Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.