Kristeva: A Dis-Agreement

Kristeva’s “human” is grounded in matter itself, though matter is not the old substance of res extensa.

. . . the a-symbolized and a-symbolizable scission, to the nothing that is neither one nor multiple, but rather the “infinite nothingness” spoken of by speculative philosophy, which we shall posit as matter that is always already split; from it, repeated rejections will generate not only the thetic logos but its shattering. (p. 157)

To be human is to be the stuff and the site and the occasion for a semiotic-symbolic dialectic, a choric-thetic process. That is, at the site of human being (the chora) is the stuff of human being: instinctual drives generated by a primordial negativity inherent in matter-in-scission. At this site this stuff is rejected, stopped, by opposing forces, biological and social. The effect of these constraints is to precipitate a symbolizing movement; drives, rejected, divert into “meaning” (into the activity of signifying, i.e., a Freudian substitution of an other for the mother displacement, condensation)[CHK] and into meaningful—socialized—behavior. Drives come to rest in stases. (Drives unopposed would drive to destruction, death.) But stasis is momentary, temporary; the stuff of life (jouissance) is guaranteed by the nature of matter itself—“always already splitting.” Waves of new drives charge the stases, breaking them up, requiring new “meaning,” new social forms to their new matter.

This semiotic-symbolic confrontation is the occasion for the construction of the subject. The subject (not a transcendental ego) is “posited” by the forces above: instinctual drives and their biological and social opposition. The chora, site of the confrontation of drives and their rejection, is not a chaotic place but is ordered by a (Freudian) principle: the mother’s body mediates between semiotic and social-symbolic functions—the mother’s body because it is in union and disunion with it that the infant first experiences absence and loss and it is in relation to it that the infant will learn biological and social functions-behaviors. Kristeva adopts the Freudian-Lacan theory of the development of human psychology; infant oral and anal drives, primary[CHK] narcissism (homosexuality), Oedipus complex, castration comp1ex, mirror XXX. The “fall” from an original semiotic engagement with the mother’s body into fragmentation—absence, loss—entails the opening up of a “symbolic space” where a subject is posited, and objects (of its desire). With a subject as a point of identification, self-image, as a “nucleus of judgment or proposition,” the thetic, enunciating, capability opens up: the capability (1) for registering objects—for attributing “identity or difference”—and moving them “about, combining and recombining them [43]; and (2) for making signs (all signs are the”germ of a sentence," have the nature of “copula”), for categorizing, for organizing syntax; in short, for the aesthetic metaphor-metonymy capabilities of language. [chk: IS SUBJECT PRIOR TO THETIC? OR DO THEY BOTH OPEN AT MORE OR LESS SAME TIME?] The subject is, like “meaning,” never present or permanent; it is always, in Kristeva’s phrase, “in process/on trial.” The subject, like meaning. is reposited. reconstructed. continuously by the new stuff of new drives and their demands for new language. new social forms. It is the repetition and the excess of the drives that enable and compel the evolution and revolution of language and society, or in the event that language and society cannot accommodate the power or the excess, that break up, burst through, language and social constraints to the destruction of the subject and the human being. This trans-linguistic process is actually in evidence in poetic texts where the drives are not completely assimilated into language but are identifiable not only as anti-social thematic but as sound and spacing. as rhythm and musicality.

Kristeva’s notion of man is a very powerful one. In the field of psychoanalysis it advances Freud-Lacan’s work [CHK] and enhances its scientificality by giving the human function of language-making justification and necessity in the nature of matter itself. (Of course, she has taken the liberty of revising the scientific concept of matter, investing it with Hegel’s negativity—a kind of blind pulse.) For Marxist thought she achieves a material ground for the human “spirit,” and a material agency responsible for its emergence as consciousness and its function as “meaning,” responsible also for its evolution and its revolution, responsible for its pathologies, its self-de- structive capabilities. The question of the nature of the human being and society is [answered] in the revelation of the nature of matter as material, trans-linguistic process.

It is not Kristeva’s intention to produce a work of science. In the “Prolegomenon” she states that the foundations and methods of science are “archivistic, archaeological, and necrophilic”; they are “an embarrassment when applied to modern or contemporary phenomena”; they are but another example of the stultifying effect of capitalist stratification of subjectivity and social structure. Kristeva’s work is, however, marked by what I shall call the scientism that infects the thinking of this age. Psychoanalysis, the field of psychology, and all of the “social sciences” are from their inception attempts to bring “human” and “subjective” phenomena into the scientific realm, to validate them by the laws of physics and the language of mathematics, to treat them as, it seems to me, pre-evolutionary, non-“human” objects. The project is worse than static and dated. It is theoretically flawed.

If, as we believe today, scientific method is the most reliable questioning, if the laboratory and instruments are the site and the means of thinking, if physics and mathematics are the language of reality, then science can best delineate, illuminate, our human way. But the scientific method harbors the following doubtful presuppositions: (1) that it achieves some kind and extent of access to the “real,” to things-as-they-are. Accordingly, though science takes up its position at the locus of human understanding, and though it performs everything it does by means of it, yet it discounts the question of human understanding itself as unscientific, assigning the problem of its origin to oblivion and of its nature to psychology (not a “real” science). Unless both the universe and the scientific method of exploring it are self- evident—undeniable and unquestionable—this unexplored ground remains a fundamental problem. (2) The laws of physics (as they are discovered or determined) and the language of mathematics are applicable and adequate to the objects and the objectives of their study. Though scientific language is the most exact, consistent, pure (least liable to contamination) system of codification we know, it can express only physical and mathematical knowledge. It skims off the parts of things that can be addressed in physics-math questions; but what may lie outside the range of these questions is unknown. And indeed, since Kant it has been unclear whether the “truths” or “facts” discoverable by physics-mathematics belong to things-in-themselves at all. (3) The universe is approachable, is amenable to modelling—eventually as a unity or a totality. Thus Nietzsche calls science a handmaiden to Platonism. The modern academic trend toward thinking in terms of multiplicity and plurality and outright contradiction—though it responds to a scientific necessity (the evidence is turning up in such forms)— belongs to a post-Nietzschean, post-logic paradigm, not to the underlying rational basis of science.

Science comes after, derives from, and serves a thinking.
But science seems to “think” (without thinking)that it can ignore or even cut this embarrassing umbilical. Not Kristeva alone, but almost every modern thinker/thinking aspires to scientific status, attempts to achieve academic respectability for any intellectual endeavor by grasping and justifying his/her thematic in a scientific manner-method-language. For the moment the child is father, the servant master. (This is true even when we discount current technological designing and engineering which subordinate thinking to matter, build and use a language/“thinking”/“meaning” from what they take for the “real”—the physical, the calculable.) Kristeva’s work is a telling example of the effect. Her brilliant idea, capable of discovering and illuminating human being in a new and complex understanding, is effectively hidden, buried, in a language that is impeded in several ways. First and to her credit, her idea is difficult to think and to say; it is being wrested from resistant stone [where it has lain unrecognized]. Second, it is being rendered in the terms of a professional jargon (Freud himself escaped—while he founded—this sterile vocabulary). And third, in a scientistic devotion to objectivity (language as pure symbol—mathematics—is the ideal) she strips her language of color, moisture, oxygen. Something that the idea maintains is missing from the language: energy, drive, jouissance. (This problem is mitigated in later works of Kristeva’s, but the foundation and justification for her theory is worked out here.) The effect is dramatized when she quotes passages from modernist poetry or fiction, when the very thing that she herself is explaining is being expressed by the authors as well. Her writing is obscure, awkward; the thing she is talking about seems remote, dim. Then suddenly, with the quotation, something happens; the “referent” appears there on the page.

The artist produces art, it may be argued, the thinker thinking; my complaint confuses the two. No, the problem of psychoanalysis and of the social sciences, as of science proper, is just the matter that escapes the physics-math equations—the stuff that art captures best, captures and holds for our thinking. A thinking about human nature that cannot admit these elements except by changing or missing what seems essential may be missing or distorting its objects.

Perhaps the problem can be approached another way. Language is a function. In Desire in Language (where her language functions more propitiously) Kristeva cites the Mayakovsky analogy between a poet’s search for the language to render precisely the rhythm he feels it necessary to render, and a dentist’s attempt to make a crown to the exact proportions of a particular (throbbing) tooth. At last, when the thing is achieved: what pain, what relief!

On the one hand, then, we have this rhythm; this repetitive sonority; this thrusting tooth pushing upwards before being capped with the crown of language; this struggle between word and force gushing with the pain and relief of a desperate delirium; the repetition of this growth, of this gushing forth around the crown-word, like the earth completing its revolution around the sun. ( p. 28)

This is an apt image for Kristeva’s language function. Language (the crown) is a pre-fabricated structure imposed onto the drive (the root) from the outside; it is not organic, not a “natural” expedient of the growing (“gushing forth”) of the root, but a different, countering force (though, we may add, the crown can be applied to the root at all only because there is a mediating remnant of real-tooth, however hewn-down and inadequate(analogous to Kristeva’s notion of the symbolizing capability inherent in the original choric structure). The more perfect the fit of the crown or the language, the happier the dental patient or the poet. The assumption is that there is never a perfect fit, that the essential composition and structure of the two forces are different.

But dental crowns are necessary only when the tooth itself has in some way gone wrong. Teeth provide their own best crowns: their own ename1, a perfect fit. The enamel and the fit both occur as part of the vital process of a tooth’s developing. The enamel is not the same stuff as the root it covers, but it is the appropriate other stuff and is provided by the same source as the root. Now in Kristeva’s theory language- making (tooth-growing) is part of and necessary to the semiotic-symbolic process which is human being. The young child attributes to objects “semiotic fragments”—gestures, sounds (baby teeth). At the same time “pre-fabricated” language is provided also, by the family and the society. We assume that the prefab language is adequate to “crown” many or most of the drives, although it is never an exact fit. But we remember that the same primordial source that provides instinctual drives provides at the same time the latent signifying capability; biological and social pressures are simply the mechanism that activates the capability.

Language (teeth) is necessary, but just language or social language (crowns) is not enough. The language that satisfies the human need-to-say and matter-to-be-said is more than arbitrary. Society’s prefab language, the family’s, is not sufficient, not merely because we have repeated and excessive physical impulses that need language to cap them as a root needs a crown, but because a healthy tooth is its own proper crown; there is a vital, essential relationship between a healthy tooth and the physical site and occasion and event of the tooth. Crowns are not teeth, are substitutes for teeth and function at all only when supported by enough other real teeth. Language that is living has a living relationship with something living. Kristeva’s language in this work is not a perfect fit exactly to the extent that it sacrifices a vital connection with its original, originating matter to prefab psychoanalytic, Marxist, and academic “crowns.” At stake is not a series of words out of sync with a flow of material; at stake is the entire problematic from its inception.

One way to bring the structure of Kristeva’s thinking into view is to compare her “use” of Hegel’s negativity (Phenomenology of Spirit) with his own explication of it—to compare the method of the two thinkers. Hegel thinks-writes with perfect, poetic absorption, as though the thing itself (negativity) were standing before him and he were following every movement in every detail—a phenomenological method. Kristeva thinks-writes like a designer, an engineer. She finds in Hegel’s thinking—and especially in Lenin’s and in Freud’s readings of Hegel—a spare part for the engine she proposes to manufacture. Hegel’s negativity offers a moving material objectivity which is just the generating core she needs. Hegel’s work of thinking gives credibility to the assumption of the existence of such a negativity. Granted the possibility she provides the rest. (This is a Freud tactic—explicit in Moses and Monotheism.)
The pulse that Hegel glimpsed, the materiality of which Lenin and Freud pointed out, will serve for original site and originating force for human being—material drive as origin and as continuing-originating human being, a blind will-to-power of a psychoanalytic (subjective) cast. Her use of his negativity of course violates Hegel’s own thinking, taking from it the concept she needs for her theory and throwing the corpus away—his “idealist metaphysical” spirit/mind resolution.

Kristeva’s analysis-explication of her notion of human being is mechanical in its method (though she eschews mechanistic thinking). She finds and forces the parts to fit together to make a “scientific” (physica1), Marxist (materialist) schematic for human being. She uses a multitude of other works in the same way. She picks up something in the work of XXX or XXX that she can use, leaving the details, the work of thinking, to XXX or XXX. Her method is eclectic. But taking parts and rejecting parts, she may be rejecting the parts that found the favored parts, or parts she takes may be based on the same foundation with parts she rejects. She does not rethink Hegel’s thinking, re-viewing, revising, but she rejects it as bourgeois, idealist, metaphysical. Perhaps she trusts that the age has done the work of this rejection, as it has. But she must separate the negativity from the rest, the basis and the method for thinking negativity from the basis and the method for thinking the rest. Any validity his thinking of the part she needs may have may reside in the thinking she is discarding.

The advantages to Kristeva’s model—and they are genuine, revolutionary advantages—are many. From her own Marxist perspective, her primary objective and accomplishment is to provide a materialist theory capable not merely of accounting for language but for capturing it, materially. Language is no longer anomaly or superficial mist-effect of material (“real”) causes, but part of and necessary to the material process that is human and social being. From what I call the scientistic point of view of the social sciences, her achievement is to provide an “objective” account and justification of her notion. From a current philosophical point of view, her theory offers notions of the self and society in terms of plurality and heterogeneity and process. There are innumerable insights along the way.

The disadvantages are that the method is essentially expedient, that the foundation is inessential, unfounded; that her engine like all systems-processes subdues/reduces the very heterogeneity of life it justifies to formula, containment, that her engine runs over, levels, destroys the very life it is constructed to support. That is, the same process explains every instance of language-making; the difference between the musicality of one line of poetry and the rhythm of another, between the meaning of the hanging of one distraught suicide and the drowning of the next, though each would find its counterpart in her necessary language-making, could be explained “truly” only in the language of physics. All “meaning” is the event of drives, and the counter event of language-making.

The problem is that her system captures human being, impounds it. Her intention, and her achievement, is to admit language/language-making into materialist theory, but she must ground it in matter to do so; doing so, she surrenders the possibility of its own essential grounding function.