Trauma and Sovereignty — and Alcoholics Anonymous


After the entry posted yesterday, the next entry of significance pertaining to trauma in my philosophical journal occurs almost a month later. As was also true of the first posted entry and will be true for subsequent entries overall, the entry below was occasions by my reflections on the literature about trauma that I was reading at the time. Just as there is something appropriate, as I mentioned in my previous post, about both the delayed posting of these entries from my philosophical journal and the episodic nature of the entries themselves, so is there something appropriate to the general subject of this website–trauma–about the typically responsive character of all the entries: their being occasioned by reflections engendered by earlier experiences, in this case, earlier reading. The truths carried to us in trauma always require just such response for their reception. What is more, if, as I will be arguing in a variety of entries for future postings, truth itself is unavoidably traumatic, then the coming of truth itself must always take place in such responsiveness.

The entry posted below also introduces the reader to another of my long-standing philosophical and personal interests, that of the philosophy of addiction and “recovery.” Readers unfamiliar with my earlier work and interested in pursuing some of my writing on that topic may consult my book Addiction and Responsibility: An Inquiry into the Addictive Mind, which was originally published in 1993 (New York: Crossroad), and which I have recently made available chapter by chapter online at

Below is the newly posted entry from my philosophical journal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reading Trauma and the Memory of Politics, by Jenny Edkins (Cambridge U. Press, 2003).

Pp.188-189: Very good, clear, short summary of [contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio] Agamben [in such works as Homo Sacer] on how, in the [Nazi concentration/extermination] camps, the zone of indistinction between zoe [Greek for life in the minimal zoological sense] and bios [life in the full, human sense, as involved in a person’s “biography,” for example] is reached. And, even better, she grasps and presents how, for Agamben, testimony bears witness to the inseparability of the two. As she sees it, it is that testimony/witness to their inseparability that truly contests “modern sovereignty.” But she ends by throwing away her own insight, it seems to me, when she goes on to write (p. 189): “The distinction between zoe and bios underlies sovereign power–is fundamental to it.” Her whole analysis shows, on the contrary, that it is not distinguishing between the two that founds sovereignty, but is, rather, the self-dissembling of that very distinction–the engendering of the myth of the natural or original givenness of the distinction, as it it were, rather than the acknowledgment of the artificiality and conventionality of the distinction, [such a mystifying mythification of the distinction being necessary] to get sovereignty up and running in the first place. What testimony/witnessing does is point to the fictional “nature” of the distinction–its non-“naturality,” as it were: the emperor [of Hans-Christian Anderson’s fairytale story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”] never has any clothes! (She ends up saying the same herself, in effect, on p. 232.)

Related: Right after that (pp. 190-191) she discusses the processes whereby the status quo appropriates testimony/witnessing through such devices as memorialization (narratives of rescue and hope), mediatization, etc., thereby diverting, in effect, the potentially disruptive power of such testimony. Well, I’ve long been aware of that precisely as it applies to AA. It could certainly be plausibly argued that AA itself functions as just such a diversion of otherwise potentially disruptive power, by diverting the addict from the angry manifestation of anger itself–that disruptive power–in substance/practice abuse, into “peaceful” channels, so that the addict gets “set straight,” back on the road of socially useful and productive behavior.

Such an analysis is not without power of its own. However, there are two factors about AA, concretely taken in the context of addiction and society in interaction, that tell me the analysis along those lines needs to be thought through into a different analysis, if the analysis itself is to serve any liberating potential. Those two factors are:

1) It is addiction itself–e.g., alcoholism–that actually serves the status quo as a diversion of the potentially disruptive power that the potential addict could otherwise become. Precisely by giving all us social malcontents, us “restless, irritable, and discontented” people [a reference to a well known line from “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous], something to keep us occupied, as it were, the power that is–the “status quo”–effectively neutralizes us. That’s why truly to hear [someone in an AA meeting say, as someone often will, especially if there is a “newcomer” present], “You never have to drink again [if you don’t want to],” is [potentially] so liberating for the alcoholic, but also carries a hidden potential to liberate the socially disruptive power that till then had been so successfully neutralized.

2) That newly liberated potentially disruptive power, in turn, works–not by encouraging/propelling recovered addicts to organize/mobilize for direct political action. That would not accord with the 10th AA tradition, against having any “opinion on outside issues,” as well as the 5th tradition, on keeping “singleness of purpose” (“but one primary purpose” [namely, “to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”].  Rather, the revolutionary potential is AA itself! It is “life together” in AA that marginalizes the very things that, outside AA, marginalize segments of the [larger] society (blacks, gays, women, whomever). In AA [AA members] live together in such a way that all such divisions are set aside. Thus, it is at the level of AA as a border-less, place-less place in the social landscape–a place where, whenever one comes into that place, the fictions of sovereignty are swept away as the fictions they are–it’s as such a place without place that AA simply lets free life occur.

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