Choreographing the Borderline: Dancing with Kristeva
Hall, Joshua M., Philosophy Today
In this essay I investigate Kristeva's conception of dance in regard to the trope of the borderline. I will begin with her explicit treatments of dance, the earliest of which occurs in Revolution in Poetic Language, in terms of (a) her analogy between poetry and dance as practices erupting on the border of chora and society, (b) her presentation of dance as a phenomenon bordering art and religion in rituals, and (c) her brief remarks on dance gesturality.1 I will then follow this latter movement to the 1969 essay "Gesturality," to critically examine where Kristeva situates the powers and limits of gesture (and thereby dance) in relation to language.2 Next, I will move to the later text, The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, where the image of dance figures prominently in what I will term Kristeva's joyful re-choreographing of Freud's text Totem and Taboo? I will also see how her treatment of dance links more directly to Kristeva's feminist concerns, insofar as she understands the process of choreography as a kind of maternal function neglected in most psychoanalytic thought.4
Kristeva opens Revolution in Poetic Language by defining her focus as the process or production of language as opposed to the finished product, a process laid bare by a poetic discourse that is itself a "shattering of discourse" which "can display the productive basis of subjective and ideological signifying formations - a foundation that primitive societies call 'sacred' and modernity has rejected as 'schizophrenia' ."5 This linkage of poetry and art to religion or the sacred should be noted, because it is one to which I will return throughout my investigation. Not only modern poetry, but various other types of discourse, "fragmentary phenomena" from "the arts, religion, and rites" play this shattering role according to Kristeva's analysis. "Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival, and 'incomprehensible' poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures. . . . We shall call this heterogeneous practice significance."6 The most important aspect of "signifiance" to understand is its dual modalities: the semiotic and the symbolic.
As is frequently the case with creative philosophers, it is difficult to find a clear and concise explication of these two crucial concepts in Kristeva's writing. A near-infinite number of allusions, illustrations, metaphors, and extended discussions, but no definitions; for this reason, turning briefly to the secondary literature seems warranted. Kelly Oliver characterizes the semiotic as "drives as they make their way into language; associated with rhythm and tone, nonreferential."7 The semiotic is the body becoming mind, soma meeting psyche, the process that generates reference without itself being referential. The symbolic, in turn, according to Oliver, is the "position of judgment that makes reference possible; associated with grammar and syntax, referential."8 The symbolic is a kind of break in the semiotic production of signification.
Put differently, the semiotic is the natural bodily process that infuses the symbolic's artificial, intellectual product. The semiotic is productive, creative, self-multiplying, and possesses a kind of temporal, musical ordering function. The symbolic is organizational, editorial, self-unifying, and possesses a kind of spatial, architectural ordering function. The semiotic is the fire in the symbolic blood. The process character of the semiotic makes it impossible to freeze it into a sufficiently immobile state for analysis; this is probably the main reason Kristeva never offers a simple definition of it. Additionally, the editing function of the symbolic makes it difficult, but not impossible, to see the semiotic flow at work; opportunities arise, for example, in language at its most creative, as in poetry.
It seems that dance, taken in three different senses of die word, could be understood to belong essentially to the semiotic, the symboUc, and the borderline between them, respectively. …