Language and Communication

Module 2, Class 1: Julia Kristeva and the Rhythms of Depression

The students leading module 2, which looks at the role of rhythm in our relationship to ourselves, have chosen to focus on depression. They began with a discussion of the first chapter of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. All of the students are science majors and therefore struggled a little with the more psychoanalytic and philosophical perspective of this assigned text, but they addressed this challenge by bringing Kristeva into conversation with the most recent DSM definition of depression and helpfully concluded that what Kristeva might contribute to the conversation is a different language that could enable us to understanding depression from a different angle.

I think this is precisely what Kristeva’s text provides. More specifically, she actually looks at the role of language itself in depression. Her alternative vocabulary includes the concept of rhythm.

According to Kristeva, regular, what she calls “symbolic,” language assumes a neutral, transparent speaker whose subjectivity is independent of what is spoken. This is the more masculine dimension of language. However, a more feminine dimension, which takes account of the subjectivity of the speaker, known as the “semiotic,” remains tethered to language as well. The semiotic, which cannot be reduced to the relationship between signifier and signified, is made up of the interaction of the various social and biological drives that shape language. So, if we think about the symbolic as the simple correlation of words to ideas in the abstract, the semiotic involves all of the biological, emotional, tonal processes that are involved with what happens when language is actually used in conversation. It encompasses “the drives of the psychic-social body, involving the materiality, emotionality, and interdependence associated in much of the Western philosophical tradition with the realm of the ‘feminine.’”[1] The semiotic also recalls the biological connection between mother and child and the relational, and often mimetic, space in which language is first acquired.

Kristeva uses the chora, a primeval maternal matrix of nourishment prior to any sort of god or metaphysics,[2] as the image of the semiotic. She says that the chora precedes language and is “analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm.”[3] It is the kinetic processeses through which language and social relations are acquired. In other words, the chora refers to the rhythmic dimensions of language, which are based in the body and the maternal space out of which we first acquire language. Language is therefore dependent on the chora as the process out of which language emerges.

It’s worth noting at this point the ways in which Kristeva’s system does in fact line up with scientific research in linguistics. One of the first stages in an infant’s acquisition of language is imitation of the musical dimensions of the parent’s speech.[4] This includes rhythm. Newborns are immediately sensitive to the rhythms of language. They are capable of discriminating languages only if those languages are of different rhythmic types, suggesting that rhythm is central to language acquisition.[5] Thus, not only is our pre-symbolic engagement with language rhythmic and musical rather than semantic, it is also embedded in relationship, probably primarily maternal relationship, given that we are here talking about newborns who have up to this point only experienced language from inside the womb.

Kristeva’s theory, however, is that this semiotic chora remains within language, both sustaining and threatening it.[6] In particular, the interruptions of the chora are evident in depression and melancholia. One of the marks of depression is the uncoupling of symbolic speech from semiotic processes. While language and symbolic constructs usually manage and mediate the rhythms of our semiotic processes, for the depressed person these biological rhythms control symbolic discourse instead, even to the point of muting it. Meaning shifts to the rhythmic dimensions of speech and the biological rhythms undergirding them. This reveals a “presubject” that expresses intense levels of meaning through semiotic rhythms.[7] In depression, one loses the control over reality represented in language, and forces beyond one’s conscious control seem to take over instead.

It is important to understand, however, that this is not all bad for Kristeva. The problem is that as a society, we tend to suppress the semiotic. Depression is therefore an opportunity to acknowledge and better-integrate the semiotic into one’s self. Depression functions for Kristeva as an ambivalent space that is not only terrible but is also itself the source of the hope of moving beyond the depression. Part of the possibility for this process is unearthing what Kristeva calls “counterdepressants” (not anti-depressants which simply try to deny and bury depression, but genuine counterpoints that work with the grain of the semiotic). Appropriately, poetry is one such possible counterdepressant. Poetry is the site of the struggle between the semiotic and signification. In poetry, the speaker does not possess an unequivocal meaning and truth, but is opened up to alterity.[8] Poetic language “introduces through the symbolic that which works on, moves, and threatens it.”[9] The semiotic acts as a break that splits up the symbolic, injecting it with empty spaces.[10] Thus, poetically, language is capable of “shatter[ing] conceptual unity into rhythms.”[11] Poetry is therefore to give representation in a new key to that which takes place in depression. Through creative transformation, the semiotic rhythms can become externalized into a form without being simply covered over by the symbolic.

Appropriately, then, the students will be using their remaining three module sessions to look at various forms of treatment for depression and the rhythms involved.


[1] Jennifer-Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, “Feminine Figures in Heidegger’s Theory of Poetic Language” in Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger, ed. Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press), 207-08.

[2] Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader, trans. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 191.

[3] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 26.

[4] Caldwell, From Isolation to Intimacy, 54. Attachment between mothers and their infants at 12 months is directly related to the patterns of vocal rhythms between them. Attachment is hampered if there is either not enough or too much rhythmic synchronization (75).

[5] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven CN: Yale University Press, 2009), 103; Patel, Music, Language and the Brain, 137. Thierry Nazzi, Josiane Bertoncini, and Jacques Mehler “Language Discrimination by Newborns: Toward an Understanding of the Role of Rhythm,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 24 3 (1998): 756-766; Thierry Nazzi, Peter W. Jusczyk, Elizabeth K. Johnson, “Language Discrimination by English-Learning 5-Month Olds: Effects of Rhythm and Familiarity,” Journal of Memory and Language 43 1 (2000): 1-19; Jacques Mehler et al., “A Precursor of Language Acquisition in Young Infants,” Cognition 29 (1988): 143-178.

[6] Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, 68.

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] Gosetti, “Feminine Figures in Heidegger’s Theory of Poetic Language,” 197.

[9] Kristeva, Black Sun, 81.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Ibid., 186.

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