Since the publication of her first work, Semeiotikè, in 1969, Julia Kristeva has been at the forefront of critical analysis and cultural theory, helping to shape the field and define its methodology. With over twenty major volumes and innumerable prefaces and essays, hers is a prolific output that draws on many disciplines: linguistics, literary theory and criticism, psychoanalysis, biography and autobiography, political and cultural analysis, art and art history. Many of her works are indispensable terms of reference for contemporary cultural theory, since she is the architect of some of its central concepts and associated methodologies of recent years, such as intertextuality, the semiotic, and abjection. Her work has redefined our understanding of a text, of subjectivity, and of processes of signification. In the heady days of high structuralism, she was one of its brightest stars, one of the creators, together with Barthes, Todorov, Goldmann, Genette, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Greimas, Foucault, and Althusser, of new modes of understanding literature, culture and society, as linguistics, psychoanalysis, marxism, philosophy and anthropology were brought together, developing methodologies for cultural and political analysis that sought to challenge both the prevailing academic conventions and the central philosophical and political tenets of existentialism.

Through its very public success, structuralism accentuated the similarities and obscured the very different histories and disciplinary trajectories of these intellectuals who, for a time, were read as a group, even though they belonged to very different intellectual generations and in some cases shared much with the existentialists who were so haughtily dismissed. As one of the youngest among them, Kristeva’s emergence as a writer and intellectual coincided with this moment, so it perhaps not surprising that her engagement with the complexity and importance of existentialist philosophy and phenomenology has been a feature of her more recent work.

Kristeva’s work had always been at the most theoretical end of the understanding of signification and representation, contributing to the critique of structuralism that became known as poststructuralism, and championing Derrida’s work (De La Grammatologie, L’Ecriture et la différence) in this light in her introduction to his contribution in the major volume Essays in Semiotics: Essais de sémiotique (1971) that she co-edited. Once she had trained as a psychoanalyst, she concentrated particularly on the exploration of some of the most intimate and passionate aspects of the human experience, while never abandoning the perspectives of her ground-breaking theoretical work, nor the extent to which she draws on literature and art as both vehicle and illustration. The concepts and innovations of her later writings continue, therefore, to be extremely influential in literary, filmic, and cultural analysis. She has received many awards and prizes, including the prestigious Humbolt Prize in 2004.

Her work is also notable for the impact it has had on women’s studies and feminist analysis in the UK and the USA. For a long time she was identified as a key proponent of “French feminism”, along with Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, even though her relations with feminist movements and other feminists in France have been quite complicated. Her critique of conventional systems of meaning, of fixed notions of gender and identity, and her elaboration of notions of femininity falling outside the symbolic, phallic law, being associated with different signifying practices, have played a major role in the feminist arguments that humanism, and dominant cultural practices such as realism, are repressive in their marginalisation and exclusion of women.

Whilst her early writings particularly were renowned for its difficulty, there is also a strong pedagogical impulse in her work. At the same time as the very demanding Semeiotikè, she published an introduction to linguistics, Le Langage cet inconnu, albeit under a pseudonym, Julia Joyaux (the real surname of Philippe Sollers – it was republished under her own name in 1981). She has held various university positions in France and visiting professorships in the USA, and, as Professor of Linguistics, continues to hold her research seminar at Paris VII-Denis Diderot; many of her recent books, such as the two volumes on revolt which reproduce her dialogue as teacher with her students, and Le Génie féminin, have their origins in the seminar. She continues to organise colloquia, and to edit or co-edit conference proceedings. She is much in demand as a speaker in the UK and the USA, and her generosity with her time, and her commitment to participation in the conferences she attends, is exemplary. She has made a television programme on literature and psychoanalysis, and even an educational animated video on reading Proust.

At the beginning of her three-volume study of “le génie féminin” (the genius of women), composed of the intellectual biographies of Hannah Arendt (1999), Melanie Klein (2000) and Colette (2002), Kristeva suggests that the recognition of genius relies upon the way a body of work is rooted in a life: “Let us call “genius” those who compel us to tell their story because it is inseparable from their inventions, their innovative contributions to the development of thought and beings, and from the multitude of questions, discoveries and pleasures these have created.” Her own singular biography is indeed closely intertwined with the intellectual framework of her work, partly because of the thematic importance accorded within it to the notions of exile, foreignness and strangeness (“l’étrangeté”), and distance, partly because of the way psychoanalysis gives a special urgency to biography and autobiography, and partly because the autobiographical voice becomes an increasingly strong one in her later work.

Born in Bulgaria in June 1941, Julia Kristeva lived in Sofia with her parents and sister. Her father trained as a priest, then as a doctor, and she has evoked the literary and intellectual discussions around the family table. This most French of intellectuals has always stressed her sense of difference and foreignness, and indeed, Barthes’s important review of Semeiotikè was tellingly entitled “L’Etrangère” (the foreign woman). Her parents sent her to a French kindergarten, which meant she started learning French from the age of four or five. Unable to continue at a French language school, reserved for children of communists, she took classes at the Alliance Française. Having impressed the cultural attaché at interview with her knowledge of Sartre, Bataille and Blanchot, she travelled to France on a “de Gaulle scholarship” at the age of twenty-four, with the intention of writing a thesis on the nouveau roman, the experimental novel of the 1950s and 1960s (Julia Kristeva: Interviews 1996, Au Risque de la pensée 2001). Through Todorov, a fellow Bulgarian, she met Genette who, given her interest in the nouveau roman, introduced her to Philippe Sollers, editor of the literary review Tel Quel, whom she would later marry. Tel Quel championed an avant-garde experimental writing that sought to renew with the earlier avant-garde interests of the Surrealists and of Bataille in writing, politics, language and sexuality, vigorously challenging bourgeois politics and culture, and turning its back simultaneously on the nouveau roman and the existentialists. Kristeva thus found herself at the very centre of the intellectual movements that were going to dominate French intellectual life for the next few decades and enjoy international renown.

She soon abandoned her literary project, and embarked on the study of linguistics, politics, and literature for her thesis, published in 1970 as Le Texte du roman, which explored the conditions of possibility of the novel itself. She joined Roland Barthes’s seminar, where her first presentation was on the work of the Russian formalist Bahktin, then unknown to French critics. She made her name with the publication of Semeiotikè.

Semeiotikè offered a detailed, theoretically ambitious study of semiotics. It drew upon the new emphasis on meaning as the result of structure and process, driven on the one hand by social and ideological contexts and purposes, on the other by unconscious processes, and mobilised an impressive command of linguistic theory and cultural discourses, from the Stoics to Bahktin, on meaning and the sign. It established key concepts: the text as “productivity”, that is, not the product of an individual mind, but as a site of the production of meanings whose workings needed to be traced in the complex materiality of language, its connotative, denotative and rhetorical codes; intertextuality, understood not just as a system of references, but as the synchronic relations which the text, site of production of meaning, engages with other texts; the role and function of verisimilitude, namely the production of the appearance of reality and the rhetorical codes that govern it; dialogism, Bahktin’s critical conception, to which Kristeva gives great prominence, of the ideological and cultural tensions and conflicts within the apparently seamless text, a concept which will also become part of a critical stock-in-trade.

Many of the structuralist critics were seeking to dismantle the ideological workings of bourgeois culture through their work. In both creative and critical writing, Tel Quel embarked very explicitly on a cultural politics linking avant-garde practices with social change. Initially close to the French Communist Party and those within it who were trying to develop a more sophisticated political reading of culture than that associated with social realism, it abruptly changed direction in 1970, espousing the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China. Many of the themes of Tel Quel’s Maoist phase – which itself was later abruptly abandoned in favour of a keen interest in the United States – chime with the post-68 emphasis on cultural and ideological transformation of bourgeois culture and Western thought, even though, in the exhilarating month of May 1968 itself, it was not central, given their proximity to the Communist Party, arch enemy and prime target for so many of the protesters.

La Révolution du langage poétique, published in 1974, is a major manifesto and theoretical treatise on the political importance of the commitment to new writing and new critical analysis. Kristeva reworks her previous semiological analysis, forging a new conceptualisation of the processes of signification. In the influential article “Le Sujet en procès”, first published in 1973, she had articulated the concept of the “subject in process”, subjectivity understood as non-fixed and non-unitary. The “I” can not coincide with an individual identity in all its plenitude; Kristeva draws on Lacan to show the subject is always split across unconscious, imaginary, and symbolic (including linguistic) processes, is always therefore “process”, and any sense of stable identity was necessarily illusory. La Révolution du langage poétique is devoted to showing that the literary practices of Mallarmé and Lautréamont were revolutionary in their inscription of new, subversive modes of meaning that stood in opposition to the repressive, phallic Law of the Symbolic.

An essential part of her argument lay in her reworking of semiological analysis. Kristeva refined her analysis of semiotics (“la sémiotique”) by introducing a new term, the semiotic (“le sémiotique”) to designate a pre-verbal, archaic phase in the framework of the constitution of the subject, a phase marked by the relation to the maternal (Kristeva refers to this phase as the “chora”, taken from Plato as a term for a maternal, nourishing space), by the drives of the unconscious, by the linguistic babbling of the infant. She created the term “signifiance” to designate the organisation of the processes of the semiotic, and thus distinguish them from the constituted meanings (“sens” and “signification”) of the Symbolic, for the semiotic is not chaos, but a different kind of organisation from the order of the Symbolic, with its rational, linear, logical codes of language, the codes of the Law, governed by the Father and the phallus. For Kristeva, there is no escape from the Symbolic – it is only in the Symbolic and through language that we accede to subjectivity; but Western culture is repressive due to its domination by the codes of the Symbolic. The pressure of the semiotic, characterised by cultural forms more open to music, imagery, non-linguistic expression, continues to be felt; avant-garde writing practices as embodied in the poetic language of Mallarmé and Lautréamont, with their challenge to reason and verisimilitude, are open to its disruptive power and are transformative of structures of power. In the cultural practices of China, with its ideogrammes and poetic forms, and later in those of the United States, Kristeva and the Tel Quel group detected evidence of receptivity to the semiotic, and more open forms of culture and power.

The notion of the semiotic, and its potential for disruption of the Symbolic, was of particular interest to feminist writers and scholars. Critics such as Elaine Marks, Isabelle de Courtivron and Toril Moi noted the importance of structuralism and anti-humanist French thought, and particularly the writings of Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, for the elaboration of theoretical work on patriarchy and the phallocentric nature of Western culture and society.

Kristeva’s relation to feminism has been complex. She was close for a time to the feminist group “Psychanalyse et politique” who published the text which came out of her trip to China, Des Chinoises (1974), an important text on issues of otherness and women, and which has been much discussed in relation to postcolonialism as well as feminism. Kristeva rejected the notion of a fixed identity as a “woman”, and argued that feminism was a patriarchal counterpart to humanism, led by women identifying with fixed positions of power. Her notion of poetic language was akin to Cixous’s écriture féminine, though Kristeva never espoused the possibility of women being outside the Symbolic. The semiotic is not a space which one might aspire to inhabit.

In line with the structuralist and poststructuralist dismissal of existentialism as dominated by the concept of the unitary subject, Kristeva’s view of Simone de Beauvoir’s classic text of feminist philosophy, The Second Sex, was less than flattering. In her very influential “Le Temps des femmes” (Women’s Time), an essay first published in 1979, Kristeva distinguishes two generations of women in the 20th century, that of the “suffragettes and the existentialist feminists”, making important political demands yet operating within the universalism of humanism and its logic of identity (“universal Woman”), as opposed to a new generation concerned with sexual difference, power, language and meaning, and the designation of new relations within the Symbolic. There is perhaps a different tone in her more recent Le Genre féminin, celebrating the intellectual and literary achievements of the chosen subjects as well as reflecting on the complexities of their relationship to life, birth, action, and language. In deliberating in its final essay whether there is a specifically female genius, Kristeva concludes that it is in these very questions about femininity that new paths are opened up. And she discusses Beauvoir’s achievements at length, describing her as “this pioneer too often and unjustly criticised and underestimated”, dedicating her three-part work to her memory.

The choice of Melanie Klein for the second volume of Le Génie féminin indicates the continuing centrality of psychoanalysis for Kristeva. While extremely well versed in German philosophy and Marxism as a student, it was only in Paris that she discovered Freud, who was certainly not on the curriculum in communist Bulgaria. Kristeva has often commented upon the importance of that discovery. Having come to Freud initially through Lacan, she decided to undertake an analysis, and from there to train as an analyst in her own right, motivated by the desire to explore in personal terms the universe that was part of the intellectual framework of her work, but also to tackle themes and dimensions, such as “the feminine”, maternity, the body, that she considered to be lacking in Lacanian work. By the 1980s she had completed her training analysis, and started practising as a psychoanalyst; the effect on her own work was also marked, both in a change of style, and a focus upon the dimensions of experience revealed by psychoanalysis.

Pouvoirs de l’horreur (1980) marked a new stage in Kristeva’s exploration of the unstable structures of the relations of self and other, through the elaboration of the concept of abjection. The abject, or ab-ject as she often writes it, denotes a process of crisis-ridden relation to the other; expelling the horror of unspeakable filth is a way of shoring up the fragile structures of the self. This dialectic of self and other, Law and transgression, is deployed with great virtuosity in a reading of Céline’s grossly antisemitic writings that has provided for large numbers of critics a framework of understanding texts at the limit of reason and acceptability:

L’abjection is something that disgusts you, for example, you see something rotting and you want to vomit – it is an extremely strong feeling that is at once somatic and symbolic, which is above all a revolt against an external menace from which one wants to distance onself, but of which one has the impression that it may menace us from the inside. The relation to abjection is finally rooted in the combat that every human being carries on with the mother. For in order to become autonomous, it is necessary to cut the dyad of the mother and child and that one become something other. (Julia Kristeva: Interviews 118)

In a series of psychoanalytical studies through the 1980s and 1990s (Histoires d’amour, Au Commencement était l’amour, Soleil noir, Nouvelles Maladies de l’âme, Sens et non-sens de la révolte and La Révolte intime), Kristeva pursues in ever greater depth, through the dynamics of depression, love, and revolt, her study of subjectivity and its processes, in the semiotic and the symbolic, of non-coincidence to itself.

In 1990, her work took a new direction with the publication of her first novel, Les Samouraïs. Three more have followed, all detective stories: Le Vieil homme et les loups (1992), Possessions (1996), and Meurtre à Byzance (2004). Her studies in Bulgaria had given her a strong foundation in French canonical texts, and, more idiosyncratically through her own readings, in the twentieth century avant-garde; given the importance of literature and literary analysis in all her works, it is perhaps not surprising that she turned to the novel for an exploration, firstly of her own past at a crucial moment in French intellectual history, and secondly of the processes involved in revolt and intimacy that she was defining through analysis of Sartre, Aragon and Barthes at the same time (Sens et non-sens de la révolte 1996). Les Samouraïs is a knowing reprise of Simone de Beauvoir’s Goncourt-winning novel Les Mandarins, an ironic and also poignant commentary on the hopes and failures of the intellectuals at the Liberation. Starting with the arrival in Paris of Olga Morena-Julia Kristeva, at Christmas 1965, Les Samouraïs tells the story, not only of Kristeva herself, but also, through thinly disguised pseudonyms, of the Tel Quel group, the turbulent weeks of revolt around May 68, and the famous journey to China in 1974 she undertook with Sollers, Barthes, and others of the Tel Quel group.

The self-reflexive impulse is a strong one in her work, no doubt because of the awareness of, and frequent allusion to, her situation as a foreigner, as “other than” French. As Spivak noted in her reflections on Des Chinoises, Kristeva draws on her own personal history to exemplify the exile, otherness, or, more recently, nomadic existence which play such important roles, thematically and structurally, in the work itself. Moments of change highlight intellectual history and her role within it; in 1983 she contributed “Mémoire”, an extensive account of her own intellectual journey from its beginnings as a Bulgarian student in Paris at Christmas time, to the first issue of L’Infini which replaced Tel Quel and consigned it to history. Her own personal engagement with the subjects of her books is also becoming increasingly manifest in the critical text itself; the final part of Proust ou le temps littéraire (1994) looks both backwards and forwards in a personal exploration of the importance of her past to her, and her dreams as markers of future works. Her many commentaries on her novels are both critical and personal; her biographies of Arendt, Klein and Colette are intertwined with her account of their importance for her in her own intellectual biography. The autobiographical is becoming an increasingly important part of her theoretical and psychoanalytical writing.

In recent years, Kristeva has brought her theoretical understanding of otherness, cosmopolitanism and foreignness, the role of love and “intimate revolt” to the large social issues of nationalism immigration, and racism in a series of texts (Etranger à nous-mêmes (1988), Lettre ouverte à Harlem Désir (1990) and Contre la dépression nationale (1998). In May 2005, Kristeva was invited by the President of the Republic Jacques Chirac to head a commission on disability, and has received extensive media coverage of the Etats généraux she set up to start the commission’s work, opening perhaps a new chapter in her life as one of France’s leading public intellectuals.

Works Cited
Kristeva, Julia (1969) Semeiotikè: recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris, Editions du Seuil.
--- (1969) Le Langage cet inconnu: une initiation à la linguistique [Language The Unknown] under pseud. Julia Joyaux, Paris: Editions SGPP.
--- (1970) Le Texte du roman: approche sémiologique d’une structure discursive transformationelle, The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
--- (1971) Essays in Semiotics: Essais de sémiotique, eds Julia Kristeva, Josette Rey-Debove, Donna Jean Umiker, The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
--- (1973) “Le Sujet en procès”, in Artaud, ed P Sollers, Paris: U.G.E. 10/18, reprinted Kristeva 1977
--- (1974) La Révolution du langage poétique: l’avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle Lautréamont et Mallarmé [Revolution in Poetic Language] Paris: Editions du Seuil.
--- (1974) Des Chinoises [About Chinese Women] Paris: Editions des femmes.
--- (1977) Polylogue, Paris: Editions du Seuil
--- (1979) “Le Temps des femmes” [“Women’s Time”] Revue 34/44, Université Paris VII, no 5, pp. 5-19, reprinted Kristeva 1986, Kristeva 1993.
--- (1980) Pouvoirs de l’horreur: essai sur l’abjection [Powers of Horror] Paris: Editions du Seuil
--- (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press [essays selected from Semiotike and Polylogue]
--- (1983) Histoires d’amour [Tales of Love] Paris: Editions Gallimard.
--- (1983) “Mémoire”, L’Infini 1, pp. 39-54.
--- (1985) Au Commencement était l’amour: psychanalyse et foi [In the Beginning Was Love] Paris: editions Hachette.
--- (1986) The Kristeva Reader ed Toril Moi, Oxford: Blackwell.
--- (1987) Soleil noir: dépression et mélancolie [Black Sun] Paris: Editions Gallimard
--- (1988) Etrangers à nous-mêmes [Strangers to Ourselves] Paris: Editions Fayard
--- (1990) Les Samouraïs [The Samurai] Paris: Editions Fayard.
--- (1990) Lettre ouverte à Harlem Désir [Nations without Nationalism – extracts] Paris: Rivages
--- (1992) Le Vieil Homme et les loups [The Old Man and the Wolves] Paris: Editions Fayard.
--- (1993) Les Nouvelles Maladies de l’âme[New Maladies of the Soul] Paris: Editions Fayard.
--- (1994) Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire [Time and Sense] Paris: Editions Gallimard
--- (1995) Littérature et psychanalyse, émission “Canal du Savoir”, directed by Marcel Rodriguez, Arts et éducation/Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot.
--- (1996) Possessions [Possessions] Paris: Editions Fayard
--- (1996) Sens et non-sens de la révolte: pouvoirs et limites de la psychanalyse I [Sense and Non-sense of Revolt] Paris: Editions Fayard
--- (1996) Julia Kristeva: Interviews, ed. Ross Mitchell Guberman, New York: Columbia University Press.
--- (1997) La Révolte intime: pouvoirs et limites de la psychanalyse II [Intimate Revolt] Paris: Editions Fayard
--- (1998) Contre La Dépression nationale: entretien avec Philippe Petit, Paris: Editions Textuel
--- (1998) Lire Proust avec Julia Kristeva, directed by Claire Marion, Editeur Arts et Education, collection Canal du Savoir
--- (1999) Le Génie féminin: la vie, la folie, les mots, vol I Hannah Arendt [Hannah Arendt] Paris: Editions Fayard
--- (2000) Le Génie féminin: la vie, la folie, les mots vol II La Folie: Melanie Klein ou le matricide comme douleur et comme créativité [Melanie Klein] Paris: Editions Fayard.
--- (2001) Au Risque de la pensée, préface de M-C. Navarro, (2 entretiens 1998 et 1988), La Tour d’Aigues: Editions de l’Aube.
--- (2002) Le Génie féminin: la vie, la folie, les mots vol III Les Mots: Colette ou la chair du monde [Colette] Paris: Editions Fayard.
--- (2004) Meurtre à Byzance, Paris: Editions Fayard

Atack, Margaret. "Julia Kristeva". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 October 2005
[, accessed 04 May 2016.]

Related Groups

  1. Psychoanalysis
  2. Poststructuralism and Deconstruction
  3. Feminism &Women Studies