Alice Jardine, Mari Ruti (ed.), At the Risk of Thinking: An Intellectual Biography of Julia Kristeva. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020; 400 pages. ISBN: 978-1501341366.

Reviewed by Emilia Angelova, Concordia University.

The title of Alice Jardine’s intellectual biography of Julia Kristeva, At the Risk of Thinking, echoes a collection of interviews published by Kristeva in 2001. As Jardine shares, in these interviews, it was “for the first time that Kristeva exercised her formidable powers of thinking while also making herself personally vulnerable in public.” (ATR, 4) By the turn of the century, Kristeva had published variously about her past and her home country—Bulgaria in its transition period, emerging into being out of real socialism and headed into the unknown of the European global systems of social life, a world transformed by the self-destructive will of liberal markets. By contrast, vulnerability became a theme, actively to occupy Kristeva’s theory in her middle period, pertaining to the intimacy of subjectivity, a life lived internally in revolt. In bringing together the personal and the political aspects in the lived life of Kristeva, Jardine tells a story through the prism of Kristeva, the dutiful daughter, the mother, the lover, and the resolute feminist. At the Risk of Thinking implies that to think, “especially when thinking is uncomfortable, challenging, or even dangerous” is to resist, and only then does life take on a form more profoundly as a “questioning”—“writing as a life, life as a writing.” (4) This remarkable new work is composed of a very helpful introduction and two main divisions, with short intermediary introductions to its internal parts, chronologically following the events of Kristeva’s life. The text is significant and embodies several stand out features, which make it indispensable to Kristeva scholars and researchers.

This is a hybrid biography, for Kristeva gracefully continues to write and create. A major study of Dostoyevsky appeared just this April. Illuminating the crisis in the philosophy of the subject today, her most recent communiques include interventions about living under conditions of the coronavirus.  For Jardine, Kristeva is an emancipatory thinker, a practitioner of liberation ethics, and committed to the future of theory as a feminist revolution. Jardine’s accomplishment has no comparators yet, but the landmark effort that she has reached will be hard to repeat.

Jardine’s own background in French structuralism and poststructuralism, as well as gender and feminism studies, is an asset. With Roudiez and Gora, Jardine translated Desire in Language, the first collection of Kristeva’s works to appear in English. This first biography complements a monumental collection of essays, The Philosophy of Julia Kristeva, just published from the Library of Living Philosophers. Together with it, Jardine’s magnificent work is sure to spur new ways of understanding this, at times, very difficult and theoretically rigorous author.

Jardine’s deeply satisfying explanations and discussions introduce the immense potential of Kristeva’s boldly interdisciplinary style of argument, especially apparent in the early work. To most readers in North America, the magnum opus Revolution in Poetic Language, with its thorough and philosophical argumentation embedded in the spirit of its times (post-1968 French thought), is yet to be fully opened up. I found particularly compelling the account of the historical and intellectual context of Kristeva’s formative years, division one, covering 1965 to 1980. The second division, from 1980 to present, including 2017, is equally exciting and rich, but a little more limited. There are good reasons for this—at the time of completing this biography, Kristeva has published near thirty volumes, in semiotics, linguistics, literary theory and criticism, psychoanalysis, and feminist theory, not counting six novels, essays in film and art history. In an impressive recognition of her contributions as a public intellectual, in 2004 Kristeva became the first woman to receive the Holberg award, equivalent to a Nobel prize for literature and humanities. Since then, Kristeva’s stature as a public intellectual has risen astronomically.

Jardine began creating this biography in part as a recollection of her own experience of the young Kristeva, informed by her time as a student in 1976 at the Université de Paris VII. She developed a personal relationship, which grew into a lifetime friendship, when later she worked as a research assistant for Kristeva at Columbia University, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This makes the biography feel organic and sincere in its utmost texture. “I want to invite readers to grapple with her texts,” (182) says Jardine, and she is very successful in helping to rectify misperceptions. For example, Kristeva’s now classic critical essays on second wave feminism, which were not well received. Jardine suggests that, like Foucault, Kristeva resists identity politics, for she believes that with the onset of the Enlightenment, the dogmatic image of “Man” is finished. Being both a psychoanalyst and a poststructuralist, Kristeva believes that “woman has never been given existential worth,” and “philosophically speaking she does not exist…yet, we must account for women sociologically, empirically, historically. But then, all identity models must shift in the name of revolt if not revolution.” (153)

Readers will find the portrait of Kristeva’s early years in France especially moving. The young Kristeva constantly changes contexts, at a fast pace and, in her own words, she goes through life “swimmingly.” (15) Arriving in France in 1966 on a nine-month stipend from de Gaulle’s pro-communist and internationally minded government (intended to promote French values in the Eastern block), Kristeva, a brilliant doctoral student, easily completes a first doctorate with Lucien Goldmann in 1969. She attends all of the seminars she can find at the university, voraciously reading day and night, almost living in the library. Constant exhaustion brings her down; she falls ill to tuberculosis and is briefly hospitalized. In the same year that she completes her doctorate, she publishes her first book, Semeiotike, and in 1973, Polylogue. Kristeva defends a 645-page doctorat d’etat in 1974, published a year later in French (and in 1984, in English)—her major theoretical break through, Revolution in Poetic Language. Roland Barthes, fascinated and enamoured by the young scholar, becomes a friend and bestows high praise and recognition upon her doctoral treatise. This fated moment makes history, as the young student inaugurates the new science of semiology, sémanalyse.

Drawing out the dynamic events in Kristeva’s life, Jardine portrays her as someone always determined without being aloof. She had began writing as a journalist already in Bulgaria by age thirteen, and by the time she was at university in Sofia, she was supporting herself as a professional writer. Once in Paris, she is immersed in the French milieu, travels to conferences—for example, to Warsaw in 1969 for a semiotics congress, where she befriends Émile Benveniste. Helpfully, Jardine provides an extensive description of the role that Benveniste’s semiotics play in Kristeva’s semiotics (her work having more of an affinity to his than to the course in general linguistics by Saussure). She is part of the group from the magazine Tel Quel visiting China in 1974, along with Roland Barthes and Phillippe Sollers, whom she married in 1973.

The intellectual achievement that Revolution in Poetic Language represents cannot be overstated. Kristeva names the dimension of producing meaning in language a “poetic” dimension, over and above the symbolic limit of metaphoric discourse. In operating as temporally futural, a “vertical present” (183) yet to come, the poetic dimension foreshadows, to cite Jardine, the “audacity of linguistic imagination [as] the sign of the subject in revolt.” (146)  Audacity is the ground of the agential faculty of the subject, oriented out of archaic, dual origins and channels (embedded in the mother-infant semiotic matrix), liminal objects of communication crossing back and forth between metaphor and metonymy, inserting meaning in language. Following Freud and Klein, Kristeva elevates these “conditioned” conditions to a quasi-transcendental idea of thought as judgement. The mother-child dyad enables relationality, assuming one’s own being able to be able to resist entropy, decay, and death, while at the same time enabling non-relationality, taking on a form as process, assuming the Thing’s directionality and its vector, a being-toward-death as internal mode of significance. As Kristeva puts it, “we take from Hegel, not from Marx,” (146) which is understood as outlining the idea of subjectivity as a determinism within the dynamic between Life and Consciousness, and simultaneously within the dependence of the subject on the logic of desire for recognition expressed as a logic of the negativity of the desire of the other.

To recap, the work in 1974 valorises Lautréamont and Mallarmé as poets who disable the transcendental ego in late 19th century semiotic arts and literature, to inaugurate a revolution through the semiotic as capable of sustaining “rejection,” that is, Hegel’s idea of negativity, understood as a resistance of negativity within life itself. Jardine rightly argues that by 1978, “the basic infrastructure of [Kristeva’s] thought familiar to English-language readers was more or less in place.” (179)

The outpour of theoretical inspiration born out of the early work throughout the next forty years is enormous. The trilogy of the 1980s, on abjection, tales of love, and female depression, including the classic Strangers to Ourselves (1989); the trilogy of the 1990s on intimate revolt; and the trilogy of the 2000s, on “female genius” (Arendt, Klein, Colette), boldly radicalize the power of her early insight. In 2007-2008, the collection on “the need to believe” and the enormous book on Teresa of Ávila both mark Kristeva’s “theological” turn, inquiring into spirituality and the crisis of religion.

For Kristeva, the last two decades have raised the stakes of the politics of life and intimate revolt. She mobilizes activism against the erosion of public discourse and psychic life in the contemporary repressive global world order, and for confronting the decline of democracy, white nationalism, supremacy and racism. With “energetic pessimism,” (9) passion and patient intelligence, Kristeva has intervened on myriad occasions of crisis, such as nationalism in Europe, America’s war in Iraq, the Paris suburbs uprisings in 2011, and the immigrant wave in Italy in 2015. She warns about the vulnerability of the human subject at its most marginalized limits.

Kristeva became, in 2011, the first woman to join, as non-believer, a group of eleven religious delegates to the Vatican, where she gave a famous speech, “No one owns the truth.” Just one year prior to that she wrote a manifesto, “Secular Humanism in 10 theses,” calling for a “new ethical language,” “to be invented sooner,” to promote rights for LGBTQ people, for recognition of non-normative subjectivity. (200, 284) As always, her deep belief in the powers of psychoanalysis proved especially useful in times of crisis. “Today, psychoanalysis maintains under globalization and technology and crisis, the greatest automation of the human spirit, its unique right and possibility of intervention.” (156)

Kristeva gave birth in 1975 to her son David Joyaux, born with a congenital sensori-motor disorder affecting his cognitive capacity. But it was not until 2003 that she publicly wrote about this condition. She wrote a historic open letter to the President of France, “From those who are disabled to those who are not,” on the eroded state of institutions for the handicapped. Since then, she has spearheaded activism efforts on disability at UNESCO and in France, and written numerous essays. Jardine movingly tells the story of David, whom she has known since he was a baby, and emphasizes an acutely vulnerable motherly love. “The proximity of the disabled subject to the poetic subject has crystallized for her.” (166) She cites Kristeva: “I am most proud of my work on disability.” (254) Not surprisingly, in 2011, and to the delight of her feminist followers, Kristeva magisterially made known her investment in a third proximity, maternal love and alterity. It announces the effort toward building a third discourse, a discourse of our reliance on maternity in the West, a discourse that is neither science nor medicine nor religion—“it will be a herethics of reliance.” (167)

Jardine’s biography introduces the life and writings of Kristeva in substantive ways, and all researchers and graduate students dealing with the thought of Kristeva will greatly benefit from it.


Additional Works Cited

Julia Kristeva (2001), Au risque de la pensée (Paris: Éditions de l’Aube).