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  • Kristeva before Kristeva: Gender and Creativity in Russian Symbolism
  • Kirsti Ekonen (bio)

In this article I will look at Julia Kristeva’s theory of subjectivity and creativity in the context of early Russian modernism, that is, Russian symbolism. My anachronistic way of “reading with Kristeva” is based on my argument that comparing Kristeva and early modernist culture and its gendered aspects will provide a deeper understanding of Kristeva’s theoretical background and of how Kristeva’s concepts and theoretical thinking help analyze the gendered aspects of the aesthetics and literary practices of Russian symbolism. Moreover, Kristeva’s thinking enables us to distinguish the specific circumstances these practices create for women writers. Kristeva’s theoretical thinking (along with that of her contemporary feminist critics) provides analytical tools and new viewpoints for reading women writers’ strategies in the gendered and androcentric aesthetical discourse of Russian symbolism.

I will begin by discussing Kristeva’s thoughts on subject and creativity from the point of view of gender and some feminist responses to those thoughts. After that I will show the (Russian) fin-de-siècle roots of her thinking. Feminist responses to Kristeva and her theoretical background in fin-de-siècle culture lead me to the women writers of Russian symbolism. I will look at their reactions to contemporary aesthetical discourse, and, as a case study, I will analyze the strategies of two women poets, Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945) and Liudmila Vilkina (1873–1920). They developed special strategies for constructing female creative subjectivity within androcentric symbolist discourse, and, as I will show in the last part of this article, these strategies resonate with Kristeva and her feminist critics.

Creativity and Gender in Kristeva

Kristeva builds her understanding of creativity and the creative process by using the central concepts of the semiotic and the symbolic. In general, these concepts refer to the two orders that participate in the constitution of the subject, production of discourse, and regulation of social relations, as Elizabeth Grosz summarizes (49). In Revolution in Poetic Language, [End Page 149] Kristeva uses the concepts of the semiotic and the symbolic to explain the creative process and especially modernist artistic practices and their political significance. The symbolic process refers to the establishment of sign and syntax and to grammatical and social constraints. The semiotic process can also be understood as a kind of pre-verbal energy at work in the text, the source of inspiration. In Kristeva’s thinking, the semiotic is related to the child’s pre-oedipal relationship with the mother, the mother’s body, and, therefore, the feminine. In contrast, the symbolic process refers to the paternal, masculine function. While the symbolic maintains order, the semiotic includes revolutionary aspirations, which threaten order.

Kristeva introduces into the formulation of the semiotic the concept of chora: a non-expressive (in the sense of non-verbal) totality underlying language, a non-spatial, non-temporal receptacle of energy and drives. Kristeva borrows the term chora from Plato, who describes it as “an invasive and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible” (Plato qtd. in Roudiez 6). The uncertain and undetermined chora lacks thesis or position, unity or identity. Like the semiotic, the chora is qualified as feminine in the sense that it precedes any formations of subjectivity and phallic identity (Smith 21).

Although Kristeva was a central thinker in the feminist discussions of the 1980s, her ideas about female subjectivity and women’s creativity were controversial. Because the semiotic and the symbolic orders are so strongly marked by gender difference, Kristeva’s thought has evoked many questions about the differences between the creativity and subjectivity of men and women. However, to this most important question, her theory does not give any clear answer. This openness has allowed space for different views. Kristeva’s writing about subjectivity, gender, creativity, and language has provided much material for feminist thinkers interested in women and female subjectivity in phallocentric culture. Because there is no direct path from Kristeva’s gendered concepts of the semiotic and symbolic to women and men in the social world, the opinions of feminist thinkers are various—pro...


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pp. 149-166
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