“Shock and Awe”: The Globalization of Shock, The Globalization of Trauma (and the Globalization of the Possibility of Recovery?)


The entry below from my philosophical journal, originally written on the date indicated, concerns an essay from Traumatic Pasts:  History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930, ed. by Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner–a collection of essays by historians of various sorts.   


Monday, August 11, 2008

In the fourth [essay in Traumatic Pasts], “Event, Series, Trauma: The Probabilistic Revolution of the Mind in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Wolfgang Schäffner, who hold a Ph.D. in literary studies from the University of Munich, draws an interesting connection between trauma–especially as a matter of a series of “events” [which would in this context have to mean datable, objective occurrences], not ever reducible to just one such (but a matter of the experience of the event in a whole series of repetitions)–on the one hand, and the rise of the insurance industry, on the other.

page 89:

. . . insurance made the accident a social event and also created a new social field. . . . Just like crimes, accidents formed [items in a budget].  The problem of damage beyond relations of causative guilt, which could not be solved by liability laws, found its solution in the dispersion of single damages to all insured.  The local and individual occurrence of an accident changed into a risk threatening everybody and became a permanent event throughout society.  Risk invades the realm of the mind and can now be experienced without any external release.  It lurks, always and everywhere, evn in the  most minute and insignificant details.

He immediately draws the conclusion himself, in the very next line, with which he starts the first section of his paper, called “Pension Neurosis”:

Thus psychic trauma signifies probabilistic normalization, which was widely disseminated by accident insurance.  If one feels a permanent and regularly effected danger in a space beyond individual guilt, then risk exercises an invisble and constant power on the members of a society.  Through accident insurance this kind of power is articulated and intensified:  It acts as the implantation of risk.

In this sense, one can indeed argue that, as he puts it later on the same page, “insurance itself and not the accidents produced traumatic neurosis.”  As he also says, that also then, paradoxically, let the insurance companies try to cut their loses by arguing that it was not the accident as such that caused the trauma and that, therefore, there was no liability.  (He does not say so, but clearly such a paradoxical counter-move just intensifies the “implantation of risk” and, therefore, the prevalence of trauma as such!)

He sums up (p. 90): 

Therefore the problem of the trauma itself, the necessary uncertainty of its causation, and the particularity of experience are not demonstrations of social disorder; rather, they prove the power of techniques of normalization, which makes the risk of accident penetrate the mind. . . . Statistical probability is experienced by the “pension neurotic” as psychic trauma.  The accident experience is never completely actualized; it merges deferment and prognosis, traumatic past and future, and it erases the difference between occurrence and nonoccurrence. . . . With the independence of real psychic effects, simulation obtains a new status transcending classical distinctions of true and false.

He concludes his essay (p. 91):  “To view pension neurosis as an abuse of the social  insurance system is equivalent to failing to see the probabilistic revolution  of the  mind. . . . Ultimately, pension neurosis is a striking example of the tremendously successful control and normalization of human desires totally undreamed of by the experts themselves.”

Earlier in his piece, he cites [Walter] Benjamin; and the latter’s notion of modern life as one of  constantly recurring shock, inducing numbness, is certainly relevant to what Schäffner says.  So is Heidegger on Gestell [Heidegger’s term for the “essence of modern technology,” which reduces all things to supplies to be secured in reserve, so that what drives everything, in effect, is the ever self-escalating pursuit of security, or what I, with my background in the philosophy of addiction, would call “protecting the supply”]–especially [with regard to] the very closing of Schäffner’s essay, just quoted.

Following such lines of thought, one might argue that “trauma” is ineparable from “modernity” and its technologization of everything.  As shock becomes generalized and globalized, so does trauma.  However, what saves grows at the heart of this danger of all dangers, too [a reference to a line from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin that Heidegger likes to cite:  “Where danger is,/there grows also what saves”].  In effect, the globalization of shock so effectively and, as it were, unintentionally, globalizes trauma along with the shock, that “recovery” starts to break out here, there, and–ultimately–everywhere, too.  As a distinctively “modern” pehnomenon, trauma–like Gestell–surfaces the eventful (event-ful) “structural” origin of experience itself.

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