Opaque Texts and Transparent Contexts: The Political Difference of Julia Kristeva (abridged version)
I think that one of the most difficult things to remember, here in the United States, is that the various people we designate by the phrase “con- temporary French thought” not only represent a particular set of epistemological questions (questions upon which most of those people can agree)—but that they also represent a set of highly politicized conceptual systems offered as working responses to those questions—and that there ends the agreement among them. Anecdotes about how none of these people can talk to each other in Paris may be amusing to us here, but the dis- agreements which led to those estrangements are more deeply rooted in fundamental political issues than they are in squabbles among personalities. The clearest example of what I mean by this is perhaps the way in which the French intellectuals most well known here have taken, at one point or another, a rigorously anti-Marxist, or at the very least para-post-Marxist stance—to the extent that Marxism has remained bound to traditional conceptualizations of dialectics, the human subject, the function, even existence of something called literature, etc. Foucault's archeologies, Lacan's unconscious, Althusser's ideology, Deleuze and Guattari's machines, Lyotard's figurations, Derrida's deconstructions, Irigaray's and Cixous's feminine, etc.—are their individual logics as responses to that Marxist thought. They are highly politicized elements of interpretive systems brought to bear not only upon narrow textual questions, but upon some of the most difficult larger epistemological questions facing the West today. Through those responses, each of these writers has created his or her own ethos, that conceptual place where they are most at home. And those places are very different.
Let us briefly recall some of the unchanging coordinates of Kristeva's ethos
—by now, probably overfamiliar to some of you, but nevertheless
important to situate continually with regard to the most pressing questions of our current historical moment. My
situating of what is ultimately a complex and constantly evolving conceptual apparatus is necessarily biased. Kristeva's thought is peculiar: it is transparent enough that it tends to be reduced very quickly to a set of bipolar opposites by her critics (and thereby criticized as being everything from ultraanarchistic to ultraconservative); but at the same time, it is opaque enough to be uncritically idealized by her most fervent admirers. I will try to avoid both extremes.
There are, in a sense, three Kristevas—and for the sake of brevity, I will refer to them as the Kristevas of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. (I am sure there are more Kristevas to come.)
The Kristeva of the 1960s was the Kristeva of Tel Quel and semanalysis. Semanalysis was the term first proposed in Semeiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse, published in 1969 to describe what she called then a new materialist theory of signification whose own internal logic would remain isomorphic to its privileged object: poetic language. While rarely used in her subsequent work, the term designates both the terrain and process through which Kristeva has contributed to a reformulation of the speaking subject and its text over a period of now almost two decades.
The new science of semanalysis, announced in the blissful aftermath of 1968, was, first of all, an effort to take account of and valorize those radical signifying practices excluded from or assigned to the margins of offi- cial mass culture in the West. It was addressed to what she and others would later call “limit-texts,” with special emphasis on those texts written since the late nineteenth century and in dialogue with twentieth-century crises in Western thought. It was to analyze the epistemological and ideological ruptures signaled or already realized by these limit-texts as well as to set the ground for a new, general theory of writing and subjectivity. It was in this early work that Kristeva emphasized—as did other members of Tel Quel—the most radical moments of Marx's theory of production, Freud's analysis of dreams, Saussure's work on anagrams, and Althusser's on ideology, in order, as she put it, to reconceptualize the figurability of history and the history of figurability.
By the early 1970s, Kristeva had thoroughly formalized the most important components of semanalysis, and they became part of a system: a non- Cartesian theory of the subject, not dependent on the ideology of language only as a transparent communication system, but as reverberated through the Freudian and Lacanian unconscious. Her vocabulary was refined and signed: the semiotic and symbolic, the phenotext and genotext, etc.—and all was elaborately developed in the style of the first half of La Révolution du langage poétique
. It was, in fact, with the Kristeva of La Révolution
the Kristeva of the 70s took form. There, Mallarmé and Lautréamont served as examples of how semanalyzing poetic language could help us to shed our stubborn Cartesian and Humanist skins—and begin to look beyond the so-called “message” or “ethic” of a text to its form, its networks of phantasies; to a sentence's rhythm, articulation, and its style—how it could help us to understand how those elements are
the message, bound up in a conceptuality that we cannot hope to change only at the level of the utterance. For her, it is the economy of
language and sexuality—not the history of ideas on
language and sexuality—that articulates social relationships in the West.
It was in 1974, the year of La Révolution, that there appeared, in all of its explicitness, on Kristeva's intellectual horizon, the two limits which continue to mean the most to her: the two political extremes of our century and its responses to the crises of monological Western thought: Fascism and Stalinism, and thus inevitably anti-Semitism. According to Kristeva, those two limits—besides being historical, political phenomena, rooted in concrete historical and economic contexts as well as personalities—are also rooted in the psychic mechanisms of the human subject and are laid bare in the psychic traces of the radically poetic text. For her, Fascism is the return of the repressed (of what she calls the feminine-connoted semiotic) into rigid religious or political structures. Instead of being socialized, the semiotic is unchained. From this point of view, Stalinism is but the default of Fascism: the barbarous other side of the human face.
I might just remind you here that Kristeva is Bulgarian and that through the biographemic texture of her writing can be traced a certain fear, a fear not unlike that which many of us are experiencing today with regard to the larger political climate in which we are living; a climate which we often qualify in shorthand as a backlash, but which is much more than that. It is a climate of sustained, popularly supported—and, indeed, massively desired—paranoia, particularly with regard to the relationship between production and reproduction, the regulation of the mother's body once again serving as ground for a monolithic, nationalistic ideology. Here, Kristeva's insistent return to the 1930s—what were those intellectuals and writers doing?—can provide food for thought. For me, her work intervenes at the tense intersection between this actively informed fear and our naively passive belief that Fascism or Stalinism cannot possibly return.
Kristeva's one basic question became increasingly more insistent and explicit. How can we give a sign, a discourse, to that which is and has been repressed throughout Western history? How can we find a subject for what has been repressed while avoiding these two extremes: psychic explosion and psychic censorship? What can be new modalities for reshaping the
monological and monotheistic laws at the foundations of our Western culture without inviting the return of the repressed in its potentially monstrous and apocalyptic reality?
It was in La Révolution
that Kristeva first talked about ethics: an increasingly important clement in her work of the 1970s, for her, ethics can no longer be the observation of laws, moralistic or normative judgment, scientific or otherwise. But the question of ethics must not be scorned or rejected (as with Lacan, for example); left in perpetual suspension (as in Deleuze and Guattari); or deferred (sometimes rather guiltily, as in Derrida). Ethics can no longer be “a coercive, customary manner of ensuring the cohesiveness of a particular group through the repetition of a code,” but, rather, must come up “wherever a code (mores, social contract) must be shattered in order to give way to the free play of negativity, need, desire, pleasure, and jouissance, before being put together again, although temporarily and with full knowledge of what is involved.” And, in her words, “Fascism and Stalinism stand for the barriers that the new adjustment between a law and its transgression comes against.”1
For Kristeva, the only possible ethicity for the late twentieth century in the West is what she terms the negativization of narcissism within a practice. In other words, what is ethical is a practice which dissolves narcissistic fixations—dissolving them before they become rigidified as sociosymbolic structures. And that is the ethical—hence political—function of an artistic and theoretical practice which ruptures the representations of even the most liberal and progressive discourse.
It goes without saying that this includes the discourse of feminism. It was during the 1970s that Kristeva wrote the most explicitly about the feminine, and sketched the outlines of her own participation in gynesis—a participation which rings differently from its male versions.2
That is, when taken up by female voices, gynesis becomes strangely subversive, promising, at the very least, new kinds of questions unburdened by the repetition of the dialectics of master/slave oppression. On the other hand, she does not include the category of “women as subjects” with the boundaries of gynesis. She began her concentration on the feminine by analyzing it only as a kind of “glue” that has held our patriarchal history and its conceptual systems together. She began to analyze the ways in which the feminine has been sublimated or fetishized in different cultures and at different points in history. She began emphasizing how this feminine is linked to the Mother within the classical Western Oedipal structure. But she refused to definitively untangle the woman subject from the feminine. Except for scattered comments on women's need for maternity (often rather shocking to the American feminist's ears), she broke with Irigaray and Cixous completely when it came to prescribing what women's relationship today should be
to that feminine—or at least, has always approached that topic with extreme caution. She has consistently rejected the notion that women should either valorize or negate this feminine whose function in Western culture is still changing with the evolution of our modernity.
It became increasingly clear through the 1970s that Kristeva was not going to participate in hypothetical descriptions of the female subject's potential liberation from patriarchy. In fact, her writing took a decisive turn. By the mid-70s, it was obvious that it was the Male-Subjcct-Creative-of- Our-Dominant-and-Marginal-Culture that Kristeva was going to x-ray— building a sort of inventory of possible male libidinal economies. One may regret and criticize her lack of attention to women subjects and their texts—I certainly do—but there can be no doubt that this was a calculated political decision on her part.
What Kristeva did do was continue her search for a conceptuality which would provide space for her definition of ethics: an understanding of that which pulverizes the truths of our age before they become too rigid, but one that does not lose sight of those truths, thereby descending into an esoteric, mystical, or even—à la limite—psychotic discourse. For example, La traversée des signes, a collection of essays on Chinese, Indian, and other sign systems, was not just a result of Kristeva's involvement with Tel Quel and its 70-ish Maoism, as is often charged—but was, rather, fully consistent with her project of x-raying other forms of intelligibility, mapping their promises and limits for changing Western culture. Polylogue—a collection of essays all written in the 1970s—treats everything from Giovanni Bellini to film theory. But what unites the essays is Kristeva's backing away from explicating her theoretical apparatus toward looking at individual signifying practices by men in terms of two other limits: language before it signifies and communicates meaning; and language at the point where it is losing or has lost meaning: that is, at language acquisition and at psychosis. Her emphasis shifted even more radically toward an understanding of the place of the archaic mother and father, or more precisely, of the fantasies engendered by them. This intensification of focus on the two limits of language—its before and after, if you like—continued Kristeva's ethical project: not the condensation or solidification of meaning, but an understanding of meaning's doubleness, its unnameable, its unspeakable—its grounding in the unsignifiable.
The importance of one particular event in Kristeva's personal trajectory during the 1970s cannot be overestimated. She decided to become a psychoanalyst, and, in my opinion, what came out of Kristeva's practice as an analyst, and, in particular, out of her extreme attention to the mechanisms of transference, was a return, with renewed fascination, to her main, most consistent concern—political extremes—but this time, as someone more
independent and sure of her critical voice.'3
She assumed fully her place as a cultural critic, someone attuned to the epistemological and psychic logics underwriting today's more overtly moral or political dilemmas. She struck out on a somewhat singular, at times lonely intellectual path in Paris—and, in fact, even in terms of the Paris/U.S. connection. Refusing both the positivism of American interpretive systems and what sh...