A Dynamic Discourse:revisionary Strategies of Julia Kristeva

Profile of a Feminist
This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Julia Kristeva in its regular series on major feminists.


       Julia Kristeva is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. Her prolific work explores the vast intellectual territory of social thought, cultural criticism, biography, psychology, history, art, literature, linguistics and feminism. Writers as diverse as Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Lacan have shaped her intellectual ideas but in the process of her writing she challenged the ideologies of the pre-sixties including that of her longtime teachers.

       Born in Bulgaria in 1941, where Kristeva came under the influence of communist ideology, she migrated to Paris for doctoral studies in 1965. She joined the ‘Tel Quel’ group of radical avant-garde writers, eventually marrying its head, Phillipe Sollers. Politically inclined always, Kristeva took part in the student uprising in France in 1969, but nothing came of it. In 1970 she became part of the editorial board of ‘Tel Aviv.’ It was at this time that she came into contact with the psycho-analytical lecturers of Lacan. In 1973 she took her doctorate in Paris and published her thesis as Revolt in Poetic Language (1984). In 1974 she was honoured with the Chair of Linguistics at the University of Paris and she had regular visiting appointments at Columbia University. She started her psychoanalytic career in 1979 and later published a few of her experiences. Several publications followed on varied subjects like identity formation, the limits of political solidarity, gender differentiation and the possibility for political solidarity, all written with passion, vigour and confidence.

       Julia Kristeva is most renowned for her contribution to the shift from structuralist to post structuralist thought in the sixties and seventies. Her feminist theories primarily center around her attempts to bring back the speaking body into discourses in the human sciences, to focus on the significance of the maternal and pre-oedipal, in the constitution of subjectivity and to assert the idea of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination. In all these areas she revises and deconstructs the writing of Saussure, Lacan and Barthes.

       In her rejection of Saussure, Kristeva claims that Structural Linguistics and all our philosophies of the idea of language concentrate on a dead or degenerating body. In opposition to these sciences, she develops a new science; which she calls ‘Semanalysis’, a combination of Saussurian semiotics and psychoanalysis. This science deals with what is beyond language and what continuously questions itself, denies itself and goes beyond itself.

       Semanalysis brings back the body along with all its drives back into language. Working within the Lacanian framework, she argues that the logic of signification is present in the maternal body even before the mirror stage. Lacan had maintained that signification is the result of a lack, which later through castration makes demand turn into desire. But Kristeva points out in Revolution in Poetic Language and Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 1982 that processes of rejection and separation are seen in birth and anality. At birth there is a violent separation and in anality, rejection of excess leads to separation. Moreover, soon after birth there is a maternal regulation of the availability of the breast. This is a maternal law, which prefigures the paternal law.

       Bodily drives also make their way into language. Kristeva distinguishes between two heterogeneous elements in signification-Le se’miotique (the semiotic) and La se’miotique (the symbolic). This is a critique of the Lacanian model, which has a masculine bias. Le se’miotique is a ‘pre-verbal, pre-oedipal locus, where the world is perceived by the child as rhythmic, intonational, melodic.’ It is the primary organisation of instinctual drives and Kristeva calls it ‘chora’ a term from Plato’s Timaeus. It functions in discourse as a supplementary register to that of sign or meaning. Kristeva calls it pre-symbolic and it need not be abandoned (as Lacan says) for the symbolic. Both interact and their interplay constitutes the subject in language. Both have equal importance in signification. Le se’miotique is seen in the drives as they discharge within language. Le se’miotique is the element of syntax, grammar and meaning. Hence the relation between the two is a dialectic oscillation and that produces the speaking subject. Thus a subject is not a fixed entity. It is always a subject-in-process or sujet in process. The chora can never be eliminated, however much it is repressed. It is also significant to understand that a crisis in signification occurs when the semiotic gains upperhand. Poetry, Maternity and Psychoanalysis are discourses that challenge identity.

       Kristeva also emphasizes the maternal function in the development of subjectivity and access to language and culture. Unlike Freud and Lacan who claim that the child enters the social world through paternal interference, Kristeva concentrates on the earliest developments of subjectivity prior to Freud’s Oedipal situation or Lacan’s mirror stage. Moreover the maternal body cannot be divided into subject and object. It is the embodiment of alterity within. It binds the subject to the other through love, not Law, an ethics she calls ‘herethics’ in Tales of Love.

       In Tales of Love, 1987 Kristeva argues that maternal law comes before the law. But discussions on these topics are inadequate. Religion sanctifies the mother whereas Science reduces her to Nature in western culture. Both are unacceptable since the woman is also primarily a social and speaking being. The maternal body operates between Nature and Culture and is also a subject-in-process.

       Together with the suggestion that new discourses on maternity have to be developed, Kristeva develops a notion of abjection that identifies the dynamics of oppression. In Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as the psyche’s constitution of subjective and group identity by excluding all that threatens ones borders. Dependence on the maternal body is one such threat and hence matricide is vital to become subjects in a patriarchal culture. But for women the abjection is not that easy as they also identify with women as women. This might lead to the development of a depressive sexuality. For this Kristeva concludes in ‘Black Sun’ that we have to develop different discourses not only on maternity but also on relation between mothers and daughters. Misplaced object, due to woman being reduced to reproductive function alone accounts for women’s oppression and degradation is the message of Tales of Love.

       In her modifications of Bakhtin’s writing, Kristeva takes Bakhtin’s ideas further and says that language is not only dialogic but also multiple. Hence no meanings are fixed, the workings of language are ‘complex, critical and contradictory’( Polylogue 1977). Thus language is also a process; it is not a closed system. Neither is a text coherent or whole with a pre-determined meaning. Like a ‘subject-in-process’ the text is also plural and polyvalent. These ideas are of special importance to feminist theory as they open up ‘the fissures in the apparently closed systems by which patriarchal thought dispossesses women’. Yet, as Leon Roudiez notes ‘her feminist position is no more orthodox than her other stands’. Feminists treat her warily as she undermines all conceptual frameworks that stress on activist political movements. In her essay ‘Women’s Time,’ Kristeva rejects the first two phases of feminism: first because it overlooks sexual differences and seeks equality; she criticizes Simone de Beauvoir for her rejection of motherhood. She says anti-motherhood attitude is alienating because motherhood can be a fulfilling experience, the second phase because it seeks a unique feminist language, which according to her is impossible. Culture and domain belong to all speaking subjects and the woman too is a speaking subject. The third phase, which Kristeva identifies with, explores multiple identities including multiple sexual identities. For her there is no culture/ nature debate surrounding childbirth, as the natural process of child bearing is already a cultural process since the product, the child becomes a subject in culture.

       Apart from the revision of literary theories in feminism, Kristeva has written on a surprisingly wide range of subjects. About Chinese Women explores Chinese history, religion and evolution of women’s role in China. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia is a meditation on Depression, The Crisis of The European Subject deals with European consciousness, modernity and individuality. The Unknown; An Initiation into Linguistics is a history of language ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphs to modern times. Nations without Nationalism meditates on how otherness (whether ethnic, religious, social or political) has to be understood and accepted for social peace. Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature is a book on social thought. It shows how experience and literature are manifested in time. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art is a series of social and cultural critic. New Maladies of the Soul concentrates on individual maladies of each human being. Melanie Klein is a gripping biography of the creativity of Klein who was not a psychoanalyst but had several insights into the subject. Life is a Narrative deals with the philosophical aspects of Arendt’s language and politics. The Sense and Nonsense of revolt: Powers and Limitations of Psychoanalysis focuses on the dilemna of contemporary entertainment culture. Other works produced by this great thinker during the early 21st century are Hannah Arendt, a biography that emphasizes the theme of female genius. This book is also a critique of St Augustine, with perspectives of Judaism and of the banality of evil. Revolt, She Said, sees revolt as a state of permanent questioning and transformation. Her latest book, The Feminine and the Sacred (2003) is part of a correspondence that deals with the mysteries of a woman’s experience of belief, relationship between faith and sexuality, the body and the senses and about the role of women and feminity in the religions of the world. Thus as Michael Payne puts it, her work is ‘a major study in semiotics, psychoanalysis, philosophy and literary criticism’ (Ruth Robbins, 133). It is a combination of these discourses. No wonder she introduced the concept of “intertextuality”. She coined it to show the dynamic and energetic nature of multiple discourses in a text.

       Kristeva’s works assume a range of knowledge that her readers may not always process and hence it is difficult to comprehend. But despite her theoretical difficulties, she draws attention because she is interested in real people. As Ruth Robbins puts it ‘For her, the ethics of reading and writing are finally about relationships in the realm of the real’ (Ruth Robbins). Moreover she makes her work interesting and provocative by constantly revising and challenging other discourses. Her teacher Roland Barthes writes, ‘Julia Kristeva changes the order of things: she always destroys the latest preconception, the one we thought we could be comforted by, the one of which we could be proud: what she displaces is the already-said, that is to say, the insistence of the signified; what she subverts is the authority of monologic science and of filiation’. A continual transformation takes place in her own works also. In Powers of Horror, she writes ‘In the beginning was emotion’; in Tales of Love, ‘In the beginning was hatred’ and later on while discussing the relationship between psychology and faith, she says ‘In the beginning was love’ and still later in her book on Proust she writes ‘In the beginning was suffering’. Such reformulations continue. It would be tempting to speculate on what her next beginning would be.


Crownfield, David R. ed. (1992) Body/Text in Julia Kristeva: Religion, Women and Psychoanalysis, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Elliott, Anthony. (1992) Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition: Self and Society from Freud to Kristeva, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Grosz, Elizabeth A. (1985) Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Is Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory. Has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

Default image
Is Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory. Has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124