Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1388
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 symbol that characterizes medieval writings. She believes that the novel marks an epistemological break from medieval semiotic practices, in that it resolves conceptual dualisms, such as that between the alethic (what is necessary) and the deontic (what is obligatory), through a nondisjunction of oppositional dyads. Furthermore, from a semiotic viewpoint, a novel represents a narrative with a structural finitude, often indicated by the death or murder of the “speaker.”
In the third chapter, “Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Kristeva relies on Bakhtin to advance the thesis that writing contains a dialogical structure—unrecognized by traditional semiotics. This dialogue occurs at the intersection of a horizontal axis, consisting of a speaker in relation to an addressee, and a vertical axis, consisting of words. Thus understood, each word within a text intersects with numerous other words, making the text an actual “mosaic of quotations” that continuously absorbs and transforms other words from other texts. Every text is thus a dialogue that enjoins semiotics with the task of uncovering multiple modalities and forms of writing within writings, a task that is accomplished through procedures that are intended to expose their unconscious and preverbal levels.
A text’s dialogical character also demands that the text be read as part of, and as a response to, other texts that have preceded it. Thus understood, semiotics is also carnivalesque in nature; it is subversive and rebellious, shrinking the distance between the author and audience, self and the other. Kristeva notes that the spirit of carnivalesque discourse was present in ancient Greece, as evidenced by Socratic dialogues and Menippean satires. Furthermore, Kristeva recognizes her mentor, Roland Barthes, as the “precursor and founder of modern literary studies,” arguing that he placed writing at the intersection of the subject and history. She asserts that writing, according to Barthes, is a “negative operation” because it highlights “contestation, rupture, flight, and irony.”
In the fourth chapter, “How Does One Speak to Literature?” Kristeva returns to one of the central themes of the book and argues that the nature of the speaking subject is often ignored. She notes that Edmund Husserl’s elevation of the subject as transcendental ego (above empiricist and psychological fragmentations) is intended to establish, unlike the Cartesian ego, that the subject is constituted in the act of constituting the object. Any signifying practice is thus predicated on the unity of the operating consciousness. At the same time, such a subject must be aligned with its instinctual heterogeneity, which is apprehended through the methods opened up by Freud and Lacan.
The final chapters apply the insights of psychoanalysis to signifying practices. In chapter 6, “The Father, Love, and Banishment,” Kristeva subjects Samuel Beckett’s dramatic monologue Not I (pr. 1972) and his short story First Love, and Other Shorts (1974) to a Freudian analysis to support the thesis that the overcoming of the superego symbolized by the father’s death is necessary to experience sexual love. Kristeva further argues that writing also reveals the existence of the other, going beyond subjectivism and psychologism, and speech finds its meaning in the love for the father’s death, or murder. Beckett’s writings often signify acts of patricide and tell tales of mother-son incest. The same themes also are said to underlie the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo during the Renaissance, a period of cultural history in which Christianity, the religion of the father (patriarchy), was recast as a form of Humanism that celebrated sexuality, pleasure, and acquisitiveness.
Turning to music as a form of signifying practice, Kristeva examines in chapter 7, “The Novel as Polylogue,” Philippe Sollers’s writings on vocalization. Through intonation and rhythm, music leads to a silent place within the subject, observes Kristeva. In a Freudian turn, she describes singing as a structural signifier of erotic instincts, asserting that music emerges from that domain within the subject that is controlled by the “phallic mother.” For a language to be expressed in music it must confront this mother, the first other whom the son meets. Singing is a different sort of incest, a liberating one, because in singing Oedipus turns into Orpheus and the mother’s control is broken.
Kristeva goes on to unveil the underlying sexual signifiers contained in the Renaissance paintings of Giotto and Giovanni Bellini, focusing on color as a signifier. In chapter 8, “Giotto’s Joy,” Kristeva theorizes that color represents an excess of meaning to be interpreted psychoanalytically. The choice of color signifies the speaking subject’s internal conflicts, sexual in origin, and the ideological values of the age. Renaissance paintings, while professing to serve Catholic theology, in effect betrayed this theology by valorizing Humanism and sexuality. In chapter 9, “Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini,” Kristeva contends that Bellini’s portrayal of motherhood exemplifies this betrayal, as his paintings refer to the sublimated expressions of father-daughter incest and the “homosexual facet” of motherhood. The pictorial art of motherhood, such as the Madonna and child Jesus, had been a favorite theme of Renaissance artists, also betraying repressed instincts.
Desire in Language concludes with the chapter “Place Names,” which is devoted to the Freudian discovery of infantile sexuality, its implications for understanding the parent-child relationship, and its significance for psychoanalysis. Implied is the notion that since Freud’s discovery of the Oedipus complex and infantile sexuality, academic and other discourse on neurosis and motherhood involves a semiotics of the repressed and its signifying structures.