Kristeva, Julia (b. 1941)

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French linguist, psychoanalyst, literary theorist, and novelist.

Born in Sliven, Bulgaria, Julia Kristeva was educated by French nuns, studied linguistics, and worked as a journalist before going to Paris in 1966. While in Paris she finished her doctorate in linguistics at É cole des Hautes Études, where she worked with Lucien Goldmann, Roland Barthes, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. She also became involved in the influential journal Tel quel and began psychoanalytic training, which she finished in 1979. As of 2005, Kristeva is director of the Institute for the Study of Texts and Documents at the University of Paris VII. In 1997 she received one of France's highest honors, Chevalière de la légion d'honneur, for her thirty years of intellectual work, which has been translated into at least ten languages. In 2004 she received the prestigious Holberg Prize given by the Norwegian government. In addition to her work as a practicing psychoanalyst and her theoretical writings, Kristeva is a novelist.

Kristeva's writing is an intersection between philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and cultural and literary theory. She developed the science of what she calls "semanalysis," which is a combination of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and Ferdinand de Saussure's and Charles Peirce's semiology. With this new science, Kristeva challenges traditional psychoanalytic theory, linguistic theory, and philosophy. Taking up the question of "Why do we speak?" in all of its ambiguities, Kristeva addresses the issues of the relationship of meaning to language, the relationship of meaning to life, and the relationship of language to life, in revolutionary ways. One of her most important contributions to the philosophy of language and linguistics is her theory that all signification is composed of two elements, the symbolic and the semiotic. She associates the symbolic element with referential meaning; that is, the element of signification that sets up the structures by which symbols operate, specifically grammar. She associates the semiotic element with rhythms and tones that are meaningful parts of language and yet do not represent or signify something. Although her critics sometimes make the mistake of identifying her position with one element over the other, Kristeva insists on the dialectical relationship between the semiotic and symbolic.

In what remains one of her most influential books, La révolution du langage poétique (1974; Revolution in poetic language), Kristeva maintains that bodily drives are discharged through rhythms and tones. She continues this analysis of the relation between drives and language two decades later in Les nouvelles maladies de lâme (1993; New maladies of the soul), now illustrated by case studies from her analytic practice. Against philosophies of language that focus on the structure of language as a logical system that can be translated into computer code, Kristeva emphasizes the nonreferential or semiotic element of signification that cannot be symbolized. Her work suggests that while the symbolic element gives signification its meaning in the strict sense of reference, the semiotic element gives signification meaning in a broader sense.

In addition to her theory of meaning, particularly the symbolic-semiotic distinction, another of Kristeva's major contributions to contemporary theory is her notion of the abject. She introduces the theory of abjection in Pouvoirs de l'horreur (1980; Powers of horror), where she relies on anthropological research together with psychoanalysis. The abject is what is excluded in order to set up the clean and proper boundaries of the body, the subject, and society or nation; above all, it is ambiguity that must be excluded or prohibited so that identity can be stabilized. Bringing together Freud's analysis of the prohibition of incest with that of Lévi-Strauss, Kristeva suggests that ultimately the threatening ambiguity of the abject always comes back to the maternal body: the maternal body must be excluded in order to constitute and shore up both individual and social identity; but, like all repression, the abject maternal is bound to return. And its return can be transformative or even revolutionary. Kristeva's theory of the abject and abjection has had a significant impact on feminist theory across the disciplines, along with disciplines involving literature and art.

In the Le génie féminin trilogy (1999, 2000, 2002), Kristeva suggests that women, with their attention to the sensory realm, might provide an antidote for the meaninglessness that results from contemporary forms of nihilism. She argues that the genius of extraordinary women such as Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, and Colette help all women to see what is extraordinary in their own ordinary lives. Conversely, the genius of everyday life is women's genius, particularly the genius of mothers because in creating new human beings they are singular innovators, reinventing the child anew all the time. The impact of this new work is just now being felt across the humanities.

See alsoFeminism; Psychoanalysis; Semiotics .


Primary Sources

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York, 1984. Translation of La révolution du langage poétique.

——. The Portable Kristeva. Edited by Kelly Oliver. New York, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Beardsworth, Sara. Julia Kristeva: Psychoanalysis and Modernity. Albany, N.Y., 2004.

Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double Bind. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.

Kelly Oliver