Fieldnotes from Europe: Today’s Fascists accuse Julia Kristeva
Many of you know the work of Bulgarian-French philosopher and public intellectual Julia Kristeva, some of you have studied with her, and many of you have probably heard about the recent accusations by the Bulgarian state of her being a „secret agent” of the Communist Bulgaria (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/01/arts/julia-kristeva-bulgaria-communist-spy.html.) Here is a passionate defense by Tomek Kitlinski, our long-time friend and collaborator, who studied with Kristeva in Paris.
Today’s Fascists Accuse Julia Kristeva
by Tomasz Kitlinski
Julia Kristeva, one of today’s finest minds, is being viciously accused of alleged espionage. If you’re not one of us – say petty anti-democracy militants and macho ultranationalists… in a word, fascists [http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/11/the-resistible-rise-of-fascists-today/ ] – you must have collaborated with the secret service: you are a traitor, Madame!
Forward-looking, inventing new concepts and practices, inspirational, this political philosopher-psychoanalyst embodies the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: Kristeva not only interprets, but also changes, the world. An activist, she campaigns for women, migrants, new humanists (those who came after post- and transhumanism), and people with special needs, people with disabilities. Kristeva thus adds our shared vulnerability to the principles of revolutionary equality and freedom.
Just after the collapse of sham Communism in 1989, I called her from a public phone booth in the backwaters of Eastern Europe: I told her I had coauthored (with Angus Reid) a book on masturbation, aphasia, and Poland, and that I’d like to study with her. I soon learned that she accepted my project and welcomed me to her postgraduate program. Energetically, she served as my adviser and, although we have been out of touch for some time, I still consider her my mentor.
Kristeva haters are weaklings who resort to the tired and spent ideology of chauvinism; they produce no thought of their own but repeat the slogans of a Great Nation State. All the depths of subjectivity and intersubjectivity are here forgotten: „fascists” is an identitarian equation: one needs to be a pure Bulgarian, non-Jewish Pole, or Hungarian Hungarian.
Writes Kristeva, “Within my own family line, I have the advantage of a maternal grandmother who called herself Jacob; legend has it that her community was among the followers of Shabbetai Tzevi, a mystic who proclaimed himself Messiah in the Balkans” (translation of Jane Marie Todd). Clearly, her Jewish ancestry doesn’t help, as — according to our petulant patriots — this is THE crime. Kristeva’s accusations follow the familiar path of the Rosenbergs. More recently , Agnes Heller, doyenne of world philosophy, has been attacked with false accusations by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other far-rightists in Hungary. A scholar of Poland’s anti-Semitism who exposed the pogroms of the 1940s , Jan T. Gross, was interrogated in this country.
Kristeva’s accusers are part and parcel of the make-up of Eastern Europe’s far right: xenophobic, suspicious of intellectuals, close-minded. For our region’s nationalist extremists, Julia Kristeva represents the Other. She is a stranger who defected from Bulgaria, naturalized and married in France; moreover, she considers herself a cosmopolitan. “The one writing here is a representative of what is today a rare species, perhaps even on the verge of extinction in a time of renewed nationalism: I am a cosmompolitan.” (Sic! Columbia University Press has made a typo in this moniker of Socratic, Cynic, Stoic ancestry.) Today’s jingoists in our part of Europe don’t forgive cosmopolitans: Each and every one of us is to vow our loyalty not to humanity, but to the nation, considered sacred . National identity is again – and with evil motivations – attractive, aggressive and self-aggrandizing. Hence the call: We cannot tolerate the Kristevas who are so mistrustful of the nation-state, which is omnipotent again.
Today’s revival of ethnic tribalism in Eastern Europe, founded on prejudice, is fanatically anti-EU, anti-woman, anti-public intellectual, anti-Kristeva. Despots have re-emerged – and these “strongmen”, so feeble at the core, need scapegoats. Women are deprecated worldwide, and they are a particular target in Eastern Europe — an “eternal irony of the community”, as Kristeva likes to depict women after Hegel (her work being very Heraclitean and Hegelian indeed: she has created systematic thought in oracular style).
Then comes the foreigner: blame the foreigner, blame the Other: Bulgarian or French or American by adoption, as Kristeva likes to describe herself, or as she simply says, European. According to her, while translation is Europe’s language, Europe adds a question mark to identity. Public intellectuals who are internationalists like Kristeva, are particularly vulnerable in the confrontation of us vs. them. Ethno-nationalists in this quest for mental ethnic cleansing, are out to get them.
Jewishness has always been on Kristeva’s mind: she reminds us of the story of Ruth; she shows an open-ended and cosmopolitan Jewishness: Ruth chooses to be Jewish and she is chosen by the Jewish people. To Kristeva, the Song of Solomon’s woman protagonist is the first emancipated human.
Also, the Holocaust is always there in the work of Kristeva:
« Dans les salles obscures de ce musée qui reste maintenant d’Auschwitz, je vois un tas de chaussures d’enfants, ou quelque chose comme ça que j’ai déjà vu ailleurs, sous un arbre de Noël, par exemple, des poupées je crois. L’abjection du crime nazi touche à son apogee lorsque la mort qui, de toute façon, me tue, se mêle à ce qui, dans mon univers vivant, est censé me sauver de la mort : à l’enfance, à la science, entre autres… » As the masterly translation by the late Leon S. Roudiez goes: “In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children’s shoes, or something like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a Christmas tree, for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, and science, among other things.”
Then comes Kristeva’s 1980 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, followed by her more recent connection to the work of the Shoah filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and the critic Shoshana Felman: Ce train en marche, sans cesse… L’art de la vérité se fait attendre. Revisitons donc le duo Lanzmann-Felman, la Shoah n’en finit pas de nous reveler ses ravages. Seul un art philosophique capable d’incarner le message de la Bible peut donc encore nous sauver ? This essay is not included in the English edition of her volume La haine et le pardon.
At the Chicago Humanities Festival in conversation with Jules Law, Kristeva said that her mother had “Jewish roots but for some generations forgotten.” A transformative effect, the Kristeva effect is in the avant-garde poetry and prose, which she analyzes and synthesizes with gusto. She sees estrangement, alienation as a value: the Stranger is within ourselves. That is why I’ve written a book Obcy jest w nas. Kochac wedlug Julii Kristevej (‘The Stranger Is within Ourselves: To Love according to Julia Kristeva’).Yet, her alterity, the breadth and depth of her knowledge, her original countercultural insights bring her enemies. For the Eastern European mind-set how could Kristeva the exile not have been part of the security apparatus, an informer? How can we not suspect that her work is subversive?
Today Eastern Europe is monopolized by far-right, xenophobic, anti-diversity, anti-democracy governments, while Kristeva, who hospitably served as my adviser, is accused of espionage by fascists. She has remained my model. And all over the world, fascism is on the rise (Madeleine Albright is correct in her book Fascism: A Warning), but it is the resistible Brechtian rise of an Arthuro Ui : „Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” That is why I plead – after Kristeva — for a glocal hospitality towards the Other. Argues Kristeva: “My personal experience leads me to think that the minimum definition of humanity – the ‘degree zero’, as Barthes would say, of humanity – is precisely the capacity for hospitality.”
My call for hospitality follows very much in the footsteps of Julia Kristeva and her elaboration on hospitality as the distinctive feature of the human. Obviously, my plea for hospitality towards the Other is also rooted in the epic traditions of the Gilgamesh (this ancient work is hospitable even to the queer relationship of the protagonist Gilgamesh with Enkidu), the Mahabharata, and the Odyssey, in the promulgations of the Hebrew Bible (the verse “Love the stranger,” analyzed by Kristeva), the New Testament and the Koran as well as in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (Hospitalität in his German), Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous and Seyla Benhabib. All of these seminal sources, and – perhaps most forcefully — the writings of Julia Kristeva herself, advocate hospitality towards the Other!
Julia Kristeva furthers the idea of loving oneself and others, of a just society and of international peace. Her work is vital to gender studies, political science, social anthropology, art history, literary criticism, comparative literature(s), human geography, Kulturwissenschaften. She is a formidable humanist or – shall I say? – posthumanist, or transhumanist, as Kristeva continously seeks a new humanism. Her oeuvre is also relevant to political practice. Kristeva’s original stance drew from both Marxism and psychoanalysis. Now she still argues for a revolt – badly needed in Eastern Europe — against fascism.
We in Eastern Europe have transitioned from the Velvet Revolution to velvet authoritarianism, argues Adam Michnik, anti-Communist Jewish dissident and editor-in-chief of this region’s biggest independent daily Gazeta Wyborcza. (http://www.publicseminar.org/2018/05/from-velvet-revolution-to-velvet-dictatorship/)
The campaign against Kristeva belongs to the repertoire of the intimidation of progressive thinkers, part and parcel of the “democratic regression,” as Michnik says. Anti-intellectualism, anti-dissident and anti-dissent in general, is here to discredit critics of the system. The objective is to dismiss “uncomfortable elements” as traitors, and to banish them. The files are arbitrary and, since constructed by the secret police, cannot be trusted. The accusations against Kristeva constitute a travesty of justice, vengeance for her stance on freedom, blaming the predictable. Julia Kristeva herself is becoming „the abject”.
The abject is her term that prompted the entire trend in contemporary art: Abject Art. Hers is also intertextuality, the semiotic and the symbolic, the subject-in-process, maternal reliance, life (bios, which she shares with Hannah Arendt) and – last but not least — the speaking subject-in-love. Theologian Kevin O’Donnell is correct that “Kristeva is an atheist, but she sees religious symbols as extremely valuable, and she speaks of the power of love as though it is almost a mystical force.” To my mind, love is a mystical force — and a political one, too.
Kristeva’s love is her husband, the novelist Philippe Sollers, whose writings Pier Paolo Pasolini put in the credits of his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In the revolt of 1968 Kristeva and Sollers built a barricade together on the Gay-Lussac Street in the Parisian Latin Quarter. Sollers is a Parisian mandarin responsible for two journals, Tel Quel and L’Infini, which have influenced intellectual climates worldwide. Sollers underwent a Marxist and then Maoist phase. Together Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva visited China in 1974; her bittersweet remarks from the trip resulted in the book, About Chinese Women, available in English, but still not recognized enough. Of late, Kristeva and Sollers have published a volume of their conversations, Marriage as a Fine Art, while Kristeva speaks out against gender injustices in China. (https://www.theguardian.com/global/2011/jun/21/comment)
Their son, David, is a person with special needs. That is why Kristeva fights for the rights of those with disabilities: “I am simply saying this: by lending a psychoanalytical ear to the incomparable singularity of this exclusion that is not like others, from which people with disabilities suffer, it becomes clear that it concerns us. Not necessarily because “it could happen to anyone,” but it is already in me/us: in our dreams, our anxieties, our romantic and existential crises, in this lack of being that invades us when our resistances crumble and our “interior castle” cracks” (translation by Jeanine Herman). Let’s accept and celebrate our own inner strangeness – and accept and celebrate the differences of other people. Thus a community of strangers would be constituted, that which Kristeva nicknames a “confederation of strangenesses.” In the wake of Julia Kristeva’s book Intimate Revolt, the art historian, exhibition curator and interdisciplinary humanist Pawel Leszkowicz (who happens to be my husband) coined the phrase and praxis of “intimate democracy.”
We are so far from intimate democracy. The powers that be in Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria espouse the nation-state only too obsessively — Kristeva would say, maniacally. They deny refugees; they are at war with minorities. The Polish authorities want to tighten the already restrictive abortion ban. Anti-government mass demonstrations flood the streets of Warsaw and Budapest and Sofia. But people take to the streets also in minor towns. My city of Lublin has witnessed impressive waves of demonstrations; we have passionately participated in protests. But fascists still rule.
According to Kristeva, alienation is a value to be cherished deep down in one’s heart. Yet fascism is to be fought against. Kristevan discovery and cultivation of one’s own and others’ strangeness as well as the Greek philoxenia (love of the foreign) and the Japanese omotenashi (rituals of hosting) are central to my thinking. Julia Kristeva’s puts an emphasis on the sublimation of destructive drives in producing empathy for the Other; this is altruism par excellence.
In 2015 an Afghan refugee was shot dead by a Bulgarian policeman:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/16/afghan-refugee-shot-dead-police-turkey-enter-bulgaria . Today Kristeva is accused. What else can we do to perpetuate evil ?! Blood is already on our hands.