In the beginning was suffering.
—Julia Kristeva (1993), Proust and the Sense of Time
In the beginning was suffering.
Since Revolution in Poetic Language (1974/1984), Kristeva has been concerned to elaborate a theory of the speaking subject that addresses the symbolization of nonverbal experiences (Smith 1998). For Kristeva, language is not simply a tool used by selves; speaking subjects “signify and are constituted by their signifying practices” (McAfee 2004, p. 7). In other words, language produces subjects. Kristeva, along with many of her contemporaries, prefers the term “subject” over the common notion of the “self,” a being that is fully conscious and able to act in the world, because a “subject” is often not aware of the unconscious phenomena that influence thoughts and actions (McAfee 2004). Unconscious phenomena include desires, tensions, energy, and repressions that are not easily accessible to consciousness but that nonetheless express themselves. As McAfee notes, “the experience of subjectivity is not that of coming to awareness as a ‘self,’ but of having an identity wrought in ways often unbeknownst to the subject herself” (p. 2). “The subject never is,” Kristeva writes, “The subject is only the signifying process and he appears only as a signifying practice” (p. 215).
The signifying process (significance) for Kristeva (1974/1984) is the interaction of two modalities: the symbolic and the semiotic. These two modalities are inseparable and together constitute signification, or language. The symbolic mode is concerned with taking a position and with meaning, grammar, and syntax. The semiotic mode includes the subject’s feelings, drives, and articulations and does not depend on grammatical and syntactic rules. The dialectic between the two modalities determines the type of discourse: the discourse of scientists and logicians—“the realm of language as communication” (Beardsworth 2004, p. 16)—exemplifies the symbolic mode, whereas the creative expressions of musicians, dancers, and poets tend to call forth the semiotic (Kristeva 1980). As Oliver (1993) points out, the semiotic should not be understood as extra-linguistic. Rather the linguistic is heterogeneous, “composed of symbols and nonsymbols, meaning and nonmeaning” (p. 96). Without the symbolic, speech would disintegrate into babbling madness; without the semiotic, it would shrivel up in its dryness into a brittle emptiness.
According to Kristeva, the semiotic that enters language draws upon the “corporeal memory” (Smith 1998, p. 16) of “the echolalias, glossolalias, rhythms, and intonations of an infant who does not yet know how to use language to refer to objects” (McAfee 2004, p. 19). The semiotic is an ordering force, or disposition, that is based on the primal mother–child union, an undifferentiated stage of development psychoanalysis refers to as the pre-Oedipal, or primary narcissism. As Oliver (1993) writes, the semiotic originates in “the rhythms and the sounds of their bodies together fused into one” (p. 34). Kristeva tells us that we learn the intonations of language before we learn syntactic rules, that is, music comes before syntax (Kristeva 1974/1980). Whereas the semiotic originates in a union with the mother, the child’s move into the symbolic (paternal) is marked by a break, a separation. This occurs around the time the child first sees his own image reflected in the mirror or in the mirroring gaze of another person (the Oedipal stage). At first, this image of himself confuses him, but eventually he recognizes himself in the mirroring. By splitting, that is, by becoming two (himself and his reflection in the other), eventually “one” enters the symbolic realm as a speaking subject (Oliver 1993).
To understand the origin of the speaking subject, Kristeva (1974/1984) draws upon the term chora, formulated by Plato in the Timaeus. According to Margaroni (2005), Kristeva’s notion of the chora, difficult and controversial as it is, recurs in various guises throughout her work. Margaroni (Lechte and Margaroni 2004) believes that the chora represents Kristeva’s concern “with opening both the biological and the social to a mediating space/spacing before the violent break introduced by ‘the Word’” (p. 14). This “space/spacing” is both containing and separating and is situated neither in the mother’s nor in the infant’s body, but in between. It is a third (Margaroni 2005), “the space of mediation” (Huffer 1998, p. 82). Chora is not, however, an empty or static space; it is generative. It is a mediation that “cancels out oppositions in opening up the ‘One’ to receive the ‘Other’” (Margaroni 2005, p. 82). It is a notion inextricably bound up in the question of “the Beginning,” Margaroni claims—“if the Beginning is understood as a passage from nature to culture, from the biological organism to the social, speaking subject” (p. 81)—a beginning continuously revisited not only for each individual but also if signification is to be meaningful (Kristeva 1974/1984).
In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva (1974/1984) defines the semiotic chora as the “non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated” by a semiotic process that is already involved in “family and social structure” (p. 25): “It is a maternal space from which the figure of the father is not absent, but prefigured” (Smith 1998, p. 60). Unlike Freud and Lacan, Kristeva maintains that entry into the symbolic is a function of the maternal as well as the paternal; it does not originate solely in the “violent break” of the Oedipal stage, but rather it begins earlier, in the pre-Oedipal stage (Gambaudo 2007; Oliver 1993).
In Kristeva’s psychoanalytical theory, the maternal function prepares the child for the paternal (Kristeva 1997/2002). The child becomes a speaking subject because that is the parental desire, a desire that originates in the maternal desire for something other than the infant (father, lovers, work). The child in the pre-Oedipal stage, wishing to maintain his union with the mother, attempts to position himself in the place of his mother’s desire for this other- than-himself, this third, the “imaginary loving father” (Kristeva 1996/2000, p. 54)—what Kristeva calls “the keystone to our love and imagination” (p. 53)—and, paradoxically, forsakes his bond with the mother by doing so. Thus, on the pre-Oedipal level, the maternal “appears as a paradox that defies paternal (phallogocentric) logic: what is kept is what is lost” (Gambaudo 2007, p. 118). And what is lost is kept. Maternal love provides the support as well as the impetus for the child’s imaginary transference to the site of the mother’s desire, a transference that ultimately is a fantasy of wholeness, where the child is rejoined with the father in the mother’s womb (Kristeva 1985/1987). Although the maternal function paves the way for “the subject’s entry into a disposition, a fragile one to be sure, of an ulterior, unavoidable oedipal destiny,” it is “one that can also be playful and subliminal” (Kristeva 1983/1987, p. 46).
In Time and Sense (Kristeva 1994/1996), the chora is described as a “sensory cavern” (p. 234), an interior dwelling, and later, in the same text, as a camera obscura (p. 238), a dark processing room that exists prior to language, where lived experience has yet to be given form through signification, although the desire is there. In describing this sensory cavern, Kristeva says that it is “an essential part of the psychic apparatus” (p. 235), an archaic substratum of the essentially heterogeneous mind that remains autistic, but that provides the universal trace of the moment before the break when the subject was still fused with mother and this not yet other. The chora, the sensory cavern, the darkroom constitutes “inner depth itself…the psychical life of the speaking subject” (Kristeva 1997/2002, p. 68). It is the reservoir of our lived experience, “where sensory experience can be slowly processed, seen and understood in the wider context of interpersonal experience” (Smith 1998, p. 28). “Everyone has a sensory cave,” Kristeva writes, although for some, such as the autistic, “it is a psyche catastrophe” (p. 235).
It is because “the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic” (Kristeva 1974/1984, p. 24) that the semiotic and symbolic are inseparable within the signifying process. This becomes for Kristeva “a powerful model of the human in which language is not divorced from the body; ‘word’ and ‘flesh’ can meet at any moment for better or worse” (Kristeva 1985/1987, p. 6). Smith (1998) claims that for Kristeva “language will always speak the unspeakable as the unconscious will make itself known” (p. 96). Through semiotic disruptions in signification, language as a formal system is reconnected to the psychosomatic (Smith 1998). The speaking subject is thus not a stable subject but a “subject in process” (le sujet en procès), which can also be translated as “subject on trial.” The subject in process is a subjectivity in revolt against the symbolic order (the paternal) and fixed identity (Smith 1998)—it “gives us a vision,” Kristeva says, “of the human venture as a venture of innovation, of creation, of opening, of renewal” (Guberman 1996, p. 26). The speaking subject is incessantly engaged in expressing and signifying. It is the nature of the symbolic, however, to refuse the semiotic, and the symbolic social order can be rigid in the reinforcement of its laws (Kristeva 1974/1984). The symbolic mode, though its rules are necessary for signification, can never completely obliterate the “more fluid, playful, instinctual” semiotic (McAfee 2004, p. 43). The symbolic order may strive for unity, but signification is a heterogeneous contradiction (Beardsworth 2004); it is always disrupted by more archaic impulses. Subjects in process/on trial are therefore “an impossible unity” (Kristeva 1974/1984, p. 118)—“a splitting subject in conflict who risks being shattered and is on the brink of a heterogeneous contradiction” (p. 187).
Yet, as Beardsworth (2004) observes, despite their tendency to separate, the semiotic and symbolic are “two dimensions of meaning and subjectivity that need to be connected if self-relation, the other, and world-relation are to be possible” (p. 14). When the bond between the two is insufficiently connected, there is a crisis of meaning—“the linguistic universe, symbolic bonds with others (communication), and social bonds are felt to be meaningless and without value” (p. 14). Kristeva (1993/1995) contends that subjects in the Western world are suffering today from such a crisis. Instead of releasing unconscious processes (the semiotic) through signification, the subject today is bombarded with manufactured desires transmitted in ready-made images and slogans. The consequence is “a withering away of language just as there is a withering away of culture” (Guberman 1996, p. 169). Kristeva believes that when psychical activity is given over to an accrual of prefabricated desires rather than to an investment in its own representations, then not only is the ability to distinguish reality from dream lost but also the ability to imagine. People mistake the ready-mades—that function as if they were real—for reality, that is, as viable reflections of the self. With diminished psychical activity, the contemporary subject, unable to sufficiently release unconscious processes through language, suffers “new maladies of the soul” (Kristeva 1993/1995):
We have neither the time nor the space needed to create a soul for ourselves, and the mere hint of such activity seems frivolous and ill-advised … modern man is a narcissist—a narcissist who suffers, but who feels no remorse. He manifests his suffering in his body and he is afflicted with somatic symptoms … Living in a piecemeal and accelerated space and time, he often has trouble acknowledging his own physiognomy; left without a sexual, subjective, or moral identity, this amphibian of being is a being of boundaries, a borderline, or a “false self” … Modern man is losing his soul, but he does not know it, for the psychic apparatus is what registers representations and their meaningful value for the subject. Unfortunately, that darkroom needs repair (pp. 7–8).
The soul is for Kristeva “that psychic space whose protection and creativity lie at the heart of Freudian thought” (Guberman 1996, p. 173). The problem with the contemporary subject is that he is unable to represent, “to symbolize his unbearable traumas” (Kristeva 1993/1995, p. 9). Following, in her opinion, the American style of seeking answers in a culture of illusions and false hopes, in “fleeting narcissistic images” reflective of a “psychic laziness,” the contemporary subject shoves aside “the reality of suffering and the necessity to confront such suffering with a full knowledge of the facts” (Guberman 1996, p. 173). Kristeva stresses that pharmaceuticals, media images, and the allurement of religious fundamentalism will not save the subject: “Today, psychical life knows it will only be saved if it gives itself the time and space to revolt: to break off, remember, refashion” (Kristeva 1997/2002, p. 223).
Revolt, in Kristeva’s writing, is not political per se—“for we also speak,” she tells us, “of the earth’s revolution around the sun” (Pollock 1998, p. 6). Rather revolt, as suggested by its Latin root (“re,” back, again + “volvere” to roll) is essentially the return of subjectivity to the beginning. As exemplified in the arts and psychoanalysis, it is a state of permanent and transformative questioning that characterizes psychic life, a “Proustian … search for the past—time, anamnesis, a moment when thought is that language which returns to the past, in order to displace us towards progress. It is the past which prepares a renaissance, a rebirth” (Pollock 1998, p. 6). In Revolution in Poetic Language (1974/1984), revolt is the renewal of language in the eruption of the semiotic in signification. In Powers of Horror (1980/1982), revolt is associated with the revolting aspects of the mother that the subject abjects in order to enter the symbolic and become a subject. Revolution in this sense is a return of the repressed (maternal) in the symbolic (paternal). In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt (1996/2000), Kristeva ties revolt to anamnesis, which she defines as putting memories into words, a “narrative enunciation” of trauma that “permits a renewal of the whole subject” (p. 13). Kristeva explains that “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’” (Pollock 1998, p. 9). Anamnesis thus opens the subject up to creativity, to the imaginary, to the future, and to others. As Margaroni (2005) points out in reflecting on Kristeva’s (1999/2001) biography of Hannah Arendt, “the turning of bios into a narrative guarantees not only subjective but also communal renewal” (p. 84). In Intimate Revolt (1997/2002), Kristeva remarks, “if there is still time, we should wager on the future of revolt. As Albert Camus said, ‘I revolt, therefore we are.’ Or rather: I revolt, therefore we are to come” (pp. 223–224).
If there is still time. Given the current crisis in subjectivity, Kristeva, in much of her later work, seriously questions the future possibility of revolt in our society of spectacle. In an interview, she explains that with the destruction of the darkroom comes an inability to remember and therefore a loss of the ability to read and to write:
Since the era of Socrates and Plato, and through to the theology of Augustine in the Christian period, it has been argued that ‘man’ can learn to know the truth of ‘himself’, his being, by turning inward upon himself, by turning a gaze upon himself, by looking back into himself. This return, anamnesis and self-interrogation, takes the form of two practices: Prayer and Reading, the latter being the secular form of the former. Meditation with the self, concentration upon the self takes place through the book. In my experience, many patients enter analysis with a completely modern and singular pathology. They can no longer read. It is not a matter of illiteracy or a neurological dysfunction. It is because their interior dwelling, the camera obscura of their inner life, has been destroyed. Depression, anxiety, stress can destroy it. They say they can no longer concentrate on themselves, or that they cannot recall what they have just read. Nothing writes itself within. The psychic domain of the inner world is destroyed (Pollock 1998, p. 14).
The new maladies in Kristeva’s view reflect a failure in the psychic apparatus of the paternal function, “not solely on the Oedipal front but more crucially on a pre-Oedipal maternal level” (Gambaudo 2007, p. 116). On the Oedipal front, there are no authorities to revolt against. On the pre-Oedipal level, as Cooper and Maxwell (1995) observe, analysts are now confronted with the “early childhood experience of non-containment” (p. 124), a failure that is manifested, as Gambaudo points out, not so much in a resistance to pre-Oedipal unconscious material “as an ‘absenteeism’ of the subject in their relationship with the symbol” (p. 81). In psychoanalytic theory, subjectification depends on the paternal function—the violent break introduced by the word. Becoming speaking subjects requires a revolutionary displacement of the paternal prohibition that makes room for the subject’s drives—a sublimation. But in place of the expected narrative of subjectivity, the analyst encounters within the new maladies a void. The crisis of subjectivity thus becomes a crisis for psychoanalysis.
The rise in people with depression, borderline states, and narcissism has led Kristeva to reconsider the field of psychoanalysis and to derive “softer” methods that address the pre-Oedipal experience of non-containment. Kristeva is now advocating a shift in the role of the analyst from the sterner Oedipal (castrating) position to the softer pre-Oedipal (containing) position (Kristeva 1996/2000). This repositioning of the analyst “suggests a different kind of transference/counter-transference,” that provides a “more invested connectedness with the patient” (Gambaudo 2007, p. 87). Given the reality of the new maladies, Kristeva believes that the analyst today must be more like the mother who mediates the child’s difficult passage into language. The analyst must revisit the maternal function “that teaches the pre-linguistic child to move from a scattered reality to a unified apprehension of itself” by providing the analysand with “new counter-transferential modes of listening” that are “containing, constructing, holding, loving” (Gambaudo 2007, p. 94).
The analyst must become, in essence, a transitional space, “the magnet for loving identification” (Kristeva 1983/1987, p. 38), a “stabilizing destabilizing amorous experience” (Kristeva 1983/1987, p. 15), the chora that restarts the self. In the working through and working out of what arises in the “desire noise” (p. 15) of free association within the transference love, the work of anamnesis can begin—and possibly a psychic life rebuilt. The work of anamnesis, of remembering, is done, not so much for the sake of uncovering the truth as for rediscovering the imaginary and recuperating the “innovative capacity” (p. 15) to transform trauma and live:
We are alive because we have a psychic life. The psychic life is that interior space, that deep down inside that permits us to take in attacks from both within and without—that is to say, physiological and biological traumas, but also political and social aggressions. The imaginary metabolizes, transforms, sublimates, and works these attacks: it supports us as living (Kristeva 1998a, p. 107, quoted in Oliver 1997, p. 73).
Note 12: Kristeva's theory of language is based on a Freudian model of language with "its emphasis on the presence of the body at all levels of rationalization" (Gambaudo 2007, p. 18). According to Keltner (2011), "For Kristeva, Freudian psychoanalysis is the only theoretical discourse that takes as its task an analysis of the threshold of the speaking being" (p. 28). In Kristeva's (1974/1984) estimation, philosophies of language "are nothing more than the thoughts of archivists, archaeologists, and necrophiliacs" (p. 13). Missing is the body and a consideration of how desires and drives are put into language. To illustrate the difference, consider Gellner's (1968) rather disparaging description of ordinary language philosophy (espoused, for example, by Austin, Wittgenstein, and Searle): "… the world is just what it seems (and as it seems to an unimaginative man about mid-morning), therefore, naturally language is but a set of activities in it. What else could it be? … language is found, on examination, to be but a set of tools for mundane … purposes …" (p. 23). Language is not a tool for Kristeva, nor is it a subject that can be studied independently from the speaking subject, as Chromsky's treatment of language suggests (Kristeva 1980). Rather, Kristeva's theory of language, encompassing as it does both the mundane and the imaginative (as it might flow from the pen of a poet late at night, to extend Gellner's analogy to Kristeva), is concerned with language as a process that issues directly from the body and its drives (the unconscious) and how these are linked to the symbol and produce the subject.
Note 13: Or Lacan's Imaginary. Although Kristeva's treatment of the symbolic resonates with Lacan's order of the symbolic, her notion of the semiotic was influenced more by Husserl’s philosophy than Lacan's orders of the real and the imaginary (Keltner 2011). For Lacan, the Symbolic refers to the social order and the law that legislates relations with others and the self. The real is material and inaccessible to language. The imaginary, which is pre-symbolic, yet structured by the symbolic, is related to the child's formation of the ego and its (mis)identification with caretakers (seeing himself as autonomous and whole when in fact he is dependent and fragmented). For Lacan and Freud, the child's union with the mother (imaginary order) is cut by the law and the threat of castration (the symbolic). In other words, he enters the symbolic order by separating from the mother. Kristeva's semiotic, although sharing some features of both the real and the imaginary, differs significantly. As Keltner explains, "[The semiotic] is excessive to language (like the real) and yet structured by it (like the imaginary). However, the semiotic is not characterized as inaccessible or as (completely) unsymbolizable" (Keltner 2011, p. 24). For a discussion on Husserl's influence on Kristeva's conception of the semiotic, see Keltner (2011).
Note 14: The semiotic expressions of the infant presupposes, according to Kristeva, "that the possibility of language exists either as a genetic program that allows the child to speak one day, so that the echolalias are stages before this possibility of speech, or as a social environment—the child is already in an environment where the parent speaks, his desire to speak already exists in the discourse of the parents, and so the echolalias appear in this environment. In short, there is an already there of language" (Guberman 1996, p. 21).
Note 15: The mirror stage, as Lechte and Margaroni (2004) note, is "the main paradigm for Lacan's split subject … in the course of which the human infant learns to recognize itself in its mirror image. Through its identification with the image … the infant is able to separate itself from its confusing experience of fragmentation and to bring its disparate body parts into a whole. If the Lacanian subject is split this is because, as Lacan emphasized, it can see itself where (based on experience it knows) it is not. The Lacanian subject, then, speaks (will learn how to speak) across a gap, the gap between ‘here' (the body-in-parts) and ‘there' (the illusionary whole)… By contrast, Kristeva's subject is split because semiotic motility erupts from within its speaking position, destabilizing and rendering it inhospitable to any ‘One'" (p. 26).
Note 16: This is what Freud calls the degree zero of identity, the primary identification (Kristeva 1994/1996). Gambaudo (2007) notes that whether speaking is genetically programmed or not, the ability to speak requires a societal impetus. She refers to famous cases of human beings raised by animals where the speaking function was not activated early on in the child's development (see, for instance, Malson 1972) and to the account of baby Tanya who learned to behave like a dog (barking, crawling, lapping) because her mother's primary attachment was to the family dog (Hamilton 1993). According to Gambaudo, Tonya followed a normal path of development. What was abnormal was her mother's desire for a canine relationship. She surmises that it doesn't matter what form the maternal interest takes, as long as it is not centered exclusively on the child, he will "develop some form of identity" (p. 117). This is what makes, for Kristeva (1997), the good-enough mother good, namely, what is not given in giving enough: "maybe the good-enough mother is the mother who has something else to love besides her child; it could be her work, her husband, her lovers, etc. She has to have another meaning in her life" (p. 334).
Note 17: That is to say a subjectivity constituted in the transformational process of the movement of communication from the body with its unconscious desires and drives to the symbol that represents it (Gambaudo 2007).
Note 18: Lechte (2004) claims that "nobody really consumes images: communication never really takes place" (p. 124).
Note 19: Kristeva writes, for example, "You are overwhelmed with images. They carry you away, they replace you, you are dreaming. The rapture of hallucination originates in the absence of boundaries between pleasure and reality, between truth and falsehood. The spectacle is life as a dream—we all want this. Do this ‘you' and this ‘we' exist? Your expression is standardized, your discourse becomes normalized. For that matter do you really have a discourse of your own? … before you can speak about your states of the soul, you drown them in the world of mass media" (Kristeva 1993/1995, p. 8).
Note 20: Kristeva (1997/2002) writes, "I can hear you asking: don't we inhabit a veritable paradise of fantasy today thanks to images in the media? Aren't we saturated with fantasies, stimulated to produce them and to become imaginary creators in turn? … We are inundated with images, some of which resonate with our fantasies and appease us but which, for lack of interpretive words, do not liberate us. Moreover, the stereotypy of those images deprives us of the possibility of creating our own imagery, our own imaginary scenarios [italics added]" (p. 67). She goes on to present the case of one of her patients, she calls Didier, whose ‘operative’ fantasies typify him rather than testify to an interiority. Although he was able to make works of art, they had no meaning, no connection for him as an artist.
Note 21: Boyne (1999) tells us that "Late modernity has encouraged us to simulate and stimulate our selves and shop for our identities in cults, through films and at chain fashion stores. As identities are constructed statement by statement, performance by performance, we are made and confronted by cut and paste, with citations impeccably and publically correct, and with discursive reaffirmations of sources providing guarantees of presence" (p. 212).
Note 22: Kristeva says that "In our reality of crisis, many believe they can ‘get out of it’ by subscribing to an ‘identity', preferably the most fundamentalist, the one that replaces individual questions with solutions for the mass, the clan. ‘I do not know who I am, but I belong with them'" (Kristeva 1996, translated Gambaudo 2007, p. 22). Our desire to be has thus been displaced by the desire to belong and "to adhere to a group, to an ideology, to a sect" (Pollock 1998, p. 8).
Note 23: Debord's (1967/1994) theory of the society of spectacle has assumed increasing importance in Kristeva's later work. Lechte (2004) remarks that "There are few works published since 1993 … where Kristeva does not make some reference to the society of the spectacle" (p. 117).
Note 24: As Oliver (1997) notes, "We live in a no-fault society in which crime has become a media-friendly spectacle, and government and social institutions normalize rather than prohibit" (p. 410). In The Sense and Non-sense of Revolt, Kristeva (1996/2000) asks, "if prohibition is obsolete, if values are losing steam, if power is elusive, if the spectacle unfolds relentlessly, if pornography is accepted and diffused everywhere, who can rebel? Against whom, against what?" (p. 28).
Note 25: In Time and Sense, Kristeva (1994/1996) describes how sublimation occurs when fantasies are articulated and the problems that arise when the analysand lacks the narrative capacity to tell his fantasies: "… sublimation takes place when the fantasy is put into words. If the analysand is not ever so slightly like a narrator, he is silenced. He occasionally causes gripping or commonplace signs to emanate from the nameless border of his unconscious, but he never tells his story [the narrative of subjectivity]. The analyst yields to this scenario by becoming bored or by playfully offering his own fantasies to the anaylsand. In other words, if transference and countertransference fail to make the analysand a narrator, the analysis breaks down and dies" (p. 327).