Julia Kristeva and Feminism
Dr. Bhasker A. Shukla
Principal Smt.T.S.R.Commerce College, Patan-384265(Gujarat). email: prof_bhasker1@rediffmail.com

Julia Kristeva was born in Bulgaria in 1941. Educated in part by French nuns, she was involved early on in her life with Communist Party youth organizations and children's groups. Since moving to Paris in the 60s, Kristeva has risen in stature in intellectual circles so that she is now regarded as one of the most important thinkers of the postwar era. Early on Kristeva was associated with the Parisian journal Tel Quel, and the Tel Quel group of writers and philosophers: Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean Pierre Faye, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacqueline Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rotten-berg, Jean Thibaudeau and Philippe Sollers. Even in Bulgaria Kristeva was steeped in French culture. The Parisian intellectual life was seen as 'too French' by some (that being regarded as a bad thing).

“From the time of my arrival, I found, in this milieu, a distrustful and cold hospitality, that was nevertheless effective and dependable. A hospitality which has, moreover, never failed. Whatever the xenophobia, the antifeminism or the antisemitism of some, I maintain that French cultural life as I have come to know it has always been marked by a reserved but generous curiosity, one that is reticent but, everything considered, receptive to the nomad, the outlandish, the implant and the exogamous of all kinds.” ("Mémoire", 42)

Roland Barthes wrote that Kristeva 'changes the place of things... what she displaces is the already-said'.[1] Kristeva referred kindly to Barthes as 'the precursor and founder of modern literary studies' (Desire in Language, 93).

Barthes was important in Kristeva's thought; from his work she developed the notion of the 'jouissance of the text', the text as jouissance, especially as found in modern avant-garde literature. In her Le Texte du roman, Kristeva referred to Lukács, Saussure, Jakobson, Benveniste, Chomsky, Bakhtin, Marx and Engels; in Séméiotikè: Recherches pour une sémanalyse, to Freud and Lacan. Bataille's philosophy, with its emphasis on negativity and loss, was important for Kristeva, and helped her with the project of developing notions of horror, jouissance and death. Kristeva's notion of negativity was linked to the relationship between the semiotic and the symbolic as found in the Law of the Father. Kristeva's 'heretical notion' of the 'imaginary father' (Grosz, 1992, 199) is the space or position that the father takes up in the mother's desire - he embodies love (agape rather than eros).

In Kristeva's theory, the 'imaginary father' is necessary for the child so that it can grow away from being too dependent on the mother, and then develop a place as a signifying subject. Bataille's cultivation of the ambivalent aspects of life (such as Freud's death-drive and horror) helped Kristeva to formulate her philosophy of loss, negativity and the abject. Kristeva speaks often of 'drives', which're not behind all human behaviour, rather they are 'already semiotic' energy charges which 'extract the body from its homogeous expanse and turn it into a space bound to exterior space; they are the forces which trace the chora of the process' (Polylogue, 69). Similarly, Kristeva often uses words such as 'process' and 'practice': her theory always has its practical, physical component: it is not abstracted into nothing but theory. The 'key moment in practice' is transgression.

The link between practice and process is defined by Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language: '[p]ractice is determined by the pulverization of the unity of consciousness by a nonsymbolized outside, on the basis of objective contradictions and, as such, it is the place where the signifying process is carried out' (Revolution in Poetic Language, 203).

The political concerns of Marxism and Maoism came to the fore when Kristeva went to China in 1974 with Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, François Wahl and Marcelin Pleynet: Des Chinoises (About Chinese Women), the first of Kristeva's books to be published in English, was the result of this trip. It was La Révolution de la langage poetique, though, that really made Kristeva's name as a philosopher and critic. This was the book that introduced Kristeva's influential notion of the chora and the semiotic realm. Kristeva explored the concept of 'poetic language', as distinct from 'ordinary' language, in the writers that became staple Kristevan material in subsequent books (such as Antonin Artaud, de Sade, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce, Racine, Shakespeare, Céline and Louis Wolf-son). In approaching her theory of semiotics, Kristeva worked through Husserl's phenomenology, Hjelmslvian glosematics, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the referrentiality of Frege.[2] In 1979 Kristeva became a practising psychoanalyst - while keeping the chair in linguistics at the University of Paris VII.

The concerns of psychoanalysis, poetic language, gender, maternity and identity were staple Kristevan topics during the 70s and 80s. She wrote lucidly on painting - in "Giotto's Joy" and "Motherhood According to Bellini", among others (the essays were collected in Polylogue); on American society (in "D'Ithaca à New York" and "Why the United States?" among other essays); on the psychoanalysis of abjection (Pouvoir de l'horreur) and depression (Soleil noir); on racism in France (Etrangers à nous-mêmes); and on the history of love poetry and narratives (Histoire d'amour). Kristeva has also written fictions, such as Les Samouraïs, and The Old and the Wolves, which represent a movement into the more lyrical territory of Cixous and Irigaray.

Life as an exile from Bulgaria and a 'foreigner' in France may have further influenced Kristeva's notion of the 'outsider'. For her, the two things, exile and the feminine, became intertwined. Kristeva has stated that her interest in psychoanalyis arose partly from being exiled from Bulgaria.[3] Being an exile helped Kristeva see both her own country and her adopted country more clearly.[4]

Her experience of displacement was an ingredient in her idea of the 'cosmopolitan' individual, the 'intellectual dissident'. As Kristeva knows, strangeness or otherness (being a foreigner) is fundamental to being human: as Kristeva put it, étrangers à nous-mêmes (we are strangers to ourselves). In Strangers to Ourselves Kristeva describes the foreigner as the 'cold orphan', motherless, a 'devotee of solitude', a 'fanatic of absence', alone even in a crowd, arrogant, rejected, yet oddly happy (Strangers to Ourselves, 4-5). The stranger is always in motion, doesn't belong anywhere, to 'any time, any love' (ibid., 7).

Kristeva was critical of the politicization of sexual 'difference', which she saw in Cixous, Irigaray, and the Psych et Po group; 'it is all too easy to pass from the search for difference to the denigration of the symbolic' Kristeva wrote in a 1979 article, "Il n'y a pas de maître à langage" (134-5). Kristeva describes the essentialist (second wave) view of feminism as 'the second stage' of feminism.[5] For Kristeva, the struggle against phallogocentrism and the monologic of patriarchy, might 'sink into an essentialist cult of Woman' (ib.). However, in Women's Time, Kristeva acknowledges that the new, post-second wave feminism will 'henceforth be situated on the terrain of the inseparable conjunction of the sexual and the symbolic, in order to try to discover, first, the specificity of the female, and then, in the end, that of each individual woman' (A Kristeva Reader, 196).

Kristeva is sceptical of second wave feminism, and of the insistence on (lesbian) separatism. For Kristeva, language is a precondition of social life, so the Law of the Father seems inevitable; Kristeva does not believe a society could be matriarchal except in name.only.

Critics and feminists have been disappointed by Kristeva's apparent avoidance of the traditional or political roles of feminism (in statements such as 'while a certain feminism takes its pouting and its violation for protest and perhaps even for dissidence, genuine feminine innovation... will not be possible until we have elucidated motherhood, feminine creation, and the relationship between them', 1977, 6). For Kristeva, there is no specifically female text or writing, but only 'texts about women' (Grosz, 1990, 101). Jennifer Stone asserts that 'Kristeva's work is no longer in women's interests',[6] while Mary Russo calls her 'post-feminist' (in Barker). Kristeva is seen as reinforcing traditional notions of 'femininity', encouraging the binary configurations of biologism and sexual difference.

The Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective called Kristeva's poetics 'politically unsatisfactory',[7] while for Allon White, Kristeva is politcally ineffective.[8] In "Oscillation du 'pouvoir' au 'refus'" (1974) Kristeva speaks of the negative function women may hold, its potential to explode social codes, its revolutionary moments (in Marks, 166). Elizabeth Grosz has criticized Kristeva's notions of gender and the semiotic/ symbolic modalities: her 'ideal model of a transgressive subjectivity articulating itself is a male who has identified with and taken upon himself representation of a femininity women can't speak: man mimicking the woman who reproduce the man!'[9] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is also critical of Kristeva's poetics, the way in which Kristeva equates the literary avant garde with political radicalism (in "French feminism in an international frame").[10] Critics have spoken of the disappointing performance of French feminist theory when it is put into practice. The écriture féminine of Cixous and Kristeva seemed, at first, to subvert masculine realism, but the largely masculine literary canon remained in place. As one critic said, '[i]t has proved easier to look for the semiotic chora in Ulysses than in, say, suffragette autobiographies of the periodí.[11]

Other critics have been disappointed by continental feminism as a whole: for all its radical analysis of phallologocentrism, colonialism, and the harmful aspects of western civilization, it then retreats from following through the implications of its analysis.

It goes so far then stops. 'Continental feminism would seem to be the most potentially radical current in contemporary political theory' wrote Laura Kipnis in 1989,[12] but it was also prone to deliberately distancing itself from political praxis, to aestheticization, and to theoretical autonomy. Even as French and European feminism identifies a new political subject, it 'is then paralyzed by this knowledge and by its own First World status, hysterically blind to the geopolitical implications of its own program' (ib., 209). French feminism appears to be prevented from acting politically or advocating certain political practices by its own hyper-sensitivity, its acute self-consciousness. Perhaps, Kipnis suggests, the world of economic and political power do not have much to do with jouissance, the semiotic realm, the pre-Oedipal, sexual fluids and mediaeval female mystics.

Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva all have different modes of writing. There are times when they are writing in the sober, measured tones of a cultural critic, philosopher or psychoanalyst. They have strident feminist voices (Cixous and Irigaray more than Kristeva). They have personal reminiscence modes. They have a relaxed, informal mode in interviews. And, most powerful of all, they have lyrical modes. Thus, Cixous, the most 'poetic' of the three, will break into a visionary, ultra-lyrical way of writing. With books such as Powers of Horror, Kristeva's work became more personal. In "Stabat Mater" Kristeva wrote passionately of her experience of childbirth:

Nights of wakefulness, scattered sleep, sweetness of the child, warm mercury in my arms, cajolery, affection, defenceless body, his or mine, sheltered, protected. A wave swells again, when he goes to sleep, under my skin - tummy, thighs, legs: sleep of the muscles, not of the brain, sleep of the flesh. The wakeful tongue quietly remembers another withdrawal, mine: a blossoming heaviness in the middle of the bed, of a hollow, of the sea... (A Kristeva Reader, 171-2)

Irigaray, too, changes, less frequently than Cixous, from a critical to a lyrical form. Thus, in a piece such as "When Our Lips Speak Together", Irigaray will write poetic sentences such as '[k]iss me. Two lips kiss two lips, and openness is ours again.' This is the kind of phrase which never appears in most cultural theorists outside of quotation marks. One doesn't find Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Bakhtin, Foucault, Althusser, Jameson, Baudry, Barthes or Sartre writing 'kiss me' very often. Well, perhaps Foucault and Barthes said 'kiss me' in darkened hotel rooms - but not in scholarly books published by Minuit or Gallimard. What marks Cixous, Kristeva and Irigaray apart from many cultural theorists and philosophers, then, is this personal, confessional and poetic way of writing, where they directly address the reader as the other, the 'you' in an intimate relationship.

Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, de Certeau, Eagleton and Jakobson are rarely, if ever, this personal. Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, then, are more than simply cultural critics, shuffling between the café and the university library, lighting their pipes (Freud) or chainsmoking cigarettes (Sartre) while they ponder on imponderables, chat about prostitutes and brothels with their cronies and write up the occasional philosophical paper. Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva are considerable poets as well as psychoanalysts and philosophers. Their writings have a tremendous verve, even when they are dealing with the arid heights of abstruse semiological theory. Kristeva, for example, in writing of childbirth in "Stabat Mater", foregrounds her own experience in ways which many masculinist cultural critics do not, would not, or could not.

Kristeva very deliberately places her own experience of something very much in the province of 'women's experience' in a cultural theory essay. Of course, masculinist critics and writers have oft discussed sex, violence and death from 'first hand' experience, so to speak (de Sade Bataille, Sartre, Foucault), but for Kristeva the experience of motherhood decentres men and masculinist theory.[13] Feminist theorists and poets such as Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous are valuable, then, precisely because they foreground experiences that have been sidelined or stereotyped for centuries.

Kristeva's account of childbirth knocks away conventional accounts, such as from traditional science and medicine, or from the early Christian 'fathers', such as St Augustine, who maintained, in that bizarre way of his, that people are all born between faeces and urine. The French feminists counter this demonization of 'female' sexuality and make it a central part of their study. The effect of such foregrounding of 'female' sexuality is disruptive and subversive. As Luce Irigaray said in This Sex Which Is Not One: 'what is most strictly forbidden to women today is that they should attempt to express their own pleasure'.[14]


Julia Kristeva, Polylogue, Seuil 1977
About Chinese Women, tr. A. Barrows, Boyars 1977
"Il níy a pas de maître à language", Nouvelle revue de psychoanalyse, 20, Autumn 1979
Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon Roudiez, tr. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine & Leon Roudiez, Blackwell 1982
"Mémoire", LíInfini, 1, Winter 1983
Revolution in Poetic Language, tr. Margaret Walker, Columbia University Press, New York 1984
Strangers to Ourselves, tr. L.S. Roudiez, Harvester Wheatsheaf 1991


Francis Barker et al, eds. The Politics of Theory: The Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Psychology of Literature, University of Essex, Colchester 1983
John Fletcher & Andrew Benjamin, eds. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, Routledge 1990
E. Grosz. "The Body of Signification", in Fletcher, 1990
-. "Julia Kristeva", in Wright, 1992
John Lechte. Julia Kristeva, Routledge 1990
Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: an Anthology, Harvester Wheatsheaf 1981
Elizabeth Wright, ed. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, Blackwell 1992


(in square brackets)
1. Barthes: "L'Etrangère", La Quinzaine littéraire, May 1970, 19.
2. Michael Payne: Reading Theory: An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva, Blackwell 1993, 76.
3. "An Interview with Julia Kristeva", [with Edith Kurzweil], Partisan Review, LIII, 2, 1986, 216.
4. Kristeva has written lucidly, for example, of her 'mother tongue'. John Lechte writes: '[s]he is hypersensitive to the maternal, the familiar, and the same. Such may well be the source of her legendary 'difficulty': what she is talking about is so close to us that it becomes difficult to grasp intellectually' (1990, 81).
5. S. Lefanu: In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Womenís Press 1988, 175.
6. Judith Stone: "The horror of power: a critique of 'Kristevaí", in Barker, 1983.
7. Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective: "Women's Writing", Ideology and Consciousness, 1, 3, Spring 1978, 30.
8. Allon White: 'Líéclatement du sujet: The Theoretical Work of Julia Kristeva, Centre for Contemporary Studies, University of Birminghham, 1977
9. Carole Pateman & Elizabeth Grosz, eds. Feminist Challenges, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1986, 131.
10. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: "French feminism in an international frame", Yale French Studies, 62, 1981.
11. Jean Radford: "Coming to terms: Dorothy Richardson, Modernism and Women", News from Nowhere, 7, Winter 1989, 96.
12. Laura Kipnis: "Feminism: The Political Conscience of Postmodernism?", in Peter Brooker, ed. Modernism/ Postmodernism, Longman 1992, 209.
13. Carolyn Burke: "Rethinking the maternal", in Hester Eisenstein & Alice Jardine, eds. The Future of Difference, Barnard College Womenís Center, New York 1980
14. L. Irigaray. This Sex Which Is Not One, tr. C. Porter & C. Burke, Cornell University Press, New York, 1977, I, 125.


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(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2013)