Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

38: Julia Kristeva part II:
Meaning, Psychic Space and Language

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         One of Kristeva's philosophical projects was to articulate the means to finding meaning in life (Q1). For Kristeva, the meaning in life is found through the link between the body's drives and our language. When our drives are in harmony with our language we express meaningful sentences. When others do the same we have the possibility of perfect communication because of our shared connections between our biology and our culture: these shared connections are our drives (Q2).
         The Problem of Meaning in the Modern World
         Kristeva is a practicing psychoanalyst and in her practice she could see that a lot of people had disconnected their words from their affect. (Affect for Kristeva is the physical and mental signs of drive energy being discharged.) In more simple speech this means that: people's words are often different from what their body language is saying (Q3).
         She sees this disconnect between words and affect as the body trying desperately to find or create meaning in a world in which the words, signs and symbols resist (or which the mind refuses) the endowment of meaning.
         This disconnect is happening on a massive scale and the result is a community full of unimportant, empty, inauthentic or nonexistent relationships. The modern world senses this and offers two solutions to try to solve the problem: drugs (both illegal and medical) and media entertainment. Drugs numb our bodies and dumb our language thereby giving the appearance that our drives are nonexistent. Mass media entertainment distracts us; it makes us feel that we are in meaningful relationships through the shared experiences viewed. But in both cases the modern solution is only at best treating (in the worst case magnifying) the symptoms of the problem. The problem is that the modern world has no soul (Q4).
         The Soul; the Psychic Space
         In the past God and religion served a critical purpose: they provided meaning to language and to life. But in the modern world God is dead: religion does not provide a believable nor an all encompassing meta-narrative. Science which once hoped to replace religion as a source of meaning has failed. These two opposing world view have more and more pushed each other to extremism (Q5).
         Psychic space is where biology meets culture; it is where drives discharge their energy; it is where meaning comes into being; it is what has been destroyed in modern civilization; it is the soul.
         Very few believe in the soul anymore. One of its functions in Christianity was as the immortal part of us that would live forever and hence the most meaningful and important part of us. Today it is considered an imaginary thing. But with its death has come the death of meaning in our lives. In particular, what we have lost is the image of a loving mother and a loving father. Contemporary culture has no equivalent for a Virgin Mary or God the Father. Both of these notions provided people with meaningful shared referents which today are unbelievable or unsharable (to most people religion is an internal or private matter). An actual loving mother and father is not enough because they are uniquely personal – not shared (someone who had a loving mother and father still lives in a world in which many people do not)(Q6).
         Religion is not the answer. We cannot go backwards. We cannot resurrect God again – the scientific revolution has made that incredible (Q7). But there is something of the old God that continues to live and that is love.
         Meaning in Language and of Life
         Love is the scaffolding of meaning. Love is one reason that we share. When we share our lived experience, the narrative we construct makes us who we are. It becomes part of our imaginary. We become who we say we are. Love (or the hope of love) is essential at all levels of development and for survival. The living body with all its drives is a loving body and this body speaks (Q8).
         If the drives of the body are disconnected, if we have lost our soul; if we have destroyed psychic space then we must begin again to build up our meaning by talking through our lived experience with a significant and loving other.
         This is the goal of Julia Kristeva's psychoanalysis: to restore the meaning in life through the process of sharing lived experience in loving relationships(Q9).
         Q1 What is the meaning of life? Is this question really answerable or is it too abstract? Consider two other questions: 1) what is the meaning of your life? and 2) What is meaningful in your life?
         Q2 Lacan believed that we could never understand someone perfectly because our lived experiences are different and they color our understanding of the words we use: therefore no one will ever understand exactly what anyone else says. Kristeva believes that it is possible for people to experience complete and perfect understanding due to the fact that we have so many drives in common and they are the source of meaning. Do you believe it is possible or impossible to understand another person's words completely?
         Q3 When someone looks into your eyes and says “I'm sorry” with a smile on their face, most people would know that they are lying. The proper affect for sorrow is to look down or away in shame (not to make I contact) and to have the corners of the mouth turned down (not up). Kristeva would see this as one of the most common examples of affect and words being disconnected. The result is that the words are meaningless and the smile is fake. Is this normal; is Kristeva overreacting? Or do you see a problem with inauthentic affect and empty words? Is the postmodern condition more inauthentic and empty compared to other times in history?
         Q4 What do you understand by the soul?
         Q5 If you still want to have religion provide you with a grand meta-narrative you seem to have to reject science and and accept religious dogmas unquestioningly since science has specialized in destroying most religious dogmas. Religious doctrines always seem ridiculous from a purely scientific view. On the other hand if you want to be a good scientist you must remove all biases and value judgments from your work; but biases and value judgments are the closest most science gets to meaningfulness. Does the world have more people like David Koresh (the leader of a Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco Texas) and Josef Mengele (an SS officer and a physician in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau) or fewer today? A growing number of people seem to be pushed towards one of these extremes: finding dogmatic meaning in religion or declaring that meaning is impossible or undesirable in science. Do you agree or disagree?
         Q6 Is the function of a universal loving mother and father really necessary? Were they ever really meaningful and if so have we lost something due to their death? If we have lost something: what? What has or could replace them?
         Q7 Is it true that we cannot move back to a religious world view (religious affiliation seems to be on an upswing – at least in the US). Is there any benefit to moving back and if so is it worth the trouble?
         Q8 Kristeva's notion of love seems to be a drive for meaning (as differentiated from Eros: the drive for sex). Love is a quest for meaning with someone else. How does this concept of love strike you?
         Q9 The meaning in life is found through the sharing of one's lived experience with a significant other. In other words there is not just one meaning of life for all of us but a uniquely personal meaning that we must determine and discover for ourselves through our love relationships. How satisfying is this answer to the question: what is the meaning of life?
         Q10 If you buy her answer, what are the practical consequences for your life? Are there any changes you should make? Are these changes worth the trouble?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren