An Interview with Julia Kristeva
Margaret Smaller conducted this interview in New York City in 1985. It was published in Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. The translation is by Richard Macicsey. Kristeva speaks lucidly about her well-known notion of intertextuality, expressing her intellectual debt to Bakhtin's notion of dialogism while emphasizing that the intersection of voices surrounding an utterance concerns not only the semantic field but the syntactic and phonic fields. She introduces a psychoanalytic element into the notion of intertextuality by suggesting that the intertextuality of the creator and the reader make them "subject-in-process" whose psychic identity is put into question. Commenting on Nerval, Kristeva then contrasts modern poetry, described as more openly regressive" and direct, with the modern novel, which is said to result from a "working-out" of the self. She claims that the modern novel could thus be seen as a "kind of continuous lay analysis." Other questions have to do with melancholia (Kristeva was working on Back Sun at the time ot this interview). Psychoanalysis (which is said to link theory and practice more fortuitously than does Marxism or political commitment), and the political structure of the United States. Kristeva concludes by discussing her plans for writing fiction, including the project that would eventually become The Samurai.
How do you conceive of intertextuality? What are its formal and intrapsychic aspects? How, do you distinguish it from Bakhtin's dialogism?
One should perhaps emphasize the history of this concept, which has come to have rather wide currency, I think. Many scholars are using it to deal with important rhetorical and ideological phenomena in modern literature and in classical literature as well I have a certain idea of the concept. At the beginning of my research. when I was writing a commentary on Bakhtin, I had the feeling that with his notions of dialogism and carnival we had reached an important point in moving beyond structuralism. French literary criticism at that time was especially fascinated by Russian formalism, but a formalism that limited itself to transposing notions proper to linguistics and applying them to the analysis of narrative. Personally, I had found Bakhtin's work very exciting, particularly his studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky. He was moving toward a dynamic understanding, of the literary text that considered every utterance as the result of the intersection within it of a number of voices, as he called them. I discussed my reading with Roland Barthes, who was quite fascinated and invited me to his seminar—it was 1966, I think, and the seminar was held at 44 rue de Rennes—to make a presentation on Bakhtin. I think that my interpretation remains, on the one hand, faithful to his ideas. and demonstrates, on the other, my attempts to elaborate and enlarge upon them. Whence the concept of intertextuality, which does not figure as such in the work of Bakhtin but which, it seemed to me, one could deduce from his work. All this is by way of showing you, with as much intellectual honesty as possible, the source of the concept of intertextuality, while at the same time underscoring the difference between this concept and that, for example, of dialogism. I see the following differences. In the first place, there is the recognition that a textual segment, sentence, utterance, or paragraph is not simply the intersection of two voices in direct or indirect discourse; rather, the segment is the result of the intersection of a number of voices, of a number of textual interventions, which are combined in, the semantic field. but also in the syntactic and phonic fields of the explicit utterance. So there is the idea of this plurality of phonic, syntactic, and semantic participation. I think that what is new with regard to Bakhtin is seeing this intervention of external plurality at different levels—not oniv at the level of meaning but at the level of syntax and phonics, too. What interested me even more—and this seems to me unique—was the notion that the participation of different texts at different levels reveals a particular mental activity. And analysis should not limit itself simply to identifying, texts that participate in the final texts, or to identifying their sources. but should understand that what is being dealt with is a specific dynamics of the subject of the utterance, who consequently, precisely because of this intertextuality, is not an individual in the etymological sense of the term, not an identity. In other words, the discovery of intertextuality at a formal level leads us to an intrapsychic or psychoanalytic finding, if you will, concerning the status of the "creator," the one who produces a text by placing himself or herself at the intersection of this plurality of texts on their very different levels—I repeat, semantic, syntactic, or phonic. This leads me to understand creative subjectivity as a kaleidoscope, a "polyphony" as Bakhtin calls it. I myself speak of a "subject in process," which makes possible my attempt to articulate as precise a logic as possible between identity or unity, the challenge to this identity and even its reduction to zero, the moment of crisis, of emptiness, and then the reconstitution of a new, plural identity. This new identity may be the plurality capable of manifesting itself as the plurality of characters the author uses; but in more recent writing, in the twentierh-century novel, it may appear as fragments of character, or fragments of ideology, or fragments of representation. Moreover, such an understanding of intertextuality—one that points to a dynamics involving a destruction of the creative identity and reconstitution of a new plurality—assumes at the same time that the one who reads, the reader, participates in the same dynamics. If we are readers of intertextuality, we must be capable of the same putting-into-process of our identities, capable of identifying with the different types of texts, voices, and semantic. syntactic. and phonic systems at play in a given text. We also must be able to be reduced to zero, to the state of crisis that is perhaps the necessary precondition of aesthetic pleasure, to the point of speechlessness as Freud says, of the loss of meaning, before we can enter into a process of free association, reconstitution of diverse meanings, or kinds of connotations that are almost undefinable—a process that is a re-creation of the poetic war. I think. then, that this kind of writing, whose formal aspects I try to stress along with its intrapsychic aspect—and I think we must never discuss the one without the other—can be accounted for only by a reader who enjoys the complexity of the text and who places himself or herself on both levels at once. This logic and dynamics, which may also be applied to classical texts seem to me to be absolutely necessary for modern texts. This is true for poetic texts, which are characterized by great condensation and great polysemia: as examples I can cite the writings of Nerval or Mallarme in particular. It is also true for the modern novel. The texts of Joyce are a very special example of this type. It is impossible to read Finnegan's Wake without entering into the intrapsychic logic and dynamics of intertrextuality. Yet this is also true for postmodernism, where the problem is to reconcile representation, the imposition of content, with the play of form—which is, I emphasize again, a play of psychic pluralization. And here, in postmodernism, the question of interrextuality is perhaps even more important in certain ways, because it assumes an interplay of contents and not of forms alone. If one reads Faulkner without going back to the Bible, to the Old Testament, to the Gospels, to American society of the period and to his own hallucinatory experience, I believe one cannot reconstitute the complexity of the text itself. This is valid for more recent literature as well. Once again, this question of content is to be understood not as being about a single content—"What does this mean in the sentence?"—but as a content that may be dispersed, traceable to different points of origin; the final meaning of this content will be neither the original source nor any one of the possible meanings taken on in the text, but will be, rather, a continuous movement back and forth in the space between the origin and all the possible connotative meanings.
Given the applicability of the concept of intertextuality to modern texts that call into question the very concept of genre, would you agree with Bakhtin that the novel is the type par exellence of this polyphony?
Yes, I do agree, but provided we understand that ever since the rise of the novel in the West we have had an interminable novel, and the word bccomes the generic term for a drastically expanded experience of writing. The term roman can now be applied to poetic writing incorporating a narrative element. It can also be applied to recits of a journalistic type that integrate the possibility of narrative, provided the category can be expanded. It can be applied as well to the intermingling of aurobiographical elements with essays and theoretical texts. These are all romans—as long as we understand "novel" as an intersection of genre and as a generalized form of interrextuality. If one identifies the novel with intertextuality, then every contemporary type of writing participates in it.
Even if it is poetry? Even if it incorporates. . . Poetic elements, yes. Obviously, if y ou are dealing with writing that is very fragmentary, very elliptical, as certain modern poetry is, then it is difficult to talk about novelistic elements. I will use the term novel when the narrative moment is really present, which is not the case with certain poetic wars that are quite chopped up. To these texts, then, we will apply, the word roman but the question of intertextuality persists. So the concept of intertextuality encompasses both novel and poetry, even if the novelistic element can be taken today in a very broad sense. Intertextuality is perhaps the most global concept possible for signifying the modern experience of writing, including the classic genres, poetic and novelistic. And to the extent that these genres, in the classic sense of the term, are unrecognizable in the modern novel, perhaps we will be, as it were, freed from our obsessive appeal to genre if we accept the reruns of intertextuality in characterizing the experience of writing.
Yes, but if I understand your global definition of the novel's importance to it then what is important is the narrative element, the recit element if it is fragmented, dispersed...
That defines the novel.
Yes, that's it.
Precisely. And I think it's an interesting distinction to maintain, at least in what concerns me, from the point of view of psychic activity. It is true that I see intertextuality as being just as applicable to modern poetic writing as to modern novelistic writing. But perhaps within this broadened concept of intertextuality, which concerns all contemporary writing, one can maintain a distinction between poetic and novelistic experience. For me, this distinction is interesting because it indicates different levels of psychic unity and, in a certain way, some of the writer's possible defenses with regard to the crises that writing assumes. In the narrative experience the subject has access to more options for working things out with respect to moments of crisis, hallucination, loss, and risk of psychosis. The poetic experience is more openly regressive, if you will; it confronts more directly the moments of loss of meaning. and perhaps also the maternal, the feminine, which obviously represents the solicitations of sexual pleasure and gratification and, at the same time, risk and loss of the self. We can see this clearly in Nerval, to take a writer from whom we have some distance. When he writes a poem, which is very often a struggle against schizophrenic collapse or the threat of melancholia— "El Desdichado," for example, the Dark Prince, "the black Sun of Melancholy"—the symbols mean a number of things one can inventory by using dictionaries of esoterica; but that's not the point. The essential point is precisely the polyvalence of the symbols, and the fact that we can add other connotations that perhaps even Nerval didn't recognize. If one also takes into account musicality, rhythmicity, alliteration, and so on, this type of writing is obviously a temptation to go down as far as possible toward the semiotic, toward the confrontation of the subject with the object of loss, nostalgia, melancholia—in other words, that maternal form which may be conjured up as a dead mother, an absent mother. And it is an attempt to go down—note that the poet compares himself to Orpheus descending into hell—an attempt that is totally vulnerable because it assumes the possibility of self-loss, and at the same time accurate, because the poet pursues the vulnerability of the psychic experience to the very edge of nonmeaning.