Form and Content

Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, a compilation of Julia Kristeva’s early work, records her transformation from a young, Bulgarian doctoral student newly arrived in Paris into a leading interpreter of the theories of literature and culture that she encountered in the course of her studies: structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Throughout Desire in Language, Kristeva draws on key themes in these theories to make original and provocative claims. On the one hand, Kristeva shares with their proponents (for example Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser, respectively) a common perspective about language. She asserts that words—marks on a page or sounds—do not function as instruments of representation; rather, they produce a social, signifying space. Signs do not have meaning because they attach themselves like labels to things, but only in systemic relation to one another. Linked together, words articulate a history, a politics, a world. On the other hand, Kristeva emphasizes (more than others in her intellectual milieu) that echolalias, rhythms, and silences in speech also shape meaning. Suggesting too that it is perhaps necessary “to be a woman to attempt to take up that exorbitant wager of carrying the rational project to the outer borders of the signifying venture of men,” Kristeva breaks new ground in Desire in Language with a theory of language focused on the material aspects of speech. She refers to these...

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Readers of Desire in Language cite as significant for women and their concerns Kristeva’s attention to the role of the body in language because the body so often has been overlooked by students of literature. That, by means of her theory of the semiotic, Kristeva seeks out corporeal, material contributions to the production of meaning in human lives draws to her work persons who wish to stress the importance of the body in their study of literature.

At the same time, Kristeva’s writings are the subject of intense debate, especially among feminist theorists who want to study literature and culture in ways that contribute to the enhanced equality of women. Some feminist critics suggest that Kristeva disempowers women who seek equality because she links them with the semiotic in ways that exclude women in some essential way from a symbolic order of social and political power. These critics suggest also that, in her preoccupation with maternity, Kristeva overgeneralizes about women and neglects other aspects of women’s lives.

Defending Kristeva, other feminist theorists claim that she does not promote women’s privileged association with a prediscursive, semiotic structure of desire. Rather, she is committed to inquiring why codes of language historically have been employed to mark women with the sign of maternity and why humans have seen in the female body privileged testimony to the semiotic. These theorists note, in particular, Kristeva’s emphasis on human discomfort with the semiotic legacy of desire in their lives. Kristeva, they remind the reader, recognizes that a feminist politics which would challenge violence against women and promote the equality of women must consider the possible origins of violence in such discomfort. It must also explore further why humans, in their attempts to challenge the governing conditions of their lives, have so often used women’s bodies to circumvent the work of desire that makes human existence possible even as it mandates human mortality. These theorists find particularly salient Kristeva’s assertion that only as persons come to terms with ways in which their lives are shaped by desire can they locate options for subversion that may enable them to strategize successfully for positive social change.

Desire in Language

Desire in Langauge provides, in translation, a long-overdue introduction to the restless, intense intelligence of Julia Kristeva. Until now, only a handful of essays and the book On Chinese Women (1977) have been available in English. Desire in Language was published in Columbia University Press’s “European Perspectives” series, and Kristeva remarks in her Preface—written expressly for English-language readers—that the presentation of these essays in translation, “within a different culture, surely leads one to measure, more than one ordinarily would, the difference in mental and intellectual habits that persist [sic] in spite of recently increased cultural exchanges between the United States and Europe.”

Kristeva herself cites the erasing of boundaries between disciplines traditionally kept apart as an example of European—as opposed to American—practice, yet an even more striking difference is her militant atheism (if it is understood that “atheism” is an imprecise, unsatisfactory term here, but necessary for want of a better one). The last, allusive sentence of her Preface suggests her characteristic tone: “Analytic discourse . . . is perhaps the only one capable of addressing this untenable place where our speaking species resides, threatened by madness beneath the emptiness of heaven.” Again and again in the essays collected in this volume, Kristeva explicitly contrasts the meaningful Christian Word with the “heterogeneousness” which she proclaims with bitter fervor.

Reading Kristeva, one is reminded of the films of Ingmar Bergman, which seem to embarrass many American critics, because Bergman keeps wrestling with Christianity. The American intellectual scene today is marked by a thoroughgoing evasion of metaphysical questions. Thus, when Geoffrey Hartman lectured recently on “Wordsworth Before Heidegger”—lecturing in the New Wordsworth Museum—he felt compelled to defuse his Derridean reading of the Immortality Ode by assuring his audience that deconstruction is not “anti-humanist” at all.

Kristeva is certainly “anti-humanist”—although unlike Jacques Derrida, her work has many redeeming...

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Coward, Rosalind, and John Ellis. Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. Traces the development of semiology in the 1960’s, with special attention to Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser. The authors claim that Kristeva’s theory of signification is a significant advance from these earlier positions.

Elliot, Patricia. From Mastery to Analysis: Theories of Gender in Psychoanalytic Feminism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Examines views of gender in the writings of several influential psychoanalytic feminists, including Nancy Chodorow, Luce Irigaray, and Kristeva. Elliot claims that Kristeva makes a particularly salient contribution to efforts to develop a critical theory of the gendered subject.

Lechte, John. Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 1990. Establishes in straightforward and careful prose the intellectual background for Kristeva’s thought. Lechte traces the development of her theory of the semiotic and the symbolic and describes her analyses of horror, love, and melancholy.

Moi, Toril, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. A compilation of Kristeva’s most important essays and an invaluable resource for persons who seek basic grounding in her complex theories. Clear, instructive introductions to each essay enable the reader to move with ease among the three main areas of Kristeva’s writings: semiotics, psychoanalysis, and political theory.

Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. The first sustained feminist analysis of Kristeva’s work. Oliver indicates ways in which concepts such as the semiotic, abjection, maternal function, and the imaginary father can be useful for feminist theory.

Ziarek, Ewa. “At the Limits of Discourse: Heterogeneity, Alterity, and the Maternal Body in Kristeva’s Thought.” Hypatia 7, no. 2 (1992): 91-108. Situates Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic within the context of a discussion of the status of the maternal body in her work. Ziarek reviews the intense debate around Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic and advances the discussion by clarifying ambiguities in Kristeva’s position.