March 2013 – Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, participated in a study workshop at France’s National Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), on the work of Julia Kristeva, on the occasion of the launch of her latest book, “Pulsions du Temps”, in the presence of Mr Bruno Racine, BNF President, Ms Lemardeley, President of Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III, and Julia Kristeva herself. BOOK HERE
“It is quite remarkable that an intellectual of Bulgarian origin, a woman who arrived in Paris at the age of 23, has become so recognized around the world as a prime example of the French intelligentsia… We live first in language and in culture – this, clearly, is a message at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate,” she said.
Irina Bokova underlined also Julia Kristeva’s work to promote a dialogue among cultures and the building of peace: “We live in a world today of complex processes, with cultural constellations, the mixing of identities, and cross-cultural movements. Julia Kristeva’s work gives us reference points and a vocabulary to analyse the forms of relationships with others and oneself — being singular, being together, being different.”
“As Roland Barthes used to say to his students who sought his advice on what books to read – ‘you should read everything’. I would add to this, without being a specialist, that you should read everything by Kristeva,” she concluded.
In the winter of 1989 I had finished my first semester of graduate studies in English at Penn State University and received, in my campus mailbox, the comments from my professors for the “Introduction to Graduate Studies” class. I remember I earned a “B,” which is not too good. Akin to a “C” in undergrad classes, I was told. The typed comments about my performance were kind, but blunt.
In essence, it said: Nicholas seems like a nice gentleman and a tenacious worker, but he is completely lacking in theory, probably because he comes to us from Bowling Green State University. He has potential, but he has a lot of catching up to do in terms of theory.
I was reluctant to share the evaluation with my wife for a while, and told her I had received “A’s’ in my other two seminars (which I had) and that I was not alone in earning a “B” in the Intro. class. Although I understood my professors were right (the course was team taught by a good cop and bad cop; I’m convinced that the good cop made sure my grade was not lower and basically saved my rear for long enough that I could prove myself) I didn’t understand what they meant about theory. Theory of what?
I found out the next semester—winter term 1989—and I want to say that that’s when I fell in love with Julia Kristeva’s words. But first I fell in love with her face, or what I thought was her face. That’s more precise. I fell in love with the face on the cover a book of theory called Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, by Julia Kristeva, translated by Leon S. Roudiez.
For no where in the book does it say just who is the woman on the cover.
This was in 1989, pre-Web, and I was too interested in preserving the mystery of Kristeva to track down print images of her to compare to the cover. The book was—to say the least—intimidating, especially to a kid from BGSU in northwest Ohio (just like the bad cop said) and it had sentences like this:
“The figure of speech known as metaphor merely actuates, within the synchronic handling of discourse, the process that, genetically and diachronically, makes up one signifying unit out of at least two (sound and sight) components.”
“Kristeva and Feminism”
Although Kristeva does not refer to her own writing as feminist, many feminists turn to her work in order to expand and develop various discussions and debates in feminist theory and criticism.
Three elements of Kristeva’s thought have been particularly important for feminist theory in Anglo-American contexts:
1. Her attempt to bring the body back into discourses in the human sciences;
2. Her focus on the significance of the maternal and preoedipal in the constitution of subjectivity; and
3. Her notion of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination.
An INTERVIEW on the Feminist Theory Website with Julia in 1998 with Kathleen O’Grady:
Kathleen O’Grady: Though your work has included linguistic and semiotic studies, literature and psychoanalytic analyses, your writings have been consistently framed by the Johanine quotation, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ You adopted Céline’s revision in Powers of Horror: ‘No! In the beginning was emotion. The Word came next to replace emotion as the trot replaces the gallop’. In Tales of Love you sum up your understanding of Freud with the statement: ‘In the beginning was hatred’. Your text on the relation of psychoanalysis and faith is titled, In the Beginning was Love.
And more recently your work on Proust has reformulated this statement once again: ‘In the beginning was suffering’.
This continual transformation of the New Testament invocation (‘In the beginning‘) begs the question: Which of your semiotic, psychoanalytic, or Catholic proclivities generates this perpetual revisionism, this persistent desire for tracking and tracing a beginning?
Julia Kristeva: You are posing some very searching questions and not treating me gently here. I will answer the question in two parts: one is the interest in origins, and the other the place of Christian tradition. Origins are one of the fundamental questions of metaphysics that cannot be entirely avoided in linguistics or psychoanalysis. Let me take the psychoanalytical point of view. In anamnesis we have the possibility of entering as far as possible into the investigation of infantile memory to discover the most distant memories of our childhood. These are so often traumatic memories.
In this journey, a strange transmutation occurs in our language. In speaking, in traversing the universe of signs, we arrive at emotions, at sensations, at drives, at affects, and even at what Freud named the ‘umbilicus of the dream‘. This is something unnamable, which becomes, none the less, the source of our investigation.
The heteronomy of our psyche has always preoccupied my investigations. I am interested in language [language], and in the other side of language which is filtered inevitably by language and yet is not language. I have named this heterogeneity variously. I have sought it out in the experience of love, of abjection, of horror. I have called it the semiotic in relation to the symbolic.
But it is the doubling of language [la langue] that seems, at the moment, to be of more interest to women than to men.
What the other side of language as metaphysics thinks of as origins, is not an origin. Rather it is heterogeneity vis-à-vis language. I suggest that this is a fundamental point of psychoanalytical theory. Freud frequently reclaimed what he called his dualism: the death drive versus the life instincts. For Freud the psychic apparatus is composed of two distinct economies or logics of Ruth the Moabite.
The book of Ruth is a magisterial reflection on the alterity and strangeness of woman which one finds nowhere else. Ruth is a foreigner and yet she is the ancestor of the royal house of David. Thus, at the hear of sovereignty there is an inscription of a foreign femininity. Institutionalized Judaism does not recognize this, yet it is part of a tradition of generosity towards the other that is at the heart of Jewish monotheism. In the Song of Songs the amours relation is figured as a relation between a man and a woman who are strangers, travelers, destined to lose each other.
Separation is thus placed at the heart of the relation of one to the other in the Bible. With regards to my interest in narcissism, you will recall the Biblical and Gospel verse on which Thomas Aquinas comments: Love your neighbor as yourself.
It can be interpreted narrowly as the legitimization of egotism and individualism. But in my book, Tales of Love, I interpreted it as the necessity of structuring narcissism. To become capable of loving our neighbor as ourselves, we have first of all to heal a wounded narcissism.
We must reconstitute narcissistic identity to be able to extend a hand to the other. Thus what is needed is a reassurance or reconstruction of both narcissism, personality and, of course, the subject for there to be a relation to the other. To put this into its practical social context, let me recall the enthusiasm with which many of us of the generation of ’68 launched ourselves into social activism, and put our selves and our comforts at risk.
We struggled to find some meaning in the destruction. We occupied factories; I myself took part in this to find meaning in life. But while reading as usual, and in particular at that moment, these texts, the Bible, the Gospels and Thomas Aquinas, I began to argue that it was important to act on this social plane by moving into the factories, but perhaps it was necessary to be installed within ourselves first of all.
This seems to be the primary message of Thomas Aquinas: Love the other as oneself, but by being settled within oneself, by delight in oneself.
Thus: heal your inner wounds which, as a result will render you then capable of effective social action, or intervention in the social plane with the other.
Therefore, I would argue that we must heal our shattered narcissism before formulating higher objectives.
Irina Bokova, study workshop celebrating Julia Kristeva
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