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Poetry, Philosophy, Politics: Julia Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Winter School 2012

The philosophical discourse on aesthetics has a privileged place in 19th and 20th century European thought. Its roots are to be found in the refined speculations of German Idealism and in its fiery artistic companion – namely, Romanticism. But such speculation on art has, perhaps surprisingly, been elaborated in parallel with the philosophical discourse on politics: an early, a classic case is Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Such a suture of aesthetics and politics attains a point of incandescence in French ‘literary theory’ in the 1960’s and 1970’s. For Julia Kristeva – a key representative of this trend in thought – ‘the text is a practice that could be compared to political revolution: the one brings about in the subject what the other introduces into society’ [Kristeva 1984, p. 17]. But is art, and in particular art that plunges into language – that is, into the common linguistic fabric of our existence – a source of social renewal? Is it truly an instigator or agent of political revolution?

In this course, we will encounter an exemplary attempt at arguing for just such a suture of art and the political – namely, Kristeva’s monumental Revolution in Poetic Language. Her thesis is that some artistic practices in late-19th century European society instituted a radical change in the status of the ‘speaking subject’ and, in particular, in its relation to language. Since the latter represents, for her, the unsurpassable horizon of political life, the stage is set for a grand equation: that is, the equation of a revolution in language and a political revolution.

It is an enormous and engaging work of which, unfortunately, only the first third has ever been translated into English. The failure to translate the totality of the original French edition has hampered the ‘Anglo-American’ reception of Kristeva’s thought since its inception. Significantly, the fact that her close textual analyses of Mallarmé and Lautréamont are absent – not to mention the missing two-hundred page historical study of late-19th century France… – has meant that her key concepts are blunted. Thus, concepts such as the ‘semiotic’, the ‘symbolic’, the ‘thetic stage’, the ‘subject-in-process’, ‘signifiance’ ‘intertextuality’, ‘negativity’ and ‘rejection’ all regrettably appear as abstruse theoretical speculations rather than as tools to be put to work in a dialectical fashion.

In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva initially offers an account of language acquisition and the constitution of the ‘speaking subject’. She articulates this process via the concepts of the ‘semiotic’ and the ‘symbolic’, which she goes on to stretch into a dialectical theory of ideology and society.  But the shorter, English edition – in reproducing only the thin theoretical skeleton of original – renders her attempt at such an all-encompassing theory highly suspect. Indeed, despite opening with a denunciation of the idealism of linguistics, namely in its extraction of the ‘speaking subject’ from the socio-historical dialectic, Kristeva appears to not practice what she preaches: there is, admittedly, little attempt in the first third of the book – which is all that the English translation renders – to articulate her extraordinarily abstract account of the acquisition of language by the ‘speaking subject’ with the contingencies of history. Nevertheless, the full French edition more than compensates for this, as it ends with an extensive exploration of late-19th century French society in which Kristeva argues that conditions were ripe for the avant-garde textual practices of Mallarmé and Lautréamont to bear witness to a profound transformation in the ‘speaking subject’, the reverberations of which (so the argument goes) we are still registering.

Such a stunning thesis requires a dense philosophical and historical foundation. In fact, Kristeva’s resources accumulate in a truly astonishing array of references, including Althusser, Austin, Bakhtin, Barthes, Bataille, Benveniste, Chomsky, Deleuze, Derrida, Freud, Hegel, Husserl, Lacan, Lenin, Lévi-Strauss, Marx, Sartre, and Saussure. In particular, Kristeva sinks her teeth into Hegelian dialectics; Marxism; psychoanalysis (both Freudian and Lacanian); structural linguistics and semiotics; and finally the ‘post-structuralisms’ of Deleuze and Derrida. Indeed, in the full work, the reader finds a hoard of hidden treasures, including a striking confrontation with Derrida’s early work; an original re-working of the Marxist theory of ideology and of the State; a rich historical inquiry into 19th century French society – in particular into the changing status of religion, the family, and art – and, of course, engaging readings of monumental works of art such as those of Mallarmé and Lautréamont Furthermore, of significant interest is her re-reading of the Hegelian dialectic and its 'fourth term’ (‘negativity’) and her attempt to ground it in the Freudian theory of drives. On this point, mention must also be made of what is arguably a neglected masterpiece of Mallarmé scholarship and one of Kristeva’s main points of reference: Robert Greer Cohn’s L’Oeuvre de Mallarmé: Un Coup de Dès. Here, Cohn argues that Mallarmé himself takes a decisive step towards a post-Hegelian dialectic in his concept of ‘polypolarity’.

In this course, I will thus aim to present Kristeva’s work in a rigorous and charitable fashion. I will restore it to its intellectual context and to its totality by dealing with the neglected, full French version (of which I will present to students some short translations of my own). Most importantly, I will make explicit the many complex theoretical and philosophical roots that are often left implicit or obscured beneath her difficult prose. These will include:

  • Hegelian dialectics;
  • Marxism;
  • Psychoanalysis (of both Freud and Lacan);
  • Russian Formalism
  • Structuralism and Semiotics;
  • Deconstruction; and
  • Kristeva’s take on all of the above.

I hope to critically consider the following thesis: that language, as the unsurpassable horizon of our existence as ‘speaking subjects’, is destined to reproduce existing social relations – unless, of course, we attend to its ruptures and renewals in the art of the avant-garde. Thus, we will pose the following questions: Is art, and its inherent transgressions, an inspiration, expression, or source of social revolution? Or is it a ‘harmless bonus offered by a social order which uses its esotericism to expand, become flexible and thrive?’ [Kristeva 1984, p. 16]. While I will argue that, in the final analysis, the nature of knot that Kristeva ties between poetry, philosophy and politics is flawed, I will maintain that we still have much to learn from her efforts.

Outline of Lectures: (please note that the ‘readings’ are entirely optional; they are there simply to point students in the right direction).

Lecture One: Texts and Contexts:
In this first lecture, I will introduce what I will call French ‘literary theory’ of the 1950’s to the 1970’s and will aim to show how it significantly reshaped conceptions of the literary and philosophical text, of language, and of the human subject. We will get acquainted with the main ideas out of which Revolution in Poetic Language grew, including: structuralism and semiotics; Althusser’s interpretation of Marx; Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’; and finally Barthes’ work on culture more broadly. Of interest will also be the importance of May ’68, of the French artistic avant-garde, and finally of the journal Tel Quel, of which Kristeva was a highly active and visible member. I will introduce some of Kristeva’s exciting early work from Séméiôtiké and her intellectual project of ‘semanalysis’.

  • Althusser, L., For Marx.
  • Althusser, L., (et. al.) Reading Capital.
  • Barthes, R., Mythologies.
  • Kristeva, J., Séméiôtiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse.
  • Kristeva, J., Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art.
  • Lacan, J., ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason since Freud’, in the Ecrits.

Lecture Two: the sujet-en-procès
How does Kristeva conceive of the human subject? This is the question that this lecture will attempt to answer via a close reading of the first section of Revolution. We will zip past Plato, Husserl and Freud on our way to understanding the concepts of the chora and the semiotic; pass through the ‘mirror stage’ and ‘castration’ with Lacan; enlist the help of Lévi-Strauss to understand the symbolic; and finally turn to Kristeva’s own concepts of the genotext, the phenotext and signifiance. Next, we will attempt to grasp Kristeva’s complex re-reading of Hegel’s dialectic via the Freudian theory of drives. Ultimately, we will come to understand the Kristevan subject, the sujet-en-procès (translated as either subject-on-trial or subject-in-process).

  • Freud, S., The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • Freud, S., ‘Negation’, in the Standard Edition, Vol. 19.
  • Hegel, G. W. The Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Kristeva, J., Revolution in Poetic Language.
  • Lacan, J., ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in the Ecrits.
  • Lacan, J., ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason since Freud’, in the Ecrits.
  • Lévi-Strauss, C., Structural Anthropology.

Lecture Three: Derrida, Kristeva and Mallarmé
In her early writings, Kristeva makes a number of glowing references to the work of Jacques Derrida and his intellectual project of deconstruction: she sees the latter as ‘the most radical of all the various procedures that have tried, after Hegel, to push dialectical negativity further and elsewhere’ [Revolution, p. 140]. But Kristeva also articulates a serious critique of Derrida’s seemingly impenetrable intellectual armour, which has rarely been addressed by scholars. In this lecture, we will dive right into the debate. To do so, key Derridean quasi-concepts will be presented – archi-écriture, différance, the trace – and will be put under the Kristevan spotlight. In doing so, we will become better acquainted with the broad movement of thought that both Kristeva and Derrida belong to: namely, ‘post-structuralism’. But I will also return fire from a Derridean position and thus show some of the weaknesses of Kristeva’s approach. Their respective readings of Mallarmé will be used to articulate their differences.

  • Derrida, J., Voice and Phenomena
  • Derrida, J., Of Grammatology.
  • Derrida, J., Dissemination.
  • Derrida, J., ‘Différance’, in Margins of Philosophy.
  • Kristeva, J., Revolution in Poetic Language.

Lecture Four: the French avant-garde at the end of the 19th century:
In the fourth lecture, we will explore the first section of the French text that has not been translated into English. In it, Kristeva puts her concepts into practice in reading the extraordinary work of Mallarmé and Lautréamont. We will thus come to see the utility of her concepts, and ultimately to understand precisely what a revolution in poetic language is.

  • Kristeva, J., La révolution du langage Poétique: L’avant-garde à la fin du XIXème siècle: Lautréamont et Mallarmé.
  • Lautréamont, Maldoror and Poems.
  • Mallarmé, S., Collected Poems.
  • Mallarmé, S., Divagations.

Lecture Five: L’Etat et le Mystère
The final lecture will be devoted to a reading of the monumental, three-hundred page final section of Revolution, entitled L’Etat et le Mystère (‘The State and Mystery’), in which Kristeva shows how the literary texts she has studied are related to the turbulent socio-historical dialectic of their time: namely, the revolutionary – and reactionary – 19th century in France. We will attempt to evaluate what I take to be Kristeva’s two main theses in Revolution: firstly, that some artistic practices in late-19th century European society instituted a radical change in the status of the human subject; and secondly, that language, as the unsurpassable horizon of our existence as ‘speaking subjects’, is destined to reproduce existing social relations – unless, of course, we attend to its ruptures and renewals in the art of the avant-garde.

  • Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
  • Freud, S., Totem and Taboo.
  • Lenin, V., The State and Revolution.
  • Mallarmé, Divagations.
  • Marx, K., The German Ideology.
  • Marx, K., Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850

Who would be interested in this course? And how hard will it be?
The course will appeal to those with an interest in art (particularly poetry) and its relation to philosophy and politics, but also to those curious about ‘post-structuralism’ – in what is, perhaps, its most ‘linguistic’ and politically-charged incarnation – and Marxism, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and post-19th century French history. The difficulty of the course will be introductory to intermediate: that is, I will suppose no knowledge of Kristeva or related themes and traditions but will aim to lead students to an adequate point of comprehension of her difficult ideas.