Revolutionaries without a Revolution: The Case of Julia Kristeva

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Julia Kristeva, Literary Criticsm, Literary Works

I tell you this in truth: this is not only the end of this here but also and first of that there, the end of history, the end of the class struggle, the end of philosophy, the death of God, the end of religions, the end of Christianity and morals . . .the end of the subject, the end of man, the end of the West, the end of Oedipus, the end of the earth, Apocalypse now, I tell you . . . the end of literature, the end of painting, art as a thing of the past, the end of psychoanalysis, the end of the university, the end of phallocentrism and phallogocentrism, and I don’t know what else? (Jacques Derrida,”Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy”)

The Rhetoric of Ending and the Mourning to Come

Certainly Derrick’s inventory is far from being complete, but it recreates with gripping poignancy the frenzy in which death certificates have been meted out to all repositories of thought, of hope, and of life writ large. By virtue of enumerating, enlisting, and discerning the far reaches of the rhetoric of ending and of the apocalyptic imagination underpinning it, Derrida’s account itself can be said to participate in what it seeks to outflank in the first place. Yet, perhaps Derrida cannot be held accountable for the hairsplitting entrapments of this discursive graveyard-whistling; perhaps this is, after all, the crime (or logic) of philosophy itself-a discourse that cannot help folding back or receding into a reflection on its genesis and, by implication, on its ending. More than anything else, perhaps philosophy is, as Derrida himself intones, fond of quasimythical metadiscourses that can intransigently, irascibly, and in an “overlordly” way declare its dissolution or, to use Derrida’s own word, its cadavérissement (literally, its reduction to a corpse).

Not infrequently, the philosophical rhetoric of ending has unwittingly overlooked its implication in an indissoluble contradiction that, while contending that the ending has been reached, not only participates in it but also lives through it, that is, in many respects survives it in order to announce it. “Who (or what) would announce the end were there nothing to be announced?” Of course, such a rhetorical question implies that, should there be an end or an apocalypse, no one would survive it in order to report it: the end would be the end of everything, period! “For that is also,” as Derrida rightly conjectures, “the end of the metalanguage concerning eschatological language” (81). I am not here suggesting that there is no hors texte, no outside, from which the end could be announced by a meta-being, only that there is, practically, no ending whatsoever that humanity can pronounce or announce, let alone ascertain. On the other hand, “Who (or what) would announce the end were there nothing to be announced?” is a question that also implies not only that the end (associated, for so long, with the end of the millennium) proved not to be an end-only a mere illusion, which is exactly the position held by Jean Baudrillard-but also that nothing really will ever end without leaving remains, without corning back under the banner of “hauntology,” a theme Derrick belabors in Specters of Marx. By and large, whether we have missed the end or fallen prey to the returning ghosts of our precursors, it is important to stress (1) that the rhetoric of ending is indissociable from the rhetoric of mourning, from the ethical impossibility of there being such a thing as a successful mourning à la freudienne any longer (Derrida 1994), and (2) that while philosophy cannot, much perhaps to the distress of Derrida and Kant before him, completely banish the apocalyptic tone from its discourse, it can nonetheless invent its own contrapuntal rhetoric that would, parodying Shakespeare’s Edgar, remind us that, “The end is not/As long as we can say ‘This is the end.'”

Yet, it would be unfair to restrict the obsession with the rhetoric of ending to the realm of philosophical discourse as such-a discourse that is addicted to drawing attention to itself even at the risk of compromising its very existence in the process. No one who has read and reflected upon the many heterogeneous tendencies of (literary and critical) theory since the 1950s would fail to notice at least two things: (1) the hectic proliferation of “new” theories, each of which purporting vociferously or reticently to effect a Khunian paradigm shift (thus, academics, who have an unyielding strain for order, are bewildered by the plethora of such shifts that they have grown wary of classifying and opted instead for portmanteau prefixes as “post-” or “neo-” to relieve themselves from the burden of differentiating such that we are now going through a period of immense disarray given that we are practically “past” all the “posts”), and (2) the celebratory and intransigent tone with which the death or ending of an age or a discursive practice and the beginning of another is announced.

As they parade in theoretical discourses today, announcements of endings are more often than not masks of “new beginnings,” of the “good news,” as it were, that awaits the puzzled and perturbed reader of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. The “end of history” is the proverbial formula that Fukuyama makes use of in order to hammer home the more contentious thesis of the triumph of liberal democracy. Likewise, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri dress the obsolete word “empire” with the new clothes of globalization, whose emergence as a new form of sovereignty is materializing on the pyre of the sovereignty of nation-states. According to Hardt and Negri, the end of imperialism, the decline of the nation-state, and the emergence of what in their own parlance is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule-a kind of global space of sovereignty that has no outside-provide the conditions of possibility of a new form of counterEmpire, a new form of political subjectivity (much of which nevertheless hinges on unlocatable and unmediated grains of resistance) that they call-in a strange admixture of bombast, Marxism, and messianism-the multitude. Unfortunately, the inimitable ability of the new Empire to manage dissent, if not to warrant and sanction it, leaves little room for the multitude to make significant, let alone revolutionary, changes.Whether it has to do with the end of history or with the end of imperialism and the nation state or any of the items inventoried by Derrida in the epigraph, the rhetoric of ending deployed by a variegated number of theorists today is in fact a function of the more encompassing rhetoric of seductive reasoning that these theorists make use of in order to persuade the reader of the necessity and validity of the alternative venue(s) of reflection which they propose. This applies not only to Fukuyama and Hardt and Negri, but also to, among many others, Arthur Donato’s After the End of Art, Gianni Vattimo’s The End of Modernity, Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, and, not surprisingly, to Julia Kristeva’s recent twin books, The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt and Intimate Revolt, in which she elaborates a theory of psychic revolt on the pyre of socialist and political revolution. Of course, after the welter of commentary and the plethora of books that followed the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it hardly needs to be restated here that the promise of a possible socialist revolution, while crucially attenuated by such an event, has continued to provoke disparate reactions. A recent special issue of Parallax titled Mourning Revolution attempts to capture this disparity by bringing together a variety of essays by Kristeva, Martin Jay, Alain Badiou, and Benjamin Arditi, among others.

While Kristeva and Jay contend, as will become clear in due course, that revolution is no longer a politically and socially useful concept, Benjamin Arditi argues quite persuasively that revolution can still play a vital role in our political life even in the face of its practical impossibility. Drawing extensively on Derrida’s thinking of the ethics of the impossible, Arditi was able to conclude in his piece tiltled “Talkin’ ‘but a Revolution: The End of Mourning” that revolution is precisely what unfolds “in the spacing or play between the promise that entices us to demand the impossible and the continually deconstructible figures of possibility aiming to flesh out the promise” (Kurt, Stahl, and Willis 2003, 85). For Arditi, we lose nothing by thinking the impossible, but we open up more roads into the possible. Adopting a more versatile approach, Badiou declines to reflect on the possibility or impossibility of revolution today but presents instead a reflection on the whole question by means of an aporia: “If you think that the world can and must change absolutely, that there is neither a nature of things to be respected nor pre-formed subjects to be maintained, you thereby admit that the individual can be sacrificed” (73). In other words, the individual as such-as a natural being-has nothing intrinsic to his nature that merits preservation; all claims for preserving the individual must therefore be claims about his essence rather than his nature-his “unnaturalness” (73). The remainder of Badiou’s contribution to Mourning Revolution consists of mapping variations on this “unnaturalness of the human subject.” Implicitly, the demand for revolution is presented as an effect of this unnaturalness. Since the human subject as such, whether for Sartre or Lacan, is precisely that which lacks essence and being, it is only by “dissolving itself into a project which exceeds it” that it concretizes its essence (74). Ironically, striving for essence turns out to be, in Badiou’s analysis, no more than a twentieth-century obsession with a formality: demonstration. To demonstrate is to evacuate the empty and vacant position of an existence without essence and to melt into the “we-subject” that emerges out of the collection of otherwise “isolated individuals” (78). It bears repeating here that after the collapse of the communist camp and the triumph of capitalism, demonstrations have become, at least for Hardt and Negri, new forms of militancy. While Badiou is reticent about the political import of this new form of militancy which came to stamp the twentieth century, Kristeva contends that the age of militancy is well behind us.

In her own autobiographical essay, “My Memory’s Hyperbole,” which first appeared in 1983 in Infini, the journal that replaced Tel Quel, Kristeva dates her disenchantment with the Communist Party back to the late 1960s, that is, to the early years of her affiliation with the Tel Quel group. Kristeva explains that the Tel Quel’s belief in the “permanent subversiveness of the Communist Party” ceased as soon as the latter began its campaign to institutionalize and “appropriate, on behalf of the establishment, those currents of thought and aesthetic creation that would have remained marginal without it” (15). She comments on the later visits of members of the Tel Quel (herself included) to China after the 1974 Cultural Revolution as amounting to nothing more than an inauguration of the return to the only continent they had never ceased to believe in: internal experience. The present two volumes, with their insistence on the end of militancy and their call for a return to intimacy, can therefore aptly be seen as variations on a persistent theme.

Yet, if Kristeva could be seen to have withdrawn from any active engagement in politics-and from any belief in a socialist revolution, for that matter-during the early years of her involvement with Tel Quel, it is wrong to conclude that she ceased thenceforth to reflect on the concept of revolution. On the contrary, her whole oeuvre reveals her continually rediscovering the same entelechy, the same impasse of political revolution, always trying to inventory a new language of salvaging it, always trying to displace it into other realms of experience, be they poetic (as she suggests in her very first book of 1974, Revolution in Poetic Language) or psychic (as the present twin volumes under review here attest). This seems to me to be Kristeva’s idiosyncratic way of working through the demise of socialist revolution, her way, in other words, of mourning-in the Freudian sense of the withdrawal of affective ties from a lost (ideal) object and of the establishment of new ties with a new object-revolution in its lost political sense: rediscovering and reinventing it anew in poetic and psychic locales. But first, how does Kristeva sort through the reasons that the task of situating revolt at the level of the psyche is of a pressing urgency today?

Who Would Revolt Were There Nothing to Revolt Against?

Kristeva does not ask this question, but I ask it here in order to better capture the fichue position (to borrow a Joycean expression from Ulysses) in which she places the subject, the very focus of her reflections on the relevance of the concept of revolt in today’s world. “Who would revolt were there nothing to revolt against?” is formulated thus in order that it asks (1) after the one who would be willing to revolt even against that which exceeds one’s capacity to revolt against, that powerful disembodied knitting machine called global capital whose handiwork is manifest everywhere but whose origins are ghostly and impossible to pin down, let alone subvert-this is perhaps the case with Hardt and Negri’s multitude; (2) after the one who would be willing to revolt but would find literally nothing to revolt against, no visible constellation of power to overturn-this is perhaps the case with Fukuyama’s liberal democrats who seem to have overcome the last frontier after the collapse of communism; (3) and, strangely enough, after the (no)one who would not be able to revolt and for whom there would be absolutely nothing to revolt against anyway. Out of the three possible interpretations of the question suggested above, only the last one is in piece with Kristeva’s argument throughout her two volumes. In the eyes of Kristeva, not only is there no one capable of revolt today, but there is also nothing to revolt against. This is the qui and contre qui, the who and against whom, impasse in which Kristeva suspends the political subject prior to rethinking its prospects for another kind of revolt.

Kristeva expounds that revolt in its political sense is today mired not only because the political landscape is becoming more and more homogenized as dissimilarities between parties are waning, but especially because there is no tangible structure of power against which to revolt, only a power vacuum, and, gravely enough, no agent available to carry out the incumbent task of revolt. The harbinger of social change has become nothing more than a “patrimonial person” (personne patrimoniale), a mere “conglomerate of organs” (conglomérat d’organes) hardly capable of recognizing the power-technologies infused in him, let alone able to neutralize their virulent and hamstringing effects (2002, 4). The modern subject is, according to Kristeva, “a person belonging to the patrimony, financially, genetically, and physiologically, a person barely free enough to use a remote control to choose his channel” (4).

This picture of the modern subject Kristeva draws is even gloomier if we are to consider it against the backdrop of Fukuyama’s most recent book whose title alone, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, chills the spine. For Fukuyama, George Orwell’s prophetic vision of a world dominated by information technology and by hovering Big Brother(s) has come true, and so has come as well Aldous Huxley’s prescience of a biotechnological world in which babies are no longer “hatched” in situ (i.e. in wombs) but in vitro. Without getting entangled in the entrails of Fukuyama’s argument, I think that it draws a picture of the current world that is in many respects similar to the one Kristeva draws. In very general terms, there are, according to Kristeva and Fukuyama, two dystopias materializing before our eyes: (1) a virtual rather than real world in which the media, undergirded by a complex network of information technology, fosters and promotes what Kristeva calls, after Guy Debord, the society of the spectacle and the culture of entertainment rather than the culture of revolt, and (2) a biotechnological world, in which the wedge is being slowly but steadily opened for new technologies to take possession of the human body, thus managing it at will. According to Fukuyama, this is humanity’s most frightening nightmare and literally the “post human” stage of man’s existence, which would lead to what C. S. Lewis called the “abolition of man,” that is, the negation of man in the process of technologically surpassing or mastering it.

Unlike Fukuyama, a policy maker who goes on in his Our Posthuman Future to suggest pragmatic solutions to containing this otherwise runaway world in which the biotechnological revolution resulted, Kristeva is no policy maker but a thinker whose work traverses a wide array of philosophical, literary, linguistic, and psychoanalytical interests and who is primarily concerned with the ways in which the velocity of the biotechnological revolution might be slowed, as well as the ways in which the hold of the culture show might be dispelled. As such, she sets herself the task of pointing out the way for a culture of revolt, a culture that would move us “beyond the two impasses where we are caught today: the failure of rebellious ideologies, on the one hand, and the surge of consumer culture, on the other” (2000, 7). Kristeva thinks that it is incumbent upon us to resurrect a culture of revolt, not because we can no longer aspire for political revolt but because “happiness,” as Freud demonstrated, “exists only at the price of revolt” (7).

Intimacy Now; or, the Psychic Tropography of Revolt

In order to restore us to/to us this culture of revolt, Kristeva undertakes to trace its writerly manifestation in the experiences of Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Aragon, and Roland Barthes. Although the two volumes deal with different texts by each of these above-mentioned writers, they overlap, almost exquisitely, insofar as the argument of both is concerned. I will not therefore alternate between each but will instead deal with both of them simultaneously.

Attentive to the linguistic difficulties of the task at hand, to the automatic association of the concept of “revolt” with the political and the ideological, Kristeva undertakes first “to wrest it, etymologically, from the overly narrow political sense it has taken in our time” in order to bring to light its “richness,” “polyvalence,” and “plasticity” and relate it thereof to the intimate sphere of the psyche (2000, 3). In this respect, she contends that the term “revolt”-whose Latin lineage (volvere) implies “movement” and “return”, as well as “reversal,””detour,” etc. (3)-did not come to lose its initially celestial origins in favor of more overtly political and historical purchases until the early beginning of the eighteenth century.

Kristeva complains that the word “revolt” has been repetitively used in relation to the suspension of old values such that the new nihilistic values are swallowed wholesale, rather than questioned in turn like the old ones. As such, the pseudo-rebellious nihilist, far from being a man in revolt, is in fact “a man reconciled with the stability of new values” (2002, 6). Kristeva goes on to propound that the technological development, the desacralization of Christianity, along with the abandonment of the Augustinian introspective and self-questioning quest (se quaerere) in favor of the immutability of being, have all combined among themselves in such a manner as to result in the paralysis of the will, on which totalitarianism preys:”I can never sufficiently emphasize the fact that totalitarianism is the result of a certain fixation of revolt in what is precisely its betrayal, namely, the suspension of retrospective return, which amounts to a suspension of thought” (6).

Kristeva begins both of her volumes by effectuating yet another return to Freud, perhaps in competition with Lacan but certainly not à la Lacanienne. Indeed, her championing of Freud’s “models of language” in chapter three of her first volume-and her contention that the unconscious cannot be mapped onto Saussure’s linguistics of signifier-signified-takes aim at Lacan, who famously claimed that the unconscious is structured like a language. Of course, we are here treading on familiar Kristevian grounds: ever since her early years of apprenticeship which culminated in the publication of Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Kristeva has adhered with fascinating but predictable consistency to a cornerstone theoretical distinction between the symbolic and the semiotic, between what is purely linguistic or meaning proper (the symbolic) and what is not strictly so or linguistic per se (the semiotic) in that it encompasses the pre- or trans-linguistic organization and discharge of bodily drives through rhythms, tones, and alliterations anterior to signs and syntaxes. It is Kristeva’s unfaltering argument, throughout her work, that signifiance or significance emerges in the dialectic between the symbolic narrow reference and the semiotic broad horizon.

Much of what Kristeva means by poetic or psychic revolt, then and now, hinges on the restitution of the semiotic functionality of language, that is, on “revalorizing the sensory experience, the antidote to technical hair-splitting” (2002, 5). In other words, much of Kristeva’s “sense” and “non-sense” of revolt rests squarely on whether or not we are to accept the conditions on which her argument is predicated: Kristeva asserts that the semiotic is asymptotic and irreducible to language and intellect, only to contend in the final analysis that nowhere else can we come closer to psychic revolt than in the obstinate attempt to activate, articulate, and narrate the semiotic-the depository of the unconscious, of sexual fantasies, of oedipal aggression, of incest, of matricide, among other somatic instincts or drives. It is only at this stage that we have perhaps to decide whether we can afford to follow Kristeva’s initially compelling argument-only, that is, when psychic revolt comes to mean slowly but overwhelmingly clinical analysis, at which time we realize that Kristeva’s version of revolt is costly and therefore inaccessible to those who lack the economic means and the educational knowledge necessary to benefit from the luxury (of revolt) it promises to deliver.

This might not be the kind of that Hardt and Negri’s multitude asks for, but it is certainly not the kind of revolt that such a multitude can afford. While bearing this in mind, let us try to assess the extent to which Kristeva reconciles between her version of revolt as an aspect of the clinical and analytical experience of transference (developed at length in the second volume) and revolt as Freud presents it in Totem and Taboo: a facet of primitive culture at the origin of religion (developed mainly in the first volume). In Intimate Revolt, Kristeva revels in analyzing the virtues of the analytical experience of transference and counter-transference whose alleged terminus is freedom. It is not freedom in Sartre’s sense of condemnation to choice and responsibility but freedom from the guilt of being as such (Heidegger) and from the vicissitudes of consciousness whose penchant for interiorizing the collective realism of sin in individual responsibility is unquenchable (Freud). Here Kristeva’s interpretive elaboration of the concept of forgiveness as rebirth, as suspension of judgment, as retrieval of the significance (i.e. semiotic dimension) of the drive, and generally as “the unconscious coming to consciousness in transference” (2002, 19) might prove rewarding for those (Hegelians and Freudians alike) interested in the traps of consciousness in the road to happiness.

It is, however, in “The Scandal of the Timeless,” chapter three of Intimate Revolt, that Kristeva delivers a sustained and compelling philosophical argument on the concept of the timeless (l’hors-temps/Zeitlos), on its role and importance vis-à-vis the transferential experience of analysis. Kristeva argues persuasively that “while human existence is intrinsically linked to time, the analytical experience reconciles us with this timelessness, which is that of the drive, and more particularly the death drive” (2002, 12)-that which feeds on what, according to Kristeva, Freud calls “the symptom of ‘being conscious'” (27).While one cannot here but admire Kristeva’s diligent construction of the different figures of the timeless-which range from “the memory trace” and “working through” to “interminable analysis”-one nonetheless wonders what has become of psychic revolt in the process. Is psychic revolt here indissociable from the jouissance of psychic aggression at work in the death drive that the Homo analyticus (the analyst) brings to the fore? This question is of grave consequences as to the theoretical valences of Kristeva’s concept of psychic revolt, all the more so if we are to consider it in relation to two Freudian texts: “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through” and Totem and Taboo, both of which Kristeva quotes.

In “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” Freud insists that the significance of the transferential experience of analysis lies in its ability to bring forth a playground of psychic transferal and struggle (between the analyst and the analysand) whose success or failure depends on the analyst’s capacity to dispel the hold of repetition compulsion into the more laborious work of remembering. Specifically, what might amount to psychic revolt on the part of the analysand and to analytical triumph on the part of the analyst is nothing less than the moment of mastering the repetition compulsion and the Zeitlos underpinning it-of “keep[ing] in the psychical sphere all the impulses which the patient would like to direct into the motor sphere” (Freud 1968, 153). The clinical and analytical experience in Freud has the merit of releasing the subject from the unconscious compulsions (of aggression, of the death drive) that he would readily net out in the outer-world, rather than spell out and contain in the interior world of the psyche. Kristeva is not perhaps unaware of this facet of psychic revolt (as a break out of the mould of repetition compulsion), but she tends to stress a less finite aspect of revolt which she associates with the experience of transference itself. The bulk of Kristeva’s understanding of psychic revolt in Intimate Revolt is dedicated to insisting that, once analysis is over, the analysand will be opened up to innumerable opportunities of identification, to “the re-creation of the transferential dynamic with other others” (2002, 40). Like Freud, Kristeva does not think that analysis is terminable; unlike Freud, however, she reverses the interminability of analysis into a virtue: no longer inexorable but open, this interminability will continue to inspire the analysand in his subsequent quest to bond with others.

The question that is left hanging is this: How can we reconcile this amicable version of psychic revolt with the other more political (and violent) version that Kristeva analyzes, somewhat elegiacally, in Totem and Taboo? How can we reconcile Kristeva’s reprisal of Freud’s construction of the birth of Homo religiosis on the pyre of the father of our ancestral history-and in the wake of guilt and repentance-with the analytical version of revolt as containment of aggression (Freud) or as a license to love, as Kristeva herself contends in Intimate Revolt? My guess is that Kristeva has not been able to banish the political completely from the psychic typography (the troping of revolt in the geography of the psyche) in which she attempts to locate it. My guess soon turns into certitude when Kristeva moves to illustrate what she means by her version of psychic revolt in the works of the surrealist Aragon, the existentialist Sartre, and the structuralist Barthes.

Getting the “Political” out of Revolt

Is the psychic revolt that Kristeva discerns and redeems in the literary and philosophical texts of Aragon, Barthes, and Sartre separable from its political import? Moreover, does writerly revolt, for these writers, hold the same status as political engagement? While Kristeva is aware of the undecidability of the heterogeneous group of surrealists on this issue, all the more so in the case of Aragon whose suspicion of the political dimension of the literary experience pressed him to join the Communist Party, she attempts to convince us nonetheless that Aragon was unequivocally “an alchemist of the Word” whose “non-sense” pursuit of ideological revolt (through “the spectacle of adherence” to the Communist Party) must not blind us to the irremovable “sense” of psychic revolt that ripples through his entire oeuvre. Kristeva’s tone here is intransigent and irascible toward a culture that buries writers and their works in the shadow of their political or institutional membership. On the other hand, her tone seems apologetic since much of what she says about Aragon amounts perhaps, as the following confession implies, to nothing less than a projection of her own “non-sense” of political revolt at the time of Tel Quel: “There may have been a crisis of love, values, meaning, men, women, history, but I am not going to Abyssinia, I do not belong to the Communist Party, and if I venture to China or into structuralism, I come back” (2000, 113).

Her insistence on the “non-sense” of political revolt threatens to dilute, when it comes to Sartre, the considerable risks he took in his political action, especially in France’s colonial war against Algeria. Moreover, while whoever reads Sartre’s existentialist manifesto, Existentialism and Humanism-whose emphasis on the moral responsibility involved in the condemnation to freedom cannot be overstated-will not fail to note its consistency with his choice not to accept the Nobel Prize, Kristeva reads it as an emblem of “the sense and non-sense of revolt” (2000, 150). For Kristeva, Sartre wanted to set, on the one hand, an example for writers who might want to dissociate their continual revolt from honorific institutions. On the other hand, she claims that “his concern to detach himself from Western conformism had blinded him, and he adhered completely, without the spirit of revolt demanded elsewhere, to a certain leftist propaganda of the time” (152). Of course, Kristeva misses here the portion of doom and condemnation involved in revolt, which Sartre carefully elaborates in his writings and for which the Nobel Prize affair is, in my view, a dazzling example. By and large, I think the power of Kristeva’s analysis of Sartre, especially in Intimate Revolt, lies in the central conceit of its polemic, which is to read Sartre not only against himself but also against the backdrop of the present, in which the virtual is alienating us with the foundational négatités (by which Sartre means the copresence of nothings and identity) at the heart of being.The thrust of Kristeva’s argument points to the pertinence of Sartre’s work on the imagination to the necessity of building psychic dams firm enough to counter the flood of images of the society of the spectacle-Kristeva’s bête-noire throughout her two volumes.

Kristeva presses forward in her remapping of different types of texts through the lenses of the theory of psychic or intimate revolt by turning her probing gaze, in an admixture of mourning and melancholia, to her deceased teacher: Barthes. Kristeva takes good care to steer Barthes clear of the terrorist charges foisted on him by his detractors who are in point of fact alarmed by the subversiveness and negativity of his writing, a “negativity that works against the transparency of language and the symbolic function in general” (2000, 210-11). Kristeva shows the extent to which negativity is central to Barthes’s “desubstantifying” project of writing-a project that undoes the plenary and hackneyed communicative thrust of language in the service of the “transformative,” the unfamiliar, that is, the “antilanguage (Joyce) that is sacrificial (Bataille) that also bears witness to the social structure in upheaval” (211). Barthes demystifies the latent ideological structure of myth, which is otherwise veiled under the linguistic sign; in so doing, he exercises an interpretive revolution in that his exercise is not neutral but clear and lucid. For Kristeva, Barthes is a demystifier of social proprieties, norms, trifles, and sweet nothings, as well as a decoder of intimacy: his writings seductively move the reader from the sensorial realm of taste and fashion into the more overtly political realm of ideology; his discursive wanderings do not halt without making a “political incision” (2002, 83), without “crystaliz[ing] an island of meaning in a sea of negativity” (2000, 213). The reader will not fail to notice the heart of a failed poet beating here and there in Kristeva’s prose, but her reading of Barthes is lucid and rewarding.

In the fleshing out of her own concept of psychic revolt to the writings of Aragon, Sartre, and Barthes, Kristeva finds herself overtly involved in the specific historical and cultural circumstances that inform these texts. Kristeva’s project would have been better served had she attempted to reconcile her pronouncement of the death of revolutionist ideologies-and of the alleged necessity of pursuing “a low form of revolt” (une forme basse de la révolte), a form of “tiny revolutions (re-volte infinitésimale), in order to preserve the life of the mind and of the species” (2002, 5)-with the ways in which she then proceeds to investigate a number of texts whose historical context is traversed by the promise of socialist revolution, even if there is also in them a fringe of open texture that warrants what Kristeva means by intimate revolt. A good deal of what passes for psychic revolt in Kristeva’s reading of Aragon, Sartre, and Barthes certainly does fall under the heading of the political, but the very idea that intimate revolt could somehow compensate for or replace political revolt is in the final analysis self-defeating and impertinent to these texts themselves: the sense of intimate revolt in Aragon, Sartre, and Barthes is indissociable from the political and revolutionary horizon that informs it; it is, moreover, within a hair’s breadth of morphing into political action. To the extent that her readings of these authors might bring them (especially Aragon who is, according to Kristeva, hardly read today) back to the attention of the candid reader, she performs a laudable task; to the extent that she reads these authors to hammer home her vision of psychic revolt, she has not perhaps convincingly delivered us from the political.This, however, must remain a methodological problem that threatens to attenuate the premises of the thesis of psychic revolt writ large; by no means does it undermine the many moments of insight that fill her separate readings of each author.

There are, of course, other more general problems that arise in relation to the broad strokes of Kristeva’s argument: first, if the subject is no longer anything but a marketable collection of organs, how would it be reconciled to the sensory? To the extent that such revalorization of the sensory, the introspective, and the self-reflexive is possible, would it not present itself under the guise of the culture show? With no fringe of free will, no penumbra of critical distance, and with no allowance that the subject can somewhat exceed the power structures of which s/he is a product, there can hardly be any possibility for revolt whatsoever, even the kind of revolt in miniature that Kristeva elaborates in her two treatises. By emptying the subject of any political action, Kristeva can be said to deny the sensory prior to positing it as a space where tiny coups could be mounted. Second, what would intimate revolt amount to if not to sharpening the faculty of critique, of discerning the contours of ideological apparatuses locally and globally, and of undertaking political action? Should not intimate revolt prepare us for the political rather than deliver us from it?

In her recent contribution to Mourning Revolution, a special issue of Parallax, Kristeva reiterates her position that political revolt is over. I cannot help but remain slightly puzzled by Kristeva’s appropriation of the rhetoric of ending-namely, the ending of the subject-in the service of a theory that would not obtain without the subject. Is her elaboration of intimate revolt an attempt to trope the subject back into existence? In “Mourning a Metaphor: The Revolution is Over,” also a contribution to Mourning Revolution, Jay points out that the word “revolution”-whose astronomical origins invoke celestial movement and circular or elliptical return to a former place-is nothing more than a mere metaphorical displacement. The word was used, according to Jay, in the face of events whose violence and unpredictability seemed impossible to comprehend, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that it was used in the peculiar and, ever since, more widespread sense of a Utopian tomorrow. By 1989, however, the latter more promissory meaning of “revolution” was crashed and we are, according to Jay, “no longer beholden to maximalist fantasies of redemption and epochal transformation, fantasies whose defeat leaves us feeling impotent and lost” (Kurt, Stahl, and Willis 2003,19-20). Jay argues, in other words, that there was a time when we might have needed metaphors such as revolution to fashion the world according to our own dreams, but that time is over, and we now need to understand that metaphors are nothing more than metaphors. The good news is that “it may therefore be better to wander forever in the desert of metaphorical displacement than set up our camp in an oasis that proves only to be a mirage” (20).

Perhaps no one has so far understood this lesson more than Kristeva since her concept of “intimate revolt” can be seen as nothing more than a metaphorical displacement, all the more so since she purports to effect a return to the original meaning of “revolt” which is nothing other than “return” itself. The original meaning itself is a metaphor: Kristeva’s return is thus nothing but a remetaphorization.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. The Illusion of the End. Trans. Chris Turner. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bell, Daniel. 1988. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy.” Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. Semeia 23: 63-97.

_______. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Donato, Arthur. 1997. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1968. “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 5. 12, trans. James Strachey. 1914. Reprint. London:The Hogarth Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Avon Books.

_______. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 2002. “My Memory’s Hyperbole.” In The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shakespeare, William. 2000. King Lear, ed. Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vattimo, Gianni. 1988. The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in a Post-modern Culture. Oxford: Polity Press.

Nouri Gana teaches at the University of Monteal. His work has appeared in American Imago, Études Irlandaises, Law and Literature, Theory and Event, and Mosaic.

Copyright West Chester University Fall 2004
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

[this article is taken from


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