By Staffan Lundgren
"Human embodiment," Edward Casey has noted, "was among the first victims of the Cartesian revolution in philosophy." "This embodiment", he continues, "the lived fact of experiencing the world from and in and with just this body, my body – was exorcized or, perhaps more exactly, volatilized."  Following Casey's line of argument one could say that this state of affairs has come to designate both a certain understanding of the birth of the modern political subject, and the expulsion of corporeality to a state of home- or placelessness. This is also the origin, many have claimed, of the modern understanding of politics as subjected to a symbolical law, a socio-symbolic contract presupposed by this splitting of the subject. This is an understanding that connects the political to a rationalist discourse that understands the symbolical, language, and the text, as a kind of immaculate positivity. This also outlines a fundamental separation between thought and body, between positivity and negativity which through the hegemony of the positive has come to think negativity as lack.
What happens, what would our options be, if we displace this hegemony of the symbolic – if we challenge it by acknowledging the importance of corporeality for the political? What if we would contaminate the positivity of the political subject with the negativity of the expulsed body, in an act that thinks the lack in relation to what has been excluded from a hegemonic rationality? This question, and several possible answers, is what a reading of Cecilia Sjöholm's Kristeva and the Political  brings to fore. In tracing a path through a many-faceted and shifting intellectual landscape, Sjöholm's at once distanced, biographical, and dense analysis connects the political and the poetic dimension in Kristeva. Sjöholm's book also highlights Kristeva's no doubt provocative attitude to linguistics, psychoanalysis, and feminist theory, while also acknowledging its complexity. But then again, it is only here, at the intersection of all these different fields, that the political significance and radical force of Kristeva's poetics becomes clear, in what could be called a politics of presentation or a politics of poetics.
Kristeva's criticism of modern linguistics is decisive in this respect. Against this type of theory and its claims to constitute a scientific, subjectless and objectifying language consisting of "distinct unities," she pits a language that cannot be reduced to a scientific object, and that she exemplifies with art, poetry, and myth. A more precise analysis would have to quote extensively from Kristeva's own work, as it developed from the Tel Quel period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and onwards. This work claims to be just as subversive as political activism, and it proposes to constitute a kind of "theoretical terrorism" or "theorism." As Sjöholm writes: "Aiming to politicise theory and to theorise politics, the Tel Quel journal could be regarded as a training ground for textual activism." (KP 34)
This theorism, deeply embedded in its political and intellectual context, above all aims to develop a materialist approach to literature, where negativity as such is seen as a precondition for theoretical production. If semiology, in Kristeva's version, focuses on the construction of meaning, it also simultaneously reflects on how it theorizes this construction. Drawing on the manifesto of the Tel Quel group, published in the collective volume Théorie d'ensemble (1968), Sjöholm summarizes the radical implications of this gesture: "the revolution is made into a question of text, not of political manoeuvres." (KP 8) This is a doubtlessly somewhat schematic understanding equalizing Marxism and grammatology, capital and logocentrism, implicating less of a critical distancing of the theory from its object than its full immersion in it. The politicizing of theory through semiology does not imply that we in any passive fashion would simply point to another political dimension within literature, but also that we provide it with a real possibility of influencing practice. As Sjöholm says, the sémanalyse is aiming to distil levels of signification informed by, but not reducible to, social and historical reality. These levels are the most potent political weapons of the transformation in that they infuse our perceptions of things, therefore our social habits and everyday lives.
The question bears more on the site of production of meaning than on meaning as simply another "object," and in this it will also involve the issue of representation. In her critique of modern linguistic theories, Kristeva also recognizes a possibility in their acceptance of a transcendental ego, and in the way that they allow for an exploration of the "outskirts" and "exteriority" of this ego, and of those "signifying practices" that prevent language from being reduced and reified to an object of science. It is here that art, poetry, and myth, and obviously theory itself, becomes decisive because of its productive, its poietic, character. The ego in Kristeva harbors two tendencies, two modalities of the same signifying process, the semiotic and symbolic, two tendencies that should not, as Sjöholm emphasizes, be understood in terms of a foundational order, as if the one of them (the semiotic) would be more originary. She writes: "The fact that the semiotic and the chora belong to a pre-Oedipal dimension does not mean that they are to be considered developmental stages preceding the Oedipal construction of the symbolic. The semiotic, rather, indicates a resistance at work in the signifying process. It is not a murky undercurrent of language, but an aspect of it." (KP 22)
Topography of the Symbolic, Topology of the Semiotic
"Topology is the geometry of distortion" (James R. Newman)
"The chora", Sjöholm proposes, should be seen as "the principle of production and motility, rather than stasis: the very engendering of representation that cannot itself be represented, the space preceding the actual space of representation." (KP 20) Understood as politics of presentation or production, Kristeva's conception of the political subject thus goes beyond the structure of subjection to a symbolical law, and it attempts to find a different way of inscribing this subject into the space of politics. For Kristeva, the decisive aspect of the process of constitution of such a subject escapes the determination of a certain geometry; or, put differently, the modern conception of the political as somehow based on the agora as the (geometric) space of politics must be reconsidered in terms of a relation to the chora, this enigmatic vessel of the drives, womb, and non-place. Sjöholm shows how the difference between the (traditional) modern conception of the political subject and the one proposed by Kristeva can be understood in terms of the difference between a presented subject, and the act of presenting. In this respect the semiotic precedes the symbolic, and the semiotic chora is subject to a certain regulation, if not a law. Writes Kristeva:
The chora is however, albeit its lack of unity, identity or God, subsumed a system of rules, far from that of the symbolic, but that nevertheless creates discontinuities by provisional divisions and by continuously starting all over. [...) The organization of the chora are subsumed what we might call an objective set of rules dictated by natural, social or historical restrictions (difference in sex, family structures etc.). One could claim that the social organization, that is always already symbolic, inserts its restrictions in mediated shape and organizes the chora by regulation but not by law (which is a term reserved for the symbolic). 
The form of rule or regulation of the chora is essentially different from the geometry at the basis of symbolic subjection, since these regulations are organized according to an open set of possibilities outside of a closed Euclidean space, in what we could call a geometry of distortion.
In relation to poetics, the chora is an unruly and deregulated production, but also engenders temporary regulations and stases. In a footnote Kristeva develops this idea of law referring us to etymology: law derives from the Latin lex, and involves notions of judgment and protection and it is directly linked to Roman law. A notion of law reserved to the symbolic that comprises regulations and norms. Even though the chora also is bound to a notion of, as Kristeva puts it, "numeric or geometric necessity" it is essentially different from that of the law. The "provisional ‘regulation'" of the chora "is not yet even a rule: the geometric arsenal comes after its mobility, it ratifies and reduces it." As Sjöholm notes, the chora precedes the geometric space of representation, and points toward the body: "The chora is a term of mediation irreducible to the terms of negativity and signification, not governed by law, but by a kind of organization for which Kristeva tells us that the maternal body is the model." (KP 20) Kristeva's understanding of the chora thus proposes a destabilizing and undermining of the concept of representation, in all of its foundational values for political and aesthetic theories, it is a critique that unearths those complex subterraneous relations that both link and confound the aesthetic, the poetic, and the political. The chora in one sense temporally precedes the space of geometry and abstraction, in another sense it also intervenes in the fabric of facticity. Sjöholm describes it as "the space outside of being because it engenders transformation, mobility, motility, novelty, not a physical site but a site of investments [...] the quasi-transcendental condition that makes corporeal mediation possible." (20) In both cases the logic of political and aesthetic representation is disrupted by the presence of something that cannot be reduced to the kind of presence or absence that belongs to the essence of representation.
This temporal aspect becomes central in Sjöholm's discussion of Kristeva and Hannah Arendt. Even though Kristeva and Arendt in many respects hold opposite views, they are united in a temporal "organization" of the political that emphasizes the corporeal dimension of political acting. For Arendt this comes across in the quest for a mode of action and a language that allows meaning to escape reification, which leads her to assume the tragic hero as a model. With even more emphasis than Kristeva Arendt stresses the importance of resisting the reification that would allow meaning to become part of a utilitarian calculus. In Arendt's case this is articulated through a re-reading of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and the concept of praxis. In her recent book on Arendt, Kristeva describes this as follows: "praxis includes activities that are not orientated toward a specific goal (ateleis) and leave behind no created work (par'autas erga), but instead ‘are exhausted within an action that is itself full of meaning.'"  This is an activity that comprises both action and speech, and it founds the polis as a space of action, a figure of thought that will also recur in Arendt's reading of Kant's third Critique and of the political signification of judgment and imagination. "What Kristeva", Sjöholm claims, "has in common with Arendt, however, is a notion of temporality that takes maternity as its given model, although they interpret the maternal aspect of human action in opposing manner: whereas for Arendt maternity is giving birth to, for Kristeva it is the site of alterity and ambivalent drives." (KP 114)
Kristeva and the Political is not only a stringent analysis of the political implications of Kristeva's thought, but itself constitutes a powerful example of how theoretical work can itself be political.
Site / Stockholm
Published there 05/23/07
on corpus: 23.9.2007
 Edward Casey, "The Ghost of Embodiment: on Bodily Habitudes and Schemata," in Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Donn Welton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
 Cecilia Sjöholm, Kristeva and the Political, (New York: Routledge, 2005), Henceforth cited as KP.
 "Sémiotique et symbolique," in La revolution du lanugage poétique (Editions du Seuil, Paris: 1974). English translation by Margaret Waller as Revolution In Poetic Language (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984).
 Hannah Arendt: Life is a Narrative, transl. Frank Collins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 14.