Reflections on the Kristeva Affair
There is a growing tendency in our times to author or publish analyses of events that swim in scandal, even to convict someone on an issue where ambiguity abounds and, centrally, where what is needed instead is a real reckoning with our history. Of this sort is The New Yorker’s recent, peculiar publication for an audience here of a Bulgarian piece on the Kristeva affair that is rather obviously written for Bulgaria. The article returns to actions taken earlier this year by the Bulgarian “Dossier Committee,” created in 2006.[i] In March, the Committee published pages from the records of the Communist regime’s State Security service. These allegedly show that a child of Bulgaria who has lived in France since the 1960s was used to spy on French cultural and intellectual life by officers of the foreign-intelligence arm of the service: that she was for a short period early in the 1970s in alliance with the regime she had departed.
In repeating the allegations made against Julia Kristeva, who is widely read across the humanities, not least in the US, the author of the piece calls her “internationally celebrated as a literary theorist and psychoanalyst,” a “continental philosopher,” and a “public intellectual.” These accolades appear, in this situation, to make her worthy of the sudden, unprecedented act of dumping 400 pages of raw data, the State Security documents, from the archive of the Dossier Committee into a public forum for all to see—if you read Cyrillic. It is clear that the Bulgarian author of the article in The New Yorker, Dimiter Kenarov, has scrutinized the published materials himself, and sought testimony from some who would have been in the know, at the time, about the regime’s intelligence methods, actions, and documents.
The position of the article is that Kristeva did nothing to harm any individual. Rather, she exercised an immensely clever strategy of fake cooperation, simultaneously speaking about everything and saying nothing; with the moments of most cooperation being where she was protecting her parents and sister who remained in Bulgaria. The one manipulated out-handled her handlers. A prominent representative of the Dossier Committee is then quoted in this piece as saying “personally I would have understood her” if she told her story; the implication being that the only acceptable response to this story is confession. Because she has not confessed, Kristeva is found doubly culpable: of betrayal and cover-up. Giving no room to the voice of the other, not interested in hearing her voice, Kristeva’s conviction is made the premise of this essay rather than a reasoned conclusion.
I can understand what underlies the author’s condemnation: for Bulgarians to read these pages about the most significant intellectual of the last 50 years to come from Bulgaria must be heartbreaking; the disappointment goes to the core of what is shared by those who suffered the vicissitudes of the country over a period when she did not. This is disappointment writ large.
Another thing, however, is the publication of the article in a prominent Western venue for news and commentary, when the piece is not directed at Westerners at all. Without being able to read the documents, and probably knowing too little of the history, readers are led into one of those analyses that put everything up for grabs by gathering allegations, innuendo, and uncertain testimony under disastrous headings. This allows for one position only: here, the position taken against Kristeva, first as regards the documents themselves, and then for her responses to their publication and the swiftly following allegations. There is no room for ambiguity or reflection. No room is given for finding the responses of anyone who has been or is being bullied, manipulated, spied on (as she was), or accused in this way understandable. It is another moment of unmasking a heroine with feet of clay. It is another appearance of a familiar feature of our times: victimhood in bullying or manipulation being turned into responsibility for the events themselves.
What is going on in analyses like these? In our context, it can be a cheap way for the author to appropriate the moral high ground in a prominent venue, even to promote one’s career, while the publisher also grasps for the moral high ground. The ambiguity of an issue is set aside, and disappointment allowed to stand. In this piece, disappointment becomes focused into the author’s conclusion that it really is Kristeva’s responses to the allegations for which she is to be judged, even more than the deeds themselves. The figure unmasked is now to be taken as the very figure of hiding from history.
Analyses like this can be a screen for a ressentiment—resentment—that is trying to do something else than what first appears. It may be trying to express hostility towards someone who did not suffer the worst excesses of a terrible regime or the poverty following its collapse: to convict them of their exile—to condemn her for having escaped, and then not to let her escape completely, because of disappointment. Alternatively, the agenda may be to bolster current distaste for a field of inquiry, like postmodern theory or psychoanalytic theory.
In the following, I am interested in both historical reckoning and psychical reckoning, and in the relation between them because this seems to be the hidden stakes in the author’s analysis.
Julia Kristeva is known for her developments of psychoanalytic theory. What is happening, then when—in moving through the allegations—the article begins to quote her while at the same time side-stepping the theory’s core values and meaning? Is the thought well comprehended? Well questioned? Well criticized? No matter. The theory can as easily be taken up to condemn the thinker for her ideas as to use these ideas to convict her. Mere passing familiarity with psychoanalysis as a theory of psychical representations leads, in this context, to utter disregard for the great psychical work of reaching across the “inside-outside” distinction; and for the need of going over accidents and failings in just this work. Thinking about this cannot be quick, but I hope that the following tale can bring it into focus.
At one point, the article adopts an accusatory stance on Kristeva’s essay, “Bulgaria, My Suffering.”[ii] The author refers to a passage near its beginning that forms part of a psychoanalytic self-reflection by Kristeva. This passage uses two psychoanalytic terms: Freud’s “reservoir” and the term “crypt.” What Kristeva means by crypt and how the writer of the article uses it are quite different. Her writing turns to how Bulgaria—although and largely because she does not dwell in her former country—still dwells in her. Bulgaria itself is not the crypt. She is turning the Freudian “scalpel” on herself, just where she may be most fragile as a speaking subject, most exposed as a public intellectual. In contrast, the author of the article takes her words, “this buried crypt,” “this reservoir that rots and decays,” for a “nearly apocalyptic” description of the writer’s feelings towards her former country. He finds that she has simply judged her native land from a supposedly nobler place outside it. In this reception of Kristeva’s psychoanalytic terms, all are metaphors for Bulgaria itself. Thus, in his meaning, Bulgaria is for her a place of burial and death. And now—taking her words and pushing them back down the throat of their author—he is going to en-crypt her.
Evident here is the disappointment, and the unwillingness to forgive that fragility at which there is disappointment. But what is served by attempting to blow up this unforgiven wanderer, at the same time as the moral ambiguities of dignifying past State Security officers with respect for their testimony are allowed to float away? Who is served? What time gained?
A scandal that rages in this way against a “celebrated” intellectual may bring his or her readers to wonder at the choice between becoming detractors, in part, or appearing as mere followers; or at best, when not in the eye of the storm, maintaining a more or less unhappy, more or less sanguine silence. The deeper problem is that the analyses are not a real reckoning with our histories, or our present, and that with each step such a reckoning becomes for a time more difficult to attempt, even to recognize perhaps.
There is another thinker—in different circumstances than Kristeva’s writing of “Bulgaria, My Suffering,” yet in the same period ending the separation of Europeans by an iron curtain—who would not be put off the attempt either. Gillian Rose was invited to be one of a number of Jewish intellectuals to participate in the second of two symposiums initiated in 1990 by the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz. The later symposium was held in Poland, Krakow and Auschwitz, in 1992. As Rose relates, one participant in the opening sessions made reference to the “innocent” Dutch-Jewish child, symbol of hope; another to the antagonism of a Jewish group visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau site towards their Polish guide, until he shared with them his animosity towards “Germans.” She summarized an opposition, “innocent Jew/guilty German; blithe child/malevolent adult”—not in order to adopt it, nor to absolve those responsible, nor, by posing and simply rejecting the opposition, to crush identities, though we must be able to question them. Rather, she sought to draw out a difficulty that she saw had emerged in the sessions already. To capture and express the difficulty, she prefaced her own remarks with “a ‘gnostic’ poem.”[iii]
I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty
Her contribution to the symposium then sought to draw attention to how modern forms of socialization—“bureaucratic, technological, bureaucratically rational”—may rob us of moral autonomy and responsibility, and how this is central to what has occurred in the worst modern regimes. While this author was not a particular admirer of Kristeva’s thought, she was happy to take from her the idea of “strangers to ourselves,” and deploy it in her own searching analyses of the problem of self-identity in our modern moral and social experience. Rose considers how inner moral motivation takes us into outer social action and, in reverse, we move from public conduct into the inner autonomy of thinking. In this traversing of “the inner and outer boundaries” of our self-identity, experience takes the form of the inversions of experience. That is to say, more often than not we make the uncomfortable discovery that things never turn out as they were in the beginning. We cannot avoid what she calls “the inversion of intentions and institutions.”[iv] We find no satisfaction, and the splitting of self-identity cannot finally be resolved.
Today, in the midst of multiplying scandals and “affairs,” I am not certain what really good interventions can be, not only because enmity may be the only item on the menu, but also given so much disappointment and such grasping at the moral high ground on which community, so deeply missed, is sought—yet from which, so often, sweeping or conclusive judgments are passed. We have to be careful about our disappointments, and careful about killing our mothers and fathers who give us all the space for reflection that we have available at the moment.
If the relation between historical reckoning and psychical reckoning can be the less hidden stakes of analysis, it seems to me that a place to start is allowing interventions in public intellectual discourse to take on the moral ambiguities of an issue, and allowing one another to have confronted the difficult task of relating “inside” and “outside”—without resolution of the sundered unity of experience.
[i] The Committee’s full title is the Committee for Disclosing the Documents and Announcing the Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
[ii] Julia Kristeva, “Bulgaria, My Suffering,” L’Infini, Autumn 1995. This is translated into English, with different wording for the passage in question, in Julia Kristeva, Crisis of the European Subject (New York: Other Press, 2000).
[iii] Gillian Rose, “The Future of Auschwitz,” in Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Blackwell: 1993). The author put the title of her essay in quotation marks.
[iv] Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle, Out of Our Ancient Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).