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Psychoanalysis &
La Femme
January '10


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Psychoanalysis and La Femme: Special Issue Home

Severing Sound from Sense:
The Sacrifice of Drive in Butler’s Critique of Kristeva
Ed Cameron

January 2010

               The [...] text we confront is indeed subtle,
    but it will appear illegible only to those
interpreters who prefer not to see what it says.
   Paul deMan


Judith Butler articulates her now famous disapproval of the “body politics” of Julia Kristeva by challenging Kristeva’s claim that the “semiotic dimension of language” can function as an effective source of subversion.  At an initial glance, Butler’s criticism of the pre-paternal, pre-cultural semiotic as outlined in Kristeva’s two seminal texts Revolution in Poetic Language and Desire in Language appears viable, or at least tenable.  Relying on certain insights gained through Foucault in general and History of Sexuality specifically, Butler claims that Kristeva’s notion of a pre-paternal, or, more precisely, the maternal as the locus of the primary libidinal flux, is ultimately a notion constructed by the paternal order.  Through certain Foucauldian insights, Butler seemingly demonstrates “that the discursive production of the maternal body as pre-discursive is a tactic in the self-amplification and concealment of those specific power relations by which the trope of the maternal body is produced” (177).  But, I would argue, it is precisely here, in this quasi-Foucauldian insight that Butler is at one and the same time most proximate and distant from Kristeva’s corpus.  It is almost as if here, staged before our eyes is the burying of the Bataillian corpse to ward off its contagion.  Stated less hyperbolically and with a little insight from Joan Copjec, what Butler perceives as the successful tactic of discursive power relations is what, with a slight turn, Kristeva sees as symbolization’s inherent failure (204).

The basic shortcoming and limit to Butler’s understanding of the role of the Kristevian maternal is its too heavy reliance on a pre-Freudian (and even pre-Romantic) conceptual framework where nature and culture are opposed.  The most obvious example of this limit is Butler’s refusal to distinguish instinct from drive within Kristeva’s work.  In Seminar XI, Jacques Lacan mentions the “stupidity” surrounding the reduction of the Freudian Trieb to instinct (49).  The notion of instinct is all too easily aligned with a certain biological-animality close to the state of nature.  The condensing of drive into instinct completely misses the Freudian terminological distinction, whereby, according to an essay by Charles Shepherdson, “the drive is distinguished from the instinct precisely in so far as sexuality in the human animal is intrinsically bound to representation” (159).  Accordingly, it is this tie with representation that separates drive from mere animal instinct.  By already foreclosing this link between drive and representation, Butler’s argument, as we shall see, completely misses the place of the unconscious, that Other scene articulated in and by the Kristevian symbolic.  In fact, Butler’s whole argument would be in danger of losing its consistency if it approached too close to this scene.

Because most criticisms of psychoanalysis do not, and perhaps cannot, take this Other scene into account, they inevitably begin by way of the distinction between natural given and cultural construction.  The Other scene, as mentioned above, is, then, nothing other than the form of this distinction itself, previous and external to it. When Butler, at the beginning of her essay, maintains that the Lacanian/Kristevian “subject” who emerges as a consequence of the paternal repression of the primary libidinal drives is a “unitary agent” of the meaningful, she has already blinded herself to the split subject enacted by the Kristevian thetic cut.  The thetic cut can be seen in Kristeva’s analysis as operating in an enunciation:  “For there to be enunciation, the ego must be posited in the signified, but it must do so as a function of the subject lacking in the signifier” (Revolution 48).  Clearly Butler has drawn her notion of the “unitary agent” of the symbolic from what Kristeva merely considers the ego of the imaginary.  If we read, and I think quite correctly on a metonymic level, the signified here as the level of the imaginary world of illusion and image-presence and the signifier as the symbolic level of play between presence and absence, we begin to perceive that Butler’s object of criticism is caught in a imaginary understanding of Kristeva’s theory.  As we will see, Butler’s reading of Kristeva’s theory treats it solely on the level of the signified, where it can maintain a comforting self-constituting object.  To treat the psychoanalytic subject as a “unitary agent” produced by the symbolic order is tantamount to conflating the imaginary and the symbolic.  For when Kristeva further articulates that signification as “a system of finite positions can only function when it is supported by a subject and on the condition that this subject is a want-to-be” (Revolution 48), it can easily be seen that the more complex notion of the Lacanian subject torn between being and knowing, between drive and desire, is incorporated into her theory.  Contrary to Butler’s mis-understanding of the subject as the imaginary ego discursively constructed subjectivity of the paternal law, Kristeva’s split subject is one that never precedes the split.  It is the subject that one signifier represents for another, maintaining forever the gap between the signifier and signified which allows for signification at all.

Because of this initial misreading and oversimplification of the psychoanalytic symbolic order in the first paragraph of Butler’s critique, she is lead, correctly but misleadingly, to claim that Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic disruption depends on the “stability and reproduction of precisely the paternal law that she sought to displace”(164-5).  I write “correctly but misleadingly” precisely because even though it is accurate, at least up to this point, to maintain that Kristeva’s semiotic would not exist without the symbolic law, it is less accurate to see this as a fault.  Quite to the contrary, Butler’s framework prevents her from seeing this dependence as Kristeva’s theoretical strength.  Butler’s viewing the symbolic/semiotic split as a hierarchy in which the symbolic always in the end, after any disruption, reasserts its hegemony is again symptomatic of a foreclosing of the “real” complexities of the symbolic on which her analysis is based.  Most criticisms of Kristeva never take account of the fact that the semiotic chora, as that which remains “outside” of the symbolic, is less some sort of natural consistent piece of the subject that actively resists symbolization than it is the excremental residue of the symbolic order itself.  I would argue that Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic chora, what she calls, borrowing from Plato, a sort of maternal receptacle, a distant place, is more akin to the empty place designated by the emergence of the signifier.  The semiotic is merely a name for a sort of disarticulate residue or gap inherent in the symbolic as a subject-in-process.  For is not the semiotic chora, as the ordering of the drives, precisely what returns as symptom in the symbolic, as that which was “dismissed and forgotten” retroactively through the advent of desire and the emergence of the signifier?  For when Butler maintains that it is unclear whether the primary relation to the maternal body or the semiotic drives, which Kristeva appears to accept, is a viable construct or whether it is even a knowable experience according to Kristeva’s linguistic theory, she appears to have missed the obvious retroactivity of the semiotic chora:  “the semiotic that ‘precedes’ symbolization is only a theoretical supposition justified by the need for description” (Revolution 68).

Butler continues by pointing out that the multiple (and why she constantly refers to “multiple” and “multiplicity” instead of the much more Kristevian signifiers, “heterogeneous” and “heterogeneity” will have to be examined) drives characterizing the semiotic chora for Kristeva “constitute a prediscursive libidinal economy which occasionally make itself known in language”(165).  Foucauldian terminology aside, one has to be leery again of Butler’s attempt to situate the semiotic as somehow purely non-linguistic, as if it were some entity merely banned from a certain terrain that shows up later disgruntled, angry and demanding its rights.  Kristeva clearly maintains (as clear as Kristeva can be) that through the thetic, the cut which inaugurates symbolization, “the semiotic (which is produced recursively on the basis of that break) [appears] as a ‘second’ return of instinctual functioning within the symbolic, as a negativity introduced into the symbolic order, as the transgression of that order” (emphasis added; Revolution 69).  Not only is the semiotic produced by the thetic cut, but it is produced recursively.  And as we know from Freudian insights, the return that is the effect of recursive production is nothing other than repression.  It is not that something is repressed and then returns, but rather, there is no repression until the return. 

When Baudrillard maintains that Kristeva’s analysis relies so much on the superstition of a materialist production of meaning that it leads her to posit the semiotic as a realm of a real alternative, he goes further than Butler’s ideal of an emancipatory realm, but likewise fails to read Kristeva close enough (219).  Although Baudrillard finds the idea of a revolutionary stance in language absurd, he still accuses Kristeva of attempting to locate such a thing.  Rather than attempting to locate a place for revolutionary practice within language, I would argue that through language Kristeva is attempting to rethink practice itself.  This is precisely what Butler fails to see when she marks as a problem in Kristeva’s work the supposed fact that the semiotic subversion of the symbolic cannot be maintained except at the cost of psychosis.  It appears only Kristeva realizes that to destroy the symbolic (constantly referred to as “culture” by Butler) amounts to the totalitarian gesture par excellence.  At this early point in Butler’s argument her criticism of Kristeva illustrates the invalidity of the semiotic (which for Kristeva is nothing other than a site of a limit of the symbolic) functioning as the new emancipatory symbolic order.  When Butler complains that Kristeva’s semiotic is caught in the trap of being the dimension of language regularly repressed and one which can never be consistently maintained, she seems to be demanding something like an other of the symbolic. But it is precisely this limit marked by Butler that is the strength of Kristeva’s thought.  For Kristeva, the semiotic is nothing other than the symbolic’s difference from itself.

Butler’s whole enterprise revolves around making a cultural construct out of what for Kristeva is “seemingly” a “precultural reality.”  Comments like, “Kristeva describes the maternal body as bearing a set of meanings that are prior to culture itself,” and “she thereby safeguards the notion of culture as a paternal structure and delimits maternity as an essentially precultural reality” (165), clearly show a misplacement of Kristeva’s fundamental insights.  Like many non-psychoanalytic investigations, the question of the body seems to get reduced to either a fact of nature or one amongst many cultural constructions.  But it is Butler’s oppositional logic that makes her reading metonymically jump from what is supposedly Kristeva’s “naturalistic descriptions of the maternal body” to a reification of motherhood as a paternally controlled construction.  In fact, Kristeva clearly states a much more complex truth concerning her notion of motherhood in one of the essays Butler directly references:  “This move [the thetic cut], however, also reveals better than any mother could, that the maternal body is the place of the splitting...[and] to imagine that there is someone in that filter—such is the source of religious mystifications, the font that nourishes them:  the phantasy of the so-called ‘Phallic’ Mother” (Desire 238).  A fantasy, it would seem, that Butler falls prey to.  The reification that takes place (as is common with many readings of Kristeva) takes place only on the pages of Butler’s text itself by and through this fantasy screen.  Kristeva clearly states that the maternal body (far from being woman’s true place) is the “place of splitting,” “a threshold where ‘nature’ confronts ‘culture,’” obviously not to be situated in one or the other.  Because of her original conflation between instinct and drive, Butler fails to see that the maternal body, for Kristeva, cannot be reduced to either a naturalistic conception of embodiment that escapes cultural inscription or to a human cultural construction like so many others.  The maternal body, the semiotic chora, is actually the place of this split.  Might it be nothing other than the ex-centric part of the symbolic?  Again, adding a Lacanian stress to this reading, the maternal body (semiotic drives), far from being some natural state underlying all specific historical cultural formations, is really an effect of symbolization itself, an effect of the emergence of the signifier.  So when Butler asks whether Kristeva’s semiotic isn’t really more a product of a given historical discourse rather than its secret primary cause, she again feels the need to situate the split on only one side or the other.  And it is this desire to situate everything on the side of symbolic construction, this desire to fill in the lack in the symbolic, which, in the end, produces a gesture of unconscious irony in Butler’s line of argument.

Butler’s argument’s thrust lies in questioning whether the subversive effects of Kristeva’s semiotic, accepting its truth, can make any lasting and worthwhile disruptions on the “hegemony of the paternal law” (165).  I do not know where Butler arrives at the idea that the symbolic law is hegemonic or oppressive (as she will maintain at the conclusion of her essay) in Kristeva’s praxis.  It is almost as if Butler is alluding to the shortcomings of her own notion of the political.  The way I am attempting to read the Kristevian semiotic (at least figuratively) would illustrate that the symbolic is less hegemonic or oppressive than it is meaningful.  Without the symbolic law one would be merely left with psychosis. 

Butler concedes that it is not until the essays comprising Desire in Language that Kristeva connects the primary drives, which the symbolic represses and the semiotic marks, with the maternal drives:  “‘The maternal body’ designates a relation of continuity rather than a discrete subject of desire; indeed, it designates that jouissance which precedes desire and the subject/object dichotomy that desire presupposes” (167).  Once again, the argument that follows this summary presupposes that there is something, something definite, which is repressed by the symbolic.  If Butler could secede to the already mentioned Freudian understanding that there is fundamentally no repression until its return, she would not be so hasty to metaphysically create a metaphysician out of Kristeva.  The scission of the incest prohibition, which may be read as synonymous with the thetic cut, retroactively posits being, or the drives for that matter, as “outside” or lost to symbolization.  Granted it is here where desire is born, but only as an effect of the emergence of the signifier.  In fact, what the semiotic marks, or better re-marks in the Derridean sense, is this empty place that is created by the very emergence of the signifier.  This might explain Kristeva’s insistence on the use of the term chora as perhaps a re-marking of the Platonic signifier.  To borrow certain logic from Slavoj Žižek, one could say that the reason why the maternal body, for Kristeva, is not to be located in that body belonging to the mother is because the maternal body, rather than designating any substantial content, designates only this purely formal thetic cut (Indivisible 158-61).  And is not this empty place of the cut, what Kristeva calls the chora, nothing other than the Lacanian barred subject ($), the subject-in-process for Kristeva? 

Butler quotes Kristeva as maintaining that the unsettled and questionable subject of poetic language maintains itself at the cost of reactivating this repressed, instinctual maternal element, and thereby concludes that the Kristevian subject is “not wholly appropriate, for poetic language erodes and destroys the subject” (168).  Because Butler cannot see beyond the constructed subjectivity of the social and because she is blind to the psychoanalytic subject, she accuses Kristeva’s subject of basically being self defeated.  What she fails to perceive is that the subject for Kristeva is nothing other than a name for the “erosion” and “destruction” within language itself, language as process.  Again, the re-markings of the semiotic drives in language less mark something ontologically “prior” to language than they re-mark the void opened up by the very failure of symbolization.

The emergence of the signifier sublimates the mother to the place of the maternal body, or the object in the Lacanian sense.  And, likewise, the subject is nothing other than the gap in each signifier represented by and for another signifier.  If there is any sustained movement beyond Lacan in Kristeva’s logic of the semiotic, it is a movement away from the lost object of desire in favor of one oriented toward a lost abject of drive.  If drives are articulated as that little piece of being given up upon the entry into the symbolic, then Kristeva’s theorization of the semiotic might be construed as an attempt to figure “the uncertainty about those marks that may or may not be significative, that are significative, meaningful, only insofar as they are read” (Chase 1006).  This is why in Kristeva’s early psycho-linguistic works she is much more interested in questions of textuality, signifiance, and reading than with psychoanalysis per se.

In what might prove to be a little overdetermined of an example, we can perhaps glimpse how this quasi-Kristevian reading body, to use a term from Garret Stewart, re-marks itself symbolically.  Butler quotes Kristeva: “a phoneme, as distinctive element of meaning, belongs to language as symbolic.  But this same phoneme is involved in rhythmic, intonational repetitions; it thereby tends toward autonomy from meaning so as to maintain itself in a semiotic disposition near the instinctual drive’s body” (167).  This phonemic aspect of the semiotic functioning of the symbolic itself can be heard resounding in Butler’s previous statement.  Butler sustains that certain language manifestations by children and psychotics “are manifestations of the continuity of the mother-infant relation, a heterogeneous field of impulse prior to the separation/individuation of infant and mother, alike effected by the imposition of the incest taboo.  The separation of the mother and infant effected by the taboo is expressed linguistically as the severing of sound from sense (emphasis added; 167).  Since Kristeva posits that poetic language posits a thesis, not of a particular being or meaning, but of a signifying apparatus, we can begin to see its manifestation in Butler’s passage.  If the incest prohibition is the prohibition of sex with the mother, of continuity with the maternal, and if, as Kristeva sustains, language as symbolic function constitutes itself through this prohibition at the cost of repressing instinctual drive and continuous relation to the mother, then “poetic language would be  for its questionable subject-in-process the equivalent of incest” (Desire 136).  With this summary in mind, one can hear within Butler’s passage cited directly above that the incest prohibition occurring with the emergence of the symbolic returns in the heterogeneous realm where the symbolic encounters its own internal decenteredness, its difference from itself in process.  The emergence of the sign “sex” in Butler’s passage “The separation of the mother and infant effected by the taboo is expressed linguistically” allows us to hear that the thetic separation is as much expressed linguistically as it is sex-pressed.  The signifier “sex” emerges through the vaporizing of the space separating two noticeable signs creating a sort of trans-segmental phoneme within the symbolic syntactical space.  Does not this heterogeneous element within Butler’s statement point to a much more radical, or at least sophisticated, element of language and the symbolic than her constant regard for multiplicity?  When Kristeva claims that poetic language “utters incest”(Desire 137), what should be heard in such a statement is language speaking itself.  Where does one locate the subject of such a statement?  According to Kristeva, “it is of course Freud’s theory of the unconscious that allows the apprehension of such a subject” (Desire 135).  This is not a subject that is constructed by the symbolic but one that is split by the symbolic.

Because Butler’s reading does not take into account the unconscious, her criticism quickly moves from noting that the return to the maternal signifies a prediscursive homosexuality associated with psychosis to claiming that Kristeva says, in the end, that all lesbians are psychotic.  This metonymic movement appears to take for granted, and as innocent, the six to seven non-mentioned linguistic steps needed to perform such a reduction.  She is able, from here, to press questions to Kristeva’s text like, why are lesbians psychotic? when Kristeva is clearly working in a heterogeneous field irreducible to Butler’s “multiplicity.”  I just fail to see how Butler can claim that Kristeva turns lesbians into “others to culture,” when Kristeva is distinctly working the semiotic as a marking of the unconscious, as the symbolic other to itself.  Without this dimension in her epistemological apparatus, Butler’s criticism is reduced to virtually viewing and taking all signifiers as unified in secure signifieds:  the maternal and the prediscursive homosexuality are conveniently reduced to the empirical mother and lesbian respectively.  In fact, when Butler makes the leap of suggesting that Kristeva has imprisoned lesbians to the “intrinsically unintelligible” semiotic, she misleadingly falsifies the semiotic as a realm of stable linguistic agency, however marginal.  In the end, Butler’s criticism narrows itself into a condemning of as well as a demand for a marginal space for lesbian politics.  This can only be done because Butler has misread the semiotic as some agent who rebels against the paternal symbolic order.  How could the semiotic, which constitutes “local displacements” and “temporary subversions” of paternal law, “finally submit to that against which [it] initially rebel[s]” (172) if it is nothing other than the symbolic’s own self resistance?

 Because Butler has closed the field of the symbolic by filling in its void under the rubric of “cultural construction,” she readily reduces Kristeva’s notion of heterogeneity to a concept of multiplicity which seemingly only exists between entities.  After inquiring whether Kristeva is more apt to view the semiotic’s disruptive activity as the opening of a field of significations or as the manifestation of a biological archaism operating according to a natural and pre-paternal causality, Butler claims Kristeva prefers a return to a closed conception of maternal heterogeneity over a displacement of the paternal law in favor of a proliferating field of cultural possibilities.  Because Butler prefers multiplicity to heterogeneity, she fails to see the heterogeneity still internally limiting any so-called “cultural possibility.”  It is precisely here that one can see the more radical conception of difference between these two theorists.  The notion of the multiple, based on a notion of difference between entities, is always totalized.  On the other hand, Kristeva’s notion of heterogeneity, entailing an unconscious dimension and based on an entity’s difference from itself, is a disruption of the single.  Perhaps this explains the overdetermined literalization and lack of ironic self-knowledge in Butler’s argument.

From this latter point we can begin to schematize the differing approachs to and conceptions of the law for each thinker.  Butler’s literalization of the maternal leads her to suspect Kristeva of instituting the maternal as another paternal signifier, “an equally univocal signifier” (175).  On the contrary, I would argue that the maternal, for Kristeva, is less another signifier than it is the same signifier inscribed otherwise.  For the emergence of the signifier in Kristeva, and psychoanalysis in general, is at the same time the emergence of its lack, or gap which sustains it.  The truly dangerous aspect of Butler’s thought is the attempt to cover this gap, making language somehow a closed system.  Sustaining that “the maternal body in its originary signification is considered by Kristeva to be prior to signification itself,” Butler complains that it then becomes impossible for Kristeva to consider the maternal itself as a signification, open to cultural variability.  What is here inscribed as the limit of Kristeva’s thought is really, for Kristeva, a figure for the site of a limit of thought itself.  The fundamental asymmetry between these two thinkers’ notions of difference, between multiplicity and heterogeneity, is marked by this conception of externality.  Butler confuses as external to signification what for Kristeva is a mark of the externality of signification to itself.  Signification is less hindered by something outside or prior to it than it is by its own being outside itself.  This is the reason why Kristeva’s attention to psychosis has nothing specifically to do with lesbianism.

The Kristevian subject-in-process is a subject split between the semiotic Mother, the primordial Other, and this Other as checked by the symbolic Law.  Far from being an oppressive agent, symbolic law, psychoanalytically conceived, actually liberates us from what Lacan calls the “phantom of Omnipotence” of the primordial Other-without-lack (Ecrits 311).  Where Butler conceives of the symbolic law as oppressive and controlling or even ostracizing marginal “psychotic” behaviors, Kristeva’s conception of the law allows for more complexity.  Is not Butler’s conception of the law, of the paternal prohibition, really only an alignment with it, a means of avoiding the semiotic as the impasse of the symbolic itself?  Rather than allowing for the lack in the symbolic, Butler can be seen as transforming its inherent impossibility into a prohibition, even though she claims that it is Kristeva who only sees the law as a prohibiting force.  This inherent impossibility of the symbolic, articulated by and through the semiotic, in the end, leaves open the gap of symbolization.  Contrary to Butler’s reading, the semiotic re-marks an irreducible gap in the Other maintaining a certain ignorance fully granting the limit constitutive of symbolization.  At this juncture we can begin to briefly schematize incest prohibition as a form of sacrifice specific to psychoanalysis where the subject receives nothing in exchange.

In Seminar VII , Lacan explicitly states “that the prohibition of incest is nothing other than the condition sine quo non of speech” (70).  For Lacan, the ten commandments, as a synecdoche for the symbolic law, regulate the distance between the subject and das Ding.  The ten commandments, then, operate in a way very close to what effectively goes on in repression in the unconscious.  Since das Ding, for Lacan, “is a primordial function which is located at the level of the initial establishment of the gravitation of the unconscious Vorstellungen,” it is, in a sense, represented as the object of incest, which is the mother as forbidden good (Seminar VII 73).  In effect, what is given up in the entry into the symbolic through the advent of the thetic cut (to use Kristeva’s term) never precedes its loss.  The maternal thing, for Lacan in Seminar VII, may be thought as nothing other than the correlate of the Kristevian semiotic chora, as the place of the maternal drives.  Further on, Lacan even concedes, “what one finds at the level of das Ding once it is revealed is the place of the Triebe, the drives” (112).  The law, in this psychoanalytic instance, maintains an ambivalent relation to the subject of desire.  Kristeva, conceding to the other side of the law as pointing to the fundamental impossibility constitutive of desire, is able to locate a heterogeneity re-marking this impasse within language itself.  If direct access to the maternal drives is what is given up, always retroactively, by the subject upon entry into the symbolic, they will return in and through the symbolic as its own internal limit.  As Lacan notes, “the desire for the mother cannot be satisfied because it is the end, the terminal point” (Seminar VII 69).

The paradoxical sacrificial choice in psychoanalysis is always between the Father or worse.  According to Žižek, only by choosing “worse” does the subject not “give way as to its desire” (For They 266-67).  And the primary case of this ethical stance is, of course, Antigone.  In his reading of the tragedy, Lacan obviously maintains that Sophocles’s play should be read less as a conflict between two characters (Creon and Antigone) as representing one principle of law to another (human versus divine) than as a conflict between a wrong represented by Creon and something else represented by Antigone.  Since Creon seeks the good, he seeks a narcissistic ideal as a screen covering the inherent impasse of access to desire.  Antigone, however, finds herself right away in a limit zone, finds herself between two deaths.  When confronted with a repetition of the original forced choice between knowledge and being, between the symbolic order and the real, Antigone chooses the limit of the symbolic law, “which is not developed in any signifying chain” (Seminar VII 283).  Antigone fixes herself to the frozen signifier “brother,” representing “the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his (Polynices’s) being without reference to any content” (Seminar VII 284).  As Lacan adds, “it is nothing more than the break that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man” (285).  Antigone is the ultimate ethical subject for psychoanalysis because, faced with the re-marking of the originary sacrificial situation for the name-of-the-Father, unlike Butler, she has chosen “worse.”  This is a choice with no returns, a choice no longer measurable in pluses and minuses.  If women become objects of exchange and distribution only after the maternal body is posited as prohibited, then Antigone occupies the place of subjective destitution where the maternal marks an impossibility not resisted through any narcissistic ideal.  If, as Žižek maintains, the symbolic identification with the paternal metaphor, with the agency of prohibition, is only a way for the subject to elide the impossibility constitutive of desire by rendering it prohibited, in repeating the primordial forced choice, Antigone has capitulated to desire in its impossible purity: namely, the death drive (For They 266).

From this rather hasty circuitous analysis of Lacan’s reading of the ethical dimension highlighted in Antigone, a certain correlation emerges with Kristeva’s rendered relation between sacrifice and the semiotic.  Beginning from anthropological insights, Kristeva, in Revolution in Poetic Language, moves from treating sacrifice as a social symbolic product to treating it as constitutive of signification itself.  For Kristeva, sacrifice can be viewed as one of the two types of events in the social order correlated to the thetic moment instituting symbolism.  Sacrifice, as a ritual instituting the social, is a violent act that puts an end to the previous presymbolic violence by elevating violence to the level of a signifier:  “The ‘first’ symbol, the victim of a murder, merely represents the structural violence of language’s irruption as the murder of soma, the transformation of the body, the captation of drives” (Revolution 75).  Again, it is precisely this initial signifier emerging from the thetic cut which irreducibly separates instincts from drives.  Agreeing with anthropology about the theory that sacrifice serves an ambiguous function because it is both violent and regulatory, Kristeva maintains that the thetic confines violence to a single place, making it a signifier.  This, of course, is the logic which allows for the claim that nothing is more transgressive than the law itself.  Sacrifice, then, less presents symbolic functioning as an already existing system than it reproduces the process of its production.  In this manner, “sacrifice resembles not language but the unconscious, which is the unspoken precondition of linguistic systematization [...] it reproduces both the foundation of that [symbolic] code and what it represses” (Revolution 78).  Working off Georges Bataille, Kristeva claims that the sacred, as found in any society, is nothing other than a theologization of the thetic, itself structurally indispensable to the positioning of language.  Since the thetic phase, indicating the establishment of symbolization, both prohibits and permits jouissance, “jouissance is thus not so much forbidden as regulated; it slips in through the rules of that language” (Revolution 78).  The crucial point not to be missed is that sacrifice represents the thetic as the exclusion establishing the symbolic order, an exclusion which remains ex-timite (external and most intimate simultaneously) to the symbolic as the semiotic.  And it is in literature’s engagement with poetic language where Kristeva finds the primary example of the semiotization of the symbolic.

Because Kristeva’s notion of poetic language dances with an unconscious dimension of language, she is able to read poetry less as being poetry and more as opening the gap in the symbolic order where the subject is constituted in-process.  This amounts to the difference between reading language as an object and as an irreducible set of effects.  Since poetic language reenacts the signifying path (much in the same manner as sacrifice), it is able to keep the fundamental gap of the signifying process open, preventing us from slipping into the closed-in position.  In the end, Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language should not be judged on how well it offers us a linguistic emancipation from oppression, for the revolution is something which is always already in poetic language.  In the words of Baudrillard, “the revolution is symbolic or it is not a revolution at all” (205).


Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1993.

Butler, Judith, “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” in Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writing. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Routledge, 1993. 164-78. 

Chase, Cynthia. “The Witty Butcher’s Wife: Freud, Lacan, and the Conversion of Resistance to Theory.” MLN 102.5 (1987): 989-1013.

Copjec, Joan. Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language.  Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

---. Revolution in Poetic Language.  Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

---.  The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.

---. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.

Shepherdson, Charles. “The Role of Gender and the imperative of Sex.” Supposing the Subject. Ed. Joan Copjec. New York: Verso, 1994. 158-84.

Stewart, Garrett. Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out.  New York: Routledge, 1992.

---. For they know not what they do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. New York: Verso, 1991.

---. The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. New York: Verso, 1996.

Ed Cameron is Associate Professor in the Department of English at The University of Texas-Pan American.  He has published numerous articles on topics ranging from Gothic fiction and psychoanalysis to serial homicide and religious cults.  He is also the author of the forthcoming book The Gothic Unconscious: A Lacanian Analysis.  

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