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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Strangers to Ourselves: On Getting to Know Julia Kristeva

In the penultimate session of our current six-week Philosophy Club series devoted to all things post-structuralist, we turned last Thursday to the question of 'foreignness' as explored and theorized by philosopher, psychoanalyst and novelist, Julia Kristeva. Born in Bulgaria in 1941, Kristeva made her way to Paris as a post-graduate student in 1965. She arrived, in other words, at that crucial moment where, out of the intellectual groundwork laid by  linguistic and anthropological structuralism, the first errant sparks of a new kind of thinking were erupting. Peculiarly French and particularly cerebral, the next few years would be marked by a proliferation of writings that hammered out the terrain of this heady and headstrong challenge to conventional wisdom: writings by people such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollers and Roland Barthes. At the epicentre of this literary maelstrom was the movement's mouthpiece, Tel Quel; and amidst the voices most vocal in this radical left-wing journal that heralded the plurality of language and the instability of meaning was a voice that was not male, not French: that of Julia Kristeva. And though she has always run with the boys and, unlike her more feminist-identifying philosopher contemporaries Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, hastened to align herself theoretically and politically alongside the boys, her voice has continued to bring something to the post-structuralist table that is distinctly not of the boys. Nowhere in Kristeva's writing is this not-of-ness more apparent than in her painstaking investigation of what it means to be a foreigner, Strangers to Ourselves (1989).

When I say "painstaking," I mean it in a double sense: pains-taking in that Kristeva's monumental survey of how foreignness in the Western world has manifested itself and been dealt with both historically and literally is extraordinarily thorough; pain-staking in that her evocative descriptions of the foreigner's experience stab you right where it hurts, go straight to the heart of the matter. In the chapter of her book that we had read in preparation for this session, Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner, the pain that stakes was clearly in the driving seat - and this, one couldn't help but feel, because it drew on what Kristeva herself had lived firsthand. In light of Kristeva's assertion that it is only the foreigner who believes herself to have a biography - to have any life at all - this turn to the autobiographical for this particular exploration of the link between difference and identity (the meat and potatoes, as we have seen, of many a post-structuralist ponder) comes as no surprise. What did give us pause for thought, however, was Kristeva's main argument: that the foreigner in fact "lives within us," thereby troubling the line traditionally drawn between 'self' and 'other'; that only in resisting the urge to make of the foreigner's so-called 'otherness' a thing - something solid and permanent and nameable - can we escape the hatred, the burden, that so often accompanies our encounter with that 'other' (who is, at the end of the day, none other than our 'self').

So yes, pause for thought. And a demanding pause at that. Learning just how to treat otherness in a way that sidesteps the fall into damning and damaging 'thingness' was a challenge in itself: facilitated by listening to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor - that combination of scurrying virtuoso flight and polyphonic contrapuntal exposition exemplifying, for Kristeva, the push and pull of an "otherness barely touched upon and already, it moves away"; rendered palpable through a recording of the wonderful May Swenson (1913-1989) reading her poem, Question - the rhythmic cantor of her voice bringing into sharp focus those bodily, extra-linguistic aspects of words that Kristeva feels we all too often neglect and that, through their disruptive workings, take the sting out of 'thingness'.

Having paved the way to an understanding of Kristeva's primary concerns through these exercises in aurality, we got down to some good old Kristevian brass tacks. Here was yet another post-structuralist take on the de Saussurian 'sign': in this case, its failure to account for the bodily drives and affects. Here was yet another post-structuralist reworking of a seminal structuralist construct: in this case, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's Symbolic Order.

With regards to that persistent 'sign,' Kristeva's main contribution has been to herald the arrival of a new player on the signified/signifier/sign scene: the realm of the semiotic, which is prior to 'the word' - in other words, a baby's sentient and tactile engagement with her mother (and other 'others') before she enters the language system - and yet, for all that it is prior, still integral to and constitutive of 'the word'.

As for Lacan, this latter assertion is what sets Kristeva apart from him. For whereas Lacan sees the child's entry into the language system (or Symbolic Order) as being accompanied by a violent break with those primal bodily impulses which, subsequently, can only manifest themselves within the new initiate (not to mention within language more generally) as a gap, an absolute loss, Kristeva is far less cut and dry: seeing in language's very materiality - its rhythms, its pulsations, its stops and starts and flows - plenty of evidence of those early semiotic stirrings; seeing in the Symbolic Order the presence of another kind of ordering mechanism that slips between the cracks of conventional meaning-making and signification.

Of course, it is easier to spot this particular aspect of language - language's material 'other', if you like - in certain forms of literary expression, such as poetry. But even when it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, Kristeva insists, it is there: a fluid and motile genotext springing leaks in more meaning-focused phenotext; an unruly intruder into the smooth flow of information transmission that makes of language, of communication, an always split, an always impossible, unification. It's the relation that prohibits the totality. It's the other in the self. It is, as Kristeva would have it in the context of Strangers to Ourselves, the foreigner who lives within us. Which begs the question that Kristeva indeed asks:

"How to promote the togetherness that we all in fact are, rather than see foreigners as those that we welcome into our system so long as we can obliterate them?"

Pauline Marois, take note. Unless, of course, self-obliteration is the object of the exercise. A better option for Quebec? Embrace the heterogeneity of cosmopolitanism and, like the good toccata and fugue, keep repeating the differences of otherness rather than leveling, so as to forget, them. An interesting Kristevian twist, this, on "Je me souviens"...