Julia Kristeva - Summary of Major Themes

"Kristeva and Feminism"
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:
    1. Her attempt to bring the body back into discourses in the human sciences; 2. Her focus on the significance of the maternal and preoedipal in the constitution of subjectivity; and 3. Her notion of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination.
The Body
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. 

1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Her recent analysis in New Maladies of the Soul also carries this suggestion.


"An Interview with Julia Kristeva"
by Kathleen O'Grady
    [Copyright 1998 Kathleen O'Grady] . This is a small section (pp. 8-11) of a larger audience dialogue with Julia Kristeva, printed in Parallax: Julia Kristeva 1966-96. Aesthetics, Politics, Ethics. Issue 8 July-September 1998, pp. 5-16. Guest Editor, Griselda Pollock. This interview appears here with the permission of Kathleen O'Grady.
Kathleen O'Grady: Though your work has included linguistic and semiotic studies, literature and psychoanalytic analyses, your writings have been consistently framed by the Johanine quotation, 'In the beginning was the Word.' You adopted Céline's revision in Powers of Horror: 'No! In the beginning was emotion. The Word came next to replace emotion as the trot replaces the gallop'. In Tales of Love you sum up your understanding of Freud with the statement: 'In the beginning was hatred'. Your text on the relation of psychoanalysis and faith is titled, In the Beginning was Love. And more recently your work on Proust has reformulated this statement once again: 'In the beginning was suffering'. This continual transformation of the New Testament invocation ('In the beginning') begs the question: which of your semiotic, psychoanalytic, or Catholic proclivities generates this perpetual revisionism, this persistent desire for tracking and tracing a beginning?

Julia Kristeva: You are posing some very searching questions and not treating me gently here. I will answer the question in two parts: one is the interest in origins, and the other the place of Christian tradition. Origins are one of the fundamental questions of metaphysics that cannot be entirely avoided in linguistics or psychoanalysis. Let me take the psychoanalytical point of view. In anamnesis we have the possibility of entering as far as possible into the investigation of infantile memory to discover the most distant memories of our childhood. These are so often traumatic memories. In this journey, a strange transmutation occurs in our language. In speaking, in traversing the universe of signs, we arrive at emotions, at sensations, at drives, at affects, and even at what Freud named the 'umbilicus of the dream'. This is something unnamable, which becomes, none the less, the source of our investigation. The heteronomy of our psyche has always preoccupied my investigations. I am interested in language [langage], and in the other side of language which is filtered inevitably by language and yet is not language. I have named this heterogeneity variously. I have sought it out in the experience of love, of abjection, of horror. I have called it the semiotic in relation to the symbolic. But it is the doubling of language [la langue] that seems, at the moment, to be of more interest to women than to men.

What the other side of language as metaphysics thinks of as origins, is not an origin. Rather it is heterogeneity vis-à-vis language. I suggest that this is a fundamental point of psychoanalytical theory. Freud frequently reclaimed what he called his dualism: the death drive versus the life instincts. For Freud the psychic apparatus is composed of two distinct economies or logics of Ruth the Moabite. The book of Ruth is a magisterial reflection on the alterity and strangeness of woman which one finds nowhere else. Ruth is a foreigner and yet she is the ancestor of the royal house of David. Thus, at the hear of sovereignty there is an inscription of a foreign femininity. Institutionalized Judaism does not recognize this, yet it is part of a tradition of generosity towards the other that is at the heart of Jewish monotheism. In the Song of Songs the amours relation is figured as a relation between a man and a woman who are strangers, travelers, destined to lose each other. Separation is thus placed at the heart of the relation of one to the other in the Bible. With regards to my interest in narcissism, you will recall the Biblical and Gospel verse on which Thomas Aquinas comments: 

Love your neighbor as yourself. It can be interpreted narrowly as the legitimation of egotism and individualism. But in my book, Tales of Love, I interpreted it as the necessity of structuring narcissism. To become capable of loving our neighbor as ourself, we have first of all to heal a wounded narcissism. We must reconstitute narcissistic identity to be able to extend a hand to the other. Thus what is needed is a reassurance or reconstruction of both narcissism, personality and, of course, the subject for there to be a relation to the other. To put this into its practical social context, let me recall the enthusiasm with which many of us of the generation of '68 launched ourselves into social activism, and put our selves and our comforts at risk. We struggled to find some meaning in the destruction. We occupied factories; I myself took part in this to find meaning in life. But while reading as usual, and in particular at that moment, these texts, the Bible, the Gospels and Thomas Aquinas, I began to argue that it was important to act on this social plane by moving into the factories, but perhaps it was necessary to be installed within ourselves first of all. This seems to be the primary message of Thomas Aquinas: love the other as oneself, but by being settled within oneself, by delight in oneself. Thus: heal your inner wounds which, as a result will render you then capable of effective social action, or intervention in the social plane with the other. Therefore, I would argue that we must heal our shattered narcissism before formulating higher objectives.


Le feminin et le sacre. Co-authored with Catherine Clément. Paris: Stock, 1998.
Le temps sensible: Proust et l'expérience littéraire, Paris: Gallimard, 1994.
Les Nouvelles maladies de l'ame, Paris: Libraire Artheme Fayard, 1993.
Soleil noir: Depression et mélancolie, Paris: Gallimard, 1987.
Histoires d'amour, Edtions Denoël: Paris, 1983.
Pouvoirs de l'horreur, Paris: Seuil, 1980.
Polylogue, Paris: Seuil, 1977.
La Révolution du langage poétique, Paris: Seuil, 1974.
Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature, Trans. by Ross Guberman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
New Maladies of the Soul Trans. by Ross Guberman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Black Sun Trans. by Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Tales of Love Trans. by Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Revolution in Poetic Language, Trans. by Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Powers of Horror, Trans. by Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Desire in Language, Edited by Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
"A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," in The Kristeva Reader, Edited by Toril Moi, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986; originally published in 1977.
"Julia Kristeva in conversation with Rosiland Coward," Desire, ICA Documents, 1984, p. 22-27.

Secondary Sources

de Nooy, Juliana. Derrida, Kristeva, and the Dividing Line: An Articulation of Two Theories of Difference. Garland, 1998.
Huntington, Patricia. Ecstatic Subjects, Utopia and Recognition: Kristeva, Heidegger, Irigaray.
Julia Kristeva 1966-96: Aesthetics, Politics, Ethics. (special issue of the journal Parallax out of the University of Leeds, UK) 1998.
Lechte, John and Mary Zournazi, ed. After the Revolution: On Kristeva. 1998. ISBN 1-876017-37-6.
O'Grady, Kathleen, ed. Julia Kristeva: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources in French and English: 1966-1996. 1997.
Oliver, Kelly, ed. Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva's Writings. 1993.
Oliver, Kelly. "Julia Kristeva's Feminist Revolutions," Hypatia a journal of feminist philosophy, 8:3, summer 1993, p. 94-114.
Oliver, Kelly, ed. The Portable Kristeva. 1997.
Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. 1993.
Reineke, Martha J. Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Women and Violence. 1997.
Smith, Anna. Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement. 1997.
Smith, Anne-Marie. Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable. Pluto Press, 1998.