ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)

Review: “Who do you rebel against if nothing is forbidden?”

Julia Kristeva, and Sylvere Lotringer (Ed.), “Revolt She Said” An Interview By Philippe Petit. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002.

Reviewed by Dr. Victoria Grace
(Senior Research Fellow in Social Sciences, University of Canterbury, New Zealand)

            Interviews with well-known social theorists can be variably useful and revealing or sometimes frustrating. They can be particularly frustrating if the author “speaks” in such a way that requires a knowledge of the argumentations in their texts for the reader to be able to interpret or even follow what they are “saying”. Petit’s interview of Kristeva strikes a highly successful balance and avoids any such problems; for the reader unfamiliar with Kristeva’s works it provides a context by way of introduction to her recent projects and fields of theorisation – one wants to go and read some of the works mentioned – and for the reader who is familiar with her writings, it provides some new insights on points of connection across these theoretical fields and some idea of their trajectory in the light of her own personal history.

            This short book (but long interview/s) is divided into a series of “chapters” and concludes with interviews by Rainer Ganahl and Rubén Gallo. The title makes it clear that Kristeva’s impassioned and uncompromising commitment to the concept, act and meaning of “revolt” is the main organising principle of the interviews. Kristeva has written about “revolt” and her meaning of the term, in recent years1, but through these interviews we can track its origins for her in her own autobiography and particularly to the events of May ‘68 in France. Kristeva reflects on what was particularly “French” about the challenges of that time, and their place in French culture and society.

            If Heidegger wanted to enshrine a privileged connection for German philosophy and culture to the ancient Greeks through the reflexive concept of truth (aletheia), and the rootedness of attachment to the soil (bodenständigkeit),2 Kristeva makes a possibly more convincing argument for such an ancestral lineage to Greek culture for the French jouissance. The eroticism of a life lived in critical ongoing reflection without end is one that does not strive against, but revels in and transforms through. Revolt is not about revolution in the political sense, is not motivated by ressentiment or a self-serving impulse to redress balances. She agrees with Sartre when she says “to think is to revolt, to be in the movement of meaning and not in the movement of the streets”.3

            What is particularly striking about Kristeva’s analysis and discourse on “revolt” is the significance of revolt for the lived experience of the individual, and the significance of the lived experience of the individual for revolt. The psychic life of persons is the political nexus of the social where this social is open to critique and transformation, where it resists accommodations to uncritically-vested interest. Groups inevitably become activated by ideology, and ideology is the end of revolt as it no longer questions itself. Revolt is about the will to join the jouissance of limitless individual desire with a “public happiness”. And Kristeva claims this move is not communitarian so much as grounded in a “wager that [one’s desire and jouissance is] compatible with the happiness of others”. Although May ‘68 had the appearance of a movement in the streets, in fact this sense of revolt was at its heart, a sense Kristeva refers to as “permanent crisis”, “continuous subversion”, a “propogation of revolt”.4

            Kristeva has often claimed that her relationship with feminism is ambivalent and it has clearly been fraught. In-so-far as feminism acts as an ideology – albeit oppositional – and feminists as ideologues, Kristeva is not a feminist and distances herself from any such “ism”. Through these interviews we learn a bit more about the background to this view in her own experience and direct encounters in the past. One does pause to wonder, however, how it is that Kristeva has not engaged her critical sense of revolt as a counter to ideology when it comes to her beliefs about maternity as “the most civilising vocation of women”.5 At the risk of being glib – a blind spot possibly? If so, it’s not a minor one.

            The ceaseless questioning of “revolt” is evocative of Baudrillard’s “reversion”: a defiance born of ambivalence and jouissance. Baudrillard’s “reversion” can be seen as a possible outcome of Kristeva’s “revolt”. For both Kristeva and Baudrillard the jouir of reversion is a limitless transformation that is not of the order of power-over and domination but has more in common with the agôn of the Greeks. Kristeva also opposes desire and revolt to the ossification of the social through the relentless march of consumerism. As Baudrillard observes the effects of the liberation of all values, so Kristeva asks “who do you rebel against if nothing is forbidden?”6 Psychoanalyst as well as social theorist, Kristeva riles against the prevalent and all-pervading actuarial definition of what it means to be human in the consumerist west. She asks “who’ll rebel if human people are either undervalued or don’t value themselves either, or where the self has fragmented so you can’t bear it?”7   This latter point is an important entry to her recent work New Maladies of the Soul8, where she observes how psychoanalysts are seeing new kinds of clients with new kinds of ills, psychosomatic in particular, which she relates to problems of fragmentation and representation in a consumerist setting allied to Baudrillard’s critique of the hyperreal.

            This set of interviews is a must-read for those interested in tracing the currents of Kristeva’s thinking at the present time. The way her theoretical and practical reflections are interwoven with points of her personal history makes the author’s concerns and ideas more present and accessible.9



1  See Julia Kristeva.  The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000 c. 1997;  Julia Kristeva. Intimate Revolt, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 c. 1997; and Julia Kristeva.  L’avenir d’une révolte, Paris: Calmann-Lâevy, 1998.

2  Charles Bambach. Heidegger’s Roots. Nietzsche, National Socialism and the Greeks, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2003.

3 Julia Kristeva, and Sylvere Lotringer (Ed.), “Revolt She Said” An Interview By Philippe Petit. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002:39.

4 Ibid.:42.

5 Ibid.:68.

6 Ibid.:84.

7 Ibid.

8 Julia Kristeva. New Maladies of the Soul.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1995 c. 1993.

9 One curious omission: although published in 2002, the Semiotext(e) edition gives no indication of the date when the interviews were conducted.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2004)

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