Julia Kristeva in Paris, 2008
June 24, 1941
|Alma mater||University of Sofia and others|
|Known for||philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, novelist|
|Awards||Holberg International Memorial Prize, Hannah Arendt Award for Political Thought|
Julia Kristeva (Bulgarian: Юлия Кръстева) (born 24 June 1941) is a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist, and, most recently, novelist, who has lived in France since the mid-1960s. Kristeva became influential in international critical analysis, cultural theory and feminism after publishing her first book Semeiotikè in 1969. Her immense body of work includes books and essays which address intertextuality, the semiotic, and abjection, in the fields of linguistics, literary theory and criticism, psychoanalysis, biography and autobiography, political and cultural analysis, art and art history. Together with Roland Barthes, Todorov, Goldmann, Gérard Genette, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Greimas, and Althusser, she stands as one of the foremost structuralists, in that time when structuralism took major place in humanities. Her works also have an important place in post-structuralist thought.
Born in Sliven, Bulgaria, Kristeva was the daughter of a church accountant. Kristeva and her sister were enrolled in a Francophone school run by Dominican nuns. Kristeva became acquainted with the work of Mikhail Bakhtin at this time in Bulgaria. Kristeva went on to study at the University of Sofia, and while a postgraduate there obtained a research fellowship that enabled her to move to France in December 1965, when she was 24. She continued her education at several French universities.
After joining the 'Tel Quel group' in 1965, Kristeva focused on the politics of language and became an active member of the group. She trained in psychoanalysis, and earned her degree in 1979. In some ways, her work can be seen as trying to adapt a psychoanalytic approach to the poststructuralist criticism. For example, her view of the subject, and its construction, shares similarities with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. However, Kristeva rejects any understanding of the subject in a structuralist sense, instead, she favors a subject always "in process" or "in crisis." In this way, she contributes to the poststructuralist critique of essentialized structures, whilst preserving the teachings of psychoanalysis. She travelled to China in the 1970s and wrote About Chinese Women (1977) about her experiences.
One of Kristeva's most important propositions is the semiotic. Kristeva's use of the term 'semiotic' here should not be confused with the discipline of semiotics suggested by Ferdinand de Saussure. For Kristeva, the semiotic is closely related to the infantile pre-Oedipal referred to in the works of Freud, Otto Rank and mainly Melanie Klein and the British Object Relation psychoanalysis, and to the Lacanian (pre-mirror stage). It is an emotional field, tied to our instincts, which dwells in the fissures and prosody of language rather than in the denotative meanings of words. In this sense, the semiotic opposes the symbolic, which correlates words with meaning in a stricter, mathematical sense. She is also noted for her work on the concepts of abjection (a notion that relates to a primary psychological force of rejection, directed toward the mother-figure), and intertextuality.
Kristeva argues that anthropology and psychology, or the connection between the social and the subject, do not represent each other, but rather follow the same logic: the survival of the group and the subject. Furthermore, in her analysis of Oedipus, she claims that the speaking subject cannot exist on his own, but that he "stands on the fragile threshold as if stranded on account of an impossible demarcation" (Powers of Horror, p. 85).
In her comparison between the two disciplines, Kristeva claims that the way in which an individual excludes the abject mother as means of forming an identity, is the same way in which societies are constructed. On a broader scale, cultures exclude the maternal and the feminine, and by this come into being.
Kristeva was regarded as a key proponent of French feminism together with Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray., Kristeva had a remarkable influence on feminism and feminist literary studies in the US and the UK, as well as on readings into contemporary art, although her relations with feminist circles and movements in France was quite controversial. Kristeva made a famous disambiguation of three types of feminism in "Women's Time" in New Maladies of the Soul (1993), while rejecting the first two, including that of Simone de Beauvoir, her stands are sometimes considered as rejective of feminism in common; in fact, Kristeva tried to propose the idea of multiple sexual identities against the joined code of "unified feminine language".
Though she is often seen as one of the architects of postmodern feminism which partly gave rise to what is known to be political correctness, multiculturalism, and identity politics, Kristeva said her writings had been misunderstood by American feminist academics. She believes that it is harmful to posit collective identity above individual identity, and this political assertion of sexual, ethnic, and religious identities is "totalitarian".
In the past decade, Kristeva has written a number of novels that resemble detective stories. While the books maintain narrative suspense and develop a stylized surface, her readers also encounter ideas intrinsic to her theoretical projects. Her characters reveal themselves mainly through psychological devices, making her type of fiction mostly resemble the later work of Dostoevsky. Her fictional oeuvre, which includes The Old Man and the Wolves, Murder in Byzantium, and Possessions, while often allegorical, also approaches the autobiographical in some passages, especially with one of the protagonists of "Possessions," Stephanie Delacour - a French journalist - which can be seen as Kristeva's alter ego. Murder in Byzantium deals with themes from orthodox Christianity and politics and has been described by Kristeva as "a kind of anti-Da Vinci Code."
Julia Kristeva is married to the French writer Philippe Sollers and has a son.
For her "innovative explorations of questions on the intersection of language, culture and literature", Kristeva was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2004. She won the 2006 Hannah Arendt Award for Political Thought.
Ian Almond criticizes Kristeva's ethnocentrism He cites Spivak's conclusion that her book Des Chinoises 'belongs to that very eighteenth century Kristeva scorns' after pinpointing "the brief, expansive, often completely ungrounded way in which she writes about two thousand years of a culture she is unfamiliar with". 
Almond notes the absence of sophistication in her remarks concerning the Muslim world and the blanket, dismissive terminology she uses to describe its culture and believers. He criticizes Kristeva's opposition which juxtaposes ‘Islamic societies’ against ‘democracies where life is still fairly pleasant’ by pointing out that Kristeva displays no awareness of the complex and nuanced debate ongoing among women theorists in the Muslim world and does not refer to anything other than the Rushdie fatwa to dismiss the entire Muslim faith as ‘reactionary and persecutory’.
Among her critics are also Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont who, in a book Fashionable Nonsense triggered off a debate, reporting three articles of Kristeva, that have an excessive use of mathematical or physical technical terms sometimes in a rather forced sense (a similar use of such terms, according to both of them—the mathematician Sokal and the physicist Bricmont—is found in the writings of Lacan, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Virilio etc), intended according to them to impress a reader who does not have knowledge that would permit judging whether the use of these terms is well-grounded.