To Begin: Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy

As I wrote in the text for a talk I was invited to give in May, 2008, to the Political Theory Club at the Korbel School (formerly the Graduate School) of International Studies at the University of Denver, and which I entitled “Trauma, Truth, and the Sovereignty of the Image”:

“Recently, my thinking and research has come to focus on the intersection of a number of concepts or figures/tropes of diverse provenance but sometimes surprising convergence: (1) ‘trauma,’ in the sense at issue–to cite a definitive example–in Freud and psychoanalysis; (2) ‘event,’ as that term comes to be deployed in the works of such continental European thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, and Žižek; (3) ‘truth,’ as used (some might say abused) within that same European philosophical tradition; (4) ‘sovereignty,’ primarily in the political sense at issue in contemporary discussions centering around the recovery of the thought of Carl Schmitt–for example, and especially, in the works of Giorgio Agamben; (5) ‘representation,’ in both the political and the philosophical-literary senses—the ‘image’ of my title; and (6) ‘the political,’ in the sense of that term in which such recent continental European thinkers as Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe would distinguish between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.”

That nexus of concepts first began to come into focus in my thought in connection with a class I taught at the University of Denver in fall term of 2005. My work on those themes in conjunction with that class soon resulted in an article which has since been published online in The Electronic Book Review (“9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn’t Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson”). Since that time, I have continued to work with the interconnections of the concepts involved. Then, in December of last year, I resumed, after a long gap, the practice of keeping a regular “philosophical journal,” more or less restricting my entries to recording my responses to what I was reading at the time in the relevant literature on trauma, a literature which I have been continuing to explore to the present.

I have decided to devote this blog to sharing entries from that journal, beginning with the earliest one pertaining to trauma, which I wrote in February, 2008, and which is reproduced below. As I am able in the future, I will add further entries, until catching up to the present, after which I will continue to add any new entries as I happen to write them. At times, I may also preface an entry with further current reflections such as this one, when that seems appropriate. When it seemed necessary for the reader’s sake, I have provided additional information or explanation within brackets added to the original text of my entries.

There is something appropriate in having a definite delay between the date I originally wrote these episodic entries about trauma, and my decision now to make them available to others. After all, Freud has taught us well that it belongs to how trauma works—how it traumatizes—that there be a certain characteristic Nachträglichkeit or “belatedness” of traumatic impact, a sort of being out of temporal synch with itself, which manifests precisely in episodic recollections and insights that are somehow pushed beneath the surface of the traumatized mind by the traumatizing event itself, only to surface after a delay, sometimes of sizeable duration. Correspondingly, perhaps the most traumatically proper way to write of trauma is episodically and in fragments. Freud’s own writings on trauma surely fit that pattern, at any rate, which gives me a good precedent.

I hope that there is also something traumatically appropriate about dropping the reader suddenly down my entries mid-stream of their current, as it were, without attempting to fill in the thought and reading that led me to make those entries in the first place, or projecting an outline–like a bad fighter telegraphing his punches–of how my thinking has progressed since the date of the given entry. As many of those same entries will at times address, trauma itself has a way of dropping us down in the middle of what seems to be an ongoing story in which we are playing some part, but in which we find ourselves without access to the script, or any clear sense of the storyline.

At any rate, to delay the delay no further, I have reproduced below the first entry from the relevant passages of my ongoing philosophical journal, beginning with its date of original entry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading Paul Eisenstein, Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject (SUNY, 2003).

He does a very nice analysis of liberalism [in the classic sense of that term, not the modern, American one] as sharing [with Fascism] the endeavor to avoid trauma (pp. 42ff). But it strikes me that he fails fully to appreciate what his own analysis shows. I can use a phrase of his to point to what I think that is—what his analysis does show. At the very start of that analysis, he uses the phrase (p. 42) “the prevention of future catastrophes” to name the goal at which he aims his own analysis (he does go on in the next sentence, ‘Or at least, that . . . ,” to weaken his goal statement a bit, but that does not concern what I want to say here).

The argument he advances is that both liberalism and National Socialism end up “disavowing” the traumatic kernel (the Lacanian point de caption, “quilting point”) that is “internal” to any political order (like the point of “decision” from which law/right themselves come, according to Schmitt—though Eisenstein does not draw that connection). They disavow that “traumatic instability/inconsistency” that is internal to social order, by turning it into a definite historical something, rather than keeping cognizant of its “transcendence”—by giving the quilting point (p. 45) “a context, a history, from the beginning” (he writes that of “the figure of the Jew” in National Socialism, but his analysis shows it also applies to the liberal construction of any such starting point as [John] Rawls’ “original position”).

What it seems to me he misses in this excellent analysis is precisely what it brought most clearly to my own attention. That is, that the very endeavor to “prevent” such catastrophes as the Holocaust is itself precisely a move of the sort he so clearly exposes in liberalism and National Socialism. In short, it is precisely the endeavor to secure oneself against a future recurrence of catastrophe that generates just such recurrence—indeed, that requires such catastrophe to found itself and whatever order it imposes, found itself and its order in and as the very disavowal of the un-disavowable occurrence of trauma.

As I noted in the margin of his book on p. 42, the discussion could also be cast in terms of the notion of idolatry as I explore it in Addiction and Responsibility [New York: Crossroad, 1993] and especially in my article on RB 7 [“Humility, Maturity, and the Love of God: Reflections on RB 7,” The American Benedictine Review]. National Socialism, liberalism, and Eisenstein’s own notion of “preventing future catastrophes” are all “idolatrous,” in that they all make the contextualizing, historizing moving whereby a “transcendence” is made into an “object”—to sue the Kantian language Eisenstein himself does here. They all make God into an idol.

Entered a bit later the same day:

Eisenstein himself elsewhere all but sees and says what I write above. Thus, he argues, contra [contemporary American historian] Dominic LaCapra, that “structural trauma” is indeed and clearly the “precondition” for “historical trauma,” and that it is only by remembering/
”repeating” the former that we can lessen the frequency of the latter. But what does that entail, if not that the very focus on “preventing” “historical” trauma engenders that very trauma? Only, as Eisenstein argues, in remembering structural trauma can we not keep on doing “deadly” repetitions/recollections of historical trauma, acting them out again and again (as, for example, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians can be seen to be a re-enactment of the Holocaust itself, with new victims and with the old victims now become victimizers).

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