‘Atopic and Utopic’: Kristeva’s Strange Cosmopolitanism

  • Philip Leonard

Abstract

According to one inveterate caricature, poststructuralism consists of a coherent, if unruly, school of thinkers who essentially promote the same agenda: complacently celebrating polymorphism, indulging in an insipid and misguided assault on the ‘the economy of the same’, revelling with a carnivaleseque excess in the dissolution of the sovereign subject, clamorously affirming terminal culture are seen to be its principal concerns. When viewed in terms of this caricature, Kristeva’s recent work seems to strike an oddly conciliatory, if not utterly pacific, note: here, it is conspicuously not the case that two millennia of tradition are to be swept away in a tide of vertiginous antihumanism, and neither is Western culture hardened into a monolith that is shattered by the overwhelming force of its innumerable contradictions. Of course, such an image of poststructuralism provides only the most jejune reduction of critique to fixed and polarized positions, and Kristeva shows how unhelpful this caricature is, not only by insisting that a critical revaluation of tradition is needed (indeed, her work has always concerned itself with such a revaluation), but also, more specifically, by claiming that the tradition of universalist thinking in the West demands a sharper reassessment.

Keywords

Europe Sedimentation Coherence Assimil Posit 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Anna Smith, Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), p. 11.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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    Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women, trans. Anita Barrows (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
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    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘French Feminism in an International Frame’, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 140. Lisa Lowe develops Spivak’s critique in ‘Des Chinoises: Orientalism, Psychoanalysis, and Feminine Writing’, in Kelly Oliver (ed.), Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristevas Writing (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 150–63.Google Scholar
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    Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 42. This claim is restated in Nations Without Nationalism: ‘The first foreigners mentioned in Greek mythology are women - the Danaides’. Kristeva, Nations Without Nationalism, p. 17.Google Scholar
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    Kristeva, Nations Without Nationalism, p. 16. Bhabha is concerned that Kristeva ‘speaks too hastily of the pleasure of exile… without realizing how fully the shadow of the nation falls on the condition of exile’. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 140–1; At times, however, Kristeva does temper the impression that externality or multiplicity can be attained through a willed act or an unbounded declaration: ‘To know that an ostensibly masculine, paternal… identification is necessary to have some voice in the record of politics and history. To achieve this identification in order to escape a smug polymorphism where it is so easy and comfortable for a woman here to remain: and by this identification to gain entry to social experience’. Kristeva, About Chinese Women, pp. 37–8.Google Scholar
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    Kristeva, About Chinese Women, p. 58. Nations Without Nationalism echoes this idea when it briefly considers the relationship between the literary and the social: ‘national literature could, in France, become not the expression of the people’s enigmatic intimacy but a charmed space where irony merges with seriousness in order to lay out and break up the changing outlines of the totally discoursive being, which, when all is said and done, constitutes the French nation’. Kristeva, Nations Without Nationalism, p. 44.Google Scholar
  29. 84.
    The sense of a distinction between phonetic and graphic writing returns later in the text: ‘I wish I’d been able to write the voices of the Chinese women: vibrant, velvety, so low as to be almost inaudible in conversation. They begin in the chest or belly, but they can suddenly hiss from the throat and rise sharply to the head, strained in aggression or enthusiasm, excited or threatening…’. Kristeva, About Chinese Women, p. 158.Google Scholar

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© Philip Leonard 2005

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  • Philip Leonard

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