by Kelly Oliver
[Copyright 1998 Kelly Oliver]
Although Kristeva does not refer to her own writing as feminist, many feminists turn to her work in order to expand and develop various discussions and debates in feminist theory and criticism. Three elements of Kristeva's thought have been particularly important for feminist theory in Anglo-American contexts:
- Her attempt to bring the body back into discourses in the human sciences;
- Her focus on the significance of the maternal and preoedipal in the constitution of subjectivity; and
- Her notion of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination.
Theories of the body are particularly important for feminists because historically (in the humanities) the body has been associated with the feminine, the female, or woman, and denigrated as weak, immoral, unclean, or decaying. Throughout her writing over the last three decades, Kristeva theorized the connection between mind and body, culture and nature, psyche and soma, matter and representation, by insisting both that bodily drives are discharged in representation, and that the logic of signification is already operating in the material body. In New Maladies of the Soul, Kristeva describes the drives as "as pivot between 'soma' and psyche', between biology and representation" (30; see also Time and Sense).
She is now famous for the distinction between what she calls the "semiotic" and the "symbolic," which she develops in her early work including Revolution in Poetic Language , "From One Identity to the Other" in Desire in Language, and Powers of Horror. Kristeva maintains that all signification is composed of these two elements. The semiotic element is the bodily drive as it is discharged in signification. The semiotic is associated with the rhythms, tones, and movement of signifying practices. As the discharge of drives, it is also associated with the maternal body, the first source of rhythms, tones, and movements for every human being since we all have resided in that body.
The symbolic element of signification is associated with the grammar and structure of signification. The symbolic element is what makes reference possible. For example, words have referential meaning because of the symbolic structure of language. On the other hand, we could say that words give life meaning (nonreferential meaning) because of their semiotic content. Without the symbolic, all signification would be babble or delirium. But, without the semiotic, all signification would be empty and have no importance for our lives. Ultimately, signification requires both the semiotic and symbolic; there is no signification without some combination of both.
Just as bodily drives are discharged into signification, the logic of signification is already operating within the materiality of the body. Kristeva suggests that the operations of identification and differentiation necessary for signification are prefigured in the body's incorporations and expulsions of food in particular (see Revolution in Poetic Language and Powers of Horror). These bodily "identifications" and "differentiations" are regulated by the maternal body before birth and the mother during infancy. Kristeva proposes that there is a maternal regulation or law which prefigures the paternal law which Freudian psychoanalysts have maintained is necessary for signification (see Powers of Horror and Tales of Love). The regulation or grammar and laws of language, then, are already operating on the level of matter.
The Maternal Body
Following Melanie Klein and in contrast to Freud and Lacan, Kristeva emphasizes the maternal function and its importance in the development of subjectivity and access to culture and language. While Freud and Lacan maintain that the child enters the social by virtue of the paternal function, specifically paternal threats of castration, Kristeva asks why, if our only motivation for entering the social is fear, more of us aren't psychotic? In Tales of Love, she questions the Freudian-Lacanian notion that paternal threats cause the child to leave the safe haven of the maternal body. Why leave this safe haven if all you have to look forward to is fear and threats? Kristeva is interested in the earliest development of subjectivity, prior to Freud's oedipal situation or Lacan mirror stage.
Kristeva argues that maternal regulation is the law before the Law, before Paternal Law (see Tales of Love). She calls for a new discourse of maternity that acknowledges the importance of the maternal function in the development of subjectivity and in culture. In "Stabat Mater" in Tales of Love and "Motherhood According to Bellini" in Desire in Language, Kristeva argues that we don't have adequate discourses of maternity. Religion, specifically Catholicism (which makes the mother sacred), and science (which reduces the mother to nature) are the only discourses of maternity available to Western culture.
In "Motherhood According to Bellini" and elsewhere, she suggests that the maternal function cannot be reduced to mother, feminine, or woman. By identifying the mother's relation to the infant as a function, Kristeva separates the function of meeting the child's needs from both love and desire. As a woman and as a mother, a woman both loves and desires and as such she is primarily a social and speaking being. As a woman and a mother, she is always sexed. But, insofar as she fulfills the maternal function, she is not sexed. Kristeva's analysis suggests that to some extent anyone can fulfill the maternal function, men or women.
By insisting that the maternal body operates between nature and culture, Kristeva tries to counter-act stereotypes that reduce maternity to nature. Even if the mother is not the subject or agent of her pregnancy and birth, she never ceases to be primarily a speaking subject. In fact, Kristeva uses the maternal body with its two-in-one, or other within, as a model for all subjective relations. Like the maternal body, each one of us is what she calls a subject-in-process. As subjects-in-process we are always negotiating the other within, that is to say, the return of the repressed. Like the maternal body, we are never completely the subjects of our own experience. Some feminists have found Kristeva's notion of a subject-in-process a useful alternative to traditional notions of an autonomous unified (masculine) subject.
Abjection and Sexism
In Powers of Horror, working with Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger (Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger, New York: Routledge, 1969.), Kristeva develops a notion of abjection that has been very useful in diagnosing the dynamics of oppression. She describes abjection as an operation of the psyche through which subjective and group identity are constituted by excluding anything that threats one's own (or one's group's) borders. The main threat to the fledgling subject is his or her dependence upon the maternal body. Therefore, abjection is fundamentally related to the maternal function. As Kristeva claims in Black Sun, matricide is our vital necessity because in order to become subjects (within a patriarchal culture) we must abject the maternal body. But, because women cannot abject the maternal body with which they also identify as women, they develop what Kristeva calls a depressive sexuality (see Black Sun). Kristeva's analysis in Black Sun suggests that we need not only a new discourse of maternity but also a discourse of the relation between mothers and daughters, a discourse that does not prohibit the lesbian love between women through which female subjectivity is born.
In Tales of Love, Kristeva suggests that misplaced abjection is one cause of women's oppression (see p. 374). In patriarchal cultures, women have been reduced to the maternal function; that is to say, they have been reduced to reproduction. So, if it is necessary to abject the maternal function to become a subject, and women, maternity, and femininity all have been reduced to the maternal function, then within patriarchy, women, maternity, and femininity are all abjected along with the maternal function. This misplaced abjection is one way to account for women's oppression and degradation within patriarchal cultures.
Although many feminist theorists and literary critics have found Kristeva's ideas useful and provocative, Kristeva's relation to feminism has been ambivalent. Her views of feminism are best represented in her essay "Women's Time" in New Maladies of the Soul. In this essay originally published in 1979, Kristeva argues that there are three phases of feminism. She rejects the first phase because it seeks universal equality and overlooks sexual differences. She implicitly criticizes Simone de Beauvoir and the rejection of motherhood; rather than reject motherhood Kristeva insists that we need a new discourse of maternity. In fact, in "A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," Kristeva suggests that "real female innovation (in whatever field) will only come about when maternity, female creation and the link between them are better understood" (298).
Kristeva also rejects what she sees as the second phase of feminism because it seeks a uniquely feminine language, which she thinks is impossible. Kristeva does not agree with feminists who maintain that language and culture are essentially patriarchal and must somehow be abandoned. On the contrary, Kristeva insists that culture and language are the domain of speaking beings and women are primarily speaking beings. Kristeva endorses what she identifies as the third phase of feminism which seeks to reconceive of identity and difference and their relationship. This current phase of feminism refuses to choose identity over difference or visa versa; rather, it explores multiple identities, including multiple sexual identities. In an interview with Rosalind Coward, Kristeva proposes that there are as many sexualities as their are individuals.
- For a more detailed account of Kristeva's ambigious relation to feminism, see my "Julia Kristeva's Feminist Revolutions" Hypatia a journal of feminist philosophy, 8:3, summer 1993, p. 94-114.
- She introduces her notion of subject-in-process/on trial in her early texts including Revolution in Poetic Language, "Le Sujet en Proces" in Polylogue and Desire in Language, and develops this notion in her later writings.
- Her recent analysis in New Maladies of the Soul also carries this suggestion.