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

37: Julia Kristeva part I:
The Subject in the Act of Meaning

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         The Subject in the Act of Meaning
        
         One of the basic problems of philosophy is: what is the meaning of life? Julia Kristeva approaches this question first by considering what is the source of meaning in language and then what is the relation of that meaning as found in language to life (Q1).
        
         She criticizes previous theories of language as being “...nothing more than the thoughts of archivists, archaeologists, and necrophiliacs. Fascinated by the remains of a process which is partly discursive, they substitute this fetish for what actually produced it [the meaning in language]...”
        
         It seems that most theories of language posit that words are signifiers for things that are signified. Meaning is conveyed discursively through an endless chain of signifiers – that is: meaning is conveyed logically by analyzing the signifiers and their links. Consequently it is commonly believed that the word “tree” stands for and object in the real world. Kristeva agrees, but if that is all that you believe creates meaning then you are an archivist or archaeologist or worse yet a necrophiliac who has a fetish for the excrement or leftovers of meaning rather than a proper relationship with that which created the meaning (Q2).
        
         The first part which everyone accepts Kristeva calls the Symbolic. The Symbolic is made up of the dictionary definitions of words and the grammatical and syntactic rules of the language. But this is far from enough. What is missing is the living human body and the fact that IT speaks. The living body has drives (inner urges that stimulate activity – instinctual energy that function between biology and culture).
        
         The Semiotic is the body's drives organized in and through language: for example in rhythms and tones. Some aspect of our body's drives is discharged in the tone and rhythm of our speech. Much of the Semiotic is common in all languages and is therefore translinguistic (Q3).
        
         The interaction of the Symbolic and the Semiotic is where real significance is generated. The Symbolic gives structure and the Semiotic (by discharging our bodily drives into symbols) gives significance. Therefore meaningful and significant words combine the force of bodily drives with the logic of grammar (Q4).
        
         Difference and Negation
        
         A corollary of bringing the living body into language is the fact that everyone is born. Everyone is separated from their mother. Language must in some way work through separation and difference just as much as language works through identity and synthesis. This is so because the body which is intimate connected with language does work through separation and difference (Q5).
        
         In the Symbolic realm we can define something by what it is not. In the Semiotic realm we all have drives to get rid of things: we all need to use a toilet (Q6).
        
         Our bodily drives are centered on absorbing and excreting: sometimes to restore balance and sometimes to unbalance us.
        
         The CHORA is Kristeva's term for the space in which drives enter language. The Chora is a rip in the traditional signification chain. It is where a Real (in Lacan's sense) drive that is not yet named carries in the possibility of new meaning. A new born child is all drives: crying, breathing, moving and sensing. In so doing it is creating its own tones and rhythms. These are later reactivated in language especially in imprecise or poetic language. Significance is mapped out in language’s movement between two dichotomies: 1) the Semiotic and the Symbolic both of which include a dichotomy 2) Negativity and Stases (plural of stasis: a condition of balance)(Q7).
        
         The Genesis Meaningfulness
        
         The Symbolic stases are a convenient starting point (but there really is no starting point as these processes are perpetual and multilevel): we are comfortable and satisfied without distraction: everything is in its proper place. Then a drive hits us in the unconscious: we lose our stases; we encounter negativity or uncomfortableness; we want to get something or lose something to regain stases. Next the drive may hit our consciousness: our symbolic tools make sense of it (bring it back into a new symbolic stasis): we are hungry or tired or horny etc. but these new Symbolic stases are incomplete because the symbolic refers to dictionary definitions and they are never the same as lived experiences. The inarticulated part of the drive (the Chora) challenges the Symbolic understanding and destabilizes it some more. This reordering and challenging of the reorder, Kristeva calls the THETIC break. The Thetic is how and why we grow and change; learn and develop; and find or create meaning (Q8).
        
         Questions
        
         Q1 If you understood the first paragraph, how is it that you understand it? How do you get meaning from things or events or information?
        
         Q2 Are you satisfied with dictionary definitions and grammatical rules for the acquisition of meaning in your life: are you a necrophiliac with a fetish for excrement? Or is she being a little harsh on most people?
        
         Q3 “I'll show you some philosophy.” As we have demonstrated over the last month, this sentences can have range of meanings depending on the rhythm and tone used. However it is interesting to note that people who are non-native English speakers can get and understand the nuanced differences very quickly. Kristeva claims that rhythm and tone are formed from the discharges of the body's drives and therefore the meaning that comes from these discharges has a universal element that we can all sense. Is there enough common among people's drives to say that we can all garner a common meaning from the rhythm and tone of speech?
        
         Q4 Is Kristeva's notion that meaning and significance come from the body's drives believable? Is our body really the source for meaning in the world and for the meaning of life?
        
         Q5 Do you believe that all drives generate meaning or only some? Since the body may have drives that can never be fulfilled (such as a drive to be reunited with the mother) and since they are frustrated, is the idea of negativity or rejection a meaningful event that can be discharged into language?
        
         Q6 Men and women are equal when it comes to ingestion drives and so we process and get meaning in the same way. Therefore there should not be any potential difference between the sexes in terms of acquired skills or knowledge. However men and women do differ in terms of excretion drives. Is this difference enough to explain the differences in men and women's thinking and sense of what is significant? Does this make Kristeva a biological determinist? Or is this difference between men and women only enough to influence the genders.
        
         Q7 Is this theory really better than traditional theories? Why or why not?
        
         Q8 Is this process believeable and does it explain the process of acquiring meaning?
        


© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren