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This Incredible Need to BelieveReview - This Incredible Need to Believe
by Julia Kristeva
Columbia University Press, 2009
Review by Elisha Foust
May 4th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 18)

In critical theory circles, Julia Kristeva is perhaps best known for her work on Lacanian psychoanalysis.  In feminist circles, she is known for her work on the semiotic and the maternal chora. In literary circles, she is known for her psychoanalytic-based critique and for her detective novels. This volume of interviews and speaking engagements establishes that Kristeva also has a voice in religious discourse.

In This Incredible Need to Believe, Kristeva considers the relationship between Freudian psychoanalysis and the psychic phenomenon of belief. The breadth of Kristeva's intellectual capacity is fully at work here. This text brings her linguistic, psychoanalytic and philosophical backgrounds together and applies them to the question of religion. Christianity and, more specifically Catholicism, dominate the book; yet there are inroads taken into analyzing connections between all three monotheistic religions.

The book is split into five chapters and contains a preface, a letter to Frédéric Boyer, who has published a number of titles in French, but is less-known in English-speaking circles.  Following the preface, the book is organized around lectures and interviews conducted in France and Italy between 2005 and 2006. The bulk of the book is taken from an interview with Carmine Donzelli conducted in front of an Italian audience. Other lectures and interviews follow. Of note is Kristeva's talk entitled "Suffering" given alongside Anne-Marie Pelletier at the Lenin Lectures in Paris in 2006.

Most interesting for psychoanalysis is Kristeva's use and departure from Freudian theory. Unlike Freud, Kristeva claims that religion is not an illusion. Rather, religion evidences a primary "need to believe" located in the Freudian unconscious. She states her thesis clearly: "the different beliefs and kinds of spiritualities accommodate, encourage, or make use of precise psychic moments, which allow the human being to become a speaking being, a seat of culture or, inversely, of destructiveness." (24)  For Kristeva, the need to believe is fundamental to the human psyche. It makes thought and culture possible. 

She therefore stresses that the need to believe is not a religious need, but a psychic need. For this reason, it is found both in religious cultures and in secular ones. To illustrate her point, she assigns the term "pre-religious" a technical specificity. She investigates her claim by considering how the pre-religious psyche emerges in cultural contexts: adolescence, female genius, Islamic fundamentalism are but a few examples.  She also theorizes how the pre-religious need to believe might be useful in stifling the threat of religion-based terrorism.

Kristeva is adept at employing psychoanalytic and linguistic theory to help us better understand the cultures in which we live. This text builds on her work of the last few years, which has focused on what she calls the "automation" of the human subject.  The term automation expresses her concern that technology - the prevalence of images, laptops, mobile phones, etc. - is doing away with creative thinking.  Rather than being a tool, technology manages the thoughts and lives of humans, reducing them to banality.

For Kristeva, psychoanalysis can aid in preventing automation and the banality that follows because it, like Christianity, focuses on the inwardness (the unconscious) of the individual. This focus on inwardness is not, however, a focus on individuality.  Rather than individualism, Kristeva argues for "singularity".  By singularity, she describes a psyche connected to and formed by those with which it lives. Thus, for her, psychoanalysis aids in preventing automation by creating new bonds between the inwardness of the individual and the community in which he or she lives.

Kristeva's language is structured by her roots in Freudian, Lacanian and Kleinian thought and by her vast knowledge of philosophy. As such, the text will prove challenging for those outside psychoanalysis, who are not familiar with those discourses.  However, for those seeking out an explanation of the relation between Kristeva's previous work and her current focus on belief, this book will prove invaluable.


© 2010 Elisha Foust


Elisha Foust is a PhD candidate in the Modern Languages department at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Her research focuses on female ethical responsibility, phenomenology and French psychoanalysis. She may be contacted at:


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