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The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (2)

Kristeva’s Subject En Procès

As much as it is necessary to understand the historicisation of bourgeois art categories to comprehend Burger’s theory of the historical avant-garde, it is necessary to understand Kristeva’s conception of signifying practice to comprehend her concept of the avant-garde and its ability to put the subject en procès (on trial). I will not summarise the whole of her argument in Revolution in Poetic Language,[i] rather I will restrict myself to a brief outline of her concept of signifying practice, and then go on in more detail to look at its implications for the avant-garde.

Strictly speaking, Revolution in Poetic Language is not a theory of the avant-garde, but of the manner in which revolution within social structures can find an equivalent through linguistic structures, in the subject.[ii] Subjective “revolution,” further, is not actuated especially by what Burger would identify as the historical avant-garde, and indeed the second part of the work which is the “practice” section of textual analysis, is concerned with two, historically, pre-avant-garde writers: Mallarmé and Lautréamont.

However, Kristeva’s conception of the ability of poetic language to put the subject in an equivalent state of revolution is not only inherited from avant-garde ideologies from formalism through to surrealism, but it also fulfils the primary definition of the historical avant-garde which is to eradicate the distance between art and life-praxis. In her professed aim to bring about the equivalent of a social revolution within the subject, she is also indicating to what degree the social is determined by the linguistic encoding of the subject of enunciation. Simply put, revolution in poetic language will result in social revolution.[iii] This is a major contribution to avant-garde theory for it returns to the avant-garde the question of the subject, which was always vital to it.[iv] It is also a major contribution to theories on poetry as a whole, for it provides a radical explanation for such complex linguistic structures that is negative and generative, rather than affirmative and reifying.

Signifying practice is first a process. A vital point, especially when concerning the avant-garde, for it stresses the importance of process and practice over work (primarily the category “work of art”). It is the manner in which the subject is generated and negated within language. It is also the place where the subject is generated and negated, full stop. Language, more specifically signifying practice, is the moment wherein subjectivity operates but it never is, being composed of two elements which are radically heterogeneous. The first is the semiotic which operates through the space of the chora. The chora is “a non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated” (Kristeva, Revolution 25), and is what is formed by the regulation of the drives by a priori sexual and social restrictions—the oedipal triangle. The result of this regulation is the mark whose combinations produce a rhythm.

The second is the thetic breach of the semiotic, the primary scission between subject and the other that occurs from the mirror stage on when the subject begins to identify the difference between subject and object, and begins the identification of itself with a specular, imago other.[v] The thetic is the primary scission that ushers in language acquisition, it takes the subject away from the semiotic space of the chora, to the social space of the symbolic order. This is how signification occurs, but signification is static.

Signifying practice is an ongoing, dynamic process which occurs when the semiotic is returned within the symbolic, threatening it with a sudden irruption of the death drive. This always happens, requiring a second thetic break which re-enforces the symbolic order onto the semiotic drives. The first thetic break is necessary, both to form the subject and to save the subject from the excess of semiotic drives. The second is more a position taken up in relation to the semiotic, a retrogressive positing of the semiotic as the decollated, or sacrificed, origin of the symbolic order through the thetic.

The first thetic moment results in the linguistic subject of enunciation,[vi] the second in ongoing signifying practice. In a sense, the process of signifying practice then is the ongoing repetition of the two moments of the subject, its positing via a primary scission and its re-positing via a secondary cut of semiotic rupture. The first is what Lacan calls the “tuché,” the encounter with the real, the second is his “automaton,” the compulsion to repeat.[vii] What is important about signifying practice is that it inscribes the poetic or avant-garde, which is the habitual or enforced rupture of the semiotic within the symbolic, within a double process of negativity, and repetition, of negativity repeated and of repetition as negativity.

Thus we have a double negation, primary and secondary scission, and also an ongoing process of repetition that is the repetition of negativity. When this process gets re-cast as a practice, something the subject consciously works at through text, then we have the revolutionary aspect of poetic language which first came to the fore as conscious practice at the end of the nineteenth century with the beginning of aestheticism’s collapse in the avant-garde. In different manners, the work of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé undermines the assumed bourgeois cogito of subjective certainty.

Kristeva’s system is more complex than Burger’s, and seems to operate within completely different territory, but in fact it is only a development of his conception of institutionalised art, symbolic order art, into the heterogeneous realm of the subject. In doing this she immediately rescues the avant-garde from the failures ascribed to it by Burger and many other materialist critics. Kristeva’s avant-garde text can never fail, any more than it can succeed, not in the crude sense of achieving its aims, for what could those aims be?

The aim of the semiotic is to overwhelm the symbolic; the aim of the thetic is to arrest the irruption of the semiotic. If the semiotic succeeds, the subject becomes mad, mad with melancholy, and literally under threat.[viii] If the thetic succeeds the subject becomes static, literally ossified by its success, and falls into the life of a robot—Lacan’s automaton. Neither alternative is attractive, but because of the dialectical nature of the subject, neither is likely either as the thetic is always negating the semiotic, and the semiotic is always breaching the symbolic. It is clear, for these reasons alone, why the twin concepts of Hegelian negativity and Freudian rejection are so central to Kristeva’s work.

Negativity is vital in that it is this process of the negation of the semiotic chora into signifying structures that results in syntax and thus in text as such. Syntax, then, indeed text as a whole, is to be viewed not as a process of conveyance of communication, but of the cutting-off of the semiotic into linguistic code that the subject can deal with safely:

In other words, if the symbolic function is a syntactic function, and if the latter consists essentially in linking a subject (and elements relating to it) and a predicate (and its related elements), the formation of the symbol of negation precedes this function or coincides with its development. To say “no” is already to formulate syntactically orientated propositions that are more or less grammatical. In other words, negation in judgement is a mark of the symbolic and/or syntactic function and the first mark of sublimation or the thetic. (Kristeva, Revolution 122)

Rejection is the second moment of signifying practice, the moment when syntax becomes poeticised, to use a formalist term.[ix] The moment of rejection is the moment when the subject throws away the “automatic” forms of the symbolic order, rejects them as somehow distasteful to it. One might ask why the subject would do such a thing, one might ask why rejection, why an avant-garde at all? The answer is to have what is discarded returned to it. The symbolic rejects itself in order to re-posit itself by the retroactive positioning of the scene of the semiotic,[x] thus completing the dialectic economy that is signifying practice. In traditional, non-poeticised, poetics, this was achieved and anaphoric text was maintained,[xi] but in the avant-garde text the process is radicalised into practice; process becomes practice: characteristic of the subject in process/on trial who succeeds—for biographical and historical reasons—in remodelling the historically accepted signifying device by proposing the representation of a different relation to natural objects, social apparatuses, and the body proper. This subject moves through the linguistic network and uses it to indicate...that the linguistic network does not represent something real posited in advance and forever detached from instinctual process, but rather that it experiments with or practices the objective process by submerging in it and emerging through the drives. This subject of expenditure is not a fixed point—a “subject of enunciation”—but instead acts through the text’s organization (structure and completion)... (Kristeva, Revolution 126)

One final aspect of Kristeva’s theory must be taken into account, and that is heterogeneity. Her system as a whole, like Burger’s, in based on a dialectical model and she utilises Hegel and Marx extensively. However, it is her use of Freud that radicalises her narrative towards another sense of materiality. The materialist aspect to her work is clear, but her sense of the material base of the subject in the social realm is not limited to the history of the modes of production, but also takes into account, as we have seen, the subject.

This subject, the subject of uncertainty as opposed to previous proposed phenomenological subjects of certainty, is posited as the never there through the ongoing motility of signifying practice. This motility can be maintained because of the heterogeneity of drives: “drives are...the repeated scission of matter that generates significance, the place where an always absent subject is produced” (Kristeva, Revolution 167). One has to turn to an earlier article for a better definition of what this heterogeneity of drives actually is.

In “From One Identity to Another,” Kristeva clearly marks out heterogeneity’s nature and its importance:

The notion of heterogeneity is indispensable, for though articulate, precise, organized, and complying with constraints and rules...this signifying disposition is not that of meaning or signification: no sign, no predication, no signified object and therefore no operating consciousness of a transcendental ego. We shall call this disposition semiotic, meaning...a distinctive mark, trace, index, the premonitory sign, the proof, engraved mark, imprint—in short, a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers (in psychotic discourse) to a signified object for a thetic consciousness... (Kristeva, Desire in Language 133)

Such a heterogeneity is built up of successive occasions of the two laws already noted: repetition and rejection. Drive motility continuously comes up against restrictions and is halted, leaving marks. The successive accumulation of these marks is the rhythmic musicality of the semiotic which is an essential heterogeneity to all signification. Heterogeneity is the necessary precursor to the sign, its thetic cut producing all signification, but it is also a scene which the sign must return to, as if to the scene of a crime.

These issues will be continuously analysed in this study in language perhaps less opaque than Kristeva’s, but at this point a few clarifying remarks might be apt. Kristeva’s sense of heterogeneity is of a disposition which precedes signification but which still leaves marks, that is it is a process of marking, previous to signification but which also breaches the symbolic order later on, as it were. It is heterogeneous material to rational signification but the marks, in other words its basic materiality, can be cut from the semiotic source and subsequently be made into rational signs.

A second sense of heterogeneity, however, will also be investigated in this chapter, that of the irreducibility of the sublime phrase which is a foundational aspect of Lyotard’s work. In this schema the confrontation is not between heterogeneous and homogeneous realms, that is it is not dialectical as Kristeva’s schema quite clearly is, but is rather between two heterogeneous realms. This will be explained later, but it should be asserted here that both senses of the heterogeneous are essentially the same, what differs is the nature of the relation of the heterogeneous mark or phrase to the process of signification.

Heterogeneity is clearly essential to understand signifying practice, but it is also a key aspect to understanding that aspect of the avant-garde which will facilitate setting up a relationship between it and the New York School. Heterogeneity is the part of text that repeats, but in a manner other to, note it is other and not opposite to, the process of repetition that purely affirmative art partakes of. Affirmative art essentially re-affirms the institution of art at the very point where the institution of art may come under threat. This is especially true in the case of autonomous art which seeks to remove itself from the influence of social institutions altogether. The repetitive aspect of affirmative art becomes, therefore, anaphoric; it repeats the external semantic realm of the institution, at the expense of its hylic specificity.

Heterogeneity is the repetition of this hylic specificity at the expense of the anaphoric potential of a text.[xii] It re-inscribes the text with the symbolic order’s other, the semiotic, in such a way that at first it appears as a dialectical antimony to the symbolic order. However, the mark of the semiotic is not opposite to the sign of the symbolic order, but rather its precondition and subsequent necessary other against which it defines itself. Alone, this would make the semiotic the hylic equivalent to anaphoric affirmation, but because of the law of rejection, such affirmation is negated and the radical challenge of the subject en procès is returned to the scene of the text.

It is this return of the absent subject that is the return of the heterogeneous into the text and is the onset of the avant-garde. And so heterogeneity seems somehow foundational to all I will be saying here: a basic refusal by the material of expression to allow itself to be forced into the imposed normative category of rational semantics, coupled with a wariness over elevating materiality up to the status of a metaphysical other to rationality. It is the double process at the heart of the life of heterogeneous material expression that makes Kristeva’s work so important for any consideration of the avant-garde, which is not just a rejection of rationality, but a dialogue with, and critique of, rationality through the development of the material of the nonrational at its centre.

Kristeva’s analysis does not refute Burger’s, rather it develops it. By replacing praxis with practice, she sets up a system of textual practice that can challenge the dominant institutions of bourgeois art, can question their very validity, without having to aspire to the loftier aims of the avant-garde utopia, although her aim is similarly utopian in parts. Her highlighting of the value of the absent other, courtesy of the heterogeneity of signification which always exceeds the certainty of self-expression typified by the subject of enunciation, allows us to see the avant-garde as part of a larger history of conscious inscription of the heterogeneous in text for the purpose of subjective and social revolution.

We can also see how this work operates clearly within the tripartite set “everyday—everybody—everything.” Through her development of practice we get a sense of the relation of poetic revolution to social revolution, which, then, through the idea of how this puts the subject en procès also demonstrates how the revolution of everyday social conditions cannot occur without a revolution within the subject. Finally, the use of heterogeneity indicates the importance of retaining the specificity of the thing, whether it be the utterance, the subject as thing, or the thing as such. This recognition of the tripartite ramification of Kristevan practice also “segues” perfectly into the final theorist I want to consider here, Jean-François Lyotard, and his conception of the sublime.

[i]There are a number of sources for such a summary including the introduction to the English translation by Leon Roudiez, John Lechte’s book Julia Kristeva, and Michael Payne’s Reading Theory.
[ii]Her project is laid out clearly in the semi-utopian and prophetic “Prolegomenon”: “The text is a practice that could be compared to political revolution: the one brings about in the subject what the other introduces into society” (Kristeva, Revolution 17).
[iii]In dealing with Marx’s conception of history as the history of modes of production, not of the subject present to itself (a conception Burger wholeheartedly agrees with), Kristeva has asked the vital question: what has happened to the subject? Revolution in Poetic Language is the beginning of an answer she is still formulating today in texts such as The Powers of Horror and Black Sun. Her thesis begins from the realisation of the absence of the subject from the history of the modes of production, “the subject never is. The subject is only the signifying process and he appears only as a signifying practice, that is, only when he is absent within the position out of which social, historical, and signifying activity unfolds” (Kristeva, Revolution 215). But it goes on to radicalise this absence by introducing the idea of practice wherein the subject’s continuing absence from the modes of production is the source of its revolutionary import: “If history is made up of modes of production, the subject is a contradiction that brings about practice because practice is always both signifying and semiotic, a crest where meaning emerges only to disappear. It is incumbent on “art” to demonstrate that the subject is the absent element of this practice, just as it was incumbent upon political economy to prove that history is a matter of class struggle” (Kristeva, Revolution 215).
[iv]Burger does not acknowledge this, yet even his basic three part definition of the avant-garde’s desire to remove the distance between art and life-praxis, through the radical re-appropriation of production and reception, is essentially a theory of the subject in language (production) defining itself in relation to the other (reception). It is strange that he does not concede this, considering that the two major avant-garde movements, surrealism and Russian futurism, both place the radicalisation of subject/object relations at the heart of their experiments.
[v]For the full description of this process see Lacan’s now often cited “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits 1-7. Also, Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Here, especially in part 6, “The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze,” he elaborates a great deal on the effect of the split that this originary specular moment produces. Speaking of the repetition of this original split, which occurs every time we are involved in an encounter, “tuché,” Lacan notes, “this split constitutes the characteristic dimension of analytic discovery and experience; it enables us to apprehend the real, in its dialectical effects, as originally unwelcome. It is precisely through this that the real finds itself, in the subject, to a very great degree the accomplice to the drive...” (Lacan, Four Fundamental 69). This section is an important source for Kristeva’s theory on the subject as practice.
[vi]The subject of enunciation is a concept Kristeva has taken from Emile Benveniste, but is an old problem in ontology in general. It is the moment when the subject says “I am,” and conceives of itself as internally complete, yet also placed external to itself by its ability to enunciate itself in language.
[vii]Lacan, “Tuché and Automaton” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis 53-64.
[viii]This is how a later text such as Black Sun can be seen to be updating the early semiotic work by re-positing the excess of non-signifiable content in terms of melancholy.
[ix]Roman Jakobson’s definition of “poeticity” is helpful here: “poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Selected Writings III 750). Jakobson’s point is, that that which defines poetry, the dominance of the function “poeticity,” occurs when the word’s phonetic, rhythmic or graphic qualities are emphasised at the expense of its semantic or representative qualities. This emphasis on the materiality of the word is the result of the marking of a text and produces a text that, if not presymbolic, is somehow marked by the presymbolic. This was dubbed in Russia, “zaum” or transrational poetry, and was, as Osip Brik notes, a return to the mark at the expense of sense. He claims, “we can turn any line of poetry into a transrational one, if, instead of meaningful words, we insert sounds which express the rhythmic-phonic arrangement of these words” (Brik 124). Brik is in agreement both with Kristeva, that the marked text results in rhythm as a dominant, and also with Derrida that the phonic element is not essential. All that is essential is the rhythm of repetition.
[x]The origin of this conception of rejection is of course Freud’s fort/da.
[xi]Anaphora is the rhetorical method of repeating the same word in different phrases, and originates from the Greek sense of to “carry back.” It has subsequently been used by linguistics, text linguistics in particular, as a primary term for explaining the cohesion possible in units larger than the phrase or the “sentence.” The definitions of anaphora are not standardised but essentially it is the repetition of a word in a subsequent phrase. However, it has wider implications than this for this “repetition” of a “word” can take the form of pronominal repetition, the word can be replaced by a pronoun; it can be subsequently missed out altogether through ellipsis, therefore it is present as a trace; and it can be replaced in ellipsis by a substitution or holding device in place of a lexical item. Further, anaphora can “repeat” the “word” by a variety of synonyms for the original word which, themselves, can be subject to reorganisation, ellipsis and so on. Anaphora is, then, the perceived repetition of a primary word, distributed throughout the text as a form of cohesion made accessible by the primary referential capacity of lexical items. The best example of this being “it,” which is the anaphoric indicator supreme, as it refers back without specifying within itself what it refers to. It bears the trace of all words. This is a capacity much abused by the New York School.
[xii]The choice of hylic here is deliberate. Its synonyms are all either semantically deficient, or over determined. “Form” is, in this context, too charged with traditional divisions between form and content, and is too suggestive of formalism. Besides, the hylic is formless in that it is not limited. Material is better, in that it is more neutral, but hylic means “of matter” so is in effect material’s adjective. Another alternative to this would be somatic, but its relation to the human body goes too far for the basic level of material that makes up the hylic, and besides, is too redolent of psychoanalytical discourse. Further, it should be made clear that the anaphoric is the repetitive aspect of the poetic text while the hylic is its material specificity. One of the possible aporias then of a processual aesthetic is how one reconciles these two heterogeneous realms, in actual fact that of the homogenous and the heterogeneous which is accentuated in poetry, as poeticity is in essence repetitious.


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