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The Severed Head: Capital Visions by Julia Kristeva (review)

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 324-326 | 10.1353/com.2013.0005

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Visions Capitales, translated into English as The Severed Head, was written to accompany an exhibit that Kristeva curated at the Louvre in 1998. It explores various representations of skulls, decapitation, and severed heads in the history of art starting with ancient sculpture and moving through contemporary art, including Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe Diptych. Most generally, her thesis is that representations of skulls and severed heads both evoke and sublimate our fear of death, particularly as it is related to the maternal body.

In the introductory chapter, Kristeva maintains that mourning, particularly mourning the loss of the mother, specifically her face, motivates the symbolic representation of the head. In a sense, the separated head always brings us back to the first separation, the infant's separation from the mother. In the next chapter, she analyzes the cult of the skull insofar as it conjures not only the head as the representative of living thought, but also the face of the mother as representative of the fecund woman. She concludes that the interior space of thought is created through the representation of the invisible realm (thought and death represented by the head) within the realm of the visible.

In the third chapter, Kristeva continues with the association between feminity and beheading, discussing images of Medusa as representations of the fear of the castrated and castrating maternal sex. She points out that Medusa also represents the necessity of representation itself insofar as we cannot confront her severed head face-to-face, but only via reflections or representations.

In the fourth chapter, drawing a fascinating connection between Jesus, the feminine, and Medusa, she analyzes how iconography transfers the invisible into the realm of the visible through the fixed economy of icons. The next chapter is one of the most interesting because Kristeva develops her argument that representations of detached heads are central to the history, and even the possibility, of representation. She maintains that the floating head of Christ is decisive in modern representation insofar as it brings the head together with the materiality of the shroud. She argues that detaching and cutting are indispensable to the economy of the inscription of the divine, which becomes flesh or material through its association with the feminine/maternal. In the sixth chapter, Kristeva links the prophet of Christ, John the Baptist, and Christ himself along with their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth. Using this association, she argues that decapitation is a figure of the passage from suffering to serenity that prefigures the peace promised by a new religion, Christianity. She discusses Christianity as an example of the transubstantiation enabled by representation itself, what she also calls alchemy, that turns our suffering and loss, along with violent drives, into sublimatory represenations and art.

In the seventh chapter, "Detachments," Kristeva continues her argument that representations of decapitation both signal and sublimate our fears and desires in relation to castration and death. Taking up figures of women as decapitators who represent and sublimate the fear of the all powerful castrating mother, eg., Judith, Dalila, Salomé, she proposes that these figures represent two simultaneous anxieties: 1.) the anxiety over losing the mother and its flip side, the anxiety over the all powerful mother 2.) castration anxiety and its flip side, the anxiety over the castrated woman's sex. She concludes that the repression most difficult to admit in the representations of decapitations of all sorts is the mother's face: the capital vision is the mother's head. Again she reiterates that the cut or detachment is a structural essential of religion—i.e., the separation from God.

In the eighth chapter, "From the guillotine to the abolition of the pain of death," she analyzes images of beheadings from the French Revolution. She continues what has been one of the most provocative themes throughout the book, namely that representations of violence can prevent real violence. She ends the chapter by paraphrasing Lacan: what is effaced in the imaginary and the symbolic risks returning at the level of the real. She concludes that perhaps the figures of decapitation and severed heads can be seen as an intimate form of resistance to the "democracy" of the guillotine. She says, "Above all, if...

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