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Julia KnstetJa attempts to expose the lImits of Lacan's theory of language by retJeaUng the semionc rumens Ion of language that It excludes She argues that the senuoac potentull of language IS subtiersltJe, and descnbes the SemIOtIC as a poeacmaternallmgwstIC practice that disrupts the symbolic, understood as culturally Intelhglbi.e rule-gooerned speech In the course of arguing that the senuonc contests the unltJersahty of the Symbohc, KrutetJa makes setJeral theorencal moves w1uch end up consoUdanng the power of the Symbolic and paternal authority generally She defends a maternal mstmct as a pre-d1ScursltJe bIOlogICal necessny, thereby naturaUZIng a specifu; cultural configuration of maternity In her use of psychoanalytIC theory, she ends up clrummg the cultural unmtelhglbility of lesbianISm Her dIStinction between the senuonc and the Symbolic operates to foreclose a cultural mtJestlganon Into the geneSIS of preCISely those femlmne pnnaples for which she clrums a pre-dlScursltJe, naturaUstIC ontology Although she clrums that the maternal aspects of language are repressed In Symbohc speech and prot!!de a cntlCal posslblhty of dISplacing the hegemony of the patemallsymbollc, her tJery descnPtlons of the maternal appear to accept rather than contest the InetJItable hegemony of the Symbolic In concluSIOTl, thIS essay offers a genealogICal cntlque of the maternal dIScourse In KrutetJa and suggests that recourse to the maternal does not constitute a subtiersltJe strategy as KrutetJa appears to assume
Knsteva's theory of the semiotic dirnension of language at first appears to engage Lacaruan premises only to expose their ltrmts and to offer a specifically feminine locus of subversion of the paternal law Within language According to Lacan, the paternal law structures all lmguisnc srgruficanon, termed "the symbolic", and so becomes a unrversal orgaruzmg principle of culture Itself This law creates the possibihry of meaningful language and, hence, meaningful experience, through the repression of pnmary hbidmal dnves, including the radical dependency of the child on the maternal body Hence, the symbolic becomes possible by repudiating the pnmary relationship to the maternal body The "subject" who emerges as a consequence of this repression Itself becomes a bearer or proponent of this repressive law The libidinal chaos charactensnc of that early dependency IS now fully constrained by a umtary agent whose language IS structured by that law This Ian-
Hypana vol 3, no 3 (Wmter 1989) © by Judith Butler
guage, m tum, structures the world by suppressing multiple mearungs (which always recall the libidmal mulnphcuy which characterized the pnmary relation to the maternal body) and mstanng uruvocal and discrete mearungs m their place
Knsteva challenges the Lacaruan narrative which assumes that cultural meaning requires the repression of that pnmary relationship to the maternal body She argues that the "sermonc" IS a dimension of language occasioned by that pnmary maternal body which not only refutes Lacan's pnmary premise, but which serves as a perpetual source of subversion withm the symbolic For Knsteva, the semiotic expresses that onginal hbidmal multiphcrty withm the very terms of culture, more precisely, withm poetic language m which multiple meanmgs and semantic non-closure prevail In effect, poetic language IS the recovery of the maternal body withm the terms of language, one that has the potential to disrupt, subvert, and displace the paternal law
Despite her cntique of Lacan, however, Knsteva's strategy of subversion proves doubtful Her theory appears to depend upon the stability and reproduction of precisely the paternal law that she sought to displace Although she effectively exposes the lmuts of Lacan's efforts to uruversahze the paternal law m language, she nevertheless concedes that the semiotic IS mvanably subordinate to the symbolic, that It assumes Its specificity withm the terms of a hierarchy which IS Immune to challenge If the semiotic promotes the POSSIbihrv of the subversion, displacement, or disruption of the paternal law , what mearungs can those terms have If the symbolic always reasserts ItS hegemony)
The cnncism of Knsteva which follows takes Issue With several different steps m Knsteva's argument tn favor of the semiotic as a source of effective subversion First, It IS unclear whether the pnmary relationship to the maternal body which both Knsteva and Lacan appear to accept IS a Viable construct and whether It IS even a knowable expenence according to either of their lmguisnc theones The multiple dnves that charactenze the semiotic constitute a pre-discursive hbidmal economy which occasionally makes Itself known m language, but which mamtams an ontological status prior to language Itself Manifest m language, m poetic language m particular, this prediscursrve libidmal economy becomes a locus of cultural subversion A second problem emerges when Knsteva mamtains that this hbidmal source of subversion cannot be mamtamed withm the terms of culture, that ItS sustained presence leads to psychosis and to the breakdown of cultural life Itself Knsteva thus alternately posits and derues the semiotic as an emancipatorv Ideal Though she tells us that It IS a dimension of language regularly repressed, she also concedes that It IS a kind of language which can never be consistently maintamed
In order to assess her seemingly self-defeanng theory, we need to ask how this hbidmal multiplicity becomes manifest in language, and what condmons Its temporary lifespan there) Moreover, Knsteva descnbes the maternal body
as beanng a set of meanings that are pnor to culture Itself She thereby safeguards the notion of culture as a paternal structure and delmuts maternity as an essentially pre-cultural reality Her naturalisnc descnpnons of the maternal body effectively reifv motherhood and preclude an analysis of Its cultural construction and vanabiluv In asking whether a pre-discursive hbidmal mulnphciry IS possible, we Will also consider whether what we claim to discover m the pre-discursive maternal body IS Itself a production of a given histoncal discourse, an effect of culture rather than Its secret and pnmary cause
Even If we accept Knsteva's theory of pnmary dnves, It IS unclear that the subversive effects of such dnves can serve, via the semionc, as anythmg more than a temporary and futile disruption of the hegemony of the paternal law I Will try to show how the failure of her pohncal strategy follows tn part from her largely uncnncal appropnanon of dnve theory Moreover, upon careful scrutmy of her descnpnons of the semiotic function withm language, It appears that Knsteva reinstates the paternal law at the level of the semiotic Itself In the end, Knsteva offers us a strategy of subversion that can never become a sustained polincal practice In the fmal section of this paper, I Will suggest a way to reconceptuahze the relation between dnves, language, and patriarchal prerogative which might serve a more effective strategy of subversion
Knsteva's descnpnon of the serruonc proceeds through a number of problemanc steps She assumes that drives have alms pnor to their emergence into language, that language mvanablv represses or sublimates these dnves, and that such drives are manifest only m those lmguisnc expressions which disobey, as It were, the umvocal requirements of sigruficanon within the symbohc domam She claims further that the emergence of multrphcitous dnves into language IS evident m the semionc, that domain of lmguistic meaning distmct from the symbolic, which IS the maternal body manifest m poetic speech
As early as Revolution In Poeu: Language (1974), Knsteva argued for a necessary causal relatton between the heterogeneity of drives and the plunvocal possibilmes of poetic language Diffenng from Lacan, she mamtamed that poetic language was not predicated upon a repression of pnmary drives On the contrary, poetic language, she claimed, IS the lmguisnc occasion on which dnves break apart the usual, univocal terms of language and reveal an irrepressible heterogeneity of multiple sounds and meanmgs Knsteva thereby contested Lacan's equation of the symbohc With all lmguisnc meaning by assertmg that poetic language has ItS own modality of meamng which does not conform to the requirements of univocal designation
In this same work, she subscribed to a notion of free or uncathected energy which makes Itself known m language through the poetic function She claimed, for Instance, that" m the mtermmglmg of dnves m language we shall see the economy of poetic language" and that in this economy,
"the unitary subject can no longer fmd his place" (1984, 132) This poetic function IS a rejective or drvisive lmguistic function which tends to fracture and multiply meanings, It enacts the heterogeneity of dnves through the proliferation and destruction of univocal Signification Hence, the urge toward a highly differentiated or plunvocal set of meanings appears as the revenge of dnves against the rule of the symbolic which, m tum, IS predicated upon their repression Knsteva defines the semionc as the mulnplicrrv of dnves manifest m language With their msistent energy and heterogeneity, these dnves disrupt the signifymg function of language Thus, m this early work, she defines the semionc as "the sigrufvmg function connected to the modality [of] pnmary process"
In the essays that compnse Desire In Language (1977) Knsteva ground her defminon of the senuonc more fully m psychoanalytic terms The pnmary dnves that the symbolic represses and the semiotic obliquely mdicates are now understood as maternal dntJes, not only those dnves belonging to the mother, but those which charactenze the dependency of the infant's body (of either sex) on the mother In other words, "the maternal body" designates a relation of contmurty rather than a discrete subject or object of desire, Indeed, It designates thatjoiasssnce which precedes desire and the subject/object dichotomy that desrre presupposes While the symbolic IS predicated upon the rejection of the mother, the refusal of the mother as an object of sexual love, the sermotic, through rhythm, assonance, mtonations, sound play and repetition, re-presents or recovers the maternal body in poetic speech Even the "first echolahas of infants" and the "glossalalias In psychotic discourse" are marufestations of the contmuity of the mother-infant relation, a heterogeneous field of Impulse pnor to the separation/individuation of mfant and mother, alike effected by the imposmon of the Incest taboo (1980, 135) The separation of the mother and infant effected by the taboo IS expressed linguisncally as the severing of sound from sense In Knsteva's words, " a phoneme, as distmcnve element of meaning, belongs to language as symbohc But this same phoneme IS Involved In rhythrmc, mtonanonal repetinons, It thereby tends toward autonomy from meaning so as to mamtam Itself in a semiotic disposition near the instinctual drive's body"
The semiotic IS described by Knsteva as destroymg or eroding the svmbohc, It IS said to be "before" meaning, as when a child begins to vocalize, or "after" meaning as when a psychotic no longer uses words to Signify If the svmbolic and the semiotic are understood as two modalities of language, and If the semiotic IS understood to be generally repressed by the svmbolic, then language for Knsteva IS understood as a system m which the symbohc remains hegemonic except when the semiotic disruprs ItS signifying process through elision, repetition, mere sound, and the mulnphcanon of meaning through mdefirutelv sigmfymg Images and metaphors In ItS symbohc mode, language
rests upon a severance of the relation of maternal dependency, whereby It becomes abstract (abstracted from the matenahtv of language) and univocal, this IS most apparent 10 quantitative or purely formal reasoning In ItS serruonc mode, language IS engaged 10 a poetic recovery of the maternal body, that diffuse marenahrv that resists all discrete and Univocal sigruficanon Knsteva writes,
In any poenc language, not only do the rhythmic constramts, for example, go so far as to violate certam grammatical rules of a national language but 10 recent texts, these semionc constramts (rhythm, vocalic timbres 10 Symbolist work, but also grapluc disposition on the page) are accompanied by nonrecoverable syntactic elisions, It 15 impossible to reconstitute the particular elided syntactic category (object or verb), which
makes the meaning of the utterance decidable (1980, 134)
For Knsteva, this undecidabihrv IS precisely the instinctual moment 10 language, Its disruptive function Poetic language thus suggests a dissolution of the coherent, sigmfymg subject into the pnmary contmutty which IS the maternal body
Language as svmbohc function constitutes Itself at the cost of repressmg mstmctual dnve and contmuous relation to the mother On the contrary, the unsettled and questionable subject of poetic language (from whom the word 15 never umquely Sign) main tams Itself at the cost of reacnvatmg this repressed, mstmctual, maternal element (1980, 136)
Knsteva's references to the "subject" of poetic language are not wholly appropnate, for poenc language erodes and destroys the subject, where the subject 15 understood as a speaking being parncipanng 10 the svmbohc Following Lacan, she mamtams that the prolubinon against the incestuous Union With the mother IS the founding law of the subject, a foundation which severs or breaks the continuous relation of maternal dependence In creatmg the subject, the prolubmve law creates the domam of the symbolic or language as a system of uruvocallv sigrutymg signs Hence, Knsteva concludes that "poetic language would be for Its questionable subject-in-process the equivalent of 10- cest" (1980, 136) The breakmg of symbohc language against Its own found- 109 law or, equivalentlv, the emergence of rupture into language from withm Its own mtenor mstmctuahty IS not merely the outburst of hbidmal heterogeneity into language, It also Signifies the somatic state of dependence on the maternal body pnor to the mdividuanon of the ego Poenc language thus always indicates a return to the maternal terram, where the maternal Signifies both hbidmal dependence and the heterogeneity of dnves
In "Motherhood According to Bellmi", Knsteva suggests that, because the maternal body sigrufies the loss of coherent and discrete Identity, poenc language verges on psychosis And In the case of a woman's semiotic expressions in language, the return to the maternal sigrufies a pre-discursive homosexualiry that Knsteva also clearly associates with psychosis Although Knsteva concedes that poetic language IS sustained culturally through ItS participation In the svmbohc and, hence, m the norms of lmguisnc commumcabihrv, she falls to allow that homosexuahtv IS capable of the same non-psychotic social expression The key to Knsteva's view of the psychotic nature of homosexualIty IS to be understood, I suggest, m her acceptance of the structuralist assumption that heterosexuality IS coextensive With the founding of the svrnbolic Hence, the cathexis of homosexual desire can only be achieved, according to Knsteva, through displacements that are sanctioned withm the symbolic, such as poetic language or the act of giving birth
By grvmg birth, the women enters mro contact with her mother, she becomes, she IS her own mother, they are the same contmuitv differennatmg Itself She thus actualizes the homosexual facet of motherhood, through which a woman IS Simultaneously closer to her mstmcrual memory, more open to her psychosis, and consequently, more negatory of the SOCial, symbolic bond (1980, 239)
According to Knsteva, the act of givmg birth does not successfully reestablish that continuous relation pnor to mdivtduanon because the mfant mvanably suffers the prohibmon on Incest and IS separated off as a discrete Identity In the case of the mother's separation from the girl-cluld, the result IS melancholy for both, for the separation IS never fully completed
As opposed to gnef or mourmng, in which separation IS recognized and the libido attached to the ongmal object IS successfully displaced onto a new substitute object, melancholy designates a failure to gneve m which the loss IS Simply mternahzed and, In that sense, refused Instead of negating the attachment to the body, the maternal body IS mternahzed as a negation, so that the girl's Identity becomes Itself a kmd of loss, a charactensnc pnvation or lack
The alleged psychosis of homosexuahry, then, consists in Its thorough break With the paternal law and With the groundmg of the female "ego", tenuous though It may be, In the melancholic response to separation from the maternal body Hence, according to Knsteva, female homosexuahrv IS the emergence of psychosis mto culture
The homosexual-maternal facet IS a whirl of words, a complete absence of meaning and seeing, It IS feeling, displacement, rhythm, sound, flashes, and fantasied clmging to the maternal
body as a screen against the plunge lost but seemmgly close at hand
for woman, a paradise
For women, however, this homosexuality IS manifest in poetic language which becomes, m fact, the only fonn of the serrnonc, besides childbirth, that can be sustained withm the terms of the svmbohc For Knsteva, then, overt homosexuahry cannot be a culturally sustainable acnvitv, for It would constitute a breaking of the incest taboo m an unmediared way And yet why IS tlus the case 1
Knsteva accepts the assumption that culture IS equivalent to the symbolic, that the symbolic IS fully subsumed under the "Law of the Father", and that the only modes of non-psychotic activity are those which participate m the svmbolic to some extent Her strategic task, then, IS not to replace the syrnbohc With the semionc nor to establish the semiotic as a nval cultural POSSIbihrv, but rather to validate those expenences within the symbohc that permit a marufestation of the borders which divide the symbohc from the serruonc Just as birth IS understood to be a cathexis of instinctual drives for the purposes of a SOCial teleology, so poetic production IS conceived as the site m which the spilt between mstmct and representatton coexist m culturally communicable fonn
The speaker reaches this hmit, this requisite of socialirv, only by virtue of a particular, discursive practice called "art" A woman also attains It (and in our SOCiety, especzally) through the strange fonn of split svmbohzanon (threshold of language and mstmctual dnve, of the 'symbolic' and the 'semionc') of which the act of giving birth consists (1980, 240) 2
Hence, for Knsteva, poetry and maternity represent pnvileged practices withm paternally sanctioned culture which perrmt a nonpsychonc expenence of the heterogeneity and dependency charactensnc of the maternal terrain These acts of poesis reveal an msnnctual heterogeneity that exposes the repressed ground of the symbolic, challenges the mastery of the Univocal signifier, and diffuses the autonomy of the subject who postures as their necessary ground The heterogeneity of dnves operates culturally as a subversive strategy of displacement, one which dislodges the hegemony of the paternal law by releasing the repressed multiplicity mtenor to language Itself Precisely because that msnnctual heterogeneity must be re-presented in and through the paternal law, It cannot defy the mcest taboo altogether, but must remam withm the most fragile regions of the svmbohc Obedient, then, to syntactical requirements, the poetic-maternal practices of displacmg the patemallaw always remain tenuously tethered to that law Hence, a full-scale refusal of the svmbohc IS impossible, and a discourse of 'emancipation', for Knsteva, IS out of the question At best, tactical subversions and displacements of the
law challenge Its self-groundmg presumption But, once agam, Knsteva does not senouslv challenge the structuralist assumption that the prohibitive paternallaw IS foundational to culture Itself Hence, the subversion of paternally sanctioned culture cannot come from another version of culture, but only from withm the repressed mtenor of culture Itself, from the heterogeneIty of drives that constitutes culture's concealed foundation
This relation between heterogeneous dnves and the paternal law produces an exceedingly problematic view of psychosis On the one hand, It designates female homosexuahry as a culturally unmtelhgible practice, inherently psychotic, on the other hand, It mandates maternity as a compulsory defense against hbidmal chaos Although Knsreva does not make either claim exphcitlv, both implicanons follow from her views on the law, language, and drives
Consider that for Knsteva, poenc language breaks the incest taboo and, as such, verges always on psychosis As a return to the maternal body and a concomitant de-mdrviduanon of the ego, poetic language becomes especrally threatening when uttered by women The poetic then contests not only the incest taboo, but the taboo against homosexualitv as well Poenc language IS thus, for women, both displaced maternal dependency and, because that dependency IS hbidmal, displaced homosexuahrv as well
For Knsteva, the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocallv to psychosis Hence, one can satisfy this dnve only through a senes of displacements the mcorporanon of maternal Identity, I e by becommg a mother oneself, or through poenc language which mamfests obhquelv the heterogeneity of dnves charactensnc of maternal dependency As the only SOCially sanctioned and, hence, non-psychotic displacements for homosexual desire, both maternity and poetry constitute melancholic expertences for women appropnatelv acculturated Into heterosexuality The heterosexual poet-mother suffers interminably from the displacement of the homosexual cathexis And yet, the consummation of tlus desire would lead to the psvchonc unraveling of Identity, according to Knsteva The presumption IS that, for women, heterosexualirv and coherent selfhood are indissolubly linked
How are we to understand this constitution of lesbian expenence as the site of an irretnevable self-loss? Knsreva clearly takes heterosexuahty to be prerequisite to kmship and to culture Consequently, she Identifies lesbian experience as the psychotic alternative to the acceptance of paternally sanenoned laws And yet why IS lesbiarusm constituted as psychosis? From what cultural perspective IS lesbianism constructed as a site of fusion, self-loss, and psychosis?
By projecting the lesbian as "other" to culture, and charactenzmg lesbian speech as the psychotic "whirl-ot-words", Knsteva constructs lesbian sexualIty as mrnnsicallv uruntelhgible This tactical dismissal and reduction of les-
bran experience performed m the name of the law posinons Knsteva within the orbit of paternal-heterosexual privilege The paternal law which protects her from this radical incoherence is precisely the mechamsm that produces the construct of lesbramsm as a site of Irrationality Slgmflcantly, this descnpnon of lesbian expenence IS effected from the outside, and tells us more about the fantasies that a fearful heterosexual culture produces to defend against Its own homosexual possibilities than about lesbian experience Itself
In claimmg that lesbiarusm designates a loss of self, Knsteva appears to be dehvenng a psychoanalytic truth about the repression necessary for mdividuanon The fear of such a 'regression' to homosexuahrv IS, then, a fear of losmg cultural sanction and pnvilege altogether Although Knsteva claims that rhis loss designates a place pnar to culture, there IS no reason not to understand It as a new or unacknowledged cultural form In other words, Knsteva prefers to explain lesbian experience as a regressive hbidmal state prior to acculturation Itself rather than to take up the challenge that lesbiamsm offers to her restncted view of paternally sanctioned cultural laws Is the fear encoded m the construction of the lesbian as psychotic the result of a developmentally necessitated repression, or IS It, rather, the fear of losmg cultural leginmacv and, hence, being cast-not outside or pnor to culture--but outside cultural legltlmacy, still within culture, but culturally "out-lawed"?
Knsteva describes both the maternal body and lesbian experience from a position of sanctioned heterosexuality that falls to acknowledge Its own fear of losing that sanction Her reification of the paternal law not only repudiates female hornosexuahrv, but denies the vaned meanmgs and possibihnes of motherhood as a cultural practice But cultural subversion IS not really Knsteva's concern, for subversion, when It appears, emerges from beneath the surface of culture only mevitablv to return there Although the sermonc IS a possrbilirv of language that escapes the paternal law , It remains mevttably withm or, indeed, beneath the territory of that law Hence, poetic language and the pleasures of maternity constitute local displacements of the paternal law, temporary subversions which finally submit to that against which they minallv rebel By relegatmg the source of subversion to a site outside of culture Itself, Knsteva appears to foreclose the possibihtv of subversion as an effective or realizable cultural practice Pleasure beyond the paternal law can only be imagmed together With Its mevuable unpossibihtv
Knsteva's theory of thwarted subversion IS premised on her problematic view of the relation between dnves, language and the law Her postulation of a subversive mulnphcuv of drives raises a number of epistemological and political questions In the first place, If these dnves are only mamfest m language or cultural forms already determined as symbohc, then how IS It that we can venfy then' pre-symbohc ontological status? Knsteva argues that poetic language gives us access to these dnves m their fundamental mulnphcitv, but this answer IS not fully satisfactory Since poetic language IS said to depend
upon the prior existence of these mulnplicuous drives, we cannot, then, tn circular fashion, Justify the postulated existence of these drives through recourse to poetic language If dnves must first be repressed for language to exist, and If we can only attnbute mearung to that which lS representable m language, then to attribute meamng to dnves pnor to their emergence mto language lS impossible Similarly, to attnbute a causality to dnves which facihtates their transformation into language and by which language Itself IS to be explained cannot reasonably be done withm the confines of language Itself In other words, we know these dnves as 'causes' only in and through their effects and, as such, we have no reason for not idennfymg drives wah their effects It follows that either (a) dnves and their representations are coextensive or (b) representations preexist the dnves themselves
This last alternative IS, I would argue, an Important one to consider, for how do we know that the msnnctual object of Knsteva's discourse IS not a construction of the discourse Itself] And what grounds do we have for positing this object, rhis mulnphcitous field, as pnor to sigmficanon? If poenc language must participate in the svmbolic m order to be culturally commumcable, and If Knsteva's own theoretical texts are emblematic of the symbohc, then where are we to find a convmcmg 'outside' to thrs domam? Her postulation of a pre-discursive corporeal mulnplicitv becomes all the more problematic when we discover that maternal dnves are considered part of a "biological destiny" and are themselves mamfestanons of "a non-symbolic, non-paternal causality" 2 This presymboltc nonpaternal causahrv IS, for Knsteva, a sermotic, maternal causahty or, more specifically, a teleological conception of maternal mstmcts
Matenal compulsion, spasm of a memory belonging to the species that either bmds together or splits apart to perpetuate Itself, senes of markers With no other significance than the eternal return of the Me-death biological cycle How can we verbahze this prelmguisnc, unrepresentable memory] Heraclitus' flux, Epicurus' atoms, the whirlmg dust of cabalic, Arab and Indian mystics, and the stippled drawings of psychedehcsall seem better metaphors than the theory of Bemg, the logos, and Its laws
Here, the repressed maternal body IS not only the locus of multiple drives, but also the bearer of a biological teleology, one which, It seems, makes Itself evident m the early stages of Western philosophy, in non-Western religious beltefs and pracnces, m aesthetic representations produced by psychotic or near-psychotic states, and even m avanr-garde arnsnc practices But why are we to assume that these vanous cultural expressions manifest the self-same prmciple of maternal heterogeneity] Knsteva Simply subordinates each of these cultural moments to the same principle Consequently, the semiotic
represents any cultural effort to displace the Logos (which, cunously, she contrasts with Heraclitus' flux), where the Logos represents the univocal Signifier, the law of Identity Her opposition between the semiotic and the symbolic reduces here to a metaphysical quarrel between the pnnciple of muluphcirv that escapes the charge of non-contradiction and a pnnciple of Identity based on the suppression of that mulnplrcitv Oddly, that very pnnciple of mulnphcitv that Knsteva everywhere defends operates 10 much the same way as a principle of Identity Note the way 10 which all manner of thmgs 'pnrrunve' and 'onental' are summanly subordinated to the pnnciple of the maternal body Surely, her descnpnon not only warrants the charge of onentahsm, but raises the very sigmficant question whether, irorucallv, multiplicIty has become a Univocal Signifier
Her ascnpnon of a teleological aim to maternal dnves pnor to their constitution 10 language or culture raises a number of questions about Knsteva's political program Although she clearly sees subversive and disruptive potential 10 those semiotic expressions that challenge the hegemony of the paternal law, It IS less clear 10 what precisely this subversion consists If the law IS understood to rest on a constructed ground, beneath which lurks the repressed maternal terrain, what concrete cultural options emerge withm the terms of culture as a consequence of this revelation 7 Ostensibly, the mulnphcirv assocrated With the maternal hbrdmal economy has the force to disperse the univocitv of the paternal Signifier, and seemingly to create the possibihty of other cultural expressions no longer tightly constrained by the law of noncontradiction But IS this disruptive acnvirv the opening of a field of sigmficanons, or IS It the manifestation of a biological archaism which operates according to a natural and "prepaternal" causality 7 If Knsteva believed that the former were the case (and she does not), then she would be Interested 10 a displacement of the paternal law 10 favor of a proliferating field of cultural POSSibilities But instead she prescnbes a return to a principle of maternal heterogeneity which proves to be a closed concept, indeed, a heterogeneity confined by a teleology both urulmear and Univocal
Knsteva understands the desrre to give birth as a species-desrre, part of a collective and archaic female hbidmal dnve that constitutes an ever recurnng metaphysical pnnciple Here Knsteva reifies maternity and then promotes this reincanon as the disruptive potential of the semiotic As a result, the paternallaw, understood as the ground of Univocal Signification, IS displaced by an equally Univocal Signifier, the pnncrple of the maternal body which remains self-Identical 10 ItS teleology regardless of ItS "mulnphcitous" marufestanons
Insofar as Knsteva conceptualizes this maternal mstmct as having an ontological status pnor to the patemallaw, she falls to consider the way 10 which that law might well be the cause of the very desire It IS said to repress Rather than the manifestation of a prepaternal causality, these desires might attest to
maternity as a social practice required and recapitulated by the exigencies of kinship Knsteva accepts Levi-Strauss' analysis of the exchange of women as prerequisite for the consohdanon of kmship bonds She understands this exchange, however, as the cultural moment 10 which the maternal body IS repressed rather than as a mechanism for the compulsory cultural construction of the female body as a maternal body Indeed, we might understand the exchange of women as imposing a compulsory obligation on women's bodies to reproduce According to Gayle RubIO'S reading of Levi-Strauss, kmship effects a "sculptmg of sexuality" such that the desire to give birth IS the result of social practices which require and produce such desires 10 order to effect their reproductive ends (RubIO 1975, 182)
What grounds, then, does Knsteva have for imputmg a maternal teleology to the female body pnor to Its emergence into culture? To pose the question in this way IS already to question the disnncnon between the symbohc and the semionc on which her conception of the maternal body rests The maternal body 10 Its ongmary sigruficanon IS considered by Knsteva to be pnor to sigmfication Itself, hence, It becomes impossible wtthm her framework to consider the maternal Itself as a significanon, open to cultural vanabihry Her argument makes clear that maternal dnves constitute those pnmary processes that language mvanablv represses or sublimates But perhaps her argument could be recast withm an even more encompassing framework what cultural configuration of language, indeed, of dIscourse, generates the trope of a pre-discursive hbidmal mulnphcirv, and for what purposes?
By restnctmg the paternal law to a prohibitive or repressive function, Knsteva fails to understand the paternal mechanisms by which affectrvity Itself IS generated The law that IS said to repress the semiotic may well be the govern 109 pnnciple of the semiotic Itself, with the result that what passes as "maternal mstmct" may well be a culturally constructed desire which IS interpreted through a naturahsnc vocabulary And If that desire IS constructed according to a law of kinship which requires the heterosexual production and reproduction of desire, then the vocabulary of naturalistic affect effectively renders that "paternal law" invisible What Knsteva refers to as a "pre-paternal causahrv'' would then appear as a paternal causalirv under the guise of a natural or disnncnvelv maternal causahrv
Sigruficantly, the figuration of the maternal body and the teleology of Its msnncts as a self-Identical and insistent metaphysical pnnctple-e-an archaism of a collective, sex-specific biological consntunon=-bases Itself on a univocal conception of the female sex And this sex, conceived as both ongm and causaliry, poses as a pnnciple of pure generanvity Indeed, for Knsteva, It IS equated With poesrs Itself, the acnvirv of making that In Plato's Symposium IS held to be an act of birth and poetic conception at one 3 But IS female generanvitv truly an uncaused cause, and does It begin the narrative that takes all of humarurv under the force of the incest taboo and mto language?
Does the prepaternal causality whereof Knsteva speaks slgmfy a pnmary female economy of pleasure and meanmg 1 Can we reverse the very order of this causality and understand tlus semiotic economy as a production of a pnor discourse?
In the final chapter of Foucault's first volume of The HIStory of Sexuahty, he cautions against using the category of sex as a "ficnnous umty [and] causal prmciple", and argues that the fictitious category of sex facilrtates a reversal of causal relations such that "sex" IS understood to cause the structure and mearung of desire
the notion of 'sex' made It possible to group together, 10 an arnficial uruty, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and It enabled one to make use of this ficnnous unity as a causal pnnciple, an omrupresent meaning sex was thus able to function as a unique sigrufier and as a universal sigmfied (1980, 154)
For Foucault, the body IS not 'sexed' 10 any sigruficant sense pnor to Its determmanon withm a discourse through which It becomes Invested With an 'Idea' of natural or essential sex As an instrument and effect of power, the body only gains mean 109 withm discourse 10 the context of power relations Sexuality IS an hrstoncallv specific orgamzanon of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity As such, sexuality IS understood by Foucault to produce 'sex' as an arnficial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for Its genesis
Foucault's framework suggests a way to solve some of the epistemological and pohncal difficulnes that follow from Knsteva's view of the female body We can understand Knsreva's assertion of a "prepaternal causality" as fundamentally inverted Whereas Knsteva posits a maternal body pnor to discourse which exerts Its own causal force 10 the structure of dnves, I would argue that the discursive production of the maternal body as pre-discursive IS a tactic 10 the self-amplification and concealment of those specific power relations by which the trope of the maternal body IS produced Then the maternal body would no longer be understood as the hidden ground of all sigmficanon, the tacit cause of all culture It would be understood, rather, as an effect or consequence of a system of sexuality 10 which the female body IS required to assume maternity as the essence of ItS self and the law of ItS desire
From withm Foucault's framework, we are compelled to redescnbe the maternal hbidmal economy as a product of an histoncallv specific organization of sexuahty Moreover, the discourse of sexuahtv, Itself suffused by power relations, becomes the true ground of the trope of the pre-discursive maternal body Knsteva's formulation suffers a thoroughgomg reversal the symboltc and the sermonc are no longer interpreted as those dimensions of language which follow upon the repression or mamfestanon of the maternal hbidmal
economy ThIS very economy IS understood mstead as a reificanon that both extends and conceals the institution of motherhood as compulsory for women Indeed, when the desires that mamtam the msntunon of motherhood are transvaluated as prepaternal and precultural dnves, then the msntunon gains a permanent legitimation 10 the mvariant structures of the female body Indeed, the clearly paternal law that sanctions and requires the female body to be charactenzed pnmanly 10 terms of Its reproductive function IS 10- scnbed on that body as the law of Its natural necessitv And Knsteva, safeguardmg that law of a biologically necessitated maternity as a subversive operation that preexists the paternal law Itself, aids 10 the systematic production of ItS mvistbrhry and, consequently, the illusion of ItS mevitabihry
In conclusion, because Knsteva restncts herself to an exclusivelv prohIbItive conception of the paternal law, she IS unable to account for the ways 10 which the paternal law generates certam desires 10 the form of natural dnves The female body that she seeks to express IS Itself a construct produced by the very law It IS supposed to undermme In no way do these cnncisms of Knsteva's conception of the paternal law necessanly invalidate her general position that culture or the symbolic IS predicated upon a repudiation of women's bodies I want to suggest, however, that any theory that asserts that Signification IS predicated upon the demal or repression of a female principle ought to consider whether that femaleness IS really external to the cultural norms by which It IS repressed In other words, on my readmg, the repression of the femmme does not require that the agency of repression and the object of repression be onto logically distmct Indeed, repression may be understood to produce the object that It comes to deny That production may well be an elaboration of the agency of repression Itself As Foucault made clear, this culturally contradictory enterpnse of repression IS prohibitive and generative at once, and makes the problematic of 'liberation' especially acute The female body that IS freed from the shackles of the patemallaw may well prove to be yet another mcarnanon of that law, posmg as subversive but operatmg 10 the service of that law's self-amphfrcanon and proliferanon In order to avoid the emancipanon of the oppressor 10 the name of the oppressed, It IS necessary to take mto account the full complexitv and subtlery of the law and to cure ourselves of the illusion of a true body beyond the law If subversion IS possible, It Will be a subversion from withm the terms of the law, through the possibihnes that emerge when the law turns agamst Itself and spawns unexpected permutations of Itself The culturally constructed body Will then be liberated, not to ItS 'natural' past nor to ItS ongmal pleasures, but to an open future of cultural possibilrnes
1 For an extremely mterestmg analysts of reproductive metaphors as descnptive of the process of poenc creativity. see Wendy Owen. 1985
2 See Plato's Symposium. 209a of the "procreancy of the spmt", he writes that It IS the
specific capacity of the poet Hence. poenc creations are understood as sublimated reproductive desire
Foucault, Michel 1980 The hzstory of sexuality Vol I An mtroduction Trans Robert Hurley New York Vintage
Knsteva, [ulia 1984 Revolution In poeac language Trans Margaret Walker New York Columbia University Press
-- 1980 Desae In language, a serruoac approach to literature and art Trans Thomas Gorz, Alice [ardm, Leon S Roudiez New York Columbia University Press
Owen, Wendy 1985 A nddle m nine syllables Female creativity in the poetry of Sylvia Plath Ph D diss , Department of English Yale Uruversirv
Rubin, Gayle 1975 The traffic m women Notes on the "Pohncal Economy" of sex In Rayna R Reiter, ed , Toward an anthropology of women New York Monthly Review Press
Copyright © 2002 E BSCO Publishing
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