The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

The unspeakable well spoken
Rumina Sethi

Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable
by Anne-Marie Smith, Pluto Press, London.
Pages 110. £10.99.

Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva

JULIA Kristeva entered the French scene in 1966 at the age of 25 when she left the land of her birth, Bulgaria, holding nothing more than an invitation for doctoral research and a suitcase. Living in France currently, Kristeva experiences a strange double-bind: within its boundaries, she suffers all the traumas of exile; but outside it, she is believed to be quintessentially French.

Anne-Marie Smith offers an exhaustive analysis of Kristeva’s most recent French texts, and with it establishes a close relationship between her writing and the cultural environment she inhabits. Smith traces the evolution of Kristeva’s thought in both a diachronic and a synchronic way so as to encapsulate both chronological time and cyclical time, the former involving her biography and personal history, and the latter going against the idea of such linearity.

Smith’s enterprise takes her to two facets of Kristeva’s personality – the Anglo-American and French psychoanalytic thought. Smith tends to argue that ‘Kristeva is a committed Freudian in the French sense of the term and that Freud is certainly in a more comfortable position in France than in Britain or the United States.’ In the Anglo-American academy, Freudian psycho-analysis has been deemed unscientific when set against the demands of empiricism, particularly after the intellectual assault on Freud by Frederick Crews.


This book, as the author professes, is an attempt to make Continental philosophy more accessible to the American academic. Interestingly, the cover of the book which carries an attractive picture of Julia Kristeva is intended to break the prudery of the Anglo-American culture that often deflects desire and seduction towards puritanism and excessive abstraction. I would venture here to say that French academics are, by and large, more fashionably turned out than their British counterparts. Lacan is often remembered for his fancy ties and his disregard for a proper dress-code, for instance, and Barthes for his seductive voice. This aspect of ‘sensory pleasure’ is not always considered to be politically correct by those across the Channel or the Atlantic.

Kristeva is among the founder members of the journal, Tel Quel, most of who participated in the events of May 1968. In many ways, French feminism may also be said to have received its impetus from the revolutionary environment of 1968 which cried out for change in the stable subject-positions regarding women. Julia Kristeva is among the four pioneer French women who cleared the space for feminist thinking (the others being Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig). The shared aims of the workers and students to bring down the French government also meant for the intellectual a freedom of expression in the world of language. By connecting language to the unconscious, an effort was made to hear the voices that remained subdued by an ordered, stable and structured language. The repressed dimension of language came to be equated with unconscious drives, energies and forces which needed exploring, and which would later be known in Cixous’s words as écriture féminine or the feminine practice of writing.

Kristeva believes that the philosophy of language as it exists is necrophiliac. But she argues that one’s bodily drives survive in ‘semiotic’ discourse. She expands the notion of écriture féminine by putting forward the terms symbolic and semiotic. The semiotic, which is poetic, musical and rhythmical, is the site of writing from the woman’s body. It contains art, poetry, love and psychoanalysis, all of which she regards as ‘imaginative’. This heterogeneous discourse is disruptive to the ‘order’ and ‘patriarchy’ of the symbolic. For Kristeva readers, the dual strands of language as perceived from both the above standpoints explains how language is produced. Needless to say, both the symbolic and the symbiotic are always present in any given sample of language. Before her, Roland Barthes had in fact already put forward the notion of a text of ‘bliss’ and a text of ‘pleasure’. The former for him brings to the reader jouissance, a disturbing rupture and violent delight of disruptive intensity unsettling his or her cultural and historical assumptions. The latter ends up bringing the much sought after bourgeois element of contentment which is a desire of having a snug relationship with language. From confirmatory positivism to the ‘consistently inconsistent’, from the expected and the unchanging to the bliss of ceaselessly ‘becoming’: these are the dialectics of reading.

Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language is about both facets of knowledge which are deeply enmeshed in signification, the semiotic referring to a hidden meaning which is not signified, and the symbolic to an overt meaning which is almost always signified. As Kristeva writes poignantly: ‘If we did not ceaselessly expose the strangeness of our internal life – and transpose it ceaselessly into other signs, would there be a life of the psyche, would we be living beings?’

The above also highlights the ambiguity between the public and the private which Smith brings out: in adopting the West, Kristeva effectively abandoned her native country and never visited home until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Kristeva experienced the emotions of being a dissident, a foreigner and a woman in the male order of things all at once. These are subject-positions which have enabled her to be interrogative, to inhabit spaces both inside and out, to be French and ‘perfectly foreign at home’, an anti-nationalist as well as a cosmopolitan obsessed with the questions of justice and injustice – all of which can only be the prerogatives of an exile.