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.