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Julia Kristevas Works Feminist Theory English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3054 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Despite Julia Kristeva’s works often being considered belonging to feminist theory, her relation to feminism and feminist theory is one of great ambivalence. She is however, seen as one of the major French feminists, who are committed to the deeper analysis of the interrelations between language, perceived as phallocentric, and sexually specific types of subjectivity [1] . French feminists in general were committed to rejecting a specific movement in France that many of them thought merely replicated oppressive bourgeois logics and strategies of gaining power [2] . But before we analyze how Kristeva’s works fit into the feminist paradigm, it is important to contextualize her ideas and approaches to her work.

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In the 1960s and 1970s, Kristeva was one of the first people, along with other thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, to help formulate the idea of post-structuralism. Post-structuralism was a movement in response to structuralism, and was new in that it encompassed history, time, process, change and event. The idea stemmed from that of Hegel and Nietzsche, that the notion of the self as a unified rational being was an illusion unfavorable to life itself [3] . This was reflected in Kristeva’s works on how what we call ‘subjectivity’ is in fact an ongoing process, a continuous one that is never quite completed. Her works attempt to clarify the understanding of how subjectivity is formulated and how the subject who is already confronted with the ‘other’ within, might eventually come to terms with the ‘other’ in their midst [4] .

Kristeva herself describes her approach:

“My position was that mere structure was not sufficient to understand the world of meaning in literature and other human behaviors, two more elements were necessary: history and the speaking subject”. (Kuprel 2000)

What sets Kristeva apart is her attempt to animate the structure in place by taking into consideration what she calls ‘the speaking subject’ and its own unconscious experience plus how the pressures of other social structures come to influence it as well. These are powerful tools for understanding how language produces speaking beings within the realm of the process that a subject goes through. She identifies two concepts involved in the process of producing a speaking subject: the semiotic and the symbolic. These terms refer to that of signification (the symbolic) and that of subject formation (the semiotic). If the semiotic consists in fundamentally unstable drives and impulses circulating throughout the child’s body, there are strategic moments in the child’s life when the unstable semiotic is unified to provide a structure, namely the symbolic [5] . This shows Kristeva’s view of the subject as a divided subject between the semiotic and the symbolic [6] , a psychoanalytical approach, one of seminal importance to her works. However, this approach has been seen as problematic since her use of use of Lacanian and Freudian as well as Kleinian frameworks presuppose various phallocentric statements such as the correlation of femininity and the maternal with castration [7] . But it was through psychoanalysis that Kristeva thought to educate herself about “the only continent we had never left: that of internal experience” [8] .

In the 1980s and 1990s several Anglo-American feminist philosophers criticized Kristeva’s work because of her supposedly anti-feminist tone due to her adherence to psychoanalytic theory. This was due to the fact that feminist theory in England and America addressed the political, cultural, and sociological practices and institutions that marginalized or oppressed women [9] . Feminists in France had a different approach; they focused instead on what we might call the metaphysical suppositions that underlie sexist institutions and practices [10] . Kristeva sees femininity, then, not as a fixed sexuality specific to women, but as a pre-conceptual psychic position through a chronological stage of experience preserved in the unconscious as a site of marginality to the Symbolic [11] . Kristeva analyzes the difference in how men and women are constituted and in the way that we are shaped in the symbolic realm. Woman is a metaphysical term, and masculinity and femininity are not binary oppositions, but coexist in each individual.

Concern among many feminists is that in Kristeva’s philosophy there is too much emphasis on the maternal and motherhood in women and that she is powerless to change a male-driven symbolic order through her psychoanalytical approach. However, the focus on the maternal in Kristeva’s analysis provides a framework for examining the contributions of women, femininity and female specificity to symbolic structure [12] .

Maternity is the most central and important object of Kristeva’s analysis of the socio-symbolic signifying order since the foundation of all social and signifying relations lie within maternity. The maternal body for Kristeva embodies both a space and a series of functions and processes, a process without a subject [13] . The maternal body operates between nature and culture, and between biology and sociology. Neither the mother nor fetus is a unified subject since the maternal body is a subject-in-process [14] . Pregnancy allows for the identification with an ‘other’ since pregnancy not only identifies a woman with her own mother, but also requires a new identity with the fetus.

Feminists have critiqued Kristeva’s glorification of maternity and motherhood arguing that she either essentializes women by idealizing the maternal, which reinstitutes cultural stereotypes and effaces the bodies and differences of real women [15] . Despite these criticisms, she believes her position is the logical conclusion to a new feminist tradition, especially with her focus on motherhood and the maternal body, a way for women to feel free to have children and create culture, to be of the body and the mind [16] . Kristeva’s philosophy involves the metaphysics behind a process rather than substance and can therefore be seen as incompatible with essentialism and can still be seen as making a contribution to feminist theory. By looking closer at two of her works, ‘Stabat Mater’ and ‘Women’s Time’ we see that Kristeva’s approach has elements of ‘feminist theory’ but that she differs in her approach to how she perceives feminism as a movement. Her perception of motherhood in both works shows her commitment to feminist issues, but she is difficult to place in feminist terms.

‘Stabat Mater’

‘Stabat Mater’ was published in the literary avant-garde magazine Tel Quel in the winter of 1977. Stabat Mater is a Latin hymn that begins with the worlds ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’: stood the mother full of grief. Written in two separate columns, Kristeva describes her own experience of motherhood and the birth of her son in the one column, and in the other she explains the need to understand maternity. She suggests that currently the only way available for women to reestablish their identities with the maternal body is through becoming mothers themselves [17] . This is true since during pregnancy the distinction between self and other becomes blurred and a new identity is created in the process through the identification with the fetal ‘other’.

According to Kristeva, motherhood is a paramount experience in the signifying process of sexual subjectivity. She rejects Freud’s account of motherhood as either an attempt to satisfy penis envy or a reactivated anal drive and says that it is merely a masculine fantasy [18] . Instead it is language acquisitions and socialization that have their foundations in the maternal function prior to the law of the father, which is the contrary to the idea of traditional psychoanalysis [19] .

She also makes religious references to the Virgin Mary, and despite Christianity addressing the move from nature to culture in the maternal body with the symbol of the Virgin Mary, Kristeva suggests that the image of the Virgin does not provide an adequate model of maternity; with the Virgin, the maternal body is reduced to silence [20] . She goes on to suggest that we need an image of maternity that can create a social relationship that gives women a new identity where they don’t feel the need to have to choose between a career and motherhood, but can have both.

Contrary to what feminist critics believe, Kristeva does not equate women’s identity with motherhood, instead she highlights the importance that it can have in shaping the subject and also in creating an identity for women. Feminism in Kristeva’s philosophy could be seen as an attempt to resist essentialism. In this sense, a woman is not identified with the semiotic; instead feminists can use the semiotic strategically to signify a sexual difference in which contingency, history, and transformation occur [21] . It is in ‘Stabat Mater’ that Kristeva’s contribution to feminist theory becomes evident, however, in another work of hers, ‘Women’s Time’ her difficult relationship with feminism as a movement becomes apparent.

‘Women’s Time’

‘Women’s Time’ was originally published in 1979 as ‘Les Temps des femmes’ in 34/44: Cahiers de recherché de sciences des texts et documents, no. 5. A slightly updated version of ‘Le Temps des femmes’ was later reprinted in Nouvelles maladies de l’âme in 1993. In this essay Kristeva analyzes different tendencies in the women’s movement and in feminist theory, primarily in that of Western Europe and also in the United States and Eastern Europe. Kristeva argues in ‘Women’s Time’ that feminism, like Marxism, may become trapped in a logic of power and ‘counter-power’, and that feminism can become centralized just like the universalizing discourses it opposes [22] . Kristeva, like many post-modernists, has become very uncertain about the likelihood of large-scale political movements leading to sustainable institutional change. She emphasized in a 1989 interview the need to look at individuals instead:

“We must try to be the most concrete-I would even say microscopic-that we can. To work at the level of individuals…we must not try to propose global models.” [23] 

Kristeva has noted two distinct paths that feminist movements in the past have followed: one is to try and infiltrate the social order and the second is to try and defeat it. She distinguishes between three generations of feminism.

The first generation of feminism is one that is prior to 1968, whereby women sought all the same rights and prerogatives that men had and tried to identify with the existing order, but instead of wanting to change the existing order they wanted to join it. The second generation was that after 1968, where they began to understand the structure. They turned to psychoanalytic theory to gain insight into the symbolic order founded upon a castration of anxiety or fear and focused closely on difference often simply by reevaluating what the old system had undermined. This meant a return to women’s archaic and mythic memory as upholders of the species. However, this presented a dangerous problem: the revolt against the established is dangerous since sometimes ‘by fighting evil, we reproduce it, this time at the core of the social bond-the bond between men and women.’ [24] 

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Kristeva identifies herself with the third generation of feminists who challenge the idea of one unified identity in general and the idea of man and woman in particular. The third generation will need to recognize that the psychosymbolic structure is based upon a metaphysical identity where one sex is placed against the other. We need to internalize this structure and see ourselves as responsible for the identity within the sociosymbolic contract, that we are at ‘once the attacker and the victim, the same and the other’ [25] . It will look for ways to bring together women’s multiple desires of being able to have children and careers. None of the previous generations had a way for women to see themselves as both reproducers of the species and producers of culture [26] . In the end, the third generation is about addressing the issues of the sociosymbolic structure, by looking internally at ourselves as individuals.

From her two essays ‘Stabat Mater’ and ‘Women’s Time’, one can see that Kristeva’s works can be considered as part of ‘feminist theory’ since she focuses on the role of the maternal in women’s identity and formation of structure. However, she does not seem to share the general recognition of women’s oppressed social positions and the need to transform existing models of sexual roles, which is why her stance on feminism can be seen as ambivalent. She addresses feminist theory and issues, but goes beyond it in her critical approach by searching for a universal answer. She is critical of the movement behind feminism and emphasizes the need for a movement of individuals, and not of the masses.

She expressed this thought in an interview with Elaine Hoffman Baruch in Paris in 1980:

“Unes Femmes: what I meant by that is that there is a community of women, but what seemed to me important is that this community should be made of particularities and that it not be a uniform mass [27] “.

Also, in an interview with Rosalind Coward at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1984:

“Political struggles for people that are exploited will continue they have to continue, but they will continue perhaps better if the main concern remains the individuality and the particularity of the person [28] “

One could conclude that although Kristeva has a complicated relationship to feminist thought, she is in fact concerned with improving women’s situation. Her works address important women’s’ issues within the framework of feminist theory, and gives important perspective into what constitutes feminism and its future. Kristeva’s “feminine” is, in a sense, the glue that has held our history (or holds any system) together by looking deep into the structure of specific types of sexual subjectivity [29] . It is possible to recognize the feminist elements of her work, but simultaneously vital to underline her ambiguous relationship with feminism itself.


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