The Gift of the Traumatic Event: Some Reflections on a Work by Jean-Luc Marion


During spring term earlier this year, in one of my classes at the University of Denver I used contemporary French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion’s Being Given:  Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, translated by Jeffrey L, Kosky (Stanford University Press, 2002) as one of the texts.  What follows, under the date on which I first wrote them in my philosophical journal, are some reflections pertinent to thinking trauma, reflections occasioned by my rereading of Marion’s book for that class.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Marion, Being Given, pages 90-91, makes the following remarks, which are pertinent to my concerns about articulating a sense of “debt” that has been wholly de-economized, in effect–a debt the owing of which escapes all reference to any possible payment:

The ingrate is defined first not by a negative will or his impotence to repay good with good, but by incapacity, impatience, and exasperation simply in receiving it [that is, a gift].  He refuses the charge not only of acquitting himself of this debt (which would remain within exchange), but of ever having incurred–of ever having been offered a gift.  He suffers from the very principle that a gift affects him by befalling him.  He does not refuse this or that gift with or without this or that objective support:  he refuses indebtedness pure and simple–or rather the admission of it.  In a stubborn struggle against the evidence of the gift already given and without his consent, the ingrate has the presence to maintain that his consent alone decides the gifts given to him.  He sticks strictly to the base principle that “I don’t owe anything to anyone” . . .

That the great community of the dead remains for the most part made up of wholly anonymous members does not affect the issue of our debt to them, is, in turn, clarified in Marion’s discussion of the gift in relation to the giver, culminating in this observation (p. 98):  “The ego is inasmuch as it returns identically to itself; the giver is not (lacks, disappears, remains unknown, anonymous) insofar as he gives (himself).”  Following upon this, he goes on to remark (pp. 100-101):  “Since it gives itself, the gift appears as gift to the givee only if the last mentioned is indeed recognized as last, or at least as second–as who receives, incurs a debt, owes something to he knows not whom or what.  This recognition of debt, contrary to appearances, is no small matter.  At issue is what phenomenologically and morally is the hardest ordeal:  to succeed in making an exception to the principle ‘I don’t owe anything to anybody.’ ”

Following up further on (p. 112):

To receive the gift implies that one owes something–(the gift) to something–sometimes the giver.  To decide to receive a gift therefore demands accepting, with and for the gift, the same time as this gift the knowledge and the acknowledgment of a debt.  The gratuity of the gift is paid for with recognition–of the gift and its very gratuity. To decide to receive the gift is equivalent to deciding to become the one obliged by the gift.  The decision between the potential givee and the gift is therefore not so much one that the givee exercises over the gift as one that the gift exercises over the givee.  It is necessary that the gift, by its attractiveness and the glamour of its phenomenality decide that the givee accepts it; that is to say, it leads him to sacrifice his autarky in order to receive it.  In the final analysis, the gift itself decides its acceptance by deciding (for) its givee.  The gift shows itself so as to give itself and to give its reception.

His treatment of the event is also excellent.  For example, pp. 167-168:  the event “dismisses all cause.”  He uses, as a first instance, the event “for the historian,” e.g., World War I:

It is not a matter of their being a shortage of causes, which would remain unknown because the information, inquiries, and particular studies would be lacking.  Quite the contrary, the information–here concerning what triggered the First World War–is overabundant. . . . But it is precisely this overabundance that forbids assigning it a cause, and even forbids understanding it through a variety of causes.  In effect, what qualifies it as an event stems from the fact that these causes themselves all result from an arising with which they are incommensurable.  We pursue them because the event happens by itself, far from its happening as a result of what they teach us.  Its irrepressible bursting into the tranquil air of popular enthusiasm in the summer of 1914 does not arise from its causes to come, but from itself, from its unpredictable landing [Kosky’s translation of “arrivage“] and its incident.

This bears comparison to Bergson, of course, whom Marion does not cite here.  Nor does he cite Freud, though what Marion says of the event fits well with what Freud says about the “over-determined” aspect of the symptom of neurosis.

He goes on, p. 170: ” ‘The rose is without why,’ [as the 17th century German mystic poet Angelus Silesius says in a famous poem] but also the event.  For that matter, the rose, when it opens, arises like an event, just as the event blossoms–when it is ripe.”

In the face of such an in principle unforseeable event, the “subject” gives way to the “witness.”  P. 217:  “Far from being able to constitute the phenomenon, the experience itself is constituted by it.  To the constituting subject, there succeeds the witness–the constituted witness.”

Proceeding in terms of Kant’s four categories of “pure concepts of the understanding,” Marion says (p. 228) that the event “saturates the category of quantity.”  He uses the example of Waterloo, and even refers to Stendhal’s Fabrice [main character in Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma]:  “Put trivially, nobody ever saw the battle of Waterloo (nor Austerlitz, to be fair). . . . The battle passes and passes away on its own, without anybody making it or deciding it.  It passes, and each watches it pass, fade into the distance, and then disappear, disappear like it had come–that is to say, of itself.”

Also worth noting is his treatment, a bit further on, of the relation of call and response. He argues that the call as such only shows itself as call in the “responsal,” which generates (p. 289) “an essential paradox,” which is:  “the responsal completes the call, but it is belated–late for what gives itself, it delays its monstration.  In a word, the responsal delays the call.”  Thus, the structure of call and response displays the same “belatedness” that Freud attributes to trauma.  Marion goes on to see this same structure as there since and in birth. In effect, as born, what is born comes to itself only in delay:

The gifted is late ever since his birth precisely because he is born; he is late from birth precisely because he must first be born.  There is none among the living who did not first have to be born, that is to say, arise belatedly from his parents in the attentive circle of waiting for words that summoned him before he could understand them or guess their meaning. . . . All my slow coming to consciousness . . . has no other ambition than to absorb my delay in responding to my birth (call) and to contain the initial excess with the fragile poverty of solipsism.

This invites comparison with the dream of the burning child in Freud, which, by Cathy Caruth’s analysis, is a matter of staying asleep, so that consciousness itself comes to be seen as the guard against waking up.  Marion then concludes his discussion of birth as follows (p. 290):

In effect, not only am I born as if from a call, but this call even precedes my birth, which constitutes only its first response.  Before my birth, words were said around me and I heard them without understanding; even before my conception, words were exchanged by others, words ranging from joy to violence, and from which I no doubt come.  I therefore was said and spoken before being; I am born from a call that I neither made, wanted, nor even understood.  Birth consists only in this excess of the call and in the delay of my responsal.

Pp. 295-296:

The call precedes the responsal, which continually confesses its delay by multiplying its responses, which series opens nothing less than a history proper to the gifted.  The history of the gifted is due to the sum of its responses, which draw it near to and distant from the call. . . . The belatedness has nothing of a temporizing or temporalized delay; it stems from the gifted’s strictly phenomenological conversion of what gives itself (the call) into what shows itself (the responsal).  The conversion imposes a delay–a slowness, but a ripening slowness that puts the given on the path of showing itself by filtering through the prism of the gifted. . . . Only givenness, unfolded in all its instances, differs/defers.  Differing and deferring, it shows itself.  The visible is late in hatching, but it hatches only in this very delay.  Temporality itself delays only in order to attest it.

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