Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"The Otherness in Ourselves – A Review of Julia Kristeva: Live Theory" by Anna Kérchy

Anna Kérchy is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. She has a PhD in Literature from Szeged University and a DEA in Semiology from Université Paris 7. Email:

Julia Kristeva: Live Theory
John Lechte and Maria Margaroni
London, New York: Continuum, 2004
182 pp.
ISBN: 0-8264-6355-X
ISBN: 0-8264-6356-8


“Intellectual Samourai,” “Bulgarian bulldozer,” fascinating” étrangère.” Far from pure fictionalization, these epithets referring to Julia Kristeva in her autobiographically inspired novel Les Samourais (Paris: Gallimard, 1990) seem indeed very pertinent to describe one of the most remarkable and influential thinkers of contemporary, psychoanalytically informed, post-structuralist cultural criticism. Kristeva has been renown for contributing to the major revolutionary theoretical shifts and the challenging of academic establishments and canons during the 1960s and 1970s. By now also esteemed for her work as a practicing psychoanalyst, she is acknowledged for devising new synthesizing modes of thought to study the dynamic process of identity formation, the constitutive limits and preverbal undersides of linguistic signification, the disabling and empowering aspects of gender difference, as well as the need for a political-ethical solidarity. As a 2006 interview in The Guardian suggests, she has earned the label “fashionable critic” by virtue of her ideas of “the semiotic, “ “abjection” or “intertextuality”—complex theoretical concepts, occasionally (mis)treated as household terms, which indubitably provide plenty of food for thought for fruitful debates among lay or professional critics of contemporary culture.

Julia Kristeva: Live Theory undertakes a Deleuze-Guattarian project by multiplying the authorial voice and producing a polyphonic, multifocal text. Two analytical stances, John Lechte’s and Maria Margaroni’s “legion” exchange each other in five chapters examining the Kristevian oeuvre from the 1970s to the present, to be in the end complemented by Kristeva’s own words, recorded during an interview in two sessions in her office at University Paris 7 Denis Diderot in 2002 and 2003. This critical attitude that renounces a single author’s ultimate authority and rather opts for an analytical position open to alternative approaches—welcoming the potential destabilizations, re-positionings and re-writings they might generate—perfectly suits the complex Kristevian theory of the “speaking subject in process/on trial,” distinguished by the dynamics of complementary incompatibles (eg. semiotic/symbolic, abject/subject) and the invasion of the homogenized (self)same by the heterogeneous other—exciting ambiguities the study ventures to discuss.

Both contributors are experts of the field discussed in the volume. John Lechte, Associate Professor of Sociology at Macquarie University, Australia is one of the most accomplished interdisciplinary thinkers today. A former PhD student of Kristeva himself, he is the author of an excellent book-length survey of Kristeva’s work (Julia Kristeva. Routledge, 1990), co-author of After the Revolution: On Kristeva (Artspace, 1998) (with Mary Zournazi), co-editor of a collection of in-depth critical assessments in The Kristeva Critical Reader (Edinburgh UP, 2003), and writer of the numerously republished, vital reference work Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Semiotics to Postmodernity (subtitled in revised, extended editions From Abjection to Zeno’s Paradox (2004) and From Structuralism to Post-Humanism (2008)), and most recently of Genealogy and Ontology of the Western Image and Its Digital Future (Routledge, 2012). Maria Margaroni, Associate Professor in Literary and Cultural Theory at the University of Cyprus, published numerous essays and book chapters on Kristeva, and co-edited (with Effie Yiannopoulou) Metaphoricity and the Politics of Mobility (Rodopi 2006). Her monograph Julia Kristeva’s Faith in the Political is under contract with Other Press, N.Y.

Julia Kristeva: Live Theory is a part of the Live Theory series that aims to present guidebooks for students with concise and accessible introductions to the works of the most significant contemporary cultural theorists, offering new insights into the central themes of their thought, along with comprehensive and stimulating accounts of their philosophies. Each volume includes a new interview with the key-theoretician featured. So far, Continuum has published a volume on Alain Badiou (by Oliver Feltham), Donna Haraway (by Joseph Schneider), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (by Mark Sanders), Hélène Cixous (by Susan Sellers and Ian Blyth), Jean Baudrillard (by Paul Hegarty), Jacques Derrida (by James K.A. Smith), Judith Butler (by Vicki Kirby), and Slavoj Žižek (by Rex Butler) within the series.

The volume on Kristeva brings the series’ project into full realization: the study tackles her most challenging ideas, yet explains key concepts (the “chora” and the “semiotic,” “Oedipus,” “abjection,” “violence,” “love” and “depression,” “revolt” and the “female genius”) clearly, while it never fails to set the philosophical, psychological, ethical dilemmas problematized, along with Kristeva’s very intellectual development in a historical, cultural, political context.

The text provides a lucid and concise overview of Kristeva’s work, albeit demanding readers might remain dissatisfied upon two points. Firstly, the authors seem reluctant to critically problematize the rather perplexing—if not self-contradictory—Kristevian chronology of “abjection,” “subject-formation,” “symbolization,” and “imaginary/symbolic fatherhood.” Abjection is neatly defined as the troubled, nauseous reaction experienced on the re-emergence of our repressed, threatening/tempting materiality (like when facing a human corpse’s dead matter or in a more banal manner, our daily faecal matter), or disturbing us at public sights/sites of communally traumatic historical horrors (as with the Auschwitz concentration camps). However, even if abjection is associated with the breakdown of meaning and socialized self within the symbolic order, yet it is also all too easily related to primary processes and the preverbal, pre-symbolic, Imaginary Father. Secondly, despite Kristeva’s obvious unwillingness to identify herself as a militant feminist, I believe that a more detailed analysis of her considerable influence on contemporary feminism, women’s and gender studies could have further enriched the colourful portrait of this versatile theoretician and her oeuvre.

Nevertheless, the study is indubitably highly stimulating. Yet I am not fully convinced whether the guidebook’s adequately designed to initiate absolute newcomers to the field, or to enable non-specialists beginners to fully grasp Kristeva’s intellectual work—as the publisher intends it to be. Due to the thorough contextualization and the numerous intertextual references—especially in parts like the fifth chapter by Lechte, meticulously comparing Kristeva’s thought with Levinas’s—the guide functions as an advanced introduction, a sophisticated study surely to be enjoyed by students and scholars already somewhat familiar with the major theories of twentieth century culture, (ranging from ideas of Freud or Lacan, to Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, to Debord or Foucault), and aware of philosophical rhetorics in general and post-structuralist discourse in particular.

However, the rhizomatic connections the study traces to Kristeva’s intellectual predecessors and inspiring traditions help readers to recognise the theoretical sources feeding the Kristevian thought, and highlight the original qualities and creative powers of her work. Moreover, in a highly thought-provoking manner, the study’s authors elaborate on metaphors and myths to illuminate Kristeva’s theory occasionally criticized for its elitist “esotericism,” supposedly resulting from its metaphorical poeticity and intellectually charged quality. Thus, besides rendering the text more challenging than a basic introductory guide, the interdisciplinary links and allusions are likely to arouse the curiosity of researchers of literature, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and gender studies alike.

Each chapter concentrates on one of the main themes in Kristeva’s work, the first two present perspectives of Margaroni, and the remaining three discuss central themes selected by Lechte.

Chapter one, “The Semiotic Revolution: Lost Causes, Uncomfortable Remainders, Binding Futures” focuses on Kristeva’s first seminal work, initiallysubmitted as her doctoral dissertation. Revolution in Poetic Language grounds her dynamic understanding of the subject and signification as a discursively-ideologically constituted yet materially invested, embodied, thus inherently unstable, self-destabilising, psychic “process” endowed with the potential of a revolutionary political agency. Margaroni introduces highly inventive metaphors to stress the significance of Kristeva’s theoretization of an antagonistic (yet non-oppositional), materialist (but non-idealist), non-teleological dialectic which fuels her conception of the speaking subject coming into being at “the juncture between the corporeal, the linguistic and the social.” In one of Margaroni’s memorable passages, Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark serves to illustrate “the expending of labour in the factory of language,” the convergence between the factory and the theatre, the world of labour and the world of representation. The way in which the automated movements of factory workers take on the effortless grace of dancers in the movie, and how the monotonous machine noise transforms into melodious music, resonated by the half-blind, amateur, immigrant actress’ desire, models how the space of signification, language itself can be re-imagined as a factory where the materiality of individual sounds, rhythms, repetitive drive-discharges cannot be excluded from conscious, systemic, socially governed meaning-production; or how the free, incalculable, timeless other time of Bataille’s “non-productive expenditure” invades the cost-effective, productive time of the factory; and the way the infantile experience of the feminine-maternal and the pre-Oedipal, fragmented body’s corporeal rhythm punctures and punctuates the conventionally linear, referential symbolic language. Margaroni lucidly explains Kristeva’s politics and aesthetics at the time of writing, tracing her relations to the theoretical frameworks dominant in the late 1960s’ France. The analysis of Kristeva’s challenging the traditional Marxist materialist dialectics and the comparison of the Kristevian Semiotic with the Lacanian Real are particularly instructive (the “real” is fundamentally unknowable and resists mediation, while the “semiotic’s drives and energy flows leave their traces in symbolic language). The chapter finally attempts to re-evaluate the legacy of Kristeva’s 1974 semiotic revolution from a contemporary critical stance, hailing its “binding futures” by arguing that the questioning attitude towards established values and the permanent protest against increasingly homogenizing hegemonic powers shall foster a “practice of politics as devotion, care, or attentiveness” towards others, respectful of the singularity of human lives, while establishing solidary new bonds.

Chapter two, “The Trial of the Third: Kristeva’s Oedipus and the Crisis of Identification” complements the first chapter’s in-depth analysis of Kristeva’s “semiotic” by an examination of her notion of the “symbolic,” and a study of her revisiting of the Oedipus complex. An introductory overview of Lacan’s and Freud’s version of the Oedipal scenario clearly reveals the breaking points between Kristeva and her predecessors: her emphasis on the neglected debt to the mother in the production of post-Oedipal subjectivity, and the role of the maternally connoted jouissance, the heterogeneity of drives and the pre/trans-linguistic in identity- and meaning-formation. Margaroni cleverly weaves together the different threads running through the Kristevian theoretical corpus that make up what she calls the “Revolution of the Third,” signifying a renewed interest in Oedipus and an effort to reclaim the value of the mistrusted paternal function, a determination to remain the “Father’s daughter.” Margaroni (dis)entangles parts of the same web, touching upon the pre-symbolic, loving “Imaginary Father” in Tales of Love (1987), the re-conceptualization of castration outside the paradigm of lack in New Maladies of the Soul (1995) and Intimate Revolt (2002), the return to Freud’s dark, maternal continent in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt (2000), and the discovery of an alternative paternal space enabling a questioning voice and a non-censoring, non-evaluative gaze which witness to “share” in The Old Man and the Wolves (1994). Kristeva rather pessimistically believes that the postmodern crisis of the paternal function, the decline of the Oedipal paradigm (the subject’s inability/unwillingness to invest in the Father qua Superego, Law, the Great Signifier or the Phallus) coincides with an ultimate identity-crisis resulting in a loss of belief in communal narratives, an inability to feel guilt or responsibility, and a fatal immersion into a commodifying, amnesiac society of spectacle that culminates in the subject’s incapacity to elaborate an inner life and to communicate it. The crisis in the symbolic Institution, the order of symbolic fictions structuring our experience of reality leads to the new dependency on the imaginary simulacra, a violence exercised on the level of the Real that is more debilitating than the prior dependence on patriarchal symbolic authority. Kristeva hails an alternative paternal function, enacted by the individual prehistory’s archaic Imaginary Father that supports the child against the emptiness resulting from its experience of abjection, provides a site of primary identification preparing the ground for the subsequent identification with the post-Oedipal symbolic Father, and marks the beginning of thirdness in the development of the speaking being. Yet, this Imaginary Father, preceding the Name and the Symbolic—unlike the forbidding, perilous oedipal father of the law to succeed—proves to be a loving third party that undermines the opposition between the imaginary and the symbolic, the maternal and the paternal. More Orpheus-like than Oedipal, it unites symbolic and drive-related love and introduces a new ethics. Both a support and a separable third, the Imaginary Father invites us to rethink identification beyond the desire for analogy (ego=ideal) and exchange (sign for a soma, the father for the mother), and to consider a savage bond grounded on a faith in the sacred and on a new memory of the word. Finally, Margaroni highlights in an inventive and impressive manner how Kristeva’s reconceptualization of the problem of castration can be related to the complete (Apollodorian version of the) question of the Sphinx addressed to Oedipus: “What has one voice, and is four-footed, two-footed and three-footed?” Oedipus’ hubris resides in his reluctance to acknowledge his own split nature as speaking subject, and to acknowledge the materiality of the signifier (foregrounded by the Sphinx’s separation of man and his voice), the materiality of a name embodied in the inherently double voice of the hybrid Sphinx associated with an essentially maternal relatedness based on the incorporation of the other. The Sphinx speaks the discourse of absolute knowledge but in a singing voice (and thus recalls that semiotic rhythm vibrates behind symbolic words). For Kristeva, the revolt of Oedipus signifies the transgression of paternal prohibition and the return to the archaic, the timelessness of the drive. Therefore, the castration and liminality emerging with Oedipus teaches us a new ethics built on the ability to become attentive to the question addressed to us by the position of the Third.

Chapter three, “Love and Death by Any Other Name… (On Love and Melancholia)” examines how the issues discussed in Kristeva’s earlier works, such as Tales of Love and Black Sun (1989) re-emerge in her most recent writings, namely the trilogy on the Feminine Genius, and especially Kristeva’s biography of Colette. Lechte provides an inspiring presentation of Kristeva’s existential, non-metaphysical and non-ontological conception of love, particularly in its relation to melancholia interpreted as a consequence of the subject’s denial of what makes love possible (identification with an ideal love object and the renewing power of language). Elaborating on Luhmann’s historical approach to passion as a deviation from social convention and Aristotle’s concept of metaphor, Lechte argues that love for Kristeva is primarily an “enactment,” a “Being-in-action,” and—as Colette’s work demonstrates—of an essentially imaginary nature, and lived like an infinite process of rebirth, keeping melancholia at bay. Love functions as the embodiment of an open system where the contact with the other person, the fusion with the lover’s difference enhances the individual’s psychic transformation, a dissolution leading to an enriching heterogenization of the self, and the birth of self-referentiality, a rhetorical revelation, a blooming of language resulting from the crystallization of love and giving rise to an art of loving, or naming. We can find solace for our original melancholy in love, faith, music, the word (as a vehicle of affect and not just of linguistic signification) and art. The therapeutic potentials of artistic activity are praised as a means of overcoming, through the pursuit of sublimation, the melancholia and depression increasingly disabling the Western world. Sublimation is based on transient beauty, a symbolic substitute bringing the lost object back for fleeting flashes in an ephemeral a joy in signs, which resists death by enabling an experience of death. Melancholia—like love—is articulated in the region of the semiotic, of primary processes and identification, yet—unlike the lover—the melancholic fails to separate from the mother, to identify with a loving self, to inscribe the affect in the symbolic, to have faith in language: but instead lives immobilized, self-enclosed in the condition of silent suffering. The chapter concludes with scrutinizing the question why Kristeva’s privileges the Freudian analytical framework in her theorising the relation of melancholia and love, and their potential impact on existing social relations. Lechte equally highlights the limits (danger of conceiving the Oedipal triad as a priori principle) and potentials (a dialectical theory of the microdynamics of the subject inscribed in social macrocosm) of Kristeva’s oeuvre.

Chapter four, “Violence, Ethics and Transcendence: Kristeva and Levinas” draws a comparative interface of Levinas’ and Kristeva’s thought to shed a new light on twenty-two central philosophical themes addressed in different ways (including terms like “desire,” “identity, “ “violence,” “difference,” “infinity,” “exile,” “sacred,” “signification” or “the Other”). The aim is to argue that the idea of an ethics is seriously embedded in the fabric of Kristeva’s thinking about art and society. According to Lechte’s thought-provoking argumentation, Levinas emphasizes an entirely transcendent ethics of the Other, stressing infinity, difference and transcendence as the other dimension of human existence and outlining a sidelined, decentred world of Being, while Kristeva’s much more explicit materialism emphasizes the central role of violence and conflict, of a “dynamic negativity” at the origin of society, language and the constitution of the “always-already” emerging subject inherently “in process/on trial.” In Kristeva, on the one hand, “matricide,” the separation from the mother is the precondition of the formation of a language which attempts in vain to substitute via symbolization the lost object (the maternal body momentarily recuperable in the drive discharges of language’s semiotic level), yet guarantees the basis for the formation of the social and the speaking subject through the access to a communal sign system (home of negation at a symbolic level). On the other hand, conforming to the primal horde myth, the original violence/sacrifice of the murder of the father is a prerequisite for the imposition of the One symbolic law forbidding murder in the name of the father. Thus, transgression is integrated in the Law, the semiotic and symbolic infiltrate each other, the heterogeneous other is integral to the One, the order of the same, the identity is always being disrupted by difference, and the discovery of strange alterity facilitates self-knowledge. Kristeva argues that revolt—which can be experienced through art, writing, being in love or in analysis—is essential for enriching the psychic space, for forming a responsible, relational self embracing the other, for giving the social structure a dynamic character, and potentially enacting a political and social change.

The fifth chapter, “The Imaginary and the Spectacle: Kristeva’s View” clarifies Kristeva’s views on the double nature of the imaginary in the context of what Guy Debord calls the postmodern “society of the spectacle,” a society of the image which is, paradoxically, a danger for the imaginary. In our “society of the spectacle” appearances take over from being, images from reality, the copy from the original, and commodified clichés over real desires, while human relations mediated by images are indirectly lived through representations. As Kristeva warns this may lead to an impoverishment of the capacity to fantasize, an incapacity to represent conflicts within ourselves, to have an interior life, to rebel and be free. With the spectacle, we are threatened with psychosomatic disorders referred to as “new maladies of the soul,” we risk becoming dead authors of our fantasies, perpetual actors unable to participate in feelings. As Lechte argues, we are more or less Hamlets in modern guise, potential melancholics, sceptics concerning the symbolic, sliding between two subject conditions in language, the naive, unreflective “actor” and the metalinguistic “impresario” position. The other mythical figure invoked is Narcissus who—unable to move out of the mirror-stage, immersed in the putative madness of the imaginary—shows that only by moving beyond the imaginary can we fully appreciate its qualities: we must open up the fixated, partial ego to continual transcendence, in other words, mature into the “impresario’s position.” Lechte invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s “lines of flight,” Husserl’s transcendental Ego and Georg Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers in order to illuminate Kristeva’s understanding of the relation between the imaginary (a combination of fixation and flight) and infinity (paradoxically constituted by a limit, and regarded as analogous with the realm of transcendence.) In a characteristically paradoxical Kristevian logic, the infinite can be related to poetic language which is a real infinity located within and at the same time discontinuous with descriptive language. In a similarly twisted manner—Lechte leaves unproblematized—for Kristeva the transcendental Ego comes closest to the Imaginary Father, the bearer of agape love, both actor and impresario, able to run counter to the society of spectacle due to facilitating primary identification instead of the secondary level of representation. For Kristeva, understanding the individual’s psychic life allows for knowing the determinants of social life. Thus, the future of our imaginary as a realm of infinite possibilities is equivalent to the future of revolt and social change.

The book closes with a new interview with Kristeva conducted by Lechte tackling the major stages of Kristeva’s intellectual trajectory, with a focus on issues as the dangers of media images spectacularizing the real as ready-made simulacra, technology killing the imagination, the after-life of powers of horror, the role of psychoanalysis in the era of globalisation and multiculturalism, and the significance of harmonizing singularity and community, of sharing and loving in the space of politics. Kristeva is defined as an analyst in exile of Freudian and Lacanian inspiration, involved in using analytical language, and moving towards synthetic processes of creativity and the sacred, due to her concern with drives and affect which underpin her concepts of the semiotic, the sign as “semeion,” dialogism, love as an open system, or revolt and art as constitutive of the intimacy of the subject. Kristeva is acclaimed for opening up the classical framework of psychoanalysis to literary criticism, for opening up language to the body, representation to drives, as well as stasis to uncertainty, marginality and the destabilization of limits which become a condition of creativity.

Julia Kristeva: Live Theory, an advanced introduction, offers a comprehensive account of Kristeva’s intellectual trajectory, a highly stimulating and clearly contextualized re-interpretation of her complex theory, and an inventive deconstruction of her key concepts, which will surely hold a wide appeal for scholars of cultural studies—especially those who are already somewhat familiar with the Kristevian thought, and in general for all those interested in gaining a better understanding of the subject and the social “in process/on trial.”