ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)
Author: Dr. Julia Kristeva

Note: A longer version of this paper is available in Kelly Oliver (Ed.), The Portable Kristeva. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002:435-447. The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies is grateful to Dr. Kristeva and the Columbia University Press for this article. See also Julia Kristeva. L’Avinir d’une Revolt. Paris: Calman-Lévy, 1998. Translated by Jeanine Herman as “The Future of Revolt”, Part 2 of Intimate Revolt, Volume 2 of The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

What is essential in the revolutionary is not that he overturns as such; it is rather that in overturning he brings to light what is decisive and essential.1

I. Preface
While we celebrate the events of May 1968, some people writing novels about it, others denouncing its imposture, analysts have facilitated its eter­nal return in well-worn words. The enraged have taken up the path of inti­mate revolt. It is the same one: that of realists who want the impossible.

Poetry has always been able to utter the will of free will, coming back to the memory of words and extracting its sense and time. In peri­ods that we vaguely sense to be in decline or at least in suspension, questioning remains the only possible thought: an indication of life that is simply alive.

Intimacy is not the new prison. The need for connection might estab­lish another politics, some day. Today, psychical life knows that it will only be saved if it gives itself the time and space of revolt: to break off, remember, refashion. From prayer to dialogue, through art and analysis, the capital event is always the great infinitesimal emancipation: to be restarted unceasingly. Without it, all that  globalization can do is calculate late the growth rate and genetic probabilities.

Truths, including scientific ones, are perhaps illusions, but they have the future ahead of them. In counterpoint to certainties and beliefs, per­manent revolt is this putting into question of the self, of everything and nothingness, which clearly no longer has a place.

Nevertheless, if there is still time, we should wager on the future of revolt. As Albert Camus said, “I revolt, therefore we are.” Or rather: I revolt, therefore we are to come. A luminous and painstaking experience.

II. The Dignity of Revolt (the Novel)
With the French Revolution, the word “revolt,” with its rich and complex etymology, acquired its current, distinctly political meaning.2 Thus when we speak of revolt today we first understand a protest against already established norms, values, and powers. For more than two centuries, polit­ical revolt has represented the secular version of this negativity that char­acterizes the life of consciousness when the latter attempts to remain faith­ful to its profound logic. A synonym of dignity, revolt is our mysticism.

Now it has become apparent that the new world order – whose demo­cratic advantages no longer need to be praised in spite of its risks and even its impasses in the East and the West – is not favorable to this revolt.

Against whom does one revolt if power and values are vacant or cor­rupt? Or, to put it even more gravely, who can revolt if man has become a simple conglomerate of organs, no longer a subject but a patrimonial person, a person belonging to the patrimony, financially, genetically, and physiologically, a person barely free enough to use a remote control to choose his channel. I am oversimplifying and darkening this depiction of our current state in order to highlight what we all sense: not only that political revolt is being mired in compromises between parties whose dif­ferences are less and less obvious to us but especially that an essential component of European culture – a culture fashioned by doubt and cri­tique – is losing its moral and aesthetic impact. This moral and aesthetic dimension finds itself marginalized and exists only as a decorative alibi tolerated by the society of the spectacle, when it is not simply submerged, made impossible by entertainment culture, performance cul­ture, show culture.

At the risk of aggravating my image as someone who enjoys dramatizing the present state of things, I would like to discuss my novel, Possessions.3 It is a detective story that takes place in an imaginary town called Santa Varvara, which is emblematic of the global village, and begins with the discovery of a decapitated woman, Gloria Harrison, a translator and mother of a difficult child. The reader discovers that the murderers, the authors of this decapitation, are many. In this image of female and maternal suffering that sums up the difficulty of being a woman I have put much of my personal experience: the decapitated woman is me. I am also another woman in the novel, Stéphanie Delacour, a Parisian journalist who conducts the inquiry into the murder alongside the principal investigator – Northrop Rilksy. In the criminal and virtual universe of Santa Varvara a police investigation is still possible: the detec­tive novel, a popular genre that keeps the possibility of questioning alive, basically tells the reader, “You can know.”

Is that why when people stop reading, they still read detective novels: the degree zero of this aptitude for judgment that is the interrogation, our only remaining defense against the “banality of evil”? I consider my book, among so many others, as a low form of revolt. But are other, higher forms really more convincing?

The universe of women moreover allows me to suggest an alternative to the robotizing and spectacular society that is damaging the culture of revolt: this alternative is, quite simply, sensory intimacy. Though pos­sessed by their sensibilities and passions, certain human beings neverthe­less continue to ask themselves questions. I am convinced that after all the more or less reasonable and promising projects and slogans the feminist movement has promulgated over the past decades, the arrival of women at the forefront of the social and ethical scene has had the result of revalorizing the sensory experience, the antidote to technical hair­splitting. The immense responsibility of women in regard to the survival of the species – how to preserve the freedom of our bodies while at the same time ensuring the conditions for better lives for our children? – goes hand in hand with this rehabilitation of the sensory.

The novel is privileged terrain for such an exploration and its com­munication to the greatest number. Alongside and in addition to the cul­ture of the image – its seduction, its swiftness, its brutality, and its frivo­lity – the culture of words, the narrative and the place it reserves for med­itation, seems to me to offer a minimal variant of revolt. It is not much, but we may have reached a point of no return, from which we will have to re-turn to the little things, tiny revolts, in order to preserve the life of the mind and of the species.

Revolt, then, as return/turning back/displacement/change, constitutes the profound logic of a certain culture that I would like to revive here and whose acuity seems quite threatened these days. What makes sense today is not the future (as communism and providential religions claimed) but revolt: that is, the questioning and displacement of the past. The future, if it exists, depends on it.

But let me return to the meaning of this revolt, which seems to me to indicate what is most alive and promising about our culture.

III. Man in Revolt (Retrospective Return)
Since Socrates and Plato and more explicitly with Christian theology, man has been invited to a “return.” Some of you still maintain the traces of this, if not the practice. This is notably the goal of Saint Augustine’s repetition, founded on the retrospective link to the already-there of the Creator: the possibility of questioning one’s own being, searching for oneself (se quaerere: “quaesto mihi factus sum”), is offered by this apti­tude for return, which is simultaneously recollection, interrogation, and thought.

Yet technological development has favored the knowledge of stable values to the detriment of thought as return, as search (as repetition or as se quaerere, “going in quest of oneself”). Moreover, the desacralization of Christianity, as well as its own intrinsic tendencies toward stabiliza­tion and reconciliation in the immutability of being, have discredited – when they have not rendered impossible – this battle with the world and with oneself that also characterizes Christian eschatology. Henceforth, the interrogation of values was transformed into nihilism, by which I mean the rejection of old values in favor of a cult of new values, interro­gation of which is suspended. What has been taken for revolt or revolu­tion for two centuries, particularly in politics and its attendant ideolo­gies, has more often been this abandonment of retrospective questioning in favor of a rejection, pure and simple, of the old, destined to be replaced by new dogmas.

Generally, when the media employ the word “revolt,” we understand nothing other than this nihilistic suspension of questioning in favor of so-called new values, which as values, precisely, have forgotten to question themselves and have thereby fundamentally betrayed the meaning of revolt that I am trying to emphasize here. The nihilist is not a man in revolt. The pseudo rebellious nihilist is in fact a man reconciled with the stability of new values. And this stability, which is illusory, is revealed to be deadly, totalitarian. I can never sufficiently emphasize the fact that totalitarianism is the result of a certain fixation of revolt in what is precisely its betrayal, namely, the sus­pension of retrospective return, which amounts to a suspension of thought. Hannah Arendt has brilliantly developed this elsewhere.4

As in my lectures and my novels, I am here seeking experiences in which this work of revolt, which opens psychical life to infinite re-cre­ation, continues and recurs, even at the price of errors and impasses. Because we can’t fool ourselves: it is not enough to revive the permanence of revolt, which technology may have blocked, in order to recapture hap­piness or some sort of serene stability of being. Revolt exposes the speak­ing being to an untenable conflict, whose necessary jouissance and mor­bid impasses our century has assumed the formidable privilege of mani­festing. But this occurs in a manner very different from that of the nihilist, who is fixed in the celebration of his rejection of the old or in the unquestioned positivity of the new.

This is where we are: we can either renounce revolt by withdrawing into old values or indeed new ones that do not look back on themselves and do not question themselves or, on the contrary, relentlessly repeat retrospective return so as to lead it to the limits of the representable/ thinkable/ tenable (to the point of possession), limits made evident by cer­tain advances of the culture of the twentieth century.

Take note: the revolt of modern man is not a simple reprise of the ret­rospective link that founds the innermost recesses of the Christian man, serene in his quest, which is completed by a return to the summum esse. While following the path of retroactive questioning, modern man comes to an irreconcilable conflict. Although it may have been produced in the margins of art or the mysticism of previous eras, this conflict has never attained the paroxysm or vastness one can observe in it in modernity.

Just as the concept of process distinguishes modern history from that of antiquity, based on the destiny and brilliance of great men, the concept of self-organization is specific to contemporary history, which in the twentieth century occurred in bouts of crisis. I likewise submit that the concept of man in revolt distinguishes the modern man from both the Christian man, reconciled with God (“coram Deo”), and the nihilist, his enraged but symmetrical opposite.

IV. Revolt as Jouissance and Dispersion (Psychoanalysis)
In what sense is revolt as we understand it – along with Freud, who invites us to recapture the diabolical unconscious, and certain contem­porary writers who explore the border states of the mind – the retro­spective relationship of tendere esse with the “not yet” and “already no longer”?

I will venture one answer: revolt is distinguished from this notably by the fact that the tension toward unity, being, or the authority of the law (although always at work in modern revolt) is accompanied by centrifu­gal forces of dissolution and dispersion.

What’s more, this conflict gives rise to a jouissance that is not simply the narcissistic or egoistic caprice of man spoiled by consumer society or the society of the spectacle. The jouissance at issue here – and this is where Freud’s contribution is radical – proves indispensable to keeping the psyche alive, indispensable to the faculty of representation and ques­tioning that specifies the human being. In this sense, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious was the new Archimedean point that – for the psyche, always already dependent on the Other and the other – would constitute the favored place for life to find its meaning. This is only possible if, the psyche is capable of revolt. On this point Freud founded psychoanalysis as an invitation to anamnesis in the goal of a rebirth, that is, a psychical restructuring.

Through a narrative of free association and in the regenerative revolt against the old law (familial taboos, superego, ideals, oedipal or narcis­sistic limits, etc.) comes the singular autonomy of each, as well as a renewed link with the other. But this other Freudian palace of memory that psychoanalysis revisits and transforms was not recognized by Hannah Arendt, who lauded Saint Augustine’s palace of memory but questioned psychology and psychoanalysis, which in her eyes were gen­eral sciences of “monotonous sameness”.5

V. Negativity in Revolt (Philosophy and Freud)
The modern age, which I will date for convenience’s sake from the French Revolution, highlights the negative share of this retrospective return. Personal or collective experience became an experience of conflict, of contradiction.

Being itself is wrought by nothingness, philosophy essentially says, emphatically since Hegel and differently with Heidegger and Sartre. This co-presence of nothingness in being takes the dialectical form in Hegel. Starting with his text What Is Metaphysics? (1929), Heidegger makes a distinction between the negation internal to judgment and a Nothingness that annihilates differently from how thought does: it is in feeling and anxiety that the philosopher will seek the nuclear forms of what he calls a repulsion, which is man’s characteristic feature as a reject, an outcast, of being. Dasein is a repulsion; “ecstasy” is another word for “abjec­tion.” Have we sufficiently considered this similarity?

In Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre relies on this difference between negation proper to thought and a primordial annihilation/ noth­ingness. But more than repulsion he emphasizes freedom and definitively asserts himself as more Hegelian than Heideggerian, in the field of phi­losophy as well as in his political anarchism.

If I am rereading these texts, it is because they are a testimony of an extraordinary moment in Western thought, the moment when retrospec­tive return – that is, the knowing subject’s questioning of himself and his truth – leads him to nothing less than a familiarity with psychosis. Because the annihilating force (Kraft) behind the concept, the disquieting eruption of which the concept must absorb (Hegel), as well as the senti­ment of dissociation or repulsion in Heidegger and even “the prejudicative nothingness” of Sartre (who sustained his notion of freedom as rad­ical violence, as a questioning of all identity, all faith, all law), all these advances, when confronted with human realities to make their logic accessible, come up against a psychical reality that endangers conscious­ness and exposes itself to the pulse of being. Erasure of subject/object borders, assault of the drive: language making itself tonality (Stimmung), memory of being, music of the body and of matter. Heidegger seeks to capture this near psychosis in being, by respectfully visiting the work of Hölderlin. Sartre flees it by holding on to a totalizing and translucid consciousness, for which Flaubert, “the family idiot,” and Genet, “actor and martyr,” in melancholy and perversion, through style and play, offer more reason and humanism than the radical destruction of Artaud.

It may be surprising to maintain that the psychoanalytic movement inaugurated by Freud belongs to this, interrogation into Nothingness and negativity. I am not talking about American psychoanalysis, dominated by ego psychology, but the radical interrogation into the psyche that Freud leads to the borders of biology and being, of which we find testi­mony in a still enigmatic text of 1925, Die Verneinung (Negation). For the first time, a few years before What Is Metaphysics? Freud links the fate of two types of negations: rejection, proper to the drive (Ausstossung or Verwerfung), and negativity, internal to judgment. In sum, he main­tains that the symbol and/or thought are a sort of negativity, which itself is but a transformation under certain conditions of rejection or of an unbinding proper to the drive, which he calls the death drive.

We must now ask ourselves this question: under what conditions does the rejecting drive become symbolizing negativity? All psychoanalytical research on the “paternal function” (Lacan) or the “good-enough mother” (Winnicott), to name just a couple, is devoted to answering this question. Melanie Klein bases her most original work on the importance of this dissociating, rejecting drive, well before the appearance of the unity of the ego: this is the so-called schizoparanoid phase, which pre­cedes the depressive phase that generates symbolism and language. The work on narcissism, borderline personalities, and so on attempts to deepen this modality of the psyche dependent on the archaic, the instinc­tual, the maternal, and, beyond that, the extrapsychical to the point of biology or being (depending on the school).

These different currents of theoretical thought in philosophy and psy­choanalysis have had this particularity in modernity: they have attained, through retrospective questioning – that is, through inquiry or analysis – this border region of the speaking being that is psychosis.

Parallel to philosophy and psychoanalysis, in ways not theoretical but proper to language itself, the practice of writing attains non-sense too by unfolding meaning to the point of sensations and drives, finding its pulse in a realm that is no longer symbolic but semiotic. I am thinking of the desemanticization of style through ellipses in Mallarmé or through polyphony and portmanteau words in Joyce. Through language, and a linguistic overcompetençe, an apparent regression is obtained, a childlike state of language. The semiotic chora,6 this infralinguistic musicality that all poetic language aims for, becomes the main objective of modern poetry, an experimental psychosis. By this I mean that psychosis is the work of a subject, but a subject in process. It is through the archaeology of his unity, conducted in the material of language and thought itself, that the subject reaches the hazardous regions where this unity is annihilated.

VI. Paradoxical Logic (Resistances to Psychoanalysis)
Thought or writing in revolt attempt to find a representation (a language, a thought, a style) for this confrontation with the unity of law, being, and the self to which man accedes in jouissance. As you know, jouissance is perceived by the old norm as an evil. Yet insofar as jouissance is thought! written/ represented, it traverses evil, and thereby it is perhaps the most profound manner of avoiding the radical evil that would be the stopping of representation and questioning. The permanence of contradiction, the temporariness of reconciliation, the bringing to the fore of everything that puts the very possibility of unitary meaning to the test (such as the drive, the unnamable feminine, destructivity, psychosis, etc.): these are what the culture of revolt explores.

That is, it announces a veritable transformation of man issued from the Christian eschatology of retrospection as the path of truth and inti­macy. The Freudian discovery is not a rejection of this tradition but a deepening of it to the limits of conscious unity; starting here, the Freudian path announces a possible transformation of our culture, inas­much as it initiates another relationship to meaning and the One.

As you might have gathered, it is not exclusively in the world of action that this revolt is realized but in that of psychical life and its social man­ifestations (writing, thought, art), a revolt that seems to me to manifest the crises of modern man as much as the advances. Yet as a transforma­tion of man’s relationship to meaning this cultural revolt intrinsically concerns public life and consequently has profoundly political implica­tions. In fact, it poses the question of another politics, that of permanent conflictuality.

You are no doubt familiar with the attack, denigration, and margin­alization that psychoanalysis has undergone recently. While analysis has been the object of resistance since its inception (inevitably, insofar as it basically collides with the human being’s desire not to know, the human being preferring sexual mystification to confronting truths that may place him in revolt), it seems the shunting aside of psychoanalysis today can be explained by other causes. The conditions of modern lives – with the primacy of technology, image, speed, and so forth, inducing stress and depression – have a tendency to reduce psychical space and to abol­ish the faculty of representation. Psychical curiosity yields before the exi­gencies of so-called efficiency; the unquestionable advances of the neu­rosciences are then ideologically valorized and advocated as antidotes to psychical maladies. Gradually, these maladies are denied as such and reduced to their biological substrata, a neurological deficiency.

A schematic materialism claims to do without the Freudian dualism that reserved a place for initiative, autonomy, the desire of the subject; a hard-line cognitivism subsumes within the same logic both the neuronal economy and the heteronomy of psychical representations dependent on the other. Ideological protests of a politically correct sort extol ethnic and sexual difference while refusing the rational approaches (psycho­analysis among them) that allow a better grasp of this singularity. By denigrating what they call an analytical universalism, these currents swing from militancy to a sect-like logic. Finally, psychoanalytical soci­eties themselves contribute to discrediting psychoanalysis, with their delicate politics and concern for safeguarding their clinical purity or, on the contrary, an overly aggressive ideological, if not spiritual, orienta­tion, and thereby undermine the Copernican revolution that Freud introduced in the twentieth century and that we increasingly perceive to be the only one that does not turn away from either malady or the revolts of modernity.

Perhaps it is necessary to recall some of the paradoxical logics of the analytical cure to highlight the type of intimacy the analytical experience has brought into being, as modern art has, though by completely differ­ent means.

Freud underscored the unprecedented timeless (Zeitlos), which no phi­losophy had isolated before him and which characterizes the unconscious: while human existence is intrinsically linked to time, the analytical experi­ence reconciles us with this timelessness, which is that of the drive, and more particularly the death drive. Unlike any other translation or deci­phering of signs, analytical interpretation emerges as a secular version of forgiveness, in which I see not just a suspension of judgment but a giving of meaning, beyond judgment, within transference/ countertransference.

Timelessness, a modification of judgment: the analytical experience leads us to the borders of thought, and venturing into these regions is of interest to the philosopher as well as to the moralist, since the examination of thought (what is a thought, without time, without judgment?) implies an examination of judgment, morality, and, ultimately, the social link.

Of particular interest are the aesthetic or literary variants of timelessness and forgiveness such as the analytical experience reveals them. In short, with timelessness and forgiveness we revisit nothing less than our intimate depths, which appear to us as an experience in suffering souffrance = lost, as a package, awaiting delivery, in pain. Isn’t it true that the various forms of the possession of our intimacy, including the most demonic and most tragic, remain our refuge and our resistance in the face of a so called virtual world where judgments are blurred or assume an archaic and barbarous form – it is precisely in the imaginary experience, particularly in literature, that this intimacy is deployed, with its timelessness and its strange forgiveness.

VII. Intimacy in Revolt (the Imaginary)
Am I essentially pleading the case of intimate revolt as the only possible revolt? I am not unaware of the commercial impasses and spectacular miasmas of all the imaginary productions in which our rebellious inti­macy manifests itself. There are periods when even the mystical path – this acceleration of liberating transformations – is confined within treat­ments aimed at pathology or else within spiritualist or decorative ghet­tos. This is one of those periods.

Faced with the invasion of the spectacle, we can still contemplate the rebellious potentialities that the imaginary might resuscitate in our innermost depths. It is not a time of great works, or perhaps, for us, contem­poraries, they remain invisible. Nevertheless, by keeping our intimacy in revolt we can preserve the possibility of their appearance.

About the Author:
Julia Kristeva is Director of the Institute for the Study of Texts and Documents at the University of Paris VII. She is author of many books, including: Colette. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004; Hannah Arendt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003; Revolt She Said. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002; and Intimate Revolt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. She was the 2004 winner of the prestigious Holberg Prize which is awarded each year “for outstanding scholarly work in the field of arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology”. (link no longer active 2019)


1 – Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche. Pfullingen: Neske, 1961.

2 – The ancient forms wel and welu, referring to a voluntary, artisanal act, lead to the appellation of technical objects that protect and encase and evolve toward the sense of “return”, “discovery”, “circular movement of the planets”, “volte-face”, [in Italian “about face”], “vaudeville”, [in French “volume” (volumen” – which results in “book” – and the Swedish car company Volvo (“I roll”)]. For a more precise etymology see Chapter One of Julia Kristeva. The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis (Volume One: The Sense and Non-sense of Revolt), translated by Jeanine Herman, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

3 – Julia Kristeva. Possessions (c 1996). Perfil, S.A., 1999.

4 – See Hannah Arendt, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil, New York: Viking, 1964; The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958; and The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

5 – Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind (Volume One): Thinking. New York: Harcourt, 1971:35.

6 – See Julia Kristeva. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984:25-30.