truly can be nothing new created? What an interesting thought. I’d like to see this as a Socratic seminar in a class. Thank you. Rennie


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