The ‘polities’ ofJulia Kristeva
As well as being a literary theorist and cultural critic, Kristeva was also a practising psychoanalyst. Kristeva’s thinking was very much influenced by Lacan but she shifted away from him in her analysis of the ‘semiotic’. Rowley and Grosz (1990:193) note that ‘Whereas the symbolic is associated with the paternal—the realm of Lacan’s Law of the Father—the semiotic is linked with the maternal. Kristeva sees it as a site of resistance to the symbolic, for it constantly undermines rational discourse.’ In linking the semiotic with the maternal, Kristeva is associating this realm with the stage in psychic development when the child experiences the world through the rhythms and gestures of the mother’s body. It is not innately female. Thus, as Rowley and Grosz (1990:194) note, what Kristeva means by ‘the feminine’ is not something specific to women ‘but a psychic position—a realm preserved in the unconscious, a realm marginal to the symbolic’. Kristeva contends that women are not fundamentally different from men, but that ‘the semiotic mode is more dominant in the female psyche than in the male psyche’ (ibid.).
The direction of Kristeva’s work is to develop the Lacanian theory of subjectivity by reversing various categories. Rowley and Grosz note that for Kristeva any politics will fail unless it takes the pre-symbolic realm into account. Kristeva contends that ‘the subject of a new political practice can only be the subject of a new discursive practice’ (cited inJones 1984:61).
Kristeva expresses disillusionment with political discourses which, she claims, consistently fail to take account of individuals and subjectivity, and it is for this reason that she advocates political marginality and is critical of feminism as a collective movement. Kristeva’s political trajectory, as noted by Rowley and Grosz (1990), mirrors the position taken by the journal Tel Quel with which she was closely associated. The political evolution of the journalist is outlined by Dews:
1966-8, rapprochement with the PCF (Communist Party of France) and strong influence of Althusser; after 1968, the long detour through ‘Maoism’…; 1976, disillusionment with China and beginning of a realignment of theoretical ‘pluralism of the text’ with political pluralism; 1978, emergence of an ideology of ‘dissidence’ and discovery that Christianity and literature. are the true bastions against totalitarianism and ‘the political view of the world’.
Ann RosalindJones (1984) raises a number of important questions about Kristeva’s politics. She asks: ‘What is the relationship, exactly between textual and political revolution? Which comes first, a shift in subjectivity or in the social structures that enclose it? Do ruptures in literary discourses have any necessary connection to other social transformations?’ Jones 1984:61).
‘Writing the body’ is the focus of attention in the work ofJulia Kristeva. She ‘uses the Lacanian concept of the symbolic order and the subject to form the basis of the theory of signifying practice which emphasises the disruptive and potentially revolutionary force for subjectivity of the marginal and repressed aspects of language’ (Weedon 1987:68). Kristeva accepts the Lacanian model of the phallocentric symbolic order and concludes that ‘woman’ in the sense of feminine has no access to language. Weedon indicates that Kristeva’s emphasis on feminine and masculine modes of language, rather than on women and men, is integral to her theory of subjectivity, as language is central to the power relations of the social order.
Weedon explores some of the similarities and differences in the work of Cixous and Kristeva. She claims that, like Cixous, ‘Kristeva argues that there are feminine forms of signification which cannot be contained by the rational structure of the symbolic order and which threaten its sovereignty’ (Weedon 1987:69). Unlike Cixous, Kristeva does not locate feminine aspects of language in women’s female libido. Weedon points out that Kristeva’s use of the signifier ‘woman’ is in the sense that she argues there is no essential womanhood, not even a repressed one, and that feminist practice cannot be directed at recovering some sort of essential state. Kristeva argues that, politically, the notion of being a woman is at best a useful temporary political strategy for organising campaigns on behalf of women’s interests as they are currently defined within patriarchy (Weedon 1987:69).
Weedon claims that, for Kristeva, ‘the semiotic, feminine aspects of signification put into question the stability and apparent permanence of economic and social structures’ (ibid.). It is, as Weedon points out, Kristeva’s theory of the ‘subject’ as unstable which is of most interest to a feminist poststructuralism. As Weedon (1987:70) notes, ‘this view of the subject presents a radical alternative to the humanist view of subjectivity which views the subject as unified and in control and offers the possibility of understanding the contradictory nature of individuals.. .across a range of subject positions’.
What are the implications for feminism in its intersection with psychoanalysis in both its Freudian and Lacanian forms? Weedon (1987:71) argues that these models pose a challenge to ‘discourses which assume a “unified”…subject of rationality and to theories of innate biologically determined sexual identity’. She concludes that psychoanalysis addresses important concerns (including the structure of the psyche, the importance of desire, the nature of language, representation, sexuality and subjectivity), which all need theorising in a way which is historically and culturally specific and open to change.
French deconstructivist feminists such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous have employed different strategies to Anglo-American feminists. Butler (1990c) points out that French feminist deconstructivists have established the ‘destabilization of the subject’ within feminist criticism as a tactic in the exposure of masculine power. Butler claims that ‘in some French feminist contexts, the death of the subject spells the release or emancipation of the suppressed feminine sphere,…the condition of ecriturefeminme ‘ (Butler 1990c: 327). The strategy employed of ‘reading’ and ‘re-writing’ discourses of Western culture breaks with the established distinction between theory and practice. This strategy implies a very different conception of ‘theory’ from that which informs the Anglo-American tradition. In this tradition, theory is understood in terms of the explanation of categories such as ‘women’, gender relations or patriarchy. When Irigaray addresses discourses, she is starting from the assumption there is nothing outside cultural systems. In her essay ‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine’ (in Irigaray 1985b), Irigaray is concerned with the connection between power and knowledge, i. e. with the power of discourse and how this is dependent upon, and produces, the subordination of the feminine. Irigaray’s project is one of disrupting the ‘philosophical order of discourse and conceptions of knowledge in the Western philosophical tradition by demonstrating how this order is dependent on the subordination of the feminine’ (Game 1991:13). Game shows how Irigaray is insistent on rigorous readings of specific texts to highlight the ways in which the repression of the feminine is effected in particular discourses and how the conditions are concealed. Irigaray (1985b:78) claims that her project is one of ‘jamming the theoretical machinery’. French feminism has been the major influence in the development of feminist critical strategy.