- The Monstrous Crossroads of Kristeva’s Textual Practice
“I am a monster of the crossroads,” declares Julia Kristeva on more than one occasion in her work,1 referring not only to the complex intersections of her theoretical work, but also to her heterogeneous identity: a Bulgarian-born French linguist, literary theorist, psychoanalyst, cultural critic, and female intellectual determined to bring women’s experience to structuralist and poststructuralist theories dominating the (mostly male) Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, experience is the guiding post of Kristeva’s thought, and her own experience as scholar, critic, and analyst has played a significant role in transforming the way we think about “feminine” writing, body, and desire. The aim of this paper is to explore Kristeva’s contributions to the theory of the text, particularly in relation to textual practices of two contemporaries, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, both of whom have played an integral role in transforming critical responses to literary writing since the 1960s. I will attempt to indicate a few significant points of convergence in their work in order to make Kristeva’s concerns resonate more fully within a broader intellectual conversation, and to emphasize what she considers to be the limits of cotemporary literary theory.
To be sure, no simple assertion can be made concerning the exact relationship between the immensely complex writings of these three authors. On the one hand, their approaches to reading and writing run parallel to one another, often sharing common terminology: text, difference, alterity, or otherness. Indeed, their central organizing motifs—for instance, Blanchot’s “worklessness” and “the neuter,” Derrida’s “différance” and “dissemination,” or Kristeva’s “negativity” and “productivity”—remain on very intimate terms with one another insofar as all three evoke that which is unthinkable, unknowable, or unspeakable, but without which no language or logic would be possible. On the other hand, each author’s work develops a singular language that can never be entirely translated into another, even when it constantly affirms the necessity of precisely such translation. Their textual practices, to borrow Juliana de Nooy’s formulation, mark “the site of rupture-at-a-point-of-absolute-proximity” (201). [End Page 1]
Generally speaking, Kristeva’s textual practice may be regarded as an attempt to negotiate between Blanchot’s exploration of reading/writing as a descent into the silent, bottomless abyss of the text, and Derrida’s reading/writing as an endless movement across the textual surface through deferral, dissemination, iterability, and supplementarity. Kristeva accomplishes this by placing emphasis on three problems which, in her view, have been somewhat marginalized in the theory of the text: (1) the relationship between textual practice and the experience of the human body, particularly with respect to questions of suffering and desire; (2) textual practice as political-social engagement, whereby questions of exile, solitude, or estrangement on the one hand, and the affirmation of play on the other, become explicitly linked to ethical concerns and their historical implementation; and (3) textual practice as the practice of intertextuality, in terms of both relationality and difference.
In each case, Kristeva’s intention is to assume the experience of the crisis of meaning that permeates the works of Blanchot and of Derrida, albeit in a manner that would, beyond the necessary intensification of this crisis at the intersection of sense and nonsense, enable both an individual and a cultural response to it—first and foremost at the level of language. By the same token, her textual practice is a deliberate attempt to negotiate between the kind of anonymity or neutrality Blanchot tends to emphasize in his work and Derrida’s attempt to bring the radical dispersal of différance to every text, discourse, and meaning.
The Text as Productivity
Kristeva’s complex and highly technical theory of the text was charted out in a series of essays written between 1966 and 1973; many of them were originally published in Tel Quel, and some remain untranslated today. The motifs explored in these writings were later elaborated in Kristeva’s doctoral thesis, which was published in 1974 under the title La révolution du langage poétique: l’avant...