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Intimate RevoltReview - Intimate Revolt
by Julia Kristeva
Columbia University Press, 2002
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Sep 25th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 39)

            In the first volume of “The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis” (entitled The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt), Julia Kristeva, a theorist and novelist, presented readers with a model of revolt whose primary mode of enactment involves, unsurprisingly, the writing of theoretical or literary texts.  In evaluating the volume, this reviewer (the review is also posted here on the Metapsychology web site) took Kristeva to task promoting a narcissistic, self-congratulatory narrative about “revolt” at the expense of more concrete, politically relevant understandings of this notion; unfortunately, regardless of the book’s theoretical merits, the writing in Intimate Revolt (volume two) is pervaded by tones of pedantic conceit and self-satisfied smugness.  The reader is left with no doubt that the author is someone incredibly pleased with herself.  One of the troubling features of both volumes is that a retreat back into the rarified world of the intelligentsia, a retreat leaving the larger status quo firmly intact, is magically transformed into its opposite with a little dash of sophistry:  once one “deconstructs” the passé metaphysical theory/practice distinction, why not maintain that writing texts about psychoanalytic theory is a form of revolutionary practice?  Why bother linking revolution to actual material change?

            A charitable reading of the second installment of “The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis” might see it as, at least in part, a retroactive justification and a more developed defense of the contentious depiction of revolt from The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt.  In Intimate Revolt, Kristeva argues that forceful constraints exist today, constraints placing genuine limits upon the potential magnitude and significance of revolts, rebellions, and upheavals of various sorts.  The contemporary age, in her view, isn’t one of grand, sweeping revolutions.  Faced with these powerful obstacles to macro-scale revolution, only micro-scale modifications offer any hope—“the culture of words, the narrative and the place it reserves for meditation, seems to me to offer a minimal variant of revolt.  It is not much, but we may have reached a point of no return, from which we will have to re-turn to the little things, tiny revolts, in order to preserve the life of the mind and of the species” (pg. 5).  Against something like capitalism and its commercial culture, external revolt (i.e., overt political conflict aimed at toppling this sort of society’s public institutions) seems both improbable and unfeasible given present circumstances.  Instead, practices of “intimate revolt,” the enactment of different “tiny revolts,” must suffice, perhaps being nothing more than a means of keeping alive a spirit of non-conformity while waiting for the arrival of socio-political changes making possible a genuine polis-level transformation in a future yet-to-come:

Am I essentially pleading the case of intimate revolt as the only possible revolt? I am not unaware of the commercial impasses and spectacular miasmas of all the imaginary productions in which our rebellious intimacy manifests itself.  There are periods when even he mystical path—this acceleration of liberating transformations—is confined within treatments aimed at pathology or else within spiritualist or decorative ghettos.  This is one of those periods.  Faced with the invasion of the spectacle, we can still contemplate the rebellious potentialities that the imaginary might resuscitate in our innermost depths.  It is not a time of great works, or perhaps, for us, contemporaries, they remain invisible.  Nevertheless, by keeping our intimacy in revolt we can preserve the possibility of their appearance (pg. 12-13).

This passage already contains an answer to the obvious question as to why Kristeva believes standard conceptions of revolt to be unlikely or impossible today.  Borrowing directly from Guy Debord, Kristeva contends that “the society of the spectacle” (more specifically, the mass media apparatuses of western societies) directly installs the ideological matrices of the given order within the interior psychical space of individuals.  She points to a certain paradox here:  with the massive acceleration of the creation and dissemination of products of the imagination in the present age, the imagination itself, as a person’s capacity for constructing idiosyncratic psychical images and scenarios, is destroyed rather than enhanced.  When human imagination is externalized, projected onto so many screens, individual imaginations atrophy in coming to rely too much on these commercial cultural prostheses.  As she states in the course of examining Sartre, “if everything is imaginary, the imaginary is dead, along with my margin of freedom” (pg. 128).  There is a certain refreshing honesty about the modesty of Kristeva’s sense of revolt.  Unlike many intellectuals of her generation, she isn’t stuck in the increasingly comical position of awaiting something like a Marxist revolution in an era where the chances for such a political event seem to be dropping close to nil.  Those who still cling to these visions must know, on some level, that they’re now engaged in harmless theatrical posturing, making empty theoretical-political gestures that have no chance of ever being called as bluffs by being put to the test of realization.

            Intimate Revolt consists of several distinct portions.  The first involves reflections on psychoanalysis and philosophy; there, Kristeva discusses the topic of temporality in Freudian thought, and seeks to clearly define her understanding of the imaginary and its role in psychical life.  Following these first five theoretical chapters, she returns to the same three figures addressed in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt:  Barthes, Sartre, and Aragon.  Finally, the closing three chapters return to general theoretical reflections, raising questions about freedom and translation in psychoanalysis.  This review will restrict itself to highlighting the most interesting and promising contributions made by the book.

            In the opening chapter (“What revolt today?”), Kristeva isolates “negativity” as a significant theme running through philosophy from Hegel to Heidegger (and receiving careful attention in the writings of Freud).  In particular, Heideggerian phenomenology and Sartrian existentialism highlight the manner in which human beings are shot through with nothingness, with a relation to, as Heidegger so melodramatically puts it, “the Nothing.”  Dasein feels this void, having an awareness of being somehow “out of joint” with Being.  Similarly, Sartre’s conception of freedom demands a subject perpetually in the process of questioning, doubting, denying, and destroying its stable points of identity, of continually tearing apart the fabric of its ego (Kristeva aptly draws out the connection between Sartre and Lacan as regards the distinction between ego and subject).  Fours years prior to Heidegger’s 1929 “What Is Metaphysics?,” the text in which he pontificates about “the nothingness of the Nothing,” Freud touches upon the notion of negativity in his essay Die Verneinung (“On Negation”).  Starting from considerations dealing with the function of verbal negations in analytic treatment, Freud concludes this piece by speculating that some of the earliest phases in the development of a differentiated psychical apparatus involve a “primordial negation,” an original expulsion, motivated by the pleasure-unpleasure dynamic, establishing a line of division between the self and the non-self (elsewhere, in Powers of Horror, Kristeva expands this Freudian idea via the concept of “abjection,” of a pre-verbal negation drawing a line between “me” and “not me”—the presence of this boundary is signaled, in adult life, by sensations of disgust, nausea, repulsion, horror, and so on, sensations arising in the presence of objects like feces and corpses).  In Kristeva’s view, the upshot of Freud’s musings on this matter is that without an original act of pre-verbal negation, subjectivity would not be ushered into existence.  Likewise, the collapse of this thus-established border heralds the onset of psychosis.  All of this leads Kristeva to propose that philosophies of negativity entail a kind of experimental courting of psychosis.  Certain forms of theoretical speculation put the thinker in touch with instabilities that, if not kept at arm’s length by intellectualization and conceptual articulation, might compromise the integrity of the ego—“These different currents of theoretical thought in philosophy and psychoanalysis have had this particularity in modernity:  they have attained, through retrospective questioning—that is, through inquiry or analysis—this border region of the speaking being that is psychosis” (pg. 10).  Clearly, in this first chapter, Kristeva aims to shore up her insistence that writing, in and of itself, can be revolutionary:  if the cutting edge of intellectual activity can approach the very limits of sane subjectivity, then specific practices of analysis do indeed harbor the potential to undermine the self produced by dominant social, cultural, political, and economic formations.

            The third chapter (“The Scandal of the Timeless”) focuses its attention on Freud’s proclamation that the unconscious is fundamentally ignorant of the passage of time, that is, that the unconscious is Zeitlos.  Kristeva correctly observes that one of the most novel features of psychoanalysis is the recasting of the psyche’s relation to time (and, moreover, that the divisions in and of the psyche represent differing modes of human temporality).  Alongside Bergson and Heidegger, the two major philosophers of temporality in the first half of the twentieth century, Freud simultaneously elevates temporality to a central place in the life of the subject while arguing against the total reduction of time to a linear sequence of now-points.  However, unlike these philosophers, Freud’s model of temporality combines the standard, everyday notion of time as sequential chronology (i.e., the time characteristic of the ego and its perception-consciousness system) with a dimension involving the complete absence of time (i.e., the synchronic array of ideational inscriptions forming the layers of the unconscious, as well as the cyclical repetitiveness of the id’s drives):  “Freudian temporality relies on the linear time of consciousness in order to inscribe a rift there, a breach, a frustration:  this is the scandal of the timeless (Zeitlos)” (pg. 30), and, “only in Freud has a breach of time that does not temporalize been established” (pg. 31).  One sees here the connection between temporality and the earlier musings about negativity:  the decentered consciousness of psychoanalysis is nothing other than the perpetually disrupted linearity of a time haunted by something chrono-logically out of context, by things that resist smooth integration into the flow of superficial daily events.  Kristeva goes on to identify this timeless dimension as closely linked to the biological constitution of the human organism.  However, she doesn’t thereby argue that psychoanalysis proposes a naturalistic view of the individual.  Instead, Homo analyticus is stranded somewhere between two poles, between chronological temporality (perhaps akin to Kristeva’s notion of the symbolic) and an absence or ignorance of time (in tying it to the body, Kristeva hints at its proximity to the semiotic).  Generally speaking, one of the things that psychoanalysis illustrates is that compulsive, repetitive, and atemporal patterns frequently intrude into the linear order of lived history, upsetting arrangements in the present through the covert reintroduction of repressed past materials left stagnating in the unconscious.  The split subject of psychoanalysis, split between the temporal and the timeless, is, in a certain sense, a subject revolting to/against itself.

            Later, in the fifth chapter on “Fantasy and Cinema,” Kristeva returns to her thesis that the proliferation of images and spectacles in today’s mass media societies inhibits rather than augments people’s capacity for sustaining a rich inner fantasy life.  She postulates that this impoverishment of the private imagination is complicit in generating new variations on psychical pathologies:

I hear you asking:  don’t we inhabit a veritable paradise of fantasy today thanks to images in the media?  Aren’t we saturated with fantasies, stimulated to produce them and to become imaginary creators in turn?

Nothing is less certain.

The so-called society of the spectacle, paradoxically, is hardly favorable to the analysis of fantasies or even to their formation.  The ‘new maladies of the soul’ are characterized by a reigning in, if not a destruction of, the phantasmatic faculty.  We are inundated with images, some of which resonate with our fantasies and appease us but which, for lack of interpretive words, do not liberate us.  Moreover, the stereotype of these images deprives us of the possibility of creating our own imagery, our own imaginary scenarios (pg. 67).

Thus, one of the pressing tasks facing psychoanalysis in this contemporary context is to rehabilitate “the phantasmatic faculty” in those who suffer from an inability to detach themselves from the swirl of stereotypical images and roles circulating in the hegemonic social imaginary.  Perhaps breathing a degree of quirkiness into the workings of the mind will aid modern society’s neurotics.  Furthermore, one easily perceives the “practical” program at stake here:  if today’s “society of the spectacle” has crippled the idiosyncratic individual imagination by goading it into conforming to a set of hackneyed generalized templates offered by the mass media—and if non-conformist imagining is essential for the catalyzing of any large-scale revolution (be it cultural, politic, economic, or intellectual)—then psychoanalysis, by striving to keep the private sphere of fantasy from being swallowed whole by the public domain of images, is a means of patiently preserving the possibility for a revolt à venir.  By encouraging “little revolts” in the day-to-day mental existence of the individual, analysis helps to prevent a total foreclosure of resistance to dominant social forces, leaving open spaces for resistance by discouraging people from opting to become hollow media caricatures.  Toward the end of the volume, Kristeva is quite emphatic about this point—“Let us say without false modesty:  no modern human experience aside from psychoanalysis offers man the chance to restart his psychical life and thus, quite simply, life itself, opening up choices that guarantee the plurality of an individual’s capacity for connection.  This version of freedom is perhaps the most precious and most serious gift that psychoanalysis has given mankind…  psychoanalysis is alone in aspiring to and sometimes even succeeding at this wager of new beginnings” (pg. 234).  Kristeva is optimistic despite her rather dark assessment of the present situation.  Obviously, she still thinks that there’s some inner depth to be salvaged, through analysis, behind the superficial façade of capitalism’s various ego structures.  But, what if, so to speak, the mask is no longer a mask?  What if today’s “one-dimensional man” (to borrow a phrase from Marcuse) simply lacks any intimate mental sphere that remains independent from his/her publicly maintained visage?  Or, to go even further, what if Kojève and Lacan are right that “man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that psychical intimacy is always-already “extimacy” (i.e., that the inner core of the libidinal economy is itself inherently intertwined with external mediating factors)?

            In the middle portion of the book, Kristeva once again turns her attention to the three writers dealt with previously in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt.  Her readings of Barthes, Sartre, and Aragon basically emphasize two related claims:  one, due to contemporary circumstances, the imagination, rather than being (as it used to be) the epitome of human autonomy, is now largely a site of slavery to the reigning order; and, two, theoretically dissecting the imaginary sub-texture of cultural practices (through psychoanalysis, philosophy, semiotics, literature, and so on) has the liberating potential to undo the bonds shackling psyches to socially validated fantasy-products.

            The final three chapters of Intimate Revolt, collected under the heading “The Future of Revolt,” deal with three topics:  the concept of freedom in psychoanalysis, the status of the bi-lingual subject, and certain dimensions of the relation between Europe and America.  As already seen, Kristeva clearly believes that psychoanalysis, instead of being a pessimistic “discourse of determinism” underscoring nothing more than the heteronymous nature of the psychical subject, is a practice aiming at the enhancement of autonomy.  Isn’t this the position of the American ego psychologists, those who read Freud’s “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” as “The ego must dislodge the id?”  Aren’t these analysts anathema to a French analytic perspective thoroughly shaped by Lacan’s bitter invectives against ego psychology’s doctrine of conformity to the much-loathed “American way of life?”  The salient difference is easy to explain.  Ego psychology advocates that “freedom” (defined as the ego attaining a degree of conscious mastery over the impulses of the id) is best realized through the analysand’s ego coming to emulate and internalize those features best adapted to a healthy consensus reality (i.e., socially sanctioned ideals as embodied by the analyst’s ego).  Following Lacan, Kristeva maintains a diametrically opposed position, namely, that the ego’s conformity with “reality” is precisely what inhibits anything that could genuinely be qualified as autonomy proper.  Thus, the analyst’s therapeutic strategy should be to foster patients’ capacity for resisting the various lures of identification, to encourage the emergence of asocial unconscious fantasies.  Although noting that Freud rarely uses the word “freedom,” Kristeva insightfully insists that the inherently mediated status of the drives—these minimal components of human nature, these fundamental units of the libidinal economy, are invariably routed through various representational matrices—inscribes possibilities for change within the very heart of the supposedly deterministic/overdetermined psyche:

…it is the emergence of thought as produced by shared language that checks impulse and command.  This command from then on becomes intrinsic to the drive insofar as it is human (a drive at the outset is a weaving of energy and representation) and raises it to a higher level of the psychical apparatus, where the drive becomes desire:  that is, it is translated into the code of social communication, always already structured by language, in which the dialectic of freedom may be deployed (pg. 228).

Consequently, the Freudian drive isn’t a brute force of nature, a mindless mechanism opposed to the “higher spheres” of intellectual cognition.  The ethico-moral codes transmitted by languages and shared systems of representation, as necessarily involved in sustaining humanity’s autonomy, become internal to Trieb, instead of remaining forever in external opposition to the libidinal economies of individuals—“although certain of Freud’s formulations suggest that he believed in a naturalness free of the drive, the entire enterprise of psychoanalysis involves inscribing this drive in representation and making it depend on the internalization of prohibitions” (pg. 229).  And yet, how is one to reconcile these assertions about a psychoanalytic conception of freedom (i.e., the socio-symbolic mediation of the drives allows for autonomy) with the earlier claims that analysis frees people by helping to divorce them from this same mediation?

            The partially autobiographical chapter “The Love of Another Language” contains Kristeva’s reflections on the fashions in which being a “stranger in a strange land,” of abandoning one’s mother tongue in taking up a foreign language, affects the psyche (Kristeva herself came to Paris from Bulgaria, but has been speaking and writing in French for the majority of her adult life).  Her serious investigations of these phenomena are punctuated by sometime quite humorous observations about French society and culture.  In an earlier book, Étrangers à nous-mêmes (Strangers to Ourselves), Kristeva contends that the empirical/anthropological figure of the foreigner is actually a reflection of a universal human condition:  everyone, due to the splitting of the psyche and the radical alterity of the unconscious, is, in a manner of speaking, a foreigner in relation to him/her-self.  In this chapter of Intimate Revolt, the figure of the translator is the springboard for ruminations about a more general position:  every writer, whether writing in a native or foreign language, is engaged in the labor of “translation,” of rendering that which is constitutively irreducible to language in a linguistic medium (as is often the case in Kristeva’s writings, the semiotic-symbolic distinction is lurking in the background here).  The more interesting implications have to do with the clinical practice of psychoanalysis.  Given Freud’s uncovering of the role that everyday discourse, with its metaphors and imagery, plays in aiding and abetting repression (not to mention Lacan’s contributions along these lines), how must analytic listening and interpretation change in response to an analysand being analyzed in a second language?  Are non-native speakers harder to analyze by virtue of having a different relation than the analyst to the language in which the sessions are conducted?  Having been on both sides of the couch as a non-native speaker of French, Kristeva potentially has something to offer as regards these sorts of questions (however, she doesn’t, in this text, follow out these inquiries in any detail).

            In the final chapter (“Europhilia-Europhobia”), Kristeva discusses a range of topics:  the division between Anglo-American analytic philosophy and European/Continental thought (especially as brought to light by the Sokal affair), European intellectuals’ attitudes towards America, American perceptions of Europe, as well as differing conceptions of freedom.  It concludes with what amounts to a plea for multicultural tolerance and exchange.

            Recently, Slavoj Žižek criticized Kristeva for depriving psychoanalysis of its subversive political sting.  Žižek, whose own work involves marrying Marx and Lacan, accuses Kristeva of rendering analytic theory as nothing more than an elaborate rationalization of a pervasive psychologism that itself is symptomatic of an apolitical “culture of narcissism”—and is ultimately motivated by capitalist ideology.  Pop-psychological wisdom frequently boils down to claims encouraging troubled individuals to accept external reality as an inalterable given and “turn inward” instead.  Even if a person’s objective material conditions truly are horrible and should indeed be altered through overt practical action, “self-help” is an exhortation to forgo genuine gestures of rebellion in favor of shifts in introspective (in)activity.  Do “intimate revolts” likewise insidiously serve as distractions forestalling real changes?  In Žižek’s eyes, the thesis that, for example, racism, xenophobia, and so on (i.e., hatred of the Other) can be explained as stemming from hatred of the Other in oneself (i.e., an inability to tolerate being a stranger to oneself) is an example of the deceptive de-politicization of fundamentally political issues.  He rebukes Kristeva on the basis of an old-fashioned Marxist suspicion of any kind of philosophical/psychological “idealism.”

            Although Žižek’s own political program is, once the exuberant Marxist rhetoric is stripped away, ill defined and perhaps not sufficiently realistic regarding the fait accompli of the current world order, is his condemnation of Kristeva justified?  One cannot help but be struck by the fact that the strategy of therapeutically salvaging one’s “intimacy” through a retreat into the imaginary interiority of academic theory and avant-garde literature is an option mainly open just to those who are already in a socio-economic position to engage with and appreciate high culture.  Of course, it’s also often been noted that psychoanalysis is a “class therapy,” being too time consuming and expensive for those confined to lower rungs on the capitalist ladder.  Whereas the crude and vulgar psychologies circulating about under the heading of “self-help” at least proffer their (false) hopes to anyone with enough money for a cheap paperback, Kristeva, while echoing the self-help call for a turn back toward one’s mental interiority—whether this interiority is dubbed the “inner child” or the “stranger in oneself” is of little importance—seemingly denies the possibility of this turn being effective for those unable to productively read, among others, Barthes, Sartre, and Aragon.  As seen, Kristeva makes two connected claims in this book:  one, current changes in the social imaginary are eroding an individual imaginary, a mental individuality essential for the very possibility of true revolutions and transformations;  and, two, psychoanalysis alone is capable of combating this erosion.  If Kristeva means what she says, and if she truly wishes to help sustain an open space for the arrival of future subversions of the status quo, then “what is to be done” is to figure out how to make both philosophical theory and psychoanalytic therapy available to those who presently lack the educational and economic means to access these bodies of knowledge.


© 2002 Adrian Johnston


Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory University.  


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