Kristeva, Julia

Assigned: Kristeva, Julia.From Revolution in Poetic Language, from Part I. The Semiotic and the Symbolic; from 2. “The Semiotic Chora Ordering the Drives” (1942-48); from 5. “The Thetic: Rupture and/or Boundary” (1948-49); 12. “Genotext and Phenotext” (1950-52). Also read the editors’ introduction (1939-42).

From Revolution in Poetic Language (1974)

From Part I. The Semiotic and the Symbolic

From 2. The Semiotic Chora Ordering the Drives

1. On 1942-43 (“We understand the term ‘semiotic’…”), what significance does the Greek root of the word semiotic, σημεῖον (sēmeíon, “distinctive mark, trace, index,” etc.) bear for the explanation Julia Kristeva has set out to give of the prelinguistic “drives” and “primary processes” (1943) that are always at play even after a human being develops the capacity for language? How does she describe the “energy” (1943) that courses through the body of an infant who has not yet become a subject (as distinct from other human subjects) in the symbolic order?

2. On 1943-44 (“We borrow the term chora…”), Kristeva offers initial comments on the meaning of her term “chora” (1943; in Greek, χώρα), which alludes to the earliest stage of a child’s psychosexual development, from birth to 6 months. She suggests that the chora is a primordial stage that “precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality” (1943). What is the function of the term chora, then—how does it capture something of early childhood experience?

3. On 1944-47 (“The chora is a modality of…”), what does Kristeva suggest about “the vocal and gestural organization” (1944) of the chora? What kind of “ordering” (1945) is the prelinguistic chora subject to? How does she call on Melanie Klein’s theory about Freud’s notion of the “drives” to explain the “genesis of the functions organizing the semiotic process” (1945)? In what sense is a strong connection to the mother’s body vital at this early stage of a child’s development? (1946)

4. On 1947-48 (“All these various processes and…”), Kristeva writes that the semiotic processes she has been examining are “necessary to the acquisition of language, but not identical to language” (1947). How does she describe the more concrete “symbolic” function, which involves “syntax and all linguistic categories” (1947)? By contrast, how does she characterize the semiotic as a kind of preparation or grounding for the acquisition of language: according to Kristeva, what is involved in such “genetic programmings” of the human species? (1947) What accounts for her interest in Stéphane Mallarmé’s claims about “The Mystery in Literature” (1947)? Finally, what fundamental view of language emerges from Kristeva’s connection of the semiotic (as she uses that term) with the Freudian Unconscious? (1948)

From 5. The Thetic: Rupture and/or Boundary

5. On 1948-49 (“We shall distinguish the semiotic…”), Kristeva examines the process of signification. What is the “thetic phase,” and in what sense is it true, according to Kristeva, that “[a]ll enunciation, whether of a word or of a sentence, is thetic” (1948)? Why are a child’s “first so-called holophrastic enunciations,” which include “gesture, the object, and vocal emission” (1948 bottom), thetic even though they don’t yet qualify as sentences? (1949 top) What insight about the “deep logic of signification” (1949) does Kristeva adapt from Edmund Husserl’s theory of signification? Finally, how does Kristeva follow up on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to suggest that the thetic phase is foundational to the very process of signification? (1949)

12. Genotext and Phenotext

6. On 1950 (“In light of the distinction we…”), Kristeva turns to an examination of “how texts function.” How does she define and explore the importance of what she calls the “genotext”? What is the genotext, and how can its processive existence be detected in what we commonly call a “text” (i.e., a piece of writing)? In what sense is the genotext “not linguistic” in spite of the fact that “it can be seen in language…”? What kinds of “structures” does it “articulate,” and from what materials does it form these structures?

7. On 1950-51 (“The genotext can thus be seen…”), if, as Kristeva writes, “[t]he genotext can […] be seen as language’s underlying foundation” (1950), how should we understand the nature and operation of what she calls the “phenotext”? What contrasts does she develop between the phenotext and the genotext? How do the two coexist or work together?

8. On 1951-52 (“In our view, the process…”), Kristeva discusses the means by which the process of signification is limited from what might otherwise be “the infinity of the process…” (1951). In what ways, then, are boundaries set to this process? She mentions James Joyce and Stéphane Mallarmé as two modern authors who “manage to cover the infinity of the process, that is, reach the semiotic chora, which modifies linguistic structures” (1951). Based on your understanding of either or both of these difficult authors, how do you interpret Kristeva’s terminology regarding the potential “infinity” of the signifying process and the limitations that keep it from following that infinity? Finally, in glossing Jacques Lacan’s “four types of discourse” (1952), what four “signifying practices” does Kristeva herself propose to explore?

9. General question: In our selections from Revolution in Poetic Language, Julia Kristeva explores what she believes to be the continuing interconnection between adult linguistic processes and practices with the prelinguistic “semiotic” order. This insight, of course, follows in the tradition of Freudian insistence that the rational, “surface” dimensions of our lives are underlain and driven by mostly inaccessible, irrational or pre-rational energies within the human psychosexual constitution. To what extent do you find this insight useful in terms of literary interpretation—how, that is, might we apply it to the language of a suitable literary text? (In responding, it might be worthwhile to go back over Kristeva’s admiring quotation on page 1947 of the French Symboliste Stéphane Mallarmé, whom she considers a predecessor with regard to her insights about the foundations of language.)

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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