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Kristeva in focus

Ph.d. candidate at the City of New York, Graduate Center and a lecturer at Queens College

Katherine Judith Goodnow (1994) Kristeva in Focus. From Theory to Film Analysis, Bergen: Department of Media Studies.

Katherine Judith Goodnow’s Kristeva in focus. From theory to film analysis succeeds admirably in a number of the tasks that it sets for itself. Ms. Goodnow suggests that her primary concern is to make Julia Kristeva’s arguments cogent and relevant to an exploration of New Zealand 'new wave’ films. With particular regard to Kristeva’s writings on horror, strangers and love, Goodnow applies what is often difficult and oblique in Kristeva to the analysis of film. As Goodnow states in her introduction, accessibility is a primary concern both because Kristeva herself has not directly addressed film in her writing and because of the stylistic issues that inhere any discussion of Kristeva. Since Kristeva’s style often attempts to disrupt the expected order and aims for a particular poeticity, Goodnow suggests that in her book she will try to provide a simple and coherent way of generating readings of films out of Kristeva’s theories.

What appeals most to Goodnow and to many admirers of Kristeva seems also to be what renders her most difficult; that is, her resistance to an overarching theoretical stance. And, as Goodnow aptly points out, merely presenting a historical narrative to account for Kristeva’s development over time has the shortcoming of refusing the recursivity and lack of linear progression that forms the heart of so much of Kristeva’s work. In order to make her task more manageable, then, Goodnow focus on two themes that she regards as central. The first of these relates to order and disorder while the second concerns Kristeva’s ‘text of society and history.’ Goodnow sees these two concerns as intertwined.

Defining order as intrinsically associated with the nature of representation and the relationships between and within individuals, i.e. between self and other, and on a broader, societal level as the general way in which certain values come to dominate, Kristeva distinguishes between the ‘semiotic’ and the ‘symbolic’ registers. Goodnow sets up Kristeva’s model quite clearly and coherently, making apprehendable what is often inaccessible in Kristeva without undue simplification. Making the point that borders and division are never stable and that even the self, the 'I', is not a fixed figure but a momentary social position, Goodnow concentrates on another contribution of Kristeva which suggests that disruption is an intrinsic part of language. In this manner history and language are married in such a way that speech acts can be construed as revolutionary. In addition, the historical circumstances of the text require that it be considered in relation to the texts that precede it as well as in its own specific context.

Choosing to look at what has been called ‘New Wave New Zealand films’ meaning films that possess what she terms, ‘a New Zealand background’, Goodnow examines in detail Kitchen Sink, Vigil, Crush, An angel at My Table, Sweetie and The Piano. Goodnow confines her analysis to these particular films because New Zealand, a country ‘in the midst of coming to terms with its colonial history,’ presents a fertile grounds for the use of Kristeva. In employing Kristeva’s conception of texts that relate and transform earlier texts, Goodnow seeks to show how the innovation which occurs at a given moment in history is related to the context in which it arises. Goodnow draws upon Kristeva’s idea of the ‘abject’ and specifically applies it to the 1989 film Kitchen Sink. The abject is a threat to boundaries, something that collapses meanings, and is, according to Kristeva ‘wherein man strays on the territories of animal.’ In her discussion of strangers, Goodnow analyzes the films Vigil and Crush which are ‘built around encounters between strangers and those already ‘in place.” She concentrates particular attention to the way in which the stranger represents an ‘other’ looks at both how strangers are represented and if their points of view are shown. Goodnow locates foreignness and horror as inspiring similar analyses in Kristeva. The concern with disruption and order as Goodnow states ‘a major part of Kristeva’s argument is that the way we feel towards foreign others reflects the way we feel about those parts of oneself that seem strange or unlike one’s usual self’. In Crush and Jane Campion’s films An Angel at My Table and The Piano, Goodnow observes the relation between the indigenous Maoris and the whites, the pakeha. Goodnow bridges the film’s content and the social landscape of the film’s creation, forging a link between the Maoris presence on the set and the Maori functions within the plot of the film itself. Taking account of the influence on Campion by Maori’s regarding the representation of Maoris within the film, Goodnow convincingly ties the text to its context. In what is probably her strongest argument, Goodnow suggests that the particularity of New Zealand’s circumstances give rise to a cinema that is wellsuited to a Kristevan analysis demonstrating the breakdown of boundaries between inside and outside. As part of her argument she includes the economics of the making of the films and draws heavily on interviews with those involved in their creation. The borders collapse and what is internal to the text and external become inextricably linked.

Choosing to look at what has been called ‘New Wave New Zealand films’ meaning films that possess what she terms, ‘a New Zealand background’, Goodnow examines in detail Kitchen Sink, Vigil, Crush, An angel at My Table, Sweetie and The Piano. Goodnow confines her analysis to these particular films because New Zealand, a country ‘in the midst of coming to terms with its colonial history,’ presents a fertile grounds for the use of Kristeva. In employing Kristeva’s conception of texts that relate and transform earlier texts, Goodnow seeks to show how the innovation which occurs at a given moment in history is related to the context in which it arises. Goodnow draws upon Kristeva’s idea of the ‘abject’ and specifically applies it to the 1989 film Kitchen Sink. The abject is a threat to boundaries, something that collapses meanings, and is, according to Kristeva ‘wherein man strays on the territories of animal.’ In her discussion of strangers, Goodnow analyzes the films Vigil and Crush which are ‘built around encounters between strangers and those already ‘in place. ” She concentrates particular attention to the way in which the stranger represents an ‘other’ looks at both how strangers are represented and if their points of view are shown. Goodnow locates foreignness and horror as inspiring similar analyses in Kristeva. The concern with disruption and order as Goodnow states ‘a major part of Kristeva’s argument is that the way we feel towards foreign others reflects the way we feel about those parts of oneself that seem strange or unlike one’s usual self’. In Crush and Jane Campion’s films An Angel at My Table and The Piano, Goodnow observes the relation between the indigenous Maoris and the whites, the pakeha. Goodnow bridges the film’s content and the social landscape of the film’s creation, forging a link between the Maoris presence on the set and the Maori functions within the plot of the film itself. Taking account of the influence on Campion by Maori’s regarding the representation of Maoris within the film, Goodnow convincingly ties the text to its context. In what is probably her strongest argument, Goodnow suggests that the particularity of New Zealand’s circumstances give rise to a cinema that is wellsuited to a Kristevan analysis demonstrating the breakdown of boundaries between inside and outside. As part of her argument she includes the economics of the making of the films and draws heavily on interviews with those involved in their creation. The borders collapse and what is internal to the text and external become inextricably linked.

This method of working between the film and its intertext, the world outside it, makes a certain degree of sense when considering the making of films, enterprises that require cooperation between individuals and that are, by nature, impossible to produce in isolation. However, when Goodnow draws upon Kristeva’s own biography to make links between the films discussed and the theory she employs, I am more hesitant. When, for instance, she remarks upon the distance between Kristeva’s experience as an intellectual who appears always poised in her photographs and the clumsiness of Janet Frame the real subject whose autobiography is represented by Campion in An Angel …, I am disturbed by the comment ‘one cannot imagine that here is a person who was ever easily put down, easily depressed, or willing to stay in the shadows’. It seems that Goodnow has conflated texts, reading Kristeva’s photograph as if it is real and Janet Frame’s self-representation equally naively. Where a reading that situated Campion’s film and the actual influence of Maoris on her film seemed subtle and incisive, this extrapolation of biographies out of texts appears false and forced. The fact that she compares these two women at all is dictated only by the demands of her own desire to too neatly tie loose ends together, a mistake when dealing with Kristeva. Goodnow is occasionally rather programmatic in her readings so that the categories borrowed from Kristeva are rather too neatly applied to the films. In her desire to collapse the theoretical into a reading of the filmic text, she somehow manages to steal a little from each, so that the theory reads a bit too mechanically and what is disturbing in the film, such as Kitchen Sink appears in service only to the theory. There is a sense that Goodnow cuts short her arguments in order to move with Kristeva, and by quoting excessively she prevents her own voice from emerging in the text.

Love, as Goodnow reads Kristeva, comes from finding the area between narcissism and idealization so that the oneness that is between mother and child initially representing first love, gives way to a love that emerges out of separation, indicating the growth into adult love. Goodnow looks at Sweetie and The Piano for examples of love between individuals. Goodnow’s method in making Kristeva understandable is to break down terms into their components and then find examples from the films to illustrate Kristeva’s points. In certain moments this works well to make Kristeva seem less abstract and more readable, the films themselves provide interesting, concrete means of seeing such concepts as love and abjection. However, this method can also make it seem that occasionally Goodnow is trying too hard to fill all spaces and to do precisely what she values Kristeva not doing, to find a scheme that will make everything fit into it. It is hard to say whether it would be possible to write a translation of Kristeva without losing, as Goodnow seems to, some of the subtlety and playfulness that constitutes Kristeva’s theory.

Finally, Goodnow seeks to come to terms with what is problematic in Kristeva while salvaging what she finds productive and useful. Goodnow focuses in particular on how gender functions in Kristeva’s work and draws upon the writings of contemporary theorists such as Judith Butler and E. Ann Kaplan. Goodnow addresses the issue of social change with regard especially to Kristeva’s gender politics. Kristeva has been criticized for seeing gender difference in such a way that prohibits social change. Goodnow’s reading seeks to determine to what degree this criticism represents an accurate judgement of Kristeva’s feminism. Goodnow looks most closely at Kristeva’s essays from the 70s ’Women’s Time’ and ‘About Chinese Women,’ and expresses dissatisfaction with Kristeva’s idealization of motherhood. For her own part, Goodnow criticizes Kristeva’s belief in women’s writing as ‘estranged from language’ and points out the scant attention paid by Kristeva to writing by women. What Goodnow concludes that although Kristeva herself may not have articulated much that is directly relevant to feminism or to others concerned with social change, the apparatus employed by Kristeva is of enormous value. Despite Kristeva’s problematic and possibly essentialist desire to maintain the male symbolic and the female semiotic, Goodnow suggests that the desire to disrupt order and question the boundaries provides a theory that is potentially empowering and disruptive.

The problems that Goodnow addresses in her first chapter, ones that have to do with the tension beween clear articulation and the expression of complex and contradictory thoughts seem to haunt her entire work. She has attempted to do something of enormous difficulty, to straddle the poetic and the prosaic, extracting in beween the ideas that are fleeting and inherently complex. In many cases, the need to move from point to point in a given space inhibits her and, as her last chapter indicates, there is much subtlety to her reading that is not always displayed. One expects in future to see work from Goodnow that exploits more fully this keen eye and has less concern with accomplishing a predetermined task.

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