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  • The Uncanny Style of Kristeva’s Critique of Nationalism
  • Ewa Ziarek

Once again, politics must be conceived as a relationship of strangers who do not understand one another in a subjective and immediate sense, relating across time and distance.

—Iris Marion Young

A paradoxical community is emerging, made up of foreigners who are reconciled with themselves to the extent they recognize themselves as foreigners.

—Julia Kristeva

Nancy Fraser’s influential critique of Kristeva points to the central difficulty in Kristeva’s theory and to a strange paradox in its reception.1 Within the space of the same essay, Fraser reads Kristeva’s work as both a traditional psychoanalytic elaboration of subjectivity—and therefore irrelevant for social theory—and as a devastating critique of social relations—to which social theory has to respond. On the one hand, she argues that Kristeva’s work “focuses almost exclusively on intrasubjective tensions and thereby surrenders its ability to understand intersubjective phenomena, including affiliation . . . and struggle”; on the other hand, she claims that Kristeva’s thought “is defined in terms of the shattering of social identity, and so it cannot figure in the reconstruction of the new, politically constituted, collective identities and solidarities that are essential to feminist politics.”2 Fraser’s essay addresses two important questions to Kristeva in particular, and to psychoanalysis in general. First, it asks about the relation between the psychic and the social, between the decentered self and the “shattered social identity.” Second, it inquires whether group formations and social affiliations are conceivable without a reference to collective identities.3

In Kristeva’s 1989 Etrangers à nous-mêmes, translated into English as Strangers to Ourselves, this difficult intersection between the split psychic space and the fractured social identity leads to a rethinking of the possible ways of being in common in the wake of the crisis of the religious and national communities. In this text, Kristeva focuses on the status of the foreigner/stranger in the context of the historical and political conceptions of social identities, in particular, in the context of the Enlightenment’s dissolution of religious ties and the subsequent emergence of the modern nation-state: “With the establishment of nation-states we come to the only modern . . . definition of foreignness: the foreigner is the one who does not belong to the state in which we are, the one who does not have the same nationality.”4 Kristeva argues, however, that this “legal” definition merely covers over the deeper symptom provoked by the appearance of the foreigner: “the prickly passions aroused by the intrusion of the other in the homogeneity of . . . a group” (ST, 41). The foreigner provides the best exemplification of the “political” logic of the nation-state and its most vertiginous aberration—the logic that founds and con-founds the distinctions of man and citizen, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, civil and political rights, and finally, law and affect: “The difficulty engendered by the matter of foreigners would be completely contained in the deadlock caused by the distinction that sets the citizen apart from man . . . The process means . . . that one can be more or less a man to the extent that one is more or less a citizen, that he who is not a citizen is not fully a man. Between the man and a citizen there is a scar: the foreigner” (ST, 97–98). Seen as the aporia of the Enlightenment and, especially, as the impasse of its political rationality, the figure of the scar both enables and prevents a clear separation between myth and reason, the archaic and the modern, affect and law, same and other. Fracturing the imagined unity of the national body, the figure of the foreigner—a supplementary double of the Enlightenment’s political rationality—anticipates the Freudian “logic” of the uncanny.

Kristeva’s strategy to rethink social affiliations at work in modern nation-states from the marginal and ambivalent position of the foreigner parallels the project of Homi K. Bhabha to interpret the narrative of the nation from “the perspective of the nation’s margin and the migrants’ exile.”5 Not surprisingly, both Kristeva and Bhabha turn to Freud’s discussion of the uncanny in order to underscore not only...

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