The Uses of Language: Julia Kristeva and Kenotic Love

Language is the medium in which we live and move, and what we make of or do with language, is determinative of the reality in which we live. In this post-theological age, it may not occur to us to consider that we have an orientation toward or within language. Psychoanalysis, or the talking cure (as Freud described it) is nearly the last realm in which what we do with words, linguistic exchange (even in dreams), how we linguistically constitute ourselves towards others and ourselves (transference and countertransference), is an object of study.

Psychologists have noted that young children pass through a fundamental depression just prior to acquisition of language. Julia Kristeva describes the passage into language as an abandonment by the mother or the narcissistic paradise in which all needs are met, and entry into the symbolic world of the father. “The child must abandon its mother and be abandoned by her in order to be accepted by the father and begin talking … [L]anguage begins in mourning …”[1] Both death and abandonment and the establishment of the self are implicated in language acquisition.

In the description of G. W. F. Hegel, language brings simultaneous awareness of death and its refusal. As he describes, inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.”[2] The “faculty” for language and the “faculty” for death arise together, but of course the peculiar faculty for life, at least in the Christian understanding is interwoven with this “faculty” of death and language. Which is to say, this focus and enquiry into language is first and properly the domain of theology.

As Kristeva describes, the work of the cross is to address us at this most basic and deep psychological level: “The ‘scandal of the cross’, the logos or language of the cross … is embodied, I think not only in the psychic and physical suffering which irrigates our lives … but even more profoundly in the essential alienation that conditions our access to language, in the mourning that accompanies the dawn of psychic life. By the quirks of biology and family life we are all of us melancholy mourners, witnesses to the death that marks our psychic inception.”[3] Yet it is through this passage, from out of blissful narcissism, that we discover the other. We form connections, not simply warm support in an extension of the life in the womb, but the possibility of love and hate, life and death, self and other, through entry into language. Kristeva depicts this slightly hellish condition as precisely the place in which Christ meets us: “Christ abandoned, Christ in hell, is of course the sign that God shares the condition of the sinner. But He also tells the story of that necessary melancholy beyond which we humans may just possibly discover the other, now in the symbolic interlocutor rather than the nutritive breast.”[4]  Language is for finding the other, for recognizing and negotiating mortality, and yet it can also be deployed as a refusal of this reality.

The matrix of language can be made to constitute its own reality, and can act as an obstacle rather than a bridge. In this understanding, attaching ourselves to the law, the immovable symbolic order, is simultaneously a means of inscribing ourselves into stone (becoming immortal) but the stone is an epitaph. Meaning attached to language per se, to the occurring of the sign, mistakes the letter of the law for its meaning. Kristeva raises the example of Chinese reification of the word: “In classical Chinese (for example, the I Ching), ‘to believe’ and ‘to be worthy of faith’ are expressed by the word xin, where the ideogram contains the signs for man and speech. Does ‘to believe’ therefore mean ‘to let speech act?’”[5] In the case of Japanese, being a speaker of the language conveys the spirit of Japanese identity. Much like the Jew, marked by Hebrew speaking and law-keeping, attachment to the sign conveys an immovable essence, which Paul characterizes as deadly. The reification of the word seems to be the universal tendency.

The philosopher often uses words much like the mathematician employs numbers, as a coherent symbol system which is or produces truth. In this understanding, language works within a closed system, in which words and symbols constitute their own reality. Thinking is being, as the thought contains the essence of reality. Rather than language leading from death to resurrection, we can be haunted by negativity, rejection, castration, death drive. In the language of the Apostle Paul, we can be caught between wanting and doing, between the law of the mind and the law of the body, and we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the ego, that ungraspable “I” in the mirror. The ego cogito is ever allusive, and yet pursuit of the ego poses as salvation.

To pass from death to resurrection requires a relinquishing of the ego. What Paul describes as kenotic self-giving love, is a relinquishment of stasis, being, and position, so as to reach out to and exist with and in the other. This kenotic lover does not insist upon his status or position in the symbolic order. This deadly attachment to law, is a futile attempt to have existence within the self – to establish the self-image as distinct from and not subject to the other. The ego is preserved at the cost of love. In the description of Graham Ward:

To be redemptive, to participate in the economy of redemption opened and perfected by Christ the form of God’s glory, our making cannot be in our name. Our making cannot, like the builders of the Tower of Babel, make a name for ourselves. Our making cannot reify our own autonomy. Such making is only death and idolatry. Our making must be in and through an abandonment to an operation that will instigate the crisis of our representations. Our making has to experience its Passion, its descent into the silent hiatus.[6]

The recognition of mortality, forsakenness, alienation, is the first step toward life. According to Kristeva, “It is because I am separate, forsaken, alone vis-àvis the other that I can psychologically cross the divide that is the condition of my existence and achieve not only ecstasy in completion (complétude: reunion with the father, himself a symbolic substitute for the mother) but also eternal life (resurrection) in the imagination.”[7] She is specifically thinking of life in Christ as completing the journey to love. ”For the Christian believer the completion of faith is real completion, and Christ, with whom the believer is exhorted to identify, expiates in human form the sin of all mankind before achieving glory in resurrection.”[8] The passage through death with Christ enables, through tarrying with the negative, kenotic love.

As Slavoj Žižek explains I Corinthians 13, this love necessitates self-emptying:

the point of the claim that even if I were to possess all knowledge, without love I would be nothing, is not simply that with love I am ‘something’ – in love, I am also nothing but, as it were, a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack. Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves: we love because we do not know all. On the other hand, even if we were to know everything, love would inexplicably still be higher than completed knowledge.[9]

Žižek’s negation rests upon an atheistic reading of Hegel, but the Christian Hegel sees negation, not as an end in itself, but as the merging of the infinite and finite. The infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[10] As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[11] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. God in Christ emptied himself, not of deity, but of the presumption of infinity. “He existed in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Php. 2:5–7). Paul is recommending Christ as the model for the Christian, who obviously cannot empty themselves of deity, but they can “have this attitude” of self-sacrificial giving. They can “hold fast to the word of life” (Php. 2:16) in taking up this self-emptying Word.  

Language is made for love, for connection to the other, such that all true dialogue is an act of love. Speaking as a reaching for the other is a relinquishment of the isolated ego. All true discourse is an act of love. According to Kristeva, “The speaking subject is a loving subject.”[12] But at the same time, “Love is a death sentence which causes me to be.”[13] As Ward explains, “All representation is a kenotic act of love towards the other; all representation involves transference – being caught up in the economy of giving signs.”[14] We gain access to both God and the neighbor through transferential (mutually indwelling) discourse of the kenotic Word. The task of theology, the work of the Christian, is to recognize how it is that the language of Christianity shapes us according to a different order of desire – (as Hans Frei describes) the unique “cultural linguistics of the Christian religion.”[15] In the vivid explanation of Ward:

As such, Christian theology is not secondary but participatory, a sacramental operation. It is a body of work at play within the language of the Christian community. Our physical bodies are mediated to us through our relation to other physical bodies and the mediation of those relationships through the body of the signs. Thus we are mapped onto a social and political body. The meaning of these signs is mediated to us through the body of Christ, eucharistic and ecclesial, so that we are incorporated into that spiritual body. Transcorporality is the hallmark of a theological anthropology. [16]

The deep grammar of the body of Christ inducts into an alternative linguistic community, in which lack and negation become the opening to love and entry into the corporate body of Christ, sharing a body, indwelling one another, through the “transcorporality” of Christ.

[1] Julia Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Colum[1]bia University Press, 1988) pp. 40. Cited in Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 207.

[2] According to Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Translated by Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) xii.

[3] Kristeva, 41.

[4] Kristeva, 41.

[5] Kristeva, 35

[6] Ward, 215.

[7] Kristeve, 35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute  — Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London/New York, Verso 2000) 147. Cited in Ward, 264.

[10] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019), 12.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[12] Kristeva, 170.

[13] Kristeva, 36, Cited in Ward, 212.

[14] Ward, 212.

[15] Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 20. Cited in Ward, 217.

[16] Ward, 217-218.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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