Study Guide

Desire in Language

by Julia Kristeva

Desire in Language Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Julia Kristeva, in Desire in Language, contends that the relationship between language and society is crucial to understanding the construction of meaning through literary narratives. She argues that the metaphysical premises upon which language rests are essential in exposing the signifying process—the subject matter of semiotics.

Kristeva’s own version of semiotics (theory of signs), however, significantly diverges from the traditional discipline developed by linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Peirce, to the extent that she focuses less on the abstract structure of language than on the speaking human subject (the subject). Following psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Kristeva claims that the speaking subject is split between the unconscious and conscious levels. She names her approach “semanalysis,” which analyzes a signifying phenomenon, such as a novel, drama, music, or painting, at its unconscious, preverbal, and preoedipal levels. Semanalysis seeks to uncover the split within the speaking subject whose narrative signifies something other than what is overtly expressed. Thus, the analysis subverts the narrative’s underlying metaphysical and epistemological constructs.

Desire in Language comprises ten essays written in a period of about ten years. The essays were first published in Séméiotiké(1969) and Polylogue (1977), reflecting the literary and social theories prevalent in France in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including poststructuralism, structural Marxism, and feminism. In the essays, Kristeva draws on the insights of thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Georg Lukács, Jacques Lacan, Roman Jakobson, and Mikhail Bakhtin. The book relies heavily on psychoanalytic approaches in interpreting literary texts and artworks as expressions of repressed and forbidden sexuality.

In the book’s opening chapter, “The Ethics of Linguistics,” Kristeva argues that the ethical rules of discourse developed by traditional linguists, semioticians, and grammarians separate language from its speaker, concerned as they are with, mainly, internal coherence of meaning and metalinguistic considerations. In contrast, Kristeva urges a shift in the semiotic rules of ethics from objective meaning structures to the speaking subject. She points to poetry as offering an opening for this shift. In poetry, the dialectics of the subject is revealed at its subverbal levels. She next illustrates the kind of semiotic rules of ethics she envisions with a discussion of Jakobson’s contributions to linguistic studies, such as his interpretive readings of Russian poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov.

Kristeva, who moves from the semiotics of poetry to the semiotics of the novel in the second chapter, “The Bounded Text,” introduces the concept of the ideologeme. An ideologeme is an overarching epistemic complex of ideas and themes that form the intersection of textual arrangements and utterances. Because ideologemes are embedded at the structural level of a text, reflecting its sociohistorical context, their identification and analyses are crucial to understanding what is being signified. Kristeva distinguishes between the ideologeme of the sign and the ideologeme of the symbol. The ideologeme of the sign on which a novel as a modern form of writing is based differs from the ideologeme of the...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)