The Traffic in Trauma: Legitimations? Legitimations? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Legitimations!

“Be Nice?  No, It Damages Bottom Line”—that was the headline for a front page article by Nathaniel Popper in the business section of the New York Times for Wednesday, July 25 of this year.   The article concerned Richard X.  Bove, a professional market analyst with a large securities investment firm, and an insight he had recently had into how banking operates today.   Here’s how Popper paraphrases Bove’s insight:  “catering to customers may actually distract from the pursuit of making money in the new world of finance.  What really matters, he now believes, is pushing products and managing risks.”  Despite the fact that Bove recently moved his own accounts from Wells Fargo because of his own dissatisfaction with their customer service, he recommends that bank for investors on the basis of its continuing financial strength and growth.  He was “struck by the fact,” he tells Popper, “that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good.”  (Obviously, he means good for investors, of course, not for customers.)  Accordingly, he goes on to say, by Popper’s account:  “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.”

In fact, Bove’s insight into contemporary banking practice actually applies to the entire contemporary global economic situation.  The global economic system has at long last reached the critical point beyond which it no longer needs to maintain any pretenses.  From now on it can simply present itself in its full reality as what it is:  a system of pure, perpetually self-escalating exploitation.  The economic realities of today demonstrate that the exploitation of potential “resources” for the extraction of profit no longer even needs to mask itself under the guise of providing goods and services of use or pleasure to potential consumers.  “Customer satisfaction” is just no longer required.  The customer has now become inured to all possible dissatisfaction.  That customer now just keeps on taking whatever is dished out to him (the masculine pronoun is appropriate here), and keeps asking for more of the same, which keeps on being supplied him.  Public exploitation for private gain—in short, the pursuit of profit:  “the bottom line”—has finally achieved such complete and unquestionable dominance, such unchallengeable, taken-for-granted “normalcy,” that it can finally dispense even with that old chest-nut, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  The only hand that has been at work all along—the hand of the huckster–is now not only wholly visible, but also mocking in its insistence on exposing itself, on “showing its hand,” with no embarrassment and no apologies whatsoever.

In short, as I put it in one of my recent posts, the whole world has become Las Vegas!

There nothing at all unexpected about that.  Such an outcome was entirely predictable.  It has been for-ordained all along, at least since Adam Smith first tried to cover the con.  It goes inseparably together with the very pursuit of “the bottom line,” that is, of profit itself, as–well, as the bottom line.

That is because economic exploitation, the pursuit of the bottom line of profit, as the driving force behind the whole engine of the modern, gone-global, “market” economy, is as such dependent upon trauma.  To be precise, it is and has always been dependent upon the avoidance of trauma, which is to say, by an only apparent paradox, upon the institutionalization of trauma—what I have been calling, in my entire recently inaugurated occasional series of posts occasioned by my recent trip to Las Vegas, “the traffic in trauma.”

By the “avoidance” of trauma I do not mean anything like the elimination of trauma, the successful skirting of traumatic events, or somehow securing oneself against traumatic shocks.  Far from it!  I mean, rather, the sustained, systematic refusal to face trauma when it happens.  By the “avoidance” of trauma, I mean, not escape from the traumatic blow, the shock of trauma, but, rather, the refusal to address it.   We might also say such avoidance of trauma is the insistence on remaining stupid, which is to say willfully ignorant.  Avoiding trauma is keeping trauma stillborn, in effect, by denying it all possibility, not of “birth,” as it were, but of “after-birth,” as I called it in a relatively recent previous series of posts on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André.  It is refusing to grant the traumatic event any opportunity of really “taking place,” after it once has initially happened–denying it any “place” to “take,” as I put it in that previous series.

As Walter Benjamin observed almost a century ago, life in our modern, urbanized society is one of constant bombardment by recurrent shocks.  His model for this was cinema, with its clicks whizzing by from frame to frame so quickly that our perception of any interval between them as they pass vanishes altogether.  What he is pointing to is even more evident, of course, in today’s ubiquitous digital media, which have become our shared constant global environment.  As Benjamin saw for cinema, such media forms are emblematic of what is structurally definitive of modern life as such:  a life subjected to just such incessantly recurrent jolts on all experiential fronts, delivered at such high frequency as to blend into one another to appear as though they were a single, continuous surrounding element in which we live.  And that, indeed, is just what the never-ending storm of shock has become for us.  It has taken on the status of a neutral given, like the white noise of an air conditioner that lets us sleep, whereas it is the interruption of that constant noise that now wakes us.

As Freud taught, there are two sides to the effect of trauma upon the psyche.  He named one “negative,” the other “positive.”  Freud used those terms to characterize the specific role each part of the response to trauma played relative to the traumatic shock that engendered such response (rather than to offer any evaluation of their worth to the “organism”).  On one side, the “negative” one, the response of the organism to a traumatic blow is to numb itself against the shock–putting the trauma at a distance, as it were, distancing from it–precisely in order that the organism may survive the shock, rather than being annihilated by it.  The other, “positive” side consists of the contrary impulse to that of distancing.  That is impulse to retain the traumatic impact, to hold on to it, until—and so that—the organism is finally able to address and somehow “process” it, whatever such processing may ultimately look like.  Thus, the “positive” effect manifests in the unconsciously operative “repetition compulsion,” as Freud famously labeled it:  the compulsion to keep repeating the traumatic episode, reenacting it again and again compulsively, with no deliberate intention, until it finally can be so “processed” in some satisfactory sense.

When struck by what Jean-François Lyotard calls “the first shock” of trauma, its sudden, eruptive occurrence, its “birth,” if one will, it is the numbness that overcomes us by Freud’s “negative” effect that lets us survive the blow that would otherwise kill us.  To live through it that initial tidal-wave of traumatic shock we must be numbed to its impact, “repressing” it.  Then, by Freud’s “positive” effect, there is the ongoing “return of the repressed” in the form of unconscious, compulsive repetition of the traumatic event—in effect, the long series of subsequent “after-shocks” that follow the first shock.  They continue to remind us, as it were, of what happened to us to numb us so.  They will never let us “forget” what, paradoxically, we have in at least one sense yet to “know” at all.  Only when, if ever, we at last made able to provide a place for the traumatic shock to take place, so that it truly can “take place” and not just “happen”—only when we have been properly prepared to serve as receptacles for what amounts to a “second birth” of the trauma in us, what I called its “after-birth” in my posts on André—does our numbness finally pass.  Only then can it be let go, and can we at last awaken from the sleep into which the first shock of trauma numbed us.  Only then, when we at last awake to how traumatized we have so long been, does anything that might appropriately be called “recovery” from trauma finally become possible.

However, the interest of making a profit out of trauma—the interest that feeds the traffick in trauma—lies altogether elsewhere.  The interest of such an interest in trauma is not invested in any such place of possible recovery.  The interest of the traffic in trauma lies not in waking us up, but in keeping us asleep.  It lies precisely in keeping us numb, numb most especially to our very numbness.  The interest of anyone who has an interest in “the bottom line” when it comes to trauma is just this: to keep the compulsive repetitions coming, that is, to keep the “customers” for trauma-traffic in shock. 

That’s the simple secret of success in Las Vegas:  that the only success finally possible at all in Las Vegas is the success of Las Vegas—of the reality that gaudily, mockingly, blatantly dresses itself with that name, the name of the self-styled City of Sin.  As we all know, even though it is very hard and rare for any of us to belief it (a hardness and rarity itself in service to Las Vegas, feeding the success thereof) nobody ever really beats the odds in Las Vegas, where the odds always, always favor the house.

Now, to close this post by bringing it that all back to where I started, with Mr. Bove’s insights into banking and investments:  All Wells Fargo branches are in Las Vegas, of course.  Wells knows well what it’s up to.

*      *     *      *      *

In the post after next—which will be specific to a certain upcoming anniversary–I will probably resume the general line of thought I am pursuing in the above post.

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