The Strangeness Within: Julia Kristeva and Cosmopolitanism

By Ingrid Schreiber

Cosmopolitanism has become a dirty word in twenty-first century politics. Postmodern progressivism and resurgent ethnonationalism, somewhat unlikely bedfellows, have together exposed the inadequacy of traditional cosmopolitan models to accommodate diversity. Under attack from both sides of the political spectrum, the prospect of global citizenship seems increasingly undesirable, passé and even suspect. 

Against this current, French-Bulgarian philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva offers a vision of a unified humanity far removed from shallow, bureaucratic globalism. Rejecting earlier formulations, including those of Stoicism and Kantianism, her cosmopolitan worldview is a humble, self-reflective one, with its basis, not in any assumed homogeneity of human culture, but in the individual psyche.

All subjects, Kristeva argues, are fundamentally self-alienated. By exposing how subjectivity is built on an unstable, evolving sense of Otherness, she aims to de-pathologise foreignness in a way which will undermine the vitriol and exclusionary mindset of xenophobia and sectarianism.

“File:Julia-Kristeva-BNF.jpg” by Guiness88 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Kristeva’s fascination with the politics of national identity reflects her lifelong experience of self-described exile. Born in Bulgaria in 1941, she moved to France to complete a doctorate, studying under the likes of Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Her career – spanning academia, novel-writing and literary criticism – has since played out across France and the United States.

Today, Kristeva remains an influential public intellectual and polymath, having written over 30 books on diverse subjects in philosophy, linguistics, critical theory, art, psychoanalysis and international relations. Much of her work transcends disciplinary boundaries, driven instead by a fascination with the key interdisciplinary themes of language, subjectivity, affect, semiotics and power.

Indeed, while Kristeva has a complex relation to feminism as a political movement, she is widely credited – along with Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray – with reconfiguring psychoanalysis from its patriarchal, conservative origins into a liberal, gender-critical language for critiquing hegemony.

This reputation stems largely from her revision of the Lacanian model of psychosexual development. For Kristeva, the infant begins life in the chora – a term she repurposes from Plato to describe the primordial, monadic state of unreflective, drive-dominated newborn existence. Beginning in her doctoral thesis, published as Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), she distinguishes two subsequent spheres of experience: the Semiotic and the Symbolic. 

While the Symbolic encompasses the post-oedipal domain of discourse, signs and syntax, the Semiotic represents the more instinctive, emotional realm of pre-linguistic subjectivity, a realm tied to music, rhythm and the feminine. Even once the infant has developed a self-image and language – which Kristeva associates with the Law of the Father – it continues to oscillate between this Symbolic order and the earlier Semiotic.

This represents, not just a less phallocentric psychoanalysis, but also a radical denial of the stability of selfhood. Kristeva’s so-called ‘subject-in-process’ is eternally in flux, coherent identity always eluding its grasp, and threatened by the revolutionary force of semiotic memory. This idea – that we are always in the process of becoming ourselves – challenges the normative view of liberal, autonomous selfhood.

It is by unseating this traditional figure that Kristeva’s psychoanalysis advances a political and ethical position: that any politics built on the assumption of self-sovereignty is untenable. 

Crucially for her model of cosmopolitanism, she places great weight upon the infant’s first experience of distinguishing self and Other, which takes place four to eight months after birth. Drawing upon the notion of the Freudian uncanny and the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ orientation theorised by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, she argues that parts of the infant psyche are split off and expelled in an ego-defending process called abjection.

To replace the rational, independent actor of political liberalism, Kristeva imagines a new kind of citizen, one who is vulnerable and self-reflective: a subject who understands that whenever they encounter difference in the world, and react with fear, distrust or horror, they are simply reacting to those parts of themselves once excised in abjection. 

Significantly, however, Kristeva’s theory of self-estrangement is not just about individual minds, but the development of nationalism. National identity is defined through the policing and expulsion of Otherness, splitting and projecting perceived negativity to protect a collective subjectivity. 

Kristeva’s work therefore aims to construct a new language of how to live with social difference. In her theory, any hatred of Otherness becomes redirected hatred of the self. Tensions about immigration, assimilation and integration disappear when we recognise that protecting the nation by eliminating strangeness becomes an impossible, logically nonsensical task. 

Her model of nationalism eschews the Volksgeist ideal of cultural homogeneity in favour of a more contractual, secular union of liberal pluralism. It culminates in a vision of such rejuvenated nation-states rallying together in an esprit général of tolerance and respect.

In part, Kristeva sees herself as redeeming the intellectual inheritance of the French Revolution, reworking the principle of universal dignity in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). ‘Let us have universality for the rights of man,’ she declares, so long as this is built upon – not an elitist fraternity – but a recognition of the violent tendencies which are a ‘surely modifiable but yet constituent portion of the human psyche.’[1] Her message is simple: we can build a tolerant, radical new ethos of global citizenship – if we only acknowledge the strangeness within ourselves.

Kristeva crafted her cosmopolitanism 30 years ago, as a response to the resurgence of ethno-cultural nationalism in Europe. But her insights remain pertinent for the twenty-first century, when the rhetoric of Otherness has only intensified with growing polarisation, partisanship and civil unrest.

Further reading:

Kristeva, Julia. Nations without Nationalism. Translated by L. S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by L. S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Pres, 1991.

McAfee, Noëlle. ‘Abject Strangers: Toward an Ethics of Respect.’ In Ethics, Politics and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writing, edited by Kelly Oliver, 116-135. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Sjoholm, Cecilia. Kristeva & the Political: Thinking the Political. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[1] Julia Kristeva, Nations without Nationalism, trans. L. S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 27.

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