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About this book

Engaged debate among feminist, political, and psychoanalytic thinkers has secured Julia Kristeva's status as one of the most formidable figures in twentieth-century critical theory. Nevertheless, her precise relevance to the study of literature - the extent to which her theory is specifically a literary theory - can be hard for new readers to fathom.

This approachable volume explores Kristeva's definition of literature, her methods for analyzing it, and the theoretical ground on which those endeavors are based. Megan Becker-Leckrone argues that Kristeva's signature concepts, such as abjection and intertextuality, lose much of their force when readers extract them from the specific, complex theoretical context in which Kristeva produces them. Early chapters situate her theory in a broader conversation with Roland Barthes, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and others around the issues of reading, textuality, and subjectivity. Subsequent chapters look at Kristeva's actual engagements with literary texts, specifically her challenging, highly performative reading of French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection and her career-long preoccupation with James Joyce. A final chapter of the book looks at the way contemporary literary critics have marshaled her ideas in re-reading the poetry of William Wordsworth, while a helpful glossary identifies Kristeva's most pertinently "literary" theoretical concepts, by way of synopses of the texts in which she presents them.

Table of Contents

Theoretical Grounds

Frontmatter

1. The Objects, Objectives, and Objectivity of Textual Analysis

Abstract
In his 1984 introduction to the Columbia University Press edition of Revolution in Poetic Language, Margaret Waller’s partial translation of the massive 664-page work that earned Julia Kristeva her doctorate, Léon Roudiez makes an announcement that, in its mixture of urgency and provocation, resembles some of Kristeva’s own most memorable assertions. He maintains that: “Julia Kristeva is a compelling presence that critics and scholars can ignore only at the risk of intellectual sclerosis” (1).1 This call to notice is implicitly directed to readers of English, particularly those in the United States, who have perhaps “been slow in recognizing the importance of her work, for it has not been translated [here] as promptly as it has been elsewhere” (1). Since that time, the warning has been duly heeded, in the United States and throughout the world. Indeed, more than thirty years of writing, psychoanalytic practice, and teaching on two continents have secured Kristeva’s status as one of the most formidable figures in twentieth-century critical theory. To date, her work has been translated into ten languages.
Megan Becker-Leckrone

2. The Subject, the Abject, and Psychoanalysis

Abstract
If Kristeva’s theory of literature depends on a critique of linguistics’ approach to the literary object, it arguably depends even more on her deep investment in psychoanalysis’ approach to the human subject. But it is unhelpful to say that Kristeva is a psychoanalytic literary theorist if we do not first consider what that label means from the inside, as it were: an intellectual commitment with a history, developed in dialogue with theorists of the past and the present. This chapter will outline what has been at stake in the psychoanalytic theory of the subject since Freud and will identify Kristeva’s place in that history. In so doing, it will also show how psychoanalytic theory influences her approach to literature and how literature, in turn, gives force to her provocative vision of subjectivity.
Megan Becker-Leckrone

Reading Kristeva, Reading Literature

Frontmatter

3. Céline’s Pharmacy

Abstract
Lacking a first-hand acquaintance with the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, it is entirely possible to read the six chapters of Powers of Horror devoted to his work and not realize just how laugh-out-loud funny, absurd, or even mind-numbingly tedious he can be. Kristeva speaks of his “laughter” — “piercing laughter,” “cheerful laughter,” “apocalyptic laughter” — as a counterpart, and more importantly a counterweight, to the unremitting horrors of war, hatred, violence, disease, and death he chronicles. But the portentous seriousness with which she seems to do so may not encourage the earnest reader, painstakingly navigating Kristeva’s theoretical argument, to unfurrow the brow enough to see at the outset the rather important fact that Céline is a comic writer. I offer this observation — while a genuine account of my own initial experience of reading Kristeva on Céline and then reading Céline — not merely to suggest that Kristeva can seem relatively humorless, as theorists go, nor to speculate that her sense of irony and playfulness fail to “translate” well. Both may be the case. More importantly, however, the discrepancy highlights the potentially diminishing returns of reading a literary theory of a literary corpus, or in the case of this very book, of reading a summarizing explanation of a literary theory of a literary corpus.
Megan Becker-Leckrone

4. Joyce’s “Quashed Quotatoes”

Abstract
Turning from Kristeva’s reading of Louis-Ferdinand Céline to her reading of James Joyce requires several adjustments, not all of them comfortable or easily approached, primarily because Joyce may be the most Kristevan writer Kristeva has never extensively written about. While her contribution to poststructural theories of intertextuality, readability, authorship, sexuality, and many others suggest potentially rich intersections with Joyce’s writing (an affinity she has explicitly asserted for decades), we cannot look to her for an authoritative or well-developed reading of his texts. The association of his name with hers has not been established by the sort of extended readings she has produced on Céline, Mallarmé in La Révolution du langage poétique, or more recently Proust in Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature (1996). Despite persistent references in Kristeva’s work and her featured presentation at the 1984 Frankfurt meeting of the International James Joyce Foundation — a conference including another featured reading by Derrida and panels on “Deconstructive Criticism of Joyce” and “James Joyce/Jacques Lacan” — the theoretical juxtaposition of James Joyce/Julia Kristeva is largely the story of a missed encounter, or that of an encounter yet to take place. By regularly invoking his name in her work, Kristeva gives the impression of a reading that exists without being offered, deferred, always not yet. It is as if, as she says of Céline, “[t]he enchantment will have to wait for some other time, always and forever” (Powers of Horror, p. 23).
Megan Becker-Leckrone

5. Wordsworth’s Tales of Love

Abstract
William Wordsworth is a poet about whom Julia Kristeva never has written, and probably never would. He is English, Romantic, an avowedly plain-spoken “man writing to men,” writing a poetry that aspires to the prosaic, that devotes itself to representing the extraordinary within the commonplace — the contemplative profundity the “meanest flower” can evoke, the lessons learned by a poignant encounter with a leech gatherer or a little girl, the mundane marvels of a rural tourist’s trip to teeming London. Wordsworth offers the very opposite, we might say, of Céline, whose explosive prose utters in “poetic” cadences the horror of extreme experience, of madness, brutality, and war; or, for that matter, of Joyce, who rendered even an everyman’s banal errand or a trip to the pub in the most unmistakably challenging language and style English literature had ever seen. Wordsworth’s piety and earnestness decidedly disqualify him from inclusion in the irreverently ironic Menippean tradition, which, we might gather from Kristeva’s and Bakhtin’s accounts, apparently skips his generation. Wordsworth, in other words, is precisely not avant-garde. His “revolution” in poetic language sought to overthrow a much different literary and social regime (the elite, mannered wit of the eighteenth century) than the one against which Kristeva’s literary heroes battled. Indeed, Wordsworth’s brand of idealized liberal humanism serves as the central target of the radical campaign Kristeva’s theory studies but also wages.
Megan Becker-Leckrone
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