As Kristeva draws on themes of desire, language, and maternity and traces a theory of the semiotic, one observes her transition in less than a decade from a youthful scholar attentive to the wisdom of her teachers into a mature and innovative theorist of language. In “Word, Dialogue, Novel” (1966), Kristeva remains a faithful student of structuralism. Seeking scientific objectivity in linguistic analysis, she appeals to mathematics and set theory to map the workings of language. When Kristeva draws on the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, however, to locate subversive possibilities of language in his themes of carnival and satire, she entertains a new approach to language. Making the desire of a speaking subject, and not a system of words, the prime locus of linguistic theorizing, Kristeva employs Bakhtin’s allusions to textual contradictions and disruptions to advance her own notion of the semiotic.

In “How Does One Speak to Literature?” (1971), Kristeva focuses on the work of her major teacher in France, Roland Barthes, to develop semiotic theory further. Debunking claims of language to represent reality, Barthes emphasizes that all language creates fiction. He does not trace the pleasure that humans take in language to the connections that language might forge with a reality it labels; rather, he locates this pleasure in a subject who, creating a consistency of self in words, obtains comfort and experiences joy (jouissance) in their use. Inspired by Barthes, Kristeva looks at the limits of language and probes the pleasures that he describes for evidence of the semiotic, which...

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