DECONSTRUCTING ‘BINARY OPPOSITIONS’:. REDEFINING FEMINISM AND CREATING CULTURAL. SPACE-THE WORK OF JULIA KRISTEVA
At the same time as Women’s Studies was emerging from the Women’s Movement in the US and the UK in the 1960s and early 1970s, the feminist movement in Europe and particularly France was being influenced by debates emerging from the strong tradition of psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic theory and poststructuralism (see Chapter 4).
Toril Moi (1985a) states that it does not take long to discover that French feminist theory has contributed powerfully to the debate about the nature of women’s oppression, the construction of sexual difference and the specificity of women’s relations to language and writing. She claims that Julia Kristeva’s work is central in this process. Kristeva’s main preoccupation, ‘(her desire to theorise a social revolution based on class as well as gender, her emphasis on the construction of femininity), have much more in common with Beauvoir’s views than with Helene Cixous’ romanticised versions of the female body as the site of women’s writing.’ (Moi 1985a:98).
Kristeva drew on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. She turned to ‘Freud’s narrative of the socialisation of the child through the early drives of infantile sexuality which produces the unconscious’ Jones 1984:57). divided adult psyche. She also drew on ‘Lacan’s emphasis on the role of language in psychic formation, through which the child is separated from its primary relationship to its mother and placed in a network of gendered Symbolic systems centred upon the father as the representative of power.’ (ibid). It is Lacan’s concept of entry into the symbolic order which is the takeoff point for Kristeva’s theory of the speaking and writing subject.
Kristeva goes further than Lacan; she associates psychic repression with the actual structures of language, which she takes as the basis for culture. Jones (1984) claims that ‘Kristeva goes on to associate the Symbolic with the various discourses that organise public life: religion, economics, tribal and national groupings, law, politics, metaphysics’—and she links the dominant logic and the power base of each with paternity and masculinity. Jones states that in Kristeva’s work
The Symbolic Order is a man’s world, it dominates the primary pleasures of the body and senses, suppresses non reproductive sexuality and any physical and psychic expenditure not aimed at profit and accumulation. Kristeva, that is, identifies the Symbolic with patriarchy, understood as the totality of culture.
Jones goes on to note that ‘Given Kristeva’s global theorisation of culture as
constraint, it is understandable that Kristeva wanted to discover sites of resistance
to the Symbolic’. She looked for it, as Jones indicates, by returning to the pre-
Oedipal stage using research into early childhood language acquisition. Jones points out that Kristeva concentrated on the infant’s early closeness to its mother, its explorations of her body and its own, and she used the term ‘semiotic’ to categorise these pre-verbal activities, ‘censored by the Symbolic order but never entirely lost…Kristeva uses the term “jouissance” to sum up the delights of this pre-genital, pre-symbolic stage’ Jones 1984:59). The ‘semiotic’ enters into an adversarial relationship with the Symbolic, as Jones states, ‘persistently pushing against rational discourse but never dissolving it into pure (psychotic) nonsense’ (ibid,.) .Jones goes on to explain Kristeva’s understanding of the ‘signifying process’ and ‘signification’. She maintains that
The interplay of semiotic and Symbolic produces a ‘signifying process’ (significance) rather than a fixed univocal meaning (signification); and the place where the signifying practice occurs is a ‘text’, a site in which the energies of the unconscious simultaneously attack the formal conventions of language and are supported by them.
Kristeva maintains that the only way of producing interesting results from such texts is to take the whole of the text as one’s object, which means studying its ideological, political and psychological articulations, its relations with society, with the psyche and with other texts. As Moi (1985a:60) indicates, ‘Kristeva has coined the concept of intertextuality to indicate how one or more systems of signs are transposed into others’. Moi goes on to explain the concept of intertextuality as used in Kristeva’s work. She maintains that
political and power related interests.. .intersect in the sign. The meaning of the sign is thrown open—the sign becomes ‘polysemic’ rather than ‘univocal’— and though it is true to say that the dominant power group at any given time will dominate the intertextual production of meaning, this is not to suggest that the opposition has been reduced to total silence. The power struggle intersects in the sign.
However, asJones maintains, Kristeva’s claim for the revolutionary effects of the semiotic depends on leaving major questions unanswered. Her focus on the text, he argues (1984:60), ‘blinds her to issues of literary context and reception’.