Fanny Söderbäck, Revolutionary Time: On Time and Difference in Kristeva and Irigaray. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019; 414 pages. ISBN: 9781438476995.

Sid Hansen, California State University Northridge

Fanny Söderbäck begins her 2019 text Revolutionary Time: On Time and Difference in Kristeva and Irigaray with a reflection on the “me too” movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment. Created by community organizer Tarana Burke in 2006 and then appropriated by actress Alyssa Milano in 2017, “me too” was a Twitter hashtag and viral public debate. As Söderbäck observes, the phrase expresses relational temporality and relational solidarity. “Me too” testifies to past events that have been silenced and ignored; it invites collective action and signals the possibility of healing and change. According to Söderbäck, the “bifurcated birth” of “me too” in Burke’s and Milano’s activism is “a reminder that each and every feminist beginning […] points to yet another beginning—sometimes through an act of erasure or appropriation, other times through acknowledgment or mutual exchange. Feminist work is always already feminist historiography” (4). In 2023, years into a global pandemic that has upended life in so many different directions, Söderbäck’s reflections on temporal politics and feminist historiography could not be more important. Today, a lack of historical reflection fuels ignorant crises. And a tendency to idealize the past as a time when things were “normal” or even (in a Trumpian sense) “great” spurs exclusionary violence, especially against Black, trans, and Indigenous women and girls. One of the deepest lessons of Revolutionary Time is Söderbäck’s account of how different temporal forms reflect and contribute to sexist, racist, and colonialist thinking; like “me too,” new relational temporalities and relational solidarities offer hope for change. Out of time and extinct, timeless and unintelligible, without history and therefore without culture—time is a part of so many stories of injustice. For Söderbäck, time might yet be revolutionary. 

Söderbäck is clear: without revolutionary time, we are stuck repeating or repressing the past in ways that make change impossible. Western philosophy’s long-standing interest in time has been hampered by the dominance of two models—cyclical time and linear time. Cyclical time is associated with women and the repetitive, rhythms of the natural world; linear time is associated with men, progress and immaterial transcendence. Of course, this rigid dualist account of time is beset with as many traps as binary sexual difference itself. While some feminists hope to overcome women’s association with cyclical time by seeking access to the privileges of linear time, this strategy fails to challenge the oppressive values that construct the privileged meanings of linear time in the first place. Other feminists aim to reclaim cyclical time and reject its devaluation, but they too effectively shift positions without interrogating values, allowing linear time to maintain its dominance. As Söderbäck shows in Part II, Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist account of time demonstrates the need to critique, rather than further entrench, linear temporality. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir analyzes the ways that women have been reduced to objects and confined to the reproductive natural realm, while men claim agency and creativity (Söderbäck 29). Beauvoir is right that the supposed naturalness of passive objecthood works to occlude and strengthen sexist subordination, but her call to embrace futural ideals of transcendence—to become equal to men by becoming like them— does not unsettle or reimagine the masculinist meanings of spirituality, agency, or creativity. Given the ways that these ideals attempt to reduce black and indigenous peoples to the natural realm as primitive, inferior, or uncivilized, any embrace of linear time is shot through with the white reproduction of racist and colonialist understandings of sexual difference. 

Against the dualism of linear and cyclical time, Söderbäck champions revolution. Her account of revolutionary time as a perpetual, critical, enlivening return to the past draws on Kristeva’s notion of psychic revolt. In the 1990s, Kristeva develops an account of psychic revolt as resistance to the violent, deadening, and emptying effects of contemporary culture. Inspired by the etymology of the Latin verb volvere, to turn or return, and the French meaning of revolt as reversal, detour, cycle, upheaval, and recovery, psychic revolt is a psychical event that confronts, displaces, and assimilates an authority in the psychical economy of the individual. During a child’s development, the rebellious incorporation of social authority is a condition for entering the symbolic order. In adulthood revolt is a regenerative return to the past that questions and renews symbolic ties. In general, revolt reflects Kristeva’s commitment to the idea that the “transformation of man’s relationship to meaning […] intrinsically concerns public life and consequently has profoundly political implications. In fact, it poses the question of another politics, that of permanent conflictuality” (Intimate Revolt, 11).

Like Kristeva, Söderbäck is wary of the revolutionary ambition to establish entirely new beginnings. In her view, this goal inevitably collapses into conservatism, since worshiping the future is “bound to violently foreclose the future in [the] very aspiration for and focus on it” (98). By contrast, psychic revolt returns to the past in a movement of continuous interrogation. As Kristeva describes it, “it is by putting things into question that ‘values’ stop being frozen dividends and acquire a sense of mobility, polyvalence, and life” (in Söderbäck 99). The heterogeneity of semiotic and symbolic is especially crucial to the radical rather than reactionary character of revolt. If the embodied past were a stable essential ground, a “mystical origin or arche,” perpetually returning to it would “lead us to repeat a tradition that not only views the body as a locus for repetition and immanence but that subsequently associates women and other minorities with temporal stasis” (90). During her early Anglophone reception, Kristeva was interpreted in precisely this way, most influentially in Judith Butler’s widely-read text Gender Trouble. Misconstruing the semiotic as distinct from and in opposition to the symbolic, and missing the movement of revolt altogether, Söderbäck notes Butler’s lament that Kristeva “locates the source of subversion to a site outside of culture itself, [appearing] to foreclose the possibility of subversion as an effective or realizable cultural practice” (222).

 In Part IV of Revolutionary Time, Söderbäck undertakes a thorough correction to Butler’s misinterpretation of the chora, emphasizing the ways that it is not outside of time or culture, nor is it passive or static. Kristeva’s notion of the chora is inspired by the term’s function in Plato’s Timaeus, a dialogue that narrates the creation of the cosmos (203). As Söderbäck emphasizes, the Timaeus does not describe a Judeo-Christian act of creation ex nihilo. Instead, when the demiurge forms the cosmos in his own image, it is a kind of ordering of differently ordered matter, matter that, in its movement is already temporal before this so-called creation of time. While Plato describes the chora’s role as that of a receptacle, this does not require that it is passive or static. Instead, “it is the locus of birth and new beginnings. Marked by motility and ever-changing in nature.” For Plato, “chora names the expanse, the opening implied in the act of creation or generation, of beings coming into being. In the thrust of origination, the origin is no longer self-contained; it overflows beyond itself” (214). According to Söderbäck, Kristeva’s chora shares in these characteristics. A “time-space” of primary drives and processes that supports the the development of language, her chora is not “brute matter waiting to be penetrated and impregnated” by the Symbolic (214). Instead, it is a sign of the continuity between semiotic and symbolic, a kind of “time before time.” As Maria Margaroni summarizes Kristeva’s borrowing of Plato’s chora, “the beginning itself is reinscribed as a process,” a historical opening that would benefit Judith Butler’s own account of sex/gender, if only they were able to encounter it in Kristeva’s texts (quoted in Söderbäck 213-214). 

As Revolutionary Time unfolds, it becomes clear that the heterogenous relationship of semiotic chora and symbolic order supports a critique of the distinction between sex and gender. As Tina Chanter observes, it is “unclear where sex stops and culture starts since our very definition of sex is always already bound up in cultural assumptions—just as the semiotic expression is always already bound up with the symbolic order” (quoted in Söderbäck 224). Despite constructivist tendencies to treat it as the blank slate upon which gender is written, sex is not a static, passive ahistorical receptacle. Bound up with normative scientific and popular ways of knowing and always overflowing and “beyond itself,” sex is something that we should perpetually return to and question, uncovering its different and differing meanings. Chanter wonders if this revolt of sexual knowledge might challenge “received ideas about the difference between nature and culture that underlie mistaken notions about the ease with which gender can be siphoned off from sex” (quoted in Söderbäck 224). With Söderbäck we might wonder, in the siphoning of gender from sex, what is repressed and repeated? How might dualist temporalities of sex/gender inscribe and reinscribe sexist, racist, and colonialist values? 

In Revolutionary Time, Söderbäck plays with Luce Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference to imagine what logics might lie beyond sex/gender dualism. Like Kristeva, Irigaray is critical of the ways that dualist thinking constructs cyclical and linear modes according to the masculinist rationalities. However, Irigaray especially emphasizes the cultural sameness that results (sexual indifference or monosexuality). To challenge monosexual time and to dismantle patriarchal reason, she calls for us to cultivate sexual difference. Differentiation is not negation or derivation which would retain an orientation to masculinist logic. Instead, it is embodied and historical. It can’t be mapped in any total and masterful sense; to do so would invite predictable becomings, repetitions of the same. As Penelope Deutscher describes it, “there is no guarantee that [whatever replaces sexual indifference or monosexuality] would fit perfectly over the vacant space represented by men and men. If it is too much like—identifiably like—what I think of as men and women, then something is wrong” (A Politics of Impossible Difference, 121). For Deutscher and Söderbäck, sexual difference can only be affirmed in the paradoxical mode of the avenir, overflowing itself, a “beginning that points to another beginning” (4). Irigaray’s account of sexual difference can also be described as challenge to become again what we have never been before, an open-ended becoming again and again that traverses the limits of possibility and impossibility. Reflecting on the revolutionary time and history, Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference encourages us not to flatten singularity, to reduce or impoverish what it might mean to encounter a voice or event in its difference. 

Söderbäck is right that new possibilities of sex/gender appear when we center issues of time and temporality. There is a need to forge other poetic and historical methods that critique rather than replicate “received ideas about the difference between nature and culture.” There is also a need to stoke curiosity in this area, rather than approaching personal and collective histories in an instrumentalizing manner. Revolutionary time cuts across this challenge, capturing the intimate, living dynamism of experiencing history and making history. In a long period of compounding political crises, during a time when people wax nostalgic about normalcy and predictability that was itself violent and oppressive, we should heed Söderbäck’s call to return to our embodied pasts for the sake of open, uncertain futures. Instead of an uncertainty frayed by isolation, revolutionary time imagines uncertain futures as an opportunity for questioning, play, and loving connection.

Additional Works Cited

Deutscher, Penelope. A Politics of Impossible Difference: The Later Work of Luce Irigaray (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Kristeva, Julia. Intimate Revolt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).