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Revolt, She SaidReview - Revolt, She Said
by Julia Kristeva
Semiotext(e), 2002
Review by Adrian O. Johnston, Ph.D.
Jan 20th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 4)

            In a collection of interviews entitled Revolt, She Said, Julia Kristeva performs quite an extraordinary feat: she somehow manages to simultaneously trumpet the importance of revolt as an essential feature of a properly human existence while, nonetheless, ultimately endorsing a very un-revolutionary cultural and political conservatism.  This odd position is best captured by a somewhat humorous aspect of this book: Kristeva goes on and on, here and in other places, about how she’s a “foreigner,” “stranger,” and “outsider” in relation to France (she came to Paris from Bulgaria); and yet, one discovers that this book was supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in the United States (it’s reminiscent of the fact that Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was supported by the U.S. military).  How does she manage to pull off this seemingly impossible balancing act?  As she tirelessly reiterates in these interviews (as well as in her series of recent books dealing with revolt), the original richness of meaning contained in the term “revolt”—Kristeva herself, given her specific philosophical and psychoanalytic commitments, treats revolt per se as a kind of psychical negativity—must be recovered by refusing the contemporary tendency to reduce revolt to revolution qua political rebellion—“to say that revolt is only politics is a betrayal of this vast movement.  People have reduced, castrated and mutilated the concept of revolt by turning it only into politics” (pg. 99).

            However, Kristeva goes much further than this.  According to her, not only must revolt and revolution be distinguished from one another—the latter should be identified as a sinister, debilitating destruction of the former.  Revolutions lead to the squelching of the human capacity for revolt by simply encouraging conformity to a newly established order; once the revolutionary moment passes, once the old regime has been replaced, the time for questioning the status quo is relegated to the past too (a consequence Kristeva bemoans).  In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, Kristeva maintains that the traditional distinction between theory and practice, between thinking and acting, merits serious reconsideration.  She hints that these two poles may indeed blur into each other.  And yet, she categorically proclaims here that, “to think is to revolt, to be in the movement of meaning and not the movement of the streets…” (pg. 39).  So, apropos of revolt, there is, in actuality, a difference to be insisted upon between theory and practice: revolt as creative intellectual, artistic, or psychological thinking precludes revolution as political action.  Once one starts operating as a revolutionary, once ceases revolting.

            In these interviews, Kristeva displays a certain awareness of the obvious charge regarding the ideologically insidious quality of her avowedly apolitical approach towards the notion of revolt.  She underscores the essentially singular, personal quality of true revolt—it’s something to be discovered through introspective self-reflection, in the privacy of the analyst’s consulting room or in the working writer’s contemplative solitude.  Revolts are effectuated through paintings, sculptures, novels, poems, and so on.  Revolutions, by contrast, necessitate turning away from the intimate sphere of the self due to the overriding emphasis on collective action.  Furthermore, she flirts with the thesis that all political revolutions terminate in totalitarian disasters (at this level, she can be viewed as the polar opposite of Slavoj Žižek, who contends that the specter of totalitarianism is a bogey man conjured up in order to sustain a prohibition stigmatizing attempts to formulate genuine options to liberal-democratic capitalism)—“When one is involved in politics it is very difficult to escape dogmatism.  The entire history of political movements proves that they are permeable to dogmatism.  One wonders if the realization of the revolt I am referring to is possible only in the private sphere” (pg. 107).  It’s difficult to avoid concluding from all this that Kristeva’s basic, underlying suggestion is: turn away from concrete socio-political engagements in favor of a focus upon the self.  Do the denizens of today’s Western industrial societies (societies mired in what has been described as a “culture of narcissism”) really need further encouragement to attend to themselves?

            At one point, Kristeva protests that she hasn’t forgotten about real-world political issues.  There are causes to which she’s still devoted.  Most of these have to do with protecting the beloved “French way of life.”  Understandably, some Europeans are justifiably worried that globalization will lead to a situation where the European Union, in struggling to rival the American economy, sacrifices positive aspects of its citizens’ lifestyles in favor of more “competitive” economic practices:  workers will have to work longer for less pay; employment benefits will be slashed and job security will be threatened; the amount of annual vacation time will diminish;  the social welfare state will be eroded; cultural uniqueness will wither under the homogenizing influence of “McWorld.”  These are valid concerns.  However, Kristeva seems most agitated about the loss of France’s international cultural prestige and the Jospin-instated thirty-five hour workweek.  There is little to no talk about material inequality between socio-economic classes.  The political side to Kristeva’s “revolt,” if it could be said to have one at all, appears limited to protecting the intellectual, cultural, and lifestyle privileges of those already in a position to partake of a certain sophisticated Gallic jouissance.  What good is psychoanalysis to those who cannot afford it?  How upset are the unemployed about the length of the workweek?  How can an illiterate immigrant living in France revolt, if revolt, which Kristeva insists is vital to human well-being, is really only accomplished by avant-garde literary movements?  Equal access to employment, health care (including mental health care such as analysis), and educational resources (enabling an appreciation of the products of artistic revolts) are the most pressing problems.  Any ostensible politics that has nothing to say about these matters is an empty “politics without politics.”  Kristeva ought to just bite the bullet and openly admit that her theorizations about revolt are thoroughly apolitical.

            Another aspect of Kristevan revolt is, as stated on the book’s back cover, “a permanent state of questioning… an endless probing of appearances.”  She stipulates that, “Modern revolt doesn’t necessarily take the form of a clash of prohibitions and transgressions that beckons the way to firm promises; modern revolt is in the form of trials, hesitations, learning as you go, making patient and lateral adjustments to an endlessly complex network…” (pg. 54).  For someone acquainted with psychoanalysis, this sounds like a description of obsessional neurosis (rather than a liberating, creative power for renewal).  In obsessional neurosis, individuals are paralyzed by interminable questioning, finding themselves unable to act due to their sense of the overwhelming complexity of circumstances.  They are stuck suffering in an endless deferral of action, ceaselessly thinking with furious energy while waiting for who-knows-what to happen before they feel comfortable enough to intervene in the course of their own lives.  What makes for the difference between the neurotic’s use of “a permanent state of questioning” in the service of procrastination and avoidance with regards to action and the revolt celebrated by Kristeva in the exact same descriptive terms?

            The quality of Kristeva’s scattered remarks about various branches of psychoanalytic theory varies widely.  Early on in the book, she aptly observes that Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus “was breaking down an already open door” (pg. 22).  That is to say, analytic clinicians were already grappling in great detail with psychotic and pre-Oedipal states long before the fevered, post-May ’68 call for challenging the family’s primacy in psychical life (one need only recall Melanie Klein’s work in child analysis).  And, as Kristeva notes, Deleuze and Guattari attack psychoanalytic straw men, especially when they oversimplify Freud’s portrayal of paternity.  However, elsewhere, Kristeva indulges herself in a similar manner when she categorically declares that, “a certain type of psychoanalysis, namely American psychoanalysis, does not see this interrogation as an open process, but as a standardization” (pg. 103).  She evidently believes, as she explicitly states, that analysts in the United States are determined to transform homosexuals into heterosexuals and neurotics into corporate CEOs.  This is ridiculous.  Kristeva does nothing more here than parrot Lacan’s now terribly outdated tirades from the 1950s against the ego psychology of Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein.  It’s telling that Kristeva fails to name names in American psychoanalytic circles as being guilty in light of her sweeping condemnation of clinical practice on the other side of the Atlantic.

            What those who have read Kristeva’s previous books on the topic of revolt (The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt as well as Intimate Revolt) will find most discouraging and disappointing about Revolt, She Said is that it confirms the worst suspicions aroused by these prior works.  A disempowering subliminal message playing softly in the background of the two volumes on “The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis” becomes a deafening refrain in these interviews.  This little volume certainly does bring to mind other senses of the word “revolt.”

© 2003 Adrian Johnston


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


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