Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 13 - The Revolution Issue
Log 13 - The Revolution Issue

Revising Revolt
Julia Kristeva. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt: The Ethics and Limits of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 1
Translated by Jeanine Herman. Columbia University Press, 2000. [Sens et non-sens de la revolt, 1996]
Charlotte Craw



"We can no longer exult or be jubilant about our foundations. Artists no longer have pedestals. Art is no longer certain it can be this cornerstone. The ground is sinking; the foundation no longer exists."

It’s with such a sense of "political, moral, aesthetic loss" that French feminist and clinical psychologist Julia Kristeva turns to the question of revolt. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt is a book-length consideration of the possibility of revolt in contemporary society, what Kristeva terms, after Guy Debord, "the society of the spectacle".

In such a "society of entertainment, of show", revolt is rendered questionable in two ways. Kristeva identifies a European tradition of the "culture of revolt", from Descartes through Hegel and Marx to Artaud, Stockhausen, and Picasso. She sees this culture as caught in two impasses: the failure of rebellious ideologies, and the "surge of consumer culture". In addition, the society of the image is accompanied by two characteristics that "humanity has never confronted". A ‘power vacuum’ exists in which transgression becomes difficult: there are no totalitarian governments or strict prohibitions to rebel against. In addition, biotechnology has provoked a new conception of social being, making people ‘patrimonial individuals’, the owners of their genetic or organo-physiological patrimony. For Kristeva, revolt involves pleasure, and therefore needs a human locus. It is this human subject that is being dispersed into organs and images by these social changes. Even if there was something to rebel against, is there anybody to rebel?

"…how does the patrimonial person that each of us risks becoming confront a power vacuum, armed for discourse with only a remote control? In other words how, in our societies of the spectacle, does one revolt in the absence of real political power?"

Kristeva’s approach to answering this question is to expand the sense of revolt from the political to encompass other meanings. She does this primarily through a re-reading of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, situating psychoanalysis as a still viable culture of revolt. Freud locates a primal scene at the root of (any) civilisation, where the sons rebel against their father, killing and then eating him. Revolt in this sense is part of a process of subject-formation, a moment of kicking against the social order, of pleasure [jouissance], before the re-establishment of the social order. From this psychoanalytic perspective, Kristeva proposes an interesting expansion of revolt beyond the notion of transgressing a prohibition. Freudian revolt includes processes such as working-through or working-out (as in analysis), and displacement (linguistic play, for example).

While this expansion is intriguing, its psychoanalytic framework makes it problematic. The scope of psychoanalysis, commonly critiqued for its universalising of the experiences of bourgeois late 19th century subjects, is limited. Kristeva’s book shares this limitation. Despite the insistence that women (an homogenous category, it seems) also experience the Oedipus complex, the "culture of revolt" is explored as a particularly male (European) avant-garde. The defence is thus not of revolution per se but of its importance for particular modes of subjectivity.

Even with this small scope, the psychoanalytic approach is still strangely motivated. Revolt, according to Freud/Kristeva, is a matter not of political upheaval but of inter-generational cannibalism. Sounds dodgy? I don’t believe that I need to ingest my father, however figuratively, to fight phallogocentric capitalism. To justify revolution in terms of subject-formation seems politically suspect. It reduces revolution from radical social action to a method of subject-formation, from a communal movement to an individualising mechanism. And defends revolt on the grounds that "happiness exists only at the price of revolt". I’d like to think that revolutions would make people happy too, but I don’t think that’s the only reason for wanting them. Kristeva quietly conflates political revolt and transgression and, in doing so, presumes that revolt’s sense cannot be widened while retaining its political impact.

From psychoanalysis, Kristeva turns to three provocateurs of the culture of revolt: Louis Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Roland Barthes. She reads their texts as literary experiences: that is, both reflections on experience, and experiences in their own right. There’s a sense of joy to her explorations, especially in the considerations of the interconnections between language and pleasure. It’s also good to have authors who are often alluded to in passing re-considered at length.

They are, however, conservative choices: choosing to read white, male French intellectuals anchors revolt on the side of university library culture. The "culture of revolt" is opposed not only to the society of the spectacle, but also to "mass riot". Indeed, Kristeva claims, revolt is necessary to prevent such unruly occasions. This focus on traditional avant-garde literary culture doesn’t just ignore the ‘actual’ revolts of mass movements like Mexico’s Zapatistas. It also overlooks the possibility for resistance within the texts offered us by entertainment culture. After all, what could be more revolting than Temptation Island?

Kristeva has been criticised (by Judith Butler) for not exploring the possibilities of an alternative (feminine) social order. Here again, order is confronted by something temporary: revolt as an unstable moment of pleasure. In a reading of Louis Aragon’s fragmentary text Irene’s Cunt, for instance, Kristeva locates Aragon’s revolt in a turn towards the impossible, identified as the real and the feminine. Such a revolt is the non-sense making of the title: like Kristeva’s earlier "semiotic", it takes place within the sense of language, opening up a movement of a-thought. It is a challenge to the (male) subject, but one that does not generate any alternative forms of subjectivity or social order.

This is a tricky question, and one this book implies more than articulating. Must revolt always be a shrinking from, a kicking against that ultimately re-turns to the modes of subjectivity or the social order that it repels? Lest it give rise to yet another repressive social regime (Stalinism following in the path of 1917)? Must revolt always be revolutionary, circular? Couldn’t revolt’s working-through lead us somewhere else?

What I think Kristeva overlooks are the possibilities that postmodern conditions open up - for example, for forging cybernetic communities. She does concede that the developments that challenge revolt may be forward steps for democracy. Her rethinking of revolt, however, doesn’t explore these developments as opportunities for revolt. Can the technological developments and socio-political changes that challenge the subject of revolt themselves be instances of revolt? Postmodern/late capitalist conditions complicate older versions of the subject and of revolt, but they also present, perhaps, opportunities for the thinking of new subjects and new revolts.

Who says that the revolution will not be televised?


Charlotte Craw is an Auckland writer. Currently, she is conducting the revolution with her remote (Ricki and Melrose are on at the same time).




Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room