Study Guide

Julia Kristeva Buzzwords

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Look, I'm gonna put it out there: I am not a fan of buzzwords. Of course, I coined enough terms to produce a modest addendum to the French dictionary, but here's what I have to say about the popularization of my ideas, so take heed:

I am very proud of the widespread use of my ideas, and at the same time very much ashamed because they have become so fashionable. Everybody thinks and talks about 'intertextuality', everybody thinks and talks about 'abjection'. The ideas become politically correct everywhere in the world and I hate it because I think when people repeat what you have done and said, they can no longer recognise you yourself. You are denied. It's a kind of decay of this moment when the idea burst out of your mind. Now the idea is consumerised. (source)

That said, just so we're all on the same page, here are some definitions

The Abject and Abjection

This is one of French theory's coolest buzzwords. The abject is something that both disgusts us and compels us at the same time. Good examples include excrement, blood, dandruff, finger nails—oh, and scabs are a great example. It's kind of kike how you stare in disgust as someone hurls on the sidewalk. Well, why the heck didn't you look away? Because the abject is fascinating.

The abject repulses us and calls to us, as I explain: "Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us" (source).

So here's a question: Why are we so repulsed by "the abject"? My theory: We have to be all grossed out in order to be proper members of the social order. What would people think if you admitted that you liked all that poop and other stuff?


This one's a fave. Now, I wasn't the first to use this term—and I certainly won't be the last—but I love it like a scruffy old teddy bear. Like it sounds, intertextuality means "among texts," which is to say that works of literature "talk to" and refer to each other and carry on a great exchange of ideas (okay, not literally).

For example, Michael Cunningham's The Hours retells the story of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea revisits the story in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre from a different angle. These books are having intertextual responses to and conversations with each other.


The French feminists and I took a liking to this little Lacanian gem, but as feminists are wont to do, we gave it our own sassy twist. The literal translation is "deep pleasure" or "joy," but fellow French feminists like Hélène Cixous and I applied it to ideas like female sexual bliss and orgasm (that's more her idea—she's way more fun than I am) and maternal, body (as opposed to Paternal, symbolic) expressions.

In my typical fashion (I was trained as a linguist, after all), I tie the idea of jouissance into language. Don't get me wrong: jouissance is not necessarily a pretty moment. As I explain in Powers of Horror, jouissance is a moment of recognizing the Other as disgusting, because the Other is both you and not you. Experiencing the abject always refers back to the moment when you realized you must inevitably separate from the maternal body. It ain't easy.

Semiotic ("la Semiotique")

Before you grow up and start talking like an adult, you are in the pre-Symbolic (a.k.a. pre-verbal) phase of life. These are good times because you have someone changing your diaper, and you don't have to pay a cable bill—but that's not all. It's a time when your language has not entered into "the Symbolic," and you get to express yourself through "subverbal codes" like cute coos and ahhs.

During this stage, you don't know the right words for things, but everyone thinks you are adorable anyway—until it's time to straighten up and start attaching meanings to words and getting with the program. Entering into the Symbolic means that you begin to use language and signs that everyone recognizes instead of just making sounds that have meaning to you.

The Symbolic

Here's where things get sticky. You're going along happily, expressing yourself in your own unique infant-like way, and then you enter "the Symbolic." (It helps to picture the entrance to a creepy funhouse here.) Now you have to use the language of the Father—not necessarily your father, but that great oppressive paternalistic FATHER who represents everything imposing—like the Law—and is now imposing his "sign system" on you.

His "sign system" is language itself. In order to function in society, you must use the language that everyone else uses, but, in doing so, you accept that the words you speak will never be your own. It's harsh, but it's the price you pay for being part of social order.

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