The Bulgarian-born French writer and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva is somewhat of a stranger to the field of political theology. Although religious and political themes appear in nearly all of her writings, from her early work on the revolutionary potential of poetic language, to her study on abjection in the history of religions, to her analysis of the notion of the stranger/foreigner, her work is rarely engaged in the field of political theology. Among the reasons for this, two in particular stand out: first, she self-consciously approaches politics from a distance—that is, from the realm of psychoanalysis as an autonomous field of inquiry and practice. Second, she is a self-avowed atheist for whom the analysis of belief, illusions, faith, or the human capacity to make meaning is paramount. In other words, her interest in religion, as she writes, is “at once passionate and critical” (Hatred and Forgiveness, 209).
It is precisely Kristeva’s foreignness/strangeness to the field of political theology that provides new resources for examining the relationships between religion and politics. In particular, her psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.
I first explore three concepts for which Kristeva has become known: the semiotic, abject/abjection, and the stranger/foreigner. Each of these concepts points to the ways in which Kristeva has continually tried to think the excluded, unwanted, rejected, uncanny, or foreign elements of politics, religion, and thought itself. Next, I suggest that psychoanalysis, for Kristeva, is an approach to politics that requires a kind of faith, not in a god, but in the continuous renewal of the human capacity to reinvent the self in relation to the other. I wonder, too, if Kristeva’s psychoanalysis is a secular form of religion, in particular, of the Christian/humanistic tradition out of which she develops her thought. In closing, I point to the limitations of her psychoanalytic approach by questioning if Islam is the “stranger” to her psychoanalytic “faith.”
The Revolutionary Potential of the Semiotic
The semiotic is a concept crucial to Kristeva’s early thought, which centered at the intersections of linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. The meaning of the term, however, cannot be fully understood apart from Kristeva’s theory of the signifying process developed throughout the 1960s and fully expressed in Séméiotiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (1969) and La Révolution du langage poétique (1974) partially translated as Revolution in Poetic Language (1984). Critical of structural linguistics as the study or science of a “system of signs,” Kristeva draws on Freudian, Lacanian, and Kleinian psychoanalysis to return what she calls the speaking subject to the problematics of the production of meaning.
The speaking subject is not merely an effect of language but is instead continually constituted and reconstituted by a signifying process that involves the dialectical interplay between the semiotic, on the one hand, and the symbolic, on the other. The symbolic, already theorized by Lacan, whose lectures Kristeva attended, marks the subject’s entry into and acceptance of the realm of signification. This realm includes not only the logico-semantic rules of language but also the customs, laws, and mores of culture. Because of the oedipal taboo on incest, the symbolic, for Lacan and Kristeva, is associated with the law of the father. Foreclosed by Lacan’s theory of subject formation, Kristeva argues, is a pre-linguistic/trans-linguistic modality of the signifying process: the semiotic. Drawing on Klein’s work with children, Kristeva associates the semiotic with the infant’s ambivalent and rhythmic pre-oedipal, bodily relationship with the mother. Composed of oral and anal drives and erotic interchanges, the semiotic is articulated not by signs but “flows” and “marks.”
For scholars interested in how language, culture, and ideologies are constructed on the basis of the unconscious, bodily, and gendered dimensions of human relationships, Kristeva’s early psycho-semiotic thought is a potential resource. Already clear in her development of the concept of the semiotic is a concern for the “revolutionary” possibility of interrupting relatively closed, rule-bound systems that risk becoming authoritarian and censoring their heterogenous elements.
Correlating the semiotic with Plato’s chôra, Kristeva argues that the semiotic logically and chronologically precedes the symbolic. Although the semiotic gives birth, as it were, to the symbolic, the semiotic can only be felt, seen, or heard as the disruption of the symbolic, especially in artistic practice. In “The System and the Speaking Subject” (1973), Kristeva goes so far as to identify “practice” with the “transgression of systematicity” as such vis-à-vis the semiotic operations of poetic language, music, art, and dance. While Kristeva has occasionally been criticized for the privileged role she accords to art and literature, especially as an approach to or displacement of politics, her early theory of the semiotic nonetheless opens the study of political discourse to the “other” within language, namely, the affective, playful, rhythmic, and tactile traces of a pre-subjective orientation toward the mother.
Abjection as the Psychological Foundation of Religion
During the 1970s, following her psychoanalytic training and the birth of her son, Kristeva became more interested in how religion transforms or manages the semiotic link between the child and mother. Beginning with Powers of Horror (1980),Kristeva developed a new concept for describing what happens immediately before a child becomes a subject in the symbolic realm: abjection. As a response to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Powers of Horror is also a theory of the development of religion on the basis of taboos, including purification rituals in the Hebrew Bible and sin in the New Testament. If Freud argued that religion, law, and society (associated with the symbolic) was founded on the murder of the primal father and the sons’ subsequent guilt, Kristeva brings the maternal back into the picture.
Neither a subject nor an object, Kristeva describes the abject in terms of a person’s horror at the loss of distinction between the self and other or subject and object. The primary model of the abject is the child’s fusion with the mother—a fusion that threatens a stable sense of identity. The process of abjection, then, involves the child’s bodily separation from the mother, which includes not simply a rejection of the mother but an abjection (expulsion) of the mother’s milk and so the “self” in order to become a subject. An essential component of religion, abjection is the psychological and bodily foundation of notions of purity, pollution, and sin.
For those interested in the role of affect in politics or religion, Kristeva’s theory of abjection shows how divisions and expulsions are drawn and enacted through bodily and affective means: disgust, horror, nausea, and repulsion. While Kristeva’s theory of abjection has already profoundly influenced feminist theory, some have argued that her thought is incompatible with a feminist politics. Judith Butler and Ann Rosalind Jones, for example, argue that Kristeva’s maternal discourse situates and essentializes the semiotic mother outside of or before culture and history. Additionally, for Jones, Kristeva’s thought celebrates individual creativity at the expense of practical politics. Nonetheless, there are rich resources in Kristeva’s thought for analyzing how groups take shape by excluding unwanted, horrifying elements. Political theology has been dominated by juridical and philosophical concepts; Kristeva’s psychoanalytic thought allows for an interrogation into the unconscious, affective, and bodily mechanisms through which friend and enemy distinctions are drawn.
The Stranger and Psychoanalysis as an Approach to Politics
After her decision to become a psychoanalyst and a mother, Kristeva increasingly distanced herself from political engagement and turned to psychoanalysis as an approach to politics. By allowing the unconscious to find expression through transference-countertransference, psychoanalysis, for Kristeva, affirms what she calls the “stranger” within and the freedom to “revolt”; that is, psychoanalysis opens the self to a state of permanent questioning and transformation.
Outwardly critical of group identities, feminist or otherwise, “identity,” Kristeva writes, is an “anti-depressant that should be taken with care” (“Reconstructing Identity in Times of Existential Crisis,” 2017). What is needed instead is a recognition of the irreducible singularity of every individual. Only then can we upend the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion that define the political.
In her book Strangers to Ourselves (1991), Kristeva develops the concept of the “stranger” and links the psychoanalytic and the political. Attentive to the multivalence of the French word etrangété, which means both “foreignness” and “strangeness,” Kristeva explores the concept in political and psychoanalytic terms. Legally, the stranger is a person who is not a citizen in the country in which they reside. In more abstract terms, the stranger is the excluded other upon which the homogeneity of a group (family, institution, or nation) is founded.
Combining Marx’s and Hegel’s notions of negativity with Freud’s conception of the unconscious, Kristeva argues that the stranger is not just without but, more importantly, within: we are not transparent to ourselves, we are always divided, and we are thus strangers to ourselves. The goal of psychoanalysis, for Kristeva, is to discover the foreigner within, not in order to eliminate it but to no longer suffer from or project foreignness onto others. Psychoanalysis thus implies a politics that Kristeva refers to as a cosmopolitanism of a new kind, a cosmopolitanism that cuts across governments and is based on a solidarity among the strangers we recognize ourselves to be.
Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach to politics and valorization of the singularity of individuals have only deepened over the past few decades. In her “Revolt” books of the 1990s, including Sense and Nonsense of Revolt (1996), Intimate Revolt (1997), and The Future of Revolt (1998), for example, Kristeva explicitly avoids traditional accounts of political rebellion or revolution and instead emphasizes what she calls the “intimate revolt” of the psychic life of the individual. She turns to the analytic experience as the primary model for developing an ethic aimed at alleviating suffering and liberating the self in relation to the other.
Religion, Psychoanalysis, Politics
Kristeva explicitly analyzes religious themes and figures including the history of the cult of Mary in Stabat Matter and the imagined life of Saint Teresa in Teresa, My Love. But Kristeva links those explicit discussions of religion with psychoanalysis, not politics. How might we understand the relationship between psychoanalysis, religion, and politics in her thought?
Since the turn of the millennium, Kristeva has become increasingly concerned with what she considers the “dead ends” of secular morality and “religion’s… fundamentalist off-course drift” (This Incredible Need to Believe, 12). For Kristeva, speaking beings are fundamentally believing beings caught between the simultaneous loss and radicalization of values. Beginning with our first attempts to speak through our adolescent search for an ideal love-object, Kristeva argues we are beset with a pre-religious “need to believe.” Secularism cannot adequately address this need, which is itself a product of secularism, and fundamentalism has exploited it. Kristeva thus posits psychoanalysis as a kind of post-secular remedy. By affirming the patient’s illusions (to use Freud’s term for religion) as true, that is, by allowing me to name the unnamable or speak the unspeakable, not in order to discount my desires or traumas but instead to allow me to speak and search, continually, for new kinds of identities, psychoanalysis, for Kristeva, implies a kind of faith in human creativity and renewal. We cannot fully eradicate our “illusions,” but we can continually reinvent them in relation to the other—including the other within.
If it sounds like psychoanalysis is something like a religion or a faith, Kristeva is quick to point out their differences. In a short essay titled “Atheism,” she argues that both psychoanalysis and religion are invested in human beings’ capacity to make meaning. The difference, however, is that psychoanalysis remains critical—that is, aimed at an analysis of the capacity to represent, think, and create, while religion manages or controls meaning by situating it within a hierarchical system of values. Religion stabilizes the subject within a symbolic system of beliefs and practices while psychoanalysis exposes the self to the other within, the other in speech, to open up the possibility of perpetual self-becoming.
Might Kristeva’s conception of psychoanalysis as an ethics or politics be something like a political a-theology? Might the death of God about which Kristeva frequently speaks be a theology transformed and secularized as psychoanalysis? To what extent is Kristeva’s conception of psychoanalysis, especially as an ethics or politics, something like—but different from—religion or theology? And whose religion? Which theology?
When Kristeva writes about fundamentalism, she frequently has Islam in mind. Indeed, if by political theology we mean a form of fundamentalism adamantly or violently opposed to liberalism or the modern secular state, Kristeva argues this is one of the primary problems confronting individuals today. Political or radical Islam – and often simply Islam – is precisely the symbolic structure over and against which she frequently offers psychoanalytic practice as a prevention or remedy. Kristeva argues that Islam conceives of the relationship to divine authority as a “juridical pact” unlike Judaism and Christianity, which view God as a “father figure” who elects (in case of Judaism) or loves (in the case of Christianity) (The Incredible Need to Believe, 68). From this she concludes that Islam is essentially an authoritarian religion. Without the ability to work through a love-hate relationship with God the father, Islam produces a subject-less subject who submits rather than questions.
In recent years, Kristeva has turned her attention to psychoanalytic-activist work with Muslim youth in the Parisian suburbs in an effort to deter them from radicalization. Psychoanalysis, it seems, grows out of a Christian, humanistic tradition that provides a space for love and transformation while Islam turns the “need to believe” into submission and violence.
The strengths of Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach to the study of religion and politics are also her weaknesses. On one hand, Kristeva’s psychoanalytic thought provides many insights into the excluded (abject) conditions of possibility of subjectivity, thought, and systems (religious or political). Especially relevant to the field of political theology is how Kristeva’s psychoanalysis shows that friend/enemy distinctions are made through bodily, affective, and unconscious mechanisms. On the other hand, Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach, especially to religion, comes with limitations. She tends to reduce the historical, religious, and cultural differences within any so-called religion to a single, however complex, psycho-symbolic structure (e.g., Islam has no father). In other words, her psychoanalytic thought sometimes systematizes, in order to manage, the heterogeneity of her object of study. At the end of the day, Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach to religion effectively draws the kind of friend/enemy distinctions her thought is otherwise so good at illuminating. Islam becomes the stranger to the Christian, humanistic tradition in which Kristeva locates psychoanalysis, itself a faith in the human capacity for freedom, creativity, and change.
Kristeva’s corpus is voluminous and includes not only essays and books on semiotics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis but also a number of novels. Below is a short list of some key books that center on religion and/or politics.
Pouvoirs de l’horreur (1980), translated as Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Kristeva develops the concept of abjection and explores how religion and art try to “purify” the abject with attention to purification rituals in the Hebrew Bible, sin in the New Testament, and the anti-Semitic writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Au Commencement était l’amour: Psychanalyse et foi (1985), translated as In the Beginning was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith(New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). Kristeva provides her psychoanalytic understanding of religious faith.
Étrangers à nous-mêmes (1988), translated as Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Kristeva explores the notion of the stranger (the foreigner or outsider) as well as the stranger within (the unconscious) and argues for a new kind of cosmopolitanism.
Cet incroyable besoin de croire (2007), translated as This Incredible Need to Believe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). Unlike Freud, Kristeva does not consider religion just an illusion or source of neurosis and argues we need to recognize that we all have a pre-religious need to believe in order to combat the double-edged problem of secularism and fundamentalism.