Julia Kristeva

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Nancy Fraser (essay date February 1992)

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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 political. So while many of my fellow feminists have been using Lacanian ideas to theorize the discursive construction of subjectivity in film and literature, I have been relying on alternative models of language to develop a feminist social theory. Until now, I have avoided any explicit, metatheoretical discussion of these matters. I have explained neither to myself nor to my colleagues why it is that I have looked to the discourse models of writers like Foucault, Bourdieu, Bakhtin, Habermas and Gramsci instead of to those of Lacan, Kristeva, Saussure and Derrida.1 In this essay, I want to begin to provide such an explanation. I will try to explain why I think feminists should have no truck with Lacan and why we should have only the most minimal truck with Julia Kristeva. I will also try to identify some places where I think we can find more satisfactory alternatives.


Let me begin by posing two questions: what might a theory of discourse contribute to feminism? And, what, therefore, do feminists want in a discourse theory? I suggest that a theory of discourse can help us understand at least four things, all of which are interrelated. First, it can help us understand how people's social identities are fashioned and altered over time. Second, it can help us understand how, under conditions of inequality, social groups in the sense of collective agents are formed and unformed. Third, a theory of discourse can illuminate how the cultural hegemony of dominant groups in society is secured and contested. Fourth and finally, it can shed light on the prospects for emancipatory social change and political practice. Let me elaborate.

First, consider the uses of a theory of discourse for understanding social identities. The basic idea here is that people's social identities are complexes of meanings, networks of interpretation. To have a social identity, to be a woman or a man, for example, just is to live and to act under a set of descriptions. These descriptions, of course, are not simply secreted by people's bodies; still less are they exuded by people's psyches. Rather, they are drawn from the fund of interpretive possibilities available to agents in specific societies. It follows that in order to understand anyone's feminine or masculine gender identity, it does not suffice to study biology or psychology. Instead, one must study the historically specific social practices through which cultural descriptions of gender are produced and circulated.2

Moreover, social identities are exceedingly complex. They are knit from a plurality of different descriptions arising from a plurality of different signifying practices. Thus, no one is simply a woman; one is rather, for example, a white, Jewish, middle-class woman, a philosopher, a lesbian, a socialist and a mother (see Spelman, 1988). Moreover, since everyone acts in a plurality of social contexts, the different descriptions comprising any individual's social identity fade in and...

(This entire section contains 8036 words.)

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out of focus. Thus, one is not always a woman in the same degree; in some contexts, one's womanhood figures centrally in the set of descriptions under which one acts; in others, it is peripheral or latent (see Riley, 1988). Finally, it is not the case that people's social identities are constructed once and for all and definitively fixed. Rather, they alter over time, shifting with shifts in agents' practices and affiliations. Thus, even theway in which one is a woman will shift, as it does, to take a dramatic example, when one becomes a feminist. In short, social identities are discursively constructed in historically specific social contexts; they are complex and plural; and they shift over time. One use of a theory of discourse for feminist politics, then, is in understanding social identities in their full socio-cultural complexity, thus demystifying static, single variable, essentialist views of gender identity.

A second use of a theory of discourse for feminist politics is in understanding the formation of social groups. How does it happen, under conditions of inequality, that people come together, arrange themselves under the banner of collective identities, and constitute themselves as collective social agents? How do class formation and, by analogy, gender formation occur?

Clearly, group formation involves shifts in people's social identities and therefore also in their relation to discourse. One thing that happens here is that pre-existing strands of identities acquire a new sort of salience and centrality. These strands, previously submerged among many others, are reinscribed as the nub of new self-definitions and affiliations (see Jenson, 1989). For example, in the current wave of feminist ferment, many of us who had previously been ‘women’ in some taken-for-granted way have now become ‘women’ in the very different sense of a discursively self-constituted political collectivity. In the process, we have remade entire regions of social discourse. We have invented new terms for describing social reality, for example, ‘sexism’, ‘sexual harassment’, ‘marital, date and acquaintance rape’, ‘labor force sex-segregation’, ‘the double shift’, and ‘wife-battery’. We have also invented new language games such as consciousness-raising and new, institutionalized public spheres such as the Society for Women in Philosophy (see Fraser, 1989; Riley, 1988). The point is that the formation of social groups proceeds by struggles over social discourse. Thus, a theory of discourse is useful here, both for understanding social groups and for coming to grips with the closely related issue of socio-cultural hegemony.

‘Hegemony’ is the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's (1972) term for the discursive face of power. It is the power to establish the ‘common sense’ or ‘doxa’ of a society, the fund of self-evident descriptions of social reality that normally go without saying. This includes the power to establish authoritative definitions of social situations and social needs, the power to define the universe of legitimate disagreement, and the power to shape the political agenda. Hegemony, then, expresses the advantaged position of dominant social groups with respect to discourse. It is a concept that allows us to recast the issues of social identity and social groups in the light of societal inequality. How do pervasive axes of dominance and subordination affect the production and circulation of social meanings? How does stratification along lines of gender, race and class affect the discursive construction of social identities and the formation of social groups?

The notion of hegemony points to the intersection of power, inequality and discourse. However, it does not entail that the ensemble of descriptions that circulate in society comprise a monolithic and seamless web, nor that dominant groups exercise an absolute, top-down control of meaning. On the contrary, ‘hegemony’ designates a process wherein cultural authority is negotiated and contested. It presupposes that societies contain a plurality of discourses and discursive sites, a plurality of positions and perspectives from which to speak. Of course, not all of these have equal authority. Yet conflict and contestation are part of the story. Thus, one use of a theory of discourse for feminist politics is to shed light on the processes by which the socio-cultural hegemony of dominant groups is achieved and contested. What are the processes by which definitions and interpretations inimical to women's interests acquire cultural authority? What are the prospects for mobilizing counter-hegemonic feminist definitions and interpretations to create broad oppositional groups and alliances?

I trust that the link between these questions and emancipatory political practice is obvious. A theory of discourse that lets us examine identities, groups and hegemony in the ways I have been describing would be a great aid to feminist practice. It would valorize the empowering dimensions of discursive struggles without leading to ‘culturalist’ retreats from political engagement.3 In addition, the right kind of theory would counter the disabling assumption that women are just passive victims of male dominance. That assumption over-totalizes male dominance, treating men as the only social agents and rendering inconceivable our own existence as feminist theorists and activists. In contrast, the sort of theory I have been proposing would help us understand how, even under conditions of subordination, women participate in the making of culture.


In light of the foregoing, what sort of theory of discourse will be useful for feminist politics? What sort of theory can best meet our needs to understand identities, groups, hegemony and emancipatory practice?

In recent years, two general models for theorizing language have emerged in France. The first of these is the structuralist model, which studies language as a symbolic system or code. This model is derived from Saussure, presupposed in Lacan, and abstractly negated but not entirely superseded in deconstruction and in related forms of French women's writing. The second model, by contrast, I shall call the pragmatic model; it studies language at the level of discourses, as historically specific social practices of communication. This model is operative in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and in some but not all dimensions of the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. In this section, I shall argue that the first, structuralist model is not very useful for feminist politics.

Let me begin by noting that there are good prima facie reasons for feminists to be suspicious of the structuralist model. This model constructs its object of study by abstracting from exactly what we need to focus on, namely, the social practice and social context of communication. Indeed, the abstraction from practice and context are among the founding gestures of Saussurean linguistics. Saussure began by splitting signification into ‘langue’, the symbolic system or code, and ‘parole’, speakers' uses of language in communicative practice or speech. He then made the first of these, ‘langue’, the proper object of the new science of linguistics, and relegated the second, ‘parole’, to the status of a devalued remainder.4 At the same time, Saussure insisted that the study of ‘langue’ be synchronic rather than diachronic; he thereby posited his object of study as static and atemporal, abstracting it from historical change. Finally, the founder of structuralist linguistics posited that ‘langue’ was indeed a single system; he made its unity and systematicity consist in the putative fact that every signifier, every material, signifying element of the code, derives its meaning positionally by way of its difference from all of the others.

Together, these founding operations render the structuralist approach of doubtful utility for feminist politics.5 Because it abstracts from ‘parole’, the structuralist model brackets questions of practice, agency and the speaking subject. Thus, it cannot shed light on social identity and group formation. Moreover, because this approach brackets the diachronic, it will not tell us anything about shifts in identities and affiliations over time. Similarly, because it abstracts from the social context of communication, the model brackets issues of power and inequality. Thus, it cannot illuminate the processes by which cultural hegemony is secured and contested. Finally, because the model theorizes the fund of available linguistic meanings as a single symbolic system, it lends itself to a monolithic view of signification that denies tensions and contradictions among social meanings. In short, by reducing discourse to a ‘symbolic system’, the structuralist model evacuates social agency, social conflict and social practice.6

Let me now try to illustrate these problems by means of a brief discussion of the work of Jacques Lacan. Or rather, let me illustrate these problems by reconstructing and criticizing an ideal-typical reading of Lacan that I believe is widespread among English-speaking feminists. In so doing, I shall bracket the question of the fidelity of this reading, which could be faulted for exaggerating the centrality of phallocentrism to Lacan's view of the symbolic order and for over-emphasizing the influence of Saussure at the expense of other, countervailing influences, such as Hegel.7 For my purposes, this ideal-typical, Saussurean reading of Lacan is useful precisely because it evinces with unusual clarity difficulties that beset many ‘poststructuralist’ theorists whose abstract attempts to break free of structuralism only render them all the more bound to it.

At first sight, this ideal-typical reading of Lacan seems to have some advantages for feminist theorists. By conjoining the Freudian problematic of the construction of gendered subjectivity to the Saussurean model of structural linguistics, it seems to provide each with its needed corrective. The introduction of the Freudian problematic promises to supply the speaking subject that is missing in Saussure and thereby to reopen the excluded questions about identity, speech and social practice. Conversely, the use of the Saussurean model promises to remedy some of Freud's deficiencies. By insisting that gender identity is discursively constructed, Lacan appears to eliminate lingering vestiges of biologism in Freud, to treat gender as socio-cultural all the way down, and to render it in principle more open to change.

However, these apparent advantages vanish upon closer inspection. Instead, it becomes clear that Lacan's theory is viciously circular. On the one hand, it purports to describe the process by which individuals acquire gendered subjectivity through their painful conscription as young children into a pre-existing phallocentric symbolic order. Here the structure of the symbolic order determines the character of individual subjectivity. But on the other hand, and at the same time, the theory purports to show that the symbolic order must necessarily be phallocentric since the attainment of subjectivity requires submission to ‘the Father's Law’. Here, then, the nature of individual subjectivity, as dictated by an autonomous psychology, determines the character of the symbolic order.

One result of this circularity is an ironclad determinism. As Dorothy Leland (1991) has noted, the theory casts the developments it describes as necessary, invariant and unalterable. Phallocentrism, woman's disadvantaged place in the symbolic order, the encoding of cultural authority as masculine, the impossibility of describing a non-phallic sexuality, in short, any number of trappings of male dominance now appear as invariable features of the human condition. Women's subordination, then, is inscribed as the inevitable destiny of civilization.

I can spot several spurious steps in this reasoning, some of which have their roots in the presupposition of the structuralist model. First, to the degree Lacan has succeeded in eliminating biologism, and that is dubious for reasons I cannot take up here,8 he has replaced it with psychologism, the untenable view that autonomous psychological imperatives given independently of culture and history can dictate the way they are interpreted and acted on within culture and history. Lacan falls prey to psychologism when he claims that the phallocentricity of the symbolic order is required by the demands of an enculturation process that is itself independent of culture.9

If one half of Lacan's circular argument is vitiated by psychologism, then the other half is vitiated by what I should like to call ‘symbolicism’. By symbolicism, I mean, first, the homogenizing reification of diverse signifying practices into a monolithic and all-pervasive ‘symbolic order’ and, second, the endowing of that order with an exclusive and unlimited causal power to fix people's subjectivities once and for all. Symbolicism, then, is an operation whereby the structuralist abstraction ‘langue’ is troped into a quasi-divinity, a normative ‘symbolic order’ whose power to shape identities dwarfs to the point of extinction that of mere historical institutions and practices.

Actually, as Deborah Cameron (1985) has noted, Lacan equivocates on the expression ‘the symbolic order’. Sometimes he uses this expression relatively narrowly to refer to Saussurean ‘langue’, the structure of language as a system of signs. In this narrow usage, Lacan would be committed to the implausible view that the sign system itself determines individuals' subjectivities independently of the social context and social practice of its uses. At other times, by contrast, Lacan uses the expression ‘the symbolic order’ far more broadly to refer to an amalgam that includes not only linguistic structures, but also cultural traditions and kinship structures, the latter mistakenly equated with social structure in general.10 Here he conflates the ahistorical structural abstraction ‘langue’ with variable historical phenomena like family forms and child-rearing practices; cultural representations of love and authority in art, literature and philosophy; the gender division of labor; forms of political organization and of other institutional sources of power and status. The result is a notion of ‘the symbolic order’ that essentializes and homogenizes contingent historical practices and traditions, erasing tensions, contradictions and possibilities for change. It is a notion, moreover, that is so broad that the claim that it determines the structure of subjectivity is an empty tautology.11

The combination of psychologism and symbolicism in Lacan results in a theory that is of little use for feminist politics. To be sure, this theory offers an account of the discursive construction of social identity. However, it is not an account that can make sense of the complexity and multiplicity of social identities, the ways they are woven from a plurality of discursive strands. Granted, Lacan stresses that the apparent unity and simplicity of ego identity is imaginary, that the subject is irreparably split both by language and drives. But this insistence on fracture does not lead to an appreciation of the diversity of the socio-cultural discursive practices from which identities are woven. It leads, rather, to a unitary view of the human condition as inherently tragic.

In fact, Lacan differentiates identities only in binary terms, along the single axis of having or lacking the phallus. Now, as Luce Irigaray12 has shown, this phallic conception of sexual difference is not an adequate basis for understanding femininity—nor, I would add, masculinity. Still less, then, is it able to shed light on other dimensions of social identities, including ethnicity, color and social class. Nor could the theory be emended to incorporate these manifestly historical phenomena, given its postulation of an ahistorical, tension-free ‘symbolic order’ equated with kinship.13

Moreover, Lacan's account of identity construction cannot account for identity shifts over time. It is committed to the psycho-analytic proposition that gender identity (the only kind of identity it considers) is basically fixed once and for all with the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Lacan equates this resolution with the child's entry into a fixed, monolithic and all-powerful symbolic order. Thus, if anything, he actually increases the degree of identity fixity found in classical Freudian theory. It is true, as Jacqueline Rose (1982) points out, that the theory stresses that gender identity is always precarious, that its apparent unity and stability are always threatened by repressed libidinal drives. But this emphasis on precariousness is not an opening onto genuine historical thinking about shifts in people's social identities. On the contrary, it is an insistence on a permanent, ahistorical condition, since on Lacan's view the only alternative to fixed gender identity is psychosis.

If the Lacanian model cannot provide an account of social identity that is useful for feminist politics, then it is unlikely to help us understand group formation. For Lacan, affiliation falls under the rubric of the imaginary. To affiliate with others, then, to align oneself with others in a social movement, would be to fall prey to the illusions of the imaginary ego. It would be to deny loss and lack, to seek an impossible unification and fulfilment. Thus, from a Lacanian perspective, collective movements would by definition be vehicles of delusion; they could not even in principle be emancipatory.14

Moreover, insofar as group formation depends on linguistic innovation, it is untheorizable from a Lacanian perspective. Since Lacan posits a fixed, monolithic symbolic system and a speaker who is wholly subjected to it, it is inconceivable how there could ever be any linguistic innovation. Speaking subjects could only ever reproduce the existing symbolic order; they could not possibly alter it.

It follows that one cannot even pose the question of cultural hegemony. There can be no question about how the cultural authority of dominant groups in society is established and contested, no question of unequal negotiations between different social groups occupying different discursive positions. On the contrary, on the Lacanian view there is simply ‘the symbolic order’, a single universe of discourse that is so systematic, so all-pervasive, so monolithic that one cannot even conceive of such things as alternative perspectives, multiple discursive sites, struggles over social meanings, contests between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic definitions of social situations, conflicts of interpretation of social needs. One cannot even conceive, really, of a plurality of different speakers.

With the way blocked to a political understanding of identities, groups and cultural hegemony, the way is also blocked to an understanding of political practice. For one thing, there is no conceivable agent of such practice. None of the three moments that comprise the Lacanian view of the person can qualify as a political agent. The speaking subject is simply a grammatical ‘I’ wholly subjected to the symbolic order; it can only and for ever reproduce that order. The Lacanian ego is an imaginary projection, deluded about its own stability and self-possession, hooked on an impossible desire for unity and self-completion; it therefore can only and for ever tilt at windmills. Finally, there is the ambiguous Lacanian unconscious, sometimes an ensemble of repressed libidinal drives, sometimes the face of language as Other, but never anything that could count as a social agent.

This discussion shows, I think, that there are many things wrong with Lacan. I have focused here on conceptual as opposed to empirical issues, and I have not directly addressed the question, is Lacan's theory true? With respect to that question, I will note only that Lacan himself was remarkably unconcerned with empirical confirmation and that recent research on the development of subjectivity in infants and young children does not support his views. It now appears that even at the earliest stages children are not passive, blank slates on which symbolic structures are inscribed but, rather, active participants in the interactions that construct their experience (see, for example, Beebe and Lachman, 1988).15

Be that as it may, in focusing here on Lacan's conceptual shortcomings, I have stressed those deficiencies that have their roots in the presupposition of the structuralist conception of language. Lacan seemed to want to get beyond structuralism by introducing the concept of the speaking subject. This in turn seemed to hold out the promise of a way of theorizing discursive practice. However, as I hope I have shown, these promises have remained unfulfilled. The speaking subject introduced by Lacan is not the agent of discursive practice. It is simply an effect of the symbolic order conjoined to some repressed libidinal drives. Thus, the introduction of the speaking subject has not succeeded in dereifying linguistic structure. On the contrary, a reified conception of language as system has colonized the speaking subject.


So far, I have been arguing that the structural model of language is not especially useful for feminist politics. Now I want to suggest that the pragmatic model is more promising. Indeed, there are good prima facie reasons for feminists to prefer a pragmatic approach to the study of language. Unlike the structuralist approach, the pragmatic view studies language as social practice in social context. This model takes discourses, not structures, as its object. Discourses are historically specific, socially situated, signifying practices. They are the communicative frames in which speakers interact by exchanging speech acts. Yet discourses are themselves set within social institutions and action contexts. Thus, the concept of a discourse links the study of language to the study of society.

The pragmatic model offers several potential advantages for feminist politics. First, it treats discourses as contingent, positing that they arise, alter and disappear over time. Thus, the model lends itself to historical contextualization; and it allows us to thematize change. Second, the pragmatic approach understands signification as action rather than as representation. It is concerned with how people ‘do things with words’. Thus, the model allows us to see speaking subjects not simply as effects of structures and systems, but rather as socially situated agents. Third, the pragmatic model treats discourses in the plural. It starts from the assumption that there is a plurality of different discourses in society, therefore a plurality of communicative sites from which to speak. Because it posits that individuals assume different discursive positions as they move from one discursive frame to another, this model lends itself to a theorization of social identities as non-monolithic. Next, the pragmatic approach rejects the assumption that the totality of social meanings in circulation constitutes a single, coherent, self-reproducing ‘symbolic system’. Instead, it allows for conflicts among social schemas of interpretation and among the agents who deploy them. Finally, because it links the study of discourses to the study of society, the pragmatic approach allows us to focus on power and inequality. In short, the pragmatic approach has many of the features we need in order to understand the complexity of social identities, the formation of social groups, the securing and contesting of cultural hegemony, and the possibility and actuality of political practice.

Let me illustrate the uses of the pragmatic model for feminist politics by considering the ambiguous case of Julia Kristeva. Kristeva's case is instructive in that she began her career as a critic of structuralism and a proponent of a pragmatic alternative. However, having fallen under Lacan's sway along the way, she has not managed to maintain a consistently pragmatic orientation. Instead, she has ended up producing a strange, hybrid theory, one that oscillates between structuralism and pragmatics. In what follows, I shall argue that the politically fruitful aspects of Kristeva's thought are linked to its pragmatic dimensions, while the political impasses she arrives at derive from structuralist lapses.

Kristeva's intention to break with structuralism is most clearly and succinctly announced in a brilliant 1973 paper called ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’ (Kristeva, 1986). Here she argues that, because it conceives language as a symbolic system, structuralist semiotics is necessarily incapable of understanding oppositional practice and change. To remedy these lacunae, she proposes a new approach oriented to ‘signifying practices’. These she defines as norm-governed, but not necessarily all-powerfully constraining, and as situated in ‘historically determined relations of production’. As a complement to this concept of signifying practices, Kristeva also proposes a new concept of the ‘speaking subject’. This subject is socially and historically situated, to be sure, but it is not wholly subjected to the reigning social and discursive conventions. It is a subject, rather, who is capable of innovative practice.

In a few bold strokes, then, Kristeva rejects the exclusion of context, practice, agency and innovation; and she proposes a new model of discursive pragmatics. Her general idea is that speakers act in socially situated, norm-governed signifying practices. In so doing, they sometimes transgress the established norms in force. Transgressive practice gives rise to discursive innovations and these in turn may lead to actual change. Innovative practice may subsequently be normalized in the form of new or modified discursive norms, thereby ‘renovating’ signifying practices.16

The uses of this sort of approach for feminist politics should by now be apparent. Yet there are also some warning signs of possible problems. First, there is Kristeva's antinomian bent, her tendency, at least in this early quasi-Maoist phase of her career, to valorize transgression and innovation per se irrespective of content.17 The flip side of this attitude is a penchant for inflecting norm-conforming practice as negative tout court, irrespective of the content of the norms. Obviously, this attitude is not particularly helpful for feminist politics, since such politics requires ethical distinctions between oppressive and emancipatory social norms.

A second potential problem here is Kristeva's aestheticizing bent, her association of valorized transgression with ‘poetic practice’. Kristeva tends to treat avant-garde aesthetic production as the privileged site of innovation. By contrast, communicative practice in everyday life appears as conformism simpliciter. This tendency to enclave or regionalize innovative practice is not useful for feminist politics. We need to recognize and assess the emancipatory potential of oppositional practice wherever it appears—in bedrooms, on shopfloors, in the caucuses of the American Philosophical Association.

The third and most serious problem that I want to discuss is Kristeva's additive approach to theorizing. By this I mean her penchant for remedying theoretical problems by simply adding to deficient theories instead of by scrapping or overhauling them. This, I submit, is how she ends up handling certain features of structuralism; rather than eliminating certain structuralist notions altogether, she simply adds other, anti-structuralist notions alongside of them.

Kristeva's additive, dualistic style of theorizing is apparent in the way she analyzes and classifies signifying practices. She takes such practices to consist in varying proportions of two basic ingredients. One of these is ‘the symbolic’, a linguistic register keyed to the transmission of propositional content via the observance of grammatical and syntactical rules. The other is ‘the semiotic’, a register keyed to the expression of libidinal drives via intonation and rhythm and not bound by linguistic rules. The symbolic, then, is the axis of discursive practice that helps reproduce the social order by imposing linguistic conventions on anarchic desires. The semiotic, in contrast, expresses a material, bodily source of revolutionary negativity, the power to break through convention and initiate change. According to Kristeva, all signifying practices contain some measure of each of these two registers of language, but, with the signal exception of poetic practice, the symbolic register is always the dominant one.

In her later work, Kristeva provides a psychoanalytically-grounded gender subtext to her distinction between the symbolic and the semiotic. Following Lacan, she associates the symbolic with the paternal, and she describes it as a monolithically-phallocentric, rule-bound order to which subjects submit as the price of sociality when they resolve the Oedipal complex by accepting the Father's Law. But then Kristeva breaks with Lacan in insisting on the underlying persistence of a feminine, maternal element in all signifying practice. She associates the semiotic with the pre-Oedipal and the maternal, and she valorizes it as a point of resistance to paternally-coded cultural authority, a sort of oppositional feminine beach-head within discursive practice.

Now, this way of analyzing and classifying signifying practices may seem at first sight to have some potential utility for feminist politics. It seems to contest the Lacanian presumption that language is monolithically phallocentric and to identify a locus of feminist opposition to the dominance of masculine power. However, on closer inspection, this appearance of political usefulness turns out to be largely illusory. In fact, Kristeva's analysis of signifying practices betrays her best pragmatic intentions. The decomposition of such practices into symbolic and semiotic constituents does not lead beyond structuralism. The ‘symbolic’, after all, is a repetition of Lacan's reified, phallocentric symbolic order. And while the ‘semiotic’ is a force that momentarily disrupts that symbolic order, it does not constitute an alternative to it. On the contrary, as Judith Butler (1991) has shown, the contest between the two modes of signification is stacked in favor of the symbolic: the semiotic is by definition transitory and subordinate, always doomed in advance to reabsorption by the symbolic order. Moreover, and more fundamentally problematic, I think, is the fact that the semiotic is defined parasitically over against the symbolic as the latter's mirror image and abstract negation. Simply adding the two together, then, cannot and does not lead to pragmatics. Rather, it yields an amalgam of structure and anti-structure. Moreover, this amalgam is, in Hegel's phrase, a ‘bad infinity’, since it leaves us oscillating ceaselessly between a structuralist moment and an anti-structuralist moment without ever getting to anything else.

Thus, by resorting to an additive mode of theorizing, Kristeva surrenders her promising pragmatic notion of signifying practice to a quasi-Lacanian neo-structuralism. In the process, she ends up reproducing some of Lacan's most unfortunate errors. She, too, often lapses into symbolicism, treating the symbolic order as an all-powerful causal mechanism and conflating linguistic structure, kinship structure and social structure in general (see, for example, Kristeva, 1982). On the other hand, Kristeva sometimes does better than Lacan in appreciating the historical specificity and complexity of particular cultural traditions; much of her later work analyzes cultural representations of gender in such traditions. Even here, however, she often lapses into psychologism; for example, she mars her potentially very interesting studies of cultural representations of femininity and maternity in Christian theology and in Italian Renaissance painting by falling back on reductive schemes of interpretation that treat the historical material as reflexes of autonomous, ahistorical, psychological imperatives like ‘castration anxiety’ and ‘feminine paranoia’.18

All told, then, Kristeva's theory of discourse surrenders many of the advantages of pragmatics for feminist politics. In the end, she loses the pragmatic stress on the contingency and historicity of discursive practices, their openness to possible change. Instead, she lapses into a quasi-structuralist emphasis on the recuperating power of a reified symbolic order and thereby surrenders the possibility of explaining change. Likewise, her theory loses the pragmatic stress on the plurality of discursive practices. Instead, it lapses into a quasi-structuralist homogenizing and binarizing orientation, one that distinguishes practices along the sole axis of proportion of semiotic to symbolic, feminine to masculine, and thereby surrenders the potential to understand complex identities. Next, Kristeva loses the pragmatic stress on social context. Instead, she lapses into a quasi-structuralist conflation of ‘symbolic order’ with social context and thereby surrenders the capacity to link discursive dominance to societal inequality. Finally, her theory loses the pragmatic stress on interaction and social conflict. Instead, as Andrea Nye (1987) has shown, it focuses almost exclusively on intrasubjective tensions and thereby surrenders its ability to understand intersubjective phenomena, including affiliation, on the one hand, and struggle, on the other.19

This last point can be brought home by considering Kristeva's account of the speaking subject. Far from being useful for feminist politics, her view replicates many of the disabling features of Lacan's. Her subject, like his, is split into two halves, neither of which is a potential political agent. The subject of the symbolic is an over-socialized conformist, thoroughly subjected to symbolic conventions and norms. To be sure, its conformism is put ‘on trial’ by the rebellious, desiring ensemble of bodily-based drives associated with the semiotic. But, as before, the mere addition of an anti-structuralist force doesn't lead beyond structuralism. The semiotic ‘subject’ can't itself be an agent of feminist political practice for several reasons. First, it is located beneath, rather than within, culture and society; so it is unclear how its practice could be political practice (Butler, 1991, makes this point). Second, it is defined exclusively in terms of the transgression of social norms; thus, it cannot engage in the reconstructive moment of feminist politics, a moment essential to social transformation. Finally, it is defined in terms of the shattering of social identity, and so it cannot figure in the reconstruction of the new, politically constituted, collective identities and solidarities that are essential to feminist politics.

By definition, then, neither half of Kristeva's split subject can be a feminist political agent. Nor, I submit, can the two halves joined together. They tend rather simply to cancel one another out, one forever shattering the identitarian pretensions of the other, the second forever recuperating the first and reconstituting itself as before. The upshot is a paralyzing oscillation between identity and non-identity without any determinate practical issue. Here, then, is another instance of a ‘bad infinity’, an amalgam of structuralism and its abstract negation.

If there are no individual agents of emancipatory practice in Kristeva's universe, then there are no such collective agents either. This can be seen by examining one last instance of her additive pattern of thinking, namely, her treatment of the feminist movement itself. This topic is most directly addressed in an essay called ‘Women's Time’ for which Kristeva is best known in feminist circles (in Kristeva, 1986). Here, she identifies three ‘generations’ of feminist movements: first, an egalitarian, reform oriented, humanist feminism, aiming to secure women's full participation in the public sphere, a feminism best personified perhaps by Simone de Beauvoir; second, a culturally-oriented gynocentric feminism, aiming to foster the expression of a non-male-defined feminine sexual and symbolic specificity, a feminism represented by the proponents of ‘écriture féminine’ and ‘parler femme’; and finally, Kristeva's own, self-proclaimed brand of feminism—in my view, actually post-feminism—a radically nominalist, anti-essentialist approach that stresses that ‘women’ don't exist and that collective identities are dangerous fictions.20

Now, I want to argue that, despite the explicitly tripartite character of this categorization, there is a deeper logic in Kristeva's thinking about feminism that conforms to her additive, dualistic pattern. For one thing, the first, egalitarian humanist moment of feminism drops out of the picture, since Kristeva falsely—and astoundingly—assumes its programme has already been achieved. Thus, there are really only two ‘generations’ of feminism she is concerned with. Next, despite her explicit criticisms of gynocentrism, there is a strand of her thought that implicitly partakes of it—I mean Kristeva's quasi-biologistic, essentializing identification of women's femininity with maternity. Maternity, for her, is the way that women, as opposed to men, touch base with the pre-Oedipal, semiotic residue. (Men do it by writing avant-garde poetry; women do it by having babies.) Here, Kristeva dehistoricizes and psychologizes motherhood, conflating conception, pregnancy, birthing, nursing and child-rearing, abstracting all of them from socio-political context, and erecting her own essentialist stereotype of femininity. But then she reverses herself and recoils from her construct, insisting that ‘women’ don't exist, that feminine identity is fictitious and that feminist movements therefore tend toward the religious and the proto-totalitarian. The overall pattern of Kristeva's thinking about feminism, then, is additive and dualistic: she ends up alternating essentialist gynocentric moments with anti-essentialist nominalistic moments, moments that consolidate an ahistorical, undifferentiated, maternal feminine gender identity with moments that repudiate women's identities altogether.

With respect to feminism, then, Kristeva leaves us oscillating between a regressive version of gynocentric-maternalist essentialism, on the one hand, and a post-feminist anti-essentialism, on the other. Neither of these is useful for feminist politics. In Denise Riley's terms, the first overfeminizes women by defining us maternally. The second, by contrast, underfeminizes us by insisting that ‘women’ don't exist and by dismissing the feminist movement as a proto-totalitarian fiction.21 Simply putting the two together, moreover, does not overcome the limits of either. On the contrary, it constitutes another ‘bad infinity’ and so, another proof of the uselessness for feminist politics of an approach that merely conjoins an abstract negation of structuralism to a structuralist model left otherwise intact.


I hope the foregoing has provided a reasonably vivid and persuasive illustration of my most general point, namely, the superior utility for feminist politics of pragmatic over structuralist approaches to the study of language. Instead of reiterating the advantages of pragmatic theories, I shall close with one specific example of their uses for feminist politics.

As I argued, pragmatic theories insist on the social context and social practice of communication, and they study a plurality of historically changing discursive sites and practices. As a result, these theories offer us the possibility of thinking of social identities as complex, changing and discursively constructed. This in turn seems to me our best hope for avoiding some of Kristeva's difficulties. Complex, shifting, discursively constructed social identities provide an alternative to reified, essentialist conceptions of gender identity, on the one hand, and to simple negations and dispersals of identity, on the other. They thus permit us to navigate safely between the twin shoals of essentialism and nominalism, between reifying women's social identities under stereotypes of femininity, on the one hand, and dissolving them into sheer nullity and oblivion, on the other.22 I am claiming, therefore, that with the help of a pragmatic theory of discourse we can accept the critique of essentialism without becoming post-feminists. This seems to me to be an invaluable help. For it will not be time to speak of post-feminism until we can legitimately speak of post-patriarchy.23


  1. I am grateful for helpful comments and suggestions from Jonathan Arac, David Levin, Paul Mattick Jr, John McCumber, Diana T. Meyers and Eli Zaretsky.

  2. I group these writers together not because all are Lacanians—clearly only Kristeva and Lacan himself are—but rather because, disclaimers notwithstanding, all continue the structuralist reduction of discourse to symbolic system. I shall develop this point later in this essay.

  3. Thus, the fund of interpretive possibilities available to me, a late twentieth-century American, overlaps very little with that available to the thirteenth-century Chinese woman I may want to imagine as my sister. And yet in both cases, hers and mine, the interpretive possibilities are established in the medium of social discourse. It is in the medium of discourse that each of us encounters an interpretation of what it is to be a person, as well as a menu of possible descriptions specifying the particular sort of person each is to be.

  4. For the critique of ‘cultural feminism’ as a retreat from political struggle, see Alice Echols (1983).

  5. For a brilliant critique of this move, see Pierre Bourdieu (1977). Similar objections are found in Julia Kristeva's ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’, in Kristeva (1986), to be discussed below, and in the Soviet Marxist critique of Russian formalism from which Kristeva's views derive.

  6. I leave it to linguists to decide whether it is useful for other purposes.

  7. These criticisms pertain to what may be called ‘global’ structuralisms, that is, approaches that treat the whole of language as a single symbolic system. They are not intended to rule out the potential utility of approaches that analyze structural relations in limited, socially situated, culturally and historically specific sub-languages or discourses. On the contrary, it is possible that approaches of this latter sort can be usefully articulated with the pragmatic model discussed below.

  8. For an account of the tensions between the Hegelian and Saussurean dimensions of Lacan's thought, see Peter Dews (1987).

  9. Lacan's claim to have overcome biologism rests on his insistence that the phallus is not the penis. However, many feminist critics have shown that he fails to prevent the collapse of the symbolic signifier into the organ. The clearest indication of this failure is his claim, in ‘The Meaning of the Phallus’, that the phallus becomes the master signifier because of its ‘turgidity’, which suggests ‘the transmission of vital flow’ in copulation. See Jacques Lacan (1982).

  10. A version of this argument is made by Dorothy Leland (1991).

  11. For an account of the declining significance of kinship as a social structural component of modern capitalist societies, see Linda J. Nicholson (1986).

  12. In fact, the main function of this broad usage seems to be ideological. For it is only by collapsing into a single category what is supposedly ahistorical and necessary and what is historical and contingent that Lacan can endow his claim about the inevitability of phallocentrism with a deceptive appearance of plausibility.

  13. See ‘The Blind Spot in an Old Dream of Symmetry’ in Luce Irigaray (1985). Here Irigaray shows how the use of a phallic standard to conceptualize sexual difference casts woman negatively as ‘lack’.

  14. For a brilliant critical discussion of this issue as it emerges in relation to the version of feminist psychoanalysis developed in the US by Nancy Chodorow, see Elizabeth V. Spelman (1988).

  15. Even Lacanian feminists have been known on occasion to engage in this sort of movement-baiting. It seems to me that, in her introductory chapter to The Daughter's Seduction, Jane Gallop (1982) comes perilously close to dismissing the politics of a feminist movement informed by ethical commitments as ‘imaginary’.

  16. I am grateful to Paul Mattick Jr for alerting me to this work.

  17. ‘Renovation’ and ‘renewal’ are standard English translations of Kristeva's term, ‘renouvellement’. Yet they lack some of the force of the French. Perhaps this explains why readers have not always noticed the change-making aspect of her account of transgression, why they have instead tended to treat is as pure negation with no positive consequences. For an example of this interpretation, see Judith Butler (1991).

  18. This tendency fades in her later writings, where it is replaced by an equally undiscriminating, even shrill, neo-conservative emphasis on the ‘totalitarian’ dangers lurking in every attempt at uncontrolled innovation.

  19. See Kristeva, ‘Stabat Mater’ in Julia Kristeva (1986) and ‘Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini’ in Julia Kristeva (1980).

  20. The present account of Kristeva's philosophy of language is much indebted to Andrea Nye's (1987) brilliant critical discussion.

  21. I take the terms ‘humanist feminism’ and ‘gynocentric feminism’ from Iris Young (1985). I take the term ‘nominalist feminism’ from Linda Alcoff (1988).

  22. For the terms ‘underfeminization’ and ‘overfeminization’ see Denise Riley (1988). For a useful discussion of Kristeva's neo-liberal equation of collective liberation movements with ‘totalitarianism’, see Ann Rosalind Jones (1984).

  23. This point builds on work that Linda Nicholson and I did jointly and that she is continuing. See Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1988).

  24. I borrow this line from Toril Moi (1987).


Alcoff, Linda (1988) ‘Cultural Feminism versus Poststructuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13(3): 405-36.

Beebe, Beatrice and Frank Lachman (1988) ‘Mother-Infant Mutual Influence and Precursors of Psychic Structure’, in Arnold Goldberg (ed.), Frontiers in Self Psychology, Progress in Self Psychology 3. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Judith (1991) ‘The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva’, in Nancy Fraser and Sandra Bartky (eds), Revaluing French Feminism: Critical Essays on Difference, Agency, and Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Cameron, Deborah (1985) Feminism and Linguistic Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Dews, Peter (1987) Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory. London: Verso.

Echols, Alice (1983) ‘The New Feminism of Yin and Yang’, in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (eds), Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fraser, Nancy (1989) ‘Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-feminist Critical Theory of Late-capitalist Political Culture’, in Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fraser, Nancy and Linda Nicholson (1988) ‘Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism’, Theory, Culture & Society 5(2-3): 373-94.

Gallop, Jane (1982) The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio (1972) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers.

Irigaray, Luce (1985) Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jenson, Jane (1989) ‘Paradigms and Political Discourse: Labour and Social Policy in the USA and France before 1914’, Working Paper Series, Center for European Studies, Harvard University.

Jones, Ann Rosalind (1984) ‘Julia Kristeva on Femininity: The Limits of a Semiotic Politics’, Feminist Review 18:56-73.

Kristeva, Julia (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Art and Literature, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Alice Jardine, Thomas Gora and Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kristeva, Julia (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kristeva, Julia (1986) The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, Jacques (1982) ‘The Meaning of the Phallus’, in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds), Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. New York: W. W. Norton.

Leland, Dorothy (1991) ‘Lacanian Psychoanalysis and French Feminism: Toward an Adequate Political Psychology’, in Nancy Fraser and Sandra Bartky (eds), Revaluing French Feminism: Critical Essays on Difference, Agency and Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Moi, Toril (1987) Lecture at conference on ‘Convergence in crisis: Narratives of the history of theory’. Duke University (September 24-27).

Nicholson, Linda J. (1986) Gender and History: The Limits of Social Theory in the Age of the Family. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nye, Andrea (1987) ‘Woman Clothed with the Sun’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12(4): 664-86.

Riley, Denise (1988) ‘Am I that name?’ Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rose, Jacqueline (1982) ‘Introduction—II’, in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds), Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. New York: W. W. Norton.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. (1988) Inessential Woman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Young, Iris (1985) ‘Humanism, Gynocentrism and Feminist Politics’, Hypatia 3, published as a special issue of Women's Studies International Forum 8(3): 173-83.

Pam Morris (essay date Spring 1992)

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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 to change the world as well as interpret it, this crisis of theory coincides with a crisis of praxis. Marxism has been proclaimed dead, post-feminism, apparently, has arrived. Meanwhile, in lived experience, the structural inequalities of class, gender and race grip lives as harshly as ever. If a theory of political change is to be revitalized a means needs to be found of reconnecting subjects and discourse to the material specificity of the historical moment. As Alan Sinfield has argued, ‘observing textual contradictions, fissures and split subjects does not go far enough’; to be effective as a materialist cultural practice, textual readings must be attentive to ‘the contests to which they have contributed and may contribute … through and beyond any particular text.’1

Two recent feminist books have made the impasse of theory and practice their starting-point, and both locate the problem in the ahistorical, totalizing tendency of much current theory. In her introductory essay to Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Teresa Brennan diagnoses a ‘stagnant’ and ‘deadlocked’ thinking resulting from the unproductive entanglement of political and psychoanalytical issues within feminism.2 The loci of this entanglement are seen by Brennan and other contributors as the totalizing Lacanian concept of the symbolic order and the related debate over essentialism. Brennan argues that these have become obstacles to productive thinking about the relation between psychical reality and the social. What is needed, she urges, is to ‘conceive of a symbolic that is not patriarchal’.3 In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler writes of ‘trouble within contemporary feminism’ which ‘might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism’ or at least cause ‘ever more bitter fragmentation among the ranks’.4 Butler too locates the problem in the issues of essentialism, and a universal and unified concept of patriarchal culture.

It seems symptomatic of a loss of interest (or hope?) among feminists in Julia Kristeva's work that it is allotted only one essay in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Despite powerful advocacy by Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Toril Moi, and Jacqueline Rose, the political and material import of Kristeva's work is still frequently misrepresented.5 Undoubtedly some of the misconception is due to the nature of Kristeva's writing itself, and particularly to the increasing concern in her later work with the darker influences of the death instincts upon individual psychic well-being. The purpose of this paper is to undo the more general misunderstandings and to argue for a return to the radical insights of the earlier work as providing the basis for a political theory of language and subjects which is open to the processes of history and change. It will be useful to start with Judith Butler's critique of Kristeva since this pinpoints, in a particularly lucid and rigorous form, the two most widespread and fundamental of those misconceptions.

Butler's reading aims to reveal the inadequacy, as she sees it, of Kristeva's concept of the semiotic as the means of subverting the determining Lacanian symbolic order. Lacan's paternal law, writes Butler, ‘structures all linguistic signification’, becoming the ‘universal organizing principle of culture itself’ (p. 79). Subjects constituted within this law (and all are) are constrained within a unitary identity, their language structured by the law, in turn structuring the world ‘by suppressing multiple meanings … and instating univocal and discrete meanings in their place’ (p. 79). Against this totalizing patriarchal law Kristeva promotes the subversive challenge of the semiotic, expressing the original prediscursive libidinal multiplicity which characterizes the primary relation of the child to the maternal body. For Butler, this apparently precultural nature of the semiotic constitutes the fundamental weakness of Kristeva's argument. Because Kristeva accepts the Lacanian assumption that culture is identical to the symbolic order and that entry into that order is the founding condition of social identity and even of sanity, the repressive symbolic must always remain hegemonic, Butler claims. Any sustained presence of the libidinal energy of the semiotic within individual life leads to psychosis, according to Kristeva, and within the social formation to the breakdown of cultural life itself. Thus the semiotic anarchism ‘emerges from beneath the surface of culture only inevitably to return there. … By relegating the source of subversion to a site outside culture itself, Kristeva appears to foreclose the possibility of subversion as an effective or realizable cultural practice’ (p. 88).

The second focus of Butler's critique is upon Kristeva's concept of the maternal which, even more than the prediscursive semiotic, has been a source of misgiving to many feminists. According to Butler, Kristeva inscribes the maternal body with ‘a set of meanings that are prior to culture itself … [Kristeva's] naturalistic descriptions of the maternal body effectively reify motherhood’ and situate maternal heterogeneity within ‘a biological archaism which operates according to a natural and “prepaternal” causality’ (pp. 80, 90). This mythicizing of the mother as originating source of transgressive pleasure and creativity places the concept of the maternal beyond the particularity and variability of culture and history. Inevitably this raises the question of whether Kristeva's naturalistic discourse of motherhood is not an effect of the symbolic law it is supposed to challenge; whether it does not produce that idealized image of feminine generativity required for the perpetuation of heterosexual reproduction. ‘The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law,’ concludes Butler, ‘may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law's self-amplification and proliferation’ (p. 93).

However, this cogent deconstruction of what Butler takes to be Kristevan theory reproduces the common tendency to identify her work uncritically with that of Lacan and to perceive the relation between the semiotic and the symbolic in terms of stark binary opposition quite absent from Kristeva's own formulation. This misapprehension by Butler is somewhat surprising given that the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem of gender’ she wants to propose depends upon the Kristevan notion of ‘abjection’ as the constitutive process of psychic separation and identity. Butler argues that this wholly constructed nature of self over a void should be recognized and emphasized by means of performative and stylized parodic acts which would destabilize gender identity through ‘subversive laughter [at] pastiche-effect … in which the original, the authentic, and the real are themselves constituted as effects’ (p. 146). In this way, she claims, cultural configurations of sex and gender could be proliferated until they overwhelm and confound the present binarism of sexual identity, revealing it for the hegemonic fiction that it is. Butler does not seem to recognize that this performative solution (attractive though it is) is vulnerable to the same deconstructive logic that she brings against the Kristevan concept of motherhood. Unless we can conceive of a non-totalizing symbolic such stylized acts would also operate within a universal patriarchal law; their apparent subversion equally an effect of that law, the licenced transgression which underwrites its necessity and continuance.

In this paper I shall attempt to argue that the ‘solutions’ of parody and laughter are central to Kristevan theory, and that her ideas still offer the best direction for an optimistic Marxist-feminist practice and theory, knotting together a causality of language, subject and history. I do not wish to repeat the excellent expositions of Kristeva's work already offered, but to suggest that the prevailing popular misconceptions of it as dependent upon notions of the instinctual and presocial can best be overcome and its political import brought into clearer focus by a return to her earliest writing. In particular, it needs to be re-emphasized that the first influence upon Kristeva was not Lacan and psychoanalysis, but Bakhtin with his insistence upon the subject in history.

Situating the foundation of Kristeva's theory in Bakhtin's work helps to clarify her ideas and underlines the consistently political nature of her perception of language: in Brennan's terms, her interlinking of psychical with social reality. In an essay on Bakhtin written in 1966, ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’, Kristeva recognizes and outlines the four interrelated concepts which were to remain absolutely central to her thinking. Undoubtedly the most important concept Kristeva takes from Bakhtin is the notion of language as dialogic, or intertextual as she renames it. As opposed to a formalist sense of language as an autonomous self-referring system, Bakhtin insists upon a dynamic model of discourse which focuses upon words as multiply overdetermined—saturated with conflicting intent. ‘Only the mythical Adam,’ Bakhtin writes, ‘who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could really have escaped from start to finish this dialogic inter-orientation’.6 In contrast to this mythic ‘innocence’ of a formalist or structuralist view of language, the word within any living utterance ‘enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements, and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group’, a reactive process which inevitably ‘leave[s] a trace in all its semantic layers’ (p. 276).

However, even this interaction of the word within a complex semantic field does not exhaust Bakhtin's sense of dialogism:

The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. (p. 280)

It is for this reason that Kristeva sees Bakhtin as foreshadowing Emile Beneviste's sense of discourse as necessarily intersubjective or dialogic:

Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as ‘I’ in his discourse. Because of this, ‘I’ posits another person, the one who, being as he is completely exterior to ‘me’, becomes my echo to whom I say ‘you’ and who says ‘you’ to me.7

Kristeva's acceptance of the Bakhtinian sense of language as conflictual, material, and in process—oriented towards an addressee and a future—indicates how far she is from any unquestioned espousal of a Lacanian concept of the symbolic as a static totalizing order.8 On the contrary, as we shall see, Kristeva's subsequent development of psychoanalytic theory functions to provide a more rigorous understanding of Bakhtin's dialectical model of language. All utterances, she claims, in the essay on Bakhtin, are the locus simultaneously of speaking subject and internalized addressee (in effect internalized culture) who is ‘answered’ as well as ‘spoken’ to in each utterance. ‘The writer's interlocutor, then, is the writer himself, but as a reader of another text. The one who writes is the same as the one who reads.’9 To this Bakhtinian sense of language as always double Kristeva contributes a third dimension: because the speaking subject is also always split between the conscious and the unconscious, all discourse is inscribed with desire. From thence onwards Kristeva's concern with language, and especially her reading of texts, always brings into play this triple ‘intersection of textual surfaces’ (Desire in Language, p. 65). Her reading practice re-articulates not just the dialogic interaction of the conscious with the unconscious of the speaking subject, but also the subject's intertextual reading/writing of internalized culture.10

The second and probably best-known of Kristevan concepts, the ‘revolution’ or conflict of two opposing ‘dispositions’ within language, stems from this first concept of dialogism or intertextuality. In ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’, Kristeva sets out Bakhtin's sense of the continuous struggle between monological and polyphonic discourse, not yet using the oppositional terms ‘semiotic’ and ‘symbolic’ she later deploys: ‘The dialogue inherent in all discourse is smothered by a prohibition, a censorship, such that this discourse refuses to turn back upon itself, to enter into dialogue with itself’ (Desire in Language, p. 77). Significantly, her emphasis here is upon ‘dialogue’ as the inherent, ‘given’ state of language, with prohibition of that dialogism imposed upon it, rather than a perception of language as inherently univocal and repressive until or unless subjected to destabilization. Bakhtin's concept of monological or unitary language appears to be somewhat similar to the Lacanian symbolic order. Unitary language, Bakhtin writes, ‘is a system of linguistic norms … forces that unite and centralize verbal-ideological thought’ (pp. 270-1). However, unlike Lacan's apparently totalizing view of the symbolic, Bakhtin goes on to insist that at any given historical moment unitary language has to operate in the midst of heteroglossia. ‘Every utterance participates in the “unitary language” (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the centrifugal, stratifying forces)’ (p. 272). Language, Bakhtin claims, must always be analysed as a ‘contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of [these] two embattled tendencies’ (p. 272).

This continuous struggle of opposing dispositions leads to the third key concept of Kristevan theory: the dialectical process of ‘negation as affirmation’, sometimes called ‘destructive genesis’. Dialogism shatters the totalizing vision of univocal discourse, as one ideological perspective is relativized against a contending viewpoint. In this death of ‘Truth’ a new ‘ambivalent’ truth is constituted. Kristeva writes, ‘writing reads another writing, reads itself and constructs itself through a process of destructive genesis’ (Desire in Language, p. 77). Kristeva follows Bakhtin in seeing laughter and especially parody as founding examples of this ‘negation as affirmation’. Bakhtin emphasizes parody as ‘one of the most ancient and widespread forms for representing the direct word of another’. ‘It is our conviction’, he writes, ‘that there never was a … single type of direct discourse … that did not have its own parodying and travestying double’ (p. 53). Parody is never merely imitation, never just the ‘echo’ of Beneviste; in parody two languages meet in an antagonistic fusion, relativizing the claims of each other's ‘truth’ and hence producing a new ‘thesis’ which in turn can become the object of parody. Bakhtin associates the tradition of parody with that of carnival and the carnivalesque figures of rogue, clown and fool. The parodic discourse of these figures suggests the public and performative nature of social identity. Bakhtin claims: ‘they are life's maskers; their being coincides with their role, and outside this role they simply do not exist’ (p. 159). Kristeva picks up and elaborates this idea in her discussion of the carnivalesque. ‘A carnival participant’, she writes, ‘is both actor and spectator, he loses his sense of individuality, passes through a point zero of carnivalesque activity and splits into a subject of the spectacle and an object of the game … man and mask’ (Desire in Language, p. 78).

This perception of carnival as the scene of the splitting of the subject into spectator and spectacle, maker and mask and as the place ‘where prohibitions … and their transgression coexist’ (Desire in Language, p. 79), leads to the fourth central structuring concept of Kristevan thought: the concept of a ‘traversable boundary’ or ‘threshold’ site between order and its subversion, inside and outside, body and culture, mother and child, semiotic and symbolic. Carnival, Kristeva claims, brings to light the structures ‘underlying the unconscious: sexuality and death’ in its dyadic forms of ‘high and low, birth and agony, food and excrement, praise and curses, laughter and tears’ (Desire in Language, pp. 78-9). The concept of a ‘threshold’ site has become the most important concern in Kristeva's recent work, rather overshadowing the earlier emphasis upon dialogic conflict. It receives a variety of terminology throughout Kristeva's writing and is most fully explored as ‘abjection’ in Powers of Horror. Essentially, however, the concept remains close to Bakhtin's account of the grotesque Rabelasian carnivalesque body articulated as a boundary site bringing together food and defecation, gluttonous Gargantuan ingestion and obscene expulsions, birth, sex and death, pain and laughter. On the site of the carnivalesque body, Bakhtin writes, ‘death is presented in close relationship with the birth of new life and—simultaneously—with laughter’ (p. 198).11

These four concepts—dialogism (intertextuality), a ‘revolutionary’ conflict between prohibitive and transgressive dispositions within language, the dialectical process of negation, and a ‘threshold’ site—structure all of Kristeva's subsequent writing. Her use of psychoanalytic theory provides a more rigorously argued causality for the insights offered in Bakhtin's rather impressionistic account of language. A careful tracing of the trajectory of Kristeva's work from this early basis makes it clear that she never rejects Bakhtin's dialectical model of language for a totalizing symbolic order, nor, as is so often claimed, does she oppose the symbolic with a precultural archaism. For her, all speaking subjects and their discourse, the semiotic disposition as well as the symbolic, are always already implicated in history. ‘The speaking subject’, she writes, ‘can never be dealt with at the level of drive, or through a child at zero degree of symbolism’ (Desire in Language, p. 276). The child enters the world as the site of polymorphous instinctual drives but these are always already implicated with the social; even in the womb the child hears and responds to the mother's voice.

Kristeva writes in Revolution in Poetic Language,

We emphasize the regulated aspect of the chora: its vocal and gestural organization is subject to what we shall call an objective ordering … dictated by natural or socio-historical constraints. … We may therefore posit that social organization, always already symbolic, imprints its constraints in a mediated form which organizes the chora.12

The source of this ordering mediation is the maternal body, experienced by the child as a symbiotic continuum of its own bodily topography. This rhythmic continuum (the chora) of heart-beat, pulse, ingestion and expulsion, light and dark, chill and warmth is crossed and recrossed by fluxes of libidinal energy—undirected polymorphous drives. This motility is ordered (‘articulated’) by means of the primary processes of condensation and displacement which effect discontinuities, temporary stases, repetitions and returns within the flux, organizing it eventually into discrete connections, facilitations and associations. ‘Voice, hearing and sight’, Kristeva writes, ‘are the archaic dispositions where the earliest forms of discreteness emerge. The breast given and withdrawn. … At that point, breast, light and sound become a there: a place, a spot, a marker’ (Desire in Language, p. 283).

The replete maternal enclosure, locus of polymorphous erotogenicity, is the material foundation of the omnipotent pre-Oedipal mother of the child's imaginary stage before separation and symbolization. It is, however, essential to remember that this pre-Oedipal mother only ever exists in the imaginary. It is, Kristeva writes, ‘an unnameable domain … the secret and unreachable horizon of our loves and desires, it assumes for the imagination, the consistency of an archaic mother’13 (my italics). The actual mother, however, is always fully implicated in social and familial structures. The breast is given and withdrawn according to the constraints and practices of the temporal and cultural world in which she is situated. Even her bodily rhythms and vocal tonality are regulated by its temporality and value systems. Thus from the first moment the mediated regulation of the semiotic is social, and this ordering is the necessary precondition for language acquisition, not an ‘alien’, instinctual, opposing force as Butler and others have claimed.

When Kristeva writes of a pre-Oedipal archaic mother it is always the fantasy constructed within the imaginary she is referring to. As Jacqueline Rose has pointed out,14 the fact that sometimes her writing seems to endow this mythic figure with its own volitional energy only testifies the more eloquently to the powerful hold it retains upon the structures of our adult fantasies. Indeed, Kristeva confesses as much in admitting that her analysands intuit her own ‘uneasiness’, in dealing with ‘a subjugating mother, precociously and encroachingly loving … but always underhandedly fascinating’.15 It is not so surprising, therefore, that she has come to protect herself from the underhand fascination of her ‘own precociously lost love’ by positing an imaginary pre-Oedipal ‘father of individual pre-history’ (Tales of Love, p. 11). For feminists this can seem like a final betrayal; a retreat to the Father as protector against the devouring Mother, who is referred to, in Black Sun, in terms of full Hollywood gothic as ‘the Thing’! In fact, although Kristeva's melodramatic terminology undoubtedly encourages this exasperated response, the ‘father of individual pre-history’ does occupy a positive position within her theory of language, to which I shall return.

Kristeva theorizes the transitional constitution from socially mediated chora into a signifying subject around the central notions of a ‘thetic threshold’ and ‘negation as affirmation’, drawing upon Freud's influential essay on ‘Negation’ and Melanie Klein's concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects.16 Whilst the child is still held within the pre-Oedipal maternal continuum, its experience is organized around the primary impulses of introjection and expulsion. Sensations and objects which contribute to pleasure and satisfaction of needs, like the ‘good breast’, are incorporated as part of the self. Freud sees this impulse of introjection as the working of the life instincts, and the impulse will develop into the mental process of affirmation. Conversely, all that causes undue excitation or distress (the ‘bad breast’) is rejected and expelled beyond the symbiotic boundary. Expulsion is the working of the death instincts and will form the basis of the mental process of negation. For Kristeva the key aspect of negation is its creative capacity to generate process and dispel stasis. Thus the child's primary impulse of rejection (negation) has a positive effect in that it forms the basis for recognizing objects as separate and external to the self. It is this which provides the possibility of differentiation between subjectivity and objectivity upon which self-identity depends. Thus the ‘thetic threshhold’ is simply the boundary site between inside and outside, self and other: the psychic space whereon the subject constitutes itself through the act of positing objects.

Expulsion or negation creates the speaking subject: a subject who substitutes signs for objects. Kristeva writes,

This negativity—this expenditure—posits an object as separate from the body proper, and, at the very moment of separation, fixes it in place as absent, as a sign. In this way rejection establishes the object as real and, at the same time, as signifiable (which is to say, already taken on as an object within the signifying system and as subordinate to the subject who posits it through the sign).

Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 123)

Language, in other words, arises from the child's desire to subordinate or master an all-too-powerful reality. Elsewhere Kristeva writes,

‘I have lost an essential object that happens to be, in the final analysis, my mother,’ is what the speaking subject seems to be saying. ‘But no, I have found her again in signs, or rather since I consent to lose her I have not lost her (that is the negation) I can recover her in language.’

Black Sun, p. 45)

Freud's account of his grandson's ‘fort/da’ game also provides a graphic illustration of the way the sign (representation) extends the child's attempted mastery or subordination of that which was originally expelled outside the self as threatening.17 By repetitively throwing away and pulling back a cotton reel (an imaginary representation of his absent mother) accompanying this action with the words ‘fort’ and ‘da’, the child discovered a means of gaining a semblance of mastery over a loss he could not actually control.

The fort/da game also demonstrates that it is a misleading simplification to understand the impulses of introjection and expulsion, or the death and life instincts which propel them, as quite separate and distinct. They interact in a continuous dialectical process. The child with the cotton reel expresses simultaneously desire for the mother and aggression towards her in throwing her away: an intense interaction of life and death instincts, of love and hate. Words and other forms of representation which substitute for the expelled or lost object are constituted of this ambivalence. Kristeva's conception of the semiotic is simply this interaction of the life and death instincts, always already mediated by the social into forms of affirmation and negation, and propelled by the latter to produce the sign. She states, ‘In our view, expenditure or rejection are better terms for the movement of material contradiction that generates the semiotic function’ (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 119).

This impulse of rejection is associated with desire to subordinate the object; for an aggressive mastery, by means of the sign, of what has refused control or presence as object. This ‘disposition’ for mastery is the indispensable precondition for the constitution of the speaking subject. Undoubtedly, it is also the ‘disposition’ which motivates the centripetal, unifying tendency which Bakhtin assigns to unitary discourse. In other words, the totalizing impulse of the symbolic is essentially an aspect of the functioning of the semiotic—the functioning of negation. However, it is but one ‘disposition’ or tendency within the signifying system, not the system itself as a capitalized ‘Law’ and ‘Order’ which then needs to be subverted by an extralinguistic, presocial force. Indeed, if the symbolic disposition were really a totalizing Law, imposing wholly unitary and discrete meanings, then metalanguage would be neither logically necessary nor possible. In actuality the creative and destabilizing ‘disposition’ of signifying practice is produced by the same semiotic impulse of negation which constitutes the opposing tendency for univocal mastery. The death instincts generate new forms and laughter—negation as creativity.

Words come into being for the speaking subject as always already dialogic and ambivalent. The sign which substitutes for the absent breast is overdetermined with conflicting intent, it is an intertextual site of desire and hate, of the impulse to affirm and to negate. It is this ambivalent dialectic which provides the opening for linguistic creativity and ultimately for the production of new social forms. The sign confers mastery of the absent object upon the speaking subject as a capacity to reproduce as representation that which has been lost. However, this representation is not necessarily identical repetition—an echo—it can be varied to answer the impulse of the presently predominating drive—life or death. Freud writes in ‘Negation’, ‘The reproduction of a perception as a presentation is not always a faithful one; it may be modified by omissions, or changed by the merging of various elements.’18 Kristeva restates this idea: ‘Rejection therefore constitutes the return of expulsion … within the domain of the constituted subject: rejection reconstitutes real objects, “creates” new ones, reinvents the real, and re-symbolizes it’ (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 155). It is the ‘compulsion to repeat’ (characteristic of the death drive), but to repeat with the difference of an underlying, socially charged ambivalence, which constitutes all forms of creative or innovative thought.

This ambivalence, displaced into signs, accounts for the creative double articulation of language (desire/subject of enunciation; signifier/signified), but it does not explain the triple dialogism involving an addressee/internalized culture which unites signification fully to history and allows us to conceive of a symbolic which is not patriarchal in any determining sense. Paradoxically, this is the function of the ‘father of individual pre-history’, otherwise called by Kristeva the ‘Third Party’ (Tales of Love, p. 34). How does the child move from its first auto-eroticism in which its body is a fragmentation of zones, each a site of separate erotic gratification, to narcissism which entails an image of a unified body and embryonic ego? There is no leverage within the closure of mother/child dyad to bring about the ‘new psychical action’ of narcissism. It is on this basis that Kristeva argues for the logical necessity of an Other, a Third Party. The claims of this Other upon the maternal body are ‘an indication that the mother is not complete but that she wants … Who? … it is out of [the child's] “not I” … that an Ego painfully attempts to come into being’, until then ‘the child and the mother do not yet constitute two’ (Tales of Love, pp. 41, 40). Although Kristeva uses the designations ‘father of individual pre-history’ or ‘pre-Oedipal father’, she concedes that these are wholly imaginary conceptions: that ‘he is simply … a potential presence’, and moreover ‘possess[es] the characteristics of both parents’ (Tales of Love, pp. 43, 202).

It seems reasonable therefore to see this Third Party as the child's imaginary way of registering the imposition of social reality upon the mother, which necessitates her withdrawal of attention, her absences and her changes of libidinal rhythms: in effect her orientation towards the world beyond the mother/child dyad, directing the child in that worldly direction also. This cuts out the space of a ‘potential presence’—an Other—before the imposition of the reality principle in the form of the Oedipal father's prohibition of the maternal body.

This Third Party constitutes the space which ‘allows for the existence of a potentially symbolic Other’, Kristeva claims; for an ‘external addressee’ who imposes upon the child the necessity to communicate as well as speak. (For those who ‘do not yet constitute two’ the need for communication does not exist.) In that external necessity the child finds its words authenticated. Otherwise, according to Kristeva, ‘Within the empty enclosure of his narcissism, … [words] (drives and representations) could not find an other (an addressee) who alone might have given a signification to their weighty meaning’ (Tales of Love, p. 49). Thus utterances come to be characterized by a dialogic interaction of desire with necessity, of the subjective with the social, between ‘I say what matters to me’ versus ‘I say for you, for us, so that we can understand one another.’19 This double positionality of the speaking subject, Kristeva claims, as ‘that of his own identity [and] … that of objective expression for the other … has the advantage of clarifying certain of Bakhtin's positions with reference to dialogism’.20

With the resolution of the Oedipal conflict, the Third Party, comprising characteristics of both mother and father, is subsumed within the superego: internalized culture. Freud describes the super-ego thus:

a child's super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents' super-ego; the contents which fill it are the same and it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation.21

However the super-ego comprises not only idealizations of both imaginary parents which the child has introjected—its ego-ideal, but also their arbitrary power which it has sought first to reject and then control by representation. It is this ambivalence which creates the possibility of destabilizing the ‘time-resisting’ authority of social forms. The triple dialogism which constitutes us as speaking subjects of an overdetermined language offers us the potential to be the makers of our own history. In our speech the destructive-creative capacities of the death instincts (negation as affirmation) find an opening into social meaning, shaking and remaking its values. It is against this centrifugal tendency that all authoritarian, totalizing codes have to contend.

If ambivalence and dialogism are creative ‘dispositions’ inherent in the very constitution of language, undermining the opposing prohibitive ‘disposition’, then so, too, are laughter and parody. ‘There is one inevitable moment in the movement that recognizes symbolic prohibition and makes it dialectical: laughter’ (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 222). Elsewhere Kristeva writes, ‘Laughter is what lifts inhibitions breaking through prohibition (symbolized by the Creator) to introduce the aggressive, violent, liberating drive’ (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 224). Laughter is a constant theme throughout Kristeva's writing which has received too little attention in commentaries on her work; it is the bright lining of her black sun of melancholy.

Kristeva notes that the infant's first ‘smile’ or ‘laughter’ appears to be provoked at moments of tension relief, for example, at the point of oral repletion or of anal expulsion. Such moments—ambivalent thresholds where one instinct dies into its opposite—appear to produce involuntary ‘laughter’ (Desire in Language, p. 283). Likewise, rejection, the impulse to expel disturbing influences, creates the ambivalent threshold between inside and outside, love and hate, upon which knowing laughter is born. Its energy therefore, like that of speech, derives from the death instincts. The ‘fort/da’ response demonstrates the way loss is transformed into a pleasurable game. This form of aggressive playfulness is present in most childhood games of repetition and imitation. The child who scolds or beats a toy is identifying with (introjecting) parental power. However, the scolding voice is not merely an echo; it constructs a parody of power, projecting a mocking image of the authoritative word. The little girl who imitates her mother's cough expresses simultaneously an impulse of loving identification and an aggressive desire to diminish maternal power. Language is born of the need to dominate what is originally threatening and beyond control. In the infant's history her/his original loss is experienced as tragedy, but we learn to replay it as farce. From our first words we are all of us ironists. ‘Laughter always indicates an act of aggression against the Creator,’ Kristeva writes (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 223). The black humour with which, throughout history, women and men have faced down the worst of war, death and punishment testifies to the strength of this archaic impulse to defeat power by laughter.

Introjection, the impulse to identify with that which provides satisfaction of need, signified at the Oedipal stage as gender identity with the parent of the same sex, is always destabilized by ambivalence. We mock power even as we imitate its voice. The double positionality of the subject entails that we are always spectators of our own carnivalesque performances; always in some place aware of ourselves as parodists of our own desired identifications. It is for this reason that Kristeva quotes Baudelaire's description of laughter as an indication ‘of a permanent dualism in the human being—that is, the power of being oneself and someone else at one and the same time’ (Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 223). Laughter and parody thus always involve pain; they always involve the perception of our own impotence. In recognizing our representation of power or authority as parodic and thereby mastering its threat of annihilation, we must of necessity recognize our own failure to make ourselves in its image. The ‘fake’ or ‘narcissistic seeming’, writes Kristeva, arises ‘because one rarely succeeds in identifying fully with [an] ideal’ and this fakeness ‘challenges the universe of established values [and] pokes fun at them’ (Tales of Love, pp. 126-7). In this unmasking of power by our laughter, we unmake ourselves. But it is this negation which puts us ‘in process’, opening out the possibility of continuously reinventing those performative parodies of identity that Judith Butler advocates as means of subverting repressive constructions of gender. For Kristeva, the artistic representation of being as performance is Mozart's Don Juan, ‘an artist with no authenticity other than his ability to change, to live without internality, to put on masks just for fun’ (Tales of Love, p. 199). As such, the figure of Don Juan represents our ‘power to triumph while playing’ (ibid., p. 204).

Laughter, then, is another of Kristeva's threshold sites, making possible the process of destructive genesis. Such sites always involve risk for the subject who seeks to operate across their ambivalence. They always open into the death instincts; it is for this reason that laughter is frequently painful as well as pleasurable, always shadowed by the fear of annihilation. Nevertheless, such laughter is truly ambivalent, rather than simply destructive. At around three months, the undirected laughter stimulated by drive discharges finds a stable point of reference. The mother's face becomes ‘the privileged receiver of laughter’ (Desire in Language, p. 283). This affirmative laughter finds its echo in the jubilant recognition with which the infant greets its image in the mirror. From thence onwards laughter or smiles affirm our identity for the other. So laughter simultaneously destroys our unified identity, puts us into process, and gives us back to ourselves from the place of the other.

The question inevitably arises as to whether Kristeva sees women as having the same access as men to the resources of laughter and parody. Her writing on this is contradictory. The playful ‘triumph’ of Don Juan is described as ‘phallic power’; ‘slaves and women are made otherwise’, she writes (Tales of Love, p. 200). However, in About Chinese Women, she declares that the founding of western civilization upon the cleavage of the two sexes localizes ‘the polymorphic, orgasmic body, desiring and laughing, in the other sex’—that is in women (Kristeva Reader, p. 141). This seems a surer insight. If laughter derives from the need to mock power and authority so as not to be overwhelmed by it, then it seems reasonable to suppose that those within the social formation who remain marginalized and disempowered after infancy will continue to utilize the defiant laughter of irony and parody. In the triple dialogism of their discourse, hegemonic ‘Truth’ will always be demystified by fusion with its parodic echo. Thus Kristeva writes of women's ‘ironic common sense’ which opposes hegemonic claims for ‘divine’ or ‘universal’ knowledge, and she cites the biblical example of Sarah ‘pregnant at 90, [who] laughs at this divine news’ (Kristeva Reader, p. 140). The age-old insistence that ‘women have no sense of humour is, of course, the negation which affirms men's fear of this subversive force.

Similarly, those furthest from power can most easily recognize their own ‘faking’ performances of its image; women and slaves have the potential, perhaps, to be the most plural of life's maskers, as indeed Kristeva seems to suggest in ‘Women's time’ (Kristeva Reader, pp. 209-10). Kristeva writes of the ‘tremendous psychic, intellectual, and affective effort’ a woman must make to overcome her pre-Oedipal identification with the imaginary archaic mother in order to take her place within the social order (Black Sun, p. 30). Could we not speculate that women achieve this ‘triumph’ through the ambivalent power of laughter? Post-Oedipal gender identification with their mothers offers women the opportunity to recognize their shortfall from the mythic ideal. This double positionality of self/projected self reveals the performative nature of ‘feminine’ gender identity. However, this comic perception is genuinely ambivalent: it ironizes the ‘Truth’ of a unitary or idealized sense of ‘Woman’ or ‘Mother’, but it does not disavow it altogether. This ‘ironic common sense’ prevents women from taking themselves seriously as myth, but preserves a perception of maternal love as a utopian, cherished glimpse of an ideal of communality. As Kristeva argues in ‘Women's Time’, it is the sacrificial and diminishing nature of so many women's encounter with the social order that reactivates an escapist desire for the idealized fantasy of an all-powerful mythic mother as the basis of a counter-society ‘imagined as harmonious, without prohibitions, free and all-fulfilling’ (Kristeva Reader, p. 202). For men, after the resolution of the Oedipal crisis, ambivalent laughter in relation to the feminine is difficult to achieve. Identification with the pre-Oedipal mother has been securely repressed so that the feminine has become wholly other and unknowable. Hence laughter can only function as a negative and aggressive impulse to diminish an ancient power, located in women and always feared.

Does Kristeva's theory of language as a parodic, triply dialogic signifying practice offer it as an inevitably revolutionary force, as she has seemed sometimes to claim? Obviously not; laughter, it is quite evident, does not serve only libertarian ends. Any force or object which is feared or resented, perhaps especially in the imagination, can become the focus of non-ambivalent, wholly destructive mockery. However, Kristeva's perception of language does provide heartening reassurance that structures of power and authority—whether of class or patriarchy—are not wholly determining forces upon our lives and social identities; that the symbolic order is not a totalizing law imposing upon us an inescapable closure of possibility. Signifying practice is a dialogic alternation of ‘dispositions’ within language; dispositions for both mastery and renewal—as indeed we have always known in our practice if not in our theory.

In terms of practice, her theory also suggests a challenging model of reading; a re-articulation of texts as triply dialogic, a polemical interaction within the word of writing subject, desire, and history as internalized addressee, with univocal meaning always denied by the force of ambivalence. In addition, when reading texts by women we should perhaps be particularly attuned to hidden laughter, the parodic echo, an ironic irreverence. This view of language also suggests the possibility of constructing a genuinely progressive political writing. In the play of an ‘ironic common sense’ those twin dangers to any political discourse—the totalizing desire for a utopian return to an imaginary maternal enclosure or the totalizing authority of complete mastery—are revealed and debunked. This is not to invoke a postmodernist overthrow of all social value. We laugh at ourselves in the name of equality and in laughing with others we recognize and confirm a collective solidarity.


  1. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, ‘Culture and textuality: debating cultural materialism’, Textual Practice, 4, 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 93, 99.

  2. Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 1.

  3. ibid., p. 3.

  4. Gender Troubles: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. ix, 15. Further references will be cited in the text.

  5. Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), pp. 122-52; Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London and New York: Methuen, 1985); Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London and New York: Verso, 1986), pp. 141-64.

  6. The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 279. Further references will be cited in the text.

  7. Emile Beneviste, Problems of General Linguistics (1966) (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1977), p. 225.

  8. Lacan also sees the signifying subject as constituted intersubjectively ‘in the response of the other’, and Lacan's own stylistic eccentricity seems to embrace a ‘semiotic’ multivalency. Nevertheless, his insistent nomenclature of ‘Law’ and ‘Order’ inevitably constructs the symbolic ‘Law of the Father’ as an inescapable universal system, seemingly structuring even the unconscious. Kristeva, on the contrary, has declared that ‘the unconscious is not structured like a language’ (Black Sun, p. 204). If Lacan tends to overwhelm us with the repressive power of the symbolic, Kristeva, perhaps, is inclined to overstate the irresistible influence of the death instincts.

  9. Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), pp. 86-7.

  10. For example, this ‘triple dialogism’ informs her reading of Céline in Powers of Horror, of ‘Stabat Mater’ in Tales of Love, and the work of Holbein in Black Sun.

  11. Bakhtin's most detailed discussion of carnival and the regenerative Rabelesian body are in Rabelais and His World, translated by Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968).

  12. Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller with an introduction by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 26-7. Further references will be cited in the text.

  13. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 145. Further references will be cited in the text.

  14. Sexuality in the Field of Vision, pp. 157-64.

  15. Tales of Love, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: University of Columbia Press, 1987), p. 11. Further references will be cited in the text.

  16. ‘Negation’ in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 438.

  17. ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in On Metapsychology, pp. 283-7.

  18. ‘Negation’, p. 440.

  19. The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 316. Further references will be cited in the text.

  20. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 195. Further references will be cited in the text.

  21. J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac Books, 1988), p. 437.

Ewa Ziarek (essay date Spring 1992)

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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 controversial among those issues that Kristeva's theory incessantly confronts and submits “to an interminable analysis” is the role of the maternal in the production of discourse. As she herself claims, it is not only a theoretical enterprise but also a matter of ethics and, I would claim, of politics as well. No wonder then that the explicit relation between discourse and the maternal body constitutes at once the most promising and the most problematic aspect of her work.1 On the one hand, her theory of semiotics opens a specifically feminine point of resistance to the phallocentric models of culture. On the other hand, because the semiotic is associated with the prediscursive libidinal economy, the grounds and the effectiveness of that resistance appear problematic at the very least.

This controversy is reproduced in numerous interpretations of Kristeva, which I am schematically organizing here into two groups. The first one—for instance, Toril Moi (1985, 150-67), Jane Gallop (1982, 113-31), Carolyn Burke (1987, 107-114), Mary Jacobus (1986, 169), and Susan Rubin Suleiman (1985, 366-71)—emphasizes different aspects of subversion in Kristeva's work. The second—Kaja Silverman (1988, 101-40), Ann Rosalind Jones (1984), Jacqueline Rose (1986, 151-57), Eleanor Kuykendall (1989, 180-95), Elizabeth Grosz (1989, 97), and Judith Butler (1990, 89-91)2—responds that such resistance rests on a problematic relation between the maternal and culture and in fact works to exclude the feminine subject from the symbolic. More specifically, the questions generated in response to Kristeva's reliance on the prediscursive maternal economy have concerned the source of subversion, the political efficacy of her theory, the position of the female subject, and the issue of female agency. Does Kristeva, in spite of her intentions, blindly repeat the traditional cultural gesture that relegates women to a precultural, prediscursive position? Can her maternal source of resistance lead to any significant transformation of cultural paradigms? Does it empower the female speaker? Can it address the issue of female agency? And finally, does her elaboration of the maternal outside the symbolic order boil down to a crude version of essentialism, if not a mute biologism?

In order to advance the existing debate, it is more productive at this point to examine how Kristeva challenges the very distinctions between the prediscursive and the discursive, the precultural and the cultural, and to what degree her conceptual revision is effective. Kristeva's writings make it clear that these distinctions are not neutral or self-evident but are implicated in operations of exclusion, power, and control over the production and interpretation of discourse.3 In other words, not only is the division between the linguistic and nonlinguistic shifting and open to revision, but also the decision about what aspects of signification fall on one or the other side of this divide is culturally produced and rests on gender presuppositions. As Kristeva constantly reminds her readers, linguistic analyses are not free from ethical and political decisions, especially when they refer to the role of the maternal in the production of discourse. In this context, I am particularly interested in the following issues: Why have the particular features of signification, coded as maternal, been relegated to the prediscursive position? How can we read this prediscursive in the larger context of Kristeva's theory of signification? Why does Kristeva need this prediscursive economy in order to arrive at a completely different understanding of what counts as discursive in cultural practices? Is it possible to comprehend the “prediscursive chora” as an attempt to disclose a signifying economy (the trace, the rhythm) prior to the logic of the sign predicated on the separation and discontinuity between subject and object, signifier and signified? And if so, how does Kristeva negotiate the passage between this signifying economy and the maternal body?

Beginning with Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), Kristeva has insistently stressed the task of rethinking the maternal body as inseparable from the rethinking of language. In that first work, Kristeva opens her analysis of semiotics with avant-garde literature, as if to suggest that a different language lesson, provided by poetry rather than structuralist linguistics, is in order before one can refigure the cultural significance of the maternal body. Because poetry can perform “one of the most spectacular shatterings of discourse” and remain a linguistic practice nonetheless, it reveals for Kristeva “the limits of socially useful discourse and attests to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures” (Kristeva 1984, 16). By exploding the ideological constraints of the subject and discourse, poetic practice can disclose “the limits of formalist and psychoanalytic” approaches to language and bring into the open the signifying process that they exclude. And yet poetic practice is not revolutionary in and of itself. Kristeva asks a larger question: under what historical circumstances could this poetic process correspond to socioeconomic change, and under what conditions is it neutralized as a harmless “esoterism” and “aestheticism”? This approach to the maternal body, via poetry on the one hand and a larger socioeconomic analysis of the capitalist modes of production on the other, warns Kristeva's readers from the outset against the hasty conclusion that the attempt to think the maternal is a plunge into a mute biology, or a mere mystification of the prelinguistic unity between the mother and the child. Rather, I would argue, Kristeva's parallel discussions of poetry and body suggest a displacement of natural primacy by a strategic redistribution of positions, a departure from natural origins. It implies from the outset that the question of the mother will be bound up with the task of the redefinition of language as a social practice rather than being simply an escape into a prelinguistic fantasy of the maternal paradise.

I would like, then, to repeat Kristeva's detour and focus on her theory of semiotics in order to underscore its two problematic aspects—the heterogeneous and the prediscursive—which have not been sufficiently addressed in the numerous interpretations of her work. First of all, Kristeva's insistence on heterogeneity should be taken in a double sense: not only as the infolding of body and language but also as the infolding of the two signifying economies. Kristeva attempts to think the processes of signification that are not reducible to semantics, symbolization, and the bipolar structure of the sign. By uncovering “disquieting” and heterogeneous elements of signification in a variety of disciplines (especially in linguistics, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology), Kristeva is concerned with the forms of otherness and multiplicity excluded by unifying orders of discourse. In this context, the thought of “irreducible” heterogeneity does not intend to ground language and culture in “a natural and pre-paternal causality” (Butler 1990, 89-91); rather, it anticipates a different understanding of language that takes into account interweaving of heterogeneous elements. In Kristeva's own words, such irreducible heterogeneity “goes by various names according to the conceptual framework of the theory that posits it and the level of its operations. But the name always designates something irreducible, a disquieting heterogeneousness, outside the transcendental enclosure within which we are otherwise constrained by phenomenology and its relative, linguistics” (Kristeva 1983, 40-41, italics added).4 Moreover, Kristeva's analysis of the traces of heterogeneity in the linguistic and psychic economy breaks away from the phenomenological constraints of both linguistics and subjectivity—that is, from the view of entities as clearly separated, distinct, and self-contained.5

Now I would like to turn to the second troublesome aspect of Kristeva's theory—the so-called move beyond language. For many feminist critics, Kristeva's association of the maternal with the prelinguistic moment evokes the most oppressive hierarchies of phallocentrism (the maternal body belongs to nature, the paternal law to culture)—hence the justified responses of caution, if not straightforward resistance, to that part of Kristeva's theory. Yet, if we situate Kristeva's analysis of “the maternal territory” in the larger context of poststructuralism, then her emphasis on the prediscursive is strategic: it indicates both the limitations of structuralist linguistics and the need to rethink the process of signification.

The thought of heterogeneity leads Kristeva to supplement the tradition of structuralist semiotics (which perceives language as a sign system) with the analysis of “what falls outside the system and characterizes the specificity of the practice as such” (Kristeva 1986b, 26). Her investigations in Revolution in Poetic Language and in her later work Desire in Language analyze what traditional linguistics excludes—“a crisis or the unsettling process of meaning” within the signifying phenomena. Kristeva passionately advocates a new linguistics (and later a new psychoanalysis) that would not only classify the signifying phenomena but would also embrace within them moments of multiplicity, disruption, and undecidability. To carry out such analysis, she proposes to turn from the theory of language as a universal sign system to language as a “signifying process” in order to underscore both systematicity and transgression in every signifying practice, which she calls symbolic and semiotic disposition, respectively. Kristeva's signifying process defies the fundamental Saussurian distinction between langue (language as a collective sign system) and parole (its individual usage) because each signifying practice is not merely a manifestation of a general code but results from the dialectic between the systematicity of signs and the transgression of drives. Therefore, only on the level of the specificity of signifying practices (which are invariably both more and less than underlying code) can we observe the traces of heterogeneity and transgression (Kristeva 1986b, 31). Kristeva's understanding of signification implies also a different understanding of culture, no longer conceptualized in terms of a general symbolic system but in terms of the specificity and multiplicity of signifying practices. Such decentering of the semantic/cultural field offers the most promising political implications (although not always explicitly elaborated by Kristeva) of her work.6

This turn from the theory of language as a sign system to the specificity of the signifying practices is not only advocated by Kristeva but also produced by her revision of the signifying process. Kristeva refers the symbolic level of language—that is, the dimension of sign, syntax, and, in Lacanian terminology, the realm of the paternal law—to the presymbolic economy of the drives, characterizing the complex exchanges between the mother and the child prior to individuation of the subject and object. Borrowing the term from Plato's Timaeus, Kristeva calls this heterogeneous and defused field of drives the semiotic maternal “chora” (the Greek word for space, place, locality).7 Contrary to some interpretations of the chora as a return to essentialism and biologism, the chora is a cultural phenomenon because it consists of the cultural forming and ordering of the drives: “they are arranged according to the various constraints imposed on this body—always already involved in a semiotic process—by family and social structures” (Kristeva 1984, 25). Kristeva stresses on numerous occasions that what is at stake here is the structure and the economy of the drives and not the mere presence of the biological body: “The position of the semiotic as heterogeneous does not derive from a desire to integrate, within a language …, a supposed concreteness, a raw corporeality, or an immanent energy” (Kristeva 1983, 36). More akin to rhythm and mobile traces than structure, it describes regulated movements and their “ephemeral” stasis, moments of gathering and irruptions, which lead to no identity, no body proper.

When Kristeva characterizes the specificity of the semiotic and the symbolic from the perspective of the genealogy of the subject, she points out that the choric rhythm of accumulation and dissolution is sublated at the moment of language acquisition into a thetic stage—that is, the stage of the bipolar division of the signified and the signifier and the formation of syntax. In order to describe the transformation of the semiotic into the symbolic, Kristeva deploys the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, which has a double meaning of “negation” and “conservation.” Yet these references to Hegel underscore not only the fact that the symbolic is produced by a dialectical operation but also that this operation fails to subsume entirely the semiotic heterogeneity: no “signifier can effect the Aufhebung of the semiotic without leaving the remainder” (Kristeva 1984, 51). Because of these residues—or traces—of the first symbolizations, the symbolic level of language is just a certain stage, constantly open to the irruption of heterogeneity into the unity of the signifier: “All poetic ‘distortions’ of the signifying chain … may be considered in this light: they yield under the attack of the ‘residues of the first symbolizations’ (Lacan), in other words, those drives that the thetic phase was not able to sublate … by linking them into signifier and signified” (Kristeva 1984, 49).8

This irruption characterizing the economy of the drives within the symbolic level of language constitutes the third pseudomoment or level in Kristeva's dialectic—that is, a postsymbolic level of every signifying practice but most visible in poetic language, which is characterized as “a ‘second-degree thetic’, i.e., a resumption of the functioning of the semiotic chora within the signifying device of language” (Kristeva 1984, 50).9 In Kristeva's account, then, the semiotic is both a presymbolic and postsymbolic moment. Clearly, the second moment attracts Kristeva's attention because the articulation of the drives can become a practice, a text, only when it enters language, “appropriating and displacing signifier.” Moreover, Kristeva will claim that the semiotic that precedes symbolization is only a theoretical presupposition, a theoretical fiction if you will, “justified by the need of description”: “Only theory can isolate [the semiotic] as ‘preliminary’ in order to specify its functioning” (Kristeva 1984, 68). In other words, theory does not describe a natural psychic development but produces this genealogical description: “Theory can ‘situate’ such processes and relations diachronically within the process of the constitution of the subject because they function synchronically within the signifying process of the subject himself, i.e., the subject of cogitatio” (Kristeva 1984, 29). This is an extremely important point: here Kristeva postulates the theory of the chora in order to account for the moments of undecidability and transformation working always already within the subject and the culture itself (on the synchronic level): “Language as social practice necessarily presupposes these two dispositions, though combined in different ways to constitute types of discourses, types of signifying structures” (Kristeva 1980, 134). The chora, then, can be read as a theoretical construction (rather than a natural stage) enabling us to see and to explain the constant disruptions of the symbolic stability (that is supposed to be secured by the paternal law) not as mere accidents or lapses into psychosis but as the necessary and regulated effects of the process of signification.10


Bearing in mind some of the conclusions of Kristeva's linguistic analysis, especially the fact that the semiotic is not just a simple return to the economy of the drives but the reinscription of the symbolic as such, let us turn to the other “site” of Kristeva's proceedings, the “site” of the maternal body. Such reinscription of the symbolic (the fact that the symbolic in the pure form does not exist) demands departure from the theory of language as a sign system to the analysis of the multiplicity and specificity of signifying practices. Otherwise, we will keep perpetuating the notion that Kristeva places the mother “beyond language” (i.e., beyond signification).11 Clearly, in Kristeva's theory both poetry and the semiotic process of the maternal body have the potential to disrupt language as a social code:

The speaker reaches this limit (of the symbolic) … only by virtue of a particular, discursive practice called “art.” A woman also attains it … through the strange form of split symbolization (threshold of language and instinctual drive, of the “symbolic” and the “semiotic”) of which the act of giving birth consists. (Kristeva 1980, 240-41; italics added)

We are encouraged to reconceptualize the maternal function as another instance of the infolding of the semiotic and the symbolic, as “a radical form of split symbolizations,” which unsettles the positioning of both consciousness and body and introduces, in Kristeva's terms, “wandering” or “fuzziness” in place of semantic/logical connectives (Kristeva 1980, 136).

However, because it is very difficult to sustain this duplicity of/about the maternal body in her own discourse, Kristeva invariably produces in her interpreters signs of impatience and a desire to correct her texts, that is, to give one disposition—the semiotic or the symbolic—primacy over the other. Before suggesting my reading of the maternal body in Kristeva's texts, it would be useful to follow the course of one of the most compelling corrections offered by Kaja Silverman (1988, 101-40). The trajectory of Silverman's reading proceeds from a refutation of the chora as a prelinguistic origin to its placement within the symbolic as the negative Oedipus complex. The hypothesis of the negative Oedipus complex also radically revises both Freud's and Lacan's accounts of femininity because it transfers the little girl's erotic investment in the mother from the prelinguistic, pre-Oedipal to the symbolic level of language and desire. In this way, the chora receives clear representational support and therefore can challenge the paternal law “from within representation and meaning” (Silverman 1988, 123-24). If I nonetheless object to Silverman's interpretation, it is because I read the chora as already a signifying economy and because I claim that it is impossible to incorporate this maternal signification without deconstructing the symbolic order, which excludes semiotic signification in the first place. Moreover, I suspect that the inclusion of the maternal in the symbolic order compromises Kristeva's insistence on choric otherness: “it is imperative that we recognize the unconscious mother for who she is,” that we “situate the daughter's passion for the mother … firmly within the symbolic” (Silverman 1988, 125, 123; italics added). The irony of this revision is indeed the “firm” assimilation of the choric to the thetic operation and a foreclosure of Kristeva's most radical discovery—that is, the heterogeneity of discourse.

In order to underscore the insufficiency of the symbolic construction as a tool for both linguistic and psychoanalytical analysis, Kristeva introduces the notion of the semiotic as a material yet nonphenomenological trace. Like Silverman, Kristeva claims that the semiotic does not exist apart from the symbolic, but she insists that its status within the symbolic should be described as a nonphenomenological trace. The fact that the semiotic never becomes a part of the symbolic, that it never enters the nexus of the signs but instead disrupts their order, does not mean that it is not linguistic. On the contrary, for Kristeva the semiotic is perhaps the most important linguistic force. Yet what is characteristic about the semiotic trace is that it cannot be turned into either an alternative origin or an independent symbolic position:

For to imagine the autonomy of the “trace,” the “pictogram,” or the “cryptogram” with respect to language's own thetic position, or to envisage some logical or chronological precedence to its impact, would be to give a helping—that is, a theoretical—hand to the maintenance of the notion of the maternal phallus. … Thus this semiotic mode has no primacy, no point of origin. When I hear it in echolalias … asyntactical and alogical constructions—in all of these divergences from codified discourse …—the semiotic chora appears within the signifying process as the trace of the jouissance. (Kristeva 1983, 36-38)

Kristeva demands that we read the semiotic chora neither as an alternative, more authentic origin (such an origin is indeed only a fantasy) nor as an alternative independent position within the symbolic, but as traces of alterity and heterogeneity operating within the linguistic and psychic economy.

Although articulated on the psycholinguistic rather than textual level, Kristeva's notion of the semiotic trace participates in a deconstruction of presence and the order of the sign similar to that of Derrida's trace. Like Kristeva, Derrida defines the trace as a mark of difference within every identity, a mark “retaining the other as other in the same” (Derrida 1974, 62; italics added).12 Kristeva finds Derrida's notion of the trace most promising in the project of deconstruction and acknowledges in “grammatology” a parallel attempt to think a signifying economy irreducible to the symbolic order and the concept of the sign. Through the notion of the trace Kristeva can find certain analogies—especially in the explorations of otherness, heterogeneity and the critique of logocentrism—between the semiotic and the grammatological: Derridean trace and writing “both can be thought of as metaphors for a movement that retreats before the thetic but, sheltered by it, unfolds only within the stases of the semiotic chora.” And, “we may posit that the force of writing [écriture] lies precisely in its return to the space-time previous to the phallic stage—indeed previous even to the identifying or mirror stage” (Kristeva 1984, 141, 143). Such status of the semiotic does not imply that it is ineffective or futile, but, I suggest, it questions the fundamental metaphysical notions of presence, origin, identity, and the notion of the sign itself. By insisting on these analogies between Derrida and Kristeva, I do not want to foreclose some important differences between their positions. For instance, Kristeva repeatedly criticizes Derrida for failing to address the subjective and sociopolitical implications of his theory. Nonetheless, deconstruction remains an important, though often unmentioned, context for assessing the linguistic innovations of Kristeva's semiotics.

The event of motherhood and pregnancy represents for Kristeva another resumption of the semiotic chora within the symbolic figuration of the body. Although Kristeva's account of pregnancy complements her analysis of poetic language, it also provides a new critical perspective. Specifically, it allows Kristeva to develop the implications of the maternal trace in terms of alterity—that is, to discuss otherness prior to the constitution of both a separate ego and the subject/object dichotomy. And since Kristeva claims that the choric remains one of the permanent traces in the economy of subjectivity, she conceives of the subject constituted and re-marked by the maternal otherness, which enables our ethical orientation in the world. She claims that the event of pregnancy splits the subject and asserts otherness within the intimacy of the self, shattering the symbolic inscription of the body that constitutes it as “mine” and separate from the others.13 Kristeva's analysis of the maternal alterity is expressed most explicitly in “Stabat Mater,” which appeared first under the telling title “Héréthique de l'amour” (“Love's Heretical Ethics”) in Tel Quel (1977). As Mary Jacobus suggests, Kristeva wants to rewrite here the Christian representation of motherhood (and by extension, the figurations of motherhood seen from the symbolic perspective) as an ethics of otherness, “emphasizing the difficult access to a radical Other demanded by maternity” (Jacobus 1986, 169). The entire effort of Kristeva's writing is to initiate a different discourse on maternity, transgressing the limits of the symbolic logic of separation on the one hand and the mystifications of unity and resemblance on the other.

Such is “motherhood's impossible syllogism”: “Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on” (Kristeva 1980, 237). What is peculiar in this description is the fact that the maternal body, the “site of splitting,” becomes a space of othering, resistant both to symbolic inscription and to the “presence” of the signifying subject. Unlike it is the case with the famous Lacanian model of the sign—two doors bearing the inscriptions of Ladies and Gentlemen, where the signifying space is a destination of sorts, different for a little boy and a little girl.14—no one can enter this maternal space, no one is there “to signify what is going on.” When Gallop reads that particular passage from Kristeva, she stresses the fact that it is impossible to occupy that maternal position, that any posture of speaking from that site is a “fraud.”15 Or rather, I should say that any attempt to transform the maternal body into a coherent signifying position is a fraud, precisely because it is a heterogeneous site, constantly doubling itself and separating itself from itself. The maternal body, then, becomes paradoxically a nonsite, an impurity and a distance encroaching on the positionality of the symbolic language.

If, for Lacan, the first construction of bodily identity occurs at the mirror stage—that is, at the moment when the child recognizes for the first time his or her mirror image and receives from it a false sense of stable identity—then Kristeva's understanding of the maternal role can be described (to borrow the phrase from the title of Rodolphe Gasché's book) as “the tain” of this mirror. The “tain” refers to the silver lining at the back of the mirror, which produces the specular stage of representation without itself appearing on it.16 However, since Lacan does not acknowledge the maternal function on that specular stage of the mirror representation, her trace is barely marked in his text by such peculiar understatements as the “human or artificial support” of the infant or “the obstructions of his support.” Curiously, Lacan would install on that stage a mechanical “trotte-bébé” rather than the figure of the mother (Lacan 1977, 1-2). Although erased from the moment of theoretical and specular reflection,17 the maternal trace functions not only as a “support” of the infant but also as the silver lining of the mirror itself. However, at stake in Kristeva's theory is not only a gesture of acknowledgment of the maternal role in the construction of the subject, but also, and more important, a radical revision of the phenomenological model of reflection. The maternal trace clouds the “purity” of that reflection and questions the possibility of a separate unitary identity closed upon itself.

This double approach to the maternal body as a nonreflective “site” of radical othering (thought as “infold” rather than noncoincidence and separation) and as a “site” of symbolic inscription is most visible in “Stabat Mater.” Although the essay associates in a reductive way the feminist discussions of motherhood either with a rejection of motherhood as an institution or with an acceptance of its traditional representations, it does argue for a new, and a specifically feminist, understanding of the maternal. The difficult access to the radical discourse of maternity within the major symbolic articulations is dramatized by the form of the essay, split into two columns—one, an analytical account of the Christian vision of virginal maternity as a necessary complement to the Word; the other, a poetic description of pregnancy and birth. I read the “poetic” column neither as Kristeva's desire to appropriate the style of creative writing nor as universalization of her own experience of maternity, but rather as a stylistic device recalling the analyses of poetry in Revolution in Poetic Language. In short, the form of the essay represents Kristeva's methodology evident in all of her writings: it demonstrates that the space for an alternative feminist discourse on maternity can be cleared only after rigorous interrogation of the cultural representations of motherhood. As Carolyn Burke argues, the essay performs “both an examination of the conceptual and social limits imposed upon ‘motherhood’ in Western culture and a reimagining of that central relationship” (Burke 1987, 113).18

According to Kristeva, the Christian construction of virginal maternity represents a curious compromise. On the one hand, Christianity explicitly supplements the internal coherence of the Word with the heterogeneity of the maternal body. Yet because of this dangerous addition, the heterogeneity of the maternal body is consistently neutralized, purified, and eventually homologized to the symbolic order of the Word. The development of the Marian cult, and especially the dogma of Immaculate Conception and Assumption, aims to foreclose the gap between the flesh and the Word: “the Virgin Mother occupied the tremendous territory hither and yon of the parenthesis of language. She adds to the Christian trinity and to the Word that delineates their coherence the heterogeneity they salvage” (Kristeva 1986a, 175). This ordering of the maternal libido results in the powerful and soothing construction of the unique virginal maternal body that does not know sin, sex, or death.

In contrast to this religious discourse (but also in contrast to the dominant scientific and psychoanalytic discourses as well), the poetic language might be better equipped to sustain painful and joyful “lucidity” about motherhood against the indolence of habit and consciousness:

A mother's identity is maintained only through the well-known closure of consciousness within the indolence of the habit, when a woman protects herself from the borderline that severs her body and expatriates it from her child. Lucidity, on the contrary, would restore her as cut in half, alien to its other—and a ground favorable to delirium. (Kristeva 1986a, 179)

Perhaps inseparable from this “closure of consciousness” or “indolence of habit,” the dominant cultural constructions of motherhood continuously skirt the traces of maternal jouissance, submit it to the stability of paternal law, and misconstruct the othering process as the maternal bond of the generality of the species.

How does this indolence of habit and consciousness restrict understanding of otherness that the experience of maternity demands? At the end of her essay, Kristeva seems to say that from the perspective of the symbolic order otherness can be read in only two ways. On the one hand, the articulation of otherness is determined by the topography of the sign with its gap between the signified and the signifier: “discontinuity, lack, and arbitrariness: topography of the sign, of the symbolic relation that posits my otherness as impossible” (Kristeva 1986a, 184). Dictated by the structure of the sign, this thought of alterity is comprised under the rubric of separation and noncoincidence. In the symbolic order of language, the Other is inaccessible and unattainable. For Lacan, it leads to the “excentric” notion of the subject, split between the “the place I occupy as the subject of the signifier” and “the place I occupy as the subject of the signified” (Lacan 1977, 165). Entirely subordinated to the theme of (decentered) identity, this thought of alterity functions as a reference point from which a separate subject position can be established. On the other hand, alterity is perceived as natural, as “resembling others and eventually the species.” Outside the field of language, otherness is neutralized in terms of resemblance.19

Yet, maternal lucidity rests on neither of these approaches and demands the articulation of otherness beyond the symbolic/natural opposition. It pursues the thought of otherness to a point where no “identity holds up”: “The child, whether he or she, is irremediably an other. … I confront the abyss between what was mine and is henceforth but irreparably alien. Trying to think through that abyss: staggering vertigo” (Kristeva 1986a, 179). The vertigo of thought points to the impossibility of thinking the otherness of the child (and, consequently, the mother's “sameness”) in terms of relations; the alterity is neither inaccessible to me nor similar to me, but radically interrupts “my relation” to myself, to “my” body. Unlike the clear separation and noncoincidence between the signifier and the signified, the subject and the Other, the maternal body requires the thought of alterity in terms of infolding, as the imprint of the other within the same. As a site of infolding of the “other” and the “same,” the maternal body renders the fundamental notions of identity and difference strikingly insufficient—these crucial philosophical categories indeed no longer “hold up.” Therefore, such an inescapable imprint of otherness makes the maternal body impure, turns it into a “catastrophic fold of being.”

Such articulation of the maternal in terms of othering places Kristeva's thought in the tradition of heterology (from Platonic symploke as the interweaving of heterogeneous strands, to the contributions of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Derrida, to mention just a few thinkers directly discussed in her work). In most general terms, heterology can be defined as a theory of the Other. This tradition represents various attempts of thinking otherness, which resists incorporation into the unifying orders of discourse but on which both thought and discourse depend for their possibility. What is at stake here is not only a departure from the homogeneous notions of thought and language (understood as a system/order) but also a different approach to otherness. As Rodolphe Gasché argues, heterological thinking articulates otherness prior to the principles of contradiction and negativity (which anticipates dialectical resolutions) and independently from the process of self-definition.20 Rather, otherness is perceived as always already inhabiting every identity and interrupting every principle of thought. Likewise, Kristeva's refiguration of the maternal in terms of this radical alterity inevitably leads to a “catastrophe” of both the signifier and dialectics: “no signifier could uplift it without leaving a remainder;” she is “a catastrophe of being that the dialectics of the trinity and its supplements would be unable to subsume” (Kristeva 1986a, 182-183). From this perspective, the maternal body is not merely a form of embodiment and a kind of primordial shelter but, as Suleiman emphasizes, a most primordial site of division (Suleiman 1985, 368): always already a nonnomadic body subject to internal splitting, “a crossroads of being,” which the event of pregnancy intensifies and “brings to light and imposes without remedy.”

The process of division in the maternal body implies not merely a separation of the mother and the child but also an inscription of alterity and distance into every identity and linguistic practice: “A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently of language—and it has always been so” (Kristeva 1986a, 178). Because for Kristeva pregnancy is the most radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject, it can be a basis for a demystification of “the identity of the symbolic bond itself.”21 Just as the maternal body is interrupted, imprinted, and increased by grafts and folds of otherness, so Kristeva postulates a similar interruption in the construction of every identity: “This process could be summarized as an interiorization of the founding separation of the socio-symbolic contract, as an introduction of its cutting edge into the very interior of every identity whether subjective, sexual, ideological, or so forth” (Kristeva 1986c, 210).

Moreover, Kristeva explicitly claims that such resumption of the maternal economy within language is quite distinct from erecting the myth of the archaic mother as an alternative origin or a lost presence. She denounces the nostalgia for the presence of the maternal body as a phantasm, as a utopian “belief in the omnipotence of an archaic, full, total englobing mother with no frustration, no separation, with no break-producing symbolism” (Kristeva 1986c, 205). Kristeva's construction of motherhood as an impossible space of radical othering where “no one is present to signify,” where no “identity holds up,” indeed “challenges precisely this myth of the archaic mother.”

In the context of Kristeva's analysis of the maternal body that so strongly emphasizes both the shocking discovery of the abyss in the mother's relation to her child and inscription of otherness in her relation to her own body, the only continuity between the mother and the child is the paradoxical “continuity” of love and pain:

What connection is there between myself, or even more unassumingly between my body and this internal graft and fold, which, once the umbilical cord has been severed, is an inaccessible other? My body and … him. No connection. (Kristeva 1986a, 178)

One does not give birth in pain, one gives birth to pain: the child represents it and henceforth it settles in, it is continuous. Obviously you may close your eyes, cover up your ears, teach courses, run errands … think about objects, subjects. But a mother is always branded by pain, she yields to it. (Kristeva 1986a, 167).

For Kristeva pain is an emotional response to this abyss within the self, to the wound within the maternal body, as well as to the “intimate” inaccessibility of the child. Pain registers on the emotional level a disconnection in the relation of the mother to herself and to her child. Like the negativity of jouissance, pain accompanies a maternal lucidity that embraces her borderline existence as a “continuous” distancing from herself and from her child. But for Kristeva pain is inseparable from joy and laughter as a certain overflowing of identity and difference. There can be no unity between mother and child “except for” this pain and this mutual “overflowing laughter where one senses the collapse of some ringing, subtle, fluid identity or other, softly buoyed by the waves.”

Having brought Kristeva's two privileged sites of semiosis in such a close proximity, I also should stress their continuous drifting apart. Kristeva suggests that although both poetic practice and the semiotic process in the maternal body disrupt the fragile symbolic stability, our response to them is fundamentally different. Since semiotic discontinuity is so much more threatening to the mastery of the subject and the stability of social codes when it is associated with the mother, maternal lucidity is constantly erased and subordinated to the demand for the presence of the maternal body as a form of embodiment and a warranty of symbolic coherence:

On the other hand, we immediately deny it; we say there can be no escape, for mamma is there, she embodies this phenomenon; she warrants that everything is, and that it is representable. … Because if, on the contrary, there were no one on this threshold, if the mother were not, that is if she were not phallic, then every speaker would be led to conceive of its Being in relation to some void, a nothingness asymmetrically opposed to this Being, a permanent threat against, first, its mastery, and ultimately, its stability. (Kristeva 1980, 238; italics added)

This strategy of denial and daring thinking in the terms of hypothetical otherwise (“because if, on the contrary”) is symptomatic of Kristeva's own discussion of motherhood. Because a similar denial coupled with a demand for presence is not directed at poetic language, because we are more likely to bracket poetic practice as marginal deviation from the “normal” patterns of communication, Kristeva's (and her critics') analysis of poetic semiosis is much more radical than her discussions of maternity, which surprise us with occasional notes of timidity and retrenchment. Kristeva's semiotic analysis of the maternal body inscribes, after all, the abyss and alterity into the very site of domesticated normalcy (or what is perceived as such) and into the construction of every subject. Therefore, if the avant-garde poet can be easily thought of as a modern Dionysus, pregnant Madonnas invading that Nietzschean position still evoke the specter of monstrosity.22 Kristeva herself occasionally claims that the potentially dissident role of motherhood has to be counterbalanced with its more traditional role of preserving the social order.

In spite of these reservations, I think that Kristeva's work is of considerable importance to feminism. First of all, her theory provides conceptual tools for diagnosing the limitations of what counts as discursive, especially in the context of representations of the feminine and the maternal. Second, she demonstrates that cultural productions, although no doubt profoundly shaped by patriarchy, are not as monolithic as the Lacanian concept of the paternal symbolic realm would have us believe. There are a number of texts, Kristeva claims, written both by male and female writers, that undermine this limited notion of discourse as necessarily phallocentric. But the most promising aspect of Kristeva's thought is that it provides the ground for renegotiating the position of the feminine speaker. Even though Kristeva only vaguely postulates a subject-in-process, or a subject-on-trial, without specifying what this process/trial could mean for feminine subjectivity, she does demystify the “nature of the symbolic bond” that places women in a subordinate position. Her theory of language as encompassing both the maternal and the paternal signifying economies makes it possible to question and revise rigid notions of sexual identities and subject positions in culture. Similarly, her theory of the subject re-marked by otherness from within and inserted into multiple discursive practices supports the argument for the multiplication of differences within the concept of femininity itself: “I am in favor of a concept of femininity which would take as many forms as there are women” (Kristeva 1989, 114). And indeed, it is this aspect of her theory I find most productive.


  1. Kristeva has also been criticized for her apparent antifeminism and her unclear relation to feminist politics. What is at stake here is Kristeva's valorization of the “third generation” of feminists who seek to subvert the very notion of sexual identity over both the liberal feminists postulating equality and the feminists postulating specificity of the female identity. For further discussion, see Kristeva (1986c, 187-214) and Grosz (1989, 63-70).

  2. One of the most important questions that Butler raises is about Kristeva's exclusion of the figure of the lesbian.

  3. In this sense, Kristeva implicitly elaborates the questions of discourse and power raised by Foucault (1972, 215-39).

  4. This is one of the few articles in which Kristeva, while paying homage to Lacan, reiterates the differences between her position and his. Her critique of Lacan is precisely addressed to his homogeneous concept of language: “la langue … is nevertheless homogeneous with the realm of signification, even going as far as to assimilate what the dualism in Freudian thought regarded as strangely irreducible” (Kristeva 1983, 35).

  5. At this point we should recall Kristeva's ongoing engagement with the thought of Husserl in an attempt to uncover the systematic complicity between the presence of the transcendental consciousness and the linguistic operations of sign and syntax. She stresses the fact that every signifying act, in addition to the expression of meaning, reasserts the presence of Being because “it simultaneously posits the thesis (position) of both Being and ego” (Kristeva 1980, 132-35).

  6. This point differs radically from the usual negative assessments of Kristeva's politics. Judith Butler, for instance, claims that “by relegating the source of subversion to a site outside of culture itself, Kristeva appears to foreclose the possibility of subversion as an effective or realizable cultural practice” (Butler 1990, 88). However, this criticism does not take into account that for Kristeva, culture—like signification—is no longer reducible to the realm of the symbolic paternal law but manifests itself through the multiplicity of signifying practices.

  7. In Timaeus, Plato gives his account of cosmology twice. Revising the first story, Plato introduces the third category—“chora”—in addition to the prior distinction between the eternal pattern and the created copy. “Chora” not only functions as a receptacle receiving the created forms but also “in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible” (Plato 1969, 1178). Concerning Kristeva's appropriation of the Platonic term, Jacqueline Rose reminds us that Plato describes the chora as maternal because the mother is seen in his text as “playing no part in the act of procreation” (Rose 1986, 153-54). Yet Kristeva is interested in the term because already in the Platonic text it is caught in a “bastard reasoning,” which on the one hand insists on the distinction between the passive and the active, but on the other hand describes chora as both the passive receptacle and the active movement. For a more detailed discussion, see Kristeva (1984, 239-40, nn. 12 and 13).

  8. This aspect of Kristeva's work is emphasized by Lewis (1974, 29).

  9. In her earlier article, Domna C. Stanton interprets these irruptions of the semiotic as manifestations of negativity and dissidence (Stanton 1987, 75).

  10. Judith Butler argues that what Kristeva discovers as a natural prediscursive maternal subversion is in fact an effect of culture rather than its “secret cause.” From that she concludes that by placing the source of subversion outside culture, Kristeva forecloses the possibility of the effective subversion as a cultural practice (Butler 1990, 90-93). As I try to demonstrate, Kristeva quite self-consciously starts her analysis from the effects of disruptions already within the culture and accounts for them not as mere accidents befalling the symbolic but as necessary consequences of the process of signification.

  11. See, for instance, Rose (1986, 154): “It seems to me that the concept of the semiotic, especially in those formulations which identify it with the mother and place it beyond language, is the least useful aspect of Kristeva's work.” The irony is that of course Rose is right—Kristeva indeed does take us beyond language thought as structure and system in order to propose a new logic of signification based on the signifying practice. It is the failure to explain the relation between language and signifying practice, the relation that is not reducible to distinction between langue and parole, that results in such conclusions.

  12. See Kristeva (1984, 140-146) for a critique of Derrida's deconstruction.

  13. Elizabeth Grosz, on the other hand, interprets Kristeva's emphasis on the maternal alterity merely as “the overtaking of woman's identity and corporeality by a foreign body,” ignoring in this way Kristeva's effort to demystify the very notion of identity and rigid sexual difference (Grosz 1990, 161-63).

  14. Lacan revises Saussure's model of the sign (the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified) in order to stress the primacy of the (phallic) signifier and to inscribe the sexual difference into the very structure of language. The image of the two identical lavatory doors demonstrates that it is the signifier alone that inscribes the sexual difference into signification (Lacan 1977, 151).

  15. Jane Gallop interprets this point as Kristeva's attempt to de-phallicize the mother and reveal behind this reassuring construction an empty space that no one can occupy (Gallop 1982, 117).

  16. Gasché employs the phrase to indicate the substructures underlying the philosophy of reflection: “This book's title, The Tain of the Mirror, alludes to that ‘beyond’ of the orchestrated mirror play of reflection that Derrida's philosophy seeks to conceptualize. Tain … refers to the tinfoil, the silver lining, the lusterless back of the mirror. Derrida's philosophy, rather than being a philosophy of reflection, is engaged in the systematic exploration of that dull surface without which no specular and speculative activity would be possible” (Gasché 1986, 6). In a similar way, Kristeva's exploration of the maternal categories examines that “dark continent” without which no specular/speculative activity of psychoanalysis would be possible.

  17. Kristeva analyzes the mode of withdrawal of the maternal economy from the constitution of the subject as the process of abjection. What is original in her analysis is that the mode of maternal disappearance is not neutral: it is a violent process of expulsion, a spasm of vomiting that consumes also the subject and destabilizes the boundaries of subjectivity (Kristeva 1982, 3-10).

  18. By contrast, Domna Stanton sees limitations of this revisionary project and asserts that the maternal “I” in “Stabat Mater” is an exception to a more typical articulation of the mother as “a passive instinctual force that does not speak” (Stanton 1989, 164).

  19. Although she interprets only the “natural” aspect of otherness in motherhood, Susan Rubin Suleiman suggests that it can provide “a privileged means of entry into the order of culture and of language” (Suleiman 1985, 367).

  20. For an excellent discussion of heterology in the philosophical context, see Rodolphe Gasché (1986, 81-105). Gasché argues that Derrida's heterology opposes “the uninterrupted attempt to domesticate” otherness in the history of philosophy. Although Kristeva situates her analysis of otherness on the level of psychoanalysis and linguistics rather than philosophy, the implications of her arguments are very similar.

  21. Carolyn Burke likewise stresses Kristeva's critique of the very notion of identity and her subsequent rejection of that brand of feminism that is “caught in the concept of a separate identity” (Burke 1978).

  22. This last image I owe to Fred Dallmayr, who, during our discussion about Kristeva, attempted to compare her theory with Nietzsche's.

Works Cited

Burke, Carolyn Greenstein. 1978. Report from Paris: Women's writing and the women's movement. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 3: 843-855.

———. 1987. Rethinking the maternal. In The future of difference, ed., Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974. Of grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The archaeology of knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.

Gallop, Jane. 1982. The daughter's seduction: Feminism and psychoanalysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gasché, Rodolphe. 1986. The tain of the mirror: Derrida and the philosophy of reflection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1989. Sexual subversions: Three French feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

———. 1990. Jacques Lacan: A feminist introduction. New York: Routledge.

Jacobus, Mary. 1986. Reading woman: Essays in feminist criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. 1984. Julia Kristeva on femininity: The limits of a semiotic politic. Feminist Review 18: 56-73.

Kristeva, Julia. 1980. Desire in language: A semiotic approach to literature and art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1982. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1983. Within the microcosm of “the talking cure.” In Interpreting Lacan. Vol. 6. Psychiatry and Humanities, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. New Haven: Yale University Press.

———. 1984. Revolution in poetic language, trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1986a. Stabat mater. In The Kristeva reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1986b. System and the speaking subject. In The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1986c. Women's time. In The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi. Columbia University Press.

———. 1989. Talking about Polylogue. In French feminist thought: A reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Kuykendall, Eléanor H. 1989. Questions for Julia Kristeva's ethics of linguistics. In The thinking muse: Feminism and modern French philosophy, ed. Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Lewis, Philip E. 1974. Revolutionary Semiotics. Diacritics 4: 28-32.

Moi, Toril. 1985. Sexual/textual politics: Feminist literary theory. New York: Methuen.

Plato. 1969. Timaeus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. In The collected dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1986. Sexuality in the field of vision. London: Verso.

Silverman, Kaja. 1988. The acoustic mirror: The female voice in psychoanalysis and cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stanton, Domna. 1987. Language and revolution: The Franco-American dis-connection. In The future of difference, ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

———. 1989. Difference on trial: A critique of the maternal metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva. In The Thinking Muse, ed. Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. 1985. Writing and motherhood. In The (m)other tongue: Essays in feminist psychoanalytic interpretation, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Anny Brooksbank Jones (essay date Spring 1993)

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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 Bernard-Henri Lévy notes ‘a strange uneasiness, a perplexity’ in critical responses to the novel.

Why these embarrassed silences on the subject of The Old Man and the Wolves, these attacks? Is it because of the form? The principle? Is it the idea of combining the philosophical novel with fantasy and the detective novel? Is it the change of genre? The author herself? The story?2

Unfortunately for Kristeva, Le Monde's Michel Braudeau is not one of the silent critics.3 His own review begins with the assertion that Kristeva's first novel, Les Samouraïs, had ‘fallen into certain—occasionally glaring—affectations of style … which the kindness and indulgence accorded to early efforts had discreetly overlooked’.4 In the light of what followed, he is quite clear that this indulgence was misconceived. Les Samouraïs was ‘an intellectual love story, a contemporary one, her own, with characters who were real, recognizable, barely disguised’. With Le Vieil Homme, however, we move from ‘embellished memoirs’ to ‘fiction’. The distinction is evidently more clear-cut for Braudeau than for some of his readers, but it hardly justifies the vehemence of what follows.

Before turning to Braudeau's version of Le Vieil Homme, however, it's worth quoting in full the summary from the novel's dust-jacket.

This fantasy narrative is also a detective story. The wolves invade Santa Barbara, killing animals and humans and changing the faces of men and women, who become arrogant, criminal and animal.

An anonymous woman is fished dead out of a lake. Alba and Vespasien dream of killing each other, while the Old Man—the only individual to remain vigilant and reject the surrounding barbarity—dies an inexplicable death. Who is the murderer?

Stéphanie Delacour is a journalist who turns detective in order to lead the hunt. What she sees is a civilization in metamorphosis. Santa Barbara has lost its values: the one-time people's democracy or extreme-liberal society has come to epitomize hate and banal crime.

This Goyaesque vision of the world emerges from the intense mourning at the heart of the detective's private journal. The Old Man and the Wolves is addressed to those who have lost someone dear to them and sicken with anguish before the unimaginable nature of death, as they try to articulate the violence of a solitude they cannot share.

In this novel, the detective story and the philosophical tale converge.

In the latest issue of L'Infini Kristeva discusses her new novel in relation to the earlier ‘best-seller’.5 As her interviewer Bernard Sichère indicates, Les Samouraïs was more ‘positive’, less ‘sombre’ and less ‘pessimistic’ than its successor. Kristeva situates her new novel

at the meeting point of individual shock (that is, mourning the death of my father who was killed in a Sofia hospital by the incompetence and brutality of medicine and of the régime) and collective trouble, the fact … of general disorder in society, our society. … (L75)

Her response to Sichère's charge of pessimism is a familiar question: ‘what's the good of novels in times of distress?’ (L75).

The answer seems to bring together two phases of Kristeva's work: the more recent concern for (individual and generalized) distress, and the earlier interest in the potentially revolutionary effects of artistic practice.6 In a recent interview with Vassiliki Kolocotroni for Textual Practice Kristeva outlines some of the factors she sees as underlying contemporary distress.7 There is totalitarianism in all its forms, she observes, including ‘restrictive aspects’ of ‘bourgeois society’ such as the ‘extremely permissive’ media show with its ‘pleasant and exciting’ illusions that mask social crisis (T161). Each contributes to the creation of a ‘harmonized’ society, a ‘levelling’, ‘the uniformization and elision of all differences’ (T161). When asked by Kolocotroni whether artistic practice could do anything to alleviate this distress by transforming socio-political structures, Kristeva answers ‘Yes and no’ (T161).

The Textual Practice interview took place shortly before Le Vieil Homme was completed; the L'Infini interview took place a couple of months after its publication. Although the second interview focuses, like Le Vieil Homme itself, chiefly on Eastern Europe, Kristeva does not exclude the West when she alludes to a ‘national depression’ that is excluded from the ‘media show’, to increasing evidence of ‘aggression’, ‘banalization’, ‘melancholy’, ‘barbarism’, ‘violence’, ‘criminality’, ‘hatred’, ‘a destruction of language’ and ‘a general destruction of culture’ (L83, L78, L76). Having talked to her at length on the role of the intellectual in such circumstances, Sichère ends with its ‘political dimension’, asking Kristeva whether she is ‘on the left’, and whether this isn't one way of resisting the ‘scramble which takes the crumbling of the communist world as a pretext for expressing its hatred of popular liberation and instituting … a witch-hunt’ (L85/6). Kristeva responds by noting that ‘new modes of political life’ need to be created, ‘beginning with a genealogy of current political life’, but maintains that the job of the writer is ‘to circumscribe this political space in order to reinvent it endlessly, to trace it. … To think, speak and write about the free, unwonted, and strange links between irreconcilable individuals’ (L86). In her view party politics, ‘this alternation between two political and ideological poles’, is unable to speak to individual polymorphism or to compete with the speed and effectiveness of media representations (L85).

Kristeva is drawn by Sichère into a discussion of politics, but makes it clear that she is interested less in ‘the political man or woman’, than in his or her ‘being’ (L86). The two are less easily extricated in Kristeva than in some writers, particularly where the revolutionary role of the artist is concerned. In her exchange on this point with Kolocotroni, Kristeva begins with a reference to the ‘micro revolution’ achieved by the artist's ‘calling into question of language and of the individual’, and moves on to the dramatic political changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe (T161). In her view, revolutionary art implies revolutionary form, a political practice which has its effects, not at the level of ideology, but in the production of subjectivity. Great works of art, she affirms, are in effect ‘masterful sublimations … of psychotic crises’.8 Since this involves the spontaneous ‘semiotization of the symbolic [and] the flow of jouissance into language’, it necessarily excludes metalanguage, the representation of progressive ideology at the level of content and self-conscious experimentation.9 Instead, this process of semiotization is achieved through poeticized language or text (writing in its materiality and its music—alliterations, rhythms, repetitions, etc.) which signals the pre-signifying impulses and energies at work within language and throughout the symbolic order. By releasing forces that the symbolic normally represses, revolutionary art questions the bases of that repression and the system of representation and identity it underpins. In this way it can come to stimulate and reveal ‘deep ideological changes’ within the symbolic which are ‘searching for their own accurate political framework’.10

Since the intelligibility of jouissance depends on its mediation through language, avant-garde or modernist art cannot abolish the limits of the symbolic, but only push them back transgressively and provisionally. In her discussion with Kolocotroni, however, Kristeva recognizes the dramatic changes brought about in their societies by radical Eastern European writers such as Václav Havel. Her statement involves an interesting distinction between revolutionary and radical art, revolving around the assumption that radicals are ‘within the lineage’ of the avant-garde, but by implication somehow different (T161). At first sight that difference looks quantitative rather than qualitative: for Kristeva, all art can liberate semiotic energies, but only the anarchic excesses of revolutionary—avant-garde, modernist—art can fundamentally undermine the bases of representation and the symbolic. There is, however, a more obvious sense in which avant-garde artists may be revolutionary, but not all revolutionaries are avant-garde artists. While the ‘micro-revolution’ of avant-garde artists was achieved primarily at the level of anarchic form, the revolt of radical artists might be said to be articulated chiefly at the level of content. Concerned as he was with the status of language under totalitarianism, Havel, for example, nevertheless articulated his concerns (for example in The Garden Party and The Memorandum, both written in the 1960s) primarily through radical content rather than revolutionary form.

No doubt the odds against Václav Havel becoming President of Czechoslovakia would have been longer had his claim been based exclusively on micro-revolutionary achievements. This is not incompatible with Kristeva's point, of course. It is arguably not the job of revolutionaries to achieve high political office, and while the revolutionary artist may stimulate and reveal ideological changes searching for their own ‘political framework’, there seems no reason why radical artists shouldn't be characterized as agents for such change, actively pursuing the development and realization of appropriate political frameworks.

If radical art engages directly with collective crisis, the avant-garde artist is concerned primarily with subjective crisis: the work and play of signs produces ‘a certain harmony of the most violent drives’ which can bring about ‘a sense of stability within (and with) the crisis’ (T159). However this ‘harmonization can be very fragile’ and needs a ‘favourable transference’, acceptance and ‘understanding’ from the other, if it is not to be ‘swept away and with it the individual him/herself’ (T159/60). At the same time, any positive ‘harmonization’ that resulted would risk conspiring with the negative harmonization attributed to media society. For all these reasons revolutionary artists of the late twentieth century are faced with problems of intelligibility, accessibility and recuperation radically different from those of their predecessors.

In times of collective and subjective crisis it could be argued that we need both micro- and macro-revolution. On the other hand, it could be argued that we don't. Kristeva's own response to contemporary trouble is to turn from metalinguistic statements of semiotic potential to dramatizations of the recuperative powers of the symbolic. In Revolution in Poetic Language, she underlines the socio-cultural and historical specificity of revolutionary processes and their effects.11 Implicit in her current concern with radical writers and media recuperation is the possibility that avant-garde revolutionary art may not be possible, recognizable, or even desirable right now. Given the link posited by Kristeva between the liberation of repressed energies and the risk of fascist or totalitarian resurgence, to unleash semiotic forces in Santa Barbara would be reckless or worse. Yet Kristeva insists it is precisely in these times of trouble that we most need the novel's ‘truth effects’ and its ability to ‘take over the death drive and its manifestations’ (L82).

The risks need not be as great as they seem, however. Kristeva's own attempt to supply this need in Le Vieil Homme does not imply any revolutionary claims in her own terms: a woman writer simply couldn't express such claims in the symbolic as a woman. As a radical artist, however, Kristeva could give symbolic expression to the semiotic, without inducing the more fundamentally subversive effects of revolutionary art.

As recent interviews indicate, however, the socio-cultural and political factors which make revolutionary art a high-risk activity at present, will also prejudice radical art. Le Vieil Homme is a black novel—even down to its dust-jacket—and if the tone of the L'Infini interview is blacker than the earlier one it may be because some of the novel's assumptions seem to be borne out by its reviews. Given the risks and difficulty of arousing readers from their neuroleptic slumbers in order to achieve ‘favourable transference’, it may be that Kristeva herself feels in imminent danger of being swept away—or travestied by media-led recuperations. The wolves of her title recall not only ‘the invasion of the red armies, the installation of totalitarianism … [but] more artfully the barbarism, the criminality of each individual … the invasion of banality’ (L76). The prospects for contemporary aesthetic revolution without media support seem clear enough: ‘[y]ou can have your own little revolt but it doesn't sell, [it] will not be a “success”’ (T161). There is no longer any possibility of posterity for artists who don't make their name immediately in consumer society. And they can only make it as media personalities, whose insights are recuperated in terms of their ‘most consensual, flat and general elements’ (T162). This is a psychoanalyst's response to commodification and media massification. Between the publication of her novel and the Sichère interview, however, it becomes clear that any attempt to circumvent the media and appeal directly to the reader in his or her intimacy needs the publicity that only the mass media can provide.

A profound sense of national depression and alienation, and the personal shock of losing her father, underlie Kristeva's personal investment in the socio-cultural and psychic conditions she describes. It is compounded by an intense consciousness of her status as a Bulgarian immigrant in Paris. One key assumption of Le Vieil Homme—and one that is developed in an earlier study, Strangers to Ourselves—is that we cannot live with others until we learn to live with the otherness within ourselves.12 The novel's many quotations in Latin—a language strongly associated with her father—are part of an attempt to ‘graft onto the body of the French language and syntax a sense of pain and evil from elsewhere’ (L81). At the same time they offer readers an insight into the dislocatory effects of engaging with an alien language. The aphorism we wait for, however, never comes: lupus est homo homini, quom qualis sit non novit—Plautus' observation that man is a wolf rather than a man to another man, until he has found out what he's like.

Strangers to Ourselves begins with a lengthy meditation on the treatment strangers receive at the hands of host societies—the aggression, the lionizing, the hatred, the indifference, the patronage, and the incomprehension. This is inflected in Le Vieil Homme when Alba Ram, a newcomer to Santa Barbara, discovers her cat has been killed and attributes it to the fact that ‘[p]eople don't like strange men, and they like strange women even less, so they take their revenge on whatever the stranger holds dear’ (LV16). Foreignness, and the importance of recognizing and valuing the polyvalency of the other are key elements in Kristeva's recent work; in addressing them she is also trying to recover herself and her own body in an act of transference, so as to put an end to depression (T165). Within Kristeva's own system, as noted, a woman writer with revolutionary aims can't express them as a woman, because the order of language is only accessible to the masculine subject. It is not in writing itself, therefore, but in the act of transference it can produce that she places her faith. One thinks of Luce Irigaray's recent work on women's use of pronouns, in which she notes that ‘[w]omen's discourse designates men as subjects—except in psychoanalytic transfer’ where the support is woman.13

As noted, Le Vieil Homme registers a sense of generalized social ‘disorder’ and the ‘personal shock’ of the death of Kristeva's father. Implied in this disorder are other deaths, among them the much-debated death of psychoanalysis.14 Kristeva acknowledges the self-destructive tendencies of certain Freudian dogmatists and sectarian followers of Lacan, two more dead fathers (L84). She nevertheless affirms her continuing faith in a ‘rich and living analytic discourse’, whilst recognizing its tension with the current trend towards the ‘chemical bombardment’ of depressed individuals (L84). By ‘[snatching] away their individual responsibility’ neuroscience conspires with media spectacle ‘with all that implies for psychic laziness, fleeting narcissistic mirages carefully displacing the reality of suffering’ (L84).

This confiscation of suffering renders it unnameable. One reason Kristeva gives for writing novels is the importance of metaphor, ‘insofar as it gives form to the infantile psychic inscriptions situated at the borders of the unnameable’ (L75). Modern writing has repressed metaphor in the name of ‘good taste’, but Kristeva uses metaphor in her allegory of hatred and mourning ‘to signify pain without fixing it, but by radiating it, making it vibrate oneirically, according to the personal resources of each reader, in the time and space of his or her own afflictions and choices’ (L76).

Setting aside the problems of ‘radiating’ what can't be said, sophisticated readers will rarely find allegory satisfying. Returning to its reviews, one is nevertheless struck by the vehemence of Michel Braudeau's response to Le Vieil Homme, and in particular the protestation of indifference:

Wolves have invaded Santa Barbara, but not the Californian city. It snows, too. Clearly we're in the East. An old man keeps watch. He's called Septicius Clarus, his pupils are called Alba, Chrysippe, Stéphanie. Then there's Vespasien, a military doctor, a surgeon. And barbarism. And death. And mourning. There's certainly a big plain symbol [un bon gros symbole] prowling this fable, prowling around in search of a way out, a way round, trying to tell us something. But it can't, the poor thing, it's tied up, caged in lifeless, graceless, prose, where weighty metaphors gradually block the circulation of meaning in the sentences: The strength of these anthracite visions remains, before agony overturns the last pot of carbonised gouache, paralyses the last brush of the visible, and leaves the white screen of wordless cells without colour or support or surface. Yes indeed! And what about the brush of indifference, what does that paint?15

This is too calculated to be indifference. In a couple of hundred words he has managed to damn Kristeva's current and future fiction, and retrospectively withdraw the approval granted (in an access of leniency) to her past attempt. But if his words resist the point of Le Vieil Homme, his tone and methods affirm it. The multiple names and doubling of characters, the implied polyvocity, have all vanished. It's as if the entire symbolic dimension had been bracketed, if not caged, in (his) prose. Braudeau's discomfiture is understandable: speaking on behalf of a group under attack he responds with the weapons available to him. In the process he confirms Kristeva's view that what media society will not acknowledge is its own refusal or inability to deal with certain issues, including attacks on itself in forms which it cannot re-represent. If Kristeva is looking for ways of articulating suffering, he is certainly doing his bit to encourage her—not least by refusing to acknowledge as much. Her response is clear: ‘[t]he perverse [les pervers] can't understand any more, a “plain symbol” [gros symbole] prevents them from thinking’ (L81).

For Kristeva, writing is anarchic, recuperable and intransigent. It's an incitement to rise up against the ‘domestication’ and ‘communal illusion’ purveyed by media society (L82). This is no time for more fairy stories, not even Little Red Riding Hood. Lévy's review offers a story, or nightmare, of a rather different kind. Braudeau uses an oddly atypical passage to justify his assertion of indifference. Lévy's reading is doubly partial, in the sense that it purports to admire Kristeva's second novel even more than her first, but on the basis of a reading of only half of it. The following lines are fairly typical of the full-page review:

In the East as in the West. Always hate. The hate that is proper to man [sic]. Definitive hate. Defining hate. Hate your neighbour as yourself. One day you'll die of hate. For the moment, you live by it.

Kristeva is quite clear that Le Vieil Homme is ‘a novel which is about hatred, the sort of hatred that kills people’; it is also about foreignness, violence and death seen from ‘within’ (T164/166). The novel form also suggested itself, she states, as a vehicle for the presentation of an intrigue which ‘enacts the dramatic essence of passion’, that is, the ‘double possibility’ that eludes theory, the indissoluble coupling of hate and love (L75). It may be that what Braudeau the media critic cannot understand also eludes Lévy the theorist. It is, significantly, ‘subjective experience … [Stéphanie Delacour's] sensibility as a woman, a child, a lover’ that constitutes the ‘counterweight to death and hate’ (L77). This insistence on the double possibility of the text is not simply another critic's preference for fairy-story over nightmare. Le Vieil Homme involves a doubling and dissemination of elements in order to say something about contemporary metamorphic culture. It ‘implies the fragmentation of the narrative … [and a] multiplicity of codes and levels of enunciation …, [since] the story cannot unfold in a naïvely univocal fashion, nor the characters embody stable identities’ (L76). The reader is thus struck (though perhaps not surprised) by Lévy's passionately univocal reading of the end result, not least because his celebration of hate sits so oddly alongside Kristeva's starkly non-euphoric vision of national depression. Her alternative to the illusory consolations of ‘the media show’ and ‘the vain discourses of hope’ is not pessimism, but a ‘demystifying critique’ that is not afraid to disappoint its audience ‘if that's the way to knowledge and truth’ (L83). It has little in common with the exultation that rings in Lévy's phrases.

In such a cheerless scenario the idea that there is a ‘way to knowledge and truth’ itself seems optimistic. It would after all require a degree of sophistication to square the fragmentation, the instability, and the rejection of a ‘naïvely univocal’ reading, with the detective format, its orientation towards the exposure of a truth that ‘one can know’ (L77). Kristeva's provisional solution lies in an ‘interior space’, apparently shielded from the play of polyvocity and dissemination, which is hollowed out by a combination of ‘erotic upheavals’ and Stéphanie's mourning for her father (L77). Truth is worked out in the eroticized space of the father's loss.

But if the novel can keep a space open for truth or the possibility of truth in this way, and (at least some) of its readers can recognize it, who will be able to ‘accept that truth without feeling unmasked, betrayed, exposed?’ (L83). The answer is not only exposed but finally enacted, when Stéphanie discovers that the wolves are everywhere, and that the death of the Old Man is one small element in ‘a hyperbolic but disseminated barbarity, the worst feature of which is that everyone is complicitous with it’ (LV265). The Old Man was killed, not by a crime that Stéphanie could solve, but by his final vision of the unconscious ‘overturning the policed spectacles of being, and revealing us in all our barbarity, a prey to death’ (L86). Her will collapses:

[n]o sooner does the thought occur to me than I experience that feeble lassitude that comes with the end of a course of antibiotics. … Let them do as they wish. I shan't stir any more. Crime can't touch me. I'm part of it. A she-wolf. Who understands logic and speaks it. That is the only difference. What difference? (L264/9)

The intellectual recognition of suffering simply confirms its ubiquity, but in the process makes what was unnameable (almost) nameable. The recognition is difficult, but is made ‘more realistic, almost bearable … a game’ by virtue of its detective format, ‘[a] way of continuing analysis’ (L83).

Stéphanie Delacour's recollection of the primal scene and the white wolves in the tree suggest one form of analysis, but it's not the only one available. We are, after all, talking about a novel in which old men are dying along with their teachings. Kristeva's Old Man

is by no means a master, and even less of a hero; but he remains an enigma at the very heart of a sea of insignificance or brutality … a figure of the law … [but] not a severe or abstract law … not a superego [but] an ‘embodied’ man who is present in all the density of his psychology, his emotions, his fears … a revolutionary … and at the same time a man of grief, a Christ figure. … It's a question of making space for the possibility of law and passion and, to the extent that I personally have no need of a God hypothesis, [it's] a question of finding new atheistic figures, which respond to the situation we live in, at the end of a world. (L181)

There is another character in the novel who is, in his way, equally suggestive, not least because he is lost (presumably to the wolves) before the novel begins. His name, Chrysippe, recalls a parallel moment of physical, economic, political and moral uncertainty, in which the Stoic philosophy emerged. Its view that everyone has the power to achieve happiness through knowledge, even in a depraved world, has something about it of ‘atheistic Christianity’ while its sages recall the Old Man. Clearly Kristeva is missing her fathers and would-be fathers, and we should respect her grieving. There may after all be some truth in the suggestion that only a figure of the law could restore psychic and social order to a depressed society. Her Old Man certainly doesn't look like a Hitler or a Stalin—but perhaps in the beginning they never do. Her interview with Kolocotroni throws some light on this ambiguously attractive scenario when Kristeva observes that novels give ‘more pleasure’ to writer and reader alike than theory (T164). But the psychic pleasures may be as potentially treacherous as the political ones. In Strangers to Ourselves Kristeva notes Freud's comment that the pleasures of text, especially a text that is attempting to articulate the unnameable, should be taken in moderation.16 His view of literature—that it risks denaturing the strange or uncanny by making it too obvious or not dangerous enough to be psychically useful—recalls her view of the media.

It's an important point, especially for literary critics. At the same time one can't help observing that, pleasures of writing apart, the uncompromising tone of the novel suggests little danger of facile pleasures. In Camus's The Plague another sage, Dr Rieux, is slightly more comforting when he reflects that the plague of rats may have been defeated, but the plague bacillus never dies. In Le Vieil Homme where Camus's human will might have been, there is the ‘psychic space’ that is kept open for the work of truth, ‘the safeguarding and creativity of which lie at the heart of Freudian thought’, enabling psychoanalysis to play its part ‘in resisting and awakening and guaranteeing culture, or what remains of it’ (L84/5).

This interior space, central to both Stéphanie Delacour and Freudian thought, indicates the extent to which Kristeva's profound sense of cultural disorder is bound up with the decline of psychoanalysis. Her view of the media's complicity in both characterizes and compounds her tendency to homogenize media response, rather as she accuses the media of homogenization effects. Lévy's review for Le Nouvel Observateur attributes critical apathy and irritation with Le Vieil Homme to the fact that Kristeva has ‘said too much’ about society's dependence on hate. He may be right: her aim was, after all, to bring the hate that is for both Freud and Lacan ‘the truth of love’ to consciousness, in the face of a ‘consensual ideology’ that makes discourse on ‘the economy of negativity’ almost impossible (L83). Braudeau's acceptance of her earlier ‘love story’ and rejection of her hate story seems to bear out this concern. Kristeva's response to the media's perverse ‘recuperation of analytic discourse’ is understandable enough: in her terms the decline of psychoanalysis presages ‘the end of a world’, including her personal micro-engagement, its revolutionary possibilities and pleasures (L81).

Le Vieil Homme's focus on Eastern Europe reminds us that the elements of our contemporary distress are manifold, and that the loss of revolutionary possibilities applies to more than just writers. In her interview with Bernard Sichére, Kristeva unambiguously rejects the ‘reassuring discourses which are seeking to take over from that “positive” discourse we knew as Marxism’ (L83). Instead she advocates ‘taking more seriously than ever, in the face of moralizing and euphoric discourses, the theoretical work carried out previously in Tel Quel. … It's really a question of a discourse that is critical rather than nihilist’ (L83). As Le Vieil Homme closes, Stéphanie Delacour asks ‘[I]s there always crime if there are no more frontiers?’ (LV269). In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall Fredric Jameson asks a similar question, and follows it up with another: ‘[c]an the prospect of political and economic autonomy be held out for the new Europe when … cultural autonomy proves there also to be so dismal a failure’.17 In the face of what he sees as an inevitable negative, he advocates ‘the deepest pessimism’ as a ‘genuine source of strength’ and notes that ‘only for those who have nothing against being used and manipulated is optimism, of even the weakest variety, recommended’.18

In the aftermath of the British general election it's not difficult to empathize with Kristeva's view and Jameson's, that alternatives are crumbling away. The wolves are not yet in the city, however. We do have options, but as Jameson indicates they do not include facile optimism. Instead an active, critical pessimism seems in order, one that is not nihilistic, and that resists the temptation to eject babies with bathwater, of withdraw into despair, resentment—‘the antipodes of thought’—or political paralysis while we re-examine our first principles (L86). In this context Kristeva is right to insist on the need ‘to invent new modes of political life’, and writers will continue to play a part in this process. If we want these new forms to last, however, we need to ensure that any changes will—among other things—facilitate the replacement of some dead fathers by vital mothers. Constitutional and legal reforms are essential to this process, but psychoanalysis in some form has its own micro-revolutionary role to play. Without all three, ‘single party’ rule will persist, and we'll have lost another opportunity to secure the possibility of authentic, productive and lasting dialogue in the future.


  1. J. Kristeva, Le Vieil Homme et les loups (Paris: Fayard, 1991). Henceforward page references are shown in brackets in the text, and prefaced ‘LV’. In order to avoid confusion with the character of the same name, the title is left in French throughout, in the abbreviated form of Le Vieil Homme: where it occurs in a quotation the title is translated in full. All translations of French material are my own, unless indicated otherwise.

  2. B-H. Lévy, Le Nouvel Observateur, no. 1415 (26 December 1991 to 1 January 1992), p. 66.

  3. M. Braudeau, ‘Le Sexe des m‚taphores’, Le Monde (11 October 1991), p. 18.

  4. J. Kristeva, Les Samouraïs (Paris: Fayard, 1990).

  5. ‘Roman noir et temps présent’, J. Kristeva interviewed by B. Sichére in L'Infini, 37 (Spring 1992), pp. 75-86. Henceforward page references are shown in brackets in the text, and prefaced ‘L’.

  6. See J. Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Fayard, 1988). Translated by L. Roudiez as Strangers to Ourselves (London: Harvester, 1991). (All references are to this translation.) Also J. Kristeva, Soleil noir, dépression et mélancholie (Paris: Gallimard, 1987). Translated by L. Roudiez as Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

  7. V. Kolocotroni, ‘Interview with Julia Kristeva’, Textual Practice, 5, 2 (Summer 1991), pp. 157-70. Henceforward page references are shown in brackets in the text, and prefaced ‘T’.

  8. E. H. Baruch, P. Meisel, et al., ‘Two interviews with Julia Kristeva’, Partisan Review, 51, 1 (1984), pp. 131-2, cited in Kolocotroni, op. cit., p. 159.

  9. J. Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique. L'avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle. Lautréamont et Mallarmé (Paris: Seuil, 1974). This translation from Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. M. Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) p. 80.

  10. J. Kristeva, Polylogue (Paris: Seuil, 1977). This translation from ‘How does one speak to Literature?’, in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. L. S. Roudiez, trans. T. Gora, A. Jardine and L. S. Roudiez (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), p. 92.

  11. See Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language and J. Lechte's Julia Kristeva (Routledge: London, 1990), p. 142.

  12. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves. See particularly chapters 1 and 8.

  13. L. Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous (Paris: Grasset, 1990), p. 42.

  14. Le Nouvel Observateur, no. 1404 (3-9 October 1991), pp. 4-9.

  15. Braudeau, op. cit.

  16. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 187.

  17. F. Jameson, ‘Conversations on the New World Order’, in R. Blackburn (ed.), After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 255-68.

  18. ibid.

Mary Caputi (essay date Fall 1993)

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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 rest of the world. Kristeva has become excessively recherche, these critics maintain; the darling of contemporary theory, her arcane writings no longer hold interest for those concerned with practical, immediate feminist issues.

Most damning, certainly, is such critics' assertion that Kristeva has become apolitical. Indeed, many feminist scholars interpret her Powers of Horror and Tales of Love as blatant capitulations to the status quo, writings which buy into masculinist principles, endorse patriarchal structures, and have lost any political edge.1

This apparent capitulation by Kristeva comes as a real disappointment to many feminists, especially those who viewed her earlier writings as promising harbingers of a new dialogue between high-powered theory and political practice, a dialogue which would meaningfully impact feminism. Instead of informing a political praxis, however, the above-mentioned texts exhibit an interest in such issues as motherhood, love, and E. T. Unquestionably, a considerable transformation has taken place in this author. Jacqueline Rose asks: “What has happened to Julia Kristeva?”2

Here, I will attempt to answer this question by focusing on Kristeva's writings on motherhood. I choose to focus on motherhood not simply because of its centrality to Kristeva's later works, but because this theme clarifies Kristeva's transformation, and renders it less disappointing than it at first appears. Although I do not wish to exonerate those unsettling aspects of Kristeva's apparent support for the status quo, I believe that an examination of her writings on motherhood affirms her continued importance to feminist scholarship.


In 1984, Kristeva stated openly that she had lost interest in political movements and ideologies, and now concerned herself exclusively with individuals. “I am not interested in groups,” she claimed, “I am interested in individuals.”3

This pronouncement summed up a definitive shift which had occurred in her writings, given that she formerly expressed enthusiasm and support for the politics of the left. Trained in linguistics and psychoanalysis by Lucien Goldmann, Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan, Kristeva had been associated throughout the seventies with the journal Tel Quel, for which she and her husband, novelist Philippe Sollers, worked. This publication featured articles which specifically addressed issues of modernist culture, the falseness of bourgeois ideology, the promise of the avant garde, and the impact of the left in Europe. Yet it was not only Kristeva's involvement with Tel Quel which illustrated her commitment to theories and practices of an explicitly social, leftist nature: her earlier writings clarify the extent to which she believed in the possibility of meaningful social change, indeed of revolution, to be impacted via a highly sophisticated approach to the topics of language and meaning. In this vein, Kristeva's assertion of the connection between language and revolution, articulated with special clarity in her Desire in Language (1980) and Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), explains the enormous popularity she garnered in the seventies. Scholars, including feminist scholars, looked to her writings as indicators of the profound social change which lay ahead, change which would influence not only political ideology, institutions, and practices, but the very way in which human beings interact socially.

Yet between her disillusioning trip to China in 1974, and Tel Quel's ultimate abandonment of all overtly political discourse,4 Kristeva gradually renounced interest in revolution, and lost faith in all forms of socialist, collectivist discourse. Her relationship to feminism, already highly problematic, became even more estranged. Surely the disappointing realities of Mao's China and the aftermath of May 1968 in France explain Kristeva's repudiation of political discourse to a degree. However, I believe that her articulation of the connection between language and revolution already adumbrated what would become her retreat into individualism and concern with such issues as motherhood. I would argue that even her earlier, “revolutionary” works suggest that this retreat might occur, indicating her preference for a theory which more closely resembles a psychoanalytic cure. Explaining this abiding tension between the social and the personal sheds new light on Kristeva's apparent abandonment of politics. Furthermore, it reveals the capacity to which even her writings on motherhood continue to hold interest for feminist scholars.


Kristeva has consistently been interested in a semiotic approach to language and meaning, and has sought to investigate the way in which the process of signification works to constitute the individual in culture. This focus on semiotics illustrates her eagerness to move beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries between linguistics, rhetoric, and poetics, and to explore, not how meaning is produced structurally, but how it is apprehended and in turn produced by persons using language. In other words, Kristeva focuses on all that is heterogeneous and unsystematic to the study of language, all that evades the traditional approach to the process of signification. Her insistence on semiotics—to use her term, on semanalyse—defies the constraining tendencies of the established disciplines, and takes issue with their implicit or explicit positing of a transcendental human subject whose relationship to meaning remains putatively systematic, consistent, and codifiable. Hence, in “The System and the Speaking Subject” she writes:

Semiotics must not be allowed to be a mere application to signifying practices of the linguistic model—or any other model, for that matter. Its raison d'etre, if it is to have one, must consist in its identifying the systematic constraint within each signifying practice … but above all in going beyond that to specifying just what, within the practice, falls outside the system. … The moment of transgression is the key moment in practice: we can speak of practice wherever there is a transgression of systematicity, i.e., a transgression of the unity proper to the transcendental ego.5

Kristeva's distaste for organized, predictable approaches to language and meaning is clear: for her, the ways in which meaning is produced and exchanged are far more complex, subtle, and recalcitrant for any structural, systematized method of investigation to comprehend. Her aim is to produce a richer and more variegated understanding of meaning while affirming meaning's refractory nature. This of course follows from her indebtedness to Lacanian theory. She believes that language remains forever enmeshed in the initial loss of the mother's body, precipitated by the oedipal. Language thus founds itself upon lack, absence, a gap which speech attempts to fill. Hence the speaking subject acclimated to the Symbolic announces lack, not fullness or closure, in the act of speech. As against logocentric claims regarding the metaphysics of presence, for Kristeva our use of words represents a failing attempt to recover that unmediated realm of the maternal Imaginary. We strive to suture the gap which the Symbolic itself created given the initial loss of mother. Language reveals desire. Kristeva comments:

Through the mouth that I fill with words instead of my mother whom I miss from now on more than ever, I elaborate that want, and the aggressivity that accompanies it, by saying … [O]ne is rightfully led to suppose that any verbalizing activity, whether or not it names a phobic object related to orality, is an attempt to introject the incorporated items. … Language learning takes place as an attempt to appropriate an oral “object” that slips away …6

Here we have the distinction between the Imaginary and Symbolic realms as they have consistently informed Kristeva's writings. For her, drawing upon the Imaginary realm and its attendant semiotic approach to meaning effectively deconstructs the Symbolic's ideological premises which give cohesion to the speaking subject: since the latter is only held together in speech, a critical approach to language can effectively disrupt his or her unicity. Indeed, Kristeva's semanalyse thus insists on the weakness of language, the provisionality of meaning, and the fictional nature of human identity due to its discursive grounding. With semanalyse, fixed meanings and rigid definitions yield to jouissance, an impulse approximating orgasm which “breaks the symbolic chain, the taboo, the mastery,”7 and returns the speaking subject to an unmediated, bodily, “maternal” relationship to meaning.

Experiencing linguistic jouissance allows one to become a specialist in the unconscious, a witch, a bacchanalian, taking her jouissance in an anti-Appolonian, Dionysian orgy. … A marginal discourse … (a) pregnancy: an escape from the temporality of day-to-day social obligations, an interruption of the regular monthly cycles, where the surface—skin, sight—are abandoned in favour of a descent into the depths of the body.8


That mode of expression which most articulates jouissance, which is most “maternal,” is poetic language. In its self-conscious abjuration of Symbolic logic, poetic language carries out the project of semanalyse, lending credence to the claim that a connection between language and revolution indeed exists. We recall that, early in her career, Kristeva believed that semanalyse truly had resonance in the social domain. An analysis of discourse's negativity, the radical hermeneutics to which this analysis gives rise, and the promotion of poetic language would, she believed, help further the cause of revolutionary movements. Apparently, the two spheres were not as discrete to her then as they appear to be now, but overlapped and complemented one another. How else are we to interpret her Revolution in Poetic Language, which appeared in 1974? “The text is a practice that could be compared to political revolution,” she writes, “… one cannot be transformed without the other … [M]imesis and poetic language do more than engage in an intra-ideological debate; they question the very principle of the ideological … And thus, its complexity unfolded by its practices, the signifying process joins social revolution.”9

Early on, then, textual analysis clearly resonated with social issues: semanalyse was not a strictly private undertaking.

It must be said, however, that not everyone accepted this proposition; some cautiously endorsed Kristeva's project, while others expressed open incredulity. Publications such as Revolution in Poetic Language gave rise to several articles questioning the validity of Kristeva's claims, articles which speculated on how semanalyse might tangibly translate into empirical reality. Philip E. Lewis, for instance, queries the project of semanalyse, asking how a semiotic dissolution of the subject's unicity can be apprehended in the social sphere.10

And given that semanalyse never professes to entirely dismantle the Symbolic—even the avant garde can never be entirely contrapuntal—how “revolutionary” an interpretation is it? In light of Kristeva's current position, however, such questions are now irrelevant: Kristeva no longer cares about the social apprehension of the semiotic. For her, there are only individual solutions.

Indeed, the negativity so crucial to semiotics and poetic language explains Kristeva's ultimate renunciation of explicitly political discourses. Her rootedness in semanalyse offers insight into why she now repudiates ideological discussions and positions which earlier she endorsed. With its insistence on marginality and dissonance, its disbelief in systems and uniformity, and its consequent distaste for any form of language which appropriates human subjectivity, semanalyse rejects ideological discourse. At its root, semiotics seeks to disrupt all allusions to a unified truth, a centered human subject, a “correct” political position; it rebuffs all assertions that smack of metaphysical underpinnings. Semanalyse represents a distinctly negative practice inasmuch as it never condones any definitive claims to truth, but forever seeks to tease out the unconscious, the unrepresentable, the irrational present in all forms of human expression. Thanks to this negativity, it remains attuned to the unconscious, to the outside-of-language, and to the maternal. Yet examples of political discourse lacking this negativity unfortunately abound: in Kristeva's eyes, many forms of feminism and marxism represent examples of this. Hence in her article, “Women's Time,” she asks:

Does not feminism become a kind of inverted sexism when this logic is followed to its conclusion? … [P]rotest movements, including feminism, are not “initially libertarian” movements which only later … fall back into the old ruts of the initially combatted archetypes. Rather, the very logic of counter-power and of counter-society necessarily generates, by its very structure, its essence as a simulacrum of the combatted society or power. In this sense, modern feminism has only been but a moment in the interminable process of coming to consciousness about the implacable violence … which constitutes any symbolic contract.11

Hence this theoretical elaboration of her disaffection with politics explains Kristeva's increased distancing from feminism and marxism in favor of analyses strictly concerned with individuals. She sums up: “We try not to be political.”12

This exposition on Kristeva's commitment to semanalyse highlights the actual consistency in her writings, and in her politics in general. Semanalyse has always sought to impact change via a disruption of language; for Kristeva, revolution begins with a calling into question of the subject's identity, and a recognition of its fictional status. She has always focused on the tenuousness of human identity. Despite her writings' diversity, Kristeva has sought consistently to scrutinize how the unrepresentable, the unconscious, the outside-of-meaning articulates itself in culture. Hence her current privileging of the individual over the social represents more of an awakening to the inherent irreconcilabilities which separate traditional political discourse from her own preferred semanalyse than a real change in her argument. Traditional political discourse cannot accommodate “the ravages of the unconscious:”13 it cannot argue according to Symbolic precepts, yet also proceed in the name of semiotic dissonance.

Thus, in answer to Rose's question, “What has happened to Julia Kristeva?” we respond that she has lost interest in her former investigation of how semanalyse might inform conventional politics, but has otherwise remained theoretically consistent. Indeed, Rose herself suggests that Kristeva's “idea of social transformation has long approximated the idea of an analytic cure.”14 In a shift which to some appears as an endorsement of the status quo, Kristeva retains her semiotic approach to meaning, but no longer upholds a specific political position.


It is Kristeva's promotion of motherhood which most anger her feminist critics. Indeed, can we really say that Kristeva has changed only little, given the insistence on motherhood which pervades her later writings? The reprinting of her essay, “Stabat Mater,” in Tales of Love confirms the importance which motherhood holds for Kristeva. This essay, which borrows its title from a Latin text by the same name and explores the Church's reverence for the Virgin Mary, explains why Kristeva deems mothering not only an important enterprise, but a profoundly ethical human undertaking. In fact, “Stabat Mater” was originally entitled “Herethique de l'Amour.” I believe that a closer analysis of this essay clarifies how a former member of the Tel Quel collective, for a while interested in Maoism, can now be so centrally focused on mothering.

The institution of motherhood assumes theoretical consistency with the rest of Kristeva's writings once we recognize its resonance with the concept of semanalyse. We recall the negative value which Kristeva assigns her semiotic approach to meaning: “[t]he semiotic activity … introduces wandering or fuzziness into language and … stems from the archaisms of the semiotic body.”15

For Kristeva, it is these “archaisms” which bridge a gap between her interest in language and the institution of motherhood; viz., between a semiotic approach to meaning and the empirical process of bearing and rearing a child. Pregnancy, birth, lactation, differentiation: all of these break down or disallow the physical and psychic boundaries between mother and child, and thus invoke the “wandering” or “fuzziness” of the negativity which Kristeva celebrates.16

For instance, the relationship between fetus and mother, two beings inextricably linked yet also distinct, invokes the dynamic between the semiotic and Symbolic realms upon which semanalyse focuses. Just as semanalyse challenges the binary oppositions which support the Symbolic's logic, so does motherhood disallow discrete categorizations between two beings, giving expression to a form of existence based on the transgression of already unclear boundaries. Motherhood allows for a literal enactment, a dramatic playing out of the semiotic disruption of Symbolic hegemony: it exists as a fundamentally negative enterprise which blurs the distinctions between self and other, thereby fueling the dionysian creativity of semanalyse. Because motherhood disallows the subject's unicity, it represents “a permanent calling into question”17 of language, culture, and human subjectivity. According to Kristeva, this allows the semiotic to challenge the very limits of the Symbolic.

This subversive blurring of distinctions, this eradication of discrete boundaries is disturbing and disruptive. Yet, as we shall see, it is also ethical. Maternal abjection, the reject of culture, contains a deeply moral dimension. “Stabat Mater” clarifies how both qualities can coexist in Kristeva's concept of the maternal.

Even before the appearance of Powers of Horror, “Stabat Mater,” first published in 1977, had explored the numerous ways in which the repressed semiotic, intimately bound up with the maternal body, expresses itself in culture. The memory of an existence which preceded one's acculturation, an existence relived through forms of expression which are immediate, bodily, and unstructured by language, forever informs one's acclimation to the cultural mandates of the Symbolic. According to Kristeva, there is always something primal, maternal, and “abject” which threatens the Law of the Father: the semiotic exists as a creative force, but is also disruptive, overwhelming, even terrifying in its ability to recall the archaic and unmediated in the face of cultural law and order. Hence the semiotic expresses itself not only through the aesthetic charm of poetic language, but in all that calls into question the limits of culture by invoking taboo: for instance death, incest, and scatology. Like Powers of Horror, “Stabat Mater” amply suggests that the semiotic realm of the abject maternal is as creative and life-affirming as it is disgusting, horrifying, and unpredictable. This negativity, Kristeva's abject maternal, proves subversive only if it resonates with the repressed, the unconscious, and the outside-of-language; this means that it assumes violent and terrifying connotations. Here, Kristeva clarifies the connection between the maternal pre-oedipal, abjection, and the limits of culture:

Abjection preserves what existed in the archaisms of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be—maintaining that night in which the outline of the signified thing vanishes and where only the imponderable affect is carried out. … Discomfort, unease, dizziness stemming from an ambiguity that, through the violence of a revolt against, demarcates a space out of which signs and objects arise.18

The pre-oedipal maternal, then, is creative and life-affirming, but also deeply unsettling. Rose terms Kristeva's semiotic “no ‘fun’.”19 This explains why the writings of those avant garde authors so celebrated by Kristeva are not merely charming, unusual, or creative in the ordinary sense. Rather, these writings reveal themselves as truly unsettling, for they seek to disturb, dismay, horrify, and even disgust the reader. Distinctly unconventional in both form and content, these texts always work against traditional prose, striving to carry their reader to language's “other side”—traverser, to use Kristeva's term—and to disrupt the typical notion of what literature “ought” to do.

Indeed, “Stabat Mater” illustrates the violent, disruptive aspects of the semiotic. Yet this essay also explains the ethical dimension of motherhood by demonstrating how pregnancy, gestation, and birth are processes which embody alterity, difference, and concern for the other. It does this by using textual style and format. Specifically, the essay presents a detailed account of the Church's regard for the Virgin Mary, an account which is intermittently interrupted by a diffused, free-flowing stream of consciousness alluding to Kristeva's own pregnancy and the birth of her son. Hence various short, frequently ungrammatical segments of prose dramatically disrupt and physically intervene throughout the longer, more conventional essay. In this way, the reader is literally presented with a smaller, inchoate “body” of text emerging from one that is larger, more commanding, and more easily accessible. There is a birth taking place, a woman suffering contractions, the disorderly semiotic violently pushing against the logic, order, and hegemony of the Symbolic. This birth, this heretical gesture of disobeying the law, is therefore ethical given that it pushes culture to its limits, forcing it to resist the totalizing claims to truth which characterize the Symbolic.

In its admission of jouissance, the maternal thus remains inherently recalcitrant; its abjection disallows the unicity, hierarchy, and hegemony which only the Law of the Father can ensure. Its “permanent calling into question” demands a recognition of difference, an awareness of the other. Hence Kristeva endorses motherhood because it so literally enacts the dissolution of unicity toward which semanalyse strives. “The mother calls herself as totality, as self, into question,” writes Jane Gallop of Kristeva's maternal, “because within ‘her’ is something she does not encompass, that goes beyond her, is other.”20 Kristeva herself assures us that this ‘other,’ this outside-of-language, challenges the subject's very ability to hold itself together in speech:

Belief in the mother is rooted in fear, fascinated with a weakness—the weakness of language … [t]he immeasurable, unconfinable maternal body … is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language—and it has always been so.21

Hence calling forth the weakness of language, so typical of semanalyse and commensurate with the post-structuralist enterprise, lends motherhood an ethical dimension inasmuch as it forces recognition of the other. The abject maternal remains inherently deconstructive, disallowing hierarchy and insisting that the unrepresentable, the unconscious, the outside-of-language be articulated within culture. This articulation may take numerous forms. For instance, Kristeva insists that the Virgin's milk and tears, alluded to in the traditional “Stabat Mater's” description of Mary grieving at the site of the Crucifixion, and in numerous paintings of her nursing the Christ Child, represent metaphors for non-speech, invoking the semiotic realm and the return of the repressed. Similarly, Kristeva claims that painting and music—two art forms of which Mary is the patron saint—give poignant expression to the abject maternal. “Stabat Mater” closes with an exhortation that we listen to Pergolesi's musical rendition of that Latin text, that we go beyond Symbolic speech into an art form wherein the abject maternal articulates itself.

Viewed in this light, Kristeva's insistence on the ethical underpinnings of motherhood appears consistent with even her earliest writings. While she has undeniably abandoned formal politics and retreated into the private realm, her commitment to the disruptive, deconstructive importance of the semiotic has not changed. Rather than focus on the connection between the psychic and social spheres, she now channels her investigation of semanalyse into an endorsement of motherhood given the latter's embodiment of the analytic processes she advocates. Of course, such an endorsement proves troubling to many feminists, who view it as a capitulation to the status quo. Feminist politics, they argue, should be “carried out in public, in groups, and with an eye toward making a political difference.”22 Yet if maternal abjection represents the site of semiotic inquiry, it indeed carries forward the work of semanalyse.

Does semanalyse make a political difference? It is certainly not carried out in public. I believe that Kristeva's writings can be faulted for consistently promoting an analytic enterprise too privileging of privatized meanings and individualized, idiosyncratic solutions. Yet she has always been a theorist primarily interested in bringing the psychic to bear on the social, and in exploring how the unconscious articulates itself in culture. Feminism cannot afford to become a discourse unattuned to such articulations.23 In light of this fact, Kristeva's writings remain centrally important to feminist scholarship.


  1. See Ann Rosalind Jones, “Julia Kristeva on Femininity: The Limits of a Semiotic Politics,” in Feminist Review, No. 18, November 1984, pp. 56-73; Jacqueline Rose, “Julia Kristeva—Take Two,” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision, New York: Verso Press, 1986, pp. 141-164; Jennifer Stone, “The Horrors of Power: A Critique of ‘Kristeva,’” in The Politics of Theory. Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature. July 1982. Colchester: University of Essex, 1983, pp. 38-48.

  2. Rose, p. 141.

  3. Quoted in Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, New York: Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1985, p. 168.

  4. Tel Quel has transformed itself into L'Infini, a journal which rejects all politics as totalitarian, and which many regard as disappointingly in service to the status quo.

  5. From “The System and the Speaking Subject,” quoted in Toril Moi, The Kristeva Reader, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 26-27/29.

  6. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 41.

  7. Quoted in The Kristeva Reader, p. 154.

  8. From About Chinese Women, quoted in The Kristeva Reader, p. 154.

  9. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, translated by Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 17/61.

  10. Philip E. Lewis, “Revolutionary Semiotics,” in Diacritics, 4, no. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 28-32.

  11. Quoted in The Kristeva Reader, pp. 202-203.

  12. Quoted from Jones, p. 56.

  13. Rose, p. 164.

  14. Rose, p. 147.

  15. Jones, p. 59.

  16. For a feminist analysis of the process of differentiation, see Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, New York: Pantheon Books, 1988; Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978; Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise, New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

  17. Quoted from Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, p.122.

  18. Powers of Horror, p.10.

  19. Rose, p.155.

  20. Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, p.123.

  21. Quoted from The Kristeva Reader, p.175/177-178.

  22. Jones, p.71.

  23. For an excellent discussion of why feminism must remain “oppositional,” see Joan Cocks' The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory, New York: Routledge, 1989.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books. 1988.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: The University of California Press. 1978.

Cocks, Joan. The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique, and Political Theory. New York: Routledge. 1989.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper and Row. 1977.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1982.

———. Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Julia Kristeva on Femininity: The Limits of a Semiotic Politics.” In Feminist Review, No. 18, November 1984, pp. 56-73.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Translated by Alice Jardine and Thomas Gora. New York: Columbia University Press. 1980.

———. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press. 1982.

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press. 1984.

———. Tales of Love. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press. 1989.

Lewis, Philip E. “Revolutionary Semiotics.” In Diacritics, 4, no.3, Fall, 1974, pp. 28-32.

Moi, Toril, editor. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press. 1986.

———. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Methuen and Company, Ltd. 1985.

Rose, Jacqueline. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. New York: Verso Press. 1986.

Stanton, Domna. “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva.” In The Poetics of Gender. Nancy K. Miller, editor. New York: Columbia University Press. 1986. pp. 157-182.

Stone, Jennifer. “The Horrors of Power: A Critique of ‘Kristeva.’” In The Politics of Theory. Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature. July 1982. Colchester: University of Essex, 1983. pp. 38-48.

Judith Butler (essay date 1993)

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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 symbolic,” and so becomes a universal organizing principle of culture itself. This law creates the possibility of meaningful language and, hence, meaningful experience, through the repression of primary libidinal drives, including the radical dependency of the child on the maternal body. Hence, the symbolic becomes possible by repudiating the primary relationship to the maternal body. The “subject” who emerges as a consequence of this repression itself becomes a bearer or proponent of this repressive law. The libidinal chaos characteristic of that early dependency is now fully constrained by a unitary agent whose language is structured by that law. This language, in turn, structures the world by suppressing multiple meanings (which always recall the libidinal multiplicity which characterized the primary relation to the maternal body) and instating univocal and discrete meanings in their place.

Kristeva challenges the Lacanian narrative which assumes that cultural meaning requires the repression of that primary relationship to the maternal body. She argues that the “semiotic” is a dimension of language occasioned by that primary maternal body, which not only refutes Lacan's primary premise, but also serves as a perpetual source of subversion within the symbolic. For Kristeva, the semiotic expresses that original libidinal multiplicity within the very terms of culture, more precisely, within poetic language in which multiple meanings and semantic non-closure prevail. In effect, poetic language is the recovery of the maternal body within the terms of language, one that has the potential to disrupt, subvert, and displace the paternal law.

Despite her critique of Lacan, however, Kristeva's strategy of subversion proves doubtful. Her theory appears to depend upon the stability and reproduction of precisely the paternal law that she sought to displace. Although she effectively exposes the limits of Lacan's efforts to universalize the paternal law in language, she nevertheless concedes that the semiotic is invariably subordinate to the symbolic, that it assumes its specificity within the terms of a hierarchy which is immune to challenge. If the semiotic promotes the possibility of the subversion, displacement, or disruption of the paternal law, what meanings can those terms have if the symbolic always reasserts its hegemony?

The criticism of Kristeva which follows takes issue with several different steps in Kristeva's argument in favor of the semiotic as a source of effective subversion. First, it is unclear whether the primary relationship to the maternal body which both Kristeva and Lacan appear to accept is a viable construct and whether it is even a knowable experience according to either of their linguistic theories. The multiple drives that characterize the semiotic constitute a prediscursive libidinal economy which occasionally makes itself known in language, but which maintains an ontological status prior to language itself. Manifest in language, in poetic language in particular, this prediscursive libidinal economy becomes a locus of cultural subversion. A second problem emerges when Kristeva maintains that this libidinal source of subversion cannot be maintained within the terms of culture, that its sustained presence leads to psychosis and to the breakdown of cultural life itself. Kristeva thus alternately posits and denies the semiotic as an emancipatory ideal. Though she tells us that it is a dimension of language regularly repressed, she also concedes that it is a kind of language which can never be consistently maintained.

In order to assess her seemingly self-defeating theory, we need to ask how this libidinal multiplicity becomes manifest in language, and what conditions its temporary lifespan there? Moreover, Kristeva describes the maternal body as bearing a set of meanings that are prior to culture itself. She thereby safeguards the notion of culture as a paternal structure and delimits maternity as an essentially precultural reality. Her naturalistic descriptions of the maternal body effectively reify motherhood and preclude an analysis of its cultural construction and variability. In asking whether a prediscursive libidinal multiplicity is possible, we will also consider whether what we claim to discover in the prediscursive maternal body is itself a production of a given historical discourse, an effect of culture rather than its secret and primary cause.

Even if we accept Kristeva's theory of primary drives, it is unclear that the subversive effects of such drives can serve, via the semiotic, as anything more than a temporary and futile disruption of the hegemony of the paternal law. I will try to show how the failure of her political strategy follows in part from her largely uncritical appropriation of drive theory. Moreover, upon careful scrutiny of her descriptions of the semiotic function within language, it appears that Kristeva reinstates the paternal law at the level of the semiotic itself. In the end, Kristeva offers us a strategy of subversion that can never become a sustained political practice. In the final section of this paper, I will suggest a way to reconceptualize the relation between drives, language, and patriarchal prerogative which might serve a more effective strategy of subversion.

Kristeva's description of the semiotic proceeds through a number of problematic steps. She assumes that drives have aims prior to their emergence into language, that language invariably represses or sublimates these drives, and that such drives are manifest only in those linguistic expressions that disobey, as it were, the univocal requirements of signification within the symbolic domain. She claims further that the emergence of multiplicitous drives into language is evident in the semiotic, that domain of linguistic meaning distinct from the symbolic, which is the maternal body manifest in poetic speech.

As early as Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Kristeva argued for a necessary, casual relation between the heterogeneity of drives and the plurivocal possibilities of poetic language. Differing from Lacan, she maintained that poetic language was not predicated upon a repression of primary drives. On the contrary, poetic language, she claimed, is the linguistic occasion on which drives break apart the usual, univocal terms of language and reveal an irrepressible heterogeneity of multiple sounds and meanings. Kristeva thereby contested Lacan's equation of the symbolic with all linguistic meaning by asserting that poetic language has its own modality of meaning, which does not conform to the requirements of univocal designation.

In this same work, she subscribed to a notion of free or uncathected energy which makes itself known in language through the poetic function. She claimed, for instance, that “in the intermingling of drives in language … we shall see the economy of poetic language,” and that in this economy, “the unitary subject can no longer find his place.”1 This poetic function is a rejective or divisive linguistic function which tends to fracture and multiply meanings; it enacts the heterogeneity of drives through the proliferation and destruction of univocal signification. Hence, the urge toward a highly differentiated or plurivocal set of meanings appears as the revenge of drives against the rule of the symbolic which, in turn, is predicated upon their repression. Kristeva defines the semiotic as the multiplicity of drives manifest in language. With their insistent energy and heterogeneity, these drives disrupt the signifying function of language. Thus, in this early work, she defines the semiotic as “the signifying function … connected to the modality [of] primary process.”

In the essays that comprise Desire in Language (1977), Kristeva grounded her definition of the semiotic more fully in psychoanalytic terms. The primary drives that the symbolic represses and that the semiotic obliquely indicates are now understood as maternal drives, not only those drives belonging to the mother, but those that characterize the dependency of the infant's body (of either sex) on the mother. In other words, “the maternal body” designates a relation of continuity rather than a discrete subject or object of desire; indeed, it designates that jouissance which precedes desire and the subject/object dichotomy that desire presupposes. While the symbolic is predicated upon the rejection of the mother—the refusal of the mother as an object of sexual love—the semiotic, through rhythm, assonance, intonations, sound play, and repetition, re-presents or recovers the maternal body in poetic speech. Even the “first echolalias of infants” and the “glossalalias in psychotic discourse” are manifestations of the continuity of the mother-infant relation, a heterogeneous field of impulse prior to the separation/individuation of infant and mother, alike effected by the imposition of the incest taboo.2 The separation of the mother and infant effected by the taboo is expressed linguistically as the severing of sound from sense. In Kristeva's words, “a phoneme, as distinctive element of meaning, belongs to language as symbolic. But this same phoneme is involved in rhythmic, intonational repetitions; it thereby tends toward autonomy from meaning so as to maintain itself in a semiotic disposition near the instinctual drive's body.”3

The semiotic is described by Kristeva as destroying or eroding the symbolic; it is said to be “before” meaning, as when a child begins to vocalize, or “after” meaning as when a psychotic no longer uses words to signify. If the symbolic and the semiotic are understood as two modalities of language, and if the semiotic is understood to be generally repressed by the symbolic, then language for Kristeva is understood as a system in which the symbolic remains hegemonic except when the semiotic disrupts its signifying process through elision, repetition, mere sound, and the multiplication of meaning through indefinitely signifying images and metaphors. In its symbolic mode, language rests upon a severance of the relation of maternal dependency, whereby it becomes abstract (abstracted from the materiality of language) and univocal; this is most apparent in quantitative or purely formal reasoning. In its semiotic mode, language is engaged in a poetic recovery of the maternal body, that diffuse materiality that resists all discrete and univocal signification. Kristeva writes,

In any poetic language, not only do the rhythmic constraints, for example, go so far as to violate certain grammatical rules of a national language … but in recent texts, these semiotic constraints (rhythm, vocalic timbres in Symbolist work, but also graphic disposition on the page) are accompanied by nonrecoverable syntactic elisions; it is impossible to reconstitute the particular clided syntactic category (object or verb), which makes the meaning of the utterance decidable. …4

For Kristeva, this undecidability is precisely the instinctual moment in language, its disruptive function. Poetic language thus suggests a dissolution of the coherent, signifying subject into the primary continuity which is the maternal body:

Language as symbolic function constitutes itself at the cost of repressing instinctual drive and continuous relation to the mother. On the contrary, the unsettled and questionable subject of poetic language (from whom the word is never uniquely sign) maintains itself at the cost of reactivating this repressed, instinctual, maternal element.5

Kristeva's references to the “subject” of poetic language are not wholly appropriate, for poetic language erodes and destroys the subject, where the subject is understood as a speaking being participating in the symbolic. Following Lacan, she maintains that the prohibition against the incestuous union with the mother is the founding law of the subject, a foundation which severs or breaks the continuous relation of maternal dependence. In creating the subject, the prohibitive law creates the domain of the symbolic or language as a system of univocally signifying signs. Hence, Kristeva concludes that “poetic language would be for its questionable subject-in-process the equivalent of incest.”6 The breaking of symbolic language against its own founding law or, equivalently, the emergence of rupture into language from within its own interior instinctuality is not merely the outburst of libidinal heterogeneity into language; it also signifies the somatic state of dependence on the maternal body prior to the individuation of the ego. Poetic language thus always indicates a return to the maternal terrain, where the maternal signifies both libidinal dependence and the heterogeneity of drives.

In “Motherhood According to Bellini,” Kristeva suggests that, because the maternal body signifies the loss of coherent and discrete identity, poetic language verges on psychosis. And in the case of a woman's semiotic expressions in language, the return to the maternal signifies a prediscursive homosexuality that Kristeva also clearly associates with psychosis. Although Kristeva concedes that poetic language is sustained culturally through its participation in the symbolic and, hence, in the norms of linguistic communicability, she fails to allow that homosexuality is capable of the same nonpsychotic social expression: The key to Kristeva's view of the psychotic nature of homosexuality is to be understood, I suggest, in her acceptance of the structuralist assumption that heterosexuality is coextensive with the founding of the symbolic. Hence, the cathexis of homosexual desire can only be achieved, according to Kristeva, through displacements that are sanctioned within the symbolic, such as poetic language or the act of giving birth:

By giving birth, the women enters into contact with her mother; she becomes, she is her own mother; they are the same continuity differentiating itself. She thus actualizes the homosexual facet of motherhood, through which a woman is simultaneously closer to her instinctual memory, more open to her psychosis, and consequently, more negatory of the social, symbolic bond.7

According to Kristeva, the act of giving birth does not successfully reestablish that continuous relation prior to individuation, because the infant invariably suffers the prohibition on incest and is separated off as a discrete identity. In the case of the mother's separation from the girl-child, the result is melancholy for both, for the separation is never fully completed.

As opposed to grief or mourning, in which separation is recognized and the libido attached to the original object is successfully displaced onto a new substitute object, melancholy designates a failure to grieve, in which the loss is simply internalized and, in that sense, refused. Instead of negating the attachment to the body, the maternal body is internalized as a negation, so that the girl's identity becomes itself a kind of loss, a characteristic privation or lack.

The alleged psychosis of homosexuality, then, consists in its thorough break with the paternal law and with the grounding of the female ego, tenuous though it may be, in the melancholic response to separation from the maternal body. Hence, according to Kristeva, female homosexuality is the emergence of psychosis into culture:

The homosexual-maternal facet is a whirl of words, a complete absence of meaning and seeing; it is feeling, displacement, rhythm, sound, flashes, and fantasied clinging to the maternal body as a screen against the plunge … for woman, a paradise lost but seemingly close at hand.8

For women, however, this homosexuality is manifest in poetic language which becomes, in fact, the only form of the semiotic, besides childbirth, that can be sustained within the terms of the symbolic. For Kristeva, then, overt homosexuality cannot be a culturally sustainable activity, for it would constitute a breaking of the incest taboo in an unmediated way. And yet why is this the case?

Kristeva accepts the assumption that culture is equivalent to the symbolic, that the symbolic is fully subsumed under the Law of the Father, and that the only modes of nonpsychotic activity are those that participate in the symbolic to some extent. Her strategic task, then, is not to replace the symbolic with the semiotic, nor to establish the semiotic as a rival cultural possibility, but rather to validate those experiences within the symbolic that permit a manifestation of the borders that divide the symbolic from the semiotic. Just as birth is understood to be a cathexis of instinctual drives for the purposes of a social teleology, so poetic production is conceived as the site in which the split between instinct and representation coexist in culturally communicable form:

The speaker reaches this limit, this requisite of sociality, only by virtue of a particular, discursive practice called “art”. A woman also attains it (and in our society, especially) through the strange form of split symbolization (threshold of language and instinctual drive, of the “symbolic” and the “semiotic”) of which the act of giving birth consists.9

Hence, for Kristeva, poetry and maternity represent privileged practices within paternally sanctioned culture which permit a nonpsychotic experience of the heterogeneity and dependency characteristic of the maternal terrain. These acts of poesis reveal an instinctual heterogeneity that exposes the repressed ground of the symbolic, challenges the mastery of the univocal signifier, and diffuses the autonomy of the subject who postures as their necessary ground. The heterogeneity of drives operates culturally as a subversive strategy of displacement, one which dislodges the hegemony of the paternal law by releasing the repressed multiplicity interior to language itself. Precisely because that instinctual heterogeneity must be re-presented in and through the paternal law, it cannot defy the incest taboo altogether, but must remain within the most fragile regions of the symbolic. Obedient, then, to syntactical requirements, the poetic-maternal practices of displacing the paternal law always remain tenuously tethered to that law. Hence, a full-scale refusal of the symbolic is impossible, and a discourse of “emancipation,” for Kristeva, is out of the question. At best, tactical subversions and displacements of the law challenge its self-grounding presumption. But, once again, Kristeva does not seriously challenge the structuralist assumption that the prohibitive paternal law is foundational to culture itself. Hence, the subversion of paternally sanctioned culture cannot come from another version of culture, but only from within the repressed interior of culture itself, from the heterogeneity of drives that constitutes culture's concealed foundation.

This relation between heterogeneous drives and the paternal law produces an exceedingly problematic view of psychosis. On the one hand, it designates female homosexuality as a culturally unintelligible practice, inherently psychotic; on the other hand, it mandates maternity as a compulsory defense against libidinal chaos. Although Kristeva does not make either claim explicitly, both implications follow from her views on the law, language, and drives.

Consider that for Kristeva, poetic language breaks the incest taboo and, as such, verges always on psychosis. As a return to the maternal body and a concomitant de-individuation of the ego, poetic language becomes especially threatening when uttered by women. The poetic then contests not only the incest taboo, but the taboo against homosexuality as well. Poetic language is thus, for women, both displaced maternal dependency and, because that dependency is libidinal, displaced homosexuality as well.

For Kristeva, the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis. Hence, one can satisfy this drive only through a series of displacements: the incorporation of maternal identity, i.e. by becoming a mother oneself, or through poetic language which manifests obliquely the heterogeneity of drives characteristic of maternal dependency. As the only socially sanctioned and, hence, nonpsychotic displacements for homosexual desire, both maternity and poetry constitute melancholic experiences for women appropriately acculturated into heterosexuality. The heterosexual poet-mother suffers interminably from the displacement of the homosexual cathexis. And yet, the consummation of this desire would lead to the psychotic unraveling of identity, according to Kristeva. The presumption is that, for women, heterosexuality and coherent selfhood are indissolubly linked.

How are we to understand this constitution of lesbian experience as the site of an irretrievable self-loss? Kristeva clearly takes heterosexuality to be prerequisite to kinship and to culture. Consequently, she identifies lesbian experience as the psychotic alternative to the acceptance of paternally sanctioned laws. And yet why is lesbianism constituted as psychosis? From what cultural perspective is lesbianism constructed as a site of fusion, self-loss, and psychosis?

By projecting the lesbian as other to culture, and characterizing lesbian speech as the psychotic “whirl-of-words,” Kristeva constructs lesbian sexuality as intrinsically unintelligible. This tactical dismissal and reduction of lesbian experience performed in the name of the law positions Kristeva within the orbit of paternal-heterosexual privilege. The paternal law which protects her from this radical incoherence is precisely the mechanism that produces the construct of lesbianism as a site of irrationality. Significantly, this description of lesbian experience is effected from the outside, and tells us more about the fantasies that a fearful heterosexual culture produces to defend against its own homosexual possibilities than about lesbian experience itself.

In claiming that lesbianism designates a loss of self, Kristeva appears to be delivering a psychoanalytic truth about the repression necessary for individuation. The fear of such a “regression” to homosexuality is, then, a fear of losing cultural sanction and privilege altogether. Although Kristeva claims that this loss designates a place prior to culture, there is no reason not to understand it as a new or unacknowledged cultural form. In other words, Kristeva prefers to explain lesbian experience as a regressive libidinal state prior to acculturation itself rather than to take up the challenge that lesbianism offers to her restricted view of paternally sanctioned cultural laws. Is the fear encoded in the construction of the lesbian-as-psychotic the result of a developmentally necessitated repression, or is it, rather, the fear of losing cultural legitimacy and, hence, being cast—not outside or prior to culture—but outside cultural legitimacy, still within culture, but culturally “out-lawed”?

Kristeva describes both the maternal body and lesbian experience from a position of sanctioned heterosexuality that fails to acknowledge its own fear of losing that sanction. Her reification of the paternal law not only repudiates female homosexuality, but denies the varied meanings and possibilities of motherhood as a cultural practice. But cultural subversion is not really Kristeva's concern; for subversion, when it appears, emerges from beneath the surface of culture only inevitably to return there. Although the semiotic is a possibility of language that escapes the paternal law, it remains inevitably within or, indeed, beneath the territory of that law. Hence, poetic language and the pleasures of maternity constitute local displacements of the paternal law, temporary subversions which finally submit to that against which they initially rebel. By relegating the source of subversion to a site outside of culture itself, Kristeva appears to foreclose the possibility of subversion as an effective or realizable cultural practice. Pleasure beyond the paternal law can only be imagined together with its inevitable impossibility.

Kristeva's theory of thwarted subversion is premised on her problematic view of the relation between drives, language, and the law. Her postulation of a subversive multiplicity of drives raises a number of epistemological and political questions. In the first place, if these drives are only manifest in language or cultural forms already determined as symbolic, then how is it that we can verify their presymbolic ontological status? Kristeva argues that poetic language gives us access to these drives in their fundamental multiplicity, but this answer is not fully satisfactory. Since poetic language is said to depend upon the prior existence of these multiplicitous drives, we cannot, then, in circular fashion, justify the postulated existence of these drives through recourse to poetic language. If drives must first be repressed for language to exist, and if we can only attribute meaning to that which is representable in language, then to attribute meaning to drives prior to their emergence into language is impossible. Similarly, to attribute a causality to drives which facilitates their transformation into language, and by which language itself is to be explained, cannot reasonably be done within the confines of language itself. In other words, we know these drives as “causes” only in and through their effects and, as such, we have no reason for not identifying drives with their effects. It follows that either (a) drives and their representations are coextensive or (b) representations pre-exist the drives themselves.

This last alternative is, I would argue, an important one to consider, for how do we know that the instinctual object of Kristeva's discourse is not a construction of the discourse itself? And what grounds do we have for positing this object, this multiplicitous field, as prior to signification? If poetic language must participate in the symbolic in order to be culturally communicable, and if Kristeva's own theoretical texts are emblematic of the symbolic, then where are we to find a convincing “outside” to this domain? Her postulation of a prediscursive corporeal multiplicity becomes all the more problematic when we discover that maternal drives are considered part of a “biological destiny” and are themselves manifestations of “a nonsymbolic, non-paternal causality.” This presymbolic nonpaternal causality is, for Kristeva, a semiotic, maternal causality or, more specifically, a teleological conception of maternal instincts:

Material compulsion, spasm of a memory belonging to the species that either binds together or splits apart to perpetuate itself, series of markers with no other significance than the eternal return of the life-death biological cycle. How can we verbalize this prelinguistic, unrepresentable memory? Heraclitus' flux, Epicurus' atoms, the whirling dust of cabalic, Arab and Indian mystics, and the stippled drawings of psychedelics-all seem better metaphors than the theory of Being, the logos, and its laws.10

Here, the repressed maternal body is not only the locus of multiple drives, but also the bearer of a biological teleology, one which, it seems, makes itself evident in the early stages of Western philosophy, in non-Western religious beliefs and practices, in aesthetic representations produced by psychotic or near-psychotic states, and even in avant-garde artistic practices. But why are we to assume that these various cultural expressions manifest the self-same principle of maternal heterogeneity? Kristeva simply subordinates each of these cultural moments to the same principle. Consequently, the semiotic represents any cultural effort to displace the Logos (which, curiously, she contrasts with Heraclitus' flux), where the Logos represents the univocal signifier, the law of identity. Her opposition between the semiotic and the symbolic reduces here to a metaphysical quarrel between the principle of multiplicity that escapes the charge of noncontradiction and a principle of identity based on the suppression of that multiplicity. Oddly, that very principle of multiplicity that Kristeva everywhere defends operates in much the same way as a principle of identity. Note the way in which all manner of things “primitive” and “oriental” are summarily subordinated to the principle of the maternal body. Surely, her description not only warrants the charge of orientalism, but raises the very significant question whether, ironically, multiplicity has become a univocal signifier.

Her ascription of a teleological aim to maternal drives prior to their constitution in language or culture raises a number of questions about Kristeva's political program. Although she clearly sees subversive and disruptive potential in those semiotic expressions that challenge the hegemony of the paternal law, it is less clear of what precisely this subversion consists. If the law is understood to rest on a constructed ground, beneath which lurks the repressed maternal terrain, what concrete cultural options emerge, within the terms of culture, as a consequence of this revelation? Ostensibly, the multiplicity associated with the maternal libidinal economy has the force to disperse the univocality of the paternal signifier, and seemingly to create the possibility of other cultural expressions no longer tightly constrained by the law of noncontradiction. But is this disruptive activity the opening of a field of significations, or is it the manifestation of a biological archaism which operates according to a natural and prepaternal causality? If Kristeva believed that the former were the case (and she does not), then she would be interested in a displacement of the paternal law in favor of a proliferating field of cultural possibilities. But instead she prescribes a return to a principle of maternal heterogeneity which proves to be a closed concept, indeed, a heterogeneity confined by a teleology both unilinear and univocal.

Kristeva understands the desire to give birth as a species-desire, part of a collective and archaic female libidinal drive that constitutes an ever-recurring metaphysical principle. Here Kristeva reifies maternity and then promotes this reification as the disruptive potential of the semiotic. As a result, the paternal law, understood as the ground of univocal signification, is displaced by an equally univocal signifier, the principle of the maternal body which remains self-identical in its teleology regardless of its multiplicitous manifestations.

Insofar as Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, she fails to consider the way in which that law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress. Rather than the manifestation of a prepaternal causality, these desires might attest to maternity as a social practice required and recapitulated by the exigencies of kinship. Kristeva accepts Lévi-Strauss's analysis of the exchange of women as prerequisite for the consolidation of kinship bonds. She understands this exchange, however, as the cultural moment in which the maternal body is repressed rather than as a mechanism for the compulsory cultural construction of the female body as a maternal body. Indeed, we might understand the exchange of women as imposing a compulsory obligation on women's bodies to reproduce. According to Gayle Rubin's reading of Levi-Strauss, kinship effects a “sculpting of … sexuality” such that the desire to give birth is the result of social practices which require and produce such desires in order to effect their reproductive ends.11

What grounds, then, does Kristeva have for imputing a maternal teleology to the female body prior to its emergence into culture? To pose the question in this way is already to question the distinction between the symbolic and the semiotic on which her conception of the maternal body rests. The maternal body in its originary signification is considered by Kristeva to be prior to signification itself; hence, it becomes impossible within her framework to consider the maternal itself as a signification, open to cultural variability. Her argument makes clear that maternal drives constitute those primary processes that language invariably represses or sublimates. But perhaps her argument could be recast within an even more encompassing framework: what cultural configuration of language, indeed, of discourse, generates the trope of a prediscursive libidinal multiplicity, and for what purposes?

By restricting the paternal law to a prohibitive or repressive function, Kristeva fails to understand the paternal mechanisms by which affectivity itself is generated. The law that is said to repress the semiotic may well be the governing principle of the semiotic itself, with the result that what passes as “maternal instinct” may well be a culturally constructed desire which is interpreted through a naturalistic vocabulary. And if that desire is constructed according to a law of kinship which requires the heterosexual production and reproduction of desire, then the vocabulary of naturalistic affect effectively renders that paternal law invisible. What Kristeva refers to as a “pre-paternal causality” would then appear as a paternal causality under the guise of a natural or distinctively maternal causality.

Significantly, the figuration of the maternal body and the teleology of its instincts as a self-identical and insistent metaphysical principle—an archaism of a collective, sex-specific, biological constitution—bases itself on a univocal conception of the female sex. And this sex, conceived as both origin and causality, poses as a principle of pure generativity. Indeed, for Kristeva, it is equated with poesis itself, the activity of making that in Plato's Symposium is held to be an act of birth and poetic conception at once.12 But is female generativity truly an uncaused cause, and does it begin the narrative that takes all of humanity under the force of the incest taboo and into language? Does the prepaternal causality whereof Kristeva speaks signify a primary female economy of pleasure and meaning? Can we reverse the very order of this causality and understand this semiotic economy as a production of a prior discourse?

In the final chapter of Foucault's first volume of The History of Sexuality, he cautions against using the category of sex as a “fictitious unity … [and] causal principle,” and argues that the fictitious category of sex facilitates a reversal of causal relations such that “sex” is understood to cause the structure and meaning of desire:

[T]he notion of “sex” made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a universal signified.13

For Foucault, the body is not “sexed” in any significant sense prior to its determination within a discourse through which it becomes invested with an “idea” of natural or essential sex. As an instrument and effect of power, the body only gains meaning within discourse in the context of power relations. Sexuality is a historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity. As such, sexuality is understood by Foucault to produce “sex” as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis.

Foucault's framework suggests a way to solve some of the epistemological and political difficulties that follow from Kristeva's view of the female body. We can understand Kristeva's assertion of a “prepaternal causality” as fundamentally inverted. Whereas Kristeva posits a maternal body, prior to discourse which exerts its own causal force in the structure of drives, I would argue that the discursive production of the maternal body as prediscursive is a tactic in the self-amplification and concealment of those specific power relations by which the trope of the maternal body is produced. Then the maternal body would no longer be understood as the hidden ground of all signification, the tacit cause of all culture. It would be understood, rather, as an effect or consequence of a system of sexuality in which the female body is required to assume maternity as the essence of its self and the law of its desire.

From within Foucault's framework, we are compelled to redescribe the maternal libidinal economy as a product of a historically specific organization of sexuality. Moreover, the discourse of sexuality, itself suffused by power relations, becomes the true ground of the trope of the prediscursive maternal body. Kristeva's formulation suffers a thoroughgoing reversal: the symbolic and the semiotic are no longer interpreted as those dimensions of language that follow upon the repression or manifestation of the maternal libidinal economy. This very economy is understood instead as a reification that both extends and conceals the institution of motherhood as compulsory for women. Indeed, when the desires that maintain the institution of motherhood are transvaluated as prepaternal and precultural drives, then the institution gains a permanent legitimation in the invariant structures of the female body. Indeed, the clearly paternal law that sanctions and requires the female body to be characterized primarily in terms of its reproductive function is inscribed on that body as the law of its natural necessity. And Kristeva, safeguarding that law of a biologically necessitated maternity as a subversive operation that preexists the paternal law itself, aids in the systematic production of its invisibility and, consequently, the illusion of its inevitability.

In conclusion, because Kristeva restricts herself to an exclusively prohibitive conception of the paternal law, she is unable to account for the ways in which the paternal law generates certain desires in the form of natural drives. The female body that she seeks to express is itself a construct produced by the very law it is supposed to undermine. In no way do these criticisms of Kristeva's conception of the paternal law necessarily invalidate her general position that culture or the symbolic is predicated upon a repudiation of women's bodies. I want to suggest, however, that any theory that asserts that signification is predicated upon the denial or repression of a female principle ought to consider whether that femaleness is really external to the cultural norms by which it is repressed. In other words, on my reading, the repression of the feminine does not require that the agency of repression and the object of repression be ontologically distinct. Indeed, repression may be understood to produce the object that it comes to deny. That production may well be an elaboration of the agency of repression itself. As Foucault made clear, this culturally contradictory enterprise of repression is prohibitive and generative at once and makes the problematic of “liberation” especially acute. The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive, but operating in the service of that law's self-amplification and proliferation. In order to avoid the emancipation of the oppressor in the name of the oppressed, it is necessary to take into account the full complexity and subtlety of the law and to cure ourselves of the illusion of a true body beyond the law. If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself. The culturally constructed body will then be liberated, not to its “natural past” nor to its original pleasures, but to an open future of cultural possibilities.


  1. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 132.

  2. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 135.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid., p. 134.

  5. Ibid., p. 136.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., p. 239.

  8. Ibid., pp. 239-240.

  9. Ibid., p. 240. For an extremely interesting analysis of reproductive metaphors as descriptive of the process of poetic creativity, see Wendy Owen, 1985.

  10. Ibid., p. 239.

  11. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p. 182.

  12. See Plato's Symposium, 209a: of the “procreancy … of the spirit”, he writes that it is the specific capacity of the poet. Hence, poetic creations are understood as sublimated reproductive desire.

  13. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality vol 1, an introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 154.

Glenn W. Erickson (essay date Spring 1996)

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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.

In his introduction to Revolution in Poetic Language, Leon S. Roudiez asserts that Julia Kristeva is “among the major theoreticians writing in France, the only woman” (1). It is presumably because of this sexual distinction that the translator considered, but discreetly refrained, from translating the pronouns whose referent is le sujet as “s/he” and “his/her.” Written for her doctorat d'etat, the work is not composed in a graceful style. For example, the four parts are entitled “The Semiotic and the Symbolic,” “Negativity: Rejection,” “Heterogeneity,” and “Practice.” These are all structuralist buzz words meant to give off an air of, how to say, scientificity. As translator Margaret Waller explains, Kristeva's writing is “a conscious resistance to the strong post-Heideggerian temptation of equating theoretical and literary discourse.”

If there were, in the end, something scientific about this academic monograph, the barbarity of Kristeva's prose could be forgiven. The problem is that structuralism, while it is a scientific method in the hands of, say, a Levi-Strauss, in those of Kristeva, it is only pseudo-science. As a scientist, Kristeva is a poseur. What science, we must ask, is she feigning to advance in this book? It could be a Lacanian psychoanalysis, or a Jacobsonian linguistics, or a Deleuzeola psychohistory, or a Foucaultesque philosophy, or a Barthean literary criticism, but it is not any of these in particular because it is all of these at once. As the Germans say: All in one pot.

Roudiez explains that Kristeva's intent “is to investigate the workings of ‘poetic language’ … as a signifying practice,” and “the revolution in her title refers to the profound change that began to take place in the nineteenth century,” which change concerns not only literature but philosophy, history, linguistics and psychoanalysis. In other words, she aims to research the last century or so of everything the French include in the “human sciences.” It is hard to tell whether her dissertation succeeded in this task, but this abridged translation is, let us say, somewhat thin on certain aspects of the topic.

Since this work fails to be either science or art, the reader is perhaps confused as to what to call it, perhaps tempted to say, as Mark Twain once said, “It's un-american, it's inhuman, it's French.” The blurb from Choice on the dust cover of Tales of Love aptly labels Kristeva “a postmodern polemicist.” Now a theorist cannot be at once a polemicist, not on the ancient acceptations of these terms, anyway, because a theorist is someone who adopts a distant and detached—let us say, godlike—perspective on things and a polemicist is in the middle of things conducting verbal warfare. That is not to say that a scientific disinterest may not be effective camouflage from which to ambush the enemy. Who is Kristeva's enemy? Philosophically speaking, it is the Nietzsche-Heidegger monster, of course, and Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, and even Foucault and Barthes after they went over to the left-Heideggerian, post-structuralist side. Not only does she reject the existential (or Heideggerian) phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that dominated the previous generation of French thought for no better reason than that it is olde chapeau, but she avoids engaging with the post-structuralists that have now supplanted her own generation.

In the Preface to Desire in Language, Kristeva explains that the essays collected there “embody a form of research that recasts several disciplines traditionally kept apart and therefore proceeds with effort, tension, and a kind of passion familiar to pioneers,” and goes on to express misgivings about their reception among English-language readers, given that in France “the 1960s witnessed a theoretical ebullience that could roughly be summarized as leading to the discovery of the determinative role of language in all human sciences.” In other words, the French structuralists found out that all the disciplines of the human sciences could be united under the rubric of semiotics or semiology or her own neologism, “semanalysis.” In our own post-structuralist climate, in which the concept of “unified science” appears naive, a quaint relic of more heady times, we can now recognize how deluded Kristeva was in her pretensions.

In Kristeva, the unification of the human sciences was not to be attained by establishing a theoretical foundation or paradigm that grounds them all, but rather in the deployment of a monologue in which the several subject matters are thrown together in a continuous discussion. It is thus not her semiotics but her stylistics that achieves the apparent unification, but such unification is only apparent. Or as the structuralists say, the significance is all on the surface, theory giving nothing more than an illusion of depth. In short, Kristeva's early work is a grand tour de force, but like all tours it gets to new places only by turns. If this is Tuesday, it must be Sophia. …

In fairness to Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language and Desire in Language count as juvenilia, as much effervescence as ebullience. Unreadable they are, and it must have been hard on her to play the role of female enfant terrible for which she had been cast. While Kristeva does display a broad if superficial learning in these essays, and an impressive but misguided intellect, she does not compare with America's answer to her, Susan Sontag. Sontag wrote much more lucidly during this epoch, and was equally profound without Kristeva's pseudo-philosophical posturing.

But then something fortunate and not altogether fortuitous happened. This change took place somewhere in the midst of Desire in Language, where the essays on Giotto and Giovanni Bellini are clearer and more sensitive than the early ones. What happened was that Kristeva matured into a writer of less theoretically ambitious but more thoroughly executed works, such as Powers of Horror and Tales of Love. Perhaps this change was the result of her following better Francophone minds than her own in a wholesale abandonment of structuralism. Despite her reputation in America as a leading French post-structuralist, there is no forthright recanting of structuralism in these two books, and without that measure of contrition we should not be too quick to judge that she is an apostate of the semiotic faith. Perhaps the change in style was a product of the fact that she was eventually well enough accepted to forsake her starkly scientific coloring. In any case, she relaxes enough to find a voice of her own, a voice that we shall see below has a distinctly womanly character to it.

What she did was to get down off her theoretical high-horse and keep her nose to the interpretive grindstone. Her problem was always a short gulp of air: she can write for only about five or seven pages on a subject before she gives out for lack of inspiration. When she was all over the place, setting the several special disciplines of the human sciences to rights and addressing forty different themes in the course of a book, her thinking appeared to be somewhat uninviting. But when she clumps together forty different pieces of the stuff, all on the same general topic (horror, love … ), into a homogeneous mass, it is a huge chunk of, excuse my French, bourgeois, which is what we look forward to from a French literateur these days, ne c'est pas?

If the writer gives us not only a couple dozen fresh albeit petite ideas, but expresses him/herself in an attractive manner, we are pleased as Punch/Judy. In Kristeva's case, her prose improved when she ceased implying that she had something of cosmic importance to say on every page, which just gave the reader the impression that he/she was just too naive and/or dull to see the point.

Kristeva assumes a clinically detached tone when addressing her topics. This device gives the appearance of scientific neutrality, thus protecting her against the charge of special pleading. Yet this very tone has the rhetorical effect of pleading for toleration and acceptance of what she is describing, as if to say that nothing human is beneath contempt. Such a rhetorical strategy plays into the “politically correct” agenda when we are anesthetized to the practices and fantasies of sexual perverts, but backfires when she uses the same tone with fascists. The incongruity of her attitude is especially marked when, after discussing Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, Borges, Artaud, Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Georges Bataille, Mary Douglas and the Bible, she dedicates nearly half of Powers of Horror to the homosexual anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

This last consideration raises the question of how useful she is to American feminists. The question has been a vexed one since her essay “Women's Time” (anthologized in The Kristeva Reader and elsewhere). Received in the United States as an anti-feminist screed, it is one of the most subtle statements about feminism yet produced.

Like many women intellectuals of the first eau (Joyce Carol Oates comes immediately to mind), Kristeva refuses to play the feminist game of torturing language into “non-sexist forms” or plugging the feminist program in little asides. Remaining aloof from an (in our view, misguided) linguistic reformism, as well as from the boosterism of the women's liberation movement, helps Kristeva to escape the ghetto of women's studies and become an important intellectual as such.

Nevertheless, an informal Kristeva biography reveals that seven out of ten essays or reviews about Kristeva in English were written by women. This statistic indicates what otherwise might be expected, namely, that her popularity in the United States owes something to her being a woman herself. As the crown of recent French feminism, Kristeva serves American feminism just by being as brilliant as she is, by being one of the points of consensus in the new feminist cannon.

In turn, this matter leads us to inquire whether there is anything specifically womanly in her intellectual performance. One such aspect we have already mentioned. For her clinical acceptance of anything she discusses no matter how “evil” or “disgusting” by conventional standards is surely an expression of mother-love, such that whereas father-love demands achievement and conformity to standards, mother-love is given just for being. Hers is a mind overflowing with the milk of ontological security for the weak and the twisted. She implies as much in the Introduction to Tales of Love:“Let us follow, through time, but also immoderation, and under the hold of personal predilection as love demands, some of the major ideas about love that have made up our culture; some of the major myths that have fascinated it; some of the manners of speech that have twisted even into language signs the spellbinding power of that necessary madness.”

What Love demands in Tales of Love is that she discuss Freud, Plato, the Bible, Ovid, Plotinus, Dante, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Don Juan, Romeo and Juliet, the Troubadours, Jeanne Guyon, Baudelaire, Stendhal, Bataille. (Love's cannon and Horror's not being far apart.)

Another aspect of her womanly voice is her occasional insertion of autobiographical tidbits, emotionally charged ones at that, in the manner of confessional literature, which has emerged as a specifically woman's genre. “I remember,” she begins, “a discussion among several jeunes filles of which I was one.” Elsewhere she refers to her abjection upon marrying (Sollers) in order to get a work visa to France.

A third part of her feminist appeal is the frequency with which she cites or discusses women such as Antigone, Molly Bloom, Madam Bovary, Mary Douglas, Nicolosia Bellini, Ginevra Bocheta, Catherine Francblin, Anna Freud, Mathilde Freud, Michelle A. Freeman, Jeanne Guyon, Luce Irigaray, Edith Jacobsen, Nora Joyce, Katherine of Hungary, Melanie Klein, Annette Lavers, Christine Leroy, Micheline Levowitz-Treu, Violette Morin, Sylvia Plath, Madam de Renal, Anna Rinversi, Jacqueline Risset, Maria von Rysselbergh, Lou Salome, the Shulamite, Susan Sontag, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the Sphinx, Domna Stanton, Phyllis Trible, Louise Vinge, Marina Warner … everybody but Susan Warner. Appearing in Kristeva is like making the cover of Rolling Stone.

Fourth, there is the choice of theoretical concepts that she develops and deploys: abjection, apocalyptic, carnivalesque, expenditure, fetishism, jouissance, Menippean, paragram, phallicism, pulsion, semiotic chora, the feminine subject, symbolic disposition, maternal time. Many of these stress the sinister sister, the dark underside of things.

Going beyond the specifically feminine characteristics of her thinking, Kristeva is much the product of her time, her essays following the passing modes of the day: Chinese communism, Platonic inversion, and the like. Her specialized and sometimes faddish vocabulary, as well as her stylistic peculiarities, make most of her writing quickly obsolete. Kristeva is one of those generalized French intellectuals, clerks of the mind, whose writings, while consumed by a broad cultural clientele when they are current, lack the depth or universality to endure as decisive statements of fundamental concerns or even as documents essentially expressive of their own times.

Works Cited

Julia Kristeva, et al, ed. Essays in Semiotics. Approaches to Semiotics series #4. New York, Mouton, 1971.

Julia Kristeva. On Chinese Women. New York: Urizen, 1977. Out of print. [Trans. of Des Chinoises, Editions des femmes, 1974; four chapters also trans. In the The Kristeva Reader.]

———. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. European Perspectives Series. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. 305 pp. Out of print. [Trans. of eight essays from Polyogue, Editions du Seuil, 1977, and two essays from Semiotica [in Greek]: Recherches pour une semanalyse, Editions du Seuil, 1980.]

———. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. European Perspectives Series. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. 219 pp. [Trans. of Pouvoirs de l'horreur, Editions du Seuil, 1980.]

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. Intro. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 271 pp. [Abr. Trans. of La revolution du language poetique, Editions du Seuil, 1974.]

———. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 327 pp.

———. Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. 414 pp. [Trans. of Pouvoirs de l'horreur, Editions Denoel, 1983.]

———. Language the Unknown: An Introduction to Linguistics. Trans. Anne M. Menke. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. 328 pp. [A textbook.]

———. In the Beginning was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith. European Perspectives Series. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. 80 pp.

———. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. 300 pp. [Trans. of Soeil Noir.]

———. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. [Trans. of Etrangers nous-memes, 1988.]

Dawne McCance (essay date Spring 1996)

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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 most striking example of such a practice) … this theoretical work tackles certain critical situations in subjective experience in order to re-examine its models, encourage invention once more or perhaps demonstrate the system's non-validity in the face of certain extreme experiences. I call this preoccupation ethical because, like any theory, it still demonstrates a meaning, or a thesis, or communicates a truth, even if this is contested in the process. But in the event, contrary to moral philosophy, this ethics displays its own degree of jouissance: it is concerned both with what it can and cannot demonstrate, with sense and non-sense, with what is and is not given by the thesis, with truth and whatever resists it. It analyses and so establishes the existence of them all, thereby broadening our view of what we take to be intelligence or society.

I am interested in the question of woman to the degree to which it is located in this same areas of ethics.

———Julia Kristeva, “Talking about Polylogue”


Julia Kristeva says in Black Sun (1989a, 8) that in times of crisis or loss, melancholia asserts itself, “establishes its archaeology, generates its representations.” Her essay, “Holbein's Dead Christ” (in 1989a, 106-38), concerns one of melancholia's representations, Hans Holbein the Younger's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, generated at a time of upheaval and religious crisis in Europe. The date of the painting, 1522, places it on the threshold of the modern and at the point where the Aristotelian-Christian cosmology is in the process of collapsing. The painting depicts the newly dead body of Christ laid out on the slab of a tomb. The corpse is painted life-size and as seen from the side, its chest, hands, and feet bearing the marks of torture, and its head slightly turned toward the viewer to reveal that “the expression of a hopeless grief; the empty stare, the sharp-lined profile, the dull blue-green complexion are those of a man who is truly dead, of Christ forsaken by the Father (‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’) and without the promise of Resurrection” (Kristeva 1989a, 110). That the painting is only twelve inches high, portraying the tomb as narrow and closed and with a low ceiling that bears down on the corpse, “intensifies the feeling of permanent death: this corpse shall never rise again” (110). Even the sheet which covers the slab on which the corpse is stretched out, signifies the irrevocability of this death: “The very pall, limited to a minimum of folds, emphasizes, through that economy of motion, the feeling of stiffness and stone-felt cold” (110).

Kristeva opens her essay by quoting Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky's The Idiot who, on seeing a reproduction of the Holbein painting at Rogozhin's house; exclaims, “Why, some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture” (Kristeva 1989a, 107). Kristeva herself reads the painting as conveying just such loss of faith. Holbein's is a disenchanted vision, she says; his dead Christ, walled in by black stone, is utterly without transcendence, “without any prospect toward heaven … distant, but without a beyond” (113). She suggests that the painter's vision of a desacralized world generates his minimalist aesthetic: the pall, reduced to a minimum of folds, “the well-nigh anatomical stripping of the corpse” so as to render death unadorned (110). Holbein “isolated, pruned, condensed, reduced” (115) his work into a “chromatic and compositional asceticism” (123), she says. Representing a world devoid of transcendence, “the artist refused to cast an embellishing gaze” (127).

And just as the artist's minimalist aesthetic suggests to Kristeva the new vision of reality being born in Europe at the time, “another, a new morality resides in this painting” (Kristeva 1989a, 113). Holbein “leaves the corpse strangely alone” (112), she says, its isolation heralding the detachment of the newly emerging individual, now “autonomous,” left to rely on its self. The modern subject, “strangely lonesome. Self confident. And close,” betrays “no exalted loftiness toward the beyond.” Moreover, this subject, cut off from heaven, has put the excesses of the body away. Hence, the new morality, like the Holbein painting, will be a study in stone-cold language. It is as if, with the death of Christianity's God, comes the death of medievalism's desiring (erotic and paroxystic) body. As Kristeva suggests in “The Bounded Text” (in 1980a, 36-63), once “the transcendental unity” supporting the medieval symbol, “its otherworldly casing, its transmuting focus,” gives way and Western culture moves into the “ideologeme of the sign,” the entity under consideration, the body, is reduced and reified, turned into an object “in the strongest sense of the word” and at the same time, the body is valorized, “transformed into an objectivity—the reigning law of discourse in the civilization of the sign” (39-40).1

“The Bounded Text,” which first appeared in Sémeiótiké (1969), precedes the psychoanalytic perspective that informs “Holbein's Dead Christ,” where the transition from medieval to modern is said to constitute a traumatic loss of the Other, a severance of the pole of desire which linked the medieval subject to God. No longer available to Holbein is the sacrificial economy through which death is “destroyed and superseded” (Kristeva 1989a, 131) by being cast as an experience of becoming homologous with the divine, Kristeva says.2 And with this loss of (the desire of) the divine Other, goes an entire ascetic and martyrizing tradition that “magnified the victimized aspect” of the sacrifice of the body “by eroticizing both pain and suffering, physical as well as mental, as much as possible” (131). Thus in the Holbein painting, there is “not a single impulse that betrays jouissance” (138). With the transcendent pole of desire cut, the body is no longer representable, through sacrificial death, as aufgehoben, and the eroticism of pain is lacking. The modern text “identifies not with desire but with severance” (137). With melancholia as the symptom of its loss, the new discourse treads “the tightrope—as the represented body—of an economical, sparing graphic rendition of pain … a serene disenchanted sadness … a mastery of harmony and measure” (136).

At the conclusion of “Holbein's Dead Christ,” Kristeva asks whether it is “still possible to paint when the bonds that tie us to body and meaning are severed?” (Kristeva 1989a, 136). Is it still possible to paint, or to write, after the death of the body? Kristeva's work can be read as an enactment of this quest, this question of the possibility of a practice of signification, or to use her more theatrical term, of signifiance, which does not retreat into the solace of religion and so reconnect the subject's bond to the divine Other, but which does not function either as a modern metalinguistic or monological system in which “the subject both assumes and submits to the rule of 1 (God)” (Kristeva 1980a, 77). A monological system is “centered on an entity Descartes called a subject,” who is “not included, dissolved, or implicated in the system” but rather “hovers above it, subdues it, and is absent from it,” she says (1984d, 94). Although “a fixed point” and “the sole guarantee of the symbolic system and its logical laws,” the monological subject “calls himself ‘we’” and in so doing presupposes that his or her addressee “is made in the image of its ‘we’—an indifferent subject, supposedly everyone, since symbolic systematicity eliminated heterogeneity by eliminating the negative and unfolds, purporting to be transparent, eternally communicable, omnivalent” (95). Because the addressee is not included in this system save as a mimetic reflection of its addressor-subject, the monological subject/object model of signification is, for Kristeva, as closed, or hemmed in (suturé), as Holbein's harrowing tomb, as unfolded as his minimalist pall. Kristeva writes, we might say, so as to re-enfold the text.

For her, then, to paint or to write after is not a matter of reproducing the “new morality” announced by Holbein's Dead Christ—although it is, inescapably, a question of what she calls the ethical function of the text (1984d, 232). Kristeva distinguishes her notion of the ethical from modernity's “‘scientific morality’ that would like to found a normative, albeit apparently libertarian, ethics based on knowledge” (234). Her ethics is not another moralism grounded in the modern patriarchal and monological subject, another prescriptivism that “preaches the foreclosure of the subject-as-model” (234). The question of ethics, and thus of writing after modernity and patriarchy cannot be asked apart from “a perspective that takes account of the process/trial of the subject in language or, more generally, in meaning” (233), she says. In what follows, I will attempt to outline Kristeva's account of the process/trial of the subject, what she calls her theory of le sujet en procès (the subject-in-process/on trial), as it develops in her writing from 1965 to 1974, and as it relates to what she takes to be the ethical function of the text. I will then turn to her well-known essay “Stabat Mater” as a performance of this “ethical” practice of the text, this process of the subject of trial. I will conclude by considering Kristeva's characterization of her psychoanalytic ethics of the subject-in-process as a postmodern feminist practice.


In 1984, Kristeva wrote the essay, “My Memory's Hyperbole” (Kristeva 1984c) for inclusion in an anthology of female autobiographies edited by Domna Stanton and titled The Female Autograph. Stanton explains in her preface (vii-viii) that she excised bio from autobiography in the volume's title in order to bracket the traditional emphasis on autobiography as the recounting of “a life,” with “that notion's facile presumption of referentiality,” and to suggest that the women's writing in this collection does not so much narrate as “graph the auto.” Kristeva's essay, written in the first person plural, a form which she adopts in place of the objective and authorial “I,” and offered as hyperbole, not to be taken literally, is in keeping with this non-referential understanding of the self. “My Memory's Hyperbole” traces through the evolution of the so-called Tel Quel group in Paris, from the time of Kristeva's arrival late in 1965 until 1974, when the Tel Quel journal folded. The essay does provide a scheme, then, an outline of intellectual and political developments, but written as the auto(bio)graphy of a “we” that remains hyperbolic. As Stanton (1984, x) describes it, Kristeva's essay “confounds generic and genderic boundaries” as it discusses intellectual and political movements in Paris, “analyzing the various scenes, acts, and dramatis personae not merely as a critical observer, but undeniably as a major protagonist.” The essay is written as a dramatization of its self, of the ongoing production-mutation of a hyperbolic “subject-in-the-making” (Kristeva 1981b, 167), a subject that, Kristeva says, “is alive only if it is never the same” (1984c, 220).

Kristeva writes as a dramatis persona, a player in the drama, “a revolutionary actor, a ‘scriptor’ of events” (Caws 1973, 3), in order both to call attention to and to interrogate the detached and stable person-subject that has dominated moral philosophy since John Locke's Second Treatise. Thus Kristeva's writings must be dissociated from the idea of the text as object or propertied product, authored and controlled by the person-subject. Kristeva does not so much give us a treatise on ethics, as a performance of ethics. For her, ethics is, as Leon Roudiez puts it, a “practice of scription” for which the text, as “the visible ‘stage’ (in the theatrical sense), cannot be envisaged within the myth of representation (mimesis): it is a ‘performance,’ a ‘production,’ actively involving writer and reader alike; it needs to be conceived as a materiality rather than an outer form enclosing an inner content” (Roudiez 1974, 297). The text, conceived as such, is what gives the writer identity, graphs the auto, is “a kind of matrix that makes its subject” (Kristeva 1984b, 131). The text, so conceived, is also constitutive of soma: “Signs are what produce a body,” Kristeva says (132), again dissociating her understanding of the subject as dramatis persona from the person of private rights, whose assumption of ownership and control of his or her propertied body, places the reified body “before” and “outside” the object-text. Roudiez suggests that this practice of the text as scription “brings to our own critical practice and textual theory something that is unmistakably alien” (introduction to Kristeva 1980a, 11). It made of Kristeva, on her arrival in Paris, what Roland Barthes called l'étrangère, not just a “foreigner” from Bulgaria,3 and not just an outsider to the standard theoretical scene, but a scriptor whose writing, “the discourse of a crisis in identity” (Kristeva 1984c, 268), exiles the unified subject.4 This practice has, similarly, contributed to Kristeva's ambiguous relation to feminism, particularly within the North American context.5

Kristeva says in her preface to Desire in Language (1980a, ix) that writing as scription “assumes the necessity of adopting a stance involving otherness, distance, even limitation” as “the only guarantee of ethics” in a world of technological rationality. We could read her early essays, many of which are published in Séméiotiké (1969), as attempts to work out this ethical stance involving otherness, and so to move literary criticism and structuralist linguistics from the monological, or “zero-one,” system to what she comes to call a “zero-two” practice of “poetic language.” Kristeva applies the latter term to writing that is open to the subject's production as both an “I” and an other. In Bakhtin's approach to poetic language, for instance, where “the word/discourse is, as it were, distributed over the various instances of discourse that a multiple ‘I’ can occupy simultaneously,” the subject of language “is made up of otherself,” becomes in writing its “own otherness, and thereby multiple and elusive, polyphonic” (Kristeva 1973, 109). According to Bakhtin's understanding of the carnivalesque, “all poetic language is dramatization, dramatic permutation … of words,” Kristeva says; what it dramatizes is the scene of the subject, in process between representation and rhythm: “On the omnified stage of the carnival, language parodies and relativizes itself, repudiating its role in representation; in so doing, it provokes laughter but remains incapable of detaching itself from representation” (Kristeva 1980a, 79). In that this dialogical, “zero-two” poetics is simultaneously one and the other, “both representative and antirepresentative” (79), it allows for what Kristeva calls an “ambivalent ethics” (69): never simply a rational monologism, and “put together as an exploration of the body” (83).

In “Pour une sémiologie des paragrammes” (in Kristeva 1969), another of her early essays, Kristeva uses Ferdinand de Saussure's Anagrammes to develop the notion of a paragrammatical text, the text as an interrelation of texts, a multifaceted juncture of meanings and codes.6 Like Bakhtin's dialogical “word,” the poetic paragram is always at least double, and therefore “ambivalent” (Kristeva 1969, 182-83). The word “ambivalent” comes up again and again, to denote a poetic “doubling” of the subject and language, a doubling that, for instance, Kristeva associates with what she calls the “ethical dimension” of Roman Jakobson's work (“The Ethics of Linguistics” in 1980a, 26-35). Jakobson's reading of the futurist poets, she says, is an “opening” of monological theory to the “other of the linguistic and/or social contract” (30), which thereby enables the speaking subject “to shift the limits of its enclosure” (33). By giving voice to the rhythm inscribed in Mayakovsky's poetry, Kristeva suggests, Jakobson allows us to hear the “silent causality and ethics” (28) at work in poetic language. Again, “ambivalence” allows for ethics in that it opens to heterogeneity, makes room for both sameness and difference: For Jakobson, Kristeva says, language is double, both rhythm and structure, both struggle and law; and therefore the writing subject is never either monological reason or asymbolic rhythm, but an unending dialogical, ethical process-production between the two.

These early essays suggest that, for Kristeva, the ethics of a given discourse “may be gauged in proportion to the poetry that it presupposes” (25), where “poetry” and “poetic” writing function to “dynamize” structure through a theory-practice of the text as “a free play, forever without closure” (“From One Identity To An Other” in 1980a, 128).7 An ethics based on this zero-two writing emphasizes “the dynamics of production over the actual product” and therefore the othernessalterité) of what it studies, rather than focusing on a reified and representable object (Kristeva 1969, 39-40). Kristeva's vocabulary may be, at least in part, idiosyncratic, but her message can be simply put: ethics, in her understanding, cannot be reduced to the pro-positioning of a Lockean individualist subject, with all of the assumptions that system entails. What is needed today, rather, is a theory of the writing-speaking subject as itself a productive activity in language. The ethics of any speaking-writing would then be dependent on the extent to which the subject in language remains open, in any given instance, to a dimension that is supplementary to authoritative propositionality, to the heterogeneity or alterity of an other—the otherness of body, of the other culture, of the other self. In that it opens to this space, the matrix, of the subject, Bakhtin's dialogism is, for Kristeva, “quasi-psychological” (Kristeva 1973, 110), and a precursor of this needed theory of the subject. She says the same of Saussure's research on poetic language, published in his Anagrammes. Studying Saturnian verse and Vedic poetry, Saussure discovered that each message was a double code: “Each text was another text, each poetic unit had at least a double signification, no doubt unconscious, that was reconstituted through the play of the signifier” (Kristeva 1989b, 293). What he had isolated was the seemingly-psychoanalytic particularity of poetic functioning: “that supplementary meanings slip into the verbal message, tear its opaque cloth, and rearrange another signifying scene” (293).

Kristeva's psychoanalytic theory of the subject en procès receives its first systematic elaboration in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984d). Here, in an attempt “to go beyond the theatre of linguistic representations to make room for pre-or translinguistic modalities of psychic inscription” (Kristeva 1987a, 5), she borrows the term chora from Plato's Timaeus and uses it to designate both anteriority and heterogeneity. The chora signifies a mythical space or phase “anterior” to the mirror stage and the child's acquisition of language, a preverbal “rhythmic space, which has no thesis and no position” (26); and it also designates a heterogeneousness beyond representation, an unconscious supplementarity that belongs inescapably to the process of signifiance. From the chora emanate the energy charges which Kristeva associates with the operation of the “semiotic” (le sémiotique). As “articulated by flow and marks: facilitation, energy transfers, the cutting up of the corporeal and social continuum as well as that of signifying material” (40), the semiotic is distinct from the “symbolic” (le symbolique), language as representation, meaning, sign. Always “ambivalent,” signification requires both the semiotic and symbolic modalities: even as the metalanguage of a monological subject, signification cannot completely close off the semiotic, and neither is there any possibility of meaningful signification outside the pro-positioning of a conscious subject. The psychoanalytic sujet en procès is interminably in process/on trial between the semiotic and symbolic.

Related to this distinction of the semiotic and symbolic is Kristeva's theory of the text as a production, “a process, an engendrement” (Lewis 1974, 30) which includes both géno-texte and phéno-texte. She uses the latter term “to denote language that serves to communicate.” The phenotext, she says, is a structure that “obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee” (Kristeva 1984a, 87). The genotext, however, is not a linguistic structure but a generative process, “a process, which tends to articulate structures that are ephemeral (unstable, threatened by drive charges, ‘quanta’ rather than ‘marks’) and nonsignifying (devices that do not have a double articulation)” (86), but which are nonetheless detectable in the phenotext. Although, as Christopher Johnson points out, “the relationship linking the geno-and pheno-texts is one of translation” (1988, 74), Kristeva does not think of “translation” as the “zero-one” passage from an underlying original to a surface copy. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the genotext and the phenotext, the sort of correspondence which is suggested by Chomsky's Cartesian model of deep structure and surface structure, she says; and the genotext, not an other scene but an ensemble of other scenes, is generative of signifying operations which exceed the limit of sentence-meaning (Kristeva 1969, 281-84). Through these operations, the genotext imprints its seal in the phenotext, leaves markers (such as the phonemic-phonetic elements or groups of elements which Kristeva calls signifying differentials) which open “the normative usage of language on the one hand toward the underlying and repressed body and semiotic chora, and on the other hand toward multiple displacements and condensations which produce a strongly ambivalent if not polymorphous semantics” (Kristeva 1974, 34).

This practice of the text as scription, as both genotext and phenotext, therefore as “more-than-a-sentence, more-than-meaning, more-than-significance … always more: more-than-syntactic” (Kristeva 1980a, 168), is coextensive with what Kristeva calls ethics. “The ethical cannot be stated,” she says in Revolution in Poetic Language; “instead it is practiced to the point of loss, and the text is one of the most accomplished examples of such a practice” (1984d, 234). A textual practice is ethical when it is ambivalent, where the term again denotes a double, a zero-two, both sameness and difference: “positing and dissolving meaning and the unity of the subject therefore encompasses the ethical” (1984d, 233). One cannot demand, then, that the text simply “emit a message which would be considered ‘positive’: the univocal enunciation of such a message would itself represent a suppression of the ethical function as we understand it.” Only when it both posits and “pluralizes, pulverizes, ‘musicates’” meaning does the text fulfill its ethical function. There is no authoritative position for a unified person-subject above or outside of this text, she says, setting her understanding of ethics apart from the liberal, social contract model that still dominates in the world today. For Kristeva, the subject of ethics is an exile, a wanderer (égaré), a subject whose only place, locus, is language and thus whose position (identity meaning) can never be fixed (see Kristeva 1977b). I turn now to her essay, “Stabat Mater,” which I take to be a practice of this process-trial of the subject.


“No language can sing,” Kristeva says, “unless it confronts the Phallic Mother” (1980a, 191). If language is to “sing,” that is, to be ethical, it cannot leave this phallic construct “untouched, outside, opposite, against the law, the absolute esoteric code. Rather, it must swallow her, eat her, dissolve her, set her up like a boundary of the process where ‘I’ with ‘she’—‘the other,’ ‘the mother’ becomes lost” (191).

Perhaps no essay of Kristeva's has garnered more critical attention, especially from feminists, than “Stabat Mater,” an essay that attempts this very dissolution. First published in Tel Quel (1977) as Héretique de l'amour, the essay appears in Histoires d'amour (1983), and in English translation in Tales of Love (Kristeva 1987b). It is also printed in English in Poetics Today (1985) and in The Kristeva Reader. Kristeva explains that the title of the essay is taken from the mournful hymn of the Roman Catholic Church, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, attributed to the medieval poet Jacopone da Todi, a meditation on the Virgin Mary in her station at the cross, which opens with the words, “The sorrowful mother was standing.” Kristeva refers to the composer Pergolesi, “who was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote his immortal Stabat Mater” (“Stabat Mater” in 1987b, 252). Might the hymn, then, and perhaps also Kristeva's essay, be two more of melancholia's representations? For melancholy, which points to a loss, a crisis, can be traced to the subject's being “irrevocably, desperately separated from the mother,” Kristeva says in Black Sun (1989a, 6); “a loss that causes him to try to find her again, along with other objects of love, first in the imagination, then in words.” Pergolesi, the composer, at the critical moment of his dying, turns in his Stabat Mater to a paradigmatic representation of maternal love: Mary, defying her son's death, the masculine corpse, through love, prompts the outburst, “‘Eia Mater, fons amoris!’ (‘Hail mother, source of love!’)” (1987b, 252). Pergolesi returns to the lost mother, “the primal shelter that insured the survival of the newborn,” and so “overcomes the unthinkable of death by postulating maternal love in its place—in the place and stead of death and thought” (252). And Kristeva recalls the same “lost territory” (234), the primal mother, in her essay “Stabat Mater,” where she takes as her subject Christianity's fantasy of Mary, “doubtless the most refined symbolic construct” (234) through which primary narcissism has been idealized.

The idealization involves less the representation of an archaic mother than “the idealization of the relationship that binds us to her,” Kristeva suggests (1987b, 234). She takes this relationship as the actual “subject” of her “Stabat Mater,” not however, simply to talk about “it,” to reify primary narcissism as the object of a theoretical discourse, but to enact the idealization's “analysis” (division, dissolution) of the writing subject. As a staging of this narcissistic drama, Kristeva's writing in the essay oscillates between the symbolic re-presentation of primary narcissism and the semiotic processes that are supplementary to the idealization and that expose it for the fantasy it is. In writing the essay, Kristeva says, she wanted to position her self in process/on trial between the semiotic and symbolic: “I wanted to give an image of this contradiction which is on the one hand a description of the universal and the individual, and on the other hand, the involvement of the author … I didn't want to give an impression of coherence, on the contrary I wanted to give an impression of a sort of wound, a scar” (Kristeva 1984a, 24).

The essay is not coherent. For one thing, it is both a “theoretical or academic discourse … a knowing discourse, a discourse which pretends to some objectivity,” and “a sort of literary poetic text” (Kristeva 1984a, 24). While the theoretical discourse, the analysis and overview of the historical cult of Mary, dominates the main text, which is placed on the right side of the essay, theory is by no means confined there, but surfaces also in the boldface inserts that interrupt the main text and are printed on the left side of the essay. Thus the typographic fragmentation of the essay does not mark a clear division between the “theoretical” and the “literary” (can such a separation be made?). Even less does the right side correspond to the rational and paternal symbolic, while “the left-hand column, heavily inked and broken into short sections, lyrically invokes the pre-cultural maternal body” (Jones 1985, 95). The essay does not simply bifurcate along the line of a binary, left/right, semiotic/symbolic, before/after, female/male fold. To say that it does, that, for instance, Kristeva identifies the semiotic with “femininity,” placed “outside” (to the side of) the patriarchal symbolic, and that “Stabat Mater” thus proclaims a biological essentialism (a conservative apology for motherhood, an exclusion of women from the realm of power), is to miss the ambivalence of Kristeva's signifying subject, its undecidable process between semiotic and symbolic, which is also the undecidability of a (sexual) identity.8 Both the right and the left sides of the essay are always both semiotic and symbolic, both representation and unrepresentability.9

Hence the ambivalence of the semiotic chora in “Stabat Mater”: it is “readable” on both sides of the essay and on the levels of both signified and signifier; it is “readable” both as representation, as an idealization of primary narcissism, and as unrepresentable unconscious operations that work within representation to disturb its coherence. As an idealization of the relationship to the primal mother, the chora represents the dreamed recovery of an intra-uterine, neonatal bond with the mother (“recovered childhood, dreamed peace restored” [247]), whose sheltering love focuses adoringly on the sleeping (male) child, his “forehead, eyebrows, nostrils, cheeks, parted features of the mouth, delicate, hard, pointed chin. Without fold or shadow, neither being nor unborn, neither present nor absent, but real, real inaccessible innocence, engaging weight and seraphic lightness” (247-48). This idealization of primary narcissism is assimilated by Christianity's Mary, whose virginity, immaculate conception, and assumption into heaven as Queen, gather together “the attributes of the desired woman and of the holy mother” (245) to produce an “incredible construct” (256) of maternal love, centered on the son, beholden to the husband and father (243). To the consternation of several of her critics, Kristeva represents the fantasy of primary narcissism by folding autobiographical reflections on her own role as phallic mother, reminiscences drawn both from her mothering and from her practice as an analyst, into the historical myth. This is not an exercise in re-membering intended to promote a return to the primeval mother. It is, rather, a procedure of anamnesis (240), a technique of working through (back-and-forth, between the two columns) Western culture's representation of woman as bound up with a centuries-old narcissistic fixation, a fantasy of originary wholeness which, when posited also as telos, serves as a defense against loss and death.

To expose the fantasy as such is, in part, to introduce a division that is incongruent with the supposed unity of the originary mother-child bond, a “continuous separation,” an “abyss between the mother and the child” (Kristeva 1987b, 254) that is “always already” there in both biology and memory. And the division is “always already” there in the subject of signification, which means that the mythical “territory” is “lost” because it does not, and cannot, exist: for the subject in language, there is no safe place or space, no “extra-symbolic” haven, before or outside the law.10 Thus the semiotic chora is neither ultimately representable nor localizable, and is “knowable” only as an aftereffect of the genotext, a remainder, a “heterogeneity that cannot be subsumed in the signifier,” and that fractures the narcissistic myth, “extract[ing] woman out of her oneness” (259). Intonation and rhythm are two markers of this semiotic heterogeneity in “Stabat Mater.” For instance, both columns juxtapose regular sentences with unpunctuated fragments, as well as with sentences “punctuated” so as to introduce semantic and syntactical anomalies: abrupt halts or musicating ambiguities. Intonation and rhythm also work through repetition of phonemes and networks of alliteration (signifying differentials) which, to use Kristeva's words, “establish trans-sentence paths that are superimposed over the linear sequences of clauses and introduce into the logical-syntactical memory of the text a phonic-instinctual memory. They set up associative chains that crisscross the text from beginning to end” (1980a, 169), and we might say, from column to column, in a procedure of anamnesis which is a passing through and beyond the sign, a spatializing of the textual network. Where intonation and rhythm work by means of the falling/failing of pronouns (the shifting and ambiguous “I”: Kristeva's voice inseparable from Mary's voice, the maternal voice from the voice of infancy, the voice/identity of the poet from that of academic), signification is destabilized, as is the identity of the sender and receiver.

In all of these cases, the intonational breakthrough is a going-through to the “polylogical body” (Kristeva 1980a, 186). This is not a phonocentric endeavor, for given that the mark which the genotext leaves in the phenotext is an “illegible seal” that has to be read (Kristeva 1969, 285), “the eye cannot be excluded by the ear” (Kristeva 1980a, 180) from detecting the heterogeneity in language. For instance, Kristeva's play on the word “perversion” in “Stabat Mater” (in 1987b, 260) must be seen in order to be “heard” as a distortion of the verse au père. Procreation (the mother's pregnancy, childbirth), as jubilatory “outpouring,” is “feminine perversion” as père-version, she says, as a culturally coded buttress of the father's law and of the repression of body-woman. Contrary to this paternal law, to the father's “proper” name, and distorting of his image in the mirror, “Stabat Mater” practices another kind of perversion: it allows the semiotic chora, figure of the perverse, to insinuate itself into the essay. It is this contamination of primary narcissism by the unconscious that makes “Stabat Mater” an incestuous text. It is a “strange incest” (Kristeva 1980a, 192), however, where what is being swallowed is an idealization: the phallic mother, destructured-dissolved by traces of the unconscious which are enfolded in the surface text.

A “strange fold” (1987b, 259). The uncanniness of “Stabat Mater” is not the Unheimliche, the phobic affect, abject, the terrified loathing associated with the body of the pregnant woman and reproduced by feminists who recoil from the essay because they read it as appealing to this familiar body.11 For the body which grafts itself as other within this essay cannot be represented. It is the encounter with this unrepresentable other, this unsaid, Kristeva suggests, which produces the feeling of uncanny strangeness. The Unheimliche “is a destructuration of the self” which results from “a new encounter with an unexpected outside element;” it is “a crumbling of conscious defenses, resulting from the conflicts the self experiences with an other—the ‘strange’—with whom it maintains a conflictual bond” (Kristeva 1991, 188). The unconscious, the unheimlish place, at once alien and immanent within representation, “our disturbing otherness … that threat, that apprehension generated by the projective apparition of the other at the heart of what we persist in maintaining as a proper, solid ‘us’” (192), puts “Stabat Mater” into what Jean-François Lyotard calls an economy of deferral.12 Disposed to go counter to what is proper, to turn the wrong way, change direction, go awry, the essay weaves together both symbolic and semiotic, and so fails to fix an either/or identity for its self.


Kristeva associates deferral, “‘that's not it’ and ‘that's still not it’,” with what she calls “a feminist practice,” where the word practice points to scription and thus to “something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies” (Kristeva 1981a, 137). In “Stabat Mater,” she links the question of writing after, “after the Virgin” (1987b, 262), to such a feminist practice, “an heretical ethics, an herethics” (263), a contemporary ethics “no longer seen as being the same as morality” (262). Such an ethics, she says, would not avoid “the embarrassing and inevitable problematics of the law,” but rather would seek to give the law “flesh, language, jouissance” (262); it would be a kind of “WORD FLESH” (235), situated on the thetic boundary where “speech causes biology to show through” (263). Writing after would position its self on the border of the semiotic and symbolic, on the place of the wound or the scar,13 at the site of, and as the experience of, the limit, and for the purpose of “testing the limits of language and sociality” (1981a, 138).

Kristeva suggests in “Women's Time” (1981c, 27) that not avoiding the problematic of the law means not exiling women to a foreign land outside patriarchal society, “an a-topia, a place outside the law.” Certain forms of feminism, she says, “revive a kind of naive romanticism” (1981a, 138) in which the belief in an essential female identity goes hand in hand with the utopian dream of a distinct place for women, a countersociety based on the qualitative difference of women from men, and “imagined as harmonious, without prohibitions, free and fulfilling” (1981c, 27). This dream of a separatist space is also the dream of a female time outside the linear temporality of patriarchal history: for instance, a re-membering of the cyclical body/time of the pre-patriarchal primeval goddess. Such “romantic” and essentialist feminisms are problematic for Kristeva, not only because they posit an unrealizable telos but also because they reinstate a binary order of difference:

As with any society, the countersociety is based on the expulsion of an excluded element, a scapegoat charged with the evil of which the community duly constituted can then purge itself; a purge which will finally exonerate that community of any future criticism. Modern protest movements have often reiterated this logic, locating the guilty one—in order to fend off criticism—in the foreign, in capital alone, in the other religion, in the other sex. Does not feminism become a kind of inverted sexism when this logic is followed to its conclusion? (Kristeva 1981c, 27)

No less problematic, for Kristeva, than this “romantic” avoidance of the law, is the feminist capitulation to it. She aligns a “second generation” of feminisms with such capitulation, as when women attempt to enter the discourse of ethics by assuming the seventeenth-century ideal of homo rationalis, by constructing themselves as “reducible one to the other” (Kristeva 1981c, 20) as Lockean persons. As a “logic of identification” (19) with the ontology and morality of the patriarchal system, its conscious subject and his proprietary rights, these feminisms strive to gain a space for women in linear time. These feminisms claim equality for women as full partakers of the social contract, but in so doing, Kristeva maintains, they also assume that contract's binary model of sexual difference. Kristeva is not here opposing the many goals which the women's movement can and must achieve, “freedom of abortion and contraception, day-care centers for children, equality on the job, etc.” (1981a, 137). But she is arguing against conformist identification with patriarchal power structures, including the prevailing structure of the social contract. For rather than proceeding as a social contract among equals, even equal men, this structure, in all of its forms, bases itself on a violent and “essentially sacrificial relationship of separation and articulation of differences” (1981c, 23).

Kristeva suggests that for a third “generation” of feminists, feminists who advocate neither the identification with power nor the constitution of a fetishist counterpower, “the sociosymbolic contract as a sacrificial contract” (1981c, 25) has become a major concern. Recognizing that no signification, no meaningful communication, is possible without separation and positing of differences, these feminists do not promote rejection of the patriarchal symbolic in favor of a harmonious before or outside. But neither do they accept modernity's order of identity and difference as an ontological given. “Without refusing or sidestepping” the logic of separation and syntactical sequence on which language and the social contract are founded, these feminists attempt “to explore the constitution and functioning of the contract” and in particular “to break the code, to shatter language, to find a specific discourse closer to the body and emotions, to the unnameable repressed by the social contract” (24-25).

“Anthropology has shown that the social order is sacrificial,” Kristeva says (1981c, 29); but it has also shown that “sacrifice orders violence, binds it, tames it.” She uses the term “religion” to apply to such ordering, such taming, of the sacrificial violence, the violent separation of sameness from difference, that is constitutive of subjectivity and the social contract: “I call ‘religion’ this phantasmic necessity on the part of speaking beings to provide themselves with a representation (animal, female, male, parental, etc.) in place of what constitutes them as such, in other words, symbolization—the double articulation and syntactic sequence of language, as well as its preconditions or substitutes (thoughts, affects, etc.)” (32). Notwithstanding the affinity which, she says, both separationist and conformist feminists have with such “religion,” Kristeva situates the women's movement “within the very framework of the religious crisis of our civilization” (32). Rituals and representations of sacrifice, such as the myth of the primal mother, no longer serve to satisfy the fear and anguish associated with symbolic violence. Herein lies the importance for Kristeva of the work of what she calls third “generation” feminists, where “the word ‘generation’ implies less a chronology than a signifying space” (33): what these writers attempt to explore is the ambivalent space of the signifying bond itself, the “interior” space of “the founding separation of the sociosymbolic contract” (34) where meaning and subjectivity are constructed. This work replaces the “attempt to fabricate a scapegoat victim as foundress of a society or a countersociety … by the analysis of the potentialities of victim/executioner which characterize each identity, each subject, each sex” (34).

Such work is ethical, Kristeva says. It undertakes its task in order to emphasize responsibility, the responsibility which each of us has to put “fluidity into play against the threats of death which are unavoidable whenever an inside and an outside, a self and an other, one group and an other, are constituted” (1981c, 35). But although ethical, such work is a perversion, a contamination, of the dominant morality, and in part for this reason, it is undertaken today by what are usually called aesthetic practices (34-35). The question of “postmodernism,” for Kristeva, and she does pose postmodernism as a question, as a question of writing after, is the inquiry, the exploration, of the ethical, so understood. Like the term generation, “postmodernism” for her, implies less a chronology than a signifying space: it “attempts to expand the limits of the signifiable” (Kristeva 1980b, 137). Its concern “extends deep within the constituent mechanisms of human experience as an experience of meaning; it extends as far as the very obscure and primary narcissism wherein the subject constitutes itself in order to oppose itself to another” (137-38). At this level of “interiorization” (a term which, I am suggesting, does not connote modernity's surface/depth model of the text, but the text's surface-spatialization as a network), and at the threshold where subjectivity is constructed through the demarcation and separation of an other, the “borderline writing” (139) of postmodernism—or of what Kristeva would call third-generation postmodern feminism—attempts to shift the boundaries, the limits, of the subject's enclosure.

For Kristeva, there is melancholy implied in this postmodern feminist “writing-as-experience-of-limits” (1980b, 139), undertaken in a time of crisis and, as she puts it, “in such an unprotected manner” (141), that is, without the refuge of religious representations, and so without the defense of an idealized life-giving mother. But the melancholy of this ethical practice is not, for her, the miserable sadness that Holbein sees in the silent, stone-cold cadaver of Christ. It is not the melancholy that results from the modern subject's reification and repression of the body as dead, and as a threat to be abjected. “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection,” Kristeva says (1982, 4), but in postmodern feminist (poetic, psychoanalytic, aesthetic) practices, the body comes back to life. For the heterogeneity of the postmodern text, she says, is the heterogeneity of the signifying body, released (“resurrected”?) from its murderous Cartesian enclosure. At the same time, however, if postmodern feminist practices bring the body to life, they do so by putting the unified subject to death: the unified self perishes (L. cadaver, f. cado, cadere, to fall, fall down, fall dead, decay, perish; a dead man's remains), “literally ‘falls into pieces’” (1989a, 18)14 in what Kristeva calls the practice of the “text.”

Not the disjunction of either life or death then, but an ambivalence between the two: as representation, l'écriture limite is caught up necessarily in symbolic violence and the threat of death. But as the interminable upheaval/crisis of the signifying subject, it opens to death's unrepresentability: the unrepresentable as index of the death drive, “the ultimate imprint of the death drive,” working as the “nonrepresentative spacing of representation” and so as the dissolution of the transcendental self (1989a, 27). Etymologically, Kristeva points out, analysis means dissolution: to unbind, dissolve, cut, divide, dislocate, lose (Kristeva 1987a, 7). Psychoanalysis does not liberate us into self-completion and wholeness, she says. Its “ethical” task, instead, is to record, to dramatize, the crisis of the unified self.


  1. This essay, revised from Posts: Re-Addressing the Ethical by Dawne McCance, is printed here with permission of the State University of New York Press. Copyright 1996.

  2. The technical language of this early essay serves perhaps as a reminder that the young literary critic, newly arrived in France, had at one time wanted to go to Duobno in Siberia to become an astronomer or a physicist. Kristeva speaks of her interest in becoming a scientist in “Julia Kristeva: á quoi servent les intellectuels?” (1977a), an interview with Jean-Paul Enthoven, where she also responds to the charge that her writing is so difficult as to be inaccessible or elitist. “I do not think that in our societies, an intellectual's ultimate vocation is to create a social accord based on clarity, transparency and simplification,” she says. “There are organizations and devices for that. On the contrary, it seems to me that if an intellectual has a reason to exist, it is in the single measure where he affirms and propagates a difference” (my translation).

  3. See Tales of Love here, especially “God is Love,” where Kristeva considers the way in which the Christian understanding of love facilitates the construction of subject identity, how it “favors my leap into the Name of the Father” (Kristeva 1987b, 144). Significantly, in Christianity, as distinct from Judaism, love requires the death of the body, she says, the killing of the believer's body as condition for identification with the divine ideal. In Christianity, “love is the experience of becoming homologous” but there is no idealizing identification, no setting up of the believer as the subject of the Other, without the death of the lustful body: “The killing of the body is the path through which the body-Self has access to the Name of the Other who loves me and makes of me a Subject who is immersed (baptized) in the Name of the Other” (146).

  4. Kristeva's status as an “exile” has been both romanticized and overlooked. As an example of the former, see the remarks with which Jean-Paul Enthoven opens “Julia Kristeva: á quoi servent les intellectuels?” (Kristeva 1977a): “First, there is her voice: serious, but with a Bulgarian accent that gives her students from Paris-VII the impression that they are not listening to a professor but to one of those actresses exiled from l'entre-deux-guerres. A delicacy, almost Chinese, with an insane, seductive smile. Her age: at least thirty-five. Finally, her name, that for her alone could have made for this recent emigrant from Eastern Europe a type of secret counselor for melancholic intellectuals” (my translation). On the other hand, her status as an exile is overlooked by those who deal with her and her writing as, simply, “French,” and as exemplifying “French feminism,” or “French post-structuralism,” or the “post-modernism” of “the French.”

  5. The writing subject, Kristeva says, is “a pulverized and shattered being. The individual, insofar as he is a speaking being, witnesses a permanent radical crisis, he is much less an entity—as one would believe through etymology than a contradictory constellation” (Kristeva 1977a, 98, my translation).

  6. As Toril Moi's (1985) title, Sexual/Textual Politics, suggests, the North American women's movement has tended to organize itself as a revolutionary sexual politics, whereas for a “French” feminist philosopher such as Kristeva, social revolution constitutes a revolutionary practice of writing, a textual politics. While much has been written on the divisions that separate Anglo-American and French feminisms, the situation has, I think, changed in recent years with what Kelly Oliver calls the increasing “importation” of the work of such writers as Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray. See Oliver's Reading Kristeva (1993, Chap. 7), for a recent discussion of the problem of “translating” “French” feminisms into the North American context, and also for a consideration of the ambiguous relationships of “textual” feminists (Kristeva, Cixous, Irigaray) to the women's movement in France.

  7. “I seized upon Saussure's Anagrammes, parts of which Jakobson and Starobinski had published. From this starting point, I tried to establish a ‘paragrammatical’ conception of the literary text as a distortion of signs and their structures that produces an infinitesimal overdetermination of meaning in literature” (Kristeva 1984c, 225).

  8. “In the case of poetic language,” Kelly Oliver writes, “symbolic identity is full of difference and yet maintains its integrity as language. Here the heterogeneity in language is at its most apparent. Poetic language is language that is also not language, language that is other to itself” (Oliver 1993, 182).

  9. In “Stabat Mater,” Kristeva “assumes and glorifies, as only a Christian can, Freud's version of the traditional (modern) view of femininity as motherhood,” Teresa de Lauretis maintains (1989, 269). Kristeva's positioning of women in an “extra-Symbolic” place “reinforces a long-term, mainstream tendency in Western thought to exclude women, along with madmen and slaves, from cultural centrality; she stays within the Symbolic by affirming the gender logic that locates women outside it,” says Ann Rosalind Jones (1984, 62).

  10. I disagree, then, with Kaja Silverman's reading of the left-hand column as approximating the maternal enceinte or chora. During the course of “Stabat Mater,” Silverman says, this column “moves increasingly in the direction of grammatical propriety and subject-predication. It also enacts a drift toward theory, coming more and more to resemble its symbolic counterpart” (Silverman 1988, 114). My argument is that, according to Kristeva's theory of the subject-in-process, the symbolic and semiotic are always, inseparably and simultaneously, in play in both columns. My reading of “Stabat Mater” also takes issue with Silverman's contention that in the essay Kristeva is “celebrating” (114) the mother's relationship to a male child. I am suggesting that Kristeva's essay dramatizes the patriarchal fantasy of the mother, including the fantasy of motherhood as the desire to bear the father's male child.

  11. Like Lacan, Kristeva suggests that fragmentation or division belongs to the child's “prehistory,” and therefore that the chora (a term she uses to suggest a space or place “anterior” to language) does not imply an original unity, an idyllic and harmonious beginning outside of the Father's binary law. For this reason, the “before” of the chora, like that of Lacan's mirror stage, cannot simply be read into the before/after logic of a developmental history or a diachronic system of language. See Samuel Weber (1991). Weber suggests that the “future anteriority” of the Lacanian mirror stage is incompatible with the before-after linearity of patriarchal time. As I suggest in the conclusion to this essay, Kristeva would relate “Women's Time,” a time other than patriarchal diachrony, to the “spatialization” of the subject in poetic speaking or writing, so that the women's movement, for her, if is it to be truly revolutionary, must address the issues of both space and time. It must problematize the time of modernity, which, we might say, is the time of history, “time as project, linear and prospective unfolding; time as departure, progression, and arrival” (Kristeva 1981c, 17). This time gives the order of language, “considered as the enunciation of sentences (noun + verb; topic-comment; beginning-ending)” (17). And, as Francis Bacon put it in his Temporus partus masculusThe Masculine Birth of Time), the linear succession of language coincides with the order of nature itself, from which in turn derive “the enlightened predictability of the world” and the task of putting into proper order as “the shape of the history to come” (Reiss 1982, 221). Kristeva associates the monological (patriarchal) subject with this diachronic order(ing) and time.

  12. Abjection is different from “uncanniness” and more violent too, Kristeva says in Powers of Horror (1982, 5), for abjection—the jettisoning, the radical exclusion-explusion of what is separate, other, not me, threatening to the I's identity, threatening to system and order, and so loathsome (2-4)—“is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin.” In abjection, she says, “nothing is familiar” (5). And yet, she also says that abjection confronts us “with our earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity” such that, under the law of the father, the mother “will turn into an abject,” and abjection itself will become “a precondition of narcissism” (13). In the sections of Powers of Horror which examine the place of the mother in Céline's fiction, Kristeva explores further this relation between abjection and primary narcissism, and especially between abjection and the body of the birth-giving woman.

  13. Ethics, after modernity's master narratives, begins in search of its rules, Lyotard says: in search of rules for writing which is open (passible) to forgotten difference, to what he calls le différend. What is it to write (paint, speak, etc.) in openness to difference or heterogeneity, so that “the self is essentially passible to a recurrent alterity”? (Lyotard 1991, 59). The after signifies not a chronological or sequential post, but postponement, writing as self-deferral (différer). See note 9 above.

  14. Kristeva's references to the wound or scar suggest not only the physical, birth-giving rupture but also, more obliquely and thus perhaps more significantly, both the splitting or “tearing” of the subject at the thetic boundary, and the scar of the trauma and triumph of “battle with the Phallic Mother” (Kristeva 1980a, 193).

  15. Lyotard uses the word cadere in Heidegger and “the jews” (Lyotard 1990, 17), and like Kristeva, in a discussion of the fear and violence that are bound up with writing, and of the need, therefore, to “give space” to the subject.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. 1859. Temporus partus masculus. The works of Francis Bacon. Vol. 3. Ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Heath. London: Longman.

Barthes, Roland. 1970. L'Étrangère. Quinzaine Littéraire, 1-5 May, 19-20.

Caws, Mary Ann. 1973. Tel Quel: Text and revolution. Diacritics 3(1): 2-8.

de Lauretis, Teresa. 1989. The female body and heterosexual presumption. Semiotica 67(3-4): 259-79.

Johnson, Christopher. 1988. Intertextuality and the psychical model. Paragraph 11(1): 11-89.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. 1985. Inscribing femininity: French theories of the feminine. In Making a difference: Feminist literary criticism, ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn. London: Methuen.

———. 1984. Julia Kristeva on femininity: The limits of a semiotic politics. Feminist Review 18: 56-73.

Kristeva, Julia. 1969. Sémeiótiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Seuil.

———. 1973. The ruin of a poetics. In Russian formalism, ed. Stephen Bann and Joseph Boldt. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

———. 1974. Phonetics, phonology and impulsional bases. Trans. Caren Greenberg. Diacritics 4(3): 33-37.

———. 1977a. Julia Kristeva: á quoi servent les intellectuels? Interview. Jean-Paul Enthoven. Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 June.

———. 1977b. Modern theatre does not take (a) place. Trans. Alice Jardine and Thomas Gora. Sub-Stance 18-19: 131-34.

———. 1977c. Polylogue. Paris: Seuil.

———. 1977d. Un nouveau type d'intellectuel: le dissident. Tel Quel 74: 3-8.

———. 1979. Ellipsis on terror and the specular seduction. Trans. Dolores Burdick. Wide Angle 3(2): 42-47.

———. 1980a. Desire in language: A semiotic approach to literature and art. Ed. Leon Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1980b. Postmodernism? In Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, ed. Harry R. Garvin. Lewisberg: Buchnell University Press.

———. 1981a. La femme, ce n'est pas jamais ça. In New French feminisms, trans. Marilyn August, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken.

———. 1981b. Oscillation du ‘pouvoir’ au ‘refus’. In New French feminisms, trans. Marilyn August, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken.

———. 1981c. Women's time. Trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs 7(1): 13-35.

———. 1982. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1983. Within the microcosm of “the talking cure.” In Interpreting Lacan, ed. Joseph Smith and William Kerrigan. New Haven: Yale University Press.

———. 1984a. Julia Kristeva in conversation with Rosalind Coward. In Desire. London: ICA Documents.

———. 1984b. An interview with Julia Kristeva. By Perry Meisel. Partisan Review 51(1): 128-32.

———. 1984c. My memory's hyperbole. In The female autograph, trans. Athena Viscusi, ed. Domna Stanton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1984d. Revolution in poetic language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1987a. In the beginning was love: Psychoanalysis and faith. Trans. Arthur Gold-hammer. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1987b. Tales of love. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1987c. Talking about polylogue. Trans. Séan Hand. In French feminist thought: A reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Blackwell.

———. 1989a. Black sun: Depression and melancholy. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1989b. Language the unknown: An initiation into linguistics. Trans. Anne M. Menke. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1991. Strangers to ourselves. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lewis, Philip. 1974. Revolutionary semiotics. Diacritics 4(3): 28-32.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1990. Heidegger and “the jews.” Trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 1991. The inhuman: Reflections on time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Moi, Toril. 1985. Sexual/textual politics: Feminist literary theory. New York: Methuen, 1985.

———. 1986. Introduction. In The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Oliver, Kelly. 1993. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the double-bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Reiss, Timothy. 1982. The Discourse of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roudiez, Leon. 1974. Twelve points from Tel Quel.Esprit Createur 14(4): 291-303.

———. 1980. Introduction. In Desire in language: A semiotic approach to literature and art. See Julia Kristeva 1980b.

Silverman, Kaja. 1988. The acoustic mirror: The female voice in psychoanalysis and cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stanton, Domna C. 1984. Preface. In The Female Autograph, ed. Domna Stanton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Zepp, Evelyn H. 1982. The criticism of Julia Kristeva: A new mode of critical thought. Romantic Review 73(1): 80-97.

Peter Brooks (review date 19 May 1996)

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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 with new generations of readers. So it is significant, and welcome, that Julia Kristeva—the French semiotician, psychoanalyst, feminist, theoretician of desire and of language, with a large body of important critical work in her portfolio—has now written a major study of Proust.

Time & Sense stands at the intersection of Ms. Kristeva's psychoanalytic concerns and the recent boom industry in Proust editing. French academic critics have been much occupied of late with “genetic criticism”: the study of manuscripts and earlier versions of texts, tracing the evolution of a writer's definitive version through corrections, hesitations, erasures. If the enterprise in general blurs the clear outlines of the finished product—questioning the notion of the text as art object prized by generations of American New Critics—in the case of Proust it has reached the point where one almost has to question whether there is any such thing as a definitive version of In Search of Lost Time (the more accurate rendition of Proust's title, used by Ms. Kristeva's translator, Ross Guberman, rather than the old Remembrance of Things Past).

A novel that appeared to be finished in 1913, when Swann's Way was published (at Proust's own expense), grew during World War I (when Proust's first publisher closed shop) to the immense proportions we now know. The character Albertine began to take shape only in 1913 and went on to develop, in the later volumes, into the key figure of impossible love, demonstrating the vanity of thinking that one can possess another being. Albertine, who seems to prefer the love of women to the protagonist's possessive and jealous passion, exemplifies Proust's dark and profound understanding of sexuality. At the same time, she demonstrates how jealousy can be the very principle of a self-torturing yet creative fiction making that takes the protagonist to the threshold of his vocation as a writer, the writer alone can redeem the loss and pain of existence, through the art of narrative.

But the novel was always unfinished business: revision for Proust meant marginal additions—sometimes pages upon pages of additions, entire new developments, alternative drafts. Since death arrived before he had finished correcting the final volumes, it's never been entirely certain what material was to be considered definitive. Any edition of Proust is to some extent a reconstruction by editors, who have a plethora of manuscripts, typescripts and notebooks to work with.

This fluidity of the text, and the vast amount of available “genetic” material, create something of a playground for the psychoanalytic critic. Ms. Kristeva can dig through layers of development of a character, uncover the stylistic pentimenti of key episodes and of Proust's extraordinary sentences, which twist, turn, juxtapose apparently unrelated sensations, reach out to encompass different strata of time, working to subvert normal temporality in order to set art both within time and in opposition to it. Her display of erudition in the Proustian pre-texts at times gives an old-fashioned pedantry to her work, as when she insists on taking us back to the real-life models of some of the novel's characters; her first chapter is garnished with some 599 footnotes. The genetic research doesn't seem wholly necessary to her valid insights into the instability of character in Proust: what she aptly calls “the crumbling of the statue.”

What makes Time & Sense an important and enlivening book, despite the difficult reading it often provides, is that Ms. Kristeva is a critic of great psychoanalytic insight who is also finely sensitive to the complex rhetorical and syntactical elaboration of Proust's world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her long meditations on the crucial Proustian figures of the homosexual and the Jew—two social outsiders who are disguised doubles for the artist. Her pages on the Baron de Charlus—the most important representative of Sodom in the novel—are both complex and luminous. If “sexual identity guarantees our psychic unity,” she writes, this unity is always threatened from within. Homosexuality, in Proust's rendering of it, reveals the latent psychosis of all identity, only tenuously held in check. “And since homosexuality transverses Proust's entire work,” she continues, “the baron depicts the potential for madness inherent in all forms of sexuality.” It is precisely this “madness” that transforms love and sexuality in the novel—Swann in love with Odette, the protagonist in love with Albertine—into a search for knowledge, for identity, for the understanding that finally can come only through art.

Ms. Kristeva brilliantly illuminates Proust's compulsive concern with Jewish identity, which reaches its political and moral crisis when the Dreyfus affair irrupts into the novel. Her complex argument works toward the conclusion that Proust eventually subverts the pretensions of exclusive ethnic and class-bound identities—and this surely is one of Proust's principal claims to our ethical attention. Finally, Ms. Kristeva as textual analyst provides striking and rewarding readings of the Proustian sentence—especially the last sentence, much revised but never given final form, of “Time Regained,” where in the additions and through the crossings-out one can trace “the architecture … of a sort of timelessness.”

Juliana de Nooy (essay date 1997)

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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 this time, but a revolt all the same.

In the final pages of La Révolution du langage poétique (hereinafter RLP), Kristeva claimed that our century was still being carried along by the momentum of the late nineteenth century, and that we were engaged in the same kind of mutiny as its avant-garde against the unified subject and the power of social and linguistic constraints, against what she termed the symbolic. Although she hinted at the formation of a new configuration for negativity, the conclusion to be drawn was that Mallarmé's and Lautréamont's pulverisation (and consequent renewal) of symbolic meaning through the work of disruptive semiotic drive forces and rhythm was a model for aesthetic activity, a model that remained valid (RLP 618-620). The pages are dated January 72-January 73, when the flavour of the 1968 student and general uprising in France was still fresh. No doubt the nature of revolution—whether on the streets or in poetic language—seemed clear at the time: it consisted of a violent confrontation with a unified instance of power by largely repressed transgressive forces. In RLP Kristeva insisted that for any successful signifying practice, a subject needed to be well anchored to the symbolic to be able to withstand the semiotic attack of drives without slipping into psychosis. Both law and its transgression were equally necessary to a dialectical movement that overturned an existing order and established a new version of it, to be threatened in its turn.

Kristeva's new book, however, questions the universal applicability of this model. Sens et non-sens de la révolte (hereinafter SNR) is in many ways a revisiting of the question explored in RLP, namely the role and functioning of aesthetic experience as contestation, but in it Kristeva sets herself a specific task: rewriting revolt for the 1990s. Full of fin de siècle pessimism—fin de millénaire oblige—she sees the late twentieth century as characterised by disintegrating subjects in a post-communist power vacuum. The new world order is a “normalising and falsifiable order” in which the status of power has changed (15).1 Power has become diverted into a regulatory administration that normalises instead of punishing, such that neither crime nor punishment can any longer be clearly identified. Law has dissolved into “measures,” into proliferating mechanisms of deferral to other instances, “open to appeals and referrals, interpretations and … falsifications” (17). Kristeva also argues that the era of the subject is drawing to a close and that we are entering that of the “patrimonial person” (18), the person as possessor of a collection of saleable organs. The subject has lost its centre and is “scattering into organs and images” (57). The symbolic order is foundering, falling to bits. Law, power and the subject are all dissolving into the fleeting images of TV zapping. We are left with no clear limits, just an unstable pseudo-symbolic.

Now there are those who might argue—Foucault and Derrida spring to mind—that this is not historically specific to the 1990s, indeed that the mechanisms of power have always been diffuse, divertible, deferrable, interpretable and falsifiable, who might suggest that the subject has always already been decentred and dispersed. Whether or not this is the case, Kristeva's question is a potent one: how do you mount a revolution against a power vacuum? But to this we could add another question: how does Kristeva's symbolic/semiotic dialectic survive in a deconstructed/ing world? For Kristeva is describing a situation that sidelines the symbolic. And in RLP the symbolic function was essential not only to semiotic contestation but to the dialectical production of the text and the ongoing existence of the subject.

Kristeva observes that the shifts she identifies in the status of power seem to exclude the possibility of revolution as defined in RLP. So how do we revolt? For let us make no mistake, in Kristeva's view revolt is absolutely vital, “a continual necessity to keep alive the psyche, thought and the social bond itself” (302).2 Leaning on Freud's Totem and Taboo, she argues that one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that “happiness only exists at the price of a revolt” and that we need to measure ourselves against a prohibition or an authority in order to experience intense voluptuous pleasure or jouissance (20). The concept of revolt, however, needs to be substantially reworked to cope with a situation where there is nothing to confront but an elusive obstacle, an invisible law. And this is what Kristeva undertakes.

Drawing on the detours of the etymological itinerary of “revolt,” Kristeva manages to encompass nuances of return and diversion as well as transgression into a much broader understanding than that of revolution in RLP. The use of the word revolt allows her to maintain a connection with her earlier work and also emphasises that the non-transgressive forms she identifies have the same (ultimately conservative) function as revolution or killing the father, namely the renewal of law and the reaffirmation of the social bond (cf. 21, 60, 186). Kristeva determines “three figures of revolt”:

1) “transgression of a prohibition”;

2) “repetition, perlaboration, elaboration”;

3) “displacement, combinative systems, play.” (40)

The first figure embraces revolution as transgression and confrontation but situates it historically—as merely one possible form of revolt, and a “dated, dialectical form” at that, although still possible in certain circumstances (66). But far from abandoning the theory she elaborated in RLP by merely relegating the symbolic/semiotic confrontation to this first category and to the past, Kristeva strives to make it work in a modified way. She continues to emphasise the importance of both modalities and shows that it is the possibility of new relations between them, new configurations of power and contestation that produce the other two figures of revolt.

These latter are attempts to find a new logic of revolt: the second figure is the anamnesis or remembrance of things past of the psychoanalytical relation, the return to the past to modify it, the use of narrative to displace prohibitions and trauma; the third figure draws on twentieth-century aesthetic production. These answers to her question point to Kristeva's valorisation of psychoanalytical and literary discourses, privileged for the role they allow language.

Now when Kristeva shows the paternal function foundering in its avatars as central power or the centred subject in SNR, it is striking that she does not mention another crucial decentring of the symbolic, widely heralded—that of language. Unlike unstable law, unstable meaning is not set up as part of the problem hindering transgression from taking place. In fact, it gradually becomes apparent that language plays a major role in any possible solution. Our capacity for language is said to be a given and immanent instance of the paternal function in each of us, an intimate symbolic tie “with which, against which and in which men and women revolt” (68). How then does language manage to do what other instances of shifting symbolic constraints fail to do, that is, enable and provide a possible site for revolt?

The answer is not obvious, but can be deduced from Kristeva's analysis of the second figure of revolt (anamnesis in psychoanalysis), which starts with a lengthy and careful reading of Freud's models for language. She identifies three moments: 1) Freud emphasises the heterogeneity of verbal and infraverbal mechanisms; 2) he erases this alterity to some extent by positing language as the path of access to the unconscious,3 3) heterogeneity is reaffirmed and language is seen as only one layer of what Kristeva calls signifiance—“the process, dynamic and moment of meaning [sens] that cannot be reduced to language although it includes it” (83). Language as signifiance is at the intersection of the psychical and the physical; it embraces both thought and energy (77-78). It is signifiance—and not language as defined by linguists—that is Kristeva's privileged object of study. And it is because the symbolic and semiotic aspects of sense are inseparable in signifiance that it is the launchpad for revolt.

Kristeva's insistence on signifiance as comprising both linguistic and extra-linguistic dimensions has not wavered from RLP. What is interestingly different however is her tendency to characterise the relation between these two aspects as “co-presence” in SNR and to downplay any hint of the kind of violent confrontation between them described in RLP (the “irruption” and “assault” of the semiotic which “disrupts,” “attacks” and “destroys” the “defensive construction” of the symbolic, RLP 47, trans. 49-50). Does this indicate a new possibility for aesthetic practice as Kristeva claims … or a reworking of the basics of Kristevan theory? Already in Histoires d'amour, Kristeva was emphasising the mechanisms of imaginary identification over those of transgression. However, in SNR she seems to abandon entirely her earlier insistence on a dialectical conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic, even to account for rebellion. Certainly, if the two modalities are no longer necessarily involved in a “permanent struggle” (RLP 78, trans. 81), the way is opened for effective contestation in the absence of a reliable symbolic. However, given her enormous investment in the dialectic in RLP, we might ask whether this change of emphasis points to a new form of revolt in poetic language … or what amounts to a revolution in Kristevan theory over the last twenty years.

The new configurations of the semiotic/symbolic relation are explored at length in Kristeva's development of the third figure of revolt, which occupies the entire second half of the book. Kristeva offers glimpses of alternative revolt in the work of Louis Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes. All three writers had more or less fatherless childhoods, but Kristeva focuses less on their biography than on their texts to trace patterns of revolt that do not depend on there being a unified instance of paternal law to oppose in an Oedipal configuration. In Kristevan terms, she finds in each case an involvement of the semiotic in a contestation that, rather than attacking the symbolic, finds a way around it. However, these attempts at revolt are fraught with danger and the chances for success are severely threatened. Although there are moments when they have a sense or make sense, at other times they result in an impasse, in failure and absurdity, hence the “non-sense” of revolt. The failures have a rather ambiguous status, for they both open up and close off the possibility of rewriting the semiotic/symbolic dialectic, as Kristeva hovers between reaffirming and revising her position in RLP. They put into question the assertion that non-oppositional contestation can be effective.

Well if it's not about the father (the Oedipal revolt against paternal power), then the obvious way to look is toward the mother, and Kristeva's analyses of Aragon and Sartre both involve coming face to face with the feminine, in the first case with feminine jouissance, in the second with the archaic maternal bond.

Kristeva interprets Aragon's literary enterprise, in particular “La Défense de l'infini,” as a confrontation with the impossible, where confrontation does not mean war. Rather than revolting against the father and law, it is a matter of trying to represent the irrepresentable or a-thought [l'a-pensée]. The negative prefix a- (as in asocial or acephalous … but that's another book4) is inaudible in French (la pensée/l'a-pensée) like the unthinkable underside of language that it designates and which corresponds to Kristeva's concept of the semiotic: “Neither knowledge nor action, but with them and through them, a-thought deploys [déploie = deploys, unfurls, displays] in the flesh of language the polyvalencies of metaphors, the semantic resources of sounds and even the throbbing of sensations” (254). A-thought becomes discernible as Aragon attempts to translate “the feminine.” Kristeva's definition of the feminine has remained constant through her texts: “it is not a question of a particular woman or of women as social individuals, […] but a part of the psychic life of every subject, as that which is enormously difficult for either sex to represent” (253).5 Similarly, feminine jouissance is only about female sexual experience insofar as the latter is a “fantasmatic representation” (294) or “example” of “sensorial experience at its most excessive” (292). Aragon's revolt is thus a “confrontation with the maternal and the feminine insofar as these represent the fantasy of irrepresentable excitability” (303). He attempts to make his words coincide with his perception of the excess of women's erotic experience (292), to “speak feminine jouissance side by side with man's impotence” (289) in an “appropriation of the feminine as a revolt against the decline of man (or of Man if you like)” (281).

In RLP, Mallarmé and Lautréamont were also seen to be attempting to represent semiotic excess. However, given what Kristeva regards as the impotence of the symbolic in Aragon's work, it doesn't seem to clearly fit the 1974 description of “poetic language.” In fact it seems closer to fetishism as it is outlined in a chapter of RLP called “The Unstable Symbolic. Substitutions in the Symbolic: Fetishism” (61-67, trans. 62-67) where Kristeva explicitly differentiates fetishism from poetic language. In the latter, the symbolic positioning is solid enough to protect the subject from being completely dissolved by the semiotic. This “thetic” positioning is crucial, being the precondition for artistic practice to have any communicable meaning. It enables poetic language to signify, although the signification is pulverised and displaced. Without a solid thetic position, the options are few and unpalatable: we risk sliding into psychosis or we can find partial salvation in fetishism, in which the denial of the symbolic and of the thetic position leads to its displacement on to drives and on to objects linked to the body by drives. In fetishism, signification is only possible through a sort of compromise whereby semiotic stasis—the fleeting arrest of drives—substitutes for the symbolic. Although Kristeva admits occasional difficulty in distinguishing fetishism from artistic practice in RLP, she insists on their difference, and on the inferiority of fetishism compared with poetic language.

Kristeva's analysis of Aragon's work seems to come dangerously close to her definition of fetishism. Indeed she uses this term to describe surrealism in general (SNR 303). But its proximity to the borderline seems if anything to make Aragon's practice more valuable as a possible solution to the problem of revolt against a power vacuum. Valuable, but not necessarily viable. The danger is that there is nothing to hang on to but a mirage, nothing to support a-thought but the shimmering of sense provided by feminine jouissance (270). Aragon thus runs a double risk: if a-thought goes too far in denying the symbolic (for example by retreating from any kind of communicable signification), he risks a complete collapse of identity (psychosis); on the other hand, if he takes the mirage of sense to be sense, he risks setting up feminine jouissance as a mock phallic order (fetishism). Between the whirlpool of Charybdis and the monstrous Scylla, the challenge for an effective new form of revolt is to maintain a practice “in the crucible of a-thought” (255), at its point of becoming.

This is strikingly similar to Kristeva's reading of Artaud's risky, even life-threatening borderline practice in the 1973 article “Le Sujet en procès” [the subject in process/on trial] (Polylogue 55-106). Artaud too saves himself from collapse into emptiness and saves his work from complete loss of any signifying capacity through an ephemeral identification with the “spasmic asymbolic functioning” of feminine jouissancePolylogue 78). There is, however, a significant difference between “Le Sujet en procès” and SNR. In Artaud's work, “the moment of destruction, of annihilation of subjective unity, the moment of mortal anguish or, more simply, ‘emotional confusion’ thus yields before the affirmation of a productive unity; or rather, the moments are indissoluble in the process.” (Polylogue 85). This “second moment” of the dialectic, the reassertion of symbolic unity and meaning into which the semiotic will burst forth again “is of capital importance” (Polylogue 104). In SNR, on the other hand, Aragon is seen to avoid the moment of affirmation in his texts, and when the need for symbolic anchoring makes itself felt in a dramatic way elsewhere, it is cause for regret.

For ultimately Aragon fails to steer a course between psychosis and fetishism and starts to founder. Unable to sustain his borderline practice, he suffers a crisis of confidence in the imaginary to the extent of burning his work and attempting suicide, and finally throws in the oars and opts for the “lifebelt” (SNR 295) of political action with the Communist Party and the stability of coupledom with Elsa. His revolt is cut short. Here Kristeva sees the impasse, the non-sense, the “insanity” (insensé 294) of a revolt bypassing the symbolic. The antidote to loss of identity is to join something, anything (308). Membership of the Communist Party being a more conventional (oppositional) form of revolt, Kristeva sees in it the desire to repair the father and symbolic law, to struggle against the invasion by the feminine and the terrible sinking into a-thought, to survive the destabilisation caused by the revolt Aragon attempted.

According to Kristeva, Aragon's aesthetic revolt offers a glimpse of a new kind of contestation, and yet in failing it seems to confirm the mechanisms of revolution in poetic language as outlined in the seventies and to reassert the inevitability of the dialectic. There is nonetheless an important shift in Kristeva's position. In “Le Sujet en Procès,” Kristeva declared that “the absolute rejection of the thetic, subjective and representative phase [cf. the threshold of the symbolic] is the very limit of the avant-garde experience” (Polylogue 102, original emphasis). In SNR, she is no longer arguing for the necessity of the thetic position but lamenting that it still seems necessary. Rejection of the symbolic is no longer said to be an absolute limit—she looks at the possibility of pushing back this limit—but it is absolutely risky. Will she find a viable example of her new kind of revolt?

Sartre is Kristeva's second example of someone who takes the risk. Not exactly the same risk as Aragon, although his mode of contestation is also linked to the feminine/the semiotic. The revolt this time is not Oedipal because it is Oresteian. Kristeva studies Les Mouches, which is not about killing the father or even the substitute father, but about killing the mother and cutting all ties with the social group. Choosing exile, the protagonist becomes foreign even to himself.6 Kristeva then traces this form of revolt through La Nausée and L'Etre et le néant among other texts. In a gesture towards Deleuze and Guattari she states that this revolt is not so much anti-oedipal as an extension of the oedipal (339, cf. 305). Kristeva interprets the Oresteian configuration thus: given the instability of the symbolic, oedipal revolt cannot fulfil its dialectical function of elaborating the autonomy of the subject, so the subject is obliged to break more archaic bonds—the attachment to the mother and even to biological survival (337). After the maternal link, all other social ties are dissolved (357) as an a-social “subject” claims a liberty realised through violence (341, 348). This is not just revenge on constraints and law through the putting to death of the other but the death of the self as unitary consciousness (348-349), a liberation of the self and from the self in the annihilation of self.

Unlike Aragon's attempt to represent the irrepresentable feminine, which almost set it up as a substitute phallic order, Sartre puts the feminine to death along with the symbolic. He rejects all identity, not just symbolic positioning but even semiotic stasis. But this ideal of pure non-identity is also an identity of sorts and therefore a trap. Kristeva reads “nausea” in Sartre's writing as the trace of the refusal of identity coupled with the impossibility of this refusal (352-365). Kristeva's descriptions of the annihilation of the self and of social ties (357-367) are not unlike those of the melancholia underlying creativity in Soleil Noir, Sartre's innovation is to transform a melancholic state into a position of revolt, for it somehow produces a renewal (a “psychical, physical and creative rebirth” 363) that is not a reassertion of symbolic unity.

Once again, however, this revolt seems to be unsustainable. After Les Mots, Sartre, like Aragon, is seen by Kristeva to renounce the imaginary, lured by the ideal of political action. The surge of negativity and otherness in language gives way to negativity incorporated in overtly political characters and themes (379-381). Kristeva expresses her disappointment: Sartre's work loses its emotional substratum. He never ceases to revolt, but there is no longer the abyssal opening of the imaginary in each political stand taken, saving it in spite of the inevitable errors (the belief in absolutes, neglecting to revolt against the dogma of revolt, cf. 381, 385).

Yet again, a revolt avoiding the second moment of the dialectic (the affirmation of a renewed symbolic) is said to fail in the long run. It seems to confirm the view of revolution articulated in RLP as the only viable one—to Kristeva's chagrin in the nineties. But third time lucky …

Roland Barthes is Kristeva's third example of an attempt at a new form of revolt. Barthes' revolt does not consist in contradicting paternal authority, but in showing up where it is false, faltering or lacking (389). Rather than a transgressive revolt against the established order, it engages in a form of play that shows the instability of meaning and sense, the power vacuum in language. This “discreet,” “invisible” revolt is neither more nor less than the practice of interpretation, endlessly deciphering and displacing (391), a “practice that destabilises even the elementary support of signification constituted by the unities and rules of language” (444) and thus threatens the very possibility of unified symbolic meaning. Barthes shows that “natural” meaning and the subject said to possess it are nothing but fictions. At the same time, he shows how supposedly transparent language masks another order, its less representable sensuous semiotic side (392). His position as a critic is one of irony (442, cf. 390): sense and meaning are necessary for communication, but are unstable. Kristeva sees his revolt in the fact that he continues to interpret at the very moment at which sense dissolves (394), thus exposing the symbolic as merely a pseudo-symbolic.

Barthes' revolt does not seem to end in impasse like those of Aragon and Sartre. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that Barthes manages to turn the shortcomings of the sign into signs, gives a sense to the nonsense or to the loss of symbolic sense, and replaces the threat of existence without symbolic law by the pleasure of écriture with its sensuous substrata (444-445). Barthes appears to use the symbolic against itself rather than denying it. He thus avoids Sartrian nihilism and gives voice to semiotic jouissance without apparently elevating it to mock symbolic status. By making sense of the loss of sense, he manages to remain between thought and a-thought. He neither seeks to preserve the symbolic from dissolution, nor stabilises jouissance in a lingering representation. It seems that this was what Aragon and Sartre were able to do fleetingly but not to sustain: to maintain that loss of sense as meaningful, to walk the tightrope without needing to call for a symbolic safety net.

Although Kristeva describes Barthes' practice of écriture as dialectical (404-405), the dialectic is unlike that of RLP. It is represented in terms of translation (394, 407), transformation (411), transmutation (400) and translanguage (401), in fact any trans-except transgression. Ecriture has become an “intermediary” (400) for the semiotic and the symbolic rather than a battleground.

When she writes of Barthes' semiological (ad)venture, we cannot forget that Kristeva herself was a fellow traveller, and indeed she mentions the revolt led by the Tel Quel group in the sixties and seventies. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see Tel Quel's revolt fitting into a paradigm of non-transgressive confrontation: they declared “war” on symbolic unity—social, linguistic and subjective (397). Unlike Barthes', Tel Quel's revolt was hardly “subtle” (425), “discreet” or “invisible” (391). And yet this distinction is not always clear. Reading towards the end of the section on Barthes, I had the feeling that he too was waging the Tel Quel war or that they had muscled in on his revolt: negativity pulverising unity (439), symbolic constraints blocking negativity (440). The old two-beat symbolic/semiotic dialectic of transgression and collision seemed to be taking over again. Checking with Kristeva's earlier text on Barthes—“Comment parler á la littérature” (Polylogue 23-54, trans. Desire in Language 92-123)—I found that, apart from a few stylistic changes, the section SNR 439-443 is directly lifted from Polylogue 39-42 (Desire 107-109).7

Now it is true that Barthes was writing at a time that Kristeva might now identify as the switching on of the power vacuum. Perhaps therefore Kristeva now feels the need to reinterpret his work in this context. However, it seems to me that the real rereading going on (with the exception of the recycled section) concerns the symbolic/semiotic relation—less struggle, contradiction and conflict and more co-presence, deferral and displacement.8 But if we were to argue that instability of meaning—the slipping and sliding that Barthes exposes—has always been at work, undermining our efforts at transparent communication and abetting the avant-garde in its use of poetic language, then perhaps we could go back to RLP and the analyses of Mallarmé and Lautréamont to question the dialectic there. To what extent was it conflictual? Were the symbolic order and the unity of meaning and of the subject necessarily reaffirmed in the text between waves of semiotic destruction? Is it possible, in the light of SNR, that aesthetic production in the nineteenth century also made sense of the loss of sense without relying on a strong symbolic instance against which to struggle?

If I have my doubts about the role of the symbolic, Kristeva can explain them …


Unlike her analysis of Aragon and Sartre, Kristeva's reading of Barthes invokes neither the feminine, nor women, nor even his mother. However, her remarks about Barthes and irony tie in with an earlier section specifically about female experience. And suggest—although Kristeva does not draw this conclusion—that although she chooses male writers as examples, women may indeed be more apt at engaging in the new kind of revolt.9

If Oedipus is the paradigm of classic, transgressive revolt, the configurations are different for boys and for girls. Kristeva outlines Freud's theory for boys, accentuating the role of language, and then identifies two stages for girls. The first (Oedipe prime) superficially corresponds to the one the boy traverses (aided by the desire for the mother) and is the prerequisite to becoming a symbolic subject of language and thought. The second (Oedipe bis) involves a change of object from the mother to the father and is the (necessary?) precondition for heterosexuality.

From the beginning, however, differences appear in the way Oedipus works for each sex, and it is what happens in the first stage that is most pertinent to the question of revolt.

In the little boy's development, Kristeva emphasises the simultaneity between genital pleasure and the access to language: “The complex experience of access to language […] shows a co-presence of thought and pleasure—all the more gratifying in that it is threatened, presence and lack—that the little boy experiences with his genital organ, which is also that of the father” (180-181). The Oedipal stage marks a first coincidence between investment in the phallus and the order of language: an imaginary identification or equivalence is produced between phallic pleasure and speech (180). But speech seems abstract and cold in comparison with the body to body osmosis with the mother, the pre-oedipal semiotic dimension of rhythm and sensations. Speech therefore puts the developing subject in a position of frustration (alienation from pre-oedipal objects). Gradually however it produces compensations as the source of new pleasures and powers.

In the little girl's development, there is similarly a co-presence of genital pleasure and the mastery of signs. However, they do not coincide in quite the same way. Whereas the penis stands up and stands out (visible, locatable, detachable) to be invested as the signifier of lack and of law, “the paradigm of the signifiable and the signifier” (158) and the support of difference (203), the real and imaginary support of the little girl's pleasure, the clitoris, is “invisible and almost impossible to locate” [invisible et quasi-irrepérable] (209), hard to put your finger on, so to speak. Therefore “a dissociation is structurally inscribed” between the girl's sensory experience and the signifying order (208-209). The little girl accepts the phallus as the paradigm of the signifier and of law, but perceives it as foreign.10 She thus accedes to language and the conjunction between Logos and Desire like the little boy (209), but her symbolic mastery is not accompanied by her erotic (clitoral) experience. This leads to a “belief that the phallus, along with language and the symbolic order, are illusory and nevertheless indispensable” (210). Our position is inevitably double and therefore ironic. We invest in the phallus that makes us subjects of language and law, but the phallus remains somehow other. We play the game and pretend but we never really believe in it (211). Kristeva cites Hegel: “Woman, the eternal irony of the community” (213).

Oh! the mockery of it: the power of the phallus is real but it has somehow never really referred to us, never engaged us directly. Kristeva explains that it isn't the case that women believe in or worship the phallus—in fact it's a problem when we do, when we really try to take it seriously instead of living out a perpetual irony.11 And the situation has its advantages: the possibility for the little girl of cultivating a secret sensoriality (hidden by the primacy of the phallus), since she is not required to make her erotic pleasure coincide with her symbolic performance (211-212). The sensations of pre-linguistic, pre-oedipal mother-daughter osmosis (the semiotic) are reactivated by the fact that the symbolic remains foreign to the little girl.

Now, Kristeva doesn't take this step, but it seems to me that coping with an illusory symbolic is not altogether unlike coping with a pseudo-symbolic. Perhaps we can infer that women are always-already in a difficult position where revolt is concerned.

Already in “Le Sujet en Procès” the irony and pretence of women were mentioned, together with their problematic position in relation to negativity. Alienated from the symbolic, women cannot easily participate in the transgression of classic revolt: we seem to make rejection and the re-establishment of the symbolic continuous and concurrent, not merely co-present but almost indistinguishable, rather than dialectically opposed and separated into negative and positive moments (Polylogue 76-79). However, perhaps women are therefore more able to participate in the new form of revolt Kristeva announces where the symbolic is regarded with some distrust. After all, with our “secret sensoriality” we seem to be in a better position to evoke the maternal bond, a-thought and feminine jouissance. (Whether these are too close to be effectively represented is no doubt another question). Moreover, our ironic position both within and alienated from the symbolic—our “critical and ironic capacity” (217)—seems to be very close to that of Barthes who “looks for […] the secret rules of what is presented as normal but is merely false” (389). Barthes exposes unified meaning as fraudulent and yet he needs it in order to be able to signify: for him too, the symbolic is “illusory and nevertheless indispensable.” But then again, perhaps we women live the indispensable illusion without exposing it?

Irony is a slippery thing and sometimes shakes more objects than we might intend. Kristeva starts her book with the observation that we are faced with a pseudo-symbolic, goes on to show that half the population has only ever pretended to believe in the symbolic anyway, and finally presents Barthes' irony, revealing the falsity of the symbolic, as a successful example of non-confrontational revolt. And yet, amongst all this sham, one kind of truth remains—the authenticity of aesthetic experience as it pulverises the subject, pushing him to the edge of insanity. Indeed the possibility of falsification is denied on several occasions: Aragon is described as “an authentic alchemist of language, a true player who played to the limit” (309), in whose work “the stylistic fragmentation reflects the hurricane shaking the writer” (293). Similarly, when Sartre writes of play-acting, Kristeva insists that this is not some “artificial flippancy that wouldn't truly involve the subject” (347-348).

The truth of aesthetic experience marks the limits of revolt—and of play. Interestingly, Kristeva doesn't feel the need to affirm the authenticity of Barthes' revolt. And yet I wonder whether his irony doesn't go further, whether he is not merely playing at sensuality in conjuring up the “mirage of the body […] at the horizon of [his] theory” (394, cf. 399), rather than genuinely(?) investing drive energy. Perhaps Barthes—always difficult to pin down—is not only exposing a lame symbolic but teasing us with a mythical semiotic that floats out of reach.

Aesthetic practice finds its raison d'être in mimesis, in “the need to mime the revolt” of the primitive horde against the father in the form of religion and later art (33). However only true mimesis, involving genuine revolt, will have the desired effect of reaffirmation and renewal of the social bond. But given that women seem to have made if not a career then at least a good job of simulacrum in going along with a doubtful symbolic, what is to stop us from faking aesthetic experience … even jouissance … in such a way as to produce a subtle revolt. A certain ironic distance, not just from the symbolic but from one's own aesthetic practice—pretending to risk body and soul, or identity, pretending to represent sensual experience at its least representable—may not count as revolt or even as poetic language for Kristeva, but I wonder whether, as a form of play, it may not have its place as contestation.

I even wonder whether not only the mimicking of revolt but the mimicking of law itself may not already constitute an invisible form of rebellion. Women, for example, might indulge while affirming phallic law: not transgression, not the overturning of the system, but an invisible undermining of the symbolic as we play along, all the more gratifying for being secret (feel that Mona Lisa smile). And then there is the “falsifiable order” itself. With its mechanisms of deferral that substitute endlessly for unified power and Law, it seems very like Barthes' endless deciphering and displacing of meaning. Add a little reflexivity and the pseudo-symbolic becomes irony, potentially undoing the system. In fact we might end up asking whether the pseudo-symbolic is a case of unlocatable power … or of irrecuperable revolt.


  1. Translations of SNR and of “Le Sujet en procès” are my own.

  2. Cf. “the necessity of revolt-culture in a society that lives, develops and doesn't stagnate” (21).

  3. Kristeva argues that Lacanian theory remains at this second model.

  4. Kristeva's detective novel Possessions was published simultaneously with SNR and concerns a headless female corpse. In SNR Kristeva leaves a clue to the mystery … (259).

  5. Cf. “the abyssal connotation of the feminine as the other side [l'envers] of the representable, the visible, the phallic, on which psychoanalysis sheds light, and which remains a place of fascination” (259).

  6. Kristeva gave a rather different interpretation of Orestes in “Le Sujet en procés” whereby the subject took refuge in sterile symbolic metalanguage (Polyogue 76).

  7. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Les Samouraïs, Kristeva describes herself and her Tel Quel colleagues as samurai, as warriors.

  8. A deferral and displacement that Kristeva explicitly—although not entirely convincingly—distinguishes from (a psychoanalytical reinscription of) Derridean différance (425, cf. 179).

  9. It is worth mentioning in passing that as in her other texts, with the exception of the chapter in Soleil noir on Marguerite Duras, in SNR Kristeva studies literature written by men. Women are however cited as clinical case studies … (199-203).

  10. Kristeva insists that Freud only argues for a theory of the primacy of the phallus for both sexes in infantile genital organisation, although it may persist as an unconscious fantasy (159).

  11. Cf. the cautionary tale of the phallic girl (212).

Works Cited

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

———. Histoires d'amour. Paris: Denoel, 1983.

———. Polylogue. Paris: Seuil, 1977.

———. Possessions. Paris: Fayard, 1996.

———. La Révolution du langage poétique. Paris: Seuil, 1974.

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

———. Les Samouraïs. Paris: Fayard, 1990.

———. Sens et non-sens de la révolte. Paris: Fayard, 1996.

———. Soleil noir. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

Mark Edmundson (review date 5 April 1998)

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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 attending on Gloria's son, Jerry; Gloria's research assistant, Brian; and the author's stand-in and our guide, Stephanie Delacour, journalist-cum-detective. Stephanie has left Paris and come to Santa Varvara, a resort town somewhere in Eastern Europe, to investigate local corruption, of which there is no foreseeable shortage. She stays to look into the murder of her dear friend Gloria, an accomplished translator (at the time of her death, she was at work on Shakespeare's sonnets and The Breast, by Philip Roth), beautiful, rich, a mother devoted to her near-deaf son and a passionate, if rather undiscriminating, lover. Who did her in?

Readers of mystery novels will recognize the standard conventions and perhaps imagine a late night, propped on the bolster, sipping a little lapsang souchong, peeling away the layers of deception until truth shines through and sleep descends. The plot will turn with a corkscrew grace until the perpetrator is pierced, and good night.

But the author of this book is no direct descendant of Agatha Christie. Julia Kristeva is a well-known Parisian theorist. A psychoanalyst and a student of linguistics, she is a proponent of semanalyse, a discipline that combines semiotics with psychoanalytic thought. She is celebrated in theory circles for books like Revolution in Poetic Language and Black Sun, a study of melancholy and depression.

What we have on our hands is an intellectual detective story. The genre has a distinguished lineage in France, running from Poe (an honorary French writer, thanks to the ministrations of Mallarme and Baudelaire) through Gide, Alain Robbe-Grillet and, in his famous seminar on Poe's “Purloined Letter,” Jacques Lacan. Like the intellectual, the detective needs to be skeptical, observant, able to find the uncanny ravel in the smooth fabric of day-to-day life. Detectives, like post-modern intellectuals, are disposed to practice the hermeneutics of suspicion. But whereas the archetypal detective is resolutely taciturn, the intellectual usually has a great deal to say. Thus Possessions (translated by Barbara Bray) is not just a mystery story but also a series of reflections on Kristeva's favorite themes: depression, language, the struggles between the sexes, horror, psychoanalysis and motherhood.

On Gloria and her relations with her son, Kristeva is at her best. With remarkable feeling, she shows us how Gloria has tried to stand between Jerry and the world and to mediate and interpret every subtle usage, so that her boy could live something close to a normal life: “It was really Gloria who was the handicapped child. On Jerry's behalf she slowly learned what she was supposed to know already but what she had never really possessed. Can you possess something bestowed on you merely as a matter of routine? For Jerry, with Jerry, she taught herself the names of scents and sounds, the logic of stories and their digressions, the secret of imitating ordinary attitudes: how to behave, how to stand up straight, to be correct, honorable, considerate, charming. Also to be angry—why not?—but not too angry. To discuss, argue, suffer, endure, despise, enjoy live. None of all this could be taken for granted with Jerry; none of it was innate.” At its best, the book is passionate without being sentimental, consistent but not beholden to system.

Yet about halfway through, Possessions begins to drag. Maybe Kristeva gets bored; or maybe, having dealt herself an interesting hand, she hasn't quite the skill to play it out. She pulls a character in from left field to explain the murder, then goes to almost inane lengths to account for the decapitation. With the collapse of the plot, her speculations also lose their verve. Perhaps there was something about the genre's hokey machinery that, when it was up and running, made her free to roam through the richer spheres of her own speculations. When the plot begins to fade, so does the pursuit of existential mysteries.

Kevin Brophy (essay date Autumn 1998)

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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 literature, they reveal Kristeva's enterprise as a hopeful construction struggling to survive against implosive forces of contradiction and ideological rhetoric.

In some ways Kristeva adopts the stances and the rhetorical devices of a traditional psychoanalytic discourse. She can claim for instance that “the reality of castration is no more real than the hypothesis of an explosion which, according to modern astrophysics, is at the origin of the universe: nothing proves it, in a sense it is an article of faith, the only difference being that numerous phenomena of life in this ‘Big-Bang’ universe are explicable only through this initial hypothesis. But one is infinitely more jolted when this kind of intellectual method concerns our subjectivity than inanimate matter …” (Kristeva Reader, p. 197).2 Here, like Freud, Lacan, and the Surrealists before her, she aligns her discourse with a progressive and powerful new science. But when we pause over the claim we can see how inflated it is. The “Big-Bang” theory of the origin of the universe must stand or fall on rigorous mathematical, astronomical and experimental testing. It can only survive as a theory if it is shown repeatedly to be not only plausible but necessary, predictive and exhaustive as a model of the universe's first moments of existence. No such rigour has ever been applied in establishing the claims of psychoanalysis. Unconscious fantasies of castration remain no more than possibly plausible and useful constructs. They have not been shown to be predictive, exhaustive, nor even the only possible explanations for neurotic discourse. Kristeva attaches her argument to one similarity between the “Big-Bang” theory and castration-fantasy theory: neither of these “events” can be observed, remembered or experienced. But this similarity does not give them equal status as scientific hypotheses. Her argument here participates in a longstanding rhetorical tradition among psychoanalysts. It demonstrates this discourse's lingering desire for a certain kind of patriarchal legitimacy and superiority.3

When she turns to literature Kristeva stands alongside Freud in regarding the artist—in particular the writer—as one who is perversely immature. In her essay “The Adolescent Novel”, Kristeva moves towards the view that immersion in adolescence—a psychically “open structure” which need not be literally confined to one's teenage years—is central to the production of novels and indeed to all imaginary writing.4 The novelist, in her view, is motivated by opportunities to move freely in an “adolescent economy” characterised by depression, projection, pregenitality and narcissism. Writers, it seems, still face the sorts of psychotic dangers Freud saw for them.

Yet Kristeva is rightly uneasy with directly Freudian interpretations of literature. Like Freud she approaches literature with enthusiasm, interest and intellectual interrogation. But unlike Freud—and like Lacan—she maintains areas of indecisiveness and overlap between the discourses of psychoanalysis and literature. In asking, for instance, what a reader might find of any use in the open and incomplete structures of novels, Kristeva concedes that the novel can offer “a certain working-out that is not unrelated to the one inspired by transference and interpretation” (New Maladies, p. 152). The novel can offer a kind of therapy to the reader. This is far from the Freudian view of art as fundamentally socially conservative and as symptom of neurosis. Kristeva takes her view to its conclusion and asks, must we choose then between sending an adolescent/neurotic “to an analyst or encouraging him to write novels?” (p.152). Or should analyst and patient write the novels together? Kristeva ends this discussion by noting that it is not only the writer who lives with the problem of perversion. The well-meaning listening of the analyst includes a degree of perversion—and perhaps novels can teach analysts how to approach perversion with empathy and without complacency.

It is not clear what such advice might mean in practice for an analyst, but we know from Kristeva's case histories that she does encourage her patients to write and draw creatively—and she continues to seek liberation and subversion, not simply evidence, from literature. In 1990 Kristeva published her first novel drawn from (or departing from) stories told to her by patients: “My patients tell me about their emotional troubles and make sure they suffer from them … So I shut my eyes and imagine the story …” (The Samurai, pp.2-3).

Psychoanalysts have long been preoccupied with the question, “From where does literature come?”—and it is in a neurotic connection between writing and the unconscious that they have found their answer. Kristeva, as an analyst, has arrived at a more complex and more unstable answer to this question by acknowledging that writing and ideology interact as crucially as do writing and the unconscious. She calls the novel's adolescent mode—its polyphony, ambivalence and flexibility—semioticNew Maladies, p. 152). In the play between the semiotic and the symbolic orders, out of which, as Kristeva sees it, language and its discourses become possible, literature (and in particular the novel) operates predominantly under a pre-oedipal, maternal, diffused and rhythmic semiotic order. It comes from that “youthful” zone of language which first evolved under the influence of the mother and survives as a source of resistance and revolution in tension with the (father's) symbolic order.

In this way Kristeva frees literature from an assigned role as symptom and refuses its relegation as a merely (or threateningly) “feminine” pursuit. Creativity can thus be seen to work as a conscious resistance to the symbolic order's tendency towards homogeneity and closure even while as an adolescent project it participates perilously with psychotic and neurotic possibilities.

But now, let us listen to another passage from Kristeva on an experience of true creativity:

The arrival of the child, on the other hand, guides the mother through a labyrinth of a rare experience: the love for another person, as opposed to love for herself, for a mirror image, or especially for another person with which the “I” becomes merged (through amorous or sexual passion). It is rather a slow, difficult, and delightful process of becoming attentive, tender and self-effacing. If maternity is to be guilt-free, this journey needs to be undertaken without masochism and without annihilating one's affective, intellectual, and professional personality, either. In this way, maternity becomes a true creative act, something that we have not yet been able to imagine. (New Maladies, pp. 219-20)

In Kristeva's essay, “Women's Time,” this passage links two discussions: in the one leading up to this section she acknowledges that the wish to be a mother has been embraced by the present generation of feminists. “What lies behind this desire to be a mother?” she asks. Kristeva tempers the simply Freudian interpretation of this impulse as a desire to have a penis (without altogether denying that pregnancy is a dramatic “splitting of the [female] body”) in her production of a lived maternity as a truly creative act. Following this description of motherhood Kristeva moves into a discussion of women's literary creation. “Why the emphasis [among women] on literature?” she asks—evoking those (already hoary) Freudian interpretations of the source of creative acts. But she does not come any closer to Freud than this for she takes up more political, more discursive, more subversive possibilities: Perhaps it is because women desire a “more flexible discourse that is able to give a name to that which has not yet been an object of widespread circulation: the mysteries of the body, secret joys, shames, hate displayed toward the second sex … women are writing. And we are eagerly awaiting to find out what new material they will offer us” (pp. 220-1). And what is more new and more secret than the experience of being a mother?

But why does Kristeva deliver motherhood/creation to us in this particular light? Why the emphasis on motherhood as true creativity—and, for that matter, on the mother's responsibility to perform—and to control the performance? What has happened to the ambivalence, the open-ended structures, the psychotic dangers and the sexual ambiguity of the adolescent state of mind which, she has suggested in “The Adolescent Novel,” are fundamental to creativity? Why this perverse emphasis on the heroic altruism of motherhood as a model of creativity?

One of Gwen Harwood's best-known poems of motherhood, “In the Park,” was originally published under one of her male pseudonyms, Walter Lehmann:

She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by—too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice,” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God …”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children's names and birthdays. “It's so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”

Later Harwood was delighted to be told that only a man could have had the necessary self-detachment to write that poem. A woman would never have written that savage last line.5 The revelation that it was her line has helped construct the poem's reputation as an emphatic statement of a woman's experience of motherhood. Does Harwood's poem reveal Kristeva's version of motherhood as a conventionally romantic portrait of the compensations women should find in motherhood—according to patriarchal tenets? Or is Harwood's poem an example of a needlessly masochistic reflection on motherhood? Or is motherhood like this—is the man's “but for the grace of God …” the recognition of a truly fortunate escape? On the one hand there is Kristeva's joyous self-effacement and on the other Harwood's woman consumed alive. The shift is slight and the difference immense.

These views of motherhood do exclude each other, for in Kristeva's version there is control: one child arrives and a professional career and even erotic relationships are juggled successfully against the experience of motherhood. In Harwood's poem there are already three children under school age and all control, all erotic hope and any career seem to be lost for that mother.

And yet, the poem does get written—and by a mother.6 This is the writing Kristeva celebrates and eagerly awaits in her essay. The two versions of motherhood serve in part to demonstrate her argument elsewhere (and Lacan's) that “Woman” (or for that matter “Mother”) does not exist as a homogeneous abstraction—at best only perhaps as a tendency, as a position of vulnerability and unease in relation to the symbolic order.7 These versions might also serve to remind us that Kristeva is herself a writer, that her paragraphs are constructed in hope, in perversion, under aesthetic as well as intellectual and ideological demands. Her intellectual commitment to a psychoanalytic framework, for instance, cannot easily be reconciled with her idealised version of creativity.8 The two views of motherhood offered by these two writers are creative—small novels or autobiographies. One seeks to convey and dramatise a truth about motherhood while the other offers an inspiration to the reader and is no less but differently creative for this.9

Kristeva's two versions of creativity—as “adolescent” language and as selfless maternal love—bring into sharp relief tensions within her psychoanalytic discourse as she attempts to bring it into a sympathetic relation with literature. Does her claim about motherhood indicate that the “adolescent novel” (made to stand for all literature) is after all an inferior form of creativity? If this is the case, then she is pursuing the Freudian project of exposing the neurotic in artists and their art. Is it only by becoming a “mother” that the “adolescent” artist can become truly creative? Perhaps these contrasting versions of creativity demonstrate simply that an assertion can always operate as an opportunity for reversal and resistance. Perhaps Kristeva's particular discourse requires these two versions to survive alongside each other, for her apparent inconsistency here might be nevertheless broadly consistent in bringing back the silenced or marginalised roles of adolescent and mother, to re-present them as central to creativity. It is perhaps from within her category of the semiotic that motherhood and adolescence can become a common source of creativity. Her versions of creativity are indeed more open-ended, more complex, contradictory and up-in-the-air than Freud's science would want to have it.


  1. These essays are “The Adolescent Novel” and “Women's Time,” both published in translation in New Maladies of the Soul (Columbia, 1995). “Women's Time” is also translated in The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi (Blackwell, 1992).

  2. In The Kristeva Reader this sentence is translated to give a nonsensical meaning which is opposite to the meaning of the same sentence in Maladies of the Soul. I have followed the meaning of the translation in Maladies.

  3. This tradition continues into the present. In July 1996 the secretary of the Australian Psychoanalytic Society, Dr Ron Spielman, responded to criticism of psychoanalysis by remarking, “To me, the exploration of inner space is as interesting and as important as the exploration of outer space … the subject method is little different. We infer black holes. Nobody knows if there's a black hole out there. And we infer the unconscious. No-one has ever seen the unconscious but there's more than enough evidence that it exists than any reasonable scientist should require” (Nikki Barrowclough, “The Incredible Shrinking Profession”, Good Weekend, 20 July 1996, p. 38).

  4. Kristeva writes, “Whether the novelist plays the role of an adolescent represented by an ego-ideal, identifies with the adolescent, or is himself an adolescent, the theme of the adolescent is one of the most salient characteristics of Western novels” (New Maladies, p.140).

  5. Stephanie Trigg, Gwen Harwood (Oxford, 1994), p. 39.

  6. Between 1946 and 1952 Gwen Harwood had four children, including twins (Trigg, p.vii).

  7. Toril Moi quotes Kristeva from a 1974 interview: “To believe that one ‘is a woman’ is almost as absurd and obscurantist as to believe that one ‘is a man’” (Sexual/Textual Politics, Methuen, 1990, p.163).

  8. See Christine Delphy, “French Feminism: An Imperialist Invention” in Diane Bell and Renata Klein (eds.), Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed (Spinifex, 1996), pp. 383-92.

  9. Harwood conceded the partial nature of her version of motherhood in a parodical poem published in 1992 which reads as a possible retraction or complication of the much anthologised earlier version: “She sits in the park, wishing she'd never written / about that dowdy housewife and her brood … ‘Eating you alive? / Look at me. I've lived through it. You'll survive’” (Meanjin, 51, 1992, p.10).

    “In the Park” is taken from Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson, 1988), p. 27.


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