email page    print page

All Topic Reviews
A Basic Theory of NeuropsychoanalysisA Cursing Brain?A Dream of Undying FameA Map of the MindAfter LacanAgainst AdaptationAgainst FreudAn Anatomy of AddictionAnalytic FreudAndré Green at the Squiggle FoundationAnger, Madness, and the DaimonicAnna FreudAnna Freud: A BiographyApproaching PsychoanalysisAttachment and PsychoanalysisBadiouBecoming a SubjectBefore ForgivingBerlin PsychoanalyticBetween Emotion and CognitionBeyond GenderBeyond SexualityBeyond the Pleasure PrincipleBiology of FreedomBoundaries and Boundary Violations in PsychoanalysisBuilding on BionCare of the PsycheCarl JungCassandra's DaughterCherishmentConfusion of TonguesContemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third ReichCrucial Choices, Crucial ChangesCulture and Conflict in Child and Adolescent Mental HealthDarwin's WormsDesert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974)Dispatches from the Freud WarsDoes the Woman Exist?Doing Psychoanalysis in TehranDreaming and Other Involuntary MentationDreaming by the BookEnergy Psychology InteractiveEqualsErrant SelvesEthics and the Discovery of the UnconsciousEthics Case Book of the American Psychoanalytic AssociationFairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical SettingFed with Tears -- Poisoned with MilkFeminism and Its DiscontentsForms of Intersubjectivity in Infant Reasearch and Adult TreatmentFour Lessons of PsychoanalysisFratricide in the Holy LandFreudFreudFreudFreudFreudFreudFreud and the Question of PseudoscienceFreud As PhilosopherFreud at 150Freud's AnswerFreud's WizardFreud, the Reluctant PhilosopherFrom Classical to Contemporary PsychoanalysisFundamentals of Psychoanalytic TechniqueGenes on the CouchGoing SaneHans BellmerHappiness, Death, and the Remainder of LifeHate and Love in Psychoanalytical InstitutionsHatred and ForgivenessHealing the Soul in the Age of the BrainHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHidden MindsHistory of ShitHope and Dread in PsychoanalysisImagination and Its PathologiesImagine There's No WomanIn Freud's TracksIn SessionIn the Floyd ArchivesIntimaciesIntimate RevoltIrrationalityIs Oedipus Online?Jacques LacanJacques Lacan and the Freudian Practice of PsychoanalysisJung and the Making of Modern PsychologyJung Stripped BareKilling FreudLacanLacanLacanLacan and Contemporary FilmLacan at the SceneLacan For BeginnersLacan in AmericaLacan TodayLacan's Seminar on AnxietyLawLearning from Our MistakesLove's ExecutionerMad Men and MedusasMale Female EmailMelanie KleinMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMental SlaveryMind to MindMixing MindsMoral StealthMourning and ModernityMovies and the MindMurder in ByzantiumNew Studies of Old VillainsNocturnesNoir AnxietyOn Being Normal and Other DisordersOn BeliefOn IncestOn Not Being Able to SleepOn the Freud WatchOn the Way HomeOpen MindedOpera's Second DeathOvercoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and BehaviorsPhenomology & Lacan on Schizophrenia, After the Decade of the BrainPhilosophical Counselling and the UnconsciousPractical Psychoanalysis for Therapists and PatientsPsychiatry, Psychoanalysis, And The New Biology Of MindPsychoanalysisPsychoanalysisPsychoanalysis and Narrative MedicinePsychoanalysis and NeurosciencePsychoanalysis and the Philosophy of SciencePsychoanalysis as Biological SciencePsychoanalysis at the MarginsPsychoanalysis at the MarginsPsychoanalysis in a New LightPsychoanalysis in FocusPsychology, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis, and the Politics of Human RelationshipsPsychotherapy As PraxisPutnam CampQuestions for FreudRe-Inventing the SymptomReading Seminar XXReinventing the SoulRelational Theory and the Practice of PsychotherapyRelationalityRepressed SpacesRevolt, She SaidSecrets of the SoulSerious ShoppingSex on the CouchSexuationSigmund FreudSoul Murder RevisitedSpectral EvidenceSpirit, Mind, and BrainStrangers to OurselvesSubjective Experience and the Logic of the OtherSubjectivity and OthernessSubstance Abuse As SymptomSurrealist Painters and PoetsTaboo SubjectsTalk is Not EnoughThe Arabic FreudThe Art of the SubjectThe Brain and the Inner WorldThe Brain, the Mind and the SelfThe Cambridge Companion to LacanThe Challenge for Psychoanalysis and PsychotherapyThe Clinical LacanThe Colonization Of Psychic SpaceThe Condition of MadnessThe Couch and the TreeThe Cruelty of DepressionThe Dissociative Mind in PsychoanalysisThe Dreams of InterpretationThe Examined LifeThe Fall Of An IconThe Freud EncyclopediaThe Freud FilesThe Freud WarsThe Fright of Real TearsThe Future of PsychoanalysisThe Gift of TherapyThe Heart & Soul of ChangeThe Knotted SubjectThe Last Good FreudianThe Late Sigmund FreudThe Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto RankThe Mind According to ShakespeareThe Mystery of PersonalityThe Mythological UnconsciousThe Neuropsychology of the UnconsciousThe New PsychoanalysisThe Power of FeelingsThe Psychoanalytic MovementThe Psychoanalytic MysticThe Psychoanalytic Study of the ChildThe Psychoanalytic Study of the ChildThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Puppet and the DwarfThe Real World Guide to Psychotherapy PracticeThe Revolt of the PrimitiveThe Seminar of Moustafa SafouanThe Sense and Non-Sense of RevoltThe Shortest ShadowThe Social History of the UnconsciousThe Surface EffectThe Symmetry of GodThe Tragedy of the SelfThe Trainings of the PsychoanalystThe UnsayableThe World of PerversionTherapeutic ActionTherapy's DelusionsThis Incredible Need to BelieveThoughts Without A ThinkerTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTrauma and Human ExistenceTraumatizing TheoryUmbr(a)Unconscious knowing and other essays in psycho-philosophical analysisUnderstanding Dissidence and Controversy in the History of PsychoanalysisUnderstanding PsychoanalysisUnfree AssociationsWalking HeadsWay Beyond FreudWhat Does a Woman Want?What Freud Really MeantWhen the Body SpeaksWhere Do We Fall When We Fall in Love?Whose Freud?Why Psychoanalysis?Wilhelm ReichWinnicottWinnicott On the ChildWisdom Won from IllnessWittgenstein on Freud and FrazerWittgenstein Reads FreudWorld, Affectivity, TraumaZizek

Related Topics
The Sense and Non-Sense of RevoltReview - The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt
by Julia Kristeva
Columbia University Press, 2000
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Mar 7th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 10)

            Julia Kristeva’s choice of title is apt in a way that she herself probably doesn’t intend.  Parts of this book make good sense, but, as is too often the case with works characteristic of what could broadly be referred to as “postmodernism,” other parts of it veer into realms of rhetorically stylized non-sense.  One always has the lingering suspicion that the heart of a failed poet beats in the chest of every French-speaking theorist, manifesting its desires in endless references to exclusively French literature (the usual suspects:  mainly Proust, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud) and attempts to imitate rather extreme, obscurantist literary styles— all the while remaining ever-so-tenuously situated in the domain of ostensibly philosophical thinking.  It must be conceded that Kristeva is not nearly so severely afflicted with what many suspect to be a disease plaguing virtually all Parisian intellectuals (one would hate to surmise that this is simply because she originally comes from Bulgaria).  When addressing, for example, foundational metapsychological issues pertaining to psychoanalysis in the context of this volume, she’s quite lucid and conceptually rigorous.  But, as soon as her attention turns towards the three writers she engages with in the second half of the book (Aragon, Sartre, and Barthes), the reader struggles to discern the pathways charted in the earlier chapters, being forced to sift through a murky deluge of loose associations and flights of theoretical fancy.

            The first two chapters of the book open by posing a now-familiar question:  Is any kind of meaningful revolt, rebellion, or resistance possible in today’s status quo?  Within the confines of contemporary permissive societies, it is said, traditional forms of “counter-cultural” defiance have been co-opted by the powers-that-be, more specifically, by the encoding forces of the market economy.  The various signs and activities by which individuals attempt to mark themselves off as different from the dominant socio-symbolic space are transformed, by capitalism’s operations, into yet another set of consumer choices, into just one more cluster of attributes standing for an adopted “lifestyle.”  In the end, it all amounts to the same thing:  continually purchasing pointless products, for whatever inconsequential personal reasons.  This problem is a familiar theme, particularly for the left-wing French theoretical movements connected with May ‘68.  Deleuze and Guattari, radicalizing Freudo-Marxism in their analysis of “capitalism and schizophrenia,” speak about this dynamic of rebellion and re-conquest within the socio-cultural order as the inevitable outcome of a “schizoid” capitalist logic dictating an endless cycle of transgression and codification (for Deleuze and Guattari, “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization”) as the very means of capitalism’s uninhibited self-expansion.  Foucault speaks of the perpetually oscillating struggle between, on the one hand, the norms and prohibitions issuing from various loci of “power,” and, on the other hand, evasions of these dictates within the concrete field of bodies and behaviors.  In Foucault’s view, no system of power can ever achieve complete and total domination.  And yet, no manner of transgression can ever avoid being somehow “colonized” or incorporated by the mobile machinations of networks of power relations.  An appropriate example of his springs to mind here:  if, for instance, society lifts particular prohibitions dealing with the naked body, this isn’t a situation in which being allowed to reveal certain parts of one’s flesh is suddenly liberating; the “negative” norms banning nakedness are removed only to be immediately replaced by a new set of “positive” norms consisting of injunctions dictating ways of “disciplining” the body (“Be comfortable with your body, your ‘self’... but, make sure that the body you ‘freely’ display to others is trim, fit, tanned, and attractive”).  In a different-but-related intellectual tradition, the Frankfurt School, the same set of concerns stemming from this intersection between rebellion, authority, and psychoanalysis manifests itself.  Theorists in the Frankfurt School forge the concept of “repressive desublimation” to capture the hopeless, futile sense that, today, the various forms of individual revolt are not only capable of being absorbed and domesticated by the social system in which they arise, but might very well be internally structured by the codes and commands of the capitalist order.

Similarly, for Kristeva, this situation, in which she sees homogenizing normalization winning out over idiosyncratic forms of revolt, is especially worrisome—“revolt... in our modern world is endangered by an easy—not to say perverse—fit between law and transgression;  it is spoiled by constant authorization, if not incentives, made by the law itself, to transgress the law and to be included” (pg. 25).  She claims that, according to psychoanalysis, any sustainable mode of identity involving a reasonable degree of psychical well being is established vis-à-vis what she designates as “revolt.”  But, what is revolt?  What, exactly, does this term mean in the context of the present discussion?

            Kristeva begins by letting the etymological meanderings of the Latin verb volvere establish the rough parameters of her use of the term “revolt.”  This verb has, throughout history, accumulated a plethora of diverse meanings, many of which don’t have clear, direct connections with each other save for the contingent fact of historical association via linguistic developments.  Thus, in this text, readers are evidently encouraged to understand revolt as, among other things, curve, turn, return, vault, aversion, and evolution.  Kristeva notes that it isn’t until the beginning of the eighteenth century that “revolt” and “revolution” acquire their present socio-political meanings, connoting an upheaval and overturning of a governing regime.  And, Kristeva makes clear that she has no intention of lending to “revolt” a narrower sense (this stretching of semantic scope becomes crucial later in the book, where she wishes to advance the position that literary writing is a particularly important form of “revolt”—naturally, if one seeks to qualify literature, poetry, and philosophy as techniques of rebellion, a broader sense for the term is needed).

            In chapters three, four, and five, Kristeva devotes herself to a detailed examination of a range of concepts in psychoanalytic theory.  The third chapter, entitled “The Metamorphoses of ‘Language’ in the Freudian Discovery (Freudian Models of Language),” is quite rewarding for those interested in the controversies surrounding the structuralist recasting of the Freudian unconscious and its emphasis on the role of language in psychical life.  Kristeva contends that language is not part of the unconscious strictly speaking.  In laying out this contention, she walks readers through a detailed, subtle examination of various facets of Freud’s texts relevant to the topic of language, demonstrating that the Freudian theory of language is much more complex than it’s usually given credit for, even by its enthusiastic proponents (in claiming that Freud is, in certain respects, too detailed to be easily mapped onto Saussure’s signifier-signified opposition, Kristeva takes aim, of course, at Lacan).

Kristeva argues that language subsists in a mediating position between the operations of the unconscious (problematically characterized, in her thought, as the reservoir of the drives, as the seat of the pre/proto-linguistic primary processes) and the stable, socio-symbolic domain of conscious cognition.  She situates language at the interstices of several different dichotomies in a way reminiscent of her previous discussions, starting in Revolution in Poetic Language and tirelessly reiterated throughout all of her subsequent writings, of the dynamic operative between the “symbolic” and the “semiotic”; language straddles the line between thought and energy, cognition and corporeality, conscious and unconscious, drive and the polis, and so on.  That is to say, psychoanalysis is neither a cybernetic-like theory of the bloodless structural workings of the signifier nor an investigation into the base somatic urges of quasi-human animality.  As Kristeva puts it, the Freudian field involves a simultaneous engagement with both “thought” and “sexuality.”  She also observes that linguistic structures permit access to the unconscious, allowing the analyst a glimpse into the “other scene” constitutive of subjectivity.  Freud’s metapsychological treatment of linguistic phenomena is thus part and parcel of a larger justification for psychoanalysis’ therapeutic efficacy.  In other words, exaggerating the alterity of the unconscious to the point where it’s totally foreign to any kind of symbolic order would make analytic intervention impossible.  Additionally, by situating language in this manner, Kristeva sets the stage for her later insinuations that literary and theoretical uses of language are privileged forms of revolt, since language, in mediating between libidinal and social economies, permits a subliminatory struggle with the existing cultural-political matrix.

            Chapters four and five are devoted to meditations on the Oedipus complex and sexuality.  At this point, the guiding threads of a generally unified thematic line begin to fray; it becomes increasingly difficult to see how Kristeva’s musings on psychoanalytic issues hang cohesively together.  The basic idea that remains clear is the thesis that full and genuine subjectivity, as understood by psychoanalysis, is only possible at the price of some sort of revolt or rebellion.  For instance, Oedipus’ passing through the ordeal of patricide is, in Kristeva’s view, partially representative of the fact that the space of subjectivity is established and demarcated through the negation of the authority of a paternalistic big Other.  Kristeva implicitly but firmly rejects the notion, fostered by critics of Freud, that the Oedipus complex is a culturally relative pattern falsely generalized by analytic theory.  And, as far as debates about feminine sexuality are concerned, she takes great care to note her endorsement of the view that the Oedipus complex, as arising from the fixation upon the maternal figure as the primary love-object, applies equally to children of both sexes.  Thus, one could infer, female heterosexuality entails an extreme rupture and denial (a “revolt” in a very loose sense), since it requires not only a withdrawal of libidinal investment in the mother (something demanded of young boys as well), but also a complete shift in terms of the very template of object-choice.  Unlike male children, who can, through sublimation, continue desiring other women besides the mother, female children must succeed in completely abandoning feminine love-objects in favor of masculine ones.  The Kristevan woman is, one could say, a rebel without a phallus.  Under the autocracy of what Kristeva terms “phallic monism,” feminine sexuality is forced to be much more deviant than masculine heterosexuality, the latter being closer to the default modus operandi of the libidinal economy.

            And then, suddenly, starting with chapter six, Kristeva launches into her examination of three exemplary “rebels.”  All three are writers, and the way has already been paved for the questionable, culturally elitist glorification of haute couture literature as a privileged mode of radical revolution.  She begins with the surrealist author Louis Aragon.  Her argument in this chapter basically boils down to the idea that Aragon became a dogmatic, card-carrying Stalinist in a kind of desperate “acting out” aimed at stabilizing his identity in the face of the de-subjectifying abyss he flirts with through his writing and sexual relations (for Kristeva, writing and sexuality are closely intertwined, with “poetic language” serving as a means for staging encounters with the semiotic as the maternal, as feminine jouissance, etc.).  Near the end of the chapter, Kristeva bluntly asserts that, “Political engagement is a marker and a mask” (pg. 147).  Evidently, resistance through activism (i.e., concrete socio-political practice) ends in apologies for totalitarianism, and Kristeva reassures the reader that, because she spent her childhood in Bulgaria behind the Iron Curtain, she knows a thing or two about this.  Individuals become directly engaged in politicized causes because they need the security provided by institutional membership as a kind of, as Kristeva disparagingly phrases it, socially recognized “safety belt.”  Even if this is true, which psychoanalysis suggests is often the case, utilizing such notions as a means to implicitly belittle and dismiss activism amounts to nothing more than the reduction of analytic theory to a handy toolbox of specious ad hominem devices.

            Kristeva handles Sartre in the same fashion.  For much of his life, Sartre remains fully committed to writing as an exemplary form of praxis.  He refuses a teaching position in the university in order to remain devoted to writing alone.  He refuses the honor of a Nobel Prize so as to resist being subtly co-opted through recognition and legitimation by bourgeois ideology.  His desire to be an author with as few innerworldly ties as possible binding him into any institutional framework is consonant with his theory of human freedom, and makes him a Kristevan rebel par excellence.  But, one could say, Sartre too eventually “sells out”:  like Aragon, he is tempted and seduced to regress away from his avant-garde ways by the illusion that an “active life,” in the shadow of the “moral disaster of Word War II,” is preferable to the “contemplative life” (pg. 185).  The distinction between thinking and acting, one is told, is merely an outdated leftover from the “metaphysical tradition.”  By embracing social praxis, Sartre evidently avoids “the arduous task of demystification through writing.”  Struggling for the rights of downtrodden workers or mistreated minorities is obviously mere laziness and frivolity when compared to the grueling labor of coolly and nonchalantly uttering, through a breath of exhaled cigarette smoke, subtle profundities about neglected nuances of Hegelian dialectics to attractive female admirers while sitting at a Left Bank café table sipping espresso.

Perhaps Kristeva is not being so incredibly silly here—one would sincerely hope not—but the thrust of her argument points in this direction.  Of course it’s true that “writing” plays a vital role in social, cultural, and political change, that contemplation indeed produces the groundwork for truly revolutionary interventions at the level of practice (Kristeva is here, despite herself, being very traditional—in, for example, the “Euthyphro” dialogue, Socrates makes clear that action without prior knowledge is ethically worthless).  Obviously, inspiration for the Communist revolution comes from Marx’s texts.  However, the insidious aspect of Kristeva’s statements resides in the fact that she insinuates that an absolute mutual exclusivity holds between “revolt” qua political action and “revolt” qua subversive literature, that opting for the former requires compromising on the latter (and that such a compromise is to be denounced).

The book closes with a chapter on the structuralist semiotician Roland Barthes.  A reader of Barthes would readily acknowledge that he is an author straddling the line between literature and theory.  While analyzing the inner workings of cultural phenomena, he writes with the beauty and elegance of a prose poet (texts such as The Eiffel Tower and Mythologies are as much exercises in cultural theory as they are collections of stylistically savory reflections).  Kristeva, who first came to Paris in order to study with Barthes, celebrates her deceased teacher as a true master of linguistic revolt, as an expert at debunking the deceptive appearance of given obviousness presented by numerous aspects one’s everyday socio-symbolic universe.  Insofar as he suspends the illusory normality and naturalness of the cultural ethos of the status quo, Barthes represents a rebellion against whatever is offered as automatically acceptable and unremarkable in present contexts.

In his later seminars, where he finds himself called upon to speak to those with a stake in the leftist student upheavals of the late 1960s, Lacan takes pleasure in noting that “revolution” has two meanings.  Whereas the young Parisian radicals think of themselves as embarking on a path of revolution in terms of an overturning of all previous values, Lacan smugly reminds them that a revolution can also amount to a rotation around a fixed, stable point (i.e., the celestial meaning of revolution).  Thus, a revolution might be, ultimately, nothing more than one more turn along the same course of an old orbit, a process that leaves the same center in place.  Kristeva would do well to keep this warning in mind.  She waters down the sense of “revolt” to such an extent that it comes to signify everything, and hence means nothing.  Furthermore, she manifests a disturbing tendency to rationalize an insular intellectual sub-culture (namely, avant-garde cultural cliques and their ivory tower connoisseurs) as somehow more revolutionary and rebellious than those who remain faithful to any “common sense” project that involves changing the world through concrete interventions.  What she ends up offering, despite her conscious intentions to the contrary, is a vision of revolt that is fully compatible with a passive, consumerist system.  Her tacit devaluation of traditional notions of praxis carries within itself a betrayal of Marx’s materialist outlook in favor of a self-congratulatory narrative that detached theoreticians have a clear motivation to embrace so as to flatter themselves.  Who or what could possibly be threatened by this revolt?



© 2002 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.


Welcome to Metapsychology. We feature over 8200 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!

Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

Promote your Page too

Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716