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Deus Est Machina


Deus E(s)t Machina: Revolution and Time in Kristeva’s Writing

Miglena Nikolchina


Questions of revolution and revolt shape sometimes explicitly, sometimes subterraneously Kristeva’s oeuvre since her earliest engagements with the avant-garde. These questions involve temporality in various ways – on the one hand, in terms of approaching it as a heterogeneous phenomenon with a problematic ontological standing; on the other hand, in terms of a vibrant sensitivity to the social and political demands of the day and to the ever new maladies of the soul. Her work, consequently unfolds in various directions the problem of revolt as a problem of time (rupture, breach, schism but also turn, curve, perpetual movement) and as a problem in time (“What revolt today?”). In this larger framework, which might provide a rather comprehensive viewpoint to the systematicity of Kristeva’s thought, the jointure of divine and machine, which appears in her recent novel The Enchanted Clock and which captures an acute aspect of contemporary anxieties regarding the identity of the human and the future of humanity, presents a concrete moment, a facet, but also a transformative new turn in her on-going entanglement – if I am allowed to translate back into metaphor this concept from quantum physics – with the temporalities of revolt.

The scope and nature of these anxieties could be illustrated through an episode in a science fiction videogame, Mass Effect, which millions of players have played and passionately discussed. [1] The plot of the game concerns the conflict between an alliance of advanced galactic civilizations and some mysterious and very evil machines which are called Reapers and are bent on destroying those civilizations. At some point the protagonist Shepard comes for the first time in contact through some sort of device with a representative of those Reapers, called Sovereign. Initially, Shepard is flooded by the machine’s hundreds of thousands of years of memory, which is presented as a sort of mystic vision and which seems to summarily visualize a number of Kristeva’s concepts from the semiotic to the black sun and Saint Theresa’s ecstasy. This experience literally throws Shepard on his/her (depending on the gender the player chose) knees and a dialogue ensues with the machine proclaiming its own eternity and divine all-mightiness, addressing Shepard and her entourage as “rudimentary creatures of flesh and blood,” and announcing that it is “the vanguard of [their] destruction” and that “the cycle cannot be broken.” The machine, hence, appears as the incarnation of a divinity which is unsympathetic, relentless, and disdainful of organic life, forever condemning it to annihilation before it reaches its apex; and the plot of the game is driven by the “organic” revolt – whether satisfactory, or not, is what has triggered huge debates among players - against pre-determination and mechanical orderliness. From something we create and something that rebels against us to destroy us, the machine seems to have moved on to usurp the place of divine sovereignty. While this rebellion against the “laws of nature” might not be completely new in itself, [2] it certainly has acquired a novel urgency vis-à-vis the question of revolt as a defining characteristic of the human up and against the “synthetic.” In the context of Kristeva’s recent preoccupations we might say that this perspective on the human, pitting it against a universe, which is hostile and mechanical but also fundamentally open to change,  is driven by the desire to know as opposed to the contemporary pitfalls of the pre-religious need to believe.



Kristeva returns again and again to the etymological origins and the various metamorphoses and reincarnations of the words relatable to the Latin revolvere. The appearance of this node of meanings as revolution in her early major work The Revolution in Poetic Language is intricately inscribed in the theoretical and political currents of the time of its creation. The connection of this work to the events of May 1968 and to the French “philosophical moment” of the 1960s, which has been declared the third great epoch after Greek philosophy and German idealism, [3] is well known and incisively discussed by Kristeva herself. [4] Less visible is its connection to the failure of the East European revolutions.

In the official discourse of the East European repressive ideological machine there was a recurrent motive, which seems to have been faithfully reproduced in the “Prolegomenon” of Kristeva’s treatise, regarding the impossibility for social revolutions to succeed without a revolution in “consciousness.” Things were obviously not going as planned and the dogma would pinpoint the reasons for the fiasco in the slow change of people’s minds, which lagged behind the fast and proper economic and social restructuring. Inversely, what dissenting East European intellectuals saw as a major birthmark of the regime’s catastrophe, was precisely the thwarting of the revolution of “consciousness” through the purge of the artistic avant-garde at the regimes’ inception.

In Europe both East and West, early 20th century avant-garde was an integral part of the overall drive towards revolutionary change. Russian formalism, the Prague linguistic circle, the juncture of linguistics and literary studies, for which Roman Jakobson coined the term structuralism, and the (long deferred through repression) critical overhaul of these currents in the work of Bakhtin emerged, with all the controversies and disagreements involved, as the theoretical counterpart to the artistic unrest. Both sides of this process, the artistic and the theoretical, were persecuted and sometimes brutally destroyed when the regimes defining themselves as revolutionary were established in Eastern Europe. This purge whose severity varied in time and space included psychoanalysis during the crucial decades when, in Western Europe, it made its way into practice but also into literature, the arts, and  philosophical reflection. In Eastern Europe, persecution turned the avant-garde and its theoretical articulations from an initial ally of revolutionary change into a permanent site of clashes with power and into a reservoir for opposition and critique. Hence both in its heterogeneous and multidisciplinary comprehensiveness, which I have discussed elsewhere, [5] and in its programmatic passion, Kristeva’s formidable treatise on the revolution in poetic language (never fully translated into English, so that even the subtitle The Avant-garde at the End of the 19th Century: Lautréamont and Mallarmé had to be omitted) is a transposition, into the philosophical and social excitement of 1960s France, of the imaginative and intellectual node that exposed the inherent, constitutive failure of the East European regimes and summoned a sustained challenge to their ideological repressiveness.

The revolution in poetic language takes Kristeva to an area of turbulent instability, which she describes as a subject-in-process. She defines the process itself as a movement of meaning, not reducible to language but encompassing it as the site of its production and renewal, and as a dynamic founded on the negative. She calls this process signifiance. With all its innovative productiveness, this process of the subject’s and the sign’s shattering and re-emergence pushes the individual’s need for the singular and the need for the universal to their limit. It hence borders psychosis, on the one hand, and various regimes of authoritarian stabilization, of fundamentalist and totalitarian attitudes, on the other: i.e. it “leads to the risk of new defences, false and deadly in other ways. [6] ” In the years between The Revolution in Poetic Language and Sense and Non-Sense of the Revolt, which marks her second major turn to the problematic of revolvere, Kristeva’s work engages with an in-depth analysis of the risks of signifiance, risks which are individual but also social, from the lures of suicide to the seductions of fascisoid mobilization. In doing this, she keeps refining her terminological apparatus and displacing the focus of her multidisciplinary theoretical instruments from linguistics to psychoanalysis.

A significant detail, however, is that while, in The Revolution in Poetic Language, the panoramic investigation of the process of signifiance unfolds as, precisely, an articulation of revolution, the term itself is never really subjected to scrutiny. The word revolution appears with multiple qualifications as social, socio-economic, industrial, cultural, sexual, permanent, bourgeois, French, proletarian, workers’, surrealist, poetic, subjective, Marx’s, Freud’s, etc., and, not so frequently, revolt appears as sometimes opposed, sometimes more or less synonymous to revolution. Yet, in counter-distinction to Kristeva’s attentiveness to the semantic and semiotic restlessness of other concepts, this one is not problematized. It is easy to understand why: it was a concept that was transparent and self-evident in its epoch. When Kristeva returns in a major way to it at the beginning of the 1990s – now in the form of revolt rather than revolution – this is no longer the case.

There is, on the surface, the term’s appropriation in advertising, which trivializes its meaning by reversing its turbulent promise of risk, transformation and renewal, to the promise of immediate satisfaction through the next revolutionary product on the market. This sea-change is subtended by the perception, which Kristeva shares, that political movements are “permeable to dogmatism [7] ” and hence political revolutions inevitably betray the questioning which brings them about. “I would have never insisted sufficiently on the fact that totalitarianism is the result of a certain fixation of revolt into something which is precisely its betrayal, i.e. a suspension of the retrospective return, which amounts to the suspension of  thought. [8]

This shift in perspective was accompanied in that decade by the global restructuring in the wake of the 1989 East European “velvet” or incidentally not so velvet revolutions, which brought into focus once again the problem of, as Kristeva put it, the Stalinist “strangling of the culture of revolt [9] ” and contributed to “the two impasses where we are caught today: the failure of rebellious ideologies, on the one hand, and the surge of consumer culture, on the other. [10] ” The perception of failure of rebellious ideologies took, it should be noted, two distinct articulations after the end of the Cold War: either as failure with respect to the communist project (opening the way to economic and civilizational arguments that it was applied in the wrong places and resulting in the tendency to stick to the old revolutionary rhetoric in spite of its obsolescence), or as failure of overarching political projects per se. Both options foreclosed a discussion that would differentiate between what failed and what, perhaps, did not fail in the massive East European experiment; both ultimately disregarded the intellectual “culture of revolt,” which eroded the communist regimes and which was strangled this time around not by Stalinist bureaucracy but by, precisely, the new world order of spectacle and consumerism (whose ideological vacuum keeps being tempted, as we ominously witness today, by varieties of nationalism and religious fundamentalism).

This outcome is paradoxical with respect to the internal dynamic of the velvet revolutions not only in the sense who and what took the upper hand in practical terms but also in the sense of erasure, of amnesia of the intellectual critique and artistic defiance which brought them about. They were revolutions precisely for the right to revolt, which the communist dogma had stifled. People took to the streets under the umbrella of various ad hoc ideologies; the destruction of the Berlin wall and the various symbolic acts which toppled the regimes lacked a proper ideology or, rather, they were inspired by a light they saw radiating beyond the horizon, the light of the very possibility to rebel. I defined this light as “The West as Intellectual Utopia” but the truth is it was imagined as emanating in the far East, in the past, in the future, in other galaxies, in parallel universes. Elsewhere. Dialogical projections of pressing, but impossible to address directly, concerns. [11]

To cut this story short, lack of an ideology does not preclude appropriation. In fact, what ushered in the 20th century revolutions was the opposite conviction that spontaneous revolt needs an ideology in order not to get appropriated by the wrong causes. Kristeva’s turn in the 1990s to revolt as a stratagem for rescuing the revolutionary spirit from the betrayal of revolutions and as a rehabilitation of the “microscopic” but indispensable dimensions of the phenomenon performed, therefore, a revolution in one of the senses of the term she resurrects as revolving, orbiting, describing a circle, return. By performing this motion from rescuing revolt through revolution to rescuing revolt from revolution Kristeva’s work in the 1990s focuses, no matter what her concrete assessment of the political situation in Eastern Europe may have been, precisely on what brought about the velvet revolutions and became subsequently subsumed and erased: their intellectual and artistic substratum, their spirit of questioning and critique.

And so, Kristeva’s answer to the stalemates of the 1990s was to return in a major way to the juxtaposition revolt/revolution, which she did in a series of books: the two volumes (The Sense and Non-sense of Revolt and Intimate Revolt) dedicated to Aragon, Sartre, and Barthes as representative of what she sees as three essential challenges that have marked the 20th century; and the three volumes on the “female genius”: Melanie Klein, Hannah Arendt and Colette, whom she regards not so much as representative but as singular, while grounding nevertheless this singularity in the universality of a theoretical exploration of the formation of female subjectivity. Kristeva examines the cultivation of revolt on the one hand through the prism of heterogeneous male representation, which provokes at this specific moment, as Kristeva emphasizes, significant resistance and rejection; and, on the other, through the prism of feminine singularity offered by Kristeva as a solution to the cultural ramifications of the “matricide in language” and to the aporias of cultural difference in general. This series is simultaneously a continuation, an elaboration and an analytic re-assessment of a number of issues which subtend her exploration of the dynamic of revolt in The Revolution in Poetic Language and her subsequent work, including negativity, heterogeneity, mystery and the sacred, femininity, the shattering of identity and, in sum, the stakes of a risky and questioning subject vis-à-vis society, the state, and political movements in general.

Indeed, the very notion of re-turn plays an important role in this return to the problematic of Kristeva’s inaugural work. Although one cannot address the one without addressing the other, there is a shift of her focus from the side of the emerging speaking being to the side of the inverse movement of going back, of the re-collection which makes the processes of the subject visible. Beyond the individual and the singular, which has always been Kristeva’s primary concern, there is an emphasis on the need for a cultural re-turn, a movement described by Bulgarian scholar Deyan Deyanov as “positive regress [12] ”, a re-tracing in the steps of modernity in order to find out what went wrong and possibly do it better this time. Kristeva frames the re-turns with an etymological and genealogical re-collection of the vicissitudes of the word itself going back to the Latin volvere with its derivatives signifying “curve,” “entourage,” “turn,” “return,” but also to the Sanskrit root that means to discover, open, and once again to turn, to return. She also brings up the astronomical meaning referring to the revolution of a planet around the sun, with its connotations of eternal return; as well as the philosophical implications with reference to the Platonic anamnesis all the way down to the psychoanalytic probing with its powers and limits: the implications that being is within us and that the truth can be acquired by a retrospective search, by anamnesis, by memory. Revolution as a breach in time oriented towards “singing tomorrows” is replaced by notions of “reversal,” “abjuration,” “change,” “detour,” “cycle,” “recovery,” “unfolding,” “reassessment.” Not a simple recollection, a simple repetition of that which has taken place, but, in Mallarmé words which Kristeva repeatedly quotes throughout the years, “a prior future.” The return leads an individual but also society to question their truth.  A modification, a displacement of the past, occurs, opening, as in fictions of time travel, a prior future to the possibility of making it different.


Tales of Time

Taking into consideration the care with which Kristeva situates her conceptualizations of revolt and revolution in time and the analytical rigour of her examination of their specificity and relevance with and against the currents of history, the concept of time which repeatedly emerges in her work from early and heavily theoretical pieces like “Engendering the Formula” to the recent fictional settings of Murder in Byzantium and The Enchanted Clock may come as a bit of a surprise. While never losing her take on the heterogeneity of the phenomenon in its ontic and ontological dimensions as well as its physical, social, and psychological stratification; while always focusing on the particular facets of this heterogeneity, Kristeva’s probing of temporality invariably brings forth the emergence of the timeless (hors-temps) and the metamorphosis of time into space.

To put it differently, her reflections on revolt and revolution divulge the changes in their concept and their practices as bound up with alterations in socioeconomic and political and, most generally put, historical exigencies. These changes involve shifts in terms of discipline and genre from the predominance of linguistics in Kristeva’s early work to psychoanalytic theory and later on to fiction; shifts which seem to be intrinsically connected to the nature of the revolt under scrutiny but also to broader cultural currents and even fashions. The understanding of time in the various resulting models, however, seems to unveil a recurring evaporation of temporality. Time as linearity comes with subjectivity, syntax, logic, narrative, and history: Kristeva’s interest in the processes which produce and disturb those orders unfolds various histoires du temps as tales of, as she puts it in connection with Proust, doing away with time, going “beyond the vagaries of linear time [13] ” and recovering a “timeless time,” i.e. a sort of spatial eternity.

Not exactly confrontational with regard to Bergson’s durée or Heidegger’s care as the two most influential 20th century philosophical doctrines of temporality, Kristeva’s approach to time insists, therefore, on the impossibility to separate “’duration’” from its transmutation, from its exteriorization into space. [14] ” Her work is in search of temporalities which are recursive, stratified, cracked, and, as already mentioned, a “prior future” (the phrase is already there in “Engendering the Formula” and keeps recurring), “omniteporal” and pulverized “multiplicity of instants” (Revolution in Poetic Language), massive, “all-encompassing and infinite like imaginary space” (“Women’s Time”), an oblivion constantly remembered, a veiled infinity punctured by thunderbolts of revelation (Powers of Horror), a frozen “past that never passes,” a single moment blocking the horizon, massive, weighty, not ruled by before and after (Black Sun), etc. The search unfolds various histoires du temps, tales of alterations and transmutations between time and timelessness, which are anchored in psychic structures and subtended by Freud’s observation that the unconscious ignores time:  “each psychic structure has its own way of placing the unconscious “outside-time” within temporal duration. [15]

The stakes of both revolution and terror are contingent on this juncture. As early as The Revolution in Poetic Language Kristeva notes,

“The contestation of a stagnant bourgeois society can be done in the form of a return to societies without history: it is a rehabilitation of the timeless unconscious, of pre-Oedipal semiosis and of the fragmented body. But, without utopian regression, it can be done in the mode of surpassing the phallic closure of the maternal, by a pluralisation of the signifying system and the process of the subject with and through the Bedeutung: which means, by opening the social closure on a "history". But this time, after the experience of the text, it will be a "history" inseparable from the process of the subject. [16]

Kristeva’s later work will elaborate and re-evaluate both the productive and the hazardous aspects of this observation, which will nevertheless continue to act as an “autotextual [17] ” driver for her reflections on revolution as the interference of the hors-temps in history. The autotextuality of her exploration of revolution would appear, hence, as continually modified by two major factors. On the one hand, it is compelled by political and social upheavals, i.e. by changes in the general contexts which demand attention and scrutiny. This, clearly, is the factor of linear time, of history. On the other hand, it is refined methodologically by psychoanalytical discernments into specific forms of the hors-temps. However, the very specificity of the timeless as puleverized, cyclic, frozen, monumental, fusional, etc., while bound up with universal psychic structures, never loses sight of its historical vicissitudes.


The Enchanted Clock

The temporality implied by Kristeva’s rethinking of revolt has found a fictional materialization as an “enchanted clock” in her recent novel bearing the same title. Kristeva’s novels tend to be an amalgam of poetic insights of a type we know from her theoretical works, discussions whose artificiality leans towards the genre of the philosophical dialogue, characters with intricate depths when explored from the inside and puppet-like motility when shown from the outside, a baroque labyrinth of more or less probable plot lines, and a relentless conceptual net, which holds all these disparate components together. It is a unique mixture which might be compared to some of the prose writing of German romanticism: notably, one of Hoffmann’s characters in “Automata”, Theodore, relates story-telling to a pendulum. “The imagination of the reader, or listener,” he says, “should merely receive one or two more or less powerful impulses, and then go on swinging, pendulum−like, of its own accord. [18] ” Theodore’s remark turns story-telling into the winding of a clock whose mechanism starts the motion and is then moved on by the pendulum of the reader’s imagination. The enchanted clock in Kristeva’s novel, a pendulum clock , to be sure, might serve as an illustration of the workings of such fiction, which puts together various pieces into an imagination-triggering device.

There is, in fact, a concrete clock behind her mechanical protagonist, which is today an exhibit in Versailles. It is an astronomical clock, which shows the date, the time (with great precision up to split seconds) and the phases of the moon as well as – in a crystal sphere on top of its shiny rococo structure – the revolutions (sic!) of the planets according to Copernicus’ heliocentric model. It was designed to show time until the year 9999. Its human-like “homunculus” exterior was created by sculptors Jean-Jacques et Philippe Caffieri, the mechanism itself was the product of a dozen years  of toil by watchmaker Louis Dauthiau, However, it is Claude-Simeon Passemant, the engineer who designed the mechanism, that really interests Kristeva. He interests her as a man who takes part in the mechanical transformation of the world, which he does “from afar, from high on, from beyond, from infinity [19] ”; as a dreamer with non-seeing eyes fixed on the unknown who creates a device to capture infinity (“9999 years locked in a clock”); as a melancholy loner who wants to understand how to live if time flees and hence tries to coincide with fleeing time by living an infinite now.

Now it should be noted at this point that connecting astronomical vistas to time-measuring devices was not a novelty in Passemant’s time. In fact, at the beginning of 20th century a geared mechanism was found in an ancient wreck from first century B.C. The device had a calendarial function, and included representation of the sun and moon. Even earlier than that, in the third century B.C., in a work now lost, Archimedes's seems to have told of the construction of a planetarium – which Cicero saw and described in detail - enclosed in a star-globe. Roman architect Vitruvius (1 c. BC) describes  "anaphoric" - water-driven – clocks, which showed risings and settings of the heavens over the horizon by means of an astrolabe dial. While much of the history of the development of such inventions remains unknown, it is believed that by the end of the 13th century a mechanical means of driving astronomical models was found and the 14th century was marked by the construction of a number of amazing devices like the Padua astronomical clock created by Giovanni de' Dondi (1318-1389).

“It was built into a seven-faced columnar frame, the upper section of each face bearing a dial, one for the sun, one for the moon, and one for each of the known planets… On the lower frame there were also a twenty-four-hour dial, a dial for the fixed feast-days of the church, another for the movable feasts, and one for the lunar nodes, this last being of significance in the calculation of eclipses. Flanking the horary dial there were tabulated times of rising and setting of the sun for Padua. Much ingenuity was shown in the way of providing gears with variable reach, that is, of gearing motions which are effectively of variable eccentricity (as in the case of the complicated Ptolemaic models for Mercury and the moon), by the use of loosely meshing oval gears. [20]

At that time, however, such marvellous machines, which were frequently commissioned by the church and implemented in cathedrals, were not perceived as somehow ungodly or inhuman. In fact, in the Canto X of Paradiso, Dante employs an extended metaphor, in which the mechanism of a clock illustrates the workings of amorous and divine attraction as providing cosmic cohesion and mystic experience of eternal joy. This passage, moreover, which comes at the end of the Canto, is connected to the heaven of the Sun and the Canto begins with quite a technical and, so to say, clock-work description of the movement of the “celestial wheels”, which ensure the order of the universe and the seasons making life possible. We could go further than that and point out that the whole of the Comedia follows the poet’s movement through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in relation to the complicated revolutions of the Ptolemaic mechanism of the Universe enclosed – like the crystal ball enclosing the planets in Passemant’s clock - by the Empyrean of eternity where time stops. Throughout the Comedy, by noting various astronomical details, Dante marks with great precision the passage of time and, indeed, the stopping of time when he moves in unison with the progress of the day.

Regarding the universe as a clock and god as something of a watchmaker is hence already there at the beginning of the 14th century. True, the Ptolemaic model with Earth at the centre of celestial revolutions has been replaced in Passemant’s time by Copernicus’s heliocentric model. Still, the 9999 of Passemant’s clock might be perceived through the prism of Dante’s number symbolism (3 by 3 transforming into one, which structures Dante’s map of the beyond and appears in many guises throughout the poem) as taking time to the point of its transformation into the one of eternity, and thus as a temporal representation of Dante’s cosmos. And yet, we know things have changed between Dante and Voltaire’s contemporary Passemant, and it is this change that Kristeva’s novel addresses. What seems to capture the change in the enchanted clock as the protagonist of her novel is not so much the mechanism per se, however ambitious and impressive it is; however representative of that epoch’s fascination with clocks and of the rise in their production. What epitomizes the change, rather, is the placing of the mechanism in a humanoid form, which the novel emphasizes in various ways and to which Kristeva refers as homunculus, automaton, and, anachronistically but tellingly, a robot. The meeting of technicians and artists in this fit between mechanism and anthropomorphic appearance thus turns Passemant’s clock into an implementation of one of the epoch’s great debates: is man a machine?


Autonomization of the automaton

The debate in its own time, as well as today, is usually referred back to Descartes’ understanding of animals as automata identical to (safe for the complexity and smallness of the parts) manmade mechanisms. Once again it should be pointed out that already Saint Thomas Aquinas compared human art in putting together clocks and engines to the divine art which created things moved by nature. [21] Thomas employs at this point the image of an arrow which flies towards its target as if it were endowed with reason to direct its course: thus, he poses the problem of free will in a node that compares “natural things” and “artificial things.” Saint Thomas, incidentally, is situated by Dante in the heaven of the Sun, where the clock metaphor appears, side by side with his teacher Albertus Magnus about whom the legend has it that he made a mechanical automaton in the form of a brass head that would answer questions put to it: whence came the answers would be the mystery here. In any case, although a lot is being made today in animal studies about Thomas’s downgrading of animals to mechanisms, the issue with its Aristotelean roots did not raise much commotion for a few centuries to come. The great controversy had to wait until the epoch of Kristeva’s enchanted protagonist when Descartes’ reflections on animals were foregrounded and philosophically extended to man by Julien Offray de La Mettrie in his treatise Man a Machine. La Mettrie’s position was that mechanical processes would suffice to explain the functioning of man, i.e. not only its bodily “animal” aspects but also man’s so called spirit. This position summed up trends in mechanical construction. Before he was given a more pragmatic engineering task to supervise the silk industry, where he made considerable innovations, the famous French constructor of man and animal-like mechanisms Jacques de Vaucanson (born in the same year as La Mettrie, 1709 and just a few years after Passemant) attempted to prove in practice, through his inventions, that there was no principal difference between organism and mechanism. His celebrated automata included a flute-player but also, more pertinently, a mechanism capable of digestion (a famous duck which could flap its wings, eat grain, and arguably defecate, so it was partially at least a mystification) or, a project that never took shape, a mechanical implementation of blood circulation. His automata had a tremendous impact: he became part of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia,  Voltaire exalted him (quite appropriately in his Discours en vers sur l'Homme) as Prometheus’s rival who took fire from the skies to animate bodies [22] , Kant referred to Vaucanson’s mechanisms in a crucial discussion of free will in his Critique of Practical reason, [23] etc.

In fact, Vaucanson was only the most prominent among a host of serious engineers and brazen con artists: later in the century the hoax of the Turk, a chess-playing automaton, caused a sensation that would last for decades, impress scientifically minded polymaths like Benjamin Franklin, and inspire writers and philosophers from Hoffmann and Edgar Poe to Walter Benjamin. Against this colourful background which spans from aristocratic salons to marketplace entertainment Kristeva’s choice to call a robot a fully operative clock decorating the private quarters of the king might look a little bit too tame. In fact, the construction of Passemant’s machine coincides with the end of the great century of the clock, the so called horological revolution of 1660-1760: soon ground-breaking engineering inventions would move to new territories.

And yet, Kristeva’s mechanical protagonist allows going one step further in apprehending the spirit of the century. While the question that Vaucanson’s inventions and their fictional romantic progeny raises is whether man can rival god or nature in creating autonomous creatures, the ambition of Passemant’s mechanism to encapsulate both time and eternity but also, perhaps, to capture infinite desire in an infinite succession of 9s, rather than their threesome closure into the one as in Dante’s vision, adds the further question that Kristeva’s novel addresses: is god, to those people whom Passemant represents, those key Enlightenment thinkers, scientists, engineers, a machine? For them, Kristeva suggests, this “robot,” this magical enactment of cosmic time, this erotic machine of endless “priapic” desire, which was purchased by king Louis XV and placed in front of his bedroom, represents the true sovereign and replaces God although Passemant, like Newton, keeps calling it God.

The fascination with automata facilitated a major paradox: what emerged from the Cartesian identification of animals as automata was the autonomization of the automaton, its subtraction from the animal, its uncanny self-sufficiency: a conceptual transformation which, after its philosophical and engineering articulation during the 18th century would find a lasting imaginative continuation in the second decade of the 19th century, in the fables of Mary Shelley and Hoffmann. It is as if, as Mladen Dolar has put it, the ambition of the epoch was to see spirit spring directly from inanimate matter, foregoing “life. [24] ” An emancipation, so to say, of the automaton from the biological substrata. Kristeva’s enchanted clock lays bare what subtends this transformation: an inexorable mechanical universe which has assumed the functions of the divine.

From this vantage point, two opposed perspectives open. There is the one, which in Kristeva’s novel is exemplified by Passemant who “seems to say that man is capable to become the perfect watchmaker in infinity, given enough time”. And there is the other, which has re-surfaced in present day anxieties, according to which in such a clockwork universe life and humanity are an expendable contingency, or, to put it in the words of the Mass Effect dialogue referred to at the beginning, a “genetic mutation, an accident,” incapable of escaping from a mechanically relentless cycle.

There is another way, hence, to look at Passemant’s epoch in so far as the rise of the artificial creature as an autonomous entity coincided with efforts to posit scientifically an other to mechanism: some vital spark, energy, life force, which would mark the crucial difference between the living and the mechanical; in short, various forms of vitalism whose articulation runs parallel to the advent of the automaton. So we could regard the epoch through the ambition to emancipate the automaton from life and biological necessities, or, conversely, through the anxieties vis-à-vis this ambition, which fuel the search for an unadulterated form of the living, a pure flame, a quintessential, irreducible, incalculable antipode to the measured motion of the pendulum. 

In Kristeva’s novel this side of the debate is represented by Émilie du Châtelet, a remarkable figure, the first woman to have a scientific paper published by the French Academy, a mathematician and physicist with significant contributions to science and innovative ideas some of which anticipated contemporary developments. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, with commentary which included her own profound input regarding the conservation of total energy, is still the standard French translation and played a crucial role in the propagation of Newton’s ideas in France. She died at the age of 42 after giving birth to her fourth child and after having numerous lovers, one of them being no other but Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the author of Man a Machine, the philosopher whose worldview epitomizes the epoch’s fascination with automata and who lurks behind Kristeva’s watchmaker Passemant. Kristeva’s take on Emilie’s character seems to offer a sort of blend with Colette, the heroine of the third volume of the trilogy on female genius. A sensuous, passionate, perhaps reckless woman, a gambler literally and figuratively with insatiable flare for life, Du Châtelet is portrayed by Kristeva as a genius who has the courage to think the opposite of the homunculus clock and who has “vindicated the right of the incalculable and the inutile in the epoch of triumphant technics represented by Passemant.” Du Châtelet was, indeed, a defender of life-force (siding with Leibniz on this issue) and the author of a study of fire (the one which the Academy published) intended to refute the theory that fire is a material substance. Kristeva’s portrayal involves an emphasis on Du Châtelet’s theory of fire and her treatise on happiness, both of which run counter to the portrayal of Passemant as a melancholy recluse obsessed with gadgets. Do we see a male-female cliché at work here? Yes, explicitly. Kristeva’s point, however, is to foreground Du Châtelet’s relevance both for contemporary science with its more convoluted vision of the “multiverse” and for, as Kristeva puts it in . L'Avenir d'une révolte,valorizing sensuous experience as an antidote to technological  ratiocination.” Émilie “focuses on infinite fire and singular happiness. Surpassed, the automata! Long live inaccessible and transversal spirals, inflections, symmetries and asymmetries, spongy and cavernous worlds, continuously variable curvatures, turmoil and new beginnings!” (L'Horloge enchantée) Thus while Passemant’s homunculus is seen by Kristeva as an attempt to arrest time, freeze change, insert revolving wheels into the heart of uncertainty and mutability, Du Châtelet, presents the openness to the unpredictable and the new.

I mentioned above Voltaire’s eulogy of Vaucanson for having taken fire from the skies to animate bodies. This might look a bit off the mark in so far as the inventor’s ambition was precisely to demonstrate that, to explain and reproduce physiological processes, one needed nothing external to the clockwork interaction of properly arranged parts. In fact, when La Mettrie published his Man a Machine, he chose as his motto a rather different quotation from Voltaire that implied the soul was born with the senses of the body and died with it. [25]  Voltaire, who was Du Châtelet’s lover at that moment, also presented a treatise on fire to the French Academy: the two of them worked secretly from each other. To round up the drama, it was in the same year, 1738, that Vaucanson presented to the Academy the first of his renowned automata, the flute-player. So is Voltaire’s reference to Promethean fire a mere figure of speech, a reminder of the divinity of the soul, or a sign of taking sides in a controversy that the Enlightenment would pass on to the romantics, the controversy opposing or, as the case might be, blending mechanism and vitalism?

There is more to Prometheus than the creation of man according to the myth; he was also a trespasser against divine law and, between Voltaire and the romantics, he became an emblematic figure of revolt. Adding fire to mechanism might hence be seen not only as Voltaire’s taking sides in a scientific debate between mechanistic and vitalistic approaches, but also as a political transmutation of technological advancement. Voltaire, as Kristeva notes early on in the novel, transformed the meaning of revolution from the Copernican designation of the orbiting of the planets to the sense of violent and profound political change.


Revolution: Dialogical Projections

Voltaire’s reference to Prometheus as animating mechanisms with fire from the skies is hence one of many similar threads which converge in Mary Shelley’s new Prometheus, Frankenstein and his rebellious Monster. Robots will rebel: this ubiquitous aspect of tales of automata seems to be their birthmark. In its humanoid contraption to contain and conquer the 9999 of infinite time, Kristeva’s enchanted clock embodies the complicity between the autonomization of the automaton and the transformation of revolution from an astronomical concept of celestial order to a political idea of abrupt social change. Adding the perspective of science and technological advancement, Kristeva pinpoints the historical moment of this transformation with the trends of intellectual questioning preceding the French Bourgeois Revolution.

In the novel, this moment is redoubled and folded over contemporary discontents. The fictional reconstruction of Passemant’s  intellectual and political milieu performs the retrospective return, which, according to Kirsteva’s concept of intimate revolt, allows the prospective opening of a “prior future.” This re-pro-spective return is enacted as a dialogue, sometimes quite literal, between Passemant’s time and the present: the novel unfolds in those two parallel temporalities. Like Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper - to continue my analogy between Kristeva’s fiction and Hoffmann’s romantic blending and bending of genre – The Enchanted Clock consists of multiple perspectives and randomly revolving pages. Some of these pages are fictional or poetic, some of them openly autobiographical, some of them philosophical, historical or scientific, some of them daydreaming and sheer fancy, and all this scattered in Passemant’s and present day Paris with the two cities frequently blurring. The events and protagonists of Passemant’s time thus acquire the shape of projections from events and protagonists in our epoch, presented here, as in other of Kriseva’s novels, with its hyperconnectivity, media infestation and complicated global fabric.

Science plays an important role in this encounter, staged by Kristeva’s novel, between the 18th and the 21st century. Passemant has his 21st century counterpart in an astrophysicist with whom Nivi, the 21st century double of Du  Châtelet and Kristeva’s alter ego, is in love. This lover is mostly absent – or rather, mostly virtually present – busy as he is with his observatories and stellar events. Nivi, who is a psychoanalyst, is also infatuated with Passemant. There is a similar transtemporal love affair in Murder in Byzantium where a historian is obsessed with the Byzantine princess and intellectual Anna Comnena. In The Enchanted Clock, however, the amorous collusion of temporalities is much more pervasive involving the communication, intellectual but also dreamily sensual, between Nivi, and Passemant. At some point he follows her like a shadow walking the streets of modern Paris: or rather, he sticks to her skin like a dress  under the rain.  Nivi is thus in love with two absences, one in space, one in time. They are both explicitly endowed with the saving graces of fiction, of fantasies (“life would be unbearable without fiction”), which help Nivi deal with a deeper and more horrifying eclipse of another object of love: the medically induced artificial comas of Nivi’s son. The timelessness of the unconscious collapses in this extremity of deathlike suspension of time, from which Nivi emerges with the help of her virtual passion for an 18th century watchmaker and a 21st century astrophysicist.

In love with absence, in love with distance, in love with the stars. There is something about writing women and astronomy, which was also my own childhood dream. The Enchanted Clock includes an autobiographical moment, to which Kristeva refers also in her previous writing, about how in her youth she wanted to conquer space and do astronomy and nuclear physics. Virginia Woolf also dreamt of being an astronomer, and so did Bulgaria’s greatest woman-poet Elisaveta Bagriana who was born in the city where Kristeva was born, Sliven, a city of great women. Kristeva the psychoanalyst knows the answer to this enigma: contemplating the “infinite in us and the infinite without us” helps us deal with separation and loss. In a striking conceptual addition to intimate revolt, designated in the novel as intimate coup d’état, Kristeva describes the emergence from psychological coma-like states, which sow the seeds of death in us, as an opening to the immensity of cosmic pulsations even though – or, perhaps, precisely because - in contrast to the humanoid shape of Passemant’s clock, “no human form today could contain the currant knowledge of time and space, even less it may claim to incarnate it.”

So what about revolt in the face of this impossibility? Are we, in this epoch which can no longer take a human shape, in a time of political coma, a civilizational coup d’état? Between the two temporalities of Kristeva’s retrospective re-turn to the intellectual cradle of emancipatory upheavals, Nivi’s passions enfold not only the centuries of the great revolutions but also two great centuries of science. In the novel, Passemant’s clock is stolen by ecological extremists, then found again. The allegory behind this unlikely terrorist act is obvious: there is an intolerable aspect to the vistas of space and time modern science has introduced, vistas that no human shape can contain or incarnate. Hence the reverie of going back to cosy green little earth, keep things as we believe they were, summon the gods we believe we used to have. Before everything else, the new forms of revolt and the ideality syndrome, which concern Kristeva’s most recent reflections on revolution, respond, perhaps, to this fundamental alteration of our position vis-à-vis the cosmos but also, to go back to the autonomization of the automaton, vis-à-vis the appropriation, by the descendants of Passemant’s clock, of what we thought was most intimately ours.

Kristeva’s answer in the novel invokes Dante’s neologism: transhumanize. “Our accelerated discoveries do not turn us into confident and omnipotent individuals  but into fantasies that go beyond the human in the human…  Superposition of different times, elusive, counter-intuitive, but real. Transhumanization divests us of finitude and brings out the unknown.”

To which I would only add that it is in the nature of the human to be transhuman. Hence fantasies have the capacity to change the world.



Miglena Nikolchina
Sofia University

The Kristeva Circle Stockholm, Sweden, 2016

[1] I examine certain aspects of these heated discussions in “Inverted Forms and Heterotopian Homonymy: Althusser, Mamardashvili, and the Problem of ‘Man’.” boundary 2 , v. 41, no 1, spring 2014, 98-100.

[2] There is, for example, Russian cosmism with its paradoxical materialist nausea with materiality, its conviction that clockwork natural laws are intolerable, and its rebellious agenda for the redemption of the “inferno” of “labouring matter” through the grace of human intelligence. I discuss this in Lost Unicorns of the Velvet Revolutions: Heterotopias of the Seminar, New York: Fordham University Press, 2013, 58.

[3] Alain Badiou. The Adventure of French Philosophy, ed. Bruno Bosteels. Verso: 2012, li.

[4] See for example Julia Kirsteva. “What’s Left of 1968?” in Revolt, She Said, trans. Brian O'Keeffe, Semiotext(e), 2002,  11-44.

[5] Miglena Nikolchina. “Byzantium, or Fiction as Inverted Theory.” Benigno Trigo (ed.) Kristeva’s Fiction. State University of New York Press, 2013, 143-155.

[6] Julia Kristeva. The Sense And Non-Sense Of Revolt: The Powers And Limits Of Psychoanalysis, vol.1,  trans. Jeanine Herman, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 22.

[7] Julia Kristeva. Revolt, She Said,107.

[8] Julia Kristeva. L'Avenir d'une révolte, Calmann-Levy, 1998, Kindle edition.

[9] Julia Kristeva. The Sense And Non-Sense Of Revolt, 13.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The idea of the political implications of such “dialogical projections” is elaborated in Boiadjiev, Tzotcho. “Dialogichnijat printsip na istoriko-kulturnoto isledvane” [The Dialogical Principle of Historic Cultural Research]. In Avgustin i Dekart [St. Augustine and Descartes]. Sofia: Sofia University Press, 1992.

[12] Deyan Dyanov, “Mamardašvili i evropejskata filosofija na xx vek” [Mamardashvili and twentieth-century

European philosophy], afterword to Merab Mamardashvili, Izbrano [Selected works], vol. 1 (Sofia: Iztok-Zapad,

2004), 361.

[13] Julia Kristeva. Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature, trans. Ross Guberman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 189

[14] Ibid., 318

[15] Ibid., 326

[16] Julia Kristeva. La révolution du langage poétique L’avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle Lautréamont et Mallarmé, Paris : Seuil, 1974. 608.

[17] Autotextuality is a concept elaborated by Bulgarian scholar Radosvet Kolarov to describe the prospective and retrospective movements between the texts of an author where “one text recollects the other using it as a matrix for its own unfolding while simultaneously returning to it by way of reading and interpreting it.” Radosvet Kolarov. Povtorenie i satvorenie. Poetika na avtotekstulnostta (Repetition and Creation: Poetics of Autotextuality). Sofia: Prosveta, 2009, 228.

[18] E. T. A. Hoffmann. Automata. http://www.searchengine.org.uk/ebooks/12/69.pdf

[19] Julia Kristeva. L'Horloge enchantée, Paris : Fayard, 2015, Kindle edition.

[20] Samuel L. Macey. Encyclopedia of Time, Routledge, 2013, 130.

[21] Saint Aquinas Thomas. Summa Theologica, Fifth article [I-II, Q.12, Art. 5].

[22] Le hardi Vaucanson, rival de Prométhée,/ Semblait, de la nature imitant les ressorts,/ Prendre le feu des cieux pour animer les corps. Œuvres Complètes De voltaire. Tome X., p. 442. http://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QaeMBrvOjxDkREOtHN9o3Ww-o8dS-fmzLZZXDcST6i_EsdF-g9i1wr1yhcXBYZHb4ACmvWoyCq3pPtZpdYh_YM9jW9cKWm7ynm3cWzwBFd8xw0d4lbI4UQ-gfS6lZDj1Y10tU96yWAXwGcYOsZGZZDRsjY-3_7Q4CG5Ws2sWjxGSVlOOQxgUlXKidJNLiiQVRbvk1WYt-uH27WIzFOw3fckrsGms9_EvnCTVVLBTMwKHegtASdAgvA5OFj5wtSUUgkjps4_wblSMlg2l08Uo_LmjlLifgg Before it reached Mary Shelley’s subtitle the reference to “modern Prometheus” became a recurring formula in 18th century writing.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason: The Critique of Practical Reason and Other Ethical Treatises: the Critique of Judgment, ed. Hutchins, Robert Maynard, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago 1952, 334.

[24] Mladen Dolar, “ ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night’: Lacan and the Uncanny,” October 58 (Autumn 1991): 17.

[25] ”Est-ce là ce Rayon de l'Essence suprême, Que l'on nous peint si lumineux ? Est-ce là cet esprit

survivant à nous-même ? Il naît avec nos sens, croît, s'affaiblit comme eux. Hélas ! il périra de

même.” (Is this the Ray of the supreme Essence, which has been painted so luminous to us? Is this the spirit

supposed to survive us? It is born with our senses, grows, weakens as they do. Alas! It will also perish.) Voltaire is possibly referring to Lucretius at this point as indicated in the notes to Lucrèce, De La nature des choses, T. I, tr. en français par m. J.-B.-S. de Pongerville, Paris, 1823, 354.



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