Julia Kristeva – from “Women’s Time”

March 31, 2007

Julia Kristeva, from “Women’s Time
Revolutions of the Word (1981), pp. 167-70

Kristeva poses a fascinating question as the central issue of this excerpt: if modernity is “the first epoch in human history in which human beings attempt to live without religion, [then, in] its present form, is not feminism in the process of becoming one?” (223). That is, if religion, a term that for Kristeva seems to signify an oppressive, limiting doctrine, is being eliminated in its traditional forms – Christianity, Judaism, secular humanism, even, among others – and something else must come to take its place, how much better and how much different is feminism “in its present form?” Is it not in danger of becoming a codified, restrictive force that imposes its own definition of “Woman, Her Power, [and] Her writing” on individual women instead of serving “to channel this demand for difference into each and every element of the female whole, and finally, to bring out the singularity of each woman, and beyond this, her multiplicities, her plural languages, beyond the horizon, beyond sight, beyond faith itself?” (223). Kristeva concludes her opening remarks thusly: “The question has been posed. Is to pose it already to answer it?” (223).

Well, yes, of course; such a plainly rhetorical question clearly implies its own answer. The rest of this excerpt consists of Kristeva exploring what might rise up to take the place of this ominously religious feminism. To begin, she speaks of a third generation of feminist women rising up in Europe. Significantly, Kristeva does not use generation in its traditional sense but instead to refer to “a signifying space, a both corporeal and desiring mental space” (223). This generation, which Kristeva champions, does not replace or succeed previous generations but exists in parallel to them. This third generation seeks to challenge the long-held understanding of the “dichotomy [binary] man / woman as an opposition between two rival entities” by viewing it “as belonging to metaphysics” (223).

To do so, she (in the kind of language that tends to dispose many readers unfavorably toward theorists) seeks “the demassification of the problematic of difference,” by which she means, in somewhat plainer language, the dissection of the concept of difference so that one may understand it not only as a broad social phenomenon but as an occurrence within every individual person and within each person’s “personal and sexual identity itself” (224). She notes that this has the potential to be largely disruptive both within individuals and in society as a whole but that it must be undertaken because the current “counterbalancing of aggressive and murderous forces massed in social, national, religious, and political groups” is “insupportable” in its “tension and explosive risk” (224).

Kristeva proposes that the process by which this demassification will be carried out is “an interiorization of the founding separation of the sociosymbolic contract” (a phrase that I think I would much more clearly understand after reading more of Kristeva’s work), that is, an internalized, explicit understanding and acknowledgment within every person of the inherent differential binaries by which society implicitly functions. She sees this process as making everyone aware of “the relativity of his/her symbolic as well as biological existence” (225) via the ethics of “aesthetic practices” (more on this term later); furthermore, this process is necessary to “counterbalance the …uniformity of information” that modern technology enables and to make people aware of the communal effects of language “as a universal and unifying tool” (224). Kristeva, then, seeks to protect fiercely the individual human subject in all of its painful and beautiful complexity and conflicted multiplicity.

Finally, Kristeva closes by pondering “feminism as but a moment in the thought of the anthropomorphic identity which currently blocks the horizon of the discursive and scientific adventure of our species” (225); ultimately, Kristeva sees feminism as only the specific initial instance of what she hopes will be a broader trend of moving away from an ethics that opposes conflict, confusion, and unresolved difference to her concept of “aesthetic practices” that simultaneously declares everyone “guilty while immediately affording them to possibility for jouissance, for various productions, for a life made up of both challenges and differences” (225).

Insofar as I accurately understand Kristeva’s argument, it seems to me at once the most logical, radical, and useful trajectory of feminism. By taking feminism’s grounding principles and seeking to develop them beyond the realm of sex and gender (while never leaving it), Kristeva has developed feminism in an engaging, challenging, and beautifully frightening direction.

Roland Barthes – “The Death of the Author”

March 29, 2007

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
S. Heath, tr. and ed. Image, Music, Text (1968), pp. 142-8

Barthes’s essay summarizes itself in its final paragraph: “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (189).

Not a shocking conclusion for an article entitled “The Death of the Author,” really, but truly radical idea in and of itself: that the Author, long the focus of literary study, is not in fact all that important – it is the reader that matters. To get to this point, Barthes begins with the observation that “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author… [and that the] explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (186).

Barthes begins to take apart this assumption of authorial importance by noting that “… it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality… to reach that point, where only language acts, ‘performs’ and not ‘me'” (186), a conclusion to which New Critics could at least tentatively assent. However, Barthes’s next move is a bit more radical. He claims that “… writing… designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative, a rare verbal form… in which the enunciation has no other content… than the act by which it is uttered – something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets” (187). The Author (who by now should probably simply be referred to as “the writer”) is then merely a conduit for pre-existent language, a person whose “… only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them” (188).
He is the assembler of already formed writings, many of which are mutually contradictory. Barthes goes on to assert that, “… the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (188); to focus on the author is “… to impose a limit on [a] text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (188). This is the case because to insist on an authorial presence is to insist on a coherence in the writing that is simply not there. The author is the transcendental signified for the structure of the text, and a post-structuralist understanding cannot tolerate such a figure. To do so would be to deny the slippage that is inevitably at work in the bricolage that is present in any text.

Barthes then concludes that “In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (188). In short, he proposes an anti-foundational hermeneutic for interpreting both life and literature that values the play of contradictory elements of a text in the mind of the reader, who is the central figure, the final object of the act of writing.

Barthes conceives the author as chef, the text as food, and the reader as ingesting and digesting that which the chef has prepared. In Barthes’s opinion, only in entering the reader’s mouth does the food take on any flavor, and only in his stomach does it release any energy. Moreover, Barthes relentlessly reminds us that the author did not create (in the sense of bringing into existence) any of the ingredients in his dishes, and that the chef would cease to have any real purpose without his patrons, that it wouldn’t really do him much good to prepare meals that would merely sit on a table until they rotted away. Barthes deconstructs the binary of “Author / reader” to show that the reader is the necessary supplement and then privileges the reader: a necessary corrective in the flow of literary interpretation, to be sure.

Yet, I can’t help but feel sorry for the Author as viewed by Barthes: is his skillful selection and combination of ingredients in his text to be completely ignored? And, is not the Author almost undoubtedly also a reader himself? I envision, instead of a mere change of privilege in the Author / reader binary, a deconstruction to the point of implosion: the roles of Author and reader are shared by all in varying proportions at varying times for various people. What exactly that looks like, however, is another thought for another essay.

NB I know that the food metaphor does not necessarily hold up perfectly, but it is, I think, helpful, and, just as importantly, fun. Also, please forgive my default use of the masculine pronoun for unidentified people; old habits die hard, I suppose.

Jacques Lacan – “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”

March 6, 2007

Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”
Alan Sheridan, tr. Ecrits, A Selection (1949), pp. 1-7

Before engaging the content of Lacan’s argument, I must engage its form. Although I find some admirable qualities in his writing (for example, his extensive and illustrative use of biological and mathematical vocabulary), I take issue with its general structure. I’ve heard it said that Lacan intentionally made his writing vague and loosely structured so that it would resemble the subject about which he wrote: the human mind. A lovely idea, to be sure, but in execution it becomes at best tedious and at worst outright frustrating for the nonspecialist. The loosely organized structure of the excerpt combined with its highly specialized psychological vocabulary quickly made clear either that Lacan didn’t care about the widespread dissemination of his ideas or that he assumed that others would take care of that. While others, have, in fact, taken up Lacan’s cause and presented his ideas in vastly more comprehensible terms, in my mind, Lacan nevertheless does himself a great disservice in writing for such a narrow audience. As a new reader of his work, I frequently felt lost trying to understand what he was saying; even after reading a quite helpful textbook summary of his ideas and after class lecture and discussion, a rereading of the selection proved only marginally less maddening. To be fair, this may be as much the fault of the editors of the anthology for making a poor selection. But, in any case, I believe that explanatory writing should be at its clearest when discussing complex, unclear thoughts; on this point, Lacan and I may have to respectfully disagree.

As to the content of the excerpt, I see the destabilization of the liberal humanist subject as Lacan’s most valuable contribution, both to general knowledge and to the field of specifically literary theory. In all honesty, I’m not sure that I understand all the finer points of his argument enough to critique them, but what follows is my best attempt.

Lacan begins with a description of the mirror stage, which takes place in infants anywhere between the ages of six and eighteen months. Lacan calls the transformational effects of this stage as “an ontological structure of the human world” (190). This stage, wherein the infant sees his own reflection in the mirror, consists of the transitional stage of the formation of the “I… before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (190). Lacan goes on to note that “this form [the Ideal-I of the mirror stage] situates the agency of the ego… in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone.”

N. B. I know that you wanted me to adopt a more formal, “academic critiquing academic” tone in these responses, and I tried to do that as best I could here. However, in all honesty, I still don’t understand Lacan’s writing (I think I understand his general concepts as outlined in Tyson and in class lectures) nearly well enough to feel comfortable really engaging with it. In fact, I would love to sit down and discuss the excerpt with you at some point (or hear your thoughts on it) since, after a great deal of effort, I’m still largely left scratching my head and saying, “I don’t get it.”