Prolegomenon’ to Revolution in Poetic Language – Julia Kristeva



Our philosophies of language, embodiments of the idea, are nothing more than the thoughts of archivists, archaeologists, and necrophiliacs. Fascinated by the remains of a process which is partly discursive, they substitute this fetish for what actually produced it. Egypt, Babylon, Mycenae: we see their pyramids, their carved tablets, and fragmented codes in the discourse of our contemporaries, and think that by codifying them we can possess them.

These static thoughts, products of a leisurely cogitation removed from historical turmoil, persist in seeking the truth of language by formalizing utterances that hang in midair, and the truth of the subject by listening to the narrative of a sleeping body – a body in repose, withdrawn from its socio-historical imbrication, removed from direct experience: ‘To be or not to be … To die, to sleep … To sleep – perchance to dream.’

And yet, this thinking points to a truth, namely, that the kind of activity encouraged and privileged by (capitalist) society represses the process pervading the body and the subject, and that we must therefore break out of our interpersonal and intersocial experience if we are to gain access to what is repressed in the social mechanism: the generating of signifiance.

The archivistic, archaeological, and necrophilic methods on which the scientific imperative was founded – the building of arguments on the basis of empirical evidence, a systematizable given, and an observable object – in this case, language – are an embarrassment when applied to modern or contemporary phenomena. These methods show that the capitalist mode of production has stratified language into idiolects and divided it into self-contained, isolated islands – heteroclite spaces existing in different temporal modes (as relics or projections), and oblivious of one another.

These random discursive instances have yet to be assigned a typology corresponding to the subjective and socioeconomic typologies in society as a whole. Instead, as agents of totality, in positions of control, science and theory intervene to make such discursive instances intelligible, each within their separate domain, even though they may lose them and have to start unifying them over and over again, if only provisionally – for that is their Long March. Linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, and psychoanalysis reveal that the thinking subject, the Cartesian subject who defines his being through thought or language, subsumes within that being and the operations which supposedly structure it, all trans-linguistic practice – a practice in which language and the subject are merely moments. From this perspective, the philosophy of language and the ‘human sciences’ that stem from it emerge as reflections on moments. Whether they are viewed as simply linguistic, subjective, or more largely socioeconomic – depending on the ‘discipline’ – such moments are nevertheless fragments, remains; their individual articulation is often examined, but rarely their interdependence or inception.

The critical question is not whether one can do otherwise. One clearly cannot if the object chosen is a human universe of full subjects who simply make systematic combinations in language and are themselves implicated in communication. Nor is it a question of calculating the pyramid’s base and slant height and miming traces on Babylonian tablets or letters in Cretan linear writing. Such refinements in economics, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis de-structure finite systems and show that they are produced by a random albeit necessary causality. But one must still posit an ‘outside’ that is in fact internal to each closed set, since otherwise the set would remain enclosed, even if internal differentiation could be extended indefinitely. One must, then, decenter the closed set and elaborate the dialectic of a process within plural and heterogeneous universes.

We will make constant use of notions and concepts borrowed from Freudian psychoanalytic theory and its various recent developments in order to give the advances of dialectical logic a materialist foundation – a theory of signification based on the subject, his formation, and his corporeal, linguistic, and social dialectic. Our purpose is not to adhere to the orthodoxy of any particular school, but rather to select those aspects of analytic theory capable of rationalizing the signifying process as it is practiced within texts. Does this dialectic itself avoid archivism? At least it indicates its own position, and renounces both the totalizing fragmentation characteristic of positivist discourse, which reduces all signifying practices to a formalism, and a reductive identification with other (discursive, ideological, economic) islands of the social aggregate.

From this position, it seems possible to perceive a signifying practice which, although produced in language, is only intelligible through it. By exploding the phonetic, lexical, and syntactic object of linguistics, this practice not only escapes the attempted hold of all anthropomorphic sciences, it also refuses to identify with the recumbent body subjected to transference onto the analyser. Ultimately, it exhausts the ever tenacious ideological institutions and apparatuses, thereby demonstrating the limits of formalist and psychoanalytic devices. This signifying practice – a particular type of modern literature – attests to a ‘crisis’ of social structures and their ideological, coercive, and necrophilic manifestations. To be sure, such crises have occurred at the dawn and decline of every mode of production: the Pindaric obscurity that followed Homeric clarity and community is one of many examples. However, with Lautreamont, Mallarme, Joyce, and Artaud, to name only a few, this crisis represents a new phenomenon. For the capitalist mode of production produces and marginalizes, but simultaneously exploits for its own regeneration, one of the most spectacular shatterings of discourse. By exploding the subject and his ideological limits, this phenomenon has a triple effect, and raises three sets of questions:

1. Because of its specific isolation within the discursive totality of our time, this shattering of discourse reveals that linguistic changes constitute changes in the status of the subject – his relation to the body, to others, and to objects; it also reveals that normalized language is just one of the ways of articulating the signifying process that encompasses the body, the material referent, and language itself. How are these strata linked? What is their interrelation within signifying practice?

2. The shattering further reveals that the capitalist mode of production, having attained a highly developed means of production through science and technology, no longer need remain strictly within linguistic and ideological norms, but can also integrate their process qua process. As art, this shattering can display the productive basis of subjective and ideological signifying formations – a foundation that primitive societies call ‘sacred’ and modernity has rejected as ‘schizophrenia.’ What is the extent of this integration? Under what conditions does it become indispensable, censured, repressed, or marginal?

3. Finally, in the history of signifying systems and notably that of the arts, religion, and rites, there emerge, in retrospect, fragmentary phenomena which have been kept in the background or rapidly integrated into more communal signifying systems but point to the very process of signifiance. Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival, and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures. But at what historical moment does social exchange tolerate or necessitate the manifestation of the signifying process in its ‘poetic’ or ‘esoteric’ form? Under what conditions does this ‘esoterism,’ in displacing the boundaries of socially established signifying practices, correspond to socioeconomic change, and, ultimately, even to revolution? And under what conditions does it remain a blind alley, a harmless bonus offered by a social order which uses this ‘esoterism’ to expand, become flexible, and thrive?

If there exists a ‘discourse’ which is not a mere depository of thin linguistic layers, an archive of structures, or the testimony of a withdrawn body, and is, instead, the essential element of a practice involving the sum of unconscious, subjective, and social relations in gestures of confrontation and appropriation,  and construction – productive violence, in short – it is ‘literature,’ or, more specifically, the text. Although simply sketched out, this notion of the text (to which we shall return) already takes us far from the realm of ‘discourse’ and ‘art.’ 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. The history and political experience of the twentieth century have demonstrated that one cannot be transformed without the other – but could there be any doubt after the overturning [renversement] of the Hegelian dialectic and especially after the Freudian revolution? Hence, the questions we will ask about literary practice will be aimed at the political horizon from which this practice is inseparable, despite the efforts of aestheticizing esoterism and repressive sociologizing or formalist dogmatics to keep them apart. We shall call this heterogeneous practice signifiance to indicate, on the one hand, that biological urges are socially controlled, directed, and organized, producing an excess with regard to social apparatuses; and on the other, that this instinctual operation becomes a practice -a transformation of natural and social resistances, limitations, and stagnations – if and only if it enters into the code of linguistic and social communication. [. . .]

What we call signifiance, then, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language; toward, in, and through the exchange system and its protagonists – the subject and his institutions. This heterogeneous process, neither anarchic, fragmented foundation nor schizophrenic blockage, is a structuring practice, a passage to the outer boundaries of the subject and society. Then -and only then – can it be jouissance and revolution.

Originally published as La revolution du langage poetique, Paris, 1974.

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