POSTFEMINISM AND CULTURAL POLITICS IN. KRISTEVA’S WORK
Kristeva’s work can in no way be characterised as primarily feminist, as it is not even consistently political in its approach. Even in her early, more feminist work, Kristeva does not try to speak from or for ‘the feminine’. For Kristeva to ‘speak as a woman’ would in any case be meaningless, since she argues that woman, as such, does not exist. Instead of an exclusive emphasis on the gender of the speaker, she recommends an analysis of the many discourses that together construct the individual.
Jones outlines some of the political (feminist) problems in Kristeva’s work:
.. .her refusal to assign women any specificity beyond a widely shared position outside the symbolic implies a peculiar politics. Her position reinforces a long term mainstream tendency in Western thought to exclude women along with madmen and slaves from cultural centrality; she stays within the Symbolic by affirming the gender logic that locates women outside it, with the implication:
‘if we are called the Dark Continent let us by all means be the Dark Continent’.
And she effaces the historical reality of women, past and present, who have
taken political action to change both the conceptual and social position of women in the worlds they inhabit (Barrett and Coward 1982).
Kristeva’s literary studies reveal her lack of interest in women as ‘agents in culture’ rather than as objects of men’s cultural representation. As Jones shows,
she reproduces the omission of women from the literary canon by omitting them from detailed consideration in her own analyses and by judging them according to a single masculine standard of value. Typically she is contemptuous of women’s writing which she assesses according to standards she derives from male modernism.
Kristeva does deal with three modernist women writers in her book Des Chinoises (1974), but she emphasises their fragility rather than their textual adventurousness. According to Jones, Kristeva maintains that Virginia Woolf, Marina Tsvetaeva and Sylvia Plath found the challenge they made to ‘the Symbolic’ so threatening that their experimental writing drove them to suicide. However, as Jones notes, there were clearly other reasons and Kristeva’s conclusions were overstated. Jones (1984:64) maintains Kristeva ‘bases her notion of women’s cultural insecurity on her persistent assumption that culture is immovably and exclusively masculine’. Jones links Kristeva’s view with her analysis of pre-Oedipal identity, as she states,
In this psychic and cultural economy, Kristeva assumes women lose more: because their identification with the father is also an identification with Father, the master figure of the Symbolic, they cannot afford to lose their psychic and cultural identity by returning via unconscious memory to the jouissance of their early bonds with their mothers.
Jones describes Kristeva’s work as characterised by an anti-feminist logic and her (Kristeva’s) increasingly sharp criticisms of feminism, Jones maintains, are highlighted in her essay ‘Women’s Time’. Jones is not alone in her critique of Kristeva’s work. Moi states that
many women have objected to Kristeva’s highly intellectual style of discourse on the grounds that as a woman and a feminist committed to the critique of all systems of power, she ought not to present herself as yet another ‘master thinker’.
DespiteJones’s critique of Kristeva’s work and Moi’s reservations, the contribution of her work within the academy in France should not be devalued. As Moi comments,
Her commitment to thorough theoretical investigation of the problems of marginality and subversion, her radical deconstruction of the identity of the subject, her often extensive consideration of the material and historical contexts of the works of art she studies, have opened up new perspectives for further feminist enquiry. Her theory of language and its disrupted subject (sujet en prods) allows us to examine both women’s and men’s writing from an antihumanist, anti-essentialist perspective.