Resisting Essence: Kristeva's Process Philosophy

By McAfee, Noelle Claire | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Resisting Essence: Kristeva's Process Philosophy


McAfee, Noelle Claire, Philosophy Today


A familiar criticism leveled against Julia Kristeva's philosophy is that it is essentialist..1 Feminist critics such as Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and Toril Moi take issue with Kristeva's conceptions of the chora, maternity, and the semiotic arguing that in invoking these Kristeva is positing some female essence. Critics link her idea of the chora with a maternal receptacle, which they link with her semiotic aspect of signification and with woman. They make claims about Kristeva's supposed "compulsory maternity," about her quietude in the face of an "implacable symbolic structure." The concern among many feminists is that in Kristeva's philosophy woman is linked necessarily with the maternal and that she is powerless to change a male-- driven symbolic order.

"Ahistorical, biologically reductive,... universalist-the list of crimes of which Kristeva is found guilty, under the guise of essentialism, abounds," notes Tina Chanter (Oliver 1993a, 182). The charges revolve around two points. One is that Kristeva works within a psychoanalytic model, which many critics take to be patent proof that she accepts the sex roles that psychoanalytic theory recognizes. Accordingly, Chris Weedon criticizes Kristeva on the grounds that "to take on the Freudian and Lacanian models is implicitly to accept the Freudian principles of psycho-sexual development with their universalist patriarchal implications and their reduction of subjectivity to sexuality" (as quoted in Chanter 1993). This charge makes three questionable assumptions: (1) that to use psychoanalytic theory is to accept it in toto; (2) that psychoanalytic theory necessarily relies on universal rather than culturally specific sex roles; and (3) that it recognizes only sexual or biological influences. The other charge often leveled against her is that in her own linguistic theory the semiotic (poetic, disruptive, potentially revolutionary) aspect of communication supposedly draws on or is identified with the maternal body and that this semiotic aspect is ultimately powerless in the face of the symbolic (logical, orderly) aspect of communication that is none other than the law of the father. Accordingly, Jacqueline Rose writes that "Kristeva has ... been attractive to feminism because of the way that she exposes the complacent identities of psycho-sexual life. But as soon as we try to draw out of that exposure an image of femininity which escapes the straitjacket of symbolic forms, we fall straight into that essentialism and primacy of the semiotic which is one of the most problematic aspects of her work" (Oliver 1993a, 53).

Nancy Fraser's criticism is less subtle:

Despite [Kristeva's] explicit criticisms of gynocentrism, there is a strand of her thought that implicitly partakes of it-I mean Kristeva's quasi-biologistic, essentializing identification of women's femininity with maternity. Maternity, for her, is the way that women, as opposed to men, touch base with the pre-Oedipal, semiotic residue. (Men do it by writing avant-garde poetry; women do it by having babies.) Here Kristeva dehistoricizes and psychologizes motherhood, conflating conception, pregnancy, birthing, nursing, and childrearing, abstracting all of them from sociopolitical context, and erecting her own essentialist stereotype of femininity. (Fraser 1992, 190)

In this passage, Fraser faults Kristeva for being essentialist, and here clearly she has biological essentialism in mind. But Fraser also notes another, seemingly opposite, theme in Kristeva's work. Fraser writes that Kristeva "reverses herself and recoils from her construct, insisting that 'women' do not exist, that feminine identity is fictitious, and that feminist movements therefore tend toward the religious and the proto-totalitarian" (190). Fraser is clearly mystified, writing, "she ends up alternating essentialist gynocentric moments with anti-- essentialist nominalistic moments, moments that consolidate an ahistorical, undifferentiated, maternal feminine gender identity with moments that repudiate women's identities altogether" (190). …

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