Julia Kristeva Essay - Critical Essays

Kristeva, Julia


Julia Kristeva 1941-

Bulgarian-born French linguist, psychoanalyst, literary theorist, essayist, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Kristeva's career through 1998. For further information on Kristeva's life and works, see CLC, Volume 77.

One of the foremost thinkers to emerge from the political and social unrest of France in the 1960s, Kristeva is best known for her intellectually rigorous critiques of structuralism and semiotics and for her psychoanalytic studies of horror, love, and melancholy. Although her thought and intellectual development have been closely associated with the work of other theorists—most notably Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Mikhail Bakhtin—Kristeva has formulated a unique approach to critical theory by drawing on and revising elements from such diverse systems of thought as Marxism, structuralism, and Hegelian philosophy.

Biographical Information

Kristeva was born in Soviet-controlled Bulgaria to educated, middle-class parents. She attended Bulgarian- and French-language primary schools and earned her degree in linguistics from the Literary Institute of Sofia in western Bulgaria. She worked briefly as a journalist during the early 1960s, but in 1966, with the fall of Nikita Krushchev and an upsurge of Soviet repression, Kristeva emigrated to Paris on an academic scholarship. During her doctoral studies in Paris, Kristeva worked and studied with such thinkers as the structuralist and Marxist critic Lucien Goldman; structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov; and critic Roland Barthes, who helped get her work published and became her mentor. Within her first year in Paris, Kristeva began publishing articles in prestigious scholarly journals, including Tel quel, the most prominent of the radical structuralist and Maoist periodicals at the time. Kristeva later married the editor of Tel quel, Philippe Sollers, a noted critic and avant-garde novelist. Kristeva received her doctorate in linguistics in 1973 after publishing her first two books, Séméiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (1969) and La texte du roman: Approache semiologique d'une structure discursive transformationelle (1970).

Major Works

Kristeva's theoretical work draws on the principles of many disciplines. Commentators note that her work essentially attempts to describe the nature of poetic language and its relation to human subjectivity. Her works of the 1960s—primarily Séméiotiké and La texte du roman—undertake the development of a theory describing, in John Lechte's words, “the dynamic and unrepresentable poetic dimension of language: its rhymes, rhythms, intonations, alliterations—melody; the music of language, in short; music which is even discernible in everyday speech, but which is in no sense reducible to the language of communication.” Specifically, Kristeva works from French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure's semiotic theory of language—which holds that meaning does not inhere in words or symbols but results from their relational position within a linguistic or semiotic system—to propose that the poetic aspects of language represent intrusions upon, and threats to, the stability of the communicative, signifying system. In her work of the 1970s, primarily La révolution du language poétique: L'avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle, Lautréamont et Mallarmé (1974; Revolution in Poetic Language), Kristeva endeavors to describe the content of this “dynamic and unrepresentable” component of language. Here Kristeva refines the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, who had revised many of Sigmund Freud's central concepts by proposing a linguistically based theory of the unconscious. Lacan's theory asserts that the child's acquisition of language is predicated upon alienation from an undifferentiated sensory experience of the mother, with the child consequently being thrust into the symbolic, cultural realm characterized by paternal law and castration anxiety. Challenging Lacan, Kristeva argues that the child's pre-linguistic experience is maternal in nature and not completely lost with the acquisition of language, becoming part of the unconscious Kristeva refers to as the “semiotic chora” (chora meaning both receptacle and distinctive mark). For Kristeva, the semiotic chora—the repressed, maternally-oriented psychic energy—reemerges as the “unrepresentable” aspect of language and as such poses a continual challenge to the dominance and stability of the paternally oriented realm of signification. Kristeva's elaboration of this dialectic formed the basis of her political commitment and feminist philosophy in the first two decades of her career. Kristeva's major studies of the 1980s refined her psychoanalytic theories by focusing on the nature of three intense emotional states: horror or abjection, in Pouvoirs de l'horreur: Essai sur l'abjection (1980; Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection), which examines the role of the mother in psychoanalysis and further revises Lacan's theory of language acquisition; love, in Histoires d'amour (1983; Tales of Love), which studies the concept of narcissism and attempts to determine how ego-ideals are formed; and depression, in Soleil noir: Dépression et melancholie (1987; Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia), which revises Freud's concept of melancholia and argues that the depressive's sadness is “the most archaic expression of a non-symbolisable, unnameable narcissistic wound.” These works make extensive use of Kristeva's experiences with her patients and are written in a more accessible style than her works of the 1960s and 1970s. Etrangers à nous-mêmes (1988; Strangers to Ourselves) ponders the psychoanalytic and socio-political implications of the increasing concentration of non-native peoples in Europe and the United States. Her description of the unconscious, psychoanalytic roots of xenophobia, and her argument that each individual must recognize his or her own foreignness, demonstrate the extent to which Kristeva has expanded her unique psychoanalytic theory to address contemporary issues. In the 1990s, Kristeva turned her attention to fiction, writing three novels: Les samouraïs (1990; The Samurai), Le vieil homme et les loups (1992; The Old Man and the Wolves), and Possessions (1998). Additionally, she penned a volume of literary criticism, Time & Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature (1996).

Critical Reception

Kristeva's early theoretical work was well-received, especially within the growing feminist circles of the 1960s. The manner in which her theories challenged the established patriarchal hierarchy, especially within the realm of language acquisition, helped establish a “legitimate” academic foundation from which much modern feminist thought would grow. With the 1990s, however, came harsh criticism for Kristeva's work from within the feminist movement. While Theory, Culture, and Society, essayist Nancy Fraser found much of Kristeva's early work “brilliant,” she argued that feminists should have “only the most minimal truck with Julia Kristeva” due to her penchant for adding to theories viewed by feminists as “deficient,” rather than “scrapping or overhauling them.” Judith Butler argued in her essay “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva” that Kristeva excludes the figure of the lesbian in her theories and that she “safeguards the notion of culture as a paternal structure and delimits maternity as an essentially precultural reality.” Some critics view Kristeva's work of the 1980s and 1990s as an abandonment of the Marxism and the politically engaged critique of Western philosophy that marked her early work. Nonetheless, Kristeva is esteemed for the rigor and variety of her thought and remains one of the leading intellectuals in the West.

Principal Works

Séméiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (nonfiction) 1969

La texte du roman: Approache semiologique d'une structure discursive transformationelle (nonfiction) 1970

Des chinoises [About Chinese Women] (nonfiction) 1974

La révolution du language poétique: L'avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle, Lautréamont et Mallarmé [*Revolution in Poetic Language] (nonfiction) 1974

Polylogue (nonfiction) 1977

Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (nonfiction) 1980

Pouvoirs de l'horreur: Essai sur l'abjection [Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection] (nonfiction) 1980

Le langage. Cet inconnu: Une initiation à la linguistique [Language: The Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics] (nonfiction) 1981

Histoires d'amour [Tales of Love] (nonfiction) 1983

Au commencement etait l'amour: Psychanalyse et foi [In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith] (nonfiction) 1985

The Kristeva Reader [edited by Toril Mor] (essays) 1986

Soleil noir: Dépression et melancholie [Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia] (nonfiction) 1987

Etrangers à nous-mêmes [Strangers to Ourselves] (nonfiction) 1988

Les samouraïs [The Samurai] (novel) 1990

Le vieil homme et les loups [The Old Man and the Wolves] (novel) 1992

Time & Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature (nonfiction) 1996

Possessions (novel) 1998

*This work is a partial translation of La révolution du language poétique.

†This work includes “The Bounded Text” and “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” translated from Séméiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse, as well as translations of eight of the twenty essays in Polylogue.


Nancy Fraser (essay date February 1992)

SOURCE: “The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for Feminist Politics,” in Theory, Culture, and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 51-71.

[In the following essay, Fraser argues that the works of Kristeva, as well as those of Jacques Lacan, should not be relied upon or referred to for feminist purposes.]

This essay grows out of an experience of severe puzzlement. For several years now I have been watching with growing incomprehension as increasing numbers of feminist scholars have been trying to use or adapt the theory of Jacques Lacan for feminist purposes. I myself have felt a deep disaffinity with Lacan, a disaffinity as much intellectual as...

(The entire section is 8036 words.)

Pam Morris (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Re-routing Kristeva: From Pessimism to Parody,” in Textual Practice, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 31-46.

[In the following essay, Morris argues that Kristeva's ideas offer the “best direction for an optimistic Marxist-feminist practice and theory.”]

Theory has lost some of the glamour of success. All the radical intellectual iconoclasm of the last two decades seems finally to have come down to an unproductive choice of Althusserian and Lacanian hegemonic essentialism, or the endless play of indeterminacies celebrated by deconstructionists, or the irresistible and omnipresent power of discourse theory. For Marxists and feminists with an imperative...

(The entire section is 7293 words.)

Ewa Ziarek (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “At the Limits of Discourse: Hetergeneity, Alterity, and the Maternal Body in Kristeva's Thought,” in Hypatia, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 91-108.

[In the following essay, Ziarek “situates Kristeva's theory of semiotics in the context of the controversial debate about the status of the maternal body in her work,” and associates her linguistic theory with “the alerity of the maternal body.”]


The intense debate around Kristeva's work among many feminist theorists indicates that her thought generates questions of central importance to any feminist project devoted to revision of culture and discourse. One of the most...

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Anny Brooksbank Jones (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “Julia Kristeva and Her Old Man: Between Optimism and Despair,” in Textual Practice, Spring, 1993 pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Jones considers critical reception of Kristeva's The Old Man and the Wolves within the context of two interviews following its publication.]

In October 1991 Julia Kristeva's Le Vieil Homme et les loups appeared, to a mixed reception.1 This paper considers the novel's reception in the light of two recent interviews with Kristeva, in order to say something about her view of the role of the writer in times of trouble.

In his ‘review of reviews’ for Le Nouvel Observateur...

(The entire section is 5436 words.)

Mary Caputi (essay date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: “The Abject Maternal: Kristeva's Theoretical Consistency” in Women and Language, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 32-7.

[In the following essay, Caputi examines Kristeva's writings on motherhood.]

Many feminists have become disenchanted with Julia Kristeva. They argue that she is too psychoanalytic, too postmodern, too given to rarified forms of discourse to contribute meaningfully to feminist scholarship. Her angrier critics dismiss her as an intellectual comfortably ensconced within elitist Parisian circles, circles which produce their own revered avant garde, tout favored authors and newfangled forms of analysis, yet appear oblivious and inaccessible to...

(The entire section is 4530 words.)

Judith Butler (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” in Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva's Writing, edited by Kelly Oliver, Routledge: New York, 1993, pp. 164-78.

[In the following essay, Butler argues that Kristeva's strategy of “subversion” proves doubtful, as Kristeva “concedes that the semiotic is invariably subordinate to the symbolic.”]

Kristeva's theory of the semiotic dimension of language at first appears to engage Lacanian premises only to expose their limits and to offer a specifically feminine locus of subversion of the paternal law within language. According to Lacan, the paternal law structures all linguistic signification, termed...

(The entire section is 6313 words.)

Glenn W. Erickson (essay date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “On Kristeva” in South Carolina Review, Vol. 28, Spring, 1996, pp. 160-64.

[In the following essay, Erickson criticizes Kristeva, claiming that in her hands, structuralism is merely a “pseudo-science.”]

Born in Bulgaria in 1941, Julia Kristeva arrived in Paris in 1965 to study linguistics. She quickly became a fixture in the cutting edge journal Tel Quel, marrying the editor, novelist Phillipe Sollers. She was appointed Professor of Linguistics (the academic department is named “Science of Texts and Documents”) at the Universite de Paris VII and a practicing psychoanalyst. Kristeva was actively consulted during these translations.


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Dawne McCance (essay date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “L'écriture limite: Kristeva's Postmodern Feminist Ethics,” in Hypatia, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 141-60.

[In the following essay, McCance tracks the changes in Kristeva's approach to “the subject in process/on trial,” addressing the theoretical and practical development in her work from the 1960s through the 1980s.]

The theoretical work that interests me involves the analysis of the work of language, not as something possessing an arbitrary but systematizable nature (the aim of positivist semiology) but rather as a verbal practice whose economy is complex, critical and contradictory (poetic language offers the...

(The entire section is 9422 words.)

Peter Brooks (review date 19 May 1996)

SOURCE: “Proust on the Couch,” in New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1996, p. 39.

[In the following review, Brooks offers a positive assessment of Kristeva's Time & Sense.]

Proust continues to be the Mount Everest that French critics want to conquer. He is there—more than ever. This sometime esthete and dandy, whose work was originally rejected by avant-garde publishers because it appeared to be a monument to a dead social order, has in the three-quarters of a century since his death become the very definition of the modern in art. We're never satisfied that we have understood Proust fully; his work is troubling, open to new interpretation, subject to change...

(The entire section is 949 words.)

Juliana de Nooy (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “From Revolution to Revolt: Kristevan Contestation for the Nineties,” in Southern Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1997, pp. 146-58.

[In the following essay, de Nooy examines the extent to which Kristeva's philosophical position has shifted since the 1970s, as well as her “elaboration of a feminine Oedipal experience.”]

The anecdote goes that when the news arrived at Versailles of the fall of the Bastille, Louis XVI asked, “Is it a revolt?” to which La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt replied, “No, Sire, it's a revolution.” Kristeva's latest theoretical book, Sens et non-sens de la révolte, seems to come to the opposite conclusion: no, not a revolution...

(The entire section is 6148 words.)

Mark Edmundson (review date 5 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Headless Body in Lawless Burg,” in New York Times Book Review, April 5, 1998, p. 35.

[In the following review, Edmundson offers a mixed assessment of Possessions.]

[In Possessions,] Gloria Harrison has lost her head. Someone has cut it clean away—an elegant surgical job—and absconded with it to points unknown. It happened in a mansion, not long after a dinner party attended by a group of charismatic but rather sinister guests. There is a newspaper editor (and “inveterate womanizer”); a slightly shady, worldly-wise businessman and his wife; a psychiatrist with opinions on all and sundry; a suspiciously reserved speech pathologist...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Kevin Brophy (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “Kristeva, Literature and Motherhood Statements,” in Southerly, Vol. 58, No. 1, Autumn, 1998, pp. 34-40.

[In the following essay, Brophy explores two of Kristeva's essays, “The Adolescent Novel” and “Women's Time,” in an effort to examine Kristeva's “two forms of creativity” and how they relate to motherhood.]

I take up two moments—two essays—where the French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst and linguist Julia Kristeva attempts ways of understanding literature as a creative act.1 These moments are of interest because while they claim for psychoanalysis certain new, more flexible and more ideologically self-conscious ways of understanding...

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Further Reading


Baruch, Elaine Hoffman, and Meisel, Perry. “Two Interviews with Julia Kristeva.” Partisan Review, LI, No. 1 (1984): 120-32.

Presents two interviews, the first of which primarily addresses the feminist issues raised by Kristeva's Tales of Love; the second interview questions Kristeva on the development of the modern French intellectual milieu.

Barzilai, Shuli. “Borders of Language: Kristeva's Critique of Lacan.” PMLA 106, No. 2 (March 1991): 294-305.

Compares Kristeva's critique of Jacques Lacan's linguistic theory of the unconscious with Freud's original writings on the notion of...

(The entire section is 377 words.)