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Reinhard Duessel

The 3rd Move: Julia Kristeva on Chinese Women


1. The New Subject

Kristeva's theoretical entry point is Hegel's concept of negativity. In herargument, she then  follows the by now familiar genre of thinking through Hegel against Hegel. Kristeva takes up Hegel's argument in his turn against Spinoza. Nothingness, nothing, the negative must not be seen as separated from being. Nothingness rather is a dimension within being, and being, the positive, affirmation is a dimension within nothingness. One of the texts she refers to for documenting that point is the following quote from the Encyclopedia:  

The highest form of nothingness (taken) for itself is freedom, but it is negativity to the extent that it goes as deep into itself as possible, and is itself affirmation.¡¨ (Hegel par. 87, quoted Revolution 102f,  Olivier 72).  

On Kristeva¡¦s view, Hegel is stopping halfway, however. The affirmation at the deepest level of the negative finally collapses into an affirmation, which is soaking up, extraditing or, as she puts it, erasing any form of heterogeneity. Kristeva develops that point in a discussion of the section on being, nothingness and becoming in the Science of Logic. I quote here Kristeva quoting Hegel, which she does in quite an elaborate way: 

If  "the truth is, not either Being or Nothing, but that Being¡Xnot  passes¡Xbut  has  passed over into Nothing, and Noting into Being" (emphasis added), and if "their  truth is therefore this movement, this immediate disappearance of the one into the other, in a word: Becoming; a movement wherein both are distinct, but in virtue of a distinction which has equally immediately dissolved itself," then we see that this supersession amounts to the erasing of heterogeneity within the Hegelian dialectic. (Revolution 104, Olivier 73) 

Kristeva's   concern here is, if I understand her correctly, the dissolution of the distinction between being and noting within becoming. If that distinction is there and dissolving at the same time, if becoming is exactly that unity of the distinction between being and nothingness and its dissolution, the affirmative depth of the negative has been reduced to a moment within a process which is always already one step ahead of the heterogeneous¡Xat least potentially. The heterogeneous, in other words, is right from the beginning conceived as that which will not be heterogeneous any more but integrated into that process. On Kristeva¡¦s view, the misconception that triggers that erasure of the heterogeneous lies in the fact that Hegel treats negativity at all as a topic, object, moment, reality within logic. The quoted text continues: 

When negativity is considered a logical operation, it becomes reified as a void, as an absolute zero¡Xthe zero used in logic and serving at its base¡Xor  else as a connective in the logical Becoming. Yet what the dialectic represents as negativity, indeed Nothing, is precisely that which remains outside logic (as the signifier of a subject), what remains heterogeneous to logic even while producing it through a movement of separation or rejection, something that has the necessary objectivity of a law and can be seen as the logic of matter. (Revolution 104, Olivier 73)  

That text again shows Kristeva¡¦s strategy. The negative as we find it in Hegel¡¦s text reduces the heterogeneous by translating it into a move within logic. Thinking through Hegel against Hegel means to follow his reorganization of the opposition of Being and Nothing into that process of productive dissolution he seems to be pointing at by characterizing affirmation at the deepest level of negativity. At the point where Hegel is translating that affirmation into a move within logic, Kristeva begins her move away  from Hegel. She tries to approach that which the dialectic thinks, after that translation, as negativity, in a way that avoids that translation. A common way of characterizing that line Hegel supposedly did not cross is to speak of the pervading theology in his thought. The point where Kristeva tries to move away  from Hegel¡¦s reorganization of the opposition of Being and Nothing would then be its theology. Kristeva:  

The theology inherent in this reorganization will, however, leave its mark in an implicit teleology: namely, the Becoming that subordinates indeed erases the moment of rupture.   (Revolution 105, Olivier 74) 

Kristeva's  theory of the text tries to think that rearrangement otherwise, without erasing the moment of rupture or subordinating it to some overarching frame. That theory, as is well known, is a rather abstract construct that unfolds in two models: On the one hand as a theory of the avant-garde text, on the other hand as a theory of the subject. I am speaking of two models of the same theoretical construct here, because the essential terms of that construct function as essential terms within those two theories. Precisely that, constructing terms functioning that way, again characterizes the architecture of that construct.

The subtitle of Kristeva's work is The Avant-Garde at the End of the 19th Century: Lautréament and Mallarmé. Avant-garde texts  indicate the appearance of a new subject. That is the historical entry-point of her argument. Speaking about a new subject here may not be the right word, however and it indeed is not Kristeva's term. What she has in mind is not replacing one subject by another, but an opening up and dissolution of a certain unity of the subject, a unity or form of unity she calls paranoid. As she sees it, Hegel had been on the way towards such dissolution in his discussion of desire in the Phenomenology of Spirit. At the beginning of the section on self-consciousness the subject becomes aware of the other¡Xof what it is not¡Xin all its weight and inescapable relevance. When the subject is establishing itself as self-consciousness, that relevance is being brushed aside¡Xat least considerably downgraded. Nevertheless, there are those two moments in Hegel's theory of the subject, a moment of opening and exposure to the other, and a moment of closure. With Feuerbach's anthropological reworking of Hegel, the first moment is getting lost, and in Marx, in spite of his turn against Feuerbach, it remains lost. Inheriting that reductive understanding of the subject, the social and political movements since the late 19th century focus on changes in the relation between subjects and on those of the structure of the state. The reduced condition of the subject remained untouched. That other moment in Hegel was being developed or rediscovered only in aesthetics, in art, in the texts of the avant-garde. With that, we are back again at Kristeva's historical entry point (see Revolution 122-128).

A rephrasing of that concept of paranoid unity in a terminology different from Kristeva's may be useful. For that purpose I take as my basic term the idea of a subject, a self-structuring a situation, or of a situation structured by a subject. Neither the unstructured situation nor the self independent of that process of structuring are terms that are more basic. There is no self outside of that process, and there is no situation without structure. There is only one term more basic than the idea of a subject structuring a situation, and that is the idea of change. That is as far as we can go. I will leave that term undiscussed, however, taking it only as a reference point to exclude the idea of that process of structuring ever ending. Starting from that basic idea of a holistic process of structuring kept in motion by change, the crucial concept that has to be further developed is the concept of those structures used or in play in that process of structuring the changing. Because of the holistic nature of that process, those structures and their formation must not be conceived in isolation from it. They are and they are being formed and transformed by being in play. Another way of putting that is to say that the self is structuring itself by structuring the situation. The process of structuring is not one-directional. The agent is structured and restructured by and through the activity of structuring. From here, the paranoid closure Kristeva has in mind can be rephrased as a blockage of one of the two directions of the impact of structuring. The structures in play in the process of structuring the changing are cutting themselves of from change. They are keeping on structuring the changing, but they are not transformed any more in the process. The subject, the self, the agent of structuring defines his or her unity and identity as a set of structuring structures with a history of formation that has come to an end.

Kristeva describes that blockage in a psychoanalytic terminology as the subject being cut off from its pre-oedipal dimension (see Revolution 22ff.). With that dimension, she means that flow of impulses and desires that form the immediate response of the subject to the situation. Due to the immediacy of those responses, the distinctions between the subject, the subject's responses, and the situation, actually do not exist here. At that level, the subject just is that flow of impulses and desires, and the situation is nothing but that flow too. Only later on a first distinction may be made between the situation and that flow, which then will be considered as the most immediate level of that particular subjects being in that situation. That implies already a second distinction, which considers that flow as somehow "belonging" to a subject. From here, the process of structuring the changing becomes visible as double-edged. What has to be structured is on the one hand the situation out there and on the other hand that flow of desires and impulses which are the deepest level of the structuring agent's being in that situation. At that deepest level, the changing is not only out there but within the structuring agent as well. Structuring the changing within¡Xthat flow of impulses and desires¡Xmeans translating it into structures for structuring the changing out there. The formation of those structures, in other words, is a process of translating the changing within, which is already an immediate response to the changing out there. It is a translation of that immediate response the self at its deepest level is into tools for an articulate or mediated response. That is why and how those tools or structures keep changing. When the subject is cut off form the pre-oedipal, that changes ends.

Kristeva's project is to develop that first moment in Hegel's theory of the subject, which became lost with Feuerbach and Marx to be rediscovered only by the aesthetics of the avant-garde. The emphasis on the pre-oedipal dimension as sketched above is the centerpiece of that project. In that dimension, Kristeva sees that very exposure of the subject to the other Hegel touched upon only to erase it again by establishing the subject as self-consciousness. Opening up the paranoid unity of the subject, consequently, can only mean affirming that dimension, the presence of the other¡Xthe becoming other, the changing¡Xwithin the subject. The new subject, to use again that term Kristeva does not use, is a subject in process in the above sense of a structuring agent who is constantly structuring and restructuring himself or herself. It is the ongoing formation and pulverization of constancy as a translation of the changing within into structures, perspectives, and formulas for structuring the changing out there. 

2. The China-Theme

Depending upon the level of comprehensiveness intended, a theory of the subject may focus on either one or both of two major perspectives. A first perspectives concentrates on the formation, integration, development and inner harmony of the self. The social dimension, the relation of the self to others, plays an important part here, but that dimension is discussed only as far as it is relevant to the mentioned focus. We may call that first perspective of a theory of a subject the therapeutic perspective. In a second perspective, the social dimension is the main focus. Questions discussed here concern the ways subjects interact, coordinate their actions and form as well as transform institutions that stabilize that coordination. The concern of a theory of the subject concentrating on that social perspective is that segment in social theory where a theory of the subject forms part of a theory of society. As for Kristeva's project at the stage under discussion here, it is obvious that she starts from the first perspective with the intention of going beyond it. Dissolving the paranoid unity of the subject is understood as a perspective of social theory, not as a therapeutic program. The problem is, however, that the theory of the subject in process as developed in Revolution does not provide any conceptual resources for developing a theory of action, interaction and the formation of social institutions. It is hard to see how subjects in process would coordinate their actions and form a society. The theory of the subject in process, in other words, may be a strong theory of the formation and the integration of the self, but it does not provide a potential for developing a theory of social integration.

That problem is not unknown in the history of social theory. Kristeva's theory of the subject belongs to those versions of such a theory that take the subject as a revolutionary subject. A theory that tries to think the subject that way usually is formed by three moves. In a first move, the subject is positioned as the victim of some oppressive structure, keeping it from being or becoming what it really is or deserves to be. In a second move, the subject is conceived as becoming aware of that oppressive situation and finding ways of overturning it. Those two are the two core moves of any theory of the revolutionary subject. The third move is a supplement. Such a supplement is necessary, because the conceptual resources of a theory of the revolutionary subject seem to be exhausted at the very moment when the overturning of the oppressive structure has been conceived. Revolutionaries are usually bad administrators, and in most cases, they are bad politicians as well. That has to do with the inner limitations of the concept of the revolutionary subject. There does not seem to be a bridge that leads from a theory of the subject of a revolutionary subject to a strong theory of the subject as a social agent¡Xa theory of social integration, of society, of the formation and transformation of institutions. That is what I call the poverty of the revolutionary subject. It reaches the limit of what it is when the given oppressive structure has been overturned, and that cannot be much of a surprise, because the presence of such a structure forms the constructive center of that concept. The third move supplements the theory of the revolutionary subject in preparation for the moment when that center disappears. It does so by positioning the subject as constructed by those first two moves again, that time in history. The supplement of any theory of the revolutionary subject is a theory of philosophy of history that allows us to interpret the overturning of a given oppressive structure as a step into a direction defined or at least outlined by that theory of history. That direction and the conceptual resources brought into place for defining it then provide the conceptual tools to think social integration, social institutions, society after the overturning of the given oppressive structure. The revolutionary turned politician and administrator will establish those institutions that are timely or come next according to the supplement he is working with. The consequences are familiar. They were, in most cases, a disaster.

Kristeva's overall theory, that is well known as well, is to some extent inspired by the awareness of those disasters. The theory of the revolutionary subject she offers emphatically rejects the mentioned third move. In her terminology, any philosophy of history that could supplement the theory of the subject would be the very erasure of the rupture she tries to avoid right from the beginning. Even so, the poverty of the revolutionary subject remains. Only two options were left. Kristeva could have dropped the whole project of a theory of the subject as a social agent and focussed instead on a theory of the subject in a therapeutic perspective. That she did later. In the meantime, she looked for a supplement compatible with her refusal to erase the rupture. With that, I come to the China-theme in Revolution, a theme that does not appear very often, but always at crucial junctures of the argument.

Phrasing the theory of the subject in process in terms of a theory of the text, Kristeva distinguishes between the phenotext and the genotext (Revolution 83ff.). Those two dimensions of the text correspond to the two dimensions of the subject in process. The phenotext corresponds to the structures structuring the changing out there. That dimension of the text represents and signifies according to established rules and conventions of discourse. The genotext corresponds to the pre-oedipal dimension that provokes a constant restructuring and transformation of those structuring structures. Any text has a dimension that does not represent anything but seems to be charged with meaning. The most obvious example is rhythm. In that dimension, the semiotic potential of the text is wider than the phenotext is able to display, although less specific. The rules and conventions forming the phenotext are specifications always already transgressed by that wider potential. Developing her theory of those two dimensions of the text, Kristeva illustrates that distinction first by a brief excursion into mathematics, comparing the genotext with topology and the phenotext with algebra (84). Immediately afterwards, she uses as another illustration the distinction between written Chinese and spoken Chinese. Written Chinese, and especially so, as she emphasizes, the classical language, has the overflowing semiotic richness of the genotext. The pronunciation specifies that potential for the purpose of actual communication in specific situation, without ever exhausting it.

Only a few pages later, Kristeva describes four different signifying practices: the narrative, metalanguage, contemplation and textual practice according to the theory of the text she develops in Revolution (86ff.). For each one of those signifying practices, she tries to identify a corresponding social formation. As for textual practice, she points out, the corresponding social formation would have to be a formation with ¡§fluctuating hierarchies¡¨ As the only example of a society that would or would have fulfilled that requirement she then mentions classical China¡Xas characterized by Needham (94f.)

A few chapters later Kristeva discusses the limitations of the theory of practice in Hegel¡¦s Science of Logic and in the Marxist tradition (176ff.) The core of her argument is a variation of the argument on negativity summarized above. Neither Hegel nor Marx is able¡Xthat is not Kristeva¡¦s terminology, but I think it is her opinion¡Xto think practice without erasing the rupture. At that point, the China-theme appears again, although in a transformed way. It is not classical China any more, but the China contemporary at the time. Kristeva refers to Mao Tse-tung and his essay On Practice (177-179).

At first, we may be inclined to take those references to China just as an echo of the setting within which Revolution was written. According to a note at the end of the book, Kristeva wrote it from January 1972 through January 1973. The time of preparation and of thinking through the elements of theory fused together in that book certainly goes back a few years before 1972. The setting where the book was developed and written was Paris in the early seventies. Part of that setting was a strong Maoist movement in intellectual circles (see Bourselier). Since 1971, the journal Tel Quel celebrated the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Kristeva belonged to the inner circle of that journal (see Forest 380ff.).

Echoes of that setting those references to China certainly are. If we look at them a bit more closely against the background of the problem of Kristeva¡¦s third move in her theory of the subject, it becomes obvious, that they are far more than that. What is Kristeva doing here? She interprets the Chinese system of writing, the social formation of ancient China and some ideas of Mao Tse-tung in the light of her theory of the subject in process. The validity of those interpretations in historical or philological terms is not my topic here. What I am interested in is the possible function of that interpretation in Kristeva¡¦s quest for a supplement to that theory in the above-described sense. Positioning the subject within a teleological model of history, the classical supplement of theories of the revolutionary subject, to repeat it, has been excluded. As conceptual resources to think the revolutionary subject as a social agent cannot be developed by positioning that subject in time, the only remaining option seems to be a positioning in space. What could that mean? It means above all that those resources can only be found by turning to the present, somehow or somewhere in the present, because a position in space is a position in the present. Different from positions in time, those in the present cannot be constructed; they can only be described, interpreted, although those interpretations will of course again be constructions. Kristeva¡¦s references to China are those interpretation-constructions. With those references she constructs the subject in process she has developed as a concept as already existing, embodied¡Xsomewhere else. If subjects in process already exist, if a segment of the world can be singled out as their already existing world, the question of how subjects in process act interact and form a society is a question of observation and interpretation. That is Kristeva¡¦s third move in her theory of the subject.

3.   Chinese Women

The crucial element of that third move we have not mentioned yet. In her references to China, Kristeva constructs a society of subjects in process as already existing or at least in formation. That allows her to deal with the social dimension of the theory of the subject in process by description, without being forced to speculative constructions that would erase the rupture. That strategy works only under the condition, however, that the aspect of construction in that existence of a society of subjects in process is crossed out. As long as the awareness of that existence as a constructed existence remains, the description remains the description of a construction and the strategy cannot work Her participation in that famous expedition to China of a group of French intellectuals to the China of the Cultural Revolution must be seen in that context (see Forest 475ff.). Taking that plane to China meant crossing out the mentioned aspect of construction

After her return, Kristeva wrote About Chinese Women. In the first part of that book, she describes the position of women in the West past and present as a function of the monotheistic nature of Western culture. She traces the beginnings of monotheism as an established religion and social bond back to the foundation of Judaism at the time around 2000 B.C., when "Egyptian refugees, nomads, highwaymen, and insurgent peasants banded together, so it seems, without any common ethnic origin, without land, without a state, seeking at first to survive as an errant community.¡¨ (18) The roots of Jewish monotheism, in other words, have to be seen in a "will toward community despite and because of all the unfavorable concrete circumstances: an abstract, nominal, symbolic community beyond individuals and their beliefs, but beyond their political organization as well.¡¨ (18) As it is described here, monotheism came to be established as the bond of a community that could not count on anything else to keep its members together than the will to form and to establish a community that allowed survival. The One, then, the one god, his law and his word, is binding a given diversity of identities, wills, memories and expectations together by transcending and then reshaping or reinterpreting it as a diversity or difference within the one. That reinterpretation and bond is in constant danger, however, and exactly so because it is a re-interpretation. It starts from the diverse, the not-one, and could not be without it. Prior to the One, the diverse and polymorph does not completely disappear within the one in that process of re-interpretation. If it did, the One as re-interpretation would end as well. There is, we may say, no need for the One, the word and the law any more, when the last refugee, nomad, highwayman or insurgent of any kind has been transformed into an altruistic member of the community. But that never happens. Some insurgencies always remain and new ones appear. Within the One, the Word, the Law, as long as it exists and inseparable from the condition to continue existing, there remains that endangering presence of the diverse that may one day, if we may say so, turn out to be stronger than the One.. Establishing monotheism, or better: establishing a community, society or culture through monotheism requires an institution that can contain and neutralize that threatening presence within the One. The establishing of monotheism, as Kristeva sees it, essentially is or was the invention of such an institution.

In logical terms, the core institution of the monotheistic culture of the West operates¡XKristeva does not put it that way, but the point she is trying to make becomes more accessible if we do so¡Xin two steps.

The first one interprets or re-interprets that endangering presence within the One on the meta-level. The fact that there always remains and has to remain something that cannot be reinterpreted and represented as an internal distinction of the One is translated into a separate reality that essentially is unsayable, ungraspable, non-representable. With that step, the danger is safely contained. The more we affirm that other reality, the reality or the unsayable, ungraspable, unfathomable, the more we paralyze its power to affect the word, the law, the One in an way whatsoever. In order to affect or endanger the word, that unsayable would have to come close to it. The closer it comes, however, the less it remains what it is, the unsayable. Once it has reached the word, is represented, it has seized to be what it is. The powers are gone. With that meta-interpretation of the dangerous presence within the One, the awareness that there is something that cannot be reinterpreted as one of its internal distinctions get a completely different meaning. Before, that awareness always meant that language is exposed to a certain endangering pressure. Based on that meta-interpretation, the awareness of the internal limit of language just means that we have reached the point where the unsayable begins. Everything has its place. Nothing to worry about.

The second one of the two steps that form the core institution of monotheistic culture consolidates the first step by using its as a basis for defining sexual difference: 

There is one unity: an increasingly purified community discipline, isolated as a transcendent principle and thus insuring the survival of the group. This unity that the God of monotheism represents is sustained by a desire that pervades the community, making it run but also threatening it. Remove this threatening desire his perilous support of the community from man; place it beside him: you have woman, who is speechless, but also appears as the pure desire of speech, or who insures, on the human side, the permanence of the divine paternal function: that is, the desire to propagate the race. (19)

In Kristeva terminology, that ambiguous reality within the One, threatening and necessary at the same time, is bodily desire. The difference between the sexes, according to that text, is defined by repositioning desire as present only in woman. More precisely: Desire is positioned outside man, beside him, and desire thus repositioned defines woman. The spatial metaphors "outside, beside" indicate what I tried to understand in logical terms as the first step of that institution. Outside means somewhere else, at another place. Beside means the same, indicating in addition that the other place it not too far away. Repositioning desire beside is paralyzing the dangerous presence it was or is when inside by keeping it available at the same time. As is the case with the unsayable and ungraspable. It guarantees that there always is a rest that keeps the process of reinterpretation going, but without danger, for the mentioned reasons.

In the second part of the book, Kristeva compares the cultural history of the West under the aspect discussed with the cultural history of China. The decisive difference is that in China the monotheistic closure and the corresponding positioning of women was never completed: One thing is certain: a revolution in the rules of kinship took place in China, and can be traced to sometime around 1000 B.C. A similar occurrence may be detected at about that time in the neighboring regions of the Mediterranean; but in China, it is particularly marked by the fact that the new patriarchal model preserved a greater number of elements from the earlier model. (Women 46) In terms of Kristeva's theory of the subject, the monotheistic closure corresponds to the exclusion of the pre-oedipal dimension. In a society where that closure has never come to an end, the pre-oedipal dimension must still be present in its social institutions. The institution Kristeva discusses is the position of women in Chinese society throughout history. In the Confucianism view on the position of women, she sees a development that corresponds to the positioning of women in the monotheistic tradition. In China, however, there was always another mode of thought present as well, a mode of thought strictly opposed to any form of closure: the Taoist side of Chinese thought. For that reason, the Confucianism positioning of women was never as rigid and unchallenged as the corresponding monotheistic positioning of women in the West. In Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she sees a revival and at least a tendency towards a possible victory of that other mode of thought. Years later, in her ¡§Mémoires,¡¨ first published in 1983, she writes: ¡§What we were looking for in the spasms of Chinese antibureaucratism at a moment when the party machinery had exploded and women, after the young, were suddenly pushed to the front line was Taoist culture, Chinese writing, and poetry, like jade, bland but subtle. Joseph Needham, whom I had met in the chapel of Caius College, in Cambridge, ¡K had no trouble convincing me that Mao, poet and writer, was the most faithful modern version of ancestral Taoism.¡¨ (Olivier 18) Those are already the words of another era.

The last section of Women it titled "To Risk a Renaissance." The revival of the pre-oedipal dimension in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, on Kristeva's view, and the discovery of those developments by the West, may have the same importance as the rediscovery of Greece in the Italian Renaissance. what that discovery could trigger is a revival of the pre-oedipal dimension in the West. To get an idea of the social forms that might imply she refers to the women of China, the women she describes in a series of interviews at the end of the book. What Kristeva thinks to discover there, if only as a tendency, is a form of social integration without representation and power.

Those who had to suffer through the Chinese Cultural Revolution soon would tell the world otherwise. Kristeva's comments on Chinese women belong to those errors of epic dimensions that are quite common in the history of ideas of this century. That error, however, was the only option left for a third move in Kristeva's theory of the subject. Not long after the publication of Women, times had changed; she gave up the project to develop the theory of the subject in process in the social dimension. Most books she wrote since focus on the therapeutic dimension.

Works Cited

Bourseiller, Christophe. Les Maoistes: La folle histoire des gardes rouges français (Plon: Paris, 1996)

Forest, Phillippe. Histoire de Tel Quel 1960-1982 (Seuil: Paris, 1995).

Kristeva, Julia. La révolution du langage poétique. L'avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle: Lautréament et Mallarmé (Seuil: Paris, 1974). Quoted as Revolution.

Kristeva, Julia. About Chinese Women. Translated from the French by Anita Barrows (Marion Boyars Publishers: New York, 1986). French original published in 1974. Quoted as Women.

Olivier, Kelly (ed.). The Portable Kristeva (Columbia University Press: New York, 1997).