Julia Kristeva

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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...

(This entire section contains 1802 words.)

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available only in English asDesire 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 François Rabelais to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, as the carrier of what Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque” (joyous, sensual, mocking) impulse in Western culture. She views the novel dynamically, as a process or operation. The importance of the differing stylistic and psychological threads weaving through the novel is emphasized as the real key to the distinctness of the genre. She sounds a distinct extraliterary note in a chapter entitled “The Ethics of Linguistics”: Both linguistic and literary analysis deserve a larger role in the interpretation of history and culture than has previously been seen. In semiotic fashion, a parallel is assumed among all manifestations of culture, with literary and language codes participating in the same processes as, for example, ethical and legal codes. In the late nineteenth century, “something quite new [entered] … Western society and discourse … subsumed in the names of[Karl] Marx,[Friedrich] Nietzsche, and[Sigmund] Freud.” She finds a parallel between these thinkers’ shattering of various codes and the code shattering of such twentieth-century writers as the Russian Futurists and Céline. In Kristeva’s words, “a code … must be shattered in every revolutionary beginning.”

Kristeva’s increased emphasis on Freudian (and Lacanian) psychology is apparent in Powers of Horror. Here, Freudian analysis is the predominant tool used in a bold survey of most of the range of human discourse, culminating in a nearly definitive study of Céline. The work is rewarding for its flashes of genuine eloquence about a kaleidoscope of writers, illuminated and connected in new ways. For example, on Marcel Proust: “the delightful interlacing of Proustian sentences, which unfold my memory and that of my language’s signs down to the silent, glowing recesses of an odyssey of desire”; and the Marquis de Sade: “the Sadean narrative machine unveils, beneath the power of terror, the playful reckoning of sexual drive coiled up in death.” There is also a convincing interpretation of the New Testament as having innovated an inextricable link between sin and beauty and a less easily defensible reinterpretation of the Old Testament along Freudian-Lacanian lines. A genuinely witty insight into Céline’s pointillisme (his addiction to using three dots in lieu of any other form of punctuation) is the suggestion that it represents his obsession with the three points of the Oedipal triangle. Kristeva’s chiefly psychologically oriented stage as a critic continued with Tales of Love. At the same time, her openly political orientation matured into a broader human view in which politics is less important.

Kristeva is complex and difficult, seeking to express the heretofore inexpressible in her work. She relies to a considerable extent upon paradox to express insights that appear to be beyond logic, for example: “Torn between being the guardian of the law and the instance which disavows the law, hasn’t philosophy turned away from thought?” In her second, most politicized phase, Kristeva threw a gauntlet to her orthodox counterparts, challenging them to find their way through her multidimensional thinking (about the self, the other, and the Lacanian nonsubject nonobjects of an alienated consciousness): “No scholar, no orthodox theoretician can find his way through any of my essays, unless he has personally experienced this four-sided duel.”

Although Kristeva’s fundamental theories have evolved and matured, their provenance is not completely forgotten. Though identified with the leftist intellectual movement of France and agreeing with many of its ideals, Kristeva occupies a unique position as a radical anti-Marxist. In her own words: “I am an exile from socialism and Marxist rationality.” Yet far from seeing the latter as outmoded and moribund, she viewed it as an opponent to be fought with the sharpest weapons: “We must attack the very premises of this rationality … and dismantle them patiently and meticulously, starting with language and working right up to culture and institutions.” Because one cannot use language and logic to dismantle language and logic, Kristeva has, perhaps in spite of herself, contributed to the achievement of new levels of theoretical meticulousness.

Additional Reading

Fletcher, John, and Andrew Benjamin, eds. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 1990. Stemming from a 1987 conference at the University of Warwick on the work of Julia Kristeva (which she also attended), this collection of ten explanatory and critical essays deals with a number of her seminal ideas such as the “abject,” the “semiotic chora,” “ primary narcissism,” and adolescence and perversion. The book includes Kristeva’s own article, “The Adolescent Novel.”

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversion: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989. This text contains an excellent introductory glossary with some basic terms of postmodern thought, as well as a lucid explanation of several components of Kristeva’s work including the semiotic and the subject. It provides a basic explanation of French feminism as well as additional writings on the work of Luce Irigaray and Michèle Le Doeuff.

Guberman, Ross Mitchell, ed. Julia Kristeva Interviews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. This diverse collection of twenty-three interviews given by Kristeva covers her intellectual influences, views on socialism and feminism, concepts of avant-garde practice and psychoanalysis, and other issues.

Kim, C. W. Maggie, Susan M. St.Ville, and Susan M. Simonaitis, eds. Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993. Using North American feminism as a foil, this volume of essays introduces characteristic components of leading French feminists, including Kristeva, and the relationship of their thought to the larger context of feminist theology.

Lechte, John. Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 1990. Part of a series of books on twentieth century thinkers edited by British scholar Christopher Norris, this text offers a careful reading of Kristeva’s work within the realm of semiotics.

Moi, Toril, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. This book contains an excellent selection of Kristeva’s work from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. The articles are accompanied by brief and insightful explanations that contextualize Kristeva’s work within the larger French intellectual environment.

Oliver, Kelly. Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writing. New York: Routledge, 1993. A series of critical essays that generally focus on Kristeva’s works concerning identity within the symbolic and the “ethico-political” subject.

Oliver, Kelly, ed. The Portable Kristeva. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. A collection of Kristeva’s writings strongly representative of her work during the 1980’s and 1990’s, this book is organized topically and offers a solid introduction to some of Kristeva’s seminal ideas.

Oliver, Kelly, ed. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A volume that offers myriad ways of interpreting Kristeva’s complex ideas. It provides a succinct summary of many of her notions within the context of those both critical and supportive of her ideas.

Smith, Anna. Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An in-depth and accessible reading of Kristeva, this text discusses the concepts of exile and estrangement in relationship to the female intellectual and metaphors of habitation.

Bibliography updated by Linda R. James