Main Julia Kristeva (Routledge Critical Thinkers)

Julia Kristeva (Routledge Critical Thinkers)

,
0 / 0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?
One of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century, Julia Kristeva has been driving forward the fields of literary and cultural studies since the 1960s. This volume is an accessible, introductory guide to the main themes of Kristeva's work, including her ideas on: *semiotics and symbolism *abjection *melancholia *feminism *revolt. McAfee provides clear explanations of the more difficult aspects of Kristeva's theories, helpfully placing her ideas in the relevant theoretical context, be it literary theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics, gender studies or philosophy, and demonstrates the impact of her critical interventions in these areas. Julia Kristeva is the essential guide for readers who are approaching the work of this challenging thinker for the first time, and provides the ideal opportunity for those with more knowledge to re-familiarise themselves with Kristeva's key terms.
Year:
2003
Publisher:
Routledge
Language:
english
Pages:
168
ISBN 10:
0203637526
ISBN:
0–415–25009–9
File:
PDF, 840 KB
Download (pdf, 840 KB)

Most frequently terms

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

º1111
2
3
4
5111
6
7
8
9
10111
11
2
3111
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

J U L I A K R I S T E VA

One of the most original thinkers of our time, Julia Kristeva has been
a leading force in the fields of literary and cultural studies, psychoanalysis, semiotics, feminist theory, and philosophy. This book gives a
lively and lucid account of Kristeva’s most important ideas, including
her concepts of the semiotic and symbolic, abjection, melancholia, and
revolt. Noëlle McAfee provides clear explanations of the more difficult
aspects of Kristeva’s work, helpfully placing her ideas in the relevant
theoretical contexts, and examining their impact on literary studies and
critical theory.
Julia Kristeva is the essential guide for readers who are approaching the
work of this challenging thinker for the first time and it provides the
ideal opportunity for those with more knowledge to re-familiarize
themselves with Kristeva’s key terms.
Noëlle McAfee is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Associate Editor of the
Kettering Review. She is the author of Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship
(2000).

ROUTLEDGE CRITICAL THINKERS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Series Editor: Robert Eaglestone, Royal Holloway, University
of London

Routledge Critical Thinkers is a series of accessible introductions to key
figures in contemporary critical thought.
With a unique focus on historical and intellectual contexts, each volume
examines a key theorist’s:
•
•
•
•

significance
motivation
key ideas and their sources
impact on other thinkers

Concluding with extensively annotated guides to further reading,
Routledge Critical Thinkers are the student’s passport to today’s most
exciting critical thought.
Already available:
Roland Barthes by Graham Allen
Jean Baudrillard by Richard J. Lane
Maurice Blanchot by ; Ullrich Haase and William Large
Judith Butler by Sara Salih
Gilles Deleuze by Claire Colebrook
Jacques Derrida by Nicholas Royle
Michel Foucault by Sara Mills
Sigmund Freud by Pamela Thurschwell
Martin Heidegger by Timothy Clark
Fredric Jameson by Adam Roberts
Jean-François Lyotard by Simon Malpas
Paul de Man by Martin McQuillan
Friedrich Nietzsche by Lee Spinks
Paul Ricoeur by Karl Simms
Edward Said by Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak by Stephen Morton
For further details on this series, see www.literature.routledge.com/rct

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

J U L I A K R I S T E VA

Noëlle McAfee

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

First published 2004
Simultaneously published in the UK, USA and Canada by
Routledge
29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001
and
Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004.
© 2004 Noëlle McAfee
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted
or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information
storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
McAfee, Noëlle, 1960–
Julia Kristeva/Noëlle McAfee.
p. cm – (Routledge critical thinkers)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Kristeva, Julia, 1941– –Criticism and interpretation.
I. Title. II. Series.
PN75.K75M38 2003
801′.85′092–dc21
2003008298
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the
British Library
ISBN 0-203-63434-9 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-63752-6 (Adobe eReader Format)
ISBN 0–415–25008–0 (hbk)
ISBN 0–415–25009–9 (pbk)

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

CONTENTS

Series editor’s preface
Acknowledgments
WHY KRISTEVA?

vii
xi
1

KEY IDEAS
1
Semiotic and symbolic
2
The subject in process
3
Abjection
4
Melancholia
5
Herethics
6
Women’s time
7
Revolt

11
13
29
45
59
75
91
105

AFTER KRISTEVA

119

FURTHER READING

127

Works cited
Index

139
145

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

SERIES EDITOR’S
P R E FA C E

The books in this series offer introductions to major critical thinkers
who have influenced literary studies and the humanities. The Routledge
Critical Thinkers series provides the books you can turn to first when a
new name or concept appears in your studies.
Each book will equip you to approach a key thinker’s original texts
by explaining her or his key ideas, putting them into context and,
perhaps most importantly, showing you why this thinker is considered
to be significant. The emphasis is on concise, clearly written guides
which do not presuppose a specialist knowledge. Although the focus is
on particular figures, the series stresses that no critical thinker ever
existed in a vacuum but, instead, emerged from a broader intellectual,
cultural and social history. Finally, these books will act as a bridge
between you and the thinker’s original texts: not replacing them but
rather complementing what she or he wrote.
These books are necessary for a number of reasons. In his 1997 autobiography, Not Entitled, the literary critic Frank Kermode wrote of a
time in the 1960s:
On beautiful summer lawns, young people lay together all night, recovering
from their daytime exertions and listening to a troupe of Balinese musicians.
Under their blankets or their sleeping bags, they would chat drowsily about the
gurus of the time . . . What they repeated was largely hearsay; hence my

viii

SERIES EDITOR’S PREFACE

lunchtime suggestion, quite impromptu, for a series of short, very cheap books

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

offering authoritative but intelligible introductions to such figures.

There is still a need for ‘authoritative and intelligible introductions’.
But this series reflects a different world from the 1960s. New thinkers
have emerged and the reputations of others have risen and fallen, as
new research has developed. New methodologies and challenging ideas
have spread through arts and humanities. The study of literature is no
longer – if it ever was – simply the study and evaluation of poems,
novels and plays. It is also the study of ideas, issues, and difficulties
which arise in any literary text and in its interpretation. Other arts and
humanities subjects have changed in analogous ways.
With these changes, new problems have emerged. The ideas and
issues behind these radical changes in the humanities are often
presented without reference to wider contexts or as theories which
you can simply ‘add on’ to the texts you read. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with picking out selected ideas or using what comes to hand
– indeed, some thinkers have argued that this is, in fact, all we can
do. However, it is sometimes forgotten that each new idea comes from
the pattern and development of somebody’s thought and it is important to study the range and context of their ideas. Against theories
‘floating in space’, the Routledge Critical Thinkers series places key
thinkers and their ideas firmly back in their contexts.
More than this, these books reflect the need to go back to the
thinker’s own texts and ideas. Every interpretation of an idea, even
the most seemingly innocent one, offers its own ‘spin’, implicitly or
explicitly. To read only books on a thinker, rather than texts by that
thinker, is to deny yourself a chance of making up your own mind.
Sometimes what makes a significant figure’s work hard to approach is
not so much its style or content as the feeling of not knowing where
to start. The purpose of these books is to give you a ‘way in’ by offering
an accessible overview of these thinkers’ ideas and works and by
guiding your further reading, starting with each thinker’s own texts.
To use a metaphor from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–
1951), these books are ladders, to be thrown away after you have
climbed to the next level. Not only, then, do they equip you to
approach new ideas, but also they empower you, by leading you back
to the theorist’s own texts and encouraging you to develop your own
informed opinions.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

Finally, these books are necessary because, just as intellectual needs
have changed, the education systems around the world – the contexts
in which introductory books are usually read – have changed radically,
too. What was suitable for the minority higher education system of the
1960s is not suitable for the larger, wider, more diverse, high technology education systems of the twenty-first century. These changes
call not just for new, up-to-date, introductions but new methods of
presentation. The presentational aspects of Routledge Critical Thinkers
have been developed with today’s students in mind.
Each book in the series has a similar structure. They begin with a
section offering an overview of the life and ideas of each thinker and
explain why she or he is important. The central section of each book
discusses the thinker’s key ideas, their context, evolution and reception. Each book concludes with a survey of the thinker’s impact,
outlining how their ideas have been taken up and developed by others.
In addition, there is a detailed final section suggesting and describing
books for further reading. This is not a ‘tacked-on’ section but an integral part of each volume. In the first part of this section you will find
brief descriptions of the thinker’s key works: following this, information on the most useful critical works and, in some cases, on relevant
websites. This section will guide you in your reading, enabling you to
follow your interests and develop your own projects. Throughout each
book, references are given in what is known as the Harvard system (the
author and the date of a work cited are given in the text and you can
look up the full details in the bibliography at the back). This offers a
lot of information in very little space. The books also explain technical
terms and use boxes to describe events or ideas in more detail, away
from the main emphasis of the discussion. Boxes are also used at times
to highlight definitions of terms frequently used or coined by a thinker.
In this way, the boxes serve as a kind of glossary, easily identified when
flicking through the book.
The thinkers in the series are ‘critical’ for three reasons. First, they
are examined in the light of subjects which involve criticism: principally literary studies or English and cultural studies, but also other
disciplines which rely on the criticism of books, ideas, theories and
unquestioned assumptions. Second, they are critical because studying
their work will provide you with a ‘tool kit’ for your own informed
critical reading and thought, which will make you critical. Third, these
thinkers are critical because they are crucially important: they deal with
SERIES EDITOR’S PREFACE

ix

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

x

SERIES EDITOR’S PREFACE

ideas and questions which can overturn conventional understandings
of the world, of texts, of everything we take for granted, leaving us
with a deeper understanding of what we already knew and with new
ideas.
No introduction can tell you everything. However, by offering
a way into critical thinking, this series hopes to begin to engage you
in an activity which is productive, constructive and potentially lifechanging.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I am deeply indebted to Bob Eaglestone and Liz Thompson for their
guidance and patience throughout the writing of this book. I would also
like to thank the anonymous readers for their suggestions, which made
this a better book. Thanks also go to Tina Chanter, Kelly Oliver, and
Ewa Ziarek for their thoughts on Kristeva’s influence, as well as to my
colleagues in the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell: Bob Innis, Whit Kaufman, Gene Mellican, and Chris
Smith. Finally, I thank Eliza, Guthrie, and David Armstrong for the
nourishment we call home. I dedicate this book to Eliza.
A portion of Chapter 5 first appeared in Philosophy Today 44, SPEP
Supplement 2000: 77–83. For details see McAfee (2000a) in the Works
Cited section.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

W H Y K R I S T E VA ?

Julia Kristeva is one of the most original thinkers of our time. She is
one of very few philosophers for whom the speaking being becomes a
crucial constellation for understanding oral and written literature,
politics and national identity, sexuality, culture, and nature. Where
other thinkers might see these fields as separate domains, Kristeva
shows that the speaking being is “a strange fold” between them all – a
place where inner drives are discharged into language, where sexuality
interplays with thought, where the body and culture meet. Under
Kristeva’s gaze, no border stands untouched by the forces on either side
of it. To live is to be in a state of change, to be nearly under siege from
a variety of forces. This is one reason why much of her work focuses
on the “borderline” patients who frequent psychoanalysts’ couches.
They manifest the very same conditions we all do when the affective
dimensions of living disrupt our even mental keel. Kristeva’s work
shows how what we call subjectivity is always a tenuous accomplishment, a dynamic process never completed.
Kristeva and her cohorts offer the term subjectivity as an alternative
to the conventional understanding of “self,” a term used to designate a
being who is fully aware of her own intentions, fully able to act as an
autonomous being in the world, and guided by her reason and intellect. Conventionally, “the self” uses language as a tool to convey ideas.
She says what she means and intends what she says. This self is, ideally,

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

2

WHY KRISTEVA?

master of her own being, subject to no one. The term subjectivity
suggests something altogether different. Those who proffer this term
think that the Western philosophic tradition is deeply mistaken about
how human beings come to be who they are. First, persons are subject
to all kinds of phenomena: their culture, history, context, relationships, and language. These phenomena profoundly shape how people
come to be. Thus, persons are better understood as subjects not selves.
Second, subjects are not fully aware of all the phenomena that shape
them. There is even a dimension of their own being that is inaccessible,
a dimension that goes by the name, “the unconscious.” The unconscious
is the domain of desires, tensions, energy, and repressions that is not
present in consciousness. Therefore, the experience of subjectivity is
not that of coming to awareness as a “self,” but of having an identity
wrought in ways often unbeknownst to the subject herself. And finally,
the term subjectivity better explains people’s relationship to language.
Instead of seeing language as a tool used by selves, those who use the
term subjectivity understand that language helps produce subjects.
As I will discuss in these pages, Kristeva is part of a philosophic
tradition that takes this notion of subjectivity as a starting point. This
tradition can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, certainly
to the work of the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel (1770–1831), who argued persuasively against the notion of the
autonomous, self-conscious individual. Later in the nineteenth century,
the German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900),
advanced this critique, arguing that the notion of the self as a unified
and rational being was an illusion inimical to life itself. In the twentieth
century, a series of philosophers in France took Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s
insights further, and we can locate Kristeva as part of this philosophical trajectory. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kristeva was one of the first
thinkers to usher in “post-structuralism,” an intellectual movement that
has had enormous impact in philosophical and literary circles. (I discuss
this movement later in this introduction.) What sets Kristeva apart –
and so what answers the title of this introduction – is that she has come
up with very powerful tools for understanding how language produces
speaking beings who emerge in that fold between language and culture.
She offers a sustained and nuanced understanding of how subjectivity
is produced; how language actually operates when people speak, write,
and create; and how beings who are already at odds with “the other”
within might come to terms with the others in their midst.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

At first glance, Julia Kristeva seems to be of two minds about things.
She revels in the revolutionary potential of poetic language, yet she
is careful not to take its “asymbolia” (loss of meaning) too far. She
conjures up a radically new understanding of maternal, “heretical” (that
is, subversive to the established order, unorthodox) ethics, yet she
does so within a discourse (psychoanalysis) that is steeped in paternal
authority. She documents how people are both fascinated and repelled
by the foreigners in their midst, but she sees this attitude toward
“foreignness” as a necessary and constitutive feature of our selfidentity. She points to the importance of biological drives and energy,
but notes that they can only be apprehended via our language and
culture. She writes with feminist intent, but she is critical of the movement known as feminism.
No wonder, then, that Kristeva has been castigated by critics from
all sides – and that her work has been so often misunderstood. (In the
1980s and 1990s several Anglo-American feminist philosophers
launched criticisms against Kristeva’s work because of its supposedly
anti-feminist adherence to psychoanalytic theory. See my annotation of
a book by Nancy Fraser and Sandra Bartky in the “Further reading”
section at the end of this book.) Her various styles of writing do not
help. Her earliest works are noted for their highly theoretical, abstract,
and nearly turgid prose (namely her early book, Revolution in Poetic
Language (1974)), and some of her later writings are marked by a difficulty of another sort: a kind of poetic inventiveness and multiplicity
(such as in “Stabat Mater” (1977) and Powers of Horror (1980)).
Still one ignores or writes off Kristeva at one’s own intellectual risk.
She is not, in fact, of two minds about things. The seeming discrepancies in her thought are, in actuality, manifestations of her attempt to
help us all find a balance between the “excesses” of nature and the
constraints of culture, even as she tries to unravel the polarity I am now
invoking between these two domains. As someone bringing together
insights from fields as far flung as psychoanalytic theory, religious
scholarship, avant-garde literature, and philosophy, Kristeva is one of
the most original and influential thinkers of our time. She has changed
the terrain in literary criticism, psychoanalytic theory, linguistics,
and feminist philosophy. She has also ventured into political theory and
fiction writing. She is one of the most popular intellectuals in Paris
(regularly appearing on television and continuing to publish new books)
WHY KRISTEVA?

3

4

WHY KRISTEVA?

and a regular subject of panels at academic conferences in the United
States, England, and Australia.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

LIFE AND CONTEXTS

Kristeva was born in Bulgaria in 1941. Her father, trained as a doctor,
worked as an accountant for the Church and consequently was not in
the good graces of the reigning Communist Party (the Communists
being avowedly atheist). As a result, the young Julia Kristeva was not
allowed the perks of membership of the Communist Party – she wasn’t
allowed to attend the government-sponsored French schools or to carry
the flag in parades, as the best students usually did. Her father sent her
and her sister to a school run by Dominican nuns, where she was able
to study in French and flourish as a student. Studying in the Eastern
Bloc, Kristeva came to know the work of the Russian Formalists (as
discussed in Chapter 2, a group of linguists who identified the structures of language in the early decades of the twentieth century), as well
as the work of the Eastern European thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin
(1895–1975), one of the leading social and literary philosophers of the
twentieth century, who was still unknown in the West. When she was
writing her doctoral thesis on the nouveau roman (a new style of novel
penned in France after World War II by a group of avant-garde
writers), she learned of a scholarship the French government was
offering to qualified young people wanting to study in France. Just
before Christmas of 1965, when the diehard communist director of her
college was in Moscow, her thesis director took her to the French
embassy, where she wrote and passed the exam for the scholarship to
study in France. The scholarship money would come through by the
end of January, but Kristeva was worried that the college’s director
would return and forbid her from leaving. So she left immediately with
just five dollars in her pocket.
Arriving in Paris on Christmas Eve, she chanced to meet a Bulgarian
journalist with whom she stayed until her scholarship money came
through. Then, less by happenstance, she fell in with a new generation
of intellectuals:
At the end of ‘65, I landed at Lucien Goldmann’s and Roland Barthes’ doors at
the [L’ecole Pratique des] Hautes etudes. Lucien Goldmann welcomed me to

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

his seminar on the “sociology of the novel” with fraternal distraction, convinced
that I was a congenital Marxist, since I came from Eastern Europe.
(Kristeva 1997: 7–8)

A fellow exile and literary theorist, Goldmann (1913–1970), who was
from Romania, helped her immeasurably, she says: “It was a kind of
help that only those exiled from any country know how to give”
(Kristeva 1997: 8). Subsequently, Goldmann directed her thesis on the
origins of the novel. As for the literary theorist, Roland Barthes
(1915–1980): “the teaching of Roland Barthes attracted me because of
its capacity to make formalism, which I had found reductive, extremely
appealing” (Kristeva 1997: 8). In these circles she also came to meet
the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–), the linguist, Émile
Benveniste (1902–1976), the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1901–
1981), the philosopher, Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and others
working variously in the vein known as structuralism, an intellectual
approach that sought to locate and analyze structures in everything from
kinship networks to language to the unconscious.
With her keen intellect and her background in Russian Formalism
(one of the original manifestations of structuralism, which I explain
further in Chapter 2), Kristeva immediately made a name for herself.
The first impression she made was in a paper she presented. “I introduced someone who was unknown at the time in the West: Mikhail
Bakhtin, and his notions of inter-textuality, of dialogue, and of the
carnivalization of the novel” (Kuprel 2000). As she soon wrote in her
first book, Semiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (Semiotics: Investigations for Semanalysis):
Writer as well as “scholar,” Bakhtin was one of the first to replace the static
hewing out of texts with a model where literary structure does not simply exist
but is generated in relation to another structure. What allows a dynamic dimension to structuralism is his conception of the “literary word” as an intersection
of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning), as a dialogue among
several writings: that of the writer, the addressee (or the character), and the
contemporary or earlier cultural context.
(Kristeva 1980: 64–65)

Such a “literary word” par excellence is the poetic word, Kristeva explains, and its logic is found in what Bakhtin calls carnival: “Carnivalesque
WHY KRISTEVA?

5

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

6

WHY KRISTEVA?

discourse breaks through the laws of a language censored by grammar
and semantics and, at the same time, is a social and political protest”
(Kristeva 1980: 65). Her explanation and development of Bakhtin was
so well received that she immediately got a job offer, she says, to teach
in the United States. She turned it down because of the war the United
States was carrying out in Vietnam, which she opposed (Guberman
1996: 5). She joined what was called the Tel Quel (or “Such as it is”)
group, the editorial collective of the journal by the same name. One of
the group’s members was the novelist, Philippe Sollers, whom she soon
married and with whom she had a son in the mid-1970s.
The mid-1960s were heady times to be in Paris, especially in the
four streets of the Left Bank that Kristeva now called home. As part of
the Tel Quel group, Kristeva later told an interviewer, “we would have
deep discussions until all hours of the night at 55 Rue de Rennes, where
many people would come to discuss philosophy and literature. The
animated intellectual world convinced me that I could live abroad”
(Guberman 1996: 6). Intellectually and politically – not to mention
sexually – revolution was in the air. Intellectually, the revolution was
aimed at infusing theory with the dynamics of history, change, and,
especially for Kristeva, the living, breathing “speaking being.”
For us, structuralism . . . was already accepted knowledge. To simplify, this
meant that one should no longer lose sight of the real constraints, “material,”
as we used to say, of what had previously and trivially been viewed as “form.”
For us, the logic of this formal reality constituted the very meaning of
phenomena or events that then became structures (from kinship to literary
texts) and thus achieved intelligibility without necessarily relying on “external
factors.” From the outset, however, our task was to take this acquired knowledge and immediately do something else.
(Kristeva 1997: 9)

Kristeva and others in her circle of intellectuals built upon the
insights of structuralism to “do something else” – something they
thought was simultaneously political and philosophical, for they believed that any linguistic intervention was also a political one; namely,
they chose to look for the dynamic, changing aspects of systems. Where
structuralism looked at systems synchronically (in a snapshot of time),
post-structuralism looked at systems diachronically, through time, as
events or processes. “I was one of the people who helped to formulate

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

a type of post-structuralism,” she later told an interviewer, using the
phrase “post-structuralism” as a modification of the familiar “structuralism.” Post-structuralism was new in that it brought in history,
time, process, change, event: it broke up the static way that structuralists understood things. “My position was that mere structure was
not sufficient to understand the world of meaning in literature and
other human behaviors. Two more elements were necessary: history
and the speaking subject” (Kuprel 2000). Along these lines, Kristeva
and other post-structuralists helped push aside the notion of “the self ”
that I discussed at the outset with the concept of “speaking beings,” who
are subject to the vicissitudes of history, language, and other shaping
forces. Kristeva’s contribution is often overshadowed by one of the
more famous members of her circle, Jacques Derrida (1930–), who
took the account of language offered by Ferdinand de Saussure
(1857–1913), the Swiss linguist and founder of structural linguistics,
and created a way to “deconstruct” language and structuralism itself.
But, where Derrida was concerned with deconstructing structuralism,
Kristeva thought it essential to “‘dynamize’ the structure by taking into
consideration the speaking subject and its unconscious experience on
the one hand and, on the other, the pressures of other social structures”
(Kristeva 1997: 9).
To this end, after completing her thesis on the origin of the novel,
she set to work on what may be her most important book, La révolution du langage poétique (1974), a part of which was translated ten years
later as Revolution in Poetic Language. The “revolution” she describes is
the one performed by avant-garde writers, such as the French poets,
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and Comte de Lautréamont (1846–
1870), whose poetic language calls up an aspect of the signifying process
that destabilizes the symbolic, logical, and orderly aspects of signifying.
I will go into the details in the next chapter, but suffice it to say for
now that Kristeva’s attention to poetic language showed how dynamic
subjectivity really is.
As for the political revolution, by May 1968 students and workers
in Paris had shut down the city with a massive strike. May ’68 saw
similar rebellions throughout the world, but in Paris the confluence
of workers, students, and intellectuals working to change the world
made the dream seem almost possible. But then it all collapsed. And
it turned out that one of the leading betrayers of the cause was none
other than the French Communist Party, a political party with which
WHY KRISTEVA?

7

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

8

WHY KRISTEVA?

many left intellectuals had felt common cause. The budding revolutionaries were deeply chagrined.
Still the Tel Quel group carried on and, in 1974, under the spell of
Maoism (the approach to communism developed by China’s communist
leader, Mao Zedong (1893–1976)), some of its members, Kristeva
included, made a three-week trip to China to see how, as one journalist has put it, “socialism could marry with an ancient and subtle
culture, one they considered comparable to France” (Hughes-Hallett
1992). They were disappointed, to say the least: “I myself was alarmed
by the profound, unflagging, sly presence of the Soviet model,” Kristeva
later wrote in a memoir, “the only sign of the twentieth century in this
land of peasants, and all the more evident because [this model] was
violently resisted” (Kristeva 1997: 19). Instead of the ethereal socialism
they sought, they found the signs of the imminence of Soviet-style
communism, which Kristeva had already quit in Bulgaria. The trip to
China, Kristeva later wrote, marked her “farewell to politics” (Kristeva
1997: 19). But the trip was fruitful in an unexpected way: what she
saw led her to write what she has called “an awkward book,” Des
Chinoises (1974), a portion of which was translated into English as
“About Chinese Women” (and published in Toril Moi’s The Kristeva
Reader (Kristeva 1986) ). In this book, she has said recently, perhaps
in response to critics who say she was being “orientalist,” that is,
portraying the East as the inferior other, she “tried to convey the
strangeness of China and to explain the fascination we Occidentals feel
for it, a fascination unquestionably involved with our own strange,
foreign, feminine, psychotic aspects” (Kristeva 1997: 19; also Oliver
1993: 150–163).
China gave Kristeva a glimpse of the internal territory she needed
to encounter. Upon her return to Paris, she went into psychoanalysis,
a way to educate herself about “the only continent we had never left:
internal experience” (Kristeva 1997: 19):
The psychoanalytic experience struck me as the only one in which the wildness of the speaking being, and of language, can be heard. Political
adventures, against the background of desire and hate that analysis openly
unveils, appeared to me the way distance changes them: like a power of horror,
like abjection.
(ibid.)

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

Her subsequent theoretical works reflected this new interest. Where
her writing of the 1960s and 1970s focused on semiotics and language,
her texts of the 1980s take the psychoanalytic experience of the
speaking subject as their point of departure. Later she calls what she
was doing “politics at the micro level,” at the level of the individual.
She even suggests that psychoanalysis might be a political remedy for
the xenophobia that leads to political repression worldwide (Kristeva
1991).
In the 1990s, Kristeva’s writings took two new turns. First, she reentered the (macro)political scene with a few essays in politics,
including Lettre ouverte à Harlem Désir (1990), translated as “Open Letter
to Harlem Désir” and published in Nations without Nationalism (1993).
Second, she turned to fiction, with the publication of books translated
as The Samurai (1992) and The Old Man and the Wolves (1994), as well
as the detective novel, Possessions (1996).
Kristeva is currently the Director of the École Doctorale: Langues,
Littératures et Civilisations at the Université de Paris VII. She is a practicing psychoanalyst and has served as a visiting professor at Columbia
University in New York and at the University of Toronto. She
continues to be a prolific writer, with her most recent work on the
writings and lives of the German-American theorist, Hannah Arendt,
the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, and the French writer, Colette.
THIS BOOK

The core of this book examines Kristeva’s key ideas. Kristeva’s poststructuralism has focused on speaking subjects – human beings who
signify and are constituted through their signifying practices. This
makes it impossible to study her theory of language apart from her
theory of subjectivity. This difficulty presents a slight challenge in
writing a book explaining Kristeva’s project and her key terms; thus
the themes of the various chapters of this book will slip into one
another.
The first chapter will cover the key points in her groundbreaking
text, Revolution in Poetic Language, which are still extremely important
aspects of her work, namely her theory of language and what she calls
the semiotic and the symbolic. Chapter 2 will turn to the theory of
subjectivity that underlies her theory of language and the way in which
this subjectivity is always “in process.” Chapter 3 looks at the way this
WHY KRISTEVA?

9

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

10

WHY KRISTEVA?

subjectivity can founder, how its borders can fail to hold, and at the
promise Kristeva finds for developing a new psychic space. Chapter 4
gives an overview of her work on depression and melancholia. Chapters
5 and 6 turn to her views on maternity, female sexuality, and feminism,
including discussions of other feminists’ criticisms of her work. Chapter
7 discusses Kristeva’s notion of the importance of revolt in language,
politics, and subjectivity. Finally, “After Kristeva,” discusses the impact
that Kristeva’s ideas have had in literary studies, continental philosophy, feminist theory, and political theory. To help those approaching
Kristeva’s texts for the first time, a final section provides an annotated
bibliography of Kristeva’s main books, as well as an overview of some
of the best books and web sites available on Kristeva.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

KEY IDEAS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

1
SEMIOTIC AND
SYMBOLIC

This chapter covers key points in Kristeva’s theory of language,
including her notions of the chora, the semiotic, and the symbolic. She
first articulated these in her early books, primarily in Semiotiké:
Recherches pour une sémanalyse of 1969, of which only two chapters have
been translated into English, and her groundbreaking text of 1974,
La révolution du langage poétique, a third of which was translated into
English and published in 1984 as Revolution in Poetic Language. The
English-language version of Revolution contains the theoretical portion
of the text and omits its critical application to the literary works of
avant-garde writers. The thesis of Revolution in Poetic Language is this:
the works of literary avant-garde writers produce a “revolution in
poetic language.” That is, they contain elements that “shatter” the way
we think that texts are meaningful. Meaning is not made just denotatively, with words denoting thoughts or things. Meaning is made in
large part by the poetic and affective aspects of texts as well. This revolution is not limited to the language of artists, but is present in ways
that ordinary human beings try to express themselves. All our attempts
to use language neatly, clearly, and in an orderly way are handmaidens
of our attempts to be neat, clearly demarcated, orderly subjects. But
such attempts are continuously disrupted by certain elements of our
signifying practice.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

14

KEY IDEAS

Throughout her writing, Julia Kristeva focuses on “speaking beings”
– those who not only use language but are constituted through their
use of language. Kristeva describes language as the discursive or signifying system in which “the speaking subject makes and unmakes himself”
(Kristeva 1989b: 265, 272). In Kristeva’s view, as the philosopher
Kelly Oliver has noted, “any theory of language is a theory of the
subject” (see Oliver’s introduction to Kristeva (1997: xviii)). Thus
Kristeva folds two huge areas of inquiry – subjectivity and language –
into one. This twofold aspect of her work makes writing this book on
Kristeva difficult. I cannot begin to address her theory of language
without also discussing her theory of subjectivity. Nor can I do the
opposite. As we’ll see, we cannot set her views on language apart from
the beings who use it. In Kristeva’s view, language is not a tool that
we pick up from time to time. And there is not a speaking being to
consider unless this being is speaking or using language in some way.
To make matters all the more complex, we are engaging in this work
using language ourselves.
THE SIGNIFYING PROCESS

One way to approach Kristeva’s theory of language is to compare it to
the other theories that were accepted when she wrote Revolution in
Poetic Language. Kristeva’s view of them is rather harsh: “Our philosophies of language, embodiments of the Idea, are nothing more than the
thoughts of archivists, archaeologists, and necrophiliacs” (Kristeva
1984: 13). In other words, most non-post-structuralist theories of
language treat language as a dead artifact, something that can be cataloged, archived, entombed – a formal object of study. They do this in
keeping with larger socio-economic forces, namely capitalism, which
treat people and their languages as isolable, static entities. In so doing,
they deny the dynamic processes in which people generate meaning and
experience.
Along with others in her circle on the Left Bank, Kristeva entered
the field to change all that. Instead of treating language as a separate,
static entity, Kristeva has seen it as part of a dynamic signifying process.
Kristeva never explicitly defines this key term, but she seems to use it
to mean the ways in which bodily drives and energy are expressed,
literally discharged through our use of language, and how our signifying
practices shape our subjectivity and experience: “linguistic changes

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

constitute changes in the status of the subject – his relation to the body,
to others, and to objects” (Kristeva 1984: 15). Kelly Oliver describes
Kristeva’s view of signifying practice this way:
Instead of lamenting what is lost, absent, or impossible in language, Kristeva
marvels at this other realm [bodily experience] that makes its way into language.
The force of language is [a] living driving force transferred into language.
Signification is like a transfusion of the living body into language.
(Oliver 1997: xx)

So we should not study language apart from “the subject of enunciation,” “the subject who ‘means,’” or, to put it more plainly, the person
who is talking or writing and trying to express something. For this
speaking being’s own living energy infuses meaning into language. The
best example of this phenomenon is a negative one: think of what it is
like to talk with someone who lacks what psychiatrists call “affect,”
that is, evident feeling or emotion. This is sometimes the case with
someone who is severely depressed. Such a person’s speech may be
devoid of the usual rhythms and modulations that infuse speech with
meaning. He or she speaks with no enthusiasm and seems to be nearly
absent from the conversation. A listener would take away very little
from the words that are uttered, for they do not seem to signify
anything real or vital.
Interestingly, our everyday uses of language in social settings generally operate by trying to contain the “excesses” of language, that is, the
potentially explosive ways in which signifying practices exceed the
subject and his or her communicative structures (Kristeva 1984: 16).
Some such excesses have been sanctioned in the arts, religion, and rites
– realms in which passions that might disrupt the social order are channeled. But in “polite society” we are expected to “contain ourselves.”
For most of us, we have to find a path between the two poles of
language, devoid of affect and expressions that overwhelm order.
TWO MODES OF SIGNIFICATION

In fact, when we attend to language within the signifying process,
Kristeva says, we may notice two ways or modes in which it operates:
(1) as an expression of clear and orderly meaning; and (2) as an evocation of feeling or, more pointedly, a discharge of the subject’s energy
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

15

16

KEY IDEAS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

and drives. In other words, we may find ourselves using certain words
because they get something across clearly or because they express some
feeling, desire, or unconscious drive. The words she uses for these
modes are, respectively, symbolic and semiotic. These terms draw
on a rich background of linguistic and psychoanalytic theory, to which
I will turn shortly. First, notice the following passage from Molly’s
soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses:
the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons
on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to
propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it
was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost
my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all
a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines
for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt
what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all
the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes.
(643)

Believe it or not, I’ve selected one of the more coherent passages from
Molly’s soliloquy. It expresses meaning in both modes that Kristeva
discusses: (1) symbolically, i.e. through the use of logical terms; and
(2) semiotically, through a breathless (punctuation-less) flow of words
that are more emotive than logical. Clearly this passage partakes of the
second mode more than the first, at least in so far as Joyce’s semiotic
signification helped produce Molly’s stream of consciousness. Molly
shifts back and forth in time and perspective. We get a keen sense of
Molly’s jouissance (one of Kristeva’s favorite terms to signify both erotic
and psychic pleasure). We read Molly’s uncensored thoughts in her
stream-of-consciousness recollections. This is an important part of
semiotic signification: Molly’s prose comes forth almost unbidden from
a wellspring of internal desires and drives, or at least Joyce’s writing
seems to do so.
To help understand the distinction between semiotic and symbolic,
the reader could imagine mapping that dichotomy onto more familiar
dichotomies: such as the distinctions between nature and culture,
between body and mind, between the unconscious and consciousness,
and between feeling and reason. In the history of Western thought,
these dichotomies are usually taken to be extreme opposites: either one

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

THE SEMIOTIC AND THE SYMBOLIC
In Kristeva’s theory, the signifying process has two modes: the semiotic and
the symbolic. The semiotic (le sémiotique, not la sémiotique, which means
semiotics, the study of signs) is the extra-verbal way in which bodily energy
and affects make their way into language. The semiotic includes both the
subject’s drives and articulations. While the semiotic may be expressed
verbally, it is not subject to regular rules of syntax. Conversely, the symbolic
is a way of signifying that depends on language as a sign system complete
with its grammar and syntax (Kristeva 1984: 27). The symbolic is a mode of
signifying in which speaking beings attempt to express meaning with as
little ambiguity as possible. The expressions of scientists and logicians are
paradigmatic examples of people trying to use symbolic language, whereas
expressions found in music, dance, and poetry exemplify the semiotic. The
semiotic could be seen as the modes of expression that originate in the
unconscious whereas the symbolic could be seen as the conscious way a
person tries to express using a stable sign system (whether written, spoken,
or gestured with sign language). The two modes, however, are not completely separate: we use symbolic modes of signifying to state a position,
but this position can be destabilized or unsettled by semiotic drives and
articulations.

is a savage brute or a civilized human being; either one is acting out of
lust or using one’s head; either one is driven by emotion or steered by
reason. The difference with Kristeva’s use of these kinds of polarities
is that the former pole (semiotic/nature/body/unconscious, etc.)
always makes itself felt – is discharged – into the latter (symbolic/
culture/mind/consciousness). Instead of holding to the dualistic thinking of the West, Kristeva is showing how the poles of these dichotomies
are intertwined.
In a certain respect it may seem that the symbolic and the semiotic
modes of signification are at odds with each other. This may be so, but
certainly it is also true that the combination of Joyce’s symbolic mode
of signification (his words with clearly demarcated meaning) and his
semiotic mode (a syntax that undercuts order) together signify something more than the sum of the parts of Molly’s words. We have here
neither pure logic nor pure music. What we have is a symbolic mode
of signification (the words in whatever semantic order they are given)
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

17

18

KEY IDEAS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

that is energized by a semiotic dimension. Molly says “that after that
long kiss I nearly lost my breath” and the words are energized by
the breathless semiotic rhythm of the text. This is Kristeva’s point: the
symbolic mode of signification is meaningful because of the way
the semiotic energizes it. If it weren’t for the bodily energy that
speaking beings bring to (and put into) language, language would have
little if any meaning for us.
THE SEMIOTIC CHORA

Well before the subject begins to use language symbolically – through
the use of symbols, grammar, and syntax – she expresses herself with
various intonations and gestures. Think of a baby’s coos and babbles or
her imitations of the rhythms of her parents’ speech. This kind of signifying is part of what Kristeva calls the semiotic: “We understand the
term ‘semiotic’ in its Greek sense: σηµεον= distinctive mark, trace,
index, precursory sign, proof, engraved or written sign, imprint,
trace, figuration” (Kristeva 1984: 25). The semiotic aspect of signification signifies what is “below the surface” of the speaking being:
Discrete quantities of energy move through the body of the subject who is not
yet constituted as such and, in the course of his development, they are
arranged according to the various constraints imposed on this body – always
already involved in a semiotic process – by family and social structures. In this
way the drives, which are “energy” charges as well as “psychical” marks, articulate what we call a chora: a nonexpressive totality formed by the drives and
their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated.
(Kristeva 1984: 25)

By motile, Kristeva means the quality of exhibiting or being capable of
spontaneous movement.
Kristeva borrows the term chora from Plato’s Timaeus to “denote an
essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by
movements and their ephemeral stases” (1984: 25). But even with Plato
on her side, Kristeva’s notion of the chora is extremely hazy: the chora
is often translated as womb or receptacle, but Kristeva doesn’t seem
to mean that it is just a space; she says it is an articulation, a rhythm,
but one that precedes language. Kristeva’s ambiguity can be traced back
to the Timaeus itself. Plato offered the terms receptacle and chora to

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

THE CHORA
The Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) coined a term on which Kristeva
draws. In one of his works titled the Timaeus, Plato gives his own explanation for how the universe was created. In the process he uses the word
chora, meaning both receptacle and nurse, that is, the container and the
producer, of what the universe is before and as anything exists. With the
term chora, Kristeva describes how an infant’s psychic environment is
oriented to its mother’s body: “Plato’s Timaeus speaks of a chora, receptacle, unnamable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to naming, to the One, to the
father, and consequently, maternally connoted to such an extent that it
merits ‘not even the rank of syllable’” (1980: 133). Plato meant by the term
the original space or receptacle of the universe, but Kristeva seems to have
something in mind that belongs to each person in particular before he or
she develops clear borders of his or her own personal identity. In this early
psychic space, the infant experiences a wealth of drives (feelings, instincts,
etc.) that could be extremely disorienting and destructive were it not for the
infant’s relation with his or her mother’s body. An infant’s tactile relation
with its mother’s body provides an orientation for the infant’s drives.
Kristeva often uses the term chora in conjunction with the term semiotic:
her phrase “the semiotic chora” reminds the reader that the chora is the
space in which the meaning that is produced is semiotic: the echolalis,
glossolalias, rhythms, and intonations of an infant who does not yet know
how to use language to refer to objects, or of a psychotic who has lost the
ability to use language in a properly meaningful way. The semiotic chora
may also make itself felt in symbolic communication.

describe a space in which the universe comes to reside. The chora is a
space
which exists always and cannot be destroyed. It provides a fixed site for all
things that come to be. It is itself apprehended by a kind of bastard reasoning
that does not involve sense perception, and it is hardly even an object of conviction. We look at it as in a dream when we say that everything that exists must
of necessity be somewhere, in some place and occupying some space.
(Timaeus: 52b–c)

Plato’s musings about the origins of the universe are ones we might
adopt today, using a more modern vocabulary. In addition to asking
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

19

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

20

KEY IDEAS

“What was there before the big bang?” and “Where did the universe
come from?” we might ask “Where is this universe?” or “In what space
did the universe come to be?” This account makes it seem that the
receptacle is merely a passive space, but this is not the case: the chora
is not just a “receptacle of all becoming,” it is “its wetnurse, as it were”
(Timaeus: 49b). As a receptacle, Plato likens the chora to a mother (as
a space that receives and allows something to flourish). But this
“mother” has no qualities of its own; it fully takes on the imprint of
whatever fills it – and derives its powers from what fills it:
Now as the wetnurse of becoming turns watery and fiery and receives that
character of earth and air, and as it acquires all the properties that come with
these characters, it takes on a variety of visible aspects, but because it is filled
with powers that are neither similar nor evenly balanced, no part of it is in
balance. It sways irregularly in every direction as it is shaken by those things,
and being set in motion it in turn shakes them. And as they are moved, they
drift continually, some in one direction and others in others, separating from
one another. They are winnowed out, as it were.
(Timaeus: 52d–53a)

Kristeva says she is only “borrowing” Plato’s term; she doesn’t claim
to be adopting it wholesale. She downplays the Platonic view of the
chora as amorphous, formless, and completely malleable to whatever
fills it, in favor of Plato’s view of the chora as the wetnurse of becoming.
Kristeva emphasizes the chora’s motility, which, as I mentioned above,
means exhibiting or being capable of spontaneous movement. Kristeva
wants to see the chora as capable of generating (not just receiving)
energy – the energy which helps fuel the signifying process. She finds,
“in this rhythmic space, which has no thesis and no position, the process
by which signifiance is constituted” (Kristeva 1984: 26).
At first the child is immersed in this semiotic chora. It expresses itself
in the baby talk of coos and babbles. It uses sounds and gestures to
express itself and to discharge energy. It does not yet grasp that an
utterance can express something – or that there is any salient difference between various things and itself. Yet, as this awareness occurs
and deepens, everything changes. The child begins to realize that
language can be used to point out objects and events. At the same time,
the child begins to realize its own difference from its surroundings.
It becomes aware of the difference between self (subject) and other

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

(object). It comprehends that language can point to things outside itself,
that it is potentially referential. Kristeva calls this the thetic break. An
observer can see this at work well before a child begins to speak in
sentences. Even sounds that at first seem semiotic – e.g. imitating the
“woof-woof” of a dog – are first steps into the act of making propositions, thus first steps into the symbolic. The child has identified a dog
as something separate from itself. This act “constitutes an attribution,
which is to say, a positing of identity or difference.” It “represents the
nucleus of judgment or proposition” (Kristeva 1984: 43).
Kristeva borrows the notion of the thetic from Edmund Husserl
(1859–1938), the German philosopher who founded the type of
philosophy called phenomenology (roughly, the study of appearances
and consciousness); but she develops it using the work of the psychoanalytic thinkers, Austrian Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his
French successor, Jacques Lacan, who was very influential in the 1950s
and 1960s. Not only is the thetic phase the starting point for signification, it is a stage in the development of the child’s subjectivity:
In our view, the Freudian theory of the unconscious and its Lacanian development show, precisely, that thetic signification is a stage attained under certain
precise conditions during the signifying process, and that it constitutes the
subject without being reduced to process precisely because it is the threshold
of language.
(Kristeva 1984: 44–45)

These conditions are, briefly, (1) the stage Freud identified as the
Oedipal stage, when, to the child’s deep chagrin, it realizes that the
mother is not almighty – she lacks a penis; and (2) what Lacan called
the mirror stage of development, when a child at somewhere between
six and eighteen months recognizes and identifies with its image in a
mirror (or mirror-equivalent). The Oedipal stage raises the fear in the
(male) child that it might also come to lack a penis (the fear of castration) and so it transfers its maternal attachment to its father. (Freud
deemed women “the dark continent” and had little that was very convincing to say about their development. Still, we are told that, as an
analog to the boy’s fear of castration, girls suffer from penis envy and
thus will also turn their focus onto the realm of language.) The mirror
stage raises the awkward situation of needing to identify with an alien
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

21

22

KEY IDEAS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

image (that is decidedly not oneself) in order to have a primordial
notion of being an “I”; the child has to identify with the fictive unity it
sees in the mirror and set aside the discordance of its own body that
cannot even stand on its own. With these events, the child is no longer
in the warm cocoon of the chora; it becomes dimly aware of its distinctness from its surroundings – that what surrounds it is other than itself.
Thus, writes Kristeva:
we view the thetic phase – the positing of the imago, castration, and the
positing of semiotic motility – as the place of the Other, as the precondition for
signification, i.e., the precondition for the positing of language. The thetic
phase marks a threshold between two heterogeneous realms: the semiotic and
the symbolic.
(1984: 48)

Now the child is at the threshold of using language as a means of
orderly communication, of beginning to be able to learn the rules
of grammar and syntax, of knowing that things have names and can be
named, and of begining its command of language as a system of signs.
Now it is at the brink of the symbolic.
By the symbolic, Kristeva means what I have just described as
“orderly communication”: discourse that uses the normal rules of
syntax and semantics to convey meaning. Some kind of communication
is patently more symbolic than others: the language of science and
logic, or the instructions that come with something you need to
assemble (no one wants poetic language then!). Whenever we want
to mean what we say and say what we mean, with as little ambiguity
as possible, we are trying to speak symbolically. So why does Kristeva
use the rather esoteric word, symbolic? Because even the most plainspoken communication has a rupture within it: the rupture Ferdinand
de Saussure (1857–1913), the Swiss linguist and founder of structural
linguistics, saw as the gap between signifier and signified, that is, the
double aspects of a term with its sound-image, on the one hand, and
its meaning, on the other. To this point, Kristeva writes that the
scission between semiotic and symbolic is marked by a break within
the symbolic itself – between signifier and signified:
Symbolic would seem an appropriate term for this always split unification that
is produced by a rupture and is impossible without it. Its etymology makes it

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

AFFECTS AND AFFECTIVE
Most English dictionaries consider these words obsolete, but they are very
alive in psychoanalytic theory. The word affect refers to the manifestation
of the inner drives and energy that psychoanalytic theory identifies at work
within the subject. These drives could be released, resulting in dischargeaffects or dammed up, resulting in tension-affects. I will often use the noun
affect to note the ways in which such drives are manifested and the adjective affective to note that the origins of something can be traced back to
these inner states, including the drives, energy, and emotions under the
surface of any human being.

particularly pertinent. The σµβολον is a sign of recognition: an “object” split
in two and the parts separated, but, as eyelids do, σµβολον [sign, token, or
symbol] brings together the two edges of that fissure.
(Kristeva 1984: 49)

Even the most plain-spoken language is an uneasy merger between a
sound-image and the meaning it is supposed to denote. The soundimage cannot be completely divested of its semiotic motility, for
example the affective import of a term’s alliteration and rhythm.
Sometimes the semiotic aspect of a sound-image (the signifier) will
lend itself to the meaning of a term (the signified) and sometimes the
signifier will work against the signified. “As a result, the ‘symbol’ is any
joining, any bringing together that is a contract – one that either follows
hostilities or presupposes them – and, finally, any exchange, including
an exchange of hostility” (Kristeva 1984: 49).
THE INTERPLAY OF SEMIOTIC AND
SYMBOLIC

Kristeva is offering a developmental account of how the child embarks
on its worldly adventures: first, in the embrace of the chora, where its
first sounds and gestures express and discharge feelings and energy;
then through certain events it comes to see itself as separate from its
surroundings and thus becomes ready to use language symbolically.
But, in Kristeva’s view, as the child takes up the symbolic disposition
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

23

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

24

KEY IDEAS

it does not leave the semiotic behind. The semiotic will remain a
constant companion to the symbolic in all its communications.
How can the semiotic remain part of the signifying process? The
semiotic way of signifying seems to be at odds with what we usually
understand to be the purpose of signification: to transmit an intended
meaning from one person to another. In this sense, Kristeva says, the
semiotic is “definitely heterogeneous to meaning” (1980: 133). But this
does not mean that the semiotic is a stranger to meaningfulness; it is
“always in sight of it or in either a negative or surplus relationship to
it” (ibid.: 134):
It goes without saying that, concerning a signifying practice, that is, a socially
communicable discourse like poetic language, this semiotic heterogeneity
posited by theory is inseparable from what I call, to distinguish it from the
latter, the symbolic function of significance. The symbolic, as opposed to the
semiotic, is this inevitable attribute of meaning, sign, and the signified object.
. . . Language as social practice necessarily presupposes these two dispositions [the semiotic and the symbolic], though combined in different ways to
constitute types of discourse, types of signifying practices.
(ibid.)

In the next chapter I will discuss more fully why these two types of
signifying practice are inseparable, or at least why the symbolic can
never be completely devoid of the semiotic. (Hint: the symbolic is
always used by a speaking being.) Here I should say more about the use
of this distinction in literary criticism.
GENOTEXT AND PHENOTEXT

In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva offers a distinctive way to
analyze entire literary texts. In a brief chapter entitled “Genotext and
Phenotext,” she uses these terms to describe two aspects of a literary
text. The distinction between genotext and phenotext could be mapped
onto the distinction between semiotic and symbolic – albeit roughly.
The genotext is the motility between the words, the potentially disruptive meaning that is not quite a meaning below the text. The
phenotext is what the syntax and semantics of the text is trying to
convey, again, in “plain language.” Drawing on her distinction between
the semiotic and the symbolic, she shows how a text can manifest
a semiotic dimension:

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

Designating the genotext in a text requires pointing out the transfers of drive
energy that can be detected in phonematic devices (such as the accumulation
and repetition of phonemes or rhyme) and melodic devices (such as intonation
or rhythm), in the way semantic and categorical fields are set out in syntactic
and logical features, or in the economy of mimesis (fantasy, the deferment of
denotation, narrative, etc.).
(Kristeva 1984: 86)

Conversely, one can identify a text’s phenotext by noting the “language
that serves to communicate, which linguistics describes in terms of
‘competence’ and ‘performance’ ” (ibid.: 87). In other words, a text
operates at two levels: at the semiotic-genotext level it is a process by
which the author organizes or manifests semiotic drives and energy; at
the symbolic-phenotext level it is a structured and mappable piece of
communication. Kristeva offers two examples to help understand the
distinction. One is mathematical: genotext is to topology as phenotext
is to algebra. The first points to the shape of some entity, whereas the
second lays out a structure. The other example Kristeva offers is the
difference between written and spoken Chinese. Written Chinese,
analogous to phenotext, represents and articulates the signifying process; but only spoken Chinese, like the genotext, provides the elements
necessary for an exchange of meaning between two subjects.
Nowhere is the dual aspect of texts more manifest than in the work
of avant-garde writers. Analyses of these works are scattered
throughout Kristeva’s body of work. Here is what she has to say about
one of Philippe Sollers’ works:
Now this is the point: my concern lies in the other, what is heterogeneous,
my own negation erected as representation, but the consumption of which I
can also decipher. This heterogeneous object is of course a body that
invites me to identify with it (woman, child, androgyne?) and immediately
forbids any identification; it is not me, it is a non-me in me, beside me, outside
of me, where the me becomes lost. This heterogeneous objects is a body,
because it is a text.
(1980: 163)

Kristeva warns the reader not to be taken in by the abuse this little
word, text, has taken. She wants the reader to see “how much risk there
is in a text, how much nonidentity, nonauthenticity, impossibility, and
SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

25

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

26

KEY IDEAS

corrosiveness it holds for those who [choose] to see themselves within
it” (ibid.). Wherever there is such a disruptive genotext, the reader is
put at risk, at risk of losing his or her own bounds. I will return to this
thought in the next chapter.
Finally, I should mention two other terms that Kristeva coined,
which made a big splash in intellectual circles, though they have not
figured in much of her work since. These are semanalysis and intertextuality. Semanalysis was a term she coined for the subtitle of her first
book, Semiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. She developed this term,
she later wrote, to try to “set categories and concepts ablaze,” while at
the same time scrutinizing the discourse of semiotic analysis (ibid.: vii).
While she no longer uses the term semanalysis, it is certainly true that
her life’s work has aimed at unsettling the status quo in linguistics and
semiotics. As for her term, inter-textuality, it is often mistakenly taken
to mean the way texts intersect or can be analyzed together. But
Kristeva meant something much more interesting: she meant the
“passage from one sign system to another” – the way in which one signifying
practice is transposed into another:
The term inter-textuality denotes this transposition of one (or several) sign
system(s) into another; but since this term has often been understood in the
banal sense of “study of sources,” we prefer the term transposition because it
specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a
new articulation of the thetic – of enunciative and denotative positionality. If one
grants that every signifying practice is a field of transpositions of various signifying systems (an inter-textuality), one then understands that its “place” of
enunciation and its denoted “object” are never single, complete, and identical
to themselves, but always plural, shattered, capable of being tabulated. In this
way polysemy [multiple levels or kinds of meaning] can also be seen as the
result of a semiotic polyvalence – an adherence to different sign systems.
(Kristeva 1984: 59–60)

In other words, signifying practice is never simple and unified. It is
the result of multiple origins or drives, and hence it does not produce
a simple, uniform meaning. Here again, Kristeva’s analysis of language
demands that we attend to the field from which it is issued, and that is
none other than the speaking being – what Kristeva will call le sujet en
procès – a subject (in the other sense of the term) who is herself not a
self-transparent unity.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

SUMMARY
Where other linguists and philosophers have studied language as a separate, static entity, Kristeva has insisted that the study of language is
inseparable from the study of the speaking being. Instead of studying
language per se, she studies the signifying process, the process by which
the speaking being discharges its energy and affects into its symbolic mode
of signification. Her study of the signifying practice rests on psychoanalytic
theory, drawing a developmental picture of the speaking being, who first
begins to signify well before she learns words. First significations occur
when the child is still immersed in the semiotic chora, the psychic space in
which its early energy and drives are oriented and expressed. Even when
the child matures into an adult, this semiotic dimension will continue to
make itself felt.

SEMIOTIC AND SYMBOLIC

27

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

2
THE SUBJECT IN
PROCESS

The last chapter focused on Kristeva’s theory of language. In discussing
her views, we kept broaching a thought I have reserved for this chapter:
any study of language is a study of the subject (i.e. “the subject” as an
abstract person). Now we can finally attend to this idea and go further:
the subject is an effect of linguistic processes. In other words, we
become who we are as a result of taking part in signifying processes.
There is no self-aware self prior to our use of language. At the same
time, language is a signifying process because it is used by someone who
is herself a process. Language as Kristeva studies it is inseparable from
the beings that use it. And these beings, speaking beings (parlêtres, she
calls them, combining the French words for speaking and being), are
themselves constituted through a variety of different processes.
A student of Kristeva, even one who is primarily interested in her
relevance to literary theory, therefore is well advised to take an excursion into Kristeva’s explorations through psychoanalytic theory of how
subjectivity develops. Hints of this interest can be found as early as the
1970s in Revolution in Poetic Language, but the bulk of her work in
psychoanalytic theory occurs in the books she wrote after her return
from China when, you will recall, she vowed to turn to the politics of
the micro level, the level of internal experience.
As I discussed in the last chapter, Kristeva uses psychoanalytic theory
to develop insights she drew from Husserl’s phenomenology. She

30

KEY IDEAS

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

draws on both Freud and Lacan, even as she modifies their views. This
is especially the case with one of the key terms of Chapter 1: the
symbolic. In this second chapter, I will discuss Lacan’s scheme,
involving what he calls the symbolic, and then I will show how
Kristeva’s theory radically expands on Lacan’s. We will then be in a
position to understand what Kristeva calls le sujet en procès, translated
as the subject in process/on trial.
LACAN’S INFLUENCE

In the 1950s, Jacques Lacan set himself the task of rescuing Freud’s revolutionary ideas from the watered-down state to which they had been
reduced by the mid-twentieth century: namely in the ego psychology
prominent in America under the leadership of the Austrian psychoanalyst, Heinz Hartmann (1894–1970). According to ego psychology,
the goal of psychoanalysis is to cure: to secure the ego’s dominance and
control over the id and the superego.
Lacan rejected this model of the ego and of psychoanalysis:
One understands that to prop up so obviously precarious a conception certain
individuals on the other side of the Atlantic should have felt the need to introduce into it some stable value, some standard of the measure of the real:
this turns out to be the autonomous ego. This is the supposedly organized
ensemble of the most disparate functions that lend their support to the
subject’s feeling of innateness.
(Lacan 1977: 230–231)

Where the ego psychologists point to an innate self, Lacan would find
only an illusory unity. The ego, for him, is a tenuous and provisional
construct always vulnerable to the sway of the drives. But the ego
psychologists regard the ego “as autonomous because it appears to be
sheltered from the conflicts of the person” (ibid.: 231). In Lacan’s view,
no such shelter can be had.
This may be Lacan’s greatest service to Freud: recuperating the idea
that the ego is an effect of largely unconscious processes, not an innate
agency. For Lacan, culture, language and unconscious desires produce
subjectivity.
Lacan’s genius lay in his ability to bring together key insights from
an array of disciplines: linguistics, anthropology, and psychoanalysis.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

EGO, ID, AND SUPEREGO
In his early days, Freud noted two aspects of the self: the conscious and the
unconscious. (There was also an intermediate, preconscious state.) In his
later days, Freud offered a tripartite model of subjectivity in which the self
is composed of, in German, “Ich,” “Es,” and “Über-Ich.” The English equivalents are “I,” “It,” and “over-I” or “upper-I.” For various reasons, English
translators have sought to translate the perfectly plain German into obscure
Latin: the Ego, the Id, and the Superego. I will follow this convention, but
the reader would do well to remember the English equivalents. Freud used
these three terms to designate the sense of self that one tries to develop
(ego or I), the drives that often run rampant within (id or it), and the cultural
censor we internalize (superego or over-I). Freud offered a useful analogy:
the ego is like a driver on horseback trying to control the horse (id) while it
negotiates its way through the world (superego).
Most theorists agree about what the id means: the internal biological
drives, such as the drives for pleasure, self-preservation, and sometimes
self-destruction. And there is little controversy about the superego: it is the
internalization of society’s norms – what we often call our conscience. The
debate among theorists mostly revolves around what the ego is. Is it some
kind of innate self, waiting to be cured or discovered? Or is it merely an
effect of internal processes in relation with social forces?

For example, he noted that two of Freud’s “primary processes” (fundamental inner drives) could be explained using some of the categories
of literary formalism. For example, in his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud
noted that images in dreams could work in at least two ways: one, by
condensation, that is, when a symbol represents one or more things;
or by displacement, when a symbol takes the place of something
else. Lacan noted that what Freud identified as condensation and
displacement could be explained by terms developed by the Russian
formalist, Roman Jakobson (1896–1982): metaphor and metonymy. A
metaphor operates by substituting one term for another, whereas
a metonym operates by connecting one term to another (contiguity).
A metaphor is a kind of compressed analogy, where one might, for
example, call a lamb’s wool its “clothing” (Lentricchia and McLaughlin
1990: 83). A metaphor makes use of the shared meaning among terms.
Metonymy makes use of historical and cultural associations. Because
THE SUBJECT IN PROCESS

31

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

32

KEY IDEAS

businessmen usually wear suits, the phrase “the suits” can be metonyms
for businessmen. Such analogies and connections, Lacan believes, often
operate in the unconscious. Thus, we can see the effects of the unconscious in language: metaphors are evidence of condensation and
metonyms are evidence of displacement. Such insights prompted Lacan
to say, famously, that the unconscious is structured like a language.
Using this approach, Lacan develops much of Freud’s stories,
including the story of the Oedipus complex that we briefly visited in
the last chapter. Recall that, in Freud’s view, when the male child realizes that the mother is not almighty – that she lacks a penis – the boy
turns his aspirations toward being like his father. Where Freud’s
concern is with the subject’s father, Lacan begins to theorize “the name
of the father” or “the law of the father.” It is not the father per se that
the child turns to but what the father represents: language and the law
(including the universal taboo against incest). Where Freud addressed
children’s concerns (whether envy or fear, depending upon whether
the subject is a girl or a boy) regarding the actual male organ, Lacan
saw the concern as being about what the actual or possible lack of the
organ might signify. At the biological level, the penis is the organ the
boy uses for urination and later for insemination. But this use hardly
begins to exhaust its meaning. At the level of the imaginary, the penis
has multiple meanings. The infant imagines that the mother must have
one; it comes to realize that she does not and hence he might not; it
becomes a “detachable object,” something he demands that his mother
have. In Lacan’s scheme, the penis is also what a woman demands and
thus wants from a man and ultimately what she seeks by having a child.
Of course, the imaginary penis is phantasmatic and leads to the function that the phallus has as the ultimate signifier. The phallus, Lacanians
are quick to insist, is not the penis. It is a signifier exchanged in the
symbolic realm. It does much work. For one, because it is linked,
however fictively, to the penis, it signifies what women lack and
what men have. In this sense, the phallus constitutes sexual difference:
the symbol of women’s lack and men’s plenitude. But men only “have”
the phallus to the extent that they have a woman around who wants
what he has. Men, thus, need women to be constituted as lacking in
order for them to have the illusion that they have the phallus and the
power that comes with it. But since the phallus is a signifier and not an
organ, no one can ever have it. No matter how much one might
demand the penis as an imaginary object (for a man, in himself, for a

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

woman, in a man), one can never have what one “really” wants: the
power of the phallus, to be loved and recognized as powerful, to be
complete. No object can ever satisfy this demand. One is never sated:
the result of this process is desire. In Lacan’s scheme, people use words
in a vain attempt to get what they want, but they do not know what
they really want. Lacan thus holds up the phallus as the ultimate signifier; it is the signifier of something that can never be articulated or had,
yet oddly the reason why we speak at all: to try to get what we want.
Let me explain the story a bit more fully. At first the child is born
into a realm of plenitude, a fullness that it feels in its mother’s embrace, in having all its needs met even before they are recognized as
needs. This is certainly the case in utero (at least for a healthy fetus):
nourishment is constant, so there is never hunger, the lights are
always dim, sounds are always muffled, and the temperature is always
body temperature. (This prenatal portion of the story is my addition
to Lacan’s story.) This plenitude continues in its early life, until, at
least, the infant realizes that there is a gap between a need and its satisfaction. The mother becomes the object of the infant’s concerns. But
she is not an object as distinct from himself but in connection to
himself, as its first imago, meaning a phantasm – an object conceived
to be located in internal or psychical reality, an object the subject
reacts to as if it were real. At this time, the infant is in what Lacan
calls the imaginary realm, the way “reality” appears to a preverbal,
hence pre-linguistic, consciousness. As Alan Sheridan, one of Lacan’s
translators, notes, for Lacan the imaginary is what the infant took to
be “the world, the register, the dimension of images, conscious or
unconscious, perceived or imagined” (Lacan 1977: ix). In the imaginary, the infant does not distinguish between the truth or fiction of
its images, symbols, and representations. It takes all its internal representations to be real.
The imaginary is one of three realms that Lacan postulated, the other
two being the real and the symbolic. The real is what is outside of both
the imaginary and the symbolic. It is always, as Lacan put it, “in its
place,” so parts of it cannot be taken out and inserted into language and
symbolization. As Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, nicely puts it, in
Lacan’s thought the real
became that before which the imaginary faltered, that over which the symbolic
stumbles, that which is refractory, resistant. Hence the formula: “the real is the
THE SUBJECT IN PROCESS

33

34

KEY IDEAS

impossible.” It is in this sense that the term begins to appear regularly, as an
adjective, to describe that which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be
approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

(Lacan 1977: x)

While the symbolic always attempts to capture the real, it never can;
for it is always only a substitute.
To explain Lacan’s third term, the symbolic, let us go back to our
infant, in its state of plenitude, in a most satisfying oneness with its
primary caregiver, until it realizes two things: one, that there might be
some boundaries to itself that separate it from others, boundaries
(however fictive) that it glimpses in the mirror stage that I mentioned
in the last chapter; two, that this mother is not all-powerful. As Freud
argued, when the child realizes that the mother lacks a penis, he realizes the possibility of losing his own. As the father intervenes in the
relationship with the mother, with his taboo against incest (too much
love between mother and child could be incestuous), the child is
forced to identify with his father. Maybe he cannot have his mother,
but he may one day have another woman. With the loss of immediate
gratification arises the experience of lack, the beginning of need. The
child learns that language can be used to demand things, to get needs
met: at first its cries signal that it is hungry or wet, and the mother
comes running. But even as she satisfies these needs, she cannot satisfy
the primordial desire: to have all needs met before they become needs.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could have everything we wanted without
ever having to ask? Isn’t “having to ask” always disappointing, no matter
how quick the response? The child now experiences this insulting
gap between need and satisfaction; it is in an ongoing state of desire,
for desires that can never be met. But the infant, and later the adult,
will keep trying; it will become schooled in the ways of language as it
attempts, however futilely, to call out for what it thinks it needs.
But it wants much more than it needs. And so the subject is always the
subject of desire. This is why the ultimate signifier is the phallus: it is
the representation of what one really wants, what Lacan cryptically call
le objet a. It is what we are ultimately seeking and what we can never
have. If the truth be known to ourselves, what we truly want is to be
the object of the mother’s unwavering love. But, if we had that, we
would never become civilized, speaking beings. The story is a sad one,

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

but it is the story of how human beings create civilization. We learn
language and its accompanying arts as a kind of compensation for what
we must all lose: being embraced by our mother’s body. All our great
buildings, novels, cultures are the effects of our loss of our mothers’
thorough devotion.
The move I have charted above – of how the child becomes compelled to use language – is the move into the symbolic realm. Lacan’s
symbolic realm, which is not completely synonymous with Kristeva’s
symbolic, is the realm of language and symbols, structures and differences, law and order. Lacan suggested that, once a person has gotten
a secure foothold in this realm of language, signs, and representations
of all kinds with its accompanying laws (e.g. against incest), that the
symbolic, not the imaginary realm, structures the subject. Once in
the symbolic, the child is driven by desire and only has recourse to
language. It will forever be frustrated by the gap between the signifier
(sound-image) and the signified (the meaning or concept). Through the
symbolic, the child stops being an infant (the speechless one). As John
Lechte writes in his description of Lacan’s theory: “In this order the
individual is formed as subject” (Lechte 1997: 68). This is one way in
which Lacan was a radical thinker: the symbolic realm of signs constitutes the subject, someone who can never try to understand herself
separated from the way her unconscious is structured – like a language.
The imaginary is territory lost to analysis. One can never ignore, Lacan
writes, “the symbolic articulation that Freud discovered at the same
time as the unconscious” (1977: 191).
Now we can begin to see how Kristeva parts company with Lacan.
For one thing, she disagrees about the point in time at which the infant
begins to differentiate itself from its mother. She places this break
before the mirror stage, at an earlier time, when the infant begins to
expel from itself what it finds unpalatable. This is the process she calls
abjection, which I will discuss in detail in the next chapter.
For another, Kristeva suggests that the child begins to learn the ways
of the symbolic – of culture – from its mother and not just its father.
Recall from Chapter 1 Kristeva’s notion of the chora, the psychic
space in which the infant resides and in which it expresses its energy.
Insofar as the mother is the child’s primary caregiver, the chora is a
maternal space. The child orients its energy in relation to its mother –
who is not yet an “object” for the child “subject.” There is not yet any
subject–object distinction. The child experiences plenitude without
THE SUBJECT IN PROCESS

35

36

KEY IDEAS

NARCISSISM

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

In Freud’s model of ego and id, the id is understood as a wealth of energies
and drives, one of which is the libido, that is, erotic or sexual feeling.
“Normally” this libido will invest itself (“cathect” onto) other people. But in
infancy and sometimes later it may be focused on itself. At such times, the
subject is being a narcissist – someone in love with himself, just as the
Greek mythological figure, Narcissus, fell in love with his own image in
the water. Freud distinguished between primary narcissism, which is what
the infant experiences in the chora (to use Kristeva’s term) and secondary
narcissism, which is “a withdrawal of the ego from the world of objects even
after the ego has been constituted and taken love objects” (Oliver 1993: 71).
Freud changed his model of narcissism over time (see ibid.), abandoning
the notion that primary narcissism was a stage in favor of a model of narcissism as “an ongoing structure of the ego” (ibid.). Kristeva rejects altogether
the idea of primary narcissism as a stage of development and develops
Freud’s later notion that it is a structure. In Kristeva’s theory, the narcissistic structure provides a way for the child to start incorporating and
thus mimicking what is other to itself, even before it has a concept of a
self–other distinction. This narcissistic structure, which is already evident
in its imaginary realm of the semiotic chora, paves the way for the infant to
become a subject in a signifying order.

differentiation. In Lacan’s terms, the child is in the imaginary realm.
In Freud’s terms, the child is experiencing primary narcissism.
As I have noted in the box above, Kristeva borrows and develops
Freud’s notion that primary narcissism is a structure. In this structure,
the infant imagines that “the breast,” which is really its mother’s, is part
of itself. As Kelly Oliver notes:
Kristeva compares the infant’s incorporation of the breast to the subsequent
incorporation of “the speech of the other.” She explains that through incorporating the speech of the other the infant incorporates the pattern of language
and thereby identifies with the other. In fact, it is the incorporation of the patterns of language through the speech of the other that enables the infant to communicate and thus commune with others. And through the ability to “assimilate,
repeat, and reproduce” words, the infant becomes like the other: a subject.
(Oliver 1993: 72)

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

Well before the mirror stage that Lacan identified, the infant begins to
experience a logic that allows it eventually to learn the ways of language
and culture. Even in this “uncivilized” maternal space, the child begins
to learn the language of civilization.
This brings me to the third way in which Kristeva differs from Lacan:
Kristeva argues that the imaginary is not a lost territory. The psychoanalyst can find its traces. It continues to be discernible in the semiotic
mode of signification. Even the real is not necessarily “always in its
place,” outside of signification. As she said in one interview:
As far as Lacan’s ideas go – the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic – I think
it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to translate one theory into another
theory, because if one does, one ends in confusion and loses the specificity of
each author and each approach. So I would not like to perform this reduction.
(Guberman 1996: 22–23)

With this caveat, she continues:
But it does seem to me that the semiotic – if one wants to find correspondences
with Lacanian ideas – corresponds to phenomena that for Lacan are in both
the real and the imaginary. For him the real is a hole, a void, but I think that in
a number of experiences with which psychoanalysis is concerned – most
notably, the narcissistic structure, the experience of melancholia or of catastrophic suffering and so on – the appearance of the real is not necessarily a
void. It is accompanied by a number of psychic inscriptions that are of the order
of the semiotic. Thus perhaps the notion of the semiotic allows us to speak of
the real without simply saying that it’s an emptiness or a blank; it allows us to
try to further elaborate it.
(ibid.)

THE SPEAKING BEING

So it might be useful to find a correlation – albeit with caution –
between Kristeva’s semiotic and Lacan’s imaginary, as well as between
Kristeva’s symbolic and Lacan’s symbolic. But a major difference is
that, in Kristeva’s view, the pre-symbolic dimension is never out of
range. The semiotic chora, with its affect-driven modes of signification,
remains a companion in the process of signification. Kristeva shares
Lacan’s view that the subject is an effect of its linguistic practice, but
THE SUBJECT IN PROCESS

37

38

KEY IDEAS

now we must include semiotic linguistic practice! Recall the theme of
Kristeva’s major work, Revolution in Poetic Language: poetic language
leads to a shattering of discourse:
Because of its specific isolation within the discursive totality of our time, this
shattering of discourse reveals that linguistic changes constitute changes in

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

the status of the subject – his relation to the body, to others, and to objects; it
also reveals that normalized language is just one of the ways of articulating the
signifying process that encompasses the body, the material referent, and
language itself.
(Kristeva 1984: 15–16)

Moreover, in Kristeva’s theory, the symbolic is not always the most
powerful mode: “On the contrary, the signifying economy of poetic
language is specific in that the semiotic is not only a constraint as is the
symbolic, but it tends to gain the upper hand at the expense of the
thetic and predicative constraints of the ego’s judging consciousness”
(1980: 134). This means that the speaking being is not a stable subject.
He or she is something else altogether: a subject in process.
To explain this key idea, perhaps it is best to start with a hint offered
in Revolution in Poetic Language. Early in the text she suggests that a
dialectical notion of the signifying process would show how “signifiance
puts the subject in process/on trial [en procès]” (1984: 22).
Here is her first mention of le sujet en procès, translated variously as
the subject-in-process or the subject-on-trial. The French phrase en
procès has a double allusion to both “in process” and under legal duress.
The signifying process – which, with the semiotic, can be transgressive, disruptive, even revolutionary – puts le sujet en procès. How so?
SIGNIFIANCE
“Signifiance,” writes Kristeva’s translator, Leon Roudiez, “refers to the work
performed in language (through the heterogeneous articulation of semiotic
and symbolic dispositions) that enables a text to signify what representative and communicative speech does not say” (Kristeva 1980: 18). This is a
term Kristeva often uses to be more specific than what is connoted by significance, the more general meaning of a term. Signifiance is the meaning
produced by the semiotic in conjunction with the symbolic.

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

Recall Kristeva’s distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic.
The semiotic is the more archaic, unconsciously driven, one might say
even ravenous mode of signifying. When it seeps out in signification,
as it does in avant-garde poetry, it disrupts the more orderly, symbolic
effort at communication. It also displays and amplifies the subject’s lack
of unity. In Revolution in Poetic Language, this disruptive aspect of signification seems limited to poetic language, but, in her later works,
Kristeva extends semiosis (for Kristeva, the way the semiotic helps
produce meaning, however polysemic) to other texts and signifying
practices. No living, speaking being is immune from semiotic disruptions. Moreover, no speaking being could function sanely unless it
expresses the semiotic in some way.
Nearly twenty years later, after more than a decade of intense work
in psychoanalytic theory and practice, Kristeva develops this theme.
Drawing on Lacan, Kristeva writes that the “imaginary is a kaleidoscope
of ego images that build the foundation for the subject of enunciation”
(1995: 104). These images primarily arise from the identifications and
PSYCHE AND SOMA
For most of the history of Western thought, philosophers have made a sharp
distinction between the mind and the body, or, to use the Greek terms,
between psyche and soma. The mind/body dichotomy plays into another
distinction prevalent in the West – the one between culture and nature –
with “culture” being the way that human beings have civilized their world
with their learned ways (minds) and “nature” being the world in its raw
state, the province of human beings in their animality (bodies). These terms
are usually seen as diametrical opposites, hence the dualistic thinking
that we have inherited, which keeps us making other dichotomies, such as
active/passive, reason/passion, masculine/feminine, etc. Beginning in the
nineteenth century, though, a series of philosophers (including Nietzsche,
Derrida, and the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) )
have tried to move beyond these dichotomies. Kristeva is part of this trajectory. Much of her work targets these distinctions, showing how bodily
energies permeate our signifying practices, hence how body and mind can
never be separated. In this project, she draws heavily from Freud, for whom
the id, with all its libidinal energies, was not merely a biological entity. After
all, the id is part of the psyche.

THE SUBJECT IN PROCESS

39

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

40

KEY IDEAS

investments the subject makes with others – for example, early on
with the mother, at one point with its image in a mirror, later with a
lover or an analyst. These identifications give the subject an imaginary
sense of self which allows him or her to start speaking in a coherent
fashion (rather than in the babblings of an infant or madman). It is in
the imaginary realm that an “I” begins to develop – thanks to its putatively false identifications (“I” am not one and the same as that image in
the mirror).
We should note also that Kristeva is now making biological claims
about the imaginary, which she ties to the “drive representatives particular to the lower layers of the brain” (ibid.). “Thus [the imaginary] can
act as a relay between these layers and the cortex that controls linguistic
production, thereby constituting supplementary brain circuits able to
remedy any psychobiological deficiencies” (ibid.).
Kristeva put her theory to work in her own psychoanalytic practice
when she was seeing a boy who had difficulty “accessing the symbolic,”
that is, speaking. It is not terribly uncommon for an analyst to treat a
child with delayed language development. Instead of treating his
problem head on, though, Kristeva focused on what she saw as the
foundation of the symbolic: the imaginary realm of signification with
its accompanying semiotic modes of signification. Picking up again her
distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic, Kristeva writes that
she distinguished
between the semiotic, which consists of drive-related and affective meaning
organized according to primary processes whose sensory aspects are often
nonverbal (sound and melody, rhythm, color, odors, and so forth), on the one
hand, and linguistic signification that is manifested in linguistic signs and their
logico-syntactic organization, on the other.
(1995: 104)

This linguistic (that is, symbolic) level “requires that supplementary
biological and psychological conditions be met” (ibid.). In other words,
the semiotic/imaginary level has to function before one could ever start
speaking. So, in her treatment of the boy with delayed language,
Kristeva took to singing. She and he began communicating through
operas. They made up songs together, speaking in melody. The patient,
Paul, took increasing pleasure in hearing his own voice. As he became
more adept at communicating in song, he began to use his new oral

Downloaded by [Nanjing University] at 18:07 12 December 2012

1111
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8111
9
20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
30111
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
3911

skills in everyday speech. Kristeva’s unconventional treatment focused
on strengthening Paul’s symbolic realm obliquely, vi