Chao-Footnotes to Kristevan Semiotics (1)
Fred Abraham (2)


Julia Kristeva has an approach to social theory that is her own unique blend of linguistic and psychoanalytic theory. Let's start with her basic psychoanalytic distinction: that between pre-Oedipal and Oedipal aspects of personality development that lies at the foundation of her theorizing. Narcissistic identification and maternal dependency, anarchic component drives, polymorphic erotogenicism, and primary processes characterize the pre-Oedipal. (3) Paternal competition and identification, specific drives, phallic erotogenicism, and secondary processes characterize Oedipal aspects.

Kristeva also characterizes the pre-Oedipal feminine phase by a type of space for which she borrows Plato's term, chora (4), an enveloping, amorphous, nonmetric space that both nourishes and threatens. It also defines and limits self-identity. She characterizes the Oedipal male phase by a metric space, for which one could correspondingly use Aristotle's term, topos (5). The self and the self-to-space are more precise and well defined in topos

Kristeva attributes to each of these spaces, a differing view of time. Pre-Oedipal time is a more phenomenological, subjective time, which Kristeva calls 'monumental' time, and is somewhat akin to Gorgias's Kairos, Bergson's durée, Loye's timeless and spatial times. (6) Oedipal time, Kristeva's 'cursive' time, is a linear time akin to Hesiod's Kronos, Bergson's chronological time, and Loye's serial time.

Kristeva relates linguistics to these basic distinctions. Semiotics is associated with the pre-Oedipal realm. The speaking subject is divided, decentered, and process-oriented. The semiotic approach is needed because structuralism (7) is authoritarian, not process oriented. Semiotic process is rooted in feminine libidinal, pre-Oedipal energy which needs channeling for social cohesion. Infantile drives are indeterminate and multifaceted. A phallically perceived mother (male maternity fantasy) dominates a feminine phase.

"If the semiotic is pre-Oedipal, based on primary processes and is maternally oriented, by contrast the symbolic is an Oedipalized system, regulated by the secondary processes and the Law of the Father. The symbolic is the domain of positions and proposition. The symbolic is an order superimposed on the semiotic. The symbolic control of the various semiotic processes is, however, tenuous and libel to break down or lapse at certain historically, linguistically and psychically significant moments. It results in an upheaval in the norms of the smooth understandable text. The semiotic overflows its boundaries in those privileged 'moments' Kristeva specifies in her triad of subversive forces: madness, holiness and poetry." (8) 

Kristeva is Lacanian. Lacan's mirror-image metaphor emphasized not only that we are not possessed of fixed characteristics and that we never get a stable image of self from either internal or external (the mirror) sources. (9) Kristeva's fluid semiotic feminine overflow can thus be seen to have its roots in the Lacanian mirror. Systems theory provides models for stability, instability, and change. A potential control parameter, for example, in Kristevan dynamics, could be the relative strengths of pre-Oedipal and Oedipal forces.

Kristeva's psycholinguistic research "Detected in the first mimetic utterances of infants as 'rhythms and intonations anterior to the first phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and sentences' (10) this semiotic chora. . . While syntactical language with its rules and boundaries ruptures this amorphous anteriority to constitute a separate subject—the 'I' who speaks—the semiotic continues to function as a primary process of language . . . This modality, moreover, is privileged by avant garde writers and feminists alike since its phonemic and rhythmic evocations undermine the rigidities of symbolic codes and logical syntax." (11)

Kristeva has a theory of marginality, dissidence, and subversion. She observes that semiotic forms of signification don't fit in the rational symbolic order and thus threaten their sovereignty and so have been relegated to the margins of discourse (Sarup). "Repression of the nonlinear, i.e., an alternative consciousness and perception of the world, is the result of the ascendancy of patriarchy and logocentrism that privileges male rationality, . . . Repression of arationality suppresses both the female and human unconsciousness. . . It [pre-Oedipal semiotics] is a way to challenge the domination of the androcentric construction of the mind as rational ego . . ." to move on to a post-post-Oedipal stage (the post-Oedipal stage is a "capitulation to patriarchy"). (12) 

Anthropological, historical, ecofeminist analyses of major dominator-egalitarian social bifurcation in human culture based on nonlinear dynamical systems metaphors have been made by Ralph Abraham (1994) and Riane Eisler (1987), which bear striking similarities to Kristevan dynamics, albeit without such heavy recourse to the psychoanalytical dynamics of postmodern theorists. Another difference between them and Kristeva is that they focus on major Western cultural events, such as the bifurcation from a feminist, cooperative cuture to patriarchal dominator culture about 6,000 years ago and look for a new general idealistic global bifurcation to a gylanic-cooperative culture, whereas Kristeva focuses more on contemporary, realistic, and specific strategies.

Revolutionary "practice is determined by the pulverization of the unity of consciousness by a nonsymbolic outside, on the basis of objective contradictions and, as such, it is the place where the signifying process is carried out . . . In this moment of heterogeneous contradiction, the subject breaks through h[er] unifying enclosure and, through a leap (laughter? Fiction?), passes into the process of social change that moves through h[er]." (13) 

"Current attempts to put an end to human subjecthood (to the extent that it involves subjection to meaning) by proposing to replace it with space (Borromean knots, morphology of catastrophies) (14) , of which the speaker would be merely a phenomenal actualization, may seem appealing." (15) This comment is actually a caution. If language and language acquisition can impose limitations (subjugations) on an individual, the use of sytems theory (catastrophe theory), may not entirely liberate the subject (individual). This caution is implied in Lacan (16) (concerning mathematical formalism), and is explicit in Mosca (17) (concerning chaos theory).

"A true catastrophe in the sense this word has taken on in morphological theories of catastrophes: going over from one enunciative space into another. . . The child lodges itself within a language, French, that has gathered such modalities of spatialization into one category—'catastrophe.' . . . the archeology of spatial naming accompanies the development of autonomy of the subjective unit. (18)

"The epistemology underlying linguistics and the ensuing cognitive processes (structuralism, for example), even though constituting a bulwark against irrational destruction and sociologizing dogmatism, seem helplessly anachronistic when faced with the contemporary mutations of self and society.

"Determining truth was reduced to a seeking out of the object-utterance's internal coherence, which was predetermined by the coherence of the particular metalinguistic theory within which the search was conducted. 

" . . . What is implied is that language, and thus sociability, are defined by boundaries admitting of upheaval, dissolution, and transformation. Situating our discourse near such boundaries might enable us to endow it with a current ethical impact." (19)

"Systems, in order to bifurcate, must first approach the bifurcation point. Individuals who can enjoy being near the abyss and face it with the eagle's courage and strength of grasp of talons, the existential challenge of ayin, are more likely to have a life process that gives them meaning. They create themselves." (20)

These last two paragraphs contain the essence of creativity, both personal and cultural, and one of the most meaningful metaphoric uses of dynamical systems theory for social theory. An intentional system that seeks change and desires freedom of choice must place itself in an unstable condition, that of being near bifurcation points, of beiang within that part of the parameter space that best empowers transformation.

It could be claimed that most of Kristeva's discourse, as presented herein, is anthropological, descriptive, operational in a sense, and devoid of ethical impact. But it is clear that being concerned with the locus of social change, can imply, as Artigiani suggests (21), placing a value on social change, and social changes, in her case, for humanitarian purposes. This concern for ethical social bifurcation thus reflects her own semiotic agenda that drives her psycho-semantic-social theoretical program.

Go To References

1 This paper is a rather modest, not so fluent, beginner's exploration of some of Kristeva's ideas. It was born from the invitation to participate in the Washington Evolutionary Systems Society's' 6th Annual Conference, May 8-10, 1998. I was in total ignorance of semiotics, the topic of the conference. My direction was entirely dictated by Kristeva being the only semiotic author available to me during my sabbatical teaching at Silliman University in the Philippines prior to the conference. Fortuitously, her ideas proved not only very exciting, but also provided an extension of my project on existentialist/systems' aspects of creativity (Abraham, 1986) into the social theoretical realm, which is the reason why I had taken some postmodern, hermeneutic, and rhetorical reading with me.  Return
2 Blueberry Brain Institute & Chaos Cooperative, Waterbury Center VT 05677,,
3 Alan Stein, a psychoanalytic expert and friend informs me (email 4/23/98) that primary process is a label which Freud gave to the process of the unconscious working without aid of the ego (which is learned from experience). Secondary process is the rational process practiced by the ego that has learned the actual ways of the world.  Return
4 Plato, principally in Timaeus, but also in Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Sophistes.  Return
5 My extrapolation from an account of Aristotle's extension of Plato's concept of chora, to which he added the concept of topos (Bochner, 1966, pp. 152-156). Aristotle, Meteorologica, De Caelo, Physica IV, and Categories. Kristeva was more concerned with chora, and did not venture extensively into topos Return 
6 I also consider this space-time within a loose dynamical-metaphoric aspect of cognitive navigation of parameter space (Abraham, 1994, pp. 89-91). Loye (1984, pp. 57-59, 61, 67-69).  Return
7 Structuralism was a prevailing linguistic theory of the time, as developed by Bloomfield, Levi-Straus, Saussure and others. There was a synergy between Barthes and Kristeva in evolving semiotics contra structuralism (see Roudiez' introduction in Desire, and Kristeva, #4 in Desire).  Return
8 From Sarup (1993). Much of the précis of Kristeva's ideas herein as well as this quote are from Sarup (pp. 122-126).
9 Lacan, (1977, pp. 1-7). In addition to his psychoanalytic orientation, Lacan combined structuralism (for its system's approach, becoming a leading post-structuralist in the process), phenomenology, and hermeneutics.  Return
10 Kristeva, From One Identity to Another (1977/1980, #5 in Desire, p. 133).  Return
11 Kahane (1993, p. 286). These ideas and research are similar to those of Winnecott. The research also places language development earlier than did conventional psychological research of the time.  Return
12 Murphy (1995, p. 75). The discussion follows DeKoven using Derrida and Kristeva, and also follows Lacan.  Return
13 Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), quoted in Murphy (p. 78).  Return

Go To References
14 When I started my writing on Kristeva I was unaware for some time of her use of catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory (Thom, 1972/1975) was becoming fairly well known in literary and cocktail circles in France and England in the 70's, and as this quote indicates, had just made the terminological switch from 'morphogenesis' to 'catastrophe theory', and has since evolved into the superset of itself, nonlinear dynamical systems theory, of which chaos theory is a subset. One can see how its famous cusp catastrophe could be used to follow the alternation between domination by semiotic and symbolic attractors, but we would now generalize to chaotic attractors (and perhaps periodic attractors as well, to accommodate Kristeva's use of poetic rhythm as an activator of the semiotic) of mid-dimensional complexity rather than use the fixed-point attractors and the uni-dimensionality of elementary catastrophe theory. Kristeva's use of catastrophe theory transcended its literary popularity of the day, and also emphasized the Heraclitan, Jamesian non-return to prior, exactly identical, attractors.  Return
15 Kristeva, Place Names (1976, 1977, 1980, #10 in Desire, p. 280).  Return
16 Lacan (1977, p. 12).  Return
17 Mosca (1995, p. 181).  Return
18 Kristeva, Place Names (1976, 1977, 1980, #10 in Desire, p. 288).  Return
19 Kristeva, Ethics of Linguistics (1974, 1980, #1 in Desire).  Return
20 Abraham (1996, p. 394).  Return
21 Discussion during WESS 6th Annual Conference, 1998.  Return
(return choices at end of references)

Abraham, F. D. (1994). Chaos and Dynamical Navigation of the Cognitive Map. In S. I. Macey (ed.), Encyclopedia of Time. New York: Garland.

Abraham, F. D. (1996). The Dynamics of Creativity and the Courage to Be. In W. Sulis & A. Combs (eds.), Nonlinear Dynamics in Human Behavior. Singapore: World Scientific.

Abraham, R. H. (1994). Chaos, Gaia, Eros. San Francisco: Harper.

Bochner, S. (1966). The Role of Mathematics in the Rise of Science. Princeton: Princeton.

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Kahane, C. (1993). Gender and Voice in Transitional Phenomena. In P. L. Rudnytsky (ed.), Transitional Objects and Transitional Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott. New York: Columbia.

Kristeva, J. (1980). Desire in Language. (L. S. Roudiez, ed.; T. Gora, A. Jardine, & L. S. Roudiez, trans.) New York: Columbia. A collection of ten papers spanning from 1966 to 1976, with an excellent introduction by Roudiez, including a guide and discussion of terminology. Kristeva, J. (1984). Revolution in Poetic Language. M. Waller (trans.). New York: Columbia.

Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock; New York: Norton 

Loye, D. (1984). The Sphinx and the Rainbow. New York: Bantam.

Mosca, F. (1995). Freedom in Chaos Theory: A Case for Choice in a Universe without a Bottom Line. In F. D. Abraham & A. R. Gilgen (eds.), Chaos Theory in Psychology. Wesport: Greenwood/Praeger.

Murphy, P. D. (1995). Literature, Nature, and Other Ecofeminist Critiques. Albany: State University of New York.

Sarup, M. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism (2nd ed.). Athens: Georgia.

Thom, R. (1972/1975). Stabilité Structurelle et Morphogenèse. Strucural Stability and Morphogenesis (H. Fowler, trans.). Reading: Benjamin.





Notes 1-5

Notes 6-13

Notes 14-21

created: 6/25/98 updated: 6/26/98