chapter  21
14 Pages

Julia Kristeva

ByVIVIENNE JABRI

The suggestion of intimacy in relation to the political is an immediate subversion of the conventions and orthodoxies surrounding our understanding of politics and the systems of thought that underpin this understanding. Julia Kristeva’s writings, concerned as they are with the problematic of language and subjectivity, and drawing as they do from philosophy, literature, and psychoanalysis, present us with exactly such a subversion of the given order of things in political thought generally and in international relations in particular. The intimacy that is suggested here makes reference to Kristeva’s primary engagement with the question of subjectivity conceived not simply in terms of the subject’s relationship to institutions, but subjectivity as a process in being and becoming. The disruptive element in Kristeva’s thought when conceived politically is a wholesale shift away from a rationalist or even instrumental conceptualisation of politics and political participation, raising fundamental questions relating to identity, mobilisation, resistance, and the socio-political imperatives of modernity itself. If the apotheosis of modernity was/is the modern subject, then what happens to the modern project itself when its subject is no longer the rational, autonomous self of Kantian thought, but a far more troubled and complex being, always in negotiation with fragments of history, narrations un-foretold, and spaces of interaction where the subject comes face to face with her or his own strangeness? Julia Kristeva’s powerful interventions in philosophy, art criticism, and

psychoanalysis combine with her more recent fictional works. Born in Bulgaria, and living and teaching in France since 1966, Kristeva’s often narrational writings and interviews provide indicators of her life as an exile and a foreigner living in France and the impact of the experience of exile on her intellectual trajectory. While this trajectory suggests a shift from linguistics to a more psychoanalytically informed philosophical engagement, Kristeva’s discourse is certainly not linear in movement, but is multiple and rich in its points of reference. Joining the literary journal, Tel Quel, and experiencing the conflicts of the Left during the 1968 period, Kristeva’s early Maoist sympathies gradually gave way to a sustained critique of any totalising and totalitarian politics. Kristeva’s distinctly political project is often obscured not just by her style

of writing, but by the substantial content of her engagements. She might at

first glance and to the uninitiated appear somewhat removed from the concerns we have in international relations. Her most direct engagement with matters ‘international’ appears in a little known volume of essays, Crisis of the European Subject (Kristeva 2000), where she appears to deal directly with the challenges facing Europe in late modernity and specifically globalisation and its implications for Europe’s self-understanding. Another earlier work, Nations Without Nationalism (Kristeva 1993), again deals with matters of identity, and specifically the xenophobia associated with the extremes of nationalism, delving into the possibility of nations that are cosmopolitan in ethos. However, and crucially, both these works are mere derivations from her other established books and essays upon which her reputation rests. The aim of this chapter is to reveal what we might consider to be the ‘essential’ Kristeva; essential not in the sense of what finally defines her work, rather essential understood in terms of how we in critical international relations have drawn on her work and seek to do so in the future in our attempts at understanding social and political life, informed by lived experience as it is manifest in the routine of daily encounters and in the face of conflict, crisis, and upheaval. The ‘poststructural turn’ in international relations brought into sharp

relief issues concerned with language, discourse, and subjectivity. Engagement with each of these issues challenges the confinement of politics and the political to the state and its institutions, domestic and international. The unique contribution that Kristeva brings to critical discourse is her understanding of subjectivity as the core problematic in our thinking about politics and the political. The political subject, in Julia Kristeva, emerges, somewhat controversially, not simply in the public sphere of discourse, but in the ‘intimate’ spaces wherein discourse is intra-subjective. This postulates a challenge to any political thinking, in that we traditionally conceive of the political as being located primarily in the public domain. The intimate then makes its imprint on the international, emerges and bursts forth, somehow interrupts the sanitised and abstracted image presented in the orthodoxies of the discipline. Engagements with Kristeva in international relations centre predominantly on her poetics as source of resistance and on her reflections on abjection and xenophobia. The ‘aesthetic turn’, as Roland Bleiker (1999), points out, seeks to reveal the nexus between art and politics, and specifically articulations of resistance to hegemonic discourses and exclusionary practices as these emerge in artistic practice and literary production. Kristeva’s evidence base is indeed the artistic and the literary, subjectivity emergent in the text just as it is in her reading of the Western philosophical tradition, and her psychoanalytic practice. Hers is a complex intellectual trajectory that provides valuable insights into the international, insights drawn upon in critical scholarship.