Abjection or Exploration: Kristeva’s Moving Shadows Under A Light

Une langue se boit et se parle, et un jour elle vous possède 

Kamel Daoud, Meursault contre-enquête


            In a critique of Julia Kristeva’s work in a novel titled About Chinese Women, Gayatri Spivak declared that Kristeva’s own Bulgarian pre-history was “not even a shadow under the harsh light of the Parisian voice” (Spivak 164, italics mine). In tapping into Kristeva’s identity, this quote asks about the Kristeva’s definition of abjection. As a reaction to a breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between self and unwanted aspects of a subject, this brings into question the ways in which these aspects are represented in Kristeva’s work, and their subsequent connection to foreignness. Within herself, and in other subjects these abjected aspects can function as relics of the past. In what ways does Kristeva’s work function through a process of imperial repression and a constant abjection of Bulgarian subject. Or alternatively, is there instead an emergence of ‘minor’ ideology and theory of from a Bulgarian contemporary in light of the abject violence.

            Through Kristeva’s work, one can understand that abjection is defined as a violence: a system of repression which leaves nothing familiar, “not even the shadow of a memory” (Kristeva, Powers Of Horror 5, italics mine). Spivak plays into these shadings of self-hood to assert that the western Parisian voice is the inflictor of abject violence or an imperial administered fugue in Julia Kristeva by outshining the presence of identity characteristics that have been distinguished from self as the other. Kristeva’s Bulgarian identity is left to be abjected as the unfamiliarity, a fading if not already an untraceable obscurity.

            A violent abjection, that is “directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside” (Kristeva, Powers of Horror 1) can cite foreignness, or even foreign subjects as the source of a strangeness, a variant in collective identity or nationhood. As a foreigner in a new nation, one suffers from the loss “of mother, of motherland, and often of mother tongue, and so endures the consequences of abjection on a personal level” (Barclay, 6). The foreigner emerges first from the collective through language, the initial difference and image of identity[i] (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt 242). The boundaries of national identity are threatened. In her personal life, Julia Kristeva cites her own mother as someone with a scientific mind, who pressed her with rigor in the ways necessary for a young woman’s development. Her father, was more so the driving force of language learning and Orthodox religion through French sources (Kristeva, Hatred and Forgiveness 5). From there a move to France was imbedded. An actual action of abjection and estrangement from the maternal lies through the limits there were or even impossibility of becoming a cosmopolitan intellectual (a phrase she often coins) in her motherlandofBulgaria in the mid-twentieth century.[ii]

            In her own relocation, Kristeva’s emergence of foreignness occurred early on in life as she differentiated from her mother-country. Attending a French primary school first run by Dominican nuns then the French Alliance in her early childhood allowed for her French and Bulgarian language learning to evolve somewhat simultaneously. French drifted through her with abjective ease and the distinction between self and other was in movement. A living body[iii] was prominent as the French language’s impeccable precision of vocabulary and tidiness of grammar appealed to both mind and integrity (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt 245). As nation and linguistics were fused in her new setting of France[iv], Bulgarian with its apparent lexical ambiguities and vague idioms, was more so cast out. Kristeva refers to French as resistant to cultural diversity (in comparison to English for example) and continues to say that “French tends to take pleasure in its untranslatable authenticity” (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt 247). An untranslatability causes a strict restrain for subjects looking to move between it and an additional language leaving an inaccessibility of abjection.

            More recently, Kristeva has remarked that she has absorbed French both as a language and culture so thoroughly that she has been “almost taken in by those Americans who welcome me [Kristeva] as a French rival and intellectual” (Kristeva, Hatred and Forgiveness 5)[v].The abject violence here transcends decades of living; the shining of a harsh light at an early age has led to a chosen belief that her origin is not an essential piece worthwhile for monter, for displaying or placing as an elevated characteristic of self. For her, to turn to origin would be a reaction near to pain; it’s for wounded people and depressed people (Caputo and Kearney 160). A national would only become less distinct by including their origins in all aspects of work and life. 

            In an additional framing, she makes a statement which puts into question the welcoming of this choice of origin-disregard, “Bulgarian is almost a dead language…a part of me was slowly extinguished as I gradually learned to speak French…” (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt 243). Here she positions Bulgarian as a language that is evoked periodically with increasing difficulty like when triggered in dreams, and as an external stimulus: a language in which her mother reaches her. Both of these occasions threaten a breakdown in meaning for a French-national in a waking and congenital state. French with its tools implemented early-on childhood abject the threat as a reaction to preserve a newly founded nationhood. The “intellectual choice” (Caputo and Kearney 160) Kristeva made away from origin and towards ideals takes hold in the reaction to origin breaking-down meaning of self and other.

            On being takin in by the American pronouncements that she is a French theorist and intellectual, that perhaps is the encompassment of identity that Spivak meant in citing her “nationalization transformed into privilege” (Spivak 164). Abjection often has the power to take one to the border of living or of dying, limiting culture in disgust and hazard. For the French language to offer its shores as a sanctuary to blend her foreignness, she does not carry its burden, she “takes shelter in the smooth, smiling, easy streets of Paris” (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt 247). In these bright streets disgust is at bay with her assimilation into French theory via American standards. Just as academic Fiona Barclay asserts the narrator in Daniel Prevost’s Le Passé Sous Silence must do after discovering his father’s origins are Algerian and not French, Kristeva forges a new place in society which can accommodate a more complex, even privileged, identity (Barclay 7). Her naturalization into French theory has then led to such a grand reception in American academia, allowing for English translation to become more available and a commonplace (Kristeva, Hatred and Forgiveness 7).

            Only at the point of open reception had Kristeva decided to write of Anne Comnena, a female intellectual from her native region, for a novel she published in France. Before this piece, she chose not to write or speak in a large extent about ‘…the intelligence and the endurance of the women of my country of origin, many of whom have distinguished themselves in literature, and many others in various struggles for liberation”. This is because of her desire “to use examples that were known and accepted everywhere” (Kristeva, Hatred and Forgiveness 5)[vi]: a comfort in the canonical to pursue theoretical interests so to not disturb order and rules as the abject subject does.

            With a bias for personal theoretical pursuits, and posing questions that aren’t new to a field although still curious, Kristeva risks limiting the large realm of biopolitics, or more specifically, hindering movements of immigration in contemporary reality. Barclay, in her analysis of a Prévost’s contemporary work, warns readers of issues in ahistoricism when Kristeva appeals to psychoanalysis. In order to do so, she “illuminates the otherness within each of us and so transforms us all into strangers…” creating a neglect for “…the lived realities of today’s migrants, exiles and refugees” (Barclay 10). Just as an Arab character is left unnamed and as his life is indispensably annihilated at the cost of Meursault’s encounter with his own strangeness in Camus’ story, those seeking refuge today in France aren’t all able to seamlessly blend with this theory. Nor fastidiously navigate the smiles of Parisian streets as she did for that matter. This aestheticization of being a foreigner, of saying that “Camus understood it well” (Kristeva, Strangers To Ourselves 5) misrepresents a spectrum of reality for a theoretical agenda. Citing the “nonexistence of banality in human beings” (Kristeva, Strangers To Ourselves 3) not to bring attention to the absence of asserting a spectrum of experience, but instead just to emphasize that a foreigner’s face captivates, beckons and rejects all at the same time is a violent devaluation—one coming from the harsh western speaker.

            With Gayatri Spivak’s set-up of the western Parisian voice as the inflictor of abject violence, Kristeva could potentially emerge as the position of the separated maternal. The Bulgarian subject, originally moved from her motherland, is now a subject that is rejecting the intellectual kin who could only follow her. Margarita Marinova investigates from a women’s point of view a unified Europe and the Balkan abject both with its malady and potential cure. She suggests that anxieties are still present as well as many challenges in terms of Kristeva’s stance on a unified Europe, particularly for Balkan women. A challenge of uncertainty, inexposure, to sometimes even a silence:

            “the lack of response to Kristeva’s theoretical constructions of their homeland and national character can be             explained by the fact that most of them continue to see themselves as her intellectual ‘daughters’” (Marinova             383).

Kristeva’s rendering of identity and a cultural co-presence remain relevant and is worked with in contemporary female writers. The mother-daughter relation here posed by Marinova is to propose a dependency, not necessarily to take away from the “vibrancy and versatility” of Bulgarian writing of women[vii] in a contemporary setting but to insist that more still needs to be accomplished in order to move on or through these challenges, and to move beyond one high-profile representation of their country and writing. The “glaring absence” (Marinova 384) in ‘Europe Divided: Politics, Ethics, Religion that Marinova chooses to investigate in her work can be extended to the lack overall of consideration of eastern female subjectivity, or even general female subjectivity for that matter, in Kristeva’s work. This missing consideration could open up more specificity of the violent abjection of various kinds of women before going first to the mother of Christ. A hope prevails in the work that Marinova chooses to look at, as well as in others comparable to it, for a grander representation of the intelligence and endurance of women. Here, a different representation beyond those of western analysts and conveyers in all walks of conflict from abjected realms exists.

            Where could an exploration, from an undermining of identity-claims and language-tools play in to Julia Kristeva’s sense of self-hood. Is it naive to frame portions of Kristeva’s work as imperial repression by abjection of unwanted parts of subject even if it’s for one sense of identity? If abjection is the reaction to a breakdown in meaning, then an exploration could be the reaction looking for the meaning again or beyond the meaning before violently casting off elements of self. If that were the case for Kristeva’s work with self as foreign, she perhaps could have simply embarked on a personal voyage, and not have applied the theoretical journey to create ideology on the way all foreign subjects are abjected. In a 2004 interview, Kristeva remarks on a phrase that a character of hers prefers[viii], “je me voyage” (Midttun 169). This use of a reflexive verb is impressive as it manipulates the tools of the French language to embark on a journey of self, traveling through identity. While appearing as a mistake, the bending of language on this level indicates an emergence of a comprehension beyond the tidiness of French grammar that Kristeva has referred to in the past. The bending in expression is similar to what Kristeva has also argued is accomplished through poetry.

            Blending and undermining of language here could result in the creation of a minor-identity, similar to that of a Deleuzian minor-language. Not a Deleuzian herself, although there could have been potential crossing in her work[ix], this is perhaps a new pairing of their proposals.  The emergence of minor- is highly relatable to exploration within and of oneself. The molding of language that her character uses is similar to the way in which she then asserts her discovery and exploration of a mosaic identity, “I usually call myself an adopted-American Frenchwoman of Bulgarian origin with a European citizenship” (Midttun 169). The French language, in its tidy grammar, still holds some control over the ordering of her identity. For example, it would normally prevent someone from saying Bulgare-franҫais to argue a Bulgarian-French identity. From an American perspective this hyphenated identity is more typical, generally understood, and unquestioned—perhaps a welcoming of diversity. French instead insists on the syntactically acceptable d’origine bulgare[x], citingsomeone of Bulgarian origin. The grammatical ordering leaves Bulgarian abjected in the past as something of origin and not of the present.

            By creating her character who “expresses just what she wants to express” (Midttun 169) despite having it lead to others thinking she cannot speak correct French she makes a liberating use of the exact tools that can be restrainers, a discovery that they can be pushed upon exploring. Kristeva then, although following French ordering, is aware of the ability to move through borders of self and of language to explore and sees herself come through in the same way. Kristeva remarks that “We inhibit various countries, we work in various countries, we speak various languages, and we live in various ages” (Midttun 169). By exploring and moving through each variety, there’s an opportunity to produce something minor from something major such as France, such as the twentieth century.

            Through a minor-identity, this emergence could be an answer to Kristeva’s earlier question, “Split identity, kaleidoscope of identities: can we be a saga for ourselves without being considered mad or fake? Without dying of the foreigner’s hatred or of hatred for the foreigner?” (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves 14) Therefore without being pushed to the border or living or of dying? Maybe in creating a moveable moldable mosaic, an existence between the two is possible.

            From the mosaic, was a national, was a foreigner, was the loss of distinction between this self and other creating a violent abjection. There is a risk is reducing the variants of experience from those who speak of their exploration of self, abjection of self, or as the one eliciting the violence as a harsh voice. Kristeva’s works and opinions explore the edges of these risks, as well as the borders of living and of dying. The conclusions for what are beyond the edge or between border to border remain as questions for further investigation, for subjectivity of contemporary eastern women, and for subjectivity of contemporary immigrants and refugees.

[i] In this citation, Kristeva emphasized particularly in France that language relates wholly to the image of identity

[ii] I don’t intend to imply unfavorable living circumstances in her childhood, simply an emphasis to her notion that there was a foundation offered to her in France that wouldn’t have been possible in her youth in Bulgaria

[iii] Reference to the limits of living and dying that abjection can push one to as well as Kristeva’s statement of resurrection when examining the division of her mind and body in Intimate Revolt chapter titled “The Love of Another Language”

[iv] This refers again to what Kristeva calls the unprecedented linking of language to image of identity in France

[v] This is something she’s commented on other times too, such as in “The Love of Another Language” where she says after fifty years of speaking French she’s ready to believe the Americans who view of her as a French intellectual and writer

[vi] Kristeva works with Arendt, Klein, and Colette to investigate a question of specificities in feminine form of genius

[vii] This is why Marinova righteously chooses to investigate Zemnite Gradini and Bogoroditsa in this journal article to embark further on the concept of foreignness

[viii] The character is Stephanie Delacour, a journalist, from Kristeva’s novel Meurtre à Byzance

[ix] In” What’s Left of 1968?” from New Forms of Revolt the interviewer poses questions about how she had to opportunity to become a follower of Deleuze. She responds that a theatre is more appealing than a factory in terms of the production of the unconscious.

[x] Knowledge here stems from my own experience in language study and learning and my own experience in trying to express a hyphenated identity effectively in French.

References and Citations

Barclay, Fiona. “Kristeva’s Stranger Within: The Question of the Foreigner in Daniel Prévost’s

Le Passé Sous Silence.” Paragraph, vol. 33, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2010, pp. 1–19. JSTOR,


Caputo, John D., and Kearney, Richard. Debates in Continental Philosophy:

Conversations with Contemporary Thinkers. Fordham University, 2004. JSTOR,


Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Kristeva: On the Abject.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

Updated Jan. 31, 2011. Purdue U. Accessed Nov. 12, 2018.


Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez,

Colombia University Press, 1982.

—. Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Colombia University

Press, 1991.

— and Samir Dayal. Crisis of the European Subject. Other Press, 2000.

— et al. Revolt, She Said. Semiotext(e), 2002.

—. Intimate Revolt. the Powers and the Limits of Psychoanalysis. Columbia

University Press, 2003.

—. Hatred and Forgiveness. Translated by Jeanine Herman, Colombia University Press, 2010.

Midttun, Birgitte Huitfeldt. “Crossing the Borders: An Interview with Julia Kristeva.” Hypatia,

vol. 21, no. 4, 2006, pp. 164–177.

Marinova, Margarita. “Bulgarian Women Write the New European Subject: Emilia Dvorianova’s

Zemnite Gradini Na Bogoroditsa as a Response to Julia Kristeva’s Crisis of the European

Subject.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 34, no. 2, 2015, pp. 379–401. Muse.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “French Feminism in an International Frame.” Yale French

 Studies, no. 62, 1981, pp. 154–184. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2929898.

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