En être et ne pas être

About Julia Kristeva

Sarma 5 Nov 2002English

item doc

Contextual note
This lecture was held during B-Visible at Arts centre Vooruit in Ghent.


‘I’m not a feminist’. Asked for her opinion about sex and gender, the theorist Julia Kristeva firmly refuses to speak in terms of movement or group. She strongly insists on the necessary refusal of any theory or politics based on the belief in an absolute form of identity. In this lecture I will analyze her theory of language as a heterogeneous signifying process located in and between speaking subjects. I will demonstrate that Kristeva’s notions of the semiotic (the pre-oedipal, the ‘materiality’ of the symbolic: rhythm, timbre, gesture, …: also called the ‘feminine’) and the symbolic anticipate Judith Butlers’ Queer Theory. Both Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler argue that it is meaningless to talk about men and women in general terms, because identities are never fixed (Kristeva speaks about a ‘sujet-en-procès’). Instead of an exclusive emphasis on gender, Kristeva recommends an analysis of the different discourses (including sexuality and gender) that construct the individual. She makes a plea for an inscription of the semiotic, ‘feminine’, element in the symbolic order. This strengthening of the semiotic leads to a weakening of traditional gender divisions.

To the extent that Kristeva’s work is analyzed outside France, it is usually discussed in connection with so-called French Feminism or ‘écriture féminine’ (the Holy Trinity: Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva). But Kristeva’s theory is not a theory of femininity, and it is even less a theory of femaleness. It’s a theory of marginality and subversion, of strangeness. In ‘Etrangers à nous-mêmes’ she locates strangeness and its ‘synonyms’ - otherness, unconscious, difference, feminine - in ourselves. A confrontation with your own unconscious dark drives as the basis for a community based on difference and not on equality. In other words: look for the stranger in yourself.



In her attempt to theorize the relationship between language, subject and culture, the relationship between what Kristeva calls the semiotic and the symbolic is of crucial importance. She aims to articulate the balance between the semiotic and the symbolic in the subtlest way possible, at the linguistic, literary, psychoanalytical as well as societal level. Even though she applies this conceptual pair to a broad historical-cultural domain (Kristeva writes about literature, linguistics, history, philosophy, visual arts, politics and theology, and she is also a psychoanalyst and a novelist), we have to refer to the linguistic origins of her career in order to put things in perspective.



Soon after the Bulgarian linguist Julia Kristeva receives a scholarship and moves to Paris to study there, she gets in touch with contemporary celebrities such as Benveniste, Barthes and her later husband Phillippe Sollers, the founder of the avant-garde journal Tel Quel. Kristeva joins the Tel Que group and later also the group associated with L'Infini, Tel Quel's follow-up. In a structuralist climate, she pleads for a more dynamic structuralism, by emphasizing the heterogeneous tendencies that influence the text from without (Bakhtin's 'intertextuality' and 'dialogism') and by theorizing the role of the subject and its libidinal drives in the process of signification. While Kristeva's ‘semanalysis’, her semiotic model of analysis, goes against the Saussurean idea that language has a static, monolithic structure, it also disputes the Cartesian dream of an autonomous, atomistic subject. She no longer considers language as a fixed structure, but as a heterogeneous 'process' in which the 'speaking subject' plays a central role. Stressing the dynamic aspect, Kristeva replaces 'meaning' by 'meaning construction' ('sens' by 'signifiance') and 'sujet' by 'sujet-en-procès'. The latter denotes a split subject in an open system, a subject that keeps developing itself in an infinite process of becoming, a dynamic process between conscious and unconscious impulses, between within and without.

In order to come to grips with the process of signification she introduces the terms 'semiotic' and 'symbolic' in 'La révolution du langage poétique' (1974). The concepts are analogous with, but not identical to, Lacan's 'imaginary' and 'symbolic'. In this framework, the symbolic captures the conscious part of signification: the grammatical rules, the content of words. It is the semantic component of language, grounded in the oedipal phase, in which the subject is realized as a split subject: it receives an identity, but at the same time loses the unity and fullness of the pre-oedipal desire.

The semiotic refers to the underlying functions of language use: sound, color, rhythm, rime, intonation. It is the material, pre-oedipal character of language, without any semantic content. In order to get a clearer picture of what the semiotic could be, Kristeva investigated children's communication in a nursery and noticed that a child communicates with sounds, colors, rhythms and bodily experiences before it learns how to speak. The child is aware of a kind of musicality that is not yet connected to the meaning of words.

The semiotic and the symbolic are an inseparable pair. The semiotic 'chora' (i.e. a continuum of libindinal drives) must be broken up in order for meaning to be realized, but it remains at play in the symbolic order. While the semiotic is a precondition of the symbolic, the symbolic order provides the semiotic with a means of representation. In everyday communication between adults the semiotic functions are, however, largely suppressed and only pop up in hallucinations, dreams, psychoses, or in specific poetic texts.

It is especially these poetic texts that Kristeva studies (note that 'poetic' should not be taken in the sense of 'poetry', but as related to Jakobson's notion of 'poetic function'; also, with the term 'texts' Kristeva not only refers to literary texts, but also to political, economic, psychological etc. texts). By analyzing the surface structure of the text, the pheno-text (meaning in words), she intends to track down the semiotic, the underlying geno-text (processes of signification). How? By shedding light on the materiality of the text, which leads to an unravelling of the affect-laden genotext. Kristeva prefers a semanalysis of texts, rather than the use of drugs or psychosis because of the intermediary position of that poetic language. While the use of drugs and the psychosis ignore the symbolic order, poetic texts are linguistic and hence symbolic, but they are also poetic, implying opportunities for transgression. 'Polyphonic' writers that, according to her, succeed in testing the limits of language are, among others, the 19th century writers Lautréamont and Mallarmé, Joyce and the Walloon writer Sophie Podolski. The subject assumes a position in between normalcy and schizophrenia: the symbolic chains that have been realized through oedipalization, are not broken up as they are in schizophrenia, but they are ridiculed or transgressed to create new semiotic distributions.



Kristeva's theory is a product of her time: an entanglement of Lacanian psychoanalysis and poststructuralism on the one hand, and marxism on the other hand. This is where the ambiguity of her poetics finds its origin: on the one hand, she aims to develop a scientific model of analysis, which is expressed in difficult writing, an eclectic ensemble of insights from linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, philosophy and exact sciences; on the other hand, she also wants to promote a specific, highly revolutionary political ideal: she is convinced that language, subject and world are inseparable, which implies that every linguistic action is also a means to trigger change ('poésie est politique'). It follows that, as far as she is concerned, certain writers should remain marginal as long as the norms they undermine remain dominant in society. This explains her conviction that James Joyce is a marginal author, which is in sharp contrast with Joyce's reception in general.

Kristeva distinguishes three different historical periods or 'idéologèmes': 'symbole', 'signe' and 'paragramme'. The symbolic practice is rooted in pre-14th century Christian European society, when the symbol was used in myths and epics to suggest universal values (e.g., courage in 'La Chanson de Roland'). From the Renaissance period onwards, man takes God's place as the most important referent. This new ideology is represented in semantic practices that try to reflect reality: 'la litterature comme vraisemblable'. This is where the traditional novel belongs. For Kristeva, the most important 'idéologème' is that of the 'paragramme', which questions the veridical in the light of her conviction that there is also meaning without direct reference to reality. Polyphonic writers already herald this historical period, but according to Kristeva the dominant 'idéologème' still is the 'signe'. Also the reader/viewer is expected to behave differently. Polyphonic works are not illegible, the reader should read them differently: as a game with the different potential meanings of a text.


Psychological balance

Remarkably, in her first period Kristeva emphasizes texts that belong to the 'idéologème' of the 'paragramme', while in a later period she primarily opts for texts that rather fit that of the 'signe'. The conceptual pair 'semiotic' and 'symbolic' remains the basis of her analyses, but as opposed to her semanalytical approach, which emphasizes texts that unearth the semiotic, she now seems to stress the symbolic. In 'Etrangers à nous-mêmes', for instance, the reappraisal of the symbolic as a guarantee for the stability of our culture is expressed in her attention for the roots of our western culture. What are the possible causes of this shift?

A first reason is to be found in Kristeva's personal evolution. When she starts her psychoanalytical practice, she also begins to approach texts in her theoretical work from a psychoanalytical preoccupation with the individual. Her predilection for avant-garde texts makes room for a spell of extreme political activity (she flirts with Maoism in 'Des Chinoises, 1974)(1) only to scrutinize, from the eighties onwards, the structures of the subject that are characteristic of the times we live in: the abject in 'Pouvoirs de l'horreur' (1980), love in 'Histoires d'amour' (1985), depression in 'Soleil noir' (1987). These are followed by a series of books with ethical concerns and analyses of contemporary problems: immigration in 'Etrangers à nous-mêmes' (1988), or psychoanalysis as an antidote for the emptiness and loneliness in the present consumer society in 'Les nouvelles maladies de l'âme' (1993). Literature and art remain reference points, and provide a source of inspiration, an antidote for the unfolding theory. These days, she devotes most of her attention to the individual in case studies of specific writers: Proust, Aragon, Sartre, Barthes, Arendt, Klein, Colette.

A second reason for her focus on the symbolic is perhaps the evolution of society itself. In the sixties and seventies Kristeva attempts to break up rigid structures by emphasizing the semiotic. From the eighties onwards, when the 'anything goes' attitude becomes pervasive, the semiotic becomes predominant and Kristeva stresses the other pole to repair the psychological balance.

Her decision to emphasize the one or the other pole therefore depends on the condition of the subject in a certain society. Eventually, it is balance that she is concerned with: balance between the semiotic and the symbolic, between ethics and aesthetics, between male and female.

Kristeva's growing interest in the individual is also brought to the fore in the critical distance she keeps from everything that is even vaguely reminiscent of a group or a (political) movement, and, notably, also from the feminist movement.



Kristeva's attitude towards feminism can best be described as a tension between inspiration and irritation. Her work's idiosyncrasy lies in the unfailing synthesis of different sources (literature, art, philosophy, religion, politics, history, ...) This implies that her work is not amenable to categorization, but it also makes her vulnerable on all of these domains, when they are considered in isolation: her revolution is too aesthetic for Marxists, her perspective on women is too much influenced by the phallocentric psychoanalysis for feminists, ...

Kristeva does not call herself a feminist, but in the reception of her work - predominantly situated in the Anglo-Saxon world - she is mostly associated with feminism, more specifically with the French movement of the 'écriture féminine'. Julia Kristeva, together with Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, counts as one of the founders of this movement. Allegedly, all three of them are looking for a feminine language, a language that inscribes the female body into the text. This, however, is a quest in which Kristeva does not participate. She considers the quest for a female identity a naïve kind of romanticism. She is only interested in feminist issues when they form part of an enquiry into every identity.


Sexual differentiation

Even though her work is often appropriated and wrongly interpreted by feminists, it is not very surprising that her theories are used in the female fight for autonomy and the search for a specific female language and identity.

In the seventies, she wrote much on women and femininity and especially her tendency to refer to the semiotic as the 'feminine principle' has confused the feminist front. Kristeva advocates the unearthing of the semiotic in texts, and this is interpreted as a plea for feminization. But according to Kristeva the semiotic is female in the psychoanalytic sense. It does not concern the biological woman, but the female in man and woman, it addresses the pre-oedipal relation with the mother. The semiotic is feminine in the sense that it is primarily motherly, it is a kind of femininity that is present in both sexes. Kristeva raises the distinction between the sexes to a higher level and does not talk about sexual difference but about sexual differentiation: the other of the sex - the revolutionary potential - is both in men and women.


Creation, procreation, critical integration

On the political-societal level she attempts to view feminist issues in a broader perspective and tries to activate them in a fight for a change in western thinking: the thinking of identity is transformed into a decomposition of identities. Even though feminist movements are responsible for important realizations, they have either massively identified themselves with men (the first wave), or they have massively stressed the differences (the second wave). In both cases the desires of and the differences between women have been neglected. Moreover, both generations have ignored the integration of women time and symbolic order, which leads to either identification with phallic power or hysteria. Kristeva advocates a third generation of feminists, which consists of a mixture of the two previous ones: an insertion into history and, at the same time, a radical refusal of the restrictions that are imposed on the subject by the historical time. Moreover, the problems concerning differentiation are no longer conceived of en masse, but the identity of each woman is taken into account: she speaks about feminisms and women, because 'there are as many feminisms as women'.

Kristeva pleads for a reappraisal of motherhood and motherly love, of the pre-oedipal relationship between mother and child, but in this respect she hardly makes a distinction between men and women. She does admit that the introduction into the symbolic order is more radical for a heterosexual woman than for a man. A man can always come back to the feminine through the wife, the lover or the muse, but for the woman the mother also becomes a rival. The female identity oscillates between hate and love for the mother.

In sum, for Kristeva there are three types of attitude for women in contemporary society: reappraisal of procreation, creation (sublimation of the relationship with the mother through polyphonic works) and critical integration.

The most important criticism from feminists is that Kristeva denies the existence of the female by questioning identities. Indeed, Kristeva's theory is not very useful for concrete political action, but by deconstructing binary oppositions she avoids the trap of essentialism and investigates the fundamental premises that govern our society, the fundamental structure of western thinking and acting, so that long-term evolutions become possible.

Judith Butler advances this line of thought and questions the traditional construction of homosexual and lesbian identities as fixed, essential, transhistorical and unchangeable facts. As Butler recently argued in a lecture in Ghent, the danger is that a homosexual turns to the extreme right as soon as he has acquired his rights. Kristeva's and Butler's work is politically relevant because they question mechanisms of exclusion that are at the basis of society.



Kristeva positions the feminine as one of the images of marginality and alterity in western culture. After their introduction into society, man and woman's role is to diminish the difference between the sexes by rejecting the finite and the structural and by paying attention to the unsaid, the interrupting, the 'semiotic'. Following Freud, she argues that every subject is bisexual in principle: it contains in itself the symbolic order as well as its transgression(2).

In a wider perspective, Kristeva's theory therefore is not a theory of femininity and even less of women, but of marginality, subversion, strangeness and singularity. According to Kristeva the westerner has replaced Hamlet's question 'to be or not to be' by 'en être ou ne pas en être'. We all long to be part of a group, otherwise we think that we are not. By contrast, she chooses for the 'en être et ne pas en être', belonging to and at the same time not belonging to. Keeping a distance, being aware of our exteriority - of the chasm vis-à-vis the group - is the very condition of thinking.

Following Freud (in 'Das Unheimliche') Kristeva finds that we have to detect the strange - and its synonyms: the other, the feminine, the unconscious - in ourselves. If the stranger is inside myself, we are all strangers. Or, vice versa: if I am a stranger, there are no strangers.

It appears to be a rather simple ethic, but the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are capable of living with others, as others, without exclusion; whether we can accept new modalities of being different. This does not concern the capacity to think for someone else, but addresses the painful experience to be estranged from oneself (Rimbaud: 'je est un autre').

At the moment, Kristeva is applying her theory of the semiotic and the symbolic to the problematic construction of a European identity. She is writing a novel, 'Monstre à Byzance' (Balkan), about Europe's identity and crusades, with reference to the remark Bush made after 9/11 about the crusade of good against evil. It can be expected that she will now reappraise the symbolic, in order to maintain the balance between the semiotic and the symbolic . Up to now Kristeva has succeeded time and again in maintaining the balance between negativity and ethics, and in avoiding the lapse into perversion or conformity.



With her theory of the split subject and her attention for the inscription of the subject and the affect in discourse, Kristeva's theory is attractive for the (Anglo-Saxon) poststructuralist feminists of the nineties, as well as for 'queer studies(3).

As has been mentioned before, Judith Butler, just like Julia Kristeva, questions the basic premises of society, the rules that cause some 'bodies' to 'matter' and others not. She puts identity into question as well. But she advances beyond Kristeva by denouncing the heterosexual norm within feminism(4) and by viewing not only gender but also sex as a cultural phenomenon that suffers from our society's dualistic imperatives.

Some fragments in Butler's 'Bodies that matter' can be read as a translation of Kristeva's conceptual pair of the semiotic and the symbolic into her own terminology: when she addresses the materiality of language, which is derived of childlike body language, for instance, or when she discusses (a woman's) necessary loss to arrive at meaning, or the traces of the lost female material body in language. Also Butler bases herself on the psychoanalytical discourse, but she combines it with a theory of power along the lines of Foucault. Whereas Kristeva talks about an infinite process of becoming, Butler speaks of gender identity as a never-ending and unstable performance-in-process. While Kristeva proposes a critical integration of women into the symbolic order, Butler argues that the reiterative performance of well-known gender scripts constantly offers room for perversion and transformation.

Butler continues Kristeva's theory, radicalizes and criticizes it, as she does with many other theories. She moves one step further in the direction of a new kind of sexuality, in which being a man or a woman is just one of the many possibilities in a system of cross-fertilization of sexual positions.


post scriptum

Why do so many women who discuss femininity refuse to call themselves feminists? Julia Kristeva, Colette, Marguerite Duras, ... A remark by the brand-new chairwoman of the Belgian Society Of Female Managers: 'I refuse to speak in feminist terms, but below the surface people still differentiate between male and female managers'.


Is the term 'feminism' too loaded by its association with the first and the second feminist wave? Why can a term such as 'queer' evolve from a term of abuse against homosexuals to a positive, radically anti-normative notion, comprising a wide-ranging diversity of sexual identities and practices? Isn't feminism rather than a fight between man and woman, a fight against dualism and for a society free from dominance?


Notes on the text

(1)Recently, Kristeva has published the last part of the series 'Le génie féminin': a series in which the works and lives of Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette are analyzed. She herself considers this to be evidence for the fact that she still finds the feminist issues relevant, be it at the level of singular women. Moreover, she finds these women relevant not because they are women, but because they are geniuses. In the part on Colette she discusses Colette's gift to write about the female pleasure ('jouïssance'), about the emancipationist impact of her intimate revelations and about her bisexuality.

On the one hand, Kristeva argues that the undermining of the symbolic is more difficult for women because, due to motherhood, they are more ethical and harbor less negativity. On the other hand, it is also easier for women, precisely because of motherhood, since being pregnant offers the experience of the split subject, the other in myself. It is one of the many contradictions in Kristeva's work, which is essentially a work-in-progress.

(2)Or, paraphrasing what she said in a recently held lecture in Bruges: the misunderstanding between western and eastern Europe is due to, among other things, a difference in religious mentality.

(3)Compared to the sometimes elitist and high brow character of Kristeva's theories, queer studies are more straightforward in the selection of texts and the presentation of solutions.

(4)In a psycho-analytical tradition, the asymmetrical relation between the sexes is established in language prior to any given social configuration. The repudiation of the feminine is understood as what enables and structures the articulation of the symbolic. In Butlers view, we ought to rethink the relation between the symbolic and the social and to make the symbolic more dynamic.

About Katleen van Langendonck

Katleen Van Langendonck studied Germanic Languages in Leuven. She wrote a dissertation on Julia Kristeva’s ‘Soleil noir. Dépression et mélancolie’ and got a one year scholarship to attend Kristeva’s classes in Paris. She worked for five years at the theatre and dance department of deSingel, International Art Centre in Antwerp. At the moment she is a research assistant at the department of Theatre Studies of the University of Antwerp.


Select bibliography
- de Costa, denise, ‘Sprekende stiltes: een postmoderne lezing van het vrouwelijk schrift: Irigaray, Kristeva, Lyotard’, Kok Agora, kampen, 1989
- Lechte, John, ‘Julia Kristeva’, Routledge, London, New York, 1990
- Masschelein, Anneleen, ‘Julia Kristeva (°1941), in Baetens, Jan, Geldof, Koenraad (ed), ‘Franse literatuur na 1945. 3. Kritiek, theorie en essay’, Peeters, Leuven
- Moi, Toril (ed), ‘The Kristeva Reader’, Columbia University Press, 1986
- Oliver, Kelly (ed), ‘The Portable Kristeva’, Columbia University Press, 1997
- Oliver, Kelly, ‘Reading Kristeva. Unraveling the Double-bind, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indianapolis, 1993

Discussion afterwards

The discussion took place in Dutch and was transcribed by Anne De Smet and Flore Opsomer.
Aanwezigen: Katrien De Moor (UG), Steven Vandervelden, Wouter Hillaert, Aagje Swinnen, Geraldine Reymens, Anne De Smet, Flore Opsomer en anderen.
Centrale vraagstelling
Waarom vrouwen die over vrouwentheorie bezig zijn, weigeren zich feminist te noemen, zoals Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler… En hoe komt het dat het woord queer wel positief benaderd kan worden?
Reacties van aanwezigen
- Het begrip queer wordt in feite ook niet zo positief benaderd, blijft eerder beperkt ervaren als term. Bij het woord feminisme is het stigma van het woord heel groot en queer is geëvolueerd van een scheldwoord naar een soort van zelfidentificatie. Ik noem mezelf een queer feminist.
- Het woord feminisme omvat het woord vrouw en dat zorgt mogelijks voor een negatieve connotatie.
- Er is geen enkele student die zich feministe durft te noemen, ze associeren het teveel met dolle mina’s en behaverbranding…
- Het woord feminisme wordt door de twee voorafgaande golven te snel gelijk gesteld met gelijkheid - differentie, zelfs in de lezing krijgt het woord feminisme een heel geladen betekenis.
- Queer is deels schuldig aan de negatieve connotatie van de term feminisme.
- Is het dan wel een probleem als bepaalde schrijfsters die schrijven over vrouwen zich geen feministe willen noemen, is dit dan wel problematisch?
- Het is niet de inhoud, maar de term in se die problematisch is, kunnen we dan niet beter een nieuwe term uitvinden?
- Neen, het feminisme heeft geschiedenis en ik ben er trots op, het moet gewaardeerd worden… jonge meisjes hebben immers nood aan een rolmodel
- Studenten zijn achterdochtig ten aanzien van de term feminisme, het wordt geassocieerd met lesbische zaken.
- Als studenten dat zeggen, dan is het duidelijk dat de problematiek nog niet ver genoeg doorgedrongen is.
- Dergelijke gedachten/vooroordelen worden veelal uit kranten gehaald. Bijvoorbeeld de voorbije bijlage in De Morgen (vrouw en internet) – toch een krant die zich als progressief profileert – schetst een verkeerd beeld van de vrouw en het feminisme.
- Vrouwen die zich niet (willen) profileren als feminist, maar wel positief bijdragen tot de problematiek van het feminisme blijven zorgen voor het stigma van de term die negatief blijft.
- Queer studies is iets trendy om mee bezig te zijn. Bijvoorbeeld het feit dat Pierre Bourdieu nooit bezig was over het bestaan van vrouwen, maar nu het trendy is, denkt hij ‘laten we vlug een boekje schrijven dénonciation masculin. Het is ook typisch dat de queerathon B-Visible in Vooruit plaatsvindt: een trendy event waar ‘iedereen wel gezien wil worden’.
- De cartooniste van de figuur Cordelia, is zij feministe of niet? Haar antwoord hierop is: ‘mijn grote voorbeeld is Simone de Beauvoir, ik kan niet anders dan feministe zijn.’
- Kan je de term en de ermee gepaarde connotatie nog veranderen?
- Er is nog een hele lange weg af te leggen, we zitten in een slingerbeweging – het is nu een slechte periode – en toenadering van de verschillende disciplines kan efficiënt zijn.
- Waarom noemt Kristeva zichzelf geen feministe?
- Katleen van Langendonck: “Kristeva associeert de term met de twee vorige bewegingen. Ik heb haar geïnterviewd voor Radio 3 over ‘écriture féminine’ en de reactie van Kristeva daarop is: ‘Je ne veux pas parler de ça, je ne suis pas féministe’.”