In the theory of subjectivity of Bulgarian linguist, psychoanalyst, and sometime “French feminist” Julia Kristeva, the “chora” is a space shared by mother and child at the time of their initial and partial separation through processes associated with the semiotic (and later, the abject), before the subsequent and more definitive differentiation through the accession to language proper and symbolic castration, when the child ceases to be the mother’s creature (for psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, her imaginary phallus) and assumes a name and identity in the community to which both belong. In attending to the importance of the maternal, pre-Oedipal object relations, and archaic, pre-phallic drives directed towards the mother, Kristeva, like other feminists, supplements the emphasis in Freud and Lacan on the role in subject formation of the father, language, law, the phallus, and castration. She adopts the term chora from Plato’s Timaeus (better known for the first story of Atlantis), where it is the (non) place of the inscription of the forms or ideas (“eidos,” linked etymologically to vision), a matrix of becoming and change, and thus womb-like (Plato calls it a nurse and mother by contrast with the forms as father and their worldly copies as offspring). Plato contrasts it with the two other realities he theorizes, the sensible (the earthly, material realm of illusions, mere shadows of the forms) and the intelligible (the transcendental realm of the forms themselves as the ultimate reality); it is therefore neither percepts nor concepts but what gives rise to them.
For deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, Plato’s chora thus enables difference to be thought at all, such as the metaphysical opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. It is prior to any particular, nameable differences (signs), in effect unnameable and unlocalizable, no-thing, no-where; it cannot be maternal and feminine in the usual sense of those terms (for Kristeva it is only “maternally connoted,” an “archaic disposition of primary narcissism”), since the latter are already caught up in the system of differences the chora precedes, though feminists have sometimes characterized it as such (similarly, the “arche-writing” giving rise to “speech” and “writing” proper is not the same as the latter, according to Derrida). If some feminist object-relations theorists have romanticized the pre-Oedipal as a utopic space of the oneness of mother and child, Kristeva highlights the ambivalence of the kind of suffocating fusion it entails, since the chora at once enables and threatens to prevent the child’s individuation. It is characterized by what Kristeva terms the “semiotic,” rhythmic articulations of light, gesture, and sound, primarily infant laughter, babble, and echolalias, proto-signifiers without signifieds that project preliminary differences into what has been a sensorial continuum and prepare for language and signification, in which difference and identity are stabilized; the semiotic chora “arrests and absorbs” drive energy and primitive demands for nurturance. Signs replace experience with representation and bind polymorphous and anarchic pre-Oedipal drive energy in the secondary processes associated with the Symbolic, consciousness, and the reality principle that restricts pleasure or jouissance. The Symbolic is in fact formed through the repression of the semiotic, although the latter finds an outlet in aesthetic sublimation, particularly in experimental art, where meaningful, propositional representation breaks down and the choric and semiotic and their archaic drive energies reemerge. By destabilizing fixed meanings and identities and putting subjects, objects, and their signs “in process” and “on trial” (Kristeva’s French expression, “en procès,” is a double entendre), the maternal chora and its “revolution in poetic language” of avant-garde texts (to recall the title of the book based on her dissertation about this) revivifies the mortifying, reifying paternal Symbolic, even if it must be contained again for a reordered world of stable differences to emerge.