Approaching the Unnameable
Julia Kristeva, who was born in Bulgaria in 1941 and emigrated to Paris in 1966, has become an important figure in the evolution of French poststructuralist thought. Associated with the journal Tel quel since its founding in 1970, she participated in that group’s complicated dialogues with Marxism and Maoism. Trained in psychoanalysis, she carries on her own practice as well as teaching both at the University of Paris VII and at Columbia University.1 She has published numerous books and articles in the areas of psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and linguistics.2
Kristeva occupies a unique position in the continually shifting and enormously lively French intellectual world. She is obviously in step with the focus on language and discourse that is the most salient common feature of contemporary philosophical advances. Discourse is the object of her attention, as she analyzes her psychotic, schizophrenic, or borderline patients, and distinguishes the particular placements within language of the narcissist, the “abject,” the voyeur, and other psychological formations and deformations. She also analyzes written texts, especially those of the avant-garde, whose writings share many characteristics with the discourse of her patients.
Kristeva is distinguished in the contemporary French discussion by her dual position as a psychoanalyst, deeply influenced by both Freud and Lacan, and as a feminist.3 The debates between feminist and psychoanalytic parties have raged for several years now. At this point, it is enough to say that Kristeva draws heavily on Lacanian theory while maintaining a critical distance from aspects of Lacan’s work which might seem to privilege maleness. She affirms the necessity of women’s full participation in the world, but values the critical perspective available to those in the margins, including women. She refuses to subscribe to definitions of “the feminine” or of “woman” that romanticize or substantialize these terms. I explore these issues at greater length in what follows, mentioning them here in a preliminary way to place Kristeva’s work in the context of other contemporary concerns, and to illustrate her willingness and ability to learn from and support radical critiques while maintaining a position of moderate, perhaps modest, hope in the midst of them all.
Kristeva’s theoretical model is very useful as a framework for this reading of Nietzsche and Heidegger as postmodern religious thinkers. Kristeva herself is a powerful analyst of religion, directly analyzing such phenomena as “the variants of the subject/object relation that religions implied,” and “the solutions given for phobia and psychosis by religious codes.”4 In addition to her explicit work on the ways in which religions as systems of meaning make possible different speaking subjects,5 she undertakes what I see as an inherently religious task: an attempt to interrogate the unnameable, to “bring to light” that which is forever heterogeneous, other, or antithetical to this “light.”
Kristeva’s ways of approaching this “unnameable” and her sensitivity to the temptations involved in attempting to write about it are exemplary for contemporary religious thought; she understands the human drive to speak and interpret and the quest for light or unity that underlies this drive,6 while at the same time recognizing the impossibility of the task. To invert Kristeva’s words about Sade, “her work allows for an other, an unthinkable, something heterogeneous. It recognizes a sacred.”7
Philip Lewis has commented on the “adventuresomeness” of Kristeva’s enterprise. He says: “If it is already adventuresome to envisage a literary evocation of the unthinkable which is the sustaining limit of our thought, it is doubtless more so to make this unthinkable outside the object of a scientific investigation.”8 Yet this is Kristeva’s aim, and she pursues it in a way that recognizes the dangers and temptations inherent in the task, and that attempts to avoid a deification of what is always heterogeneous, by remaining focused on the specific processes of artistic production.9 I attempt to follow her lead in this at least, seeing in selected passages by the writers under consideration traces of the same sorts of phenomena which Kristeva analyzes in texts by avant-garde writers.
I have come to see Kristeva’s theory and praxis (for she is careful never to forget the metalinguistic character of semiotics or semanalysis, and to allow textual work continually to revise her own framework) as relevant to an inquiry such as this one in yet another way. Kristeva positions herself slightly differently from many other contemporary French thinkers, partly out of a belief that developing a new model of the subject, one more cognizant of structural forces at play around and through the subject, is important to the future of the planet. Yet she hopes to retain a sense of responsibility, of choice, and of possibility, and believes that the only way to accomplish this without a delusion of unity and the ethical atrocities which can follow from it, is by taking into account that which is heterogeneous, whether sexually, linguistically, psychologically, or socially. All of these dimensions of otherness are interrelated and constitute the challenge to the subject which is both its biggest threat and its greatest opportunity.
It thus seems wholly appropriate that her work should help to illuminate something new about the writings of two of the most important influences on religious thought today, whose philosophical commitments might at first glance seem at a far remove from her own.
The remainder of this chapter will focus on several of Kristeva’s major theoretical terms, terms whose hermeneutic value I later test through an interpretation of selected texts by Nietzsche and Heidegger.
The Subject in Process/on Trial
Julia Kristeva has asserted that “every language theory is predicated upon a conception of the subject that it explicitly posits, implies, or tries to deny.”10 Kristeva does explicitly posit her own notion of the subject. She rejects as incomplete or inadequate any language theory based on a “rehabilitation of the Cartesian conception of language as an act carried out by a subject,” or on “that transcendental ego which, in Husserl’s view, underlies any and every predicative synthesis.”11
These underlying notions of the subject assumed by most linguists seem to her to have remained untouched by a revolution which she believes must influence all contemporary thought, the Freudian revolution. After Freud, according to Kristeva, language theory can no longer assume the subject of speech to be “cut off from its body, its unconscious, and also its history. . . . ” Linguistics must now recognize that the speaking subject is a divided subject, caught in the split between conscious and unconscious, between “bio-physiological processes” and “social constraints.”12
The subject is thus embedded in history, embodied, and confronted at all times with its own “other,” its unconscious, its own unknown. Kristeva’s term for this conception of the subject is le sujet en procès. Procès can be translated as “process,” a term which indicates the ongoing, dynamic character of the subject, and which avoids stabilizing or hypostatizing a unity in place of the actual construction and reconstruction across time of the subject. But even more is conveyed by this phrase. Procès also means a lawsuit or legal action, so that the sujet en procès is one that not only undergoes continual transformation, but is also subject to some sort of threat or action (as in “due process”). Thus, Kristeva’s phrase has come to be translated as “subject in process/on trial,”13 or “subject in process/in question.”14 Leon Roudiez adds the adjectives “unsettling” and “questionable” to his translations of the word procès to indicate the disruptive, troubling, even adversarial connotations it carries in the French.15
Kristeva thus distinguishes her own position from two others which she finds untenable. On the one hand, she finds the Cartesian or Husserlian subject implied by much language theory to be inadequate to the historical, bodily situation of the subject which, as it develops across time and in relation to the body, acquires an unconscious as well as consciousness. On the other hand, she refuses any temptation to do away with the subject altogether, as a phantasm or mere effect of more basic forces. Avoiding both extremes, she elaborates a theory of the speaking subject, le sujet en procès, a theory which avoids the two extreme fantasies of mastery and dissolution.
This choice of position is finally ethically motivated, it seems to me, although Kristeva also justifies it “on the grounds of historical necessity.” She writes:
The present mutations of capitalism, the political and economic reawakening of ancient civilizations (India, China) have thrown into crisis the symbolic systems enclosed in which the Western subject, officially defined as a transcendental subject, has for two thousand years lived out its lifespan. . . . This [semiology of signifying practices] is a moral gesture, inspired by a concern to make intelligible, and therefore socializable, what rocks the foundations of sociality. . . . the subject of the semiotic metalanguage must, however briefly, call himself in question, must emerge from the protective shell of a transcendental ego within a logical system, and so restore his connexion with that negativity—drive-governed, but also social, political, and historical—which rends and renews the social code.16
Throughout the analyses I undertake here, Kristeva’s concern for the processes by which the subject comes to be in language will be applied to the texts in question. Both of the writers here examined had a profound interest in the issue of subjectivity; each reflected and furthered a general crisis of accepted notions of the subject; and Kristeva’s theories seem to illuminate key aspects of the work of each.
A full understanding of Kristeva’s conception of the sujet en procès requires an elaboration of the two dispositions or dimensions of language which she considers most basic: the symbolic and the semiotic. As these terms become clear, the situation of the subject as suspended between them will also emerge.
“Semiotic” and “Symbolic”
For Kristeva, the speaking subject in process is “split” or divided, in a sense which she sees as related to, but even more fundamental than, the split between consciousness and the unconscious. She calls the two poles between which the speaking subject is suspended and in relation to which it comes into being, the “semiotic” and the “symbolic.” In order to get a sense for her particular usage of these terms, it is perhaps wise at least provisionally to suspend other definitions or understandings of these terms and to allow Kristeva’s usage of them to emerge.
For Kristeva the “semiotic” and “symbolic” dispositions within language are two radically distinct forces at work in the discourse of the subject in process. They are most distinctly perceptible in poetic language, the discourses of religion and art, and those of schizophrenic or borderline patients. In these discourses the status of the speaking subject is called into question; something other, heterogeneous, threatening to the unitary conception of the ego is at work, undermining and disrupting the “thetic” or predicative, judgment-based discourse. This “something other” Kristeva calls the “semiotic.”
The “semiotic” dimension is, according to Kristeva, “heterogeneous . . . to meaning and signification.” We hear it in infants’ babbling and in the rhythms and intonations of psychotic discourse. It operates, says Kristeva, “through, despite, and in excess of” signification, producing both musical and nonsense effects in language. “It does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers (in psychotic discourse) to a signified object for a thetic consciousness.”17
The “semiotic” disposition announces its presence by particular effects in language: echolalia, glossolalia, rhythm, musical intonations, even interruptive “thematics of laughter, death, or nonsense.”18 Wordplay, alliteration, and momentary or sustained precedences of sound over sense indicate the active presence of the semiotic disposition. The concept owes a debt to Freud’s technique for discerning the points within a patient’s discourse where the contents of the unconscious make an appearance, however oblique or disguised. Kristeva sees texts, especially avant-garde texts, as revelatory of the workings of drives, bodily and psychic primary processes, in language.
One of Kristeva’s most controversial positions is her assertion that this semiotic, drive-related, bodily aspect of language is “maternally connoted.” She argues that the earliest period of infancy accomplishes the laying down of the whole “semiotic” layer of language. While the infant is going through the earliest phases of discovery/creation of the world and the self, it is also associating patterns of sound with bodily functions and with the mother. Rhythms of feeding, sleeping, attention and abandonment, evacuation, cuddling, singing, rocking, dressing and washing, and oral play accomplish what Kristeva calls the “mapping” of the body, its shaping into a “territory.”19
The infant moves from an original lack of differentiation from the mother to an awareness of separate identity through various phases, simultaneously learning language and constructing its identity and gender identification. Kristeva subscribes to a Lacanian thesis about the child’s acquisition of language per se, his/her introduction into the symbolic system, the system enforcing laws, reason, and universal. Lacan connects this aspect of learning and subject-formation with the father’s influence on the child. Breaking up the early identification with the mother, the father’s symbolic function is to forbid the unity of mother and infant, and to demand adherence to social rules and regulations, as well as to laws of rational discourse. Lacan’s famous phrase “the Name of the Father” (le nom du père) calls up all of these associations, and in French also works to suggest non, or “the no of the father,” as well as his “name.” Thus the symbolic dimension of language takes on a “paternal” connotation just as the semiotic carries “maternal” associations.20
Clearly, this analysis, insofar as it is accurate, is relevant only to a particular system of social arrangements. Kristeva assumes that the largest proportion of “mothering” is done by women, and hence that the layer of language laid down in infancy is acquired in relation to the mother’s body. Dorothy Dinnerstein has speculated on the potential effects on men’s and women’s unconscious attitudes toward women of a social system which would provide infants with equally strong male and female images for that all-powerful, all-important major parent, the other in relation to whom subjects are formed.21
One might also speculate on the differences it could make to poetic language and to “meaning” itself if the “semiotic” mapping of the body were accomplished in relation to paternal authority as well as maternal, and if the voice of the Law were female as well as male. For now, and for the specific conditions of Western patriarchal society, Kristeva’s description of the way it usually happens seems apt.
The symbolic disposition, then, is the counterforce to the semiotic. Also at work in most forms of language, it is the “attribute of meaning, sign, and the signified object.”22 In patriarchal cultures it is associated with the paternal role and function. Both dispositions are at work at all times, just as mother and father (or whoever fills these functions) are the poles in relation to which the infant becoming a “subject in process in language” defines her/himself. And whoever speaks or writes places him/herself in relation to both mother and father in a particular way (a way available to analysis) every time he or she produces discourse.
Kristeva is careful to note the necessity of both aspects of language, the codependence of these nonetheless absolutely divergent forces. Although she is fascinated by the effects of the “return of the repressed,” the irruption of semiotic effects into discourse, she is wary (and has become more so, it would seem) of “valorizing” or romanticizing any immersion in the semiotic to the exclusion of the meaning dimension of language. As analyst, she knows only too well the results of such immersion. She does seem to have altered her position on the relationships between the two dimensions of language, perhaps in response to a growing awareness of the possible implications of an imbalance in favor of the semiotic. In 1974, in La révolution du langage poétique, she wrote, “We will reserve . . . the term semiotic to designate this function logically and chronologically preliminary to the founding of the symbolic and its subject.”23
Naomi Schor, in a 1981 article referring to Kristeva, alluded to her “insistent valorization of the semiotic,” and quoted her thus (from Polylogue, 1977, p. 14): “[The semiotic] is chronologically anterior and synchronically transversal to the sign, syntax, denotation, and signification.”24
Yet by 1979, in her article “Il n’y a pas de maître à langage,” Kristeva emphasizes the indispensability of both dimensions, insisting that this aspect of language “doesn’t exist and isn’t thinkable except across the position, the thesis of language.”25 She does not advocate “narcissistic regression” into infantile babble. Kristeva is, after all, concerned with cure, and for her cure is neither “mastery” (“There is no master of language”) nor total disappearance of the subject into the echoes of glossolalia and musical sound. It is rather a state of suspension between these two. (See section on jouissance below.)
Where does Kristeva come out on this question of anteriority? In the same 1979 article where she rejects any logical or chronological anteriority of the semiotic, she actually seems to reverse her earlier attributions of “preliminarily” (Revolution) and “chronological anteriority” (Polylogue) to the semiotic. She writes:
We have proposed to consider . . . the heterogeneity of two modalities: the semiotic—tributary of drives (la pulsionnalité) and of primary processes, and the symbolic—assimilable to the secondary processes, to predicative syntheses and to judgment, in posing the logical and chronological priority of the symbolic for all organization (in structure but also in “chora,” in receptacle) of the semiotic.26
Here, at first glance, all seems to have been turned upside down. Was not the semiotic what the infant learned first? Is it not then anterior, preliminary, even prior? What is happening to the relation between these two “modalities”? A clue lies, I believe, in the phrase “priority of the symbolic for all organization . . . of the semiotic.” Until there is a symbolic dimension (or in terms of the subject, until the father says “No” to the identification of mother and infant), there is no semiotic as such, for it is by definition a repressed, sublimated, forbidden, or imperfectly superseded modality. Until the appearance of the organizing thetic, the “semiotic” does not exist. It “exists” only across the thetic, the symbolic, as its other. Just as an infant who never progressed beyond the stage of crying, babbling, and cooing would not be said to possess language, a drive-related sound production does not become “semiotic” until its defining, organizing other, the “symbolic,” emerges.
By the time of the writing of Powers of Horror, Kristeva expresses the relationship between the two modalities in terms that do not imply the priority or anteriority of either. She reaffirms the necessity of both aspects of language, arguing that although an openness to the “heterogeneity” of the semiotic is an essential component in overthrowing the fantasy of the “ego in control,” yet the contrary fantasy of immersion and regression is just as dangerous, tempting subjects toward a “masochistic and jubilatory fall into nature, into the full and pagan mother.”27
The condition of being within language, then, of being a subject in process, both exposes the subject to the “phantasm of the return to the origin,”28 to the unpredictable, unsettling effects of that which is heterogeneous and resistant to meaning, “the unnameable,” and embeds the subject in a relatively stable (though liable to upheaval and renewal) symbolic system, a universe of exchange and signification that serves to shore up notions of identity, meaning, rationality, and even fantasies of mastery.
Kristeva’s position is balanced, and this fact has important consequences for her views on such diverse questions as the aims of psychoanalytic treatment, the ethical lessons of poetic language, and the political route most advisable for advocates of women’s liberation. What all of these interests share is a “marginality,” a social position on the edges or fringes, somewhat removed from full immersion in and identification with the dominant symbolic system. The discourse of such “marginal” subjects in process, as well as that, I shall claim, of the philosophers here under consideration, demonstrates the influence of the “semiotic, the integration of which into language produces a style.”29
“Style,” then, serves as a clue to the placement and displacement within language of a subject in process.30 It can serve as a symptom does for a psychoanalyst, although in this case the symptom is presented not for cure but for the participation of the analyst or reader, and for his or her own greater self-awareness as a subject in process, simultaneously subject to and subject of language: that is, for his or her own jouissance.
Kristeva sums up the situation of the speaking subject suspended between semiotic and symbolic in her preface to Desire in Language. Here she depicts the speaking being as teetering on “two brinks,” balancing the pain of subjection to the law of the symbolic with the pleasure of being “exposed to the black thrusts of a desire that borders on idiolect and aphasia.” She imagines us in a double relation to meaning, needing to develop both “our ability to insure our mastery of it (through technique or knowledge) as well as our passage through it (through play or practice).”31 Balanced between signification and the unnameable, the subject experiences what she calls jouissance.
Jouissance is “our ability to insure our mastery of [meaning] (through technique or knowledge) as well as our passage through it (through play or practice).”32 What is this word jouissance? How does it function in Kristeva’s project of describing the subject in process? And how does it relate to our project of exploring the importance of style to Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s revolutions in thought?
Jouissance is the nominal form of the French verb jouir. Jouir is translated “to enjoy, to revel, to be in possession (de).” Jouissance then means “enjoyment; possession, use; joy, pleasure, delight; interest payable.”33 The Latin root of jouir is gaudēre, “to rejoice.”34 The presumed Indo-European root, *gau- (which gives rise to the English cognates “gaud, gaudy, joy, enjoy, rejoice”), is defined as meaning “to rejoice; also, to have religious fear or awe.”35
Jouir seems to be etymologically unrelated to jouer, “to play,” which derives from Latin jocāri, “to joke”,36 although the reconstructed Indo-European root of these words, *yek-, apparently meant “to speak.” In any case, jouir is connected in the history of words with “joy,” “enjoyment,” and a sense of “religious fear or awe.”
Contemporary French idiom uses jouissance as a common term for orgasm, but its connotations have been expanded as well as variously specified by Lacan, Barthes, Kristeva, and others exploring the interfaces among meaning, pleasure, and language. Leon Roudiez attempts a synoptic view of Kristeva’s use of the word in his introduction to Desire in Language. He writes that for both Lacan and Kristeva, the several meanings of jouissance “are simultaneous—‘jouissance’ is sexual, spiritual, physical, conceptual at one and the same time.” Somewhat further along, however, he notes, “In Kristeva’s vocabulary, sensual, sexual pleasure is covered by plaisir; jouissance is total joy or ecstasy (without any mystical connotation).”37
These two characterizations seem somewhat self-contradictory. How can jouissance be “sexual, spiritual, physical, and conceptual” while both “sensual, sexual pleasure” and whatever is “mystical” are later excluded from the term? This seems to leave only “conceptual” jouissance as the authentic Kristevan version; yet as we have begun to show, and shall attempt further to illustrate, it is precisely through an unsettling collision between conceptual and preconceptual, between naming and the unnameable, between thetic consciousness and its “other,” that jouissance takes place. And indeed, Kristeva herself occasionally cites mystical discourse as a classic locus of jouissance.38
Jouissance (which at this point I would like to consider an English word with specialized meanings, and therefore no longer italicize) is clearly a complicated notion, deserving further exploration. This section will approach the term as a crucial one for Kristeva. It will introduce the reader to the role of jouissance in the becoming of the subject in process, and to the figure of la mère qui jouit.
Such a quick tour through the erudite interdisciplinary territories of Kristeva’s work will necessarily simplify. I hope that a gain in clarity will justify the omissions and elisions, and that the methodological presuppositions and procedures of this work will emerge. For detecting the jouissance in the styles of Nietzsche and Heidegger is the guiding desire of this project. As Kristeva has written, “There remains . . . the care of differentiating within the flux of discourse the modalities of articulation, the types of logic. Why? To hear, in what it says, where it suffers and where it jouit.”39
To hear in the discourses of these writers where it hurts, and where it “joys,” which is often in one and the same place, is to regain in philosophy precisely what Plato hoped to banish from the Republic when he proposed to outlaw certain kinds of poetry:
We must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our state. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state.40
Not to recognize and acknowledge the “rule of pleasure and pain,” to refuse to give due attention to the wounds sustained by the subject in process, is, according to Kristeva, willfully to close the ear to a large part of what finally moves both individual and cultural history. It is to attempt to establish a timeless state of stasis, a fantasy which corresponds to a dangerous portrait of the self or subject as unified, self-identical, capable of perfect self-understanding and mastery, and constituted solely in relation to “law and reason.” Perhaps this is the most radical way in which anti-metaphysical writers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger are anti-Platonic; pleasure and pain, suffering and jouissance have found their way into their “poetry,” and Kristeva’s way of “listening” helps us to hear the particularities of each writer’s experience of jouissance.
Jouissance has many faces. It can be an experience of the “autonomy” of language coursing through one’s writing; it can be an awareness of one’s own dividedness, a view into the abyss across which one’s identity and one’s meaning are constituted; it can be a leaving behind of one’s ordinary sense of self in an ecstatic moment; it can be the transient paradoxical oscillation of contraries in an image. Jouissance is related to desire, an impulse incapable of final satisfaction, since desire is always displaced and displacing.41
Jouissance is a process of the subject on trial. It is the agonized joy of self-relation, of self-creation, of self-observation in the bizarre and fascinating process of relating to what constitutes the self as subject. It takes various forms (narcissistic, abject, phobic, obsessive), but the root experience of jouissance is that toward which all language, all symptoms, and all creation are directed. Kristeva describes a version of her own jouissance in reading Philippe Sollers’s H:
I listen to the black, heterogeneous territory of the body/text; I coil my jouissance within it, I cast it off, I sidestep its own, in a cold fire where murder is no longer the murder of the other, but rather of the other who thought she was I, of me who thought I was the other, of me, you, us—of personal pronouns therefore, which no longer have much to do with all this. . . . “I” continually makes itself over again, reposits itself as a displaced, symbolic witness of the shattering where every entity was dissolved.42
Dissolution, displacement, shattering: how do these constitute jouissance? What is joy-ful in all this suffering and negativity? We might ask the same question about the mystical transports of Teresa of Avila, Bernard de Clairvaux, or John of the Cross. How is it that loss of self brings joy? The power of the negative is at work here. One version may surely be masochistic, but not all need be.
Roland Barthes’s use of the term jouissance is similar to Kristeva’s use of it here. In The Pleasure of the Text, he distinguishes between two types of text, the text of pleasure and the text of “bliss” (jouissance):
Text of pleasure (plaisir): the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss (jouissance): the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relationship with language.
Now the subject who keeps the two texts in his field . . . enjoys the consistency of his selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss). He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse.43
What is it that attracts us to “loss,” to “discomfort,” to having our assumptions, tastes, values, and memories unsettled? Why do we seek, in Barthes’s terms, a “crisis” in our “relationship with language”? To be sure, to be human is to be perverse, even “doubly perverse,” but why? What is it about the postmodern situation of identity and meaning that impels subjects in process to seek the loss of selfhood?
I believe that the answer to these questions is essentially a “theological” answer; it relates to the problem of how we are constituted as human, as selves, and as mortal. The bliss sought in and across language by postmodern writers is deeply related to their attempts to unsettle and renew the Western philosophical and theological heritage, addressing in a new way the central questions of religious and philosophical anthropology.
Part of what is accomplished in the writing of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger is an exploration of the jouissance of encountering the semiotic dimension of language, a dimension which, as we have seen, has “maternal” connotations. These writers can be seen as establishing new types of relations with “the feminine,” with la mere qui jouit. Before we embark on the textual analyses which will constitute the body of this work, these terms need to be defined, insofar as they can be without undermining the function they are meant to fulfill, that of naming, but only provisionally, what unsettles and questions definition itself.
La mère qui jouit is an image first proposed by Julia Kristeva in About Chinese Women.44 This figure of a “mother who enjoys, revels, has more than pleasure,” has a double role in what we are undertaking here. One of its roles is to evoke a particular image of women, one whose repression has been endemic to Christian culture, an image of women as both maternal and erotic.
This role corresponds to Kristeva’s original use of the term, as a way to designate what has been denied by a symbol system that splits the image of woman into only two possibilities: the chaste pure virgin, removed from body and sexuality, who is somehow, miraculously, also a mother, source of life; and her opposite, the corrupt, corrupting medium of temptation, sin, and death. The mother is thus, in Christian symbolism, appropriated to the divine, pure, spiritualized side of a body/soul dualism, and divested of erotic associations, while the sexual woman is labeled all body and hence evil. La mère qui jouit brings the two sides of the split together into an image, an image which Kristeva sees as so threatening to the entire symbol system that it has been “repressed.”
The other connotation of this phrase for this work is the semiotic dimension of language discussed above. Since the semiotic is “maternally connoted,” or associated with the mother, and since an encounter with it is a disturbing, displacing event that shakes up symbolic or thetic consciousness, perhaps it is possible to “name” what is at work in the semiotic dimension la mère qui jouit.
Kristeva herself has not, to my knowledge, employed the phrase in this way. It may be that such a personification is misleading; it may provide a premature image for what is essentially unimaginable, or even tempt one to find a “goddess” at play in language, disrupting overly masterful deployments of discourse. Or it may be that jouissance needs to be reserved to denote an experience of the subject in process, and that to name what subjects encounter la mère qui jouit is to emphasize the wrong pole of the encounter. Despite the danger of such possible distortions, and in hopes that an awareness of the danger can help to prevent them, I will use la mère qui jouit as a provisional name for this unnameable, as a figure that appears, unbidden, at the borders of the language of writers who are exploring the aporiae of Western thought, and as a figure that evokes for the reader the multiplicity and interconnectedness of all that has been repressed by that order, without itself specifying, defining, or delimiting that otherness.
La mère qui jouit is a figure, then, for Kristeva’s description of the connections, historical and observable, but not necessarily universal, between the semiotic disruption of language and “the feminine.” This term, “the feminine,” is one of the most regularly deployed and least frequently defined rhetorical weapons in use today. For the purposes of this work, it will be defined in a Kristevan sense. Not that this is a simple definition; on the contrary, it holds together complex factors of social reality (actual women’s marginality and exclusion from institutions of power), psychological situation (the development of subjects in relation to parental forces distinguished by gender identifications), and language theory (the semiotic dimension as maternally connoted). It also recognizes a religious or mythical dimension, a “theological temptation,” the ever-present desire to substitute a new god for the old one, simply to insert in the vacant space of the old Father God a Mother Goddess with a slightly altered physiognomy and thus to sidestep the challenge of a new vision of the human situation.
Kristeva writes: “If the feminine is, . . . it is only by relation to sense and signification, as their other, exceeder or transgressor, that it exists, says itself, thinks (itself) and writes (itself) for the two sexes.”45
To write in relation to this “other” that “lies beyond and subverts . . . logic, mastery, and verisimilitude”46 is to engage la mère qui jouit, to come into relation with a force which is terrifying, overwhelming, unsettling, and at the same time unsurpassably exciting and erotic; for it is to attempt to return to the lost, irretrievable source, the original pre-object of all subjects-to-be, the “mother.”
Incest wish is then the psychological motive of writing. Intensely attractive yet terrifying, not only because of the paternal prohibition (law and taboo) but because of the fear of complete regression and loss of identity, the prospect of return to the “mother” (or whatever takes her place) creates a situation of jouissance. Ultimate attraction and ultimate prohibition; desire and terror; the oscillation of these primal emotions shows itself in language that reflects the mother at play: “Know the mother, first take her place, thoroughly investigate her jouissance, and, without releasing her, go beyond her. The language that serves as a witness to this course is iridescent with a sexuality of which it does not ‘speak’; it turns it into rhythm—it is rhythm.”47
For Kristeva, all language is related to this desire to return to the mother. Some types of speech and writing display their desire more transparently than others (as we saw above in discussing the variability of semiotic evidences), but all language participates in desire:
What analysis reveals is that the human being does not speak without the phantasm of a return to the origin, without the hypothesis of an unnameable. . . . All phantasms, like any attempt to give meaning, come from the phallic jouissance obtained by usurping that unnameable object, . . . which is the archaic mother. 48
The sudden appearance here of the word “phallic” may need some clarification. Inasmuch as jouissance, meaning, and identity all take place, tenuously, between two poles of language, and between two poles of sexuality, it becomes clear that women and men all face somewhat similar problems in their pursuit of these aims. The sexes differ of course insofar as their gender identifications are worked out differently in relation to same-sex and other-sex parents, but Kristeva makes it clear that the relation to the archaic mother is experienced as incestuous and taboo by both sexes, though certainly in somewhat different ways, and that both men and women, insofar as they participate in the symbolic system (insofar as they speak, write, work, and become subjects), are “phallic.”
Again, this dichotomy is meant neither to privilege maleness nor to assert that culture is masculine, and nature feminine. It attempts, rather, to describe one of the effects of a pervasively male-dominated symbolic system. Kristeva writes, “as soon as she speaks the discourse of the community, a woman becomes phallus.”49 The phallus represents the necessary break with the mother, and the paternal, social demand for law, order, and disruption of the symbiotic mother-child relationship. Every subject is thus in a particular position with respect to the phallus as well as to the mother from whom it represents the subject’s distance.
Kristeva emphasizes the similarities in the situations of men and women rather than their differences, although the differences are important to her too. What seems clearest is that to question identity as such, to question the fantasy of the possible attainment of a unified self, as her linguistic and psychological theories do, is also to question the notion of sexual identity. She writes:
It is becoming more and more difficult today, confronted by the experiments of modern art, not to question along with the identity of the subject the very principle of a sexual identity, which is nevertheless claimed by feminist movements. I do not find it easy to define a masculine or feminine specificity when I think of the great aesthetic experiences of the decentering of identity.50
This position, clearly opposed to stances taken by some other contemporary French theorists, leads Kristeva to certain conclusions regarding the future of feminism, conclusions which are relevant to the current project.
This book concerns itself with Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s confrontation with “the feminine,” both as this confrontation is signaled by the appearance of female imagery and as it is demonstrated by semiotic interruptions by la mère qui jouit. It is also a feminist project, although it deals exclusively with texts by “male” writers. What kind of feminism both claims that “the feminine” “subverts logic . . . and mastery” and focuses on works by male writers?
Kristeva’s “feminism” is what I call a postmodern feminism, an “ism” that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of “isms,” and that tries to learn the lessons already learned by androcentric humanism, so as not to have to pass again over the same territory. This calls for some clarification.
For women to be subjects in process, they need to experience the “heterogeneous” as much as men do. They are suspended between competing poles like all subjects. Women must experience their “phallic” character, resist the temptations of regression and total identification with the archaic mother, and afterwards, “reemerge still uneasy, split apart, asymmetrical, overwhelmed with a desire to know, but a desire to know more and differently than what is encoded-spoken-written.”51 In other words, women no more than men should cling to a fantasy of fixed, stable, secure identity.
Kristeva sees two conditions as necessary in order for this to happen: “The first is historical. . . . It involves throwing women into all of society’s contradictions with no hypocrisy or fake protection. The second condition is sexual. . . . it involves coming to grips with one’s language and body as others, as heterogeneous elements.”52
Kristeva hopes, in other words, that the coming of women to full subject status will not need to repeat all the historical phases traversed so far in the forever incomplete task of searching out what it is to be “human,” but that women will be able to retain some of their sense of “eternal satire of the community.”53 She fears lest feminists, having sought their own “identity,” reify or romanticize it, and thus become “theologians of an inverted humanism, rather than its iconoclasts.”54 After all, she writes, “Woman as such does not exist. . . . The problems of women have no interest except inasmuch as they bring to an impasse the most serious problems of our society: how to live not only without God, but without man?”55
Simply to allow a “theologized” (unified, anchoring, or coherent) notion of “woman” to compensate for the loss of “God” and “man” would be a sad, if not dangerous, result of women’s movements. All subjects need to experience and maintain a sense of otherness, division, and marginality, and to recognize that these and all other threats to secure ego identity are already present within their own constitution as subjects, within language.
This is an ethical call, and a vision that leads me to read Julia Kristeva as a “religious thinker.” Kristeva imagines another possible outcome for the universal Oedipal situation, an alternative to self-blinding in the face of incestuous desire and the desire for the father’s death. She writes:
Our eyes can remain open provided we recognize ourselves as already altered [alteéré, “othered”] by the symbolic—by language. Provided we hear in language—and not in the other, nor in the other sex—the gouged-out eye, the wound, the basic incompleteness that conditions the infinite quest of signifying concatenations. That amounts to joying [jouir] in the truth of self-division (abjection/sacred). Here two paths open out: sublimation and perversion.
And their intersection: religion.56
An immensely provocative statement this. “Joying in the truth of self-division” as a responsible way of living with it is a version of the classic task of withdrawing projections. But Kristeva seems to point out, however cryptically and noncommittally, a “religious” path, an “intersection” of the paths of sublimation and perversion, a way of eluding exclusive self-dedication to one side or the other of the human double bind. Is this a vision of religion as a staying-in-between, a jouissance in self-division?
Indeed, in another essay, Kristeva again deals with the relation to religion of her work and of the avant-garde texts she studies: “We are now faced with a monumental requirement. We must transform the subject in its relationship to language, to the symbolic, to unity, and to history. Until recently, this kind of revolution took the form of religion.”57 And why not this time? Because Kristeva identifies “religion” with “transcendence,” and “transcendence” with a “signifying or symbolic elsewhere where [one] exists as a sheltered exile.”58 Religion, for Kristeva, has always set up these two realms, the transcendent realm of “shelter” and “basis,” and that which threatens yet also supports it. What alternative is there?
Kristeva again describes her experience of reading Philippe Sollers’s H, and seems to propose it as a model for a way of experiencing oneself in the world as it is now, beyond the fantasy of a “religion” to mediate our self-divisions:
Listening to the time that fills H, I hear a world finally spread out. Asia, Africa, America and Europe. . . . Each one hears a chronology that, instead of accepting to be quietly pigeonholed in proper order, calls on the others, pointing out its shortcomings, even though it wishes to be its partner. Each one admitting of different semiotic practices (myths, religions, art, poetry, politics) whose hierarchies are never the same; each system in turn questioning the values of the others. The subject who listens to this time could indeed and at least “treat himself as a sonata,” as H puts it. 59
Kristeva’s perspective provides a new angle from which to discern the relevance of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger to contemporary problems. As each of them in his own unique way struggles with metaphysical and theological inheritances, and with the language through and against which he must write, he also brings back into philosophy qualities and areas of concern long suppressed or ignored. In the process, each also develops a complicated relation to “the feminine,” both as literally, socially, or symbolically conceived and, more especially, as semiotic disposition. It is these writers’ styles, and what they indicate about their “stances, essential to their practices,” that I find most telling.
Nietzsche and Heidegger are not models of feminist or even crypto-feminist attitudes; Nietzsche’s misogynist statements and Heidegger’s lack of discussion of women are well known. I do not argue for according them “honorary feminist” status. They are, however, relevant for all who hope to remember the foundation of identity on difference, and the inevitable self-division of all subjects, whether male, female, or “post-gender-identified.” They serve well as pointers toward ways of thinking that can admit female human beings into the full ambiguities of becoming subjects in process, while at the same time avoiding imagining any simple “way out.”
A Note on Abjection
Kristeva frequently refers to a phenomenon she names “abjection.” While it is impossible here fully to explore her development of this term (see Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection), perhaps a brief introduction may be useful, since the term is occasionally invoked in what follows.
Kristeva characterizes “abjection” as “a vortex of summons and repulsion.”60 It is a kind of displacement of self, in which the self expels or spits itself out: “I abject myself with the same motion through which I claim to establish myself.” The abject is what is radically excluded, not what is simply or casually left behind in the process of object choice, but that which is violently and negatively chosen. The abject is what I most clearly want not to be. Kristeva’s analysis of abjection sees it as foundational to human existence. She claims that “all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.”61
The sense of abjection is a possible source of jouissance, for it recognizes the lack on which one is founded, the passion that precedes the desire made possible by a split into subject and object. Abjection is a possible reaction to the confrontation with the feminine, to the implication of incest that this universal hunger for return to the source implies. Powers of Horror is largely an analysis of various religions’ ways of coding abjection, of handling “the subject’s fears of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother.”62
Not all confrontations with the feminine result in abjection. But, especially in Nietzsche, the sense of a primal complex of horror, nausea, and repulsion which strangely propels him into joy, becomes very strong at times, and I shall apply the term “abjection” to such moments.
It seems to me that we may read both Nietzsche and Heidegger, at least at times, as corresponding to Kristeva’s description of the “stray”: “The one by whom the abject exists is. . . . in short a stray. . . . the more he strays, the more he is saved. . . . For it is out of straying on excluded ground that he draws his jouissance.”63
Straying on excluded ground, straying toward the fluid boundaries on whose far side lies “the feminine,” the great inaugurators of postmodern philosophical thought pursue their peculiar jouissance. Let us begin our own pursuit of its manifestations with Nietzsche.