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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Psychoanalytic Theory  

2009-09-12 00:18:42|  分类: 心理分析 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

Recreating the Maternal Space

 

While Jacques Lacan sweeps the world with his theory on the omnipotent symbolic order that confounds real human agency with the dominant force of the paternal law, feminists feel confined and repressed in the phallocentric world presented by Lacan. In Barzilai’s essay entitled “Borders of Language, Kristeva’s Critique of Lacan”, the author discusses Kristeva’s challenge to Lacan’s symbolic order which is dominated by the “paternal law”[1], and illustrates Kristeva’s key terms such as “abjection”, “the semiotic” and “construction & condensation”. This paper’s reading of Barzilai’s “reading of Kristeva’s reading of Lacan’s reading of Freud” (Barzilai 304) aims to clarify lineage among them and Kristeva’s central concerns.

Firstly, to prove the limitations of the symbolic order, Kristeva raises the example of borderline patients whose discourses are alogical, chaotic and incomprehensible. The omnipotent language seems lose its effect, while something irreducible to language emerges, resulting from the outbreak of abjection. What is abject draws us “towards the place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 2). Kristeva’s theory of abjection strikingly opposes the Lacanian theory of the dominant paternal law of the symbolic. For a better understanding of Kristeva’s theoretical revolt against Lacan, the essential knowledge of abjection is required.

What is abjection? In a dictionary, “ab” means “away,” and “ject” means “to throw,” but abjection is a very complicated term in Kristeva’s theory. The original form of abjection is positioned in the period between the child’s birth and the mirror stage. After the birth, the child is intimately connected with the mother’s body. Under the strong archaic impulse of establishing itself as a subject, the future subject rejects the mother’s body instinctively in order to draw a border between self and the (m)other. However, abjection is never a peaceful process, “it is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva 13), which is to say that the border is fragile, warmth of the mother constantly calling us back to the primitive chaos.

After the establishment of subjectivity, Kristeva states that abjection is not completely repressed and it is still ever ready to take effect. In this stage, abjection refers to people’s horrified or disgusted reaction to the threatening collapse in meaning/order caused by the blurring or loss of distinction/border. For instance, people’s disgusted reaction towards the corpse is effectively exercised in the body, which implies “visceral reaction as a representation of what is happening in the psyche.” (Smith 33) On the one hand, human beings have to make a distinction between the “I” (a living being) and the “other” (death) in order to stay in the symbolic order. On the other, people can not deny the fact of man’s mortality and corporeality. Through abjection, the border is established, but only temporarily so because abjection “does not respect borders” and is ever ready to disrupt or dissolve them (Kristeva 4). Elizabeth Grosz describes abjection in the symbolic order as “excessive residue left untapped by the symbolic function” (87), which means that abjection is situated in the blind areas of the symbolic, the pre-meaning areas.

The above two paragraphs elaborated on two situations of abjection. In the former, abjection is situated in an absence of the border, whereas in the latter, abjection is situated in a blurring or collapse of the border. In both cases, abjection is a borderline condition, as Kristeva puts it: “abjection is above all ambiguity” (Kristeva 9).

Simply speaking, because of the outbreak of abjection, the borderline patients experience the collapse of the border between “I” and the world and lose subjectivity. In the treatment of the borderline patients, Barzilai introduces Kristeva’s approach of “construction & condensation”. Construction is compared to “thematic reading” in literature, referring to the attempt to “repair the paternal function” (Barzilai 301). Condensation is only roughly compared to deconstruction[2], referring to the maternal approach that reactivates the patients’ pre-symbolic condition. In condensation approach, the analyst imitates borderline patients’ the nonsensical, alogical play of words in order to activate the more binding effect of the maternal transference. It is worth noting that Kristeva emphasizes that both construction and condensation are important; we cannot exclude any one of them, but deploy them together. Barzilai poses Kristeva’s maternal psychoanalytic approach of condensation against Lacan’s paternal approach of displacement. Lacan’s displacement means a third party, the paternal law, replacing the child’s intimate relationship with the mother. Through acquiring language, the child is irretraceably transferred to the next stage—the symbolic stage. Lacan’s approach of displacement doesn’t work for these borderline patients for whom the language gives up. In contrast to Lacan’s displacement, Kristeva’s condensation means the child’s union with the mother. Through the fusion with the mother, the patient is able to be reimmersed in the pre-symbolic infantile stage where abjection is taking effect for the patient to abject the mother to gain subjectivity. Barzilai interprets it metaphorically: by experiencing of “death-in-the-mother” (Barzilai 302), the patient gains a chance of “a second birth” where they can reestablish their subjectivity, a precondition for the symbolic stage. The treatment of borderline patients testifies to the limitations of Lacan’s phallocentric approach of displacement. Kristeva’s dialectic approach combined with both the paternal of construction and the maternal of condensation proves highly effective.

 This borderline condition, according to Kristeva, is not only a pathological entity. Barzilai informs that, the title of Kristeva’s title—“Within the Microcosm” suggests that it is a pervasive aspect in human life. Kristeva criticizes Lacan for having made all elements into a homologous structure[3] at the expense of ignoring the heterogeneous elements. This heterogeneity can also be traced in poetic language: sound, rhythm, image and even the muscle movements which belong to the non-verbal category, are participating in the process of creation of meaning and neglected in Lacan’s S/s algorithm.

Heterogeneity is closely related to Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic. Unlike the “classical semiotics,” the semiotic is not a static mode of articulation, but it is dominated by the pre-meaning infantile drives that are fluid and multi-directional. Therefore, if the subject is to become socialized in the world, those libidinal drives need to be regulated “as if it were chopped up” into “stable terms”. However the repression is not complete, “for the semiotic can still be discerned as a kind of pulsional pressure within language itself, in tone, rhythm, the bodily and material qualities of language, but also in contradiction, meaningless, disruption, silence and absence” (Eagleton 163).

Kristeva maintains that “signification” is composed of two essential parts, the symbolic and the semiotic. On the one hand, associated with meaning, the symbolic is a Lacanian model of the paternal law, which is structural and conventional. On the other, associated with pre-meaning, the semiotic is Kristeva’s theory of the maternal, which is multi-directional and unspeakable. Linguistically speaking, while the former is about the structure or grammar that governs the language system, the latter is about unregulated libidinal drives manifested in rhythms, tones, etc. that are unsignifiable yet an essential part of language. Without the symbolic, the semiotic would be meaningless; without the semiotic, there would be no source and energy for the symbolic: “Bodily movements, process and energies provide the semiotic impetus and raw materials out of which the symbolic is formed.” (Grosz 100) The semiotic is both an integral part and a disruptive force in the language system. By aligning the symbolic with the semiotic, Kristeva does not mean a simple combination of the two. Rather, it is a signifying process that can result in heterogeneity. “Lacan’s linguistic conceptualization of unconscious processes restricts access to essential and hidden elements of experience” (Barzilai 296), and Kristeva reopens this access by the theory of semiotic.

As regards the heterogeneous elements, Barzilai retypes the key dense footnote in Kristeva’s “Microcosm”, in which Kristeva reminds us of the “incredible complexity of Freud’s notion of ‘sign’” (Barzilai 297) that Lacan fails to take in. Freud’s theory of “sign” acknowledges the heterogeneous elements, because it not only contains Lacan’s static rules in the S/s algorithm but also involves the speaking subject’s bodily elements that produce speech, such as the physiological aspects in sound and the muscle movements. Despite his claim—“Return to Freud”—Lacan, by oversimplifying Freud, apparently deprives Freud of his much more complex and original conception of “sign”. Therefore, Kristeva warns against indiscriminate application of Lacan’s formulation that this oversimplification would result in the true castration of Freud’s original discovery.

In the process of civilization, women are repressed by the male-dominated society and forced to be mute and invisible. The effective challenge of feminists should achieve not only in ostensible political rights of women in society as the first-wave feminists did, but also more importantly in the intellectual transformation of the phallocentric thinking. Kristeva’s contribution resides in her critique of Lacan’s repressive symbolic order and her establishment of the metaphysical space for maternal discourse. Hence, Barzilai’s writes in the end of her essay: “No longer silent onlookers at the brother’s banquet, we come up to the table. And we are hungry” (Barzilai 304).

 

Works Cited

Barzilai, Shuli. “Borders of Language: Kristeva’s Critique of Lacan”. PMLA 106.2 (1991): 294-305.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2004.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Body of Signification.” Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Routledge, 1990. 80-103.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Smith, Anne-Marie. Julia Kristeva : Speaking the Unspeakable. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press. 1998.


[1]  According to Lacan, when the infant is born, he can’t tell the difference between himself and the world, that is to say, a subject hasn’t been built up yet. The infant in this phase enjoys a perfect combination with his mother’s body, being content to be an appendage to his mother, and wishing to be mother’s “phallus” (desire object). Unfortunately, father appears at this time, he breaks the child’s fantasy and forces him to separate with his mother and take an appropriate place in the society. Then, under the pressure of father’s law, the infant is forced to register himself into the given social structure which consists of different identities and roles. This structure, termed as the symbolic order by Lacan, is constructed by language based on his S/s algorithm.

[2] Barzilai makes it clear that condensation is analogous but not identical to deconstruction, because psychoanalyst is bound by the duty of alleviating the pain of the suffering patients while for deconstructionists “the question must be maintained” (Barzilai 301), and the stark polarization between construction and condensation is what Kristeva would never concede.

[3] As Barzilai has pointed out, according to Kristeva, despite of Lacan’s “fundamental refinement” in his theorization of Lalangue towards his early statement—“The unconscious is structured like language”—Lacan still fails to account for the heterogeneous elements.

 

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