Was Julia Kristeva a spy for the Bulgarian communists?

Who cares. This is what we should care about – that a serious intellectual, in an early version of similar defenses today of the burqa, was capable of writing that forced female foot-binding in China was, you know, fine for them, and even empowering.

Reflecting on [the radical journal] Tel Quel’s delusional infatuation with Cultural Revolutionary China, the French-American essayist Guy Sorman faults them for having succumbed to the temptations of a “boundless amoralism”: an “amoralism” that is inseparable from a distinctively French tradition of “revolutionary romanticism.” He continues: “What links the French intelligentsia to tyrants such as Stalin, Mao, Castro has very little to do with the quest for liberty, justice, and democracy. Such values were dismissed as suitable for dopes and stooges. … Our intelligentsia adored revolutionary violence and the aesthetics of violence. Was it not this spectacle of revolution that attracted Sartre, Barthes, and company?”

Anyone who has read Richard Rorty’s shattering attacks on radical theorists knows what happened next for Kristeva. Richard Wolin writes:

Kristeva … responded to her [earlier] political excesses by renouncing politics in toto — including feminism — as inherently totalitarian: as a sphere that perpetually sacrifices individuals to the injustices and repressions of the “collective superego.” As she explained in a 1989 interview: “We must try not to propose global models. I think that we, then, risk making politics into a sort of religion. … Of the political there is already too much.” Instead of striving for political solutions, Kristeva recommended that everyone who could afford it should enter into psychoanalysis — her new field of professional expertise.

Rorty spent his life preaching against radically transformative “global models” and in favor of pragmatic incremental change within particular countries. Even with the catastrophe of Bulgaria and other revolutionary states in front of her, Kristeva opted to go global — until she didn’t. Until in a kind of reverse-thrust globalism – one of absolute withdrawal rather than absolute embrace – she took her toys and went home.

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7 Responses to “‘In About Chinese Women (1974), Kristeva, for her part, carried this uniquely French “pro-Chinese” mania to unprecedented heights. She disqualified all Western criticism of postrevolutionary China as suffused with illicit cultural bias. And she rationalized the traditional Chinese custom of “foot binding” — ignoring its debilitating and disfiguring consequences for millions of Chinese women — as a legitimate local cultural practice, comparable to ritual circumcision in Judaism. In fact, when perceived in the right light, Kristeva continued, foot binding constituted an emblem of Chinese female empowerment.’”

  1. dmf Says:

    “Rorty spent his life preaching against radically transformative “global models” and in favor of pragmatic incremental change within particular countries.” not so much he wasn’t say an incrementalist about civil rights or the like he was just for representative government (balances of power, etc) and the protection of the rights of minorities, including the rights of folks who flirted with Maoism as absurd (and sometime dangerous) as that was and is.
    Interesting to take a stance for radically transformative global models of policing womens’ clothing/religious-expression/privacy while taking down appeals to radical transformative global models…

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    The distinction is between allegiance to global – universal – human rights (as in the European Court’s support of Belgian and French burqa bans on the basis of equality), and allegiance to some form of world revolution.

  3. dmf Says:

    Yes that’s not the sort of distinction that really interested folks like Rorty or Arendt who knew that whatever actual meanings could come out of talk of universals/rights/etc would occur in the workings of particular people/institutions, part of why context and messengers aren’t just add-ons to these discussions.
    Rorty in particular had an attitude much like “”Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist (for Dick liberal democracy style) culture in our land.”

  4. dmf Says:

    there is someone tho who does subscribe to your kind of view:
    But what about the uniqueness of Muslim women who are required by their religion to cover themselves with a burqa, a veil, in the public space?

    “I have a disagreement on this issue with Muslim women from the left who contend we have to honor women’s free choice to cover their faces or not to work. I want to recall here Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that freedom does not end with choice. Choice is the starting point of freedom. True freedom is crossing selfhood borders and opening up to others.”

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Yes – I quoted exactly that statement on this blog last year.

    But I’d disagree with the Haaretz interviewer’s set-up:

    the uniqueness of Muslim women who are required by their religion to cover themselves with a burqa, a veil, in the public space

    They are assuredly NOT required to do any such thing by their religion. Nothing in the Koran – or anywhere else, beyond a scattering of religious/political leaders – says anything of the sort.

    Better to say, rather, what about the problem, for democracies, of Muslim women who believe they have to cover themselves entirely, or who are victims of husbands/religious leaders who compel them to cover themselves entirely? What do democracies do about such women?

    Rorty wasn’t a thousand flowers bloom type. If he were, he would never have titled his final work Achieving Our Country. He believed in conversation, to be sure. But if you were an American, there were ground rules, mainly having to do with human solidarity and the avoidance of cruelty.

  6. dmf Says:

    there were no (and could be no) constant ground rules in Rorty you’ve made him into Habermas.
    From a paper by Bernstein ” In one of his early papers, playing on the statement “let a thousand flowers bloom,” Rorty advocated the flowering and invention of what he calls different “vocabularies” for “coping.”
    another bit of Rorty that Bernstein objects to
    “If we swing to the pragmatist side, and consider talk of “rights” an attempt to enjoy the benefits of metaphysics without assuming the appropriate responsibilities, we
    shall still need something to distinguish the sort of individual conscience we respect
    from the sort we condemn as “fanatical.” This can only be something relatively “local and ethnocentric”-the tradition of a particular community, the consensus
    of a particular culture. ”
    For Rorty (as with the legal pragmatists he admired) consensus had to be made and remade over and over again which is why he was for courts and legislatures and classrooms and on and on and not for Rights or the like.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Well, he’s no Habermas; but of course a lot depends on how wiggly/local you’ll allow those grounds to be. As for broadening the worldly scope of human rights: I think Rorty’s probably correct that you do that best by being the most powerful, expressive, non-cruel, liberal culture you can be – that your literature, films, documentaries, etc. come to be as compelling, as vocabularies/conversations, to other cultures as they are to your own.

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