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The Subject in Process

By Johanne Prud’homme and Lyne Légaré

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Julia Kristeva

In her book Polylogue (1977), Julia Kristeva analyzes various signifying practices such as language, discourse, literature and painting, and examines the approaches taken to them in some disciplines that have charted the course of symbolicity (linguistics, semiotics, epistemology, and psychoanalysis). Her aim is to reveal the dynamism inherent in every signifying process. In her chapter entitled "The Subject in Process", Kristeva revisits primarily Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in order to relate the evolution of the subject to the evolution of language. Mounting an invasion on positivist theoretical neutrality, Kristeva highlights the "motility" that characterizes the creation of the subject, which automatically disrupts the totalitarianism of a system intrinsically bound to it: language. What she is attempting is to discern the actual experience of the subject, which breaks out of the enclosure of its individuality, thanks to its ability to set itself in motion, and in language expresses a dynamic, signifying logic.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Johanne Prud’homme and Lyne Légaré (2006), « The Subject in Process », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),


In "the Subject in Process", Julia Kristeva takes on the task of revisiting Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in order to show how the evolution of the subject is related to the evolution of language. According to Kristeva, the subject is by nature in motion, challenging the erroneous notion of the monolithic nature of language.


In much the same way that Freud defined the subject as a "dual unity" with his topos of the conscious/unconscious, Lacanian psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan) represents the subject as a divided unity. For Lacan, the division inherent to the subject is inseparable from the lack that produces it and the "unsatisfied quest for the impossible, represented by metonymic desire" (Kristeva, 1998, 133).


Metonymy is a process in language whereby a concept is expressed in terms of another concept related to it by necessity. By the same token, the expression "metonymic desire" refers to the rejection/expulsion [rejet] of desire in the (capitalist) social context. This expulsion produces a displacement of desire, manifested in the production of a metonymic object of desire.

Although the subject is fundamentally "divided" (quest and lack), as long as it is a subject of a society, it is subject to the law of One (the Name of the Father), which restrains basic drives and establishes the order of social censorship and separation. It is out of this censorship that the "unitary" subject takes shape.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is interested in the body as a "speaking body". The real body and the textual body are of a similar nature insofar as they are embodied in language. Like the linear division of the sign (signifier/signified), which matches the signifier to a frozen signified, the "unitary" subject makes sense (becomes fixed) by association with unifying social structures (the law of One or the Name of the Father; that is, closed ideological systems and structures of social domination). From this perspective, since it originates by association with the Law, and therefore the absence of the desired object, the "unitary" subject would have to be neutral and would never enter into conflict with itself. To claim that no subject really takes shape except under censorship is to dismiss all of the contradictions that make it a dynamic subject. By the same token, assigning a frozen signified to the signifier is tantamount to stripping the sign of the signifying process that engenders it and attributing it with some sort of totality.

The following diagram illustrates the relationship Lacan established between "subject" and "signifier". The mutation imposed on them by the social order – the "unitary subject" for the one, the "closed sign" for the other – provides the foundation for Kristeva's discussion of the parallels that exist between the evolution of the subject and the evolution of language.

Diagram of subject-signifier relationships according to Lacan
Diagram of subject-signifier relationships according to Lacan


"[T]he unitary subject discovered by psychoanalysis is only one moment, a time of arrest, a stasis, exceeded and threatened by this movement" (Kristeva, 1998, 134).




Kristeva postulates that signifying practices – especially poetic language – derive from another economy than the "unitary" Law established by psychoanalysis, which conceives of any signifying structure (text or language) as a "simple, disincarnate sign, a Word beyond experience" (Kristeva, 1998, 167). Signification does not behave according to a universal law. In some signifying practices, the "unitary" subject, while indispensable to verbalization (putting into words), is overtaken by the signifying process [signifiance], that is, the drives and semiotic operations anterior to the phenomenon of language. In this signifying process, the "unitary" subject of psychoanalysis is only one moment of stasis (a peak) in the signifying movement running through it. The signifying process is not subsumable by One; it tends to reject any unifying position (unconscious/conscious, signifier/signified). Kristeva's conception consists of taking unity (subject, sign, language) and putting it in process/on trial [en procès]. "The process dissolves the linguistic sign and its system (word, syntax), dissolves, that is, even the earliest and most solid guarantee of the unitary subject [...]" (Kristeva, 1998, 134). The subject in process attacks every stasis of a "unitary" subject. It attacks every structure that says "No" (censorship) to the subject's drives and complexification, every structure that sets it up as a unity. The "unitary" subject is replaced by a subject in process (understood as movement) whose representation is a space of mobility: the semiotic chora.


"[T]he drives that extract the body from its homogeneous shell and turn it into a space linked to the outside, they are the forces which mark out the chora in process" (Kristeva, 1998, 143).

In Plato's theory, the chora is "a mobile receptacle of mixing, of contradiction and movement, vital to nature’s functioning before the teleological intervention of God, and corresponding to the mother [...]" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 57). Kristeva adopts Plato's idea, but without situating the chora in any body in particular. Thus, the subject in process is represented by the semiotic chora, which is the place of perpetual renewal in the signifying process (its being and becoming). In fact, we cannot presume that the subject is created by a split (censorship) that restores its closed appearance. Rather, the semiotic chora that organizes the subject's process is the place where the break is reiterated. It is a chaotic space that "is and becomes a precondition for creating the first measurable bodies" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 57). Plotted out in pulsional movements/drives [pulsions], it is "a multiplicity of ex-pulsions, ensuring its infinite renewal" (Kristeva, 1998, 134). Expulsion [rejet] rejects the linear division between signifier/signified. It rejects "the dissolution of the subject as signifying subject, but it also rejects any partitions in which the subject might shelter in order to constitute itself" (Kristeva, 1998, 134). A sort of "dancing body" (from the Greek khoreia, meaning "dance"), the semiotic chora is in perpetual motion. It energizes the sign (as well as the subject) by placing expulsion at the core of its structure. Just as dance allows the dancer to explore an infinite chain of body movements, the semiotic chora is an infinite potential for creating signifying movements.


"Chinese grammarians define the word in the same way, as 'that which can be denied' " (Kristeva, 1998, 140).

The organizing principle of the subject's process and the signifying process [signifiance] is negativity. A principal borrowed from Hegel, negativity is the "time of dissolution of structure" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 16). This principle clarifies how signification is recast, since it tends to dissolve all subjective unity. "[N]egativity is the concept that represents the irreducible relation of an "ineffable" flux [...]" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 61). The subject constituted according to this law necessarily has negativity moving through it; it is open, mobile, non-subjugated, free. Never determinate, it is governed by a "productive dissolution" (Kristeva, 1998, 138). As it causes the "unitary" subject to fade away, it points toward the space of production, toward the conditions of its own symbolicity. Following this principle, the fixist notion of the sign and the reality corresponding to it disappear, giving way to a disentanglement of syntactic chains that leads to a productive genesis (signifying space or chora). Negativity does not inhibit the signifying process [signifiance], since "the subject is not thereby lost but multiplied" (Kristeva, 1998, 140). From this perspective, the sign (as well as the subject) appears to be a differential moment (a milestone) in the signifying process or, to be more concise, expulsion redirected. By deconstructing structure, negativity leads toward the infinite array of possible signifiers that engendered it.

Diagram of the signifying process (sign)
Diagram of the signifying process (sign)


"[...] we have to move out of the enclosure of language in order to grasp what is going on in the genetic temporality which logically precedes the constitution of the symbolic function" (Kristeva, 1998, 140).

By following the principle of negativity and setting up the sign as a "milestone" in the signifying process, we account for both of the processes by which it is created: the symbolic function and the semiotic function. The symbolic function is the place of "unitary" Law for the subject, the place for renouncing pleasures (drives) that come up against social censorship. It is also the place where the closed sign is established (the linear division of the sign) through the absence of the rejected or repressed object (possible signifiers). The symbolic space is thetic or representative. It is the place of language's fixedness: "Linguistic structures are the blockages of the process. They intercept and immobilize it, subordinating it to semantic and institutional unities which are in deep solidarity with each other" (Kristeva, 1998, 167).

While the symbolic function governs unity, the semiotic function demonstrates the heterogeneity of meaning. The semiotic function represents that which precedes the creation of the subject (the pulsional network, or network of drives). It is chronologically anterior to the sign, to syntax, to denotation and signification, and at the same time moves through them. It is a provisional articulation of the meaning incarnated in the chora of the process, which does not depend on the manifestation of "signifiable, discrete, identifiable units" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 14). The semiotic function is intimately linked to the symbolic function, the latter being a separation from and displacement of the semiotic function as it passes through.

The signifying process [signifiance] encompasses the contradiction between these two modes: "To say that language is a practice is to understand precisely how the symbolic function shifts, along with meaning, under the pressure of the semiotic function" (translation of Kristeva, 1977, 14). The signifying (symbolic) structure is ephemeral, constantly encroached on by semiotic space. What's more, the semiotic mechanism of renewal can exist only when confronted with fixist meaning, that is, the symbolic structure. The process of signifying thus actualizes two facets of a heterogeneous contradiction: stasis (the closed nature of the signifier) and expulsion (the multiplicity of signification). By including both facets, we take into account the infinitesimal differentiation occurring in the pheno-text (the concrete manifestation of the text; the closed text) during the signifying process, while constantly evoking the space where production originates: the geno-text.


Poetic language is the signifying practice in which the principal of negativity is the most often used. More than any other signifying practice, it is a practice that experiments with the mobile chora of language, since it consists in "remodelling the historically accepted and defined chora of significance [signifiance] by proposing a representation of a different relation to [natural] objects [...] and to the body itself" (Kristeva, 1998, 142). As a practice of exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language, poetic language is in proximity with death (from the standpoint of deconstruction of meaning) and is thus receptive to pulsional shocks. Poetic language makes manifest the utterance's semiotic space. It does not represent "a reality posed in advance and forever detached from the pulsional process" (Kristeva, 1998, 142), but rather, it experiments on the symbolic line with the possibilities of semiotic space. Just as the subject's drives threaten its unity, poetic language threatens signifying unity. As a true paragrammatic network, poetic language fragments the signifying unity of ordinary language. By deliberately playing with the principle of negativity, poetic language destroys logic.


Offering an "application" of Kristeva's thesis is a difficult proposition. As it is, her theoretical discussion is built in the image of motility, like the signifying chora with which she is concerned. As we mentioned earlier, the symbolic function governs the unity of the closed sign as it is manifested in the linear text. The semiotic function demonstrates the heterogeneity of meaning. And the signifying process results from the impact of collision between these two modes.

In the example that follows – the prelude to Les mots secrets, a collection of poetry by Louise Dupré (2002) – we shall see how a signifying process is woven between the strictly linear alignment of closed signs and the motility of the semiotic function, yielding a veritable dance of the semiotic chora.

Les mots secrets


KRISTEVA, J., "Le sujet en procès", Polylogue, Paris: Seuil, 1977a.
KRISTEVA, J., "The Subject in Process", ed. Ffrench and Lack, The Tel Quel Reader, New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 133-178.
KRISTEVA, J., "Politique de la littérature", Polylogue, Paris: Seuil, 1977.
DUPRÉ, L., Les mots secrets, Montréal: La courte échelle, 2002.


Based on the application presented above, in the following poem by Blaise Cendrars, identify the places outside the linearity of the pheno-text where meaning, in all of its heterogeneity, is in motion. (Excerpted from Prose of the Transsiberian by Blaise Cendrars, trans. Ron Padgett, in Complete Poems, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 25-6).

[…] Cast caution to the winds
Now the storm is raging
And the trains storm over tangled tracks
Infernal toys
There are trains that never meet
Others just get lost
The stationmasters play chess
Shoot pool
Carom shots
The railway system is a new geometry
Syracuse Archimedes
And the soldiers who butchered him
And the galleys
And the warships
And the astounding engines he invented
And all that killing
Ancient history
Modern history
Even that of the Titanic I read about in the paper
So many associations images I can't get into my poem
Because I'm still such a really bad poet
Because the universe rushes over me

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