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Melancholia, Revolution and Materiality in the Work of Julia Kristeva


Source: Paragraph, Vol. 26, No. 3 (November 2003), pp. 86-107
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
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Melancholia, Revolution
and Materiality in the Work
of Julia Kristeva

Anyone who has been readingjulia Kristeva's work over the decades at
some point must step back from it and ask the question: does that mean
that all revolutionaries are depressed? It is not that Kristeva herself says
this, but as her interests have changed over time from revolution to
extreme affective states such as melancholia and abjection, a central
relationship between the radical materials of avant-garde revolutionary
practice and the affective origins of such work has appeared. The
opening remarks of Black Sun, which set out the simple parameters of
her theory of melancholia, are a case in point:

For those who are wracked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning
only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia. I am trying to address an abyss
of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis,
lays claims upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions,
and even life itself. Such despair is not a revulsion that would imply my being
capable of desire and creativity, negative indeed but present. Within depression,
if my existence is on the verge of collapsing, its lack of meaning is not tragic - it
appears obvious to me, glaring, and inescapable.1

It is a well observed symptom of depression that language dies

and that the ultimate result of life-threatening depression is total
silence. Away from the detail of Kristeva's theory of the Thing in
this work therefore,2 the melancholic subject's problem is simply an
inability to speak in a meaningful way. At the same time, away from
Kristeva's theories of the semiotic and the chora in her earlier work,
the revolutionary's quality is an ability not to speak in a meaningful way.
The depressed speak, paint and write, although the signs they produce
remain a-symbolic or denied of significance within the symbolic realm,
so too do the practitioners of the avant-garde. So what is the difference?
According to Kristeva, the melancholic is incapable of talking about
their illness, especially in the terms her post-Freudian psychoanalytic
practice would have them talk, which would be in the manner
she describes as revolting, desirous, creative, negative, but present.
They suffer, therefore, from a linguistic pathology; they are very

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Melancholia, Revolution and Materiality in the Work of Julia Kristeva 87

bad speakers in a world where good speech is a communal essential.

Kristeva gives the example of the emotionally disturbed child to
illustrate this relationship between depressive states and a wounded
linguistic ability:

These children give the impression that they are paralyzed with a phobic
inhibition that hampers their access to discourse - as if language scared them.
Perhaps what really scares them, however, is a depression caused of their inability
to use language: they are afraid of being inadequate when faced with a world of
speakers - afraid of being 'bad speakers'.3

This makes a lot of sense as we are all of us afraid of being bad

speakers. Realizing this will also make us bad subjects.
In our society, so stricdy controlled by the linguistic dictates of the
symbolic order, only the radical writer of the avant-garde tradition
dares to be a bad speaker without eventually looking to have his or her
speech fixed by analysis. It would appear, therefore, that in Kristeva's
advancements in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, melancholic horror
results in a kind revolutionary glamour still afforded the avant-garde,
in that the melancholic rejects every system imposed upon it including
the original rejection of the thing that is the precondition of difference
and language acquisition. In addition, the melancholic lives its pain
in the same way that the revolutionary lives their revolt, daily,
interfusing it with every aspect of everyday existence. In relation to
this, the Kristevan analyst must always fulfil the hated function of the
counter-revolutionary as in some ways the job of the analyst is to reveal
that unhappiness is not ontologically acceptable. If melancholia has
the air of profound nihilism, rejection and agony that Renato Poggioli
identifies as typical of the avant-garde,4 Kristeva's psychoanalysis is
shown, by way of contrast, to be a rather wholesome ontology of
happiness and health against which the depressed subject can be seen
as revolting. Yet this was not always the case for a thinker who is, in
many ways, a theorist of the avant-garde and a supporter of the ideals
of revolution and revolt.
The fundamental conflict in Kristeva's work over the last four
decades between the demands of her post-Freudian psychoanalysis
and those of revolutionary practice is what this article sets out to
investigate. In particular it is interested in how this conflict has been
conducted against a backdrop of revolution and melancholia and their
strange concatenation, in Kristeva's work, through a mutual reliance
on the heterogeneity of materiality. From her earliest major works,
Revolution in Poetic Language (1974) and Semiotike: Recherche pour une

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Smanalyse, (1969)5 through to her recent studies, The Sense and

Non-Sense of Revolt (1996) and La Rvolte Intime (1997), 6 Kristeva has
been committed to the analysis of revolutionary texts of the European
avant-garde tradition. Y et, simultaneously, and often in opposition to
this, she has been increasingly concerned with the understanding and
cure of extreme and harmful emotional states such as melancholia and
abjection, particularly in the twin texts Powers of Horror (1980) 7 and
Black Sun (1987).
Kristeva's first theoretical concern was the revolution of the subject
in poetic language. This subject en procs/ on trial rejects, she argues,
the thetic control of the symbolic achieved by poetry's ability to give
vent to linguistic energies that by-pass or undermine meaning. These
energies come from the heterogeneous erotic drives of the subject
exploding from the semiotic chora : 'the semiotic, which also precedes
it [the thetic], constantly tears it open, and this transgression brings
about all the various transformations of the signifying practice that are
called "creation" (. . .) what remodels the symbolic order is always the
influx of the semiotic'.8 Hence, Kristeva's interest in the European
historical avant-garde, which is a mode of expression dominated
by the rupturing, non-significant, material power of the semiotic.
Yet, the revolution of the subject in her recent works of Freudian
psychoanalysis comes from the way the subject masters the disruptive
demands of the semiotic, converting them into the very structures of
thetic meaning typical of the symbolic. Revolution, therefore, is an act
of defiance against significance evidenced, in literary texts, through
modes of expression dominated by the semiotic at the expense of
the symbolic.
The concepts of revolution and melancholia are entwined together
in Kristeva's work at just this point because both involve a materiality
of expression, (words, images, sounds and so on) that is non-significant
or that rejects significance. In addition, avant-garde practice and
melancholic speech are both marked by an inability or refusal to
differentiate between the inside and the outside of subjective being.
This is true first in their mutual concentration on semiotic expression,
which takes the inner realm of drives and places it in the outer realm
of expression - placing drives on the page or in the mouth if you
will - bypassing the inner/outer dialectical process of subjectivity.
And second because of the fact that the avant-gardiste and the
melancholic refuse any differentiation between art and life.9 This
does not mean the revolutionary text has no sense of difference but
that it is in revolt against the differential systems of language which

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Melancholia, Revolution and Materiality in the Work of Julia Kristeva 89

produce meaning. Language exists as physical matter, not as a means

of negotiating interior intentions towards exterior states, the syntactic
differentiation of verb and noun are rejected, the sign systems of
differences which fix the referential meaning of a word are ignored,
even the spacing between letters and words that shows that they are
different from their neighbours is not a given. The revolutionary,
in other words, writes like the melancholic speaks, as if they never
experienced separation from the maternal body, learned to love the
thing by realizing that the thing was lacked, or understood the need for
rejection of matter to establish the differential space between subject
and object necessary for desire, for language, for meaning, and for life.
Kristeva's 'conversion' to Freudian inflected clinical practice forces
her to find a cure for loss because, essentially, that is her job, even if this
might also mean finding a cure for the avant-garde. The melancholic
is unable to speak well, and so feel well, thus as a professional analyst
she must give her patient the ability to speak well of their loss. She
has to de-radicalize their speech and make it acceptable to the general
community. Clinically, I assume that most people would find this
a laudable procedure but what is good for the patient is not always
so edifying for the artist, especially the revolutionary artist, and so
once again we might pose our question. Is the revolutionary writer
depressed and their 'bad' writing a symptom, if so should they not
be cured through (literary) analysis? Or is it the other way round,
that the depressed are revolutionaries and their cure an act of literary
philistinism on behalf of a clinical establishment of which Kristeva is
now very much a part?

Dead Speech and Nostalgia for the Mark

Melancholia and revolution come together within a text by means of

the way their material existence is dependent on the body's drives, in
particular the fact that their materiality is radically heterogeneous to
the modes of meaning generated by the symbolic order. Kristeva calls
such heterogeneous materiality the semiotic and defines text in her
early work as a duality that exists between a mark and a sign. The mark
is a moment of fixedness or of stasis of drive energy within a body,
in effect a pre-determined organization of rhythmic but meaningless
energies which constantly pulsate, explode and mutate within that
body. This pre-textual organization she calls the chora .10 The mark
in one of the 'material supports susceptible to semiotization: voice,
gesture, colors',11 occurs when the flow of drive energy is fixed in a

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non-significant way. The sign is what happens to the mark once it has
been fixed, converting this arrest into meaning. No sooner is a mark
identified as such, in other words, than it becomes a sign, but it never
ceases to also be a mark as it retains the trace of its drive orientation,
linking signification irrevocably to the body's drive energies.12 Thus,
she says, that while linguistic operations such as displacement and
condensation are important in generating meaning for the subject,

We must also add to these processes the relations (eventually representable as

topological spaces) that connect the zones of the fragmented body to each other
and also to 'external' 'objects' and 'subjects', which are not yet constituted as such.
This type of relation makes it possible to specify the semiotic as a psychosomatic
modality of the signifying process; in other words, not a symbolic modality but
one articulating ... a continuum: the connections between the (glottal and anal)
sphincters in (rhythmic and intonational) vocal modulations.13

There is a link between the sign and materiality that cannot be

denied, according to Kristeva. Each sign manifests a radical hetero-
geneity that perpetually undermines its attempts at univocal semantic
signification. The sign, therefore, remains radically other to itself and
this is also the element of signification exploited by revolutionary
textual practice.14 What is also clear from the above passage is that
heterogeneity comes in two forms, or better from two locations.
There is the heterogeneous material of the drive which is an internal,
subjective energy that language cannot possibly hope to control
because language does not exist purely for the subject. Then there is
the heterogeneous material of the external object providing stimulus
to the internal drives. From this point on, therefore, when I refer to
psychoanalysis I mean this drive-orientated, energetic view of subjec-
tivity that is begun in Freud's early 'Project' and which dominates not
only Kristeva's view of subjectivity but also Jacques Lacan's. Psycho-
analysis is, according to these thinkers, the analysis of the interaction
of the psyche and the soma through the distribution of drive energies
coming from the outside through the psyche's perceptions and from
inside through the body's own erotic energy. Within this form of
psychoanalysis the duality of materiality is central, producing a level
of material stimulus beyond the control of signification which often
results in the kind of revolutionary texts Kristeva is so interested in.
These energies when fixed produce marks, these marks when placed in
a differential structure become language, memory, painting and text.
However, before they are fixed they are not differential, just heteroge-
neous, by which I mean the subject recognizes these marks as physical

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and different, but they are not yet located in a system of differences
from which symbolism and meaning can be generated. Heterogeneous
marks are always different, if you will, while text is always differential
and it is recourse to these marks at the expense of signs that typifies
revolutionary writing of all sorts according to Kristeva.
The innovation of early Kristevan semiotics is to describe text as
the return to the mark and thus to tie signification into the double
heterogeneous materiality we have just considered. This is possible
because text, in her schema, is generated through the sudden irruption
of materiality into the sign whether from inside or outside the speaking
subject. In fact, if one were to attempt to explain what Kristeva's stake
in the heterogeneous materiality of text is, it might be enough to call
the process of text production central to the putting of the subject on
trial/in process, the renovation of, or nostalgia for, the mark. Text takes the
subject back to the mark by reviving the trace of the drive inherent
in the sign and in this small way it actuates a revolt within language.
Like any act of nostalgia, there is inauthenticity at the heart of text's
wistful attraction to the pre-significant mark and it is important not to
mistake such a mournful nostalgia for actual melancholia. Text shows
the body to the sign, re-introduces them if you like, and in so doing
shows that text itself can never be depressed because significance,
according to Kristeva, resides precisely in this interaction between the
semiotic and the symbolic.
The dialectic between mark and sign, sign and mark produces the
synthesis of text, which is the mainstay of real meaningfulness. It
also delineates the unspoken conflict in Kristeva's work between her
admiration of the semiotic and her sense of responsibility towards
the symbolic. This conflict comes from a twin interest in literature
dominated by the force of the semiotic and good mental health
possible only by the suppression of the semiotic by the symbolic.
Signs left alone without the irruption of the mark become, she asserts,
totalitarian. In her more recent work, however, this position has
altered and she has become more wary of the enthralling capabilities
of the mark. To get the depressed to make a text out of their speech and
their predicament is, therefore, to apply what she calls in Black Sun the
'counterdepressant' of psychoanalysis's talking cure to the depressed or
dead speech of the depressed.15 This so-called dead speech is described
in great detail in Black Sun, primarily to demonize it:

Let us keep in mind the speech of the depressed - repetitive and monotonous.
Faced with the impossibility of concatenating, they utter sentences that are

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interrupted, exhausted, come to a standstill. Even phrases they cannot formulate.
A repetitive rhythm, a monotonous melody emerge and dominate the broken
logical sequences, changing them into recurring, obsessive litanies. Finally . . . the
melancholy person appears to stop cognizing as well as uttering, sinking into the
blankness of asymbolia or the excess of an unorderable cognitive chaos.16

Yet the more time Kristeva spends on detailing dead speech, the more
similar it becomes to the revolutionary textual procedures she admires
so much in the work of avant-garde writers like Mallarm and Isidore
Ducasse. Dead speech is defined here as being repetitious, lacking in
meaningful concatenation, dominated by a lack of completion and
suffering from a kind of exhausted ennui. It breaks with even the
smallest units of significance, the phrase, and chooses melody and
obsession over structure and causal, narrative development. Finally,
it ends in total silence, madness, or death. It is what happens to text
when difference is renounced.
Psychoanalysis's cure for melancholia consists precisely in an act
of reading the radical speech and expression of the depressed and
converting their avant-garde expressive material into a more socially
and culturally acceptably symbolic and meaningful text. It does this
by allowing the depressed to discover differentiation, giving them
back the dialectic, and finally allowing them an understanding of the
radical difference between themselves and the world, which is the
only condition under which the world will accept them back into the
symbolic realm of the healthy. In contrast to this, as we have seen, the
melancholic subject does not talk of what they have lost or of their
tragedy, therefore failing to convert pain into sign. Instead, they talk
the revolutionary, non-differential language of dead speech.
Melancholic writing; to refuse differentiation. Is there a more
radical, revolutionary and ultimately more insane stance than that of
the depressed? To deny difference both in what that means for the
conservative and the radical, the right and the left, is to deny the
condition of life itself. However impossible this might in reality be,
this is, surely, the only condition which achieves a state anything like
the total liberation from subjectivity that revolutionary and avant-
garde practice strives for. Yet Kristeva, having touched on the truth of
the radical loss of significance as an ontological revolution in her early
work, then systematically withdraws from it through a redefinition of
terms and a re-consideration of the role of heterogeneous materiality.
This means that when she returns once more to the issue of revolt in
The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, these issues are considered in a very
different light.

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Melancholia , Revolution and Materiality in the Work of Julia Kristeva 93

Revolution and Revolt, Birth and Recollection

The easiest way to consider my differentiation between early and

late Kristevan revolution is through the subtle difference in meaning
of the signs 'revolution' and 'revolt' and their etymological roots.
Revolution, as Hannah Arendt reminds us in On Revolution , means a
return to a previous state of things. This is achieved politically by the
removal of sovereign power from the state, a liberation of the people
from the restrictive institutions that the state has placed them in, and a
return to the natural state of humanity defined in the west as 'freedom'.
Arendt is careful to distinguish between revolutionary 'liberation', a
violent irruption of novelty, and 'freedom' which follows liberation
by the act of foundation that is an act of birth :

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation,
the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable
. . . The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of
government, involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the
new structure: the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged
in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human
capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of
something new on earth.17

Jean-Luc Nancy's book, On Freedom , picks up on Arendt's work,

confirming that freedom consists of a relationship between foundation
and radical, singular natality (birth), which in fact questions the central
tenets of foundation as stated by the dominant philosophical and
political tradition in the west.

Freedom ... is the fact of existence as the essence of itself . . . But freedom, if it is
something, is the very thing that prevents itself from being founded . . . Thus, the
end of philosophy would be deliverance from foundation in that it would withdraw
existence from the necessity of foundation, but also in that it would be set free
from foundation, and given over to unfounded 'freedom'.18

In light of these comments, we can sense a difference between Arendt's

sense of revolutionary foundation and Nancy's conception of revolu-
tionary natality. Following revolution, Arendt argues, a new political
state must be founded and revolution must, at this point, cease. Foun-
dation here means literally the grounding of revolutionary energies
in institutions following the return to the originary, natural state of
human freedom brought about by revolution. Nancy's concept of
natality is post-revolutionary in its profound and justifiable scepticism

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over the ideology of the 'natural freedom' of human beings. Freedom,

for Nancy, is the foundational truth of the non-founded, that which
can never be reduced to simple, basic foundational concepts, and
that which will always exceed what has been founded. For Arendt,
freedom is the return to a western myth of common origins, for
Nancy it is the endless coming into being of events, subjectivity and
community, that disallows such a single, common story totally to
dominate. With this sophistication of approach to the basic idea of
revolution leading to freedom, we can say that Kristeva's first interests
were indeed in revolution not what she later calls 'revolt'. When she
states at the beginning of Revolution in Poetic Language that: 'The text
is a practice that could be compared to political revolution: the one
brings about in the subject what the other introduces into society',19
it is nothing other than the paradox of a radical founding of non-
foundational natality, highlighted by Arendt and developed by Nancy,
that Kristeva is referring to.
At this point we must turn to her idea of signifiance , a concept that
exists in her work even at the early stage but which she has recently
placed at the forefront of her analyses, and its implications for revo-
lutionary natality. She defines signifiance as a processual complex of
representation-language-thought,20 allowing it to usurp the semiotic
and move her interests from semiotic revolution to the more conserva-
tive idea of revolt. In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt she moves away
from the etymological implications of the term 'revolution', towards
an alternative etymology of the term 'revolt'. This etymology, she
notes, eventually ends up in 'revolution', but it takes in, along the
way, the Latin verbs volvere and then revolvere. The etymological work
Kristeva does here is significant only because it obviously helps her to
found her own ideas as to the importance of the term 'revolt', which
is not so much an act of founding, non-foundational natality, but of
turning/ rolling (volvere) and of rereading (revolvere).
If revolution is a public and communal act of founding, non-
foundational natality (the endless collapse of subjective certainty and
its rebirth through semiotic irruption) then revolt is a private activity
of self-analysis and self-reading, and this is in fact what concerns
Kristeva at the present time because it bisects so apparently with
Freudian psychoanalytic practice through the concept of signifiance.
Through her recent readings of Arendt and Proust the importance
of narration and recollection as two parts of the single activity of
signifiance is raised repeatedly. For example, in considering Arendt's
view of the importance of narrated action in forming the communal

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Melancholia, Revolution and Materiality in the Work of Julia Kristeva 95

shared thought that converts revolutionary liberation into freedom

she writes: 'such writing explores and renews the psychic realm and,
while using recollection as a basis for examining the retrospective bond
between man and meaning (. . .) it exposes and puts into practice an
incessant tendency toward conflict: a revolt'.21
On the other side of this she considers Proust's private recollec-
tions as a form of transubstantiation or of making flesh the text of
recollection. This is attained through the semiotic fact of memory,
which she describes as a form of revolution in itself: 'As it restores my
various, different, relationships with people and things, my memory
fastens upon particular "sites" and "places". But, incapable of placing
them in succession to one another, it sets up "revolutions" around
me as it does them'.22 These analyses of narrative are, in fact, more
sophisticated forms of the early schema of converting the violence
of the semiotic into the safety of the symbolic (narrated action) and
of destroying the despotism of the symbolic through irruptions of
the semiotic by making text drive-orientated once more (Proustian
memory-trace text). Returning briefly to the debate between Arendt
and Nancy it can be said that Kristeva is willing to utilize the potential
of natality for undermining subjective certainty, but like Arendt she
is afraid of living the life of natality /liberation, seeing birth rather as
a limited event, a wiping the slate clean, an opportunity to begin
rebuilding the subject once more. Contradicting what is for Nancy
the radical potential of birth, natality becomes the precondition for
foundation in same way that the mark is the precondition for text.
Birth serves foundation whereas for Nancy it deconstructs it.
The reason, then, that Kristeva abandons revolution in favour of
revolt is precisely located within the affective danger of melancholic
liberation which we began with, and is further evidence of the
increased tendency of her work to consider the language of revolution
as pathological. To put it bluntly, revolt is the activity of healing the
language of revolution or of converting the liberation of birth into
the freedom of a controlled life. This is what she means when she
describes psychoanalysis as 'a discourse of revolt',23 and why the term
'revolutions' is in inverted commas in relation to memory. Memory
is incapable of producing an act of revolutionary natality in that it
is involved in the processual reworking of an original act of birth.
So that while natality is truly an act of founding liberation, memory
takes up that liberation and converts it into a foundational moment of
freedom. Thus, if the melancholic can be taken back to the moment
when they mistook the mythical Thing for the actual thing and

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shown their error, their disruptive liberation from the dictates of

the symbolic order can be reconstituted and reworked within the
significant text of a story. At this juncture, their founding moment of
liberation, the point at which they began to be depressed is re-found
and re-narrated as a foundation for true subjective freedom within the
symbolic order of health and emotional vitality. A discourse of revolt is,
therefore, very different from an act of revolution. Revolt is a process
of reading and writing through memory, conducted in accordance
with the counter-depressant of psychoanalysis, and yet held within
the semiotic complex of signifiance.

Revolting Maternal Bodies

The two opposing terms of revolutionary natality and foundation

match up with Kristeva's early view of the subject as dominated by
violent irruptions of the semiotic that the symbolic or thetic realm
then accommodates through signification. This dialectical pattern is
referred to in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt as the mythical
story of origins told by Freud in Totem and Taboo, where he founds
the cultural/mythical/subjective on the original crime of patricide.
Freud utilises the anthropological material available at that time
which noted a commonality in the narratives of many cultures over
two sons killing their father and then eating him. This, it would
seem, was the first revolt and psychoanalysis's point of entry into
revolution. For Kristeva, Freud's rather ill-informed fable is too useful
to dismiss as the two acts of murder and consumption of the body
match the dialectic of the semiotic and the symbolic. The murder
is the irruption of the semiotic drive while the consumption of
the father, and the assumption of the patriarchal position in the
oedipal triangle that this symbolizes, is typical of the thetic acts of the
symbolic. In addition, the act of murder seems typical of revolution
while the act of consumption/assumption/resumption seems more
typical of Kristeva's revised conception of revolt, transgressing only
to return to a communally sanctioned story revitalized by such
transgression. Finally, the fact that this psycho-dramatic fable centres
on the oedipal triangle should not distract us from the equally
significant fact that it is simultaneously a story about subjective
unhappiness and the body.
The point of revolt is, Kristeva argues in relation to the fable,
an attempt to achieve purification. In considering her own work in
Powers of Horror, she defines impurity as an archaic lack of respect

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for boundaries, and again we are back in the realm of the speech
of the depressed. The refusal of differentiation is typical of a truly
revolutionary act as we have seen. In addition to which, if impurity
does not respect boundaries then, by definition, within a Freudian
schema, impurity signifies the maternal body. As Freud shows, and
Melanie Klein confirms,24 the earliest stages of the formation of
subjectivity and depression in the infant reside in its inability to
differentiate itself from the maternal body.
Summarizing Freud's perspective on the relationship between the
origins of the Oedipus conflict in sacred rituals and the relation of
impurity to the maternal Kristeva notes: 'The constitution of the
sacred therefore requires separation from the physiological and its
framework, the maternal and the carnal'25 suggesting that the act of
revolt is one of jettisoning the physiological in favour of the symbolic
comforts of the sanctioned realm of differential significance offered
by language. Viewed under these terms revolt's attempt at separating
the subject's speech from its body, or of liberating the sign from the
physiological dictates of the body, again reiterates the link between
revolt and the affective energies of melancholia and loss. Melancholia
denies separation between the body and the marks of the material of
significance. Revolt then is another term for the counterdepressant of
Revolution and melancholia, I would argue, are bound together
irrevocably for Kristeva and her conception of psychoanalysis at
precisely this point. The first act of revolution is brought about by a
renunciation of impurity. Impurity is the state of grace for the infant,
some might argue, where it is unable to differentiate between its own
body and the maternal body. At this point the subject knows nothing
of differentiation, a state of being Klein defines as the paranoid-
schizoid position which then is replaced by the depressive position.
Melancholia is defined in Kristeva's work as being located exacdy
in the regression to such a state of lack of differentiation, although
now the body loved is not the maternal but a fictional, paternal, and
archaic Thing similar to the Freudian father and the Lacanian Other
previous to the symbolic act of patricidal transgression.26 Melancholia's
pathology comes from its identification with the father without the
necessary act of revolutionary patricide. This, in fact, cannot be classed
as a revolution because it does not return the subject to an earlier state
of things. It cannot involve natality as it actually denies the subject the
radical scission of differentiation that constitutes natality, and it also
cannot be foundational.

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Revolution must be defined as the first foundational act, that of
difference, attained by the rejection of the first depressive position or
lack of differentiation between self and the other of the maternal body.
Melancholia occurs if, in the act of revolution, the subject remains
somehow in a position of defaulted and perpetual liberation without
progressing to the act of foundation which is that of converting
marks into signs and semiotic glossolalia into symbolic text. Revolt
is the activity of reliving the transgression, symbolically, and allowing
the subject to move from liberation, through the foundation of a
communally sanctioned text of their life, to the life-process of freedom.
Thus, revolution must be conceived of as feminine, concerned as it
is with birth and the presence of the maternal body. In contrast,
revolt is the reaffirmation of masculine paternal power brought about
by a movement away from birth towards foundational categories,
simultaneous with a renunciation of the maternal body because it is
impure and abject.27 The depressive position and melancholia are, in
other words, states of revolutionary femininity, states which Kristeva
is forced to reject by the paternal and patriarchal emphasis of her
Freudian analysis.

The Material of Revolution

The act of revolution is close to the pathological state of melancholia in

that both involve a violent liberation, a natality, without the following
process of foundation. In contrast, Kristeva's favoured process of revolt
is more typical of the healthy process of mourning, to use Freud's
classic differentiation, which goes through the valley of the shadow of
death so as to show that one can emerge from the valley, when the
time is right, a better person. The question must therefore be asked
why, considering that revolutionary melancholia is the very activity of
revolutionary writing that obsesses Kristeva, does she turn away from
revolution? This is especially confusing considering that revolution
has definite and profound implications for feminism not only putting
forward a metaphysics of birth, but also showing that the act of
revolution is, by definition, maternal as it involves the physiological
and foundational event of birth. At the point when one might expect
Kristeva to embrace revolution and its role in melancholia, she instead
picks over the dead corpse of Freud's patriarchal, Eurocentric, ill-
informed, colonial and simplistic reading of ancient cultural rituals as
justification for the oedipal triangle. The idea of revolt as transgression
of paternal authority followed by the assumption of that authority

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effectively turns our attention away from the maternal body and
a whole new materialist and metaphysical conception founded on
feminine subjectivity, returning us back to the paternal realm of
authority which Freud set up over a hundred years before.
Whatever the pros and cons of this decision, we can now at
least state that Kristeva conceives of revolt in the subject as actuated
through sessions of biographical anamnesis which ask us to re-read
and recount the history of our birth and development in terms which
do not rely on semiotic, physiological and erotic marks, but on thetic,
psychological and meaningful signs. The job of the psychoanalyst, in
fact of psychoanalysis itself as a discourse is, Kristeva suggests, to allow
for such a transition from revolution to revolt, working to cure any
number of pathological states including melancholia and abjection.2
Based on her tri-partite schema of revolt, one could say that it begins
with an initial act of transgression, the revolution if you will, followed
by a process of working through the implications of this transgression,
and finally a language game which stands in for the original history
of the crime. This game nearly always takes the form of narrative or
a story that is acceptable symbolically both to society and the subject,
returning us to the work of Arendt and Proust. Kristeva suggests these
forms of revolt - transgression, working through, and substitutive
game29 - as three independent activities, but it seems more probable
that she conceived of them as a tripartite unit because they fit the
processual project of revolt so well. In the process of revolt the primary
scission of difference is first violendy re-actuated at some cost to the
subject in terms of transference and counter-transference, and then
said difference is subsequently denied through tropic means.
Melancholia plays a central role in the argument here for it is
in melancholia that perhaps Kristeva's most innovative work is
revealed through melancholic speech's strange materiality. Melan-
cholia's problem with language is centered around the fact that the
melancholic speaks with the voice of the drive or of the body, discon-
nected from the world of meaning because it renounces the process
of differentiation and identification central to subjective formation.
Melancholia, in this light, resembles the embodiment of revolution
and revolutionary writing practice. By this I do not mean it typifies it,
but rather it occupies the heterogeneous drive and body orientation
of language within which resides the radical aesthetic and political
power of natality. Melancholic revolution is the irruption of the body
without difference, which is the powerful irruption of the semiotic
needed to overhaul the authority of the symbolic. In political terms,

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Arendt makes clear, this is especially dangerous as language becomes

replaced by acts of violence which, she notes, are mute and incapable
of forming a society of discursive commonalties.30 However, in litera-
ture this very danger is something we as critics have come to value as
does Kristeva.

Signifiance, the Ultimate Prize

While Kristeva favours the psychoanalytic process of revolt over the

irruptive event of revolution, she remains committed to the revolu-
tionary avant-garde in literature. One cannot then suggest, however,
that she is a radical on the page but a conservative on the couch because
one cannot separate literary expression from subjective revolt in her
work. This is because aesthetic expression through signifiance is made
up of elements which are not linguistic but psychosexual. Returning to
Freud's unfinished but influential 'Project,' Kristeva locates signifiance
between the two warring factions of the semiotic and the symbolic,
'between act and representation, between the unrepresentable and the
symbolic contract surrounding authority'.31 It is signifiance, in other
words, which is the prize here and her real interest, because signifiance
defines for her what she sees as the real project of psychoanalysis, and
has been since Freud's unfinished 'Project' of 1895: 'psychoanalysis
offers itself as a theory of what I call the copresence between sexuality
and thought within language'.32
We began by wondering, based on the clear link in Kristeva's oeuvre
between revolution and melancholia, whether this meant that the
revolutionary subject was, by definition, depressed or, more radically,
if depression was in itself revolutionary. Starting with the definition of
melancholia as a loss of significance, I suggested that this was precisely
the revolutionary textual practice of the avant-garde writers Kristeva
is still reading today. These authors purposefully reject the initial act
of rejection that the infant must go through in order to separate itself
from the maternal body, learn of differentiation, and attain significant
language. Opting to retain the semiotic so as to reject the symbolic,
these heroes of textual revolution produce a drive-orientated language
that is effectively the same as the melancholic's dead speech. In so
doing they challenge the very basis of psychoanalysis as a discourse in
that they have no need for the bridge signifiance provides between act
and representation.
Such a situation comes about through the difficult relationship that
the revolutionary writer has with sublimation. Through sublimation

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the subject, trapped in the infantile depressive position, is released from

pain by being allowed to take up an external object towards which
drive energies held within the subject can be directed. Signifiance
facilitates this because it links the drive to language as Kristeva notes:
'because language, and nothing else, leads to exteriority'.33 Aesthetic
activity is the main means by which this occurs through the production
of drive related material, 'sounds, colors, words and so on',34 which
can be led out to language and symbolically sanctioned significance.
When this happens, however, the subject is exposed to the possibility
of melancholia:

We must not forget the pitfall that the founder of psychoanalysis [Freud] never
underestimated: left to itself, sublimation disentangles the mixed drives, extricates
the death drive, and exposes the ego to melancholia. Too often we emphasize
the link between art and melancholia instead of blundy asking the question: how
does one avoid succumbing to it? The answer is simple: by resexualizing the
sublimatory activity, by sexualizing words, colors, and sounds.35

The writer, every time they set pen to paper, is potentially a

revolutionary in that they 'depress' themselves and thus revolutionize
their text in the process. Theirs is sublimation without end, or of
endless birth into the moment of separation as the origin of every
subjective state. Melancholia then, is not really a loss of significance
but the living perpetually in the event of the birth into significance
without the concomitant process of revolt which leads this birth-to-
symbol back to its pre-symbolic, meaningless drives. How strange
melancholia is when seen in this light, and how fascinating the
text of revolution which chooses to foreground this feature at the
expense of symbolic meaning. In the avant-garde text we find the
writer launched into an act of birth, of liberation, and then stopping
there, suspended. They cannot go back because the way back to
drives can only be conducted through signifiance, nor can they go
forward and remain revolutionary. All that is left for them is to turn
and return; to revolve. It is no wonder that Kristeva has a love-
hate relationship with revolutionary melancholia, because without
melancholia there can be no signifiance and so no developed conception
of Freudian psychoanalysis, yet her vision of psychoanalysis cannot
let melancholia alone as, if it stops looking for a cure, then the
talking cure becomes all talk and no action, becomes, if you will,
literary theory.
I have no doubt that as a practising Freudian psychoanalyst Kris-
teva's work on depression is pitched directly at alleviating the terrible

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suffering this disease brings about. However, this article is an appraisal

of Kristeva as a critical theorist not a doctor. In a way it is a
complicated way of asking why she has become such an acolyte
of Freud, pre-Lacanian Freud at that, when Freud's work under-
mines not only her fascination with revolutionary textual practice,
but also gender. It is not entirely true to state, as she does, that
psychoanalysis is a counter-depressant except as part of a system
of self-analysis, pharmacology, and life-changes that all theorists of
depression accept work together to alleviate, but never eliminate,
profound depression. However, in some small way it is true in as
much as it is counter-revolutionary as I have shown. Coming in
after melancholia's revolutionary aesthetic of the birth of the drive
into meaning, her analytical practice attempts to re-establish order
and sovereignty. Yet there is a major difference between melancholic
revolution and avant-garde revolution occurring in the levels of voli-
tion. Many writers suffer from depression, and many depressives turn
to writing, and certainly there is a link of sorts, but while Breton
chose to 'depress' himself to produce surrealism, Mayakovsky did not
choose to kill himself because of Russian Futurism: circumstances
and his illness made him do it. Obviously there is an important
difference here.
What is of the greatest interest to me is the direction one of the most
important thinkers of our age is going and why. I think it is correct
to say that Kristeva is not actually torn between her commitments to
page and couch in the field of revolution. Instead, we must accept that
she, like Breton, knows what she is doing. What I believe is occurring
in her current work is a conscious utilization of the founding natality
of revolution to provide the foundation for a credible discourse of
Freudian psychoanalysis for the twenty-first century.
Just as Lacan returned to Freud for late-twentieth-century culture,
she is trying to do the same for contemporary culture. Lacan brought
language to Freud, while Kristeva aims to bring the body. Just as
Lacan used linguistic innovations in a critical way, Kristeva is using
innovations in the field of cognition which assume the embodiment
of all experience, to critically demonstrate that Freud was, indeed,
correct. This is the aim of signifiance : to prove the psycho-sexual basis
of the subject so as to link Freud to the ongoing discoveries in the
field of cognition. She wants to link the psyche to the brain. At the
same time Kristeva wishes to bring to bear the idea of heterogeneity
to cognition, in the same way Lacan wanted to introduce the idea
of lack into language.36 This is a gamble intellectually in that it

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forces her to abandon revolution and stops her from turning to

elements of melancholic speech so as to establish a credible form of
feminine revolution. All of which leaves the material of revolutionary
melancholia and its relation to the female body an intriguing and
controversial question for the future. However, for Kristeva and
Freudian psychoanalysis as a whole, the opportunity to establish a
foundational importance for their type of psychoanalysis in the areas
covered by signifiance is too rich a prize to resist. If Kristeva is successful
she revitalizes Freud for a new age while proving herself to be the true
reader of Freud and maybe also alleviating a great deal of suffering
for her patients. For this, it would seem, she is willing to follow the
trajectory of many avant-garde artists in renouncing revolution and
all it has meant for her over forty years in favour of revolt and all it
could mean.

Brunei University


1 Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy , translated by Leon

Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989) 3.
2 I am assuming most readers are aware of Kristeva' s novel take on Freud's
theory of object loss, narcissism and melancholia so I will not go into
detail in the main body of the text. However, for reference, John Lechte's
summary of the argument is very useful so I include it here: 'Melancholia
is considered by Kristeva to be the equivalent of mourning for a partial loss
that cannot be symbolized. The individual is that loss, weighed down by
tears and silence. Kristeva refers here to the 4 dngation of language, which
relates to the absence of the object. Language begins with a dngation which
the depressive denies . . . The melancholic's denial of dngation (which is
also the denial of representation) results in signs not having the force either
of bringing the mother back, or of expressing the pain of loss. Rather than
expressing emotion and affect, the subject becomes these: melancholies, in
short, act out what needs to be elaborated in signs and symbols formed in
response to the loss of the object (mother). This detachment of signs from an
object thus corresponds to an attachment to the Thing: the object as not lost.'
John Lechte, 'Art, Love, and Melancholy in the Work of Julia Kristeva', in
Abjection, Melancholia and Love, edited by John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin
(London, Routledge, 1990) 34-5.
3 Julia Kristeva, New Maladies of the Soul , translated by Ross Guberman (New
York, Columbia University Press, 1995) 105.

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4 See Poggioli's descriptive study of the avant-garde where he lists a series
of categories such as these to try to encapsulate the essence of avant-
garde activity in Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant- Garde, translated
by Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge Mass., The Bellknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1968).
5 Julia Kristeva, Semiotike: Recherches pour une Smanalyse (Paris, Editions du
Seuil, 1969).
6 Julia Kristeva, La Rvolte Intime (Paris, Broch, 1997).
7 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon
Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1982).
8 Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, translated by Lean Roudiez (New
York, Columbia University Press, 1984), 62.
9 Peter Brger defines the basic tenet of the European avant-garde as a refusal
of the differentiation between art and life which bourgeois capitalism insists
on by removing art from the realm of everyday life and placing it within a
series of controllable institutions. He states towards the end of his study, 4 In
summary, we note that the historical avant-garde movements negate those
determinations that are essential in autonomous art: the disjunction of art and
the praxis of life, individual production, and individual reception as distinct
from the former. The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art
by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This
has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society' (Peter
Brger, Theory of the Avant- Garde, translated by Michael Shaw (Manchester,
Manchester University Press, 1984), 54).
10 In terms of the relationship between drive energies and the formation of
the chora she states: 'Discrete qualities of energy move through the body
of the subject who is not yet constituted as such and, in the course of his
development, they are arranged according to the various constraints imposed
on this body ... In this way the drives, which are 'energy' charges as well
as 'psychical' marks, articulate what we call a chora: a nonexpressive totality
formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement
as it is regulated' (Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, 25).
11 Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, 28.
12 This theory forms the basis of Kristeva's detailed work on Proust, trarisub-
stantiation and the role of memory: 'The past sensation remains within us,
and involuntary memory brings it to light when an experience in the present
bears a connection to it. Past and present sensation are magnetized by the
same desire. In this way, an association of sensations is established, across time
and space: a link, a composition, a reminiscence of the desire. Within this
inter laced network the sensation becomes fixed and turns into an impression:
that is to say, its particularity and isolation disappear, and a resemblance is
established between differences which will eventually achieve the status of a
general law, in the same way as does an idea or a thought. Yet far from being

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an abstraction, this "generality", which has sensation immanent within it,

leads accordingly to the highest level of knowledge: it becomes incarnate (. . .)
music becomes a world, writing a form of transubstantiation' (Kristeva, Proust
and Time , 77).
13 Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language , 28-9.
14 She considers the issue of radical otherness, signification, foreignness and
subjectivity in more detail in Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves , translated
by Leon S. Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1991). Her
particular interest here is otherness in terms of nationality and immigration,
but the book also relates directly to the issue of revolution. For example
one of terms in which she considers the issue of foreignness is the separation
of language from the maternal body, 'Not speaking one's mother tongue.
Living with resonances that are cut off from the body's nocturnal memory,
from the bittersweet slumber of childhood' (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves,
15). In addition, she defines the foreigner as someone who causes the subject
to question boundaries: 'Confronting the foreigner whom I reject and with
whom at the same time I identify, I lose my boundaries' (Kristeva, Strangers
to Ourselves , 187). These two issues of the loss of the maternal body and the
impurity involved in loss of boundaries are central to Kristeva's theories of
melancholia and revolt as we shall see.
15 Kristeva, Black Sun , 3-30.
16 Kristeva, Black Sun , 33.
17 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London, Faber and Faber, 1963), 225.
18 Jean-Luc Nancy, On Freedom, translated by Bridget McDonald (Stanford
Cal., Stanford University Press, 1993), 11 - 12.
19 Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, 17.
20 Kristeva, The Sense and Non-Sense, 56.
21 Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, translated by Ross Guberman (New York,
Columbia University Press, 2001), 43-4.
22 Julia Kristeva, Proust and the Sense of Time, translated by Stephen Bahn (New
York, Columbia University Press, 1993), 23. She goes on to consider this
issue in relation to signifiance and, by implication, the semiotic in her full
study of Proust, Time and Sense. Talking of the material relation between
pain and our memory and its mode of register she states: 'in a domain of
signifiance that [register] is not one of verbal representation or the linguistic
signifier. Instead, it is the register of the memory trace, of 'representability',
of the 'container', or the 'fetish' - a register that does not separate the thing
represented from the representing self (Julia Kristeva, Time and Sense: Proust
and the Experience of Literature, translated by Ross Guberman (New York,
Columbia University Press, 1996), 231-2).
23 Kristeva, Sense and Non-Sense, 50.
24 Klein's theory of the depressive position comes from her initial conception
of the paranoid-schizoid position of the very young child. At this stage, the

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child is unable to differentiate itself from the external maternal body. Instead,
the child has what I have called a basic morality of spacing. It introjects what
is good, the good breast that gives good milk, and expels what is bad, the
bad breast that gives bad milk. Good is in, in other words, and out is bad. As
it develops it is able to understand the metonymy of the partial object and
is able to see, for example, the breast as part of the maternal whole. At this
point it can see that first of all the part which is attacked as bad could be an
element of a whole that could be good (bad breast on good mother). Second,
it begins to see bad not as what must be rejected but as that which has been
rejected. Bad, at this stage, becomes lack of a partial object that is good. The
combination of guilt and mourning result in this early, proto-melancholia
which shows the affective state of melancholia as foundational to the subject.
Direct links can also be made between the depressive position in Klein's
work, and the melancholic Thing in Kristeva's.
25 Kristeva, Sense and Non- Sense, 21.
26 Kristeva, Black Sun, 13-15.
27 For direct links between this and Kristeva's general theory of abjection see
Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 61-74.
28 It is worth noting that while psychoanalysis is a broad church utilizing many
different theories and approaches, Kristeva rarely sees it as such. Instead she
reduces the whole discipline to the works of Freud with occasional glances
to other thinkers such as Lacan and Klein. Therefore, when I speak of
psychoanalysis here I really refer to Kristeva's bid to define psychoanalysis in
her own terms only. This is both reductive and exciting in that her vision of
psychoanalysis in the future is provoking and vital, if her appreciation of the
history of the discipline is sometimes lacking.
29 Kristeva, Sense and Non- Sense, 16.
30 She differentiates between compassion and pity in the midst of revolutionary
fervour. Pity comes from reasoned argument and is the political response
to suffering, compassion, however, is the initial emotional response and as
such is defined as an act rather than a representation. Thus in terms of
mass suffering, compassion comes first but real change comes from pity.
Additionally, in reading work by Dostoevsky and Melville she notes that
compassion is without words as it is pure affective activity, allying it very
closely to the violence of liberation. The relationship between these emotion
terminologies and Kristeva's own system of revolution vs. revolt should,
at this stage, require no further gloss. For more on Arendt's differentiation
between pity and compassion see Arendt, 76-90.
31 Kristeva, Sense and Non- Sense, 47.
32 Kristeva, Sense and Non- Sense, 82.
33 Kristeva, Sense and Non-Sense, 57.
34 Kristeva, Sense and Non- Sense, 57.
35 Kristeva, Sense and Non-Sense, 60.

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36 Much of Kristeva's recent work runs parallel to the basic tenet of cognitive
psychology which is that all experience is embodied. However, she has
serious reservations about this field due to its ignorance over the issue of
heterogeneity, a reservation I also share. The debate is rather involved so I
will not paraphrase it here but refer your attention to Sense and Non- Sense,

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