Julia Kristeva is a multidisciplinary Bulgarian-French writer, most recognised for her works in semiotics, intertextuality, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Her writings primarily focus on the creation of meaning, through her exploration of the abject, the symbolic and semiotic and more broad cultural analysis. In her lecture ‘New Forms of Revolt’¹, Kristeva argues that contemporary political struggle has lost “its moral and aesthetic significance”.
In a version of the lecture given at the 2014 Holberg Prize, Kristeva discusses the etymology of the word revolt. Derived from the latin volvō, meaning to roll or tumble, the verb révolter first appeared in French in the 15th century in the sense of re-turn, return or turn around. The word’s current meaning dates to the French Revolution, which “made from this [...] a political revolt [and] a synonym of dignity”². Revolt thus involves a process of revaluation that, Kristeva argues, must happen internally in the form of an intimate revolt. How might the Kristevan idea of ‘revolt’ be a way of thinking processes of aesthetic and political renewal?
We will first explore Kristeva’s work on developmental psychology, laying the groundwork to better understand the concept of “intimate revolt”. We will then move to adolescence, the period of life which, for Kristeva, best encapsulates the need to believe that contemporary society continually longs for. Lastly, we will consider how the conception of revolt as re-turn can help resolve these issues, allow for the creation of new meaning, and ultimately form a more mature society.
A large part of Kristeva’s work focuses on the creation of meaning. As a philosopher, she observes the role meaning plays within society and how it is conducive to political change; as a psychoanalyst, she explores how the subject creates meaning of the world throughout its various developmental stages. The two discussions are of course deeply interconnected, working simultaneously in a “polylogic”³ and versatile manner extending beyond these two spheres. In order to understand Kristeva’s argument on revolt, we must therefore draw connections with the rest of her philosophy. As such, we will look at how intimate revolt ties into her concepts of the Semiotic, the abject and the subject in process.
One of Kristeva’s major contributions in the field of semiotics (the study of how meaning is created/communicated), is the distinction she draws between two types of meaning, the Symbolic and the Semiotic. The former refers to referential meaning such as grammar, definitions and the logic of discourse. The latter refers to non-linguistic, implicit aspects of meaning: vocal rhythm, displacement, metaphors, alliterations... In Kristeva’s rewriting of Lacan’s theory of psychosexual development, whereas the Symbolic only arises around the mirror stage and with the development of language, the Semiotic emerges during the developmental stage called the chora. Being the very earliest stage of development (0-6 months of age), you cannot yet distinguish yourself from the mother or the world around you. The meaning produced in the chora is therefore intuitive, drive-based and linked to the maternal.
The pre-linguistic development of identity which follows occurs in two phases. The mirror stage (6-18 months), coined by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is the phase when you first recognise yourself as a separate entity from the world. Beforehand, however, is a phase (4-8 months) when you first acknowledge yourself as distinct from the mother. Kristeva describes it as “a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling”⁴. It is a traumatic, disorienting moment in which you first experience what Kristeva calls the abject. Put simply, the abject is the reaction to being confronted with the ambiguity of your borders as a being. This causes great distress, as it blurs the lines between what you consider as yourself, and what you have abjected (what you absolutely are not/the Other). The abject dissolves the symbolic order, thrusting you back to the chora’s pre-objectal experience of the world, most powerful when manifesting the ambiguities of your existence as a living (and dying) being⁵. But Kristeva argues that in art, confronting the abject is actually beneficial to the subject as it provides protection through catharsis.
Aesthetic encounters with the abject thus contribute to the development of the subject in process/on trial (sujet en procès). The subject in process is one who finds balance between the Symbolic and Semiotic. This involves a purification of the abject so as to no longer repress it, but rather embrace it as part of life. The subject in process is inquisitive, creative and strives to produce her own meaning. Much like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, who “must be ready to burn [himself] in [his] own flame“⁶, she “sets ablaze and transforms all laws, including - and perhaps especially - those of signifying structures”⁷. In other words, the subject in process continuously practices self inquiry, questioning and reinvention - a process Kristeva calls intimate revolt.
Intimate revolt involves a questioning of the self and of the world which leads to the creation of meaning, so as to balance the Symbolic and Semiotic. It entails a purification of the abject, allowing for the deconstruction of identity. It is a painful process, as it “exposes the subject to unbearable conflict”⁸ but it is ultimately fruitful to individual, self assured and meaningful experience. Therefore, Kristeva believes intimate revolt is essential to the society’s progress; “it is not enough to have a plan. It is necessary to have men and women with inner experiences that are unique, inquisitive and uncompromising. It is only under this condition that they can be reformers”⁹.
However, Kristeva observes that revolution lost its aesthetic and political significance in the 20th century. This is because contemporary political movements have emphasised the collective, without encouraging intimate revolt, leading to passive, overly-idealistic and hopeless individuals which she compares to adolescents.
For Kristeva, adolescence is the age of belief. During childhood, you were primarily occupied with the desire to know. The child, having yet to sexually develop, is a “polymorphous pervert”¹⁰ interested in the workings his body and its relation to the world. However, “whereas the child is [...] a laboratory researcher, the adolescent is a believer”¹¹. This is because, along with sexual development, the adolescent separates himself from the parent couple. In doing so, the Ego strives for meaning elsewhere: “the adolescent acquires the certainty that there is an absolute satisfaction, [...] that he or she can rush towards a new love that will open the door to new paradises.”¹². This need to believe may lead to erotic love but it also strives for “images, ideologies, different forms of knowledge, and existential models”¹³. But since the adolescent never reaches paradise, his search for absolute meaning is necessarily “in a state of crisis [which] inexorably mixes with [...] nihilism”¹⁴. Through proper care and understanding, the adolescent eventually accepts the ambiguities of life, balancing the need to believe (Semiotic) with the desire to know (Symbolic), and starts to create his own meaning¹⁵. But left to fester, the paradise syndrome brings about desperation, resentment and angst: “vandalism [...] self-destructive behaviour [...] drug addiction [etc.]”¹⁶. In more serious cases, it may lead to political extremism and fanaticism.
Kristeva posits that contemporary society is in a perpetual state of adolescence¹⁷, manifested by a need to believe which increasingly leads to radicalism. Indeed, you could argue that modern day capitalism encourages complacency, thoughtlessness and suppresses the creativity required for intimate revolt.
Guy Debord describes modern society as a Society of the Spectacle¹⁸ where the combination of commodity fetishism and capitalist exploitation leads to a devaluation of lived experience. He argues that the exploitation of the working class breeds apathy, restlessness and a sense of meaninglessness, which is doubled by the fact that consumerism offers a false sense of meaning in the form of consumer goods. Meaning itself thus becomes a commodity, rather than something you construct through experience.
This is emphasised by the role art and media take within the capitalist system, which Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer coin as the culture industry¹⁹. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that mainstream art has lost its autonomy and thus its ability to be critical of society, as capitalism makes it far riskier to shake things up than to use pre-established formulas. This applies to any artist who wishes to earn a living making art, but it’s particularly the case of music and film since they are the most profitable, hence widespread, and generally (exclusively, at the time of the book’s writing) require a budget and team to produce. As such, artists are jeopardised in their ability for social critique, which Adorno defines as the main purpose of art. It also leads to art’s homogenisation, since its primary aim is no longer to express meaning but rather be profitable.
Furthermore, you could argue that the collective trauma caused by increasing pressures in contemporary society may lead to a repression of critical thinking and possibility for revolt. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein discusses how the paralysis caused by global crises is incessantly utilised to push neoliberal policies that would have otherwise been contested. Indeed, “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure—whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or [...] a terrorist attack.”²⁰.
As we can see, many facets of contemporary society discourage the creation of meaning in order to maintain the status quo. So how might we forge a society more fruitful to intimate revolt?
Individually, we might practice what Jacques Derrida calls deconstruction. This is an approach to philosophy which dissects traditional binaries in order to question the hierarchies they imply. Deconstruction might interrogate the assumed merit of mind over body, men over women, reason over passion... Kristeva’s work in linguistics questions the value we accord to the Symbolic versus the Semiotic, for example. Deconstruction aims to consider the faults and merits of each side, so as “to overturn” (re-turn) “the hierarchy”²¹ and come to an understanding less shrouded by societal presuppositions. This approach actively encourages critical experience, thus contributing to internal revolt.
A notable example of deconstruction in action is Bernard Stiegler’s work on technics. In general, Stiegler agrees with Adorno and Hockheimer’s analysis of the culture industry. However, he is sceptical of their aversion to technology, which implies a binary opposition between humanity and technology. Stiegler argues that humans are in fact technical beings: through technics, which encompasses tools and technology, we fashion our identity by interacting with the world²². We must therefore reclaim technology in order to be more active users, by developing deeper individual understanding of how it functions and how it’s used to manipulate us. In doing so, Stiegler argues that we can emancipate ourself from our subservience to the culture industry and utilise technology to reinvent human destiny.
We might further consider how the abject can be used to advance the process of deconstruction. Since it exposes boundaries, the abject has the potential to disrupt hierarchies by making us re-examine the things we have abjected. This has notably been done by feminist artists in regards to our attitude towards menstruation. In Menstruation Bathroom²³, Judy Chicago places the viewer in the literal space of societal (and physical) abjection, where “abjected and rejected female bodies are confined to ‘deal’ with ‘dirty’ processes”²⁴. In her open depiction of menstruation, with blood drenched knickers hanging from a line and sanitary products “[threatening] to overflow onto the floor”, Chicago opposes traditional menstrual etiquette of “concealment and cleanliness”²⁵, absolving the taboo of what is ultimately an extremely banal experience.
Lastly, the disruption of meaning may also be a way of fighting the hegemony of multinationals. In No Logo, Naomi Klein explores how brands have invaded our political, education and sociocultural spaces, as well as exerted unprecedented pressure on small businesses and the labour market, leading to a suppression of many of our basic freedoms²⁶. The book later explores various ways activists are reclaiming political space through culture jamming, illegal raves, sit-ins, ad-busting, etc. Klein argues that since multinationals rely on the power of their brand image to exert domination, it makes them particularly fragile to its defilement. As such, the desecration of brands resists commodity fetishism, allowing for the creation of new meaning. Therefore, we might consider how the abject could be further used to galvanise the public towards anticorporate activism.
To conclude, even though politics currently lacks the moral and aesthetic significance necessary for revolutionary change, there is nonetheless an increasing push towards the disruption of pre-established meaning and intimate revolt. This might occur in the way we write; in her essays, Kristeva deliberately employs a combination of genres, registers and writing styles, so as to utilise both Semiotic and Symbolic in her argumentation. Increasingly, political campaigns are also adopting less hierarchical forms of organisation to promote critical thinking and dialogue at the grassroots. So much as the global superpowers Naomi Klein discusses in her books are undoubtedly more powerful than ever, public opinion is also becoming increasingly critical²⁷. What might come of that revolt?
1. Julia Kristeva, ‘New Forms of Revolt’, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy (University of Pittsburg, 2014), <http://jffp.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jffp/article/download/650/660> [accessed 5 April 2021].
2. Holberg Prize, YouTube, Julia Kristeva: New Forms of Revolt (2018) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI6nozttUhs> [accessed 5 April 2021], 7:09.
3. Julia Kristeva, Polylogue (Paris: Editions Seuil, 1977).
4. Julia Kristeva, Power of Horror (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980), p. 20.
5. Ibid., (p. 11).
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 90.
7. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1974), p. 105.
8. Kristeva (2014), p. 6.
9. Ibid., p. 2.
10. Sigmund Freud, Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud, The Vol 7: "A Case of Hysteria" (London: Vintage Classics, 2001), p. 191.
11. Kristeva (2014) p. 14.
14. Ibid., p. 15.
15. Ibid., p. 18.
16. Ibid., p. 15.
17. Ibid., p. 17.
18. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Olympia: Last Word Press, 2016).
19. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1997), p. 120.
20. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 168.
21. Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), p. 41.
22. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p.17.
23. Judy Chicago, Menstruation Bathroom (1971) <https://www.judychicago.com/gallery/womanhouse/pr-artwork/> [accessed 5 April 2021].
24. Ruth Green-Cole, Bloody Women Artists (2014), <https://enjoy.org.nz/publishing/the-occasional-journal/love-feminisms/text-bloody-women-artists> [accessed 5 April 2021].
26. Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Flamingo, 2000), p. XXI.
27. Dan Hancox, ‘No Logo at 20: have we lost the battle against the total branding of our lives?’, The Guardian, 11 August 2019 < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/11/no-logo-naomi-klein-20-years-on-interview?CMP> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1997).
Barkardóttir, Freyja Jónudóttir, Hope of Failure: Subverting Disgust, Shame and the Abject in Feminist Performances with Menstrual Blood (2016).
Chicago, Judy, Menstruation Bathroom (1971) <https://www.judychicago.com/gallery/womanhouse/pr-artwork/> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (Olympia: Last Word Press, 2016).
Derrida, Jacques, Positions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
Felluga, Dino, "Modules on Kristeva: On the Abject." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, Purdue U, <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Freud, Sigmund, Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud, The Vol 7: "A Case of Hysteria" (Vintage Classics, 2001).
Green-Cole, Ruth, Bloody Women Artists (2014), <https://enjoy.org.nz/publishing/the-occasional-journal/love-feminisms/text-bloody-women-artists> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Hancox, Dan, ‘No Logo at 20: have we lost the battle against the total branding of our lives?’, The Guardian, 11 August 2019 < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/11/no-logo-naomi-klein-20-years-on-interview?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Holberg Prize, YouTube, Julia Kristeva: New Forms of Revolt (2018) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI6nozttUhs> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Klein, Naomi, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin, 2008).
Klein, Naomi, No Logo (New York: Flamingo, 2000).
Kristeva, Julia, Polylogue (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977).
Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980).
Kristeva, Julia, ‘New Forms of Revolt’, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy (2014), <http://jffp.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jffp/article/download/650/660> [accessed 5 April 2021].
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin Books, 1969).
Stiegler, Bernard, Technics and Time 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).