Julia Kristeva Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Kristeva linked semiotics and literary criticism by treating literature as a psychological, historical, and political phenomenon. Her analyses employ concepts from both psychology and political philosophy.

Early Life

Born in Bulgaria in 1941, Julia Kristeva received her early education from a French religious order and her college training at the University of Sofia. She arrived in Paris in 1966 to begin studies toward a doctoral degree; this step turned into a permanent emigration for her, and her professional life in effect began in Paris. In 1967, her articles began to appear in the leading intellectual journals, Critique, Langages, and Tel Quel. Owing to her close association with the latter, Kristeva tended to be grouped with the poststructuralist school of thought about language and culture. She had, however, a distinctive voice from the very first. Having been introduced to Western literature through the innovative Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, she arrived prepared to make a unique contribution at the moment when Paris was most receptive to nontraditional, non-Western approaches to Western culture.

After defending her doctoral dissertation, Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva was appointed to a chair in linguistics at the University of Paris VII. She served on the editorial board of Tel Quel from 1970 to 1983. With a group from Tel Quel, she made a three-week visit to China in 1974; from this experience came her perceptive study About Chinese Women. Kristeva married the French novelist and theorist Philippe Sollers in 1970 and had a son in 1976. She completed professional training in psychoanalysis, opening her own practice in 1979.

Life’s Work

Kristeva’s work linked literary theory and semiotics. She treats literature as a psychological, historical, and political phenomenon. Although her range of erudition is multicultural, her focus is most often on French literature, with Russian a significant secondary source. James Joyce heads the wide-ranging list of literary sources outside the Russian and French.

The first stage of Kristeva’s critical writings, roughly from the years 1967 through 1974, includes “The System and the Speaking Subject,” Le Texte du roman (works of fiction), and Revolution in Poetic Language. In this stage, Kristeva was concerned with elaborating the tools of criticism. She validated Bakhtin’s concept of literary polyphony as an important stage in the novel and his understanding of “poetic language” as a concept much broader than poetry. She validated French avant-garde critic Roland Barthes’s insights into the existential “negativity” of language and the preeminence of history and politics over literature. She expanded the inventory of critical terminology with numerous new terms, such as “intertextuality,” “paragram,” “genotext,” and “phenotext.” Of these, “intertextuality” has gained the widest acceptance; it refers to the transposition of one system of signs into another, refreshing the connotations of both. She affirms the application, begun by colleagues such as Barthes and Jacques Derrida, of semiotics to literature; in so doing, she emphasizes that the semiotic approach is a post-Symbolist approach and carefully distinguishes between the traditional symbols and the innovative concept of “signs” in literature. In this first stage, Kristeva’s approach was at its most severely technical or structuralist. For example, she applied calculus in her definition of an omniscient narrator opening a story with a description of a hero in the third person:

The subject of utterance (Sd) coincides with the zero degree of the subject of enunciation (St), which can be designated either by the “he/she” nonperson pronoun or by a proper name. This is the simplest technique found at the inception of the narrative.

In an anthology of her early writings, taken from many sources and available only in English as Desire in Language, Kristeva puts her approach into focus: “One of the problems for semiotics is to replace the formal, rhetorical division of genres with a typology of texts.” For her, the most important genre in need of semiotic redefinition is the novel, particularly in its subversive role, from...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)