Give Birth or Write: Julia Kristeva Lectures on Feminist Philosophy

The psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, who is arriving this week for a series of lectures in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will almost certainly draw a large audience of listeners. Kristeva, 65, a native of Bulgaria who lives and works in Paris, is one of the most interesting and influential thinkers today in the fields of psychoanalysis and philosophy of language, along with Roland Barthes and her teacher Jacques Lacan. In the context of feminist philosophy, Kristeva's thought is especially critical and challenging.

Kristeva has passed judgment on these disciplines, and she is the sort of intellectual who acquires generations of admirers. Like the late philosopher Jacques Derrida and the American feminist thinker Judith Butler, it is extremely difficult to understand her writing. In Kristeva's view, clarity and direct logic are not a sought-after value. Her convoluted jargon is most certainly an expression and internalization of her philosophy, which is critical of the "paternal tongue," that is, influence and logic and social order, as we know them.

Kristeva focuses her approach on what she calls the "semiotic," in other words, the pre-lingual communication between mother and child, at the infant stages of life prior to what Freud calls the Oedipal triangle, or what Lacan terms the "mirror stage." In other words, Kristeva wishes to restore and revive the maternal language that exists before the boy, or girl, even notice the separation from the mother or from themselves; this is the time preceding any substantive separation between object and subject, before the child enters the social order, before the "paternal law" that defines its boundaries and the restrictions placed on it. Kristeva's language is, then, more Dionysian than Platonic (as Nietzsche puts it), or more baroque than classic, per Michal Ben-Naftali, who translated Kristeva's book, "Tales of Love," into Hebrew. If classic language is based on values of order, unity, clarity, hierarchy and stability, the baroque language of Kristeva is a language of excess, dissolve, rule rejection, refusal to accept authority, and movement.

"Kristeva is calling on us to imagine our sources as talking creatures, who are also connected to body and to feeling," explains Ben-Naftali. This contrasts with people who are disconnected from themselves, alien to their feelings and their body; people who speak only in the language of the culture of consumption and show.

On the one hand, these ideas justify the tendency toward unclear and incomprehensible writing. But on the other, it is hard not to relate to the criticism cast at French thinkers like Kristeva: Isn't the incomprehensible jargon an instrument of intellectual militancy? Isn't it a way to define a group of cognoscenti and to prevent the others from joining?

In the field of feminist thought, the lack of clarity and inaccessibility is particularly vexing. Kristeva develops an interesting type of feminism, which is critical of the feminist mainstream, especially as it relates to its most substantial weak point: motherhood. The second wave of feminism since Simone de Beauvoir (for whom Kristeva has great admiration, and to whom she frequently refers in her writing) combined the liberation of women with the forfeiture of motherhood, or at the very least, the denigration of its value. Motherhood is perceived by mainstream feminism as an Achilles' heel, an obstacle on the path to self-fulfillment and attainment of social equality. Conversely, Kristeva pays tribute to motherhood, and contends that the anti-motherhood feminist approach alienates women from themselves. She calls on women to "give birth or write." In other words, to connect with the view of substantive creation.

As for the big question of "What is a woman?" which has engaged feminist thinkers since creation, Kristeva has a unique answer. "Kristeva is more interested in the singular, unique woman," explains Ben-Naftali. "And less so in the totality of women - the totality that engaged de Beauvoir in a manner that was right for its time and extremely important for the development of feminism. Kristeva is interested in motherhood as a structural option, not necessarily a real one."

Similarly, Kristeva cites the way in which secularity is bound up in the regrettable forfeiture of the "options of the spirit that religious texts offer," says Ben-Naftali. In her writing, Kristeva returns to basic texts in Christianity and Judaism, seeking to extract from them, for the benefit of secularity, a variety of ideas that allow us to reflect on our spirit and on the world.

It is a shame, then, that these ideas - be they reactionary or avant-garde - are not sufficiently accessible to the broader public. If they were more clear, they would most certainly enrich the public discourse on these substantive and decisive issues.

Kristeva will be lecturing (in English) on Thursday at 18:00, in the Bar-Shira Auditorium at Tel Aviv University, about Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette, who are the basis of her recent writing. On Friday morning, in the same auditorium, a round table discussion will be held, with her participation, about her book "Tales of Love," which is currently being published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad Press, in a translation by Ben-Naftali. On Sunday, January 29, at 20:00, Kristeva will lecture (in English) at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem on political issues, in a lecture entitled "Thinking about Liberty in Dark Time."