Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (1)

This is the first of what I plan to be two consecutive posts under the same title.

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Become who you are!                                                                                                                                     — Nietzsche

Jean-Paul Sartre, that great champion of the idea of freedom, always insisted that, free as we are, we do not have the freedom to choose the communities into which we are born.  Nowhere does he tell any tale of a reincarnation in which souls between embodiments get to choose where and in what form they’ll next come back.  Our freedom, Sartre says, is a matter of our always having to choose just how we are going to take up the facts of our birth, what we are going to make of those facts.  Those facts themselves, however, are given to us at birth, by birth, whether we like them or not.  Thus, for example, one person will take up the fact of having been born an American by becoming a flag-waiving, government-devouring member of the Tea Party, whereas another will take up the same fact by flying away to join Al-Qaeda and become a suicide-bomber.  We are free to make of the facts of our birth what we will, says Sartre.  Indeed, he says in a famous line that we are “condemned” to such freedom.  In the choices we do make, we have no choice but to make of the facts of our birth one thing or another.  We are never free of having to make such choices—and we are never free of those facts themselves.  We are no less condemned to them than to our freedom itself.

Such freedom, my own freedom, never free of itself or of the conditions of its birth, is traumatic.  I can never catch up to it.  It always comes “belatedly” (nachträglich), as Freud says of the coming of trauma.  In that regard, my freedom is like PTSD, Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder—indeed, more than just “like” it.

The un-chosen, un-choose-able conditions of my birth make demands and place expectations on me.  But just what it is that they demand and expect of me is, as Locke says of the idea of substance, “something, I know not what.”    The facts of my birth, delivered to me by others as part and parcel of my own delivery—delivered over to me and with me by others, well before I even come to know that there are such things as “others,” or that there is some “I” who is other than those others—always come to me as preceding me, and defining just who I am before and beyond myself, in such a way that I can never overtake them.

As so delivered to me as me at my own delivery, the conditions of my own birth actually come to me as what, using the terminology of Jean Laplanche, an important 20th century French psychoanalyst, we could call “enigmatic signifiers.”  In introducing the idea of such “enigmatic signifiers,” Laplanche makes the crucially important point that what is so very “enigmatic” about such signifiers is that they are enigmatic not only to those of us who receive them, experiencing them as somehow addressed to us, and asking something, we know not what, from us.  “Enigmatic signifiers,” teaches Laplanche, are enigmatic not just to those who receive them, but also and above all to those who send them in the first place.  Hegel remarks that the Egyptians were not just an enigma to those who came after them in history, but that the Egyptians were already an enigma to themselves.    In the same way, what is so enigmatic about Laplanche’s “enigmatic signifiers” is that they are enigmatic even to those who send them, not just to those who receive them.  Enigmatic signifiers are so enigmatic to their very senders that those senders themselves are utterly clueless about what they “mean.”

In fact, enigmatic signifiers are so enigmatic that their senders themselves don’t really even know they are sending any signifiers in the first place, let alone what they may signify, once sent.  The senders of such enigmatic signs don’t even know they’re making signs, no matter that those signs’ receivers are so utterly convinced they are as to be beyond all convincing.

Like it or lump it, for example, I was myself born American—of Americans, in America.  As an American, furthermore, one thing I know—I literally cannot ever remember not having known it—is that Uncle Sam “wants” me, as the famous and ubiquitously reproduced old World War I poster graphically depicted.  However, the question that has always remained for me—one that remains to this day and will continue to remain for however many days I have left—is just what Uncle Sam wants me for.  What does he want to do with and to me?  How?  To what end?  And what response does he expect from me in turn, in answer to his so forcefully expressed wanting of me?

What Laplanche teaches me is that Uncle Sam himself has never really known.  Uncle Sam has always been thoroughly befuddled about the matter himself, even to the point of never even realizing he’d ever let his wanting me to be known—or even that he ever had such a want.

To that lesson from Laplanche, however, I cannot resist adding in my own voice that Uncle Sam all too often and all too arrogantly presumes he does know all that.  All too often he presumes to know it “to a ‘t,’ ” as the saying goes.

Saying that is not quite fair though, really.  It is not good old Uncle Sam himself, as it were, who has so often been so arrogantly presumptuous.  It has been those arrogant enough to arrogate to themselves the claim to be able to speak for Uncle Sam, and to tell me in detail just what is expected of me as an American, whether that be to go kill and/or be killed in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or to stay at home and consume consumptively in support of other, younger and abler folk going off to do the killing and/or the dying.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  used to like to say.

But it should not go so, as Vonnegut, for one, also knew very well—and said repeatedly in every way he could think of, in fact.

Actually, by saying that so often in so many ways Vonnegut, I would myself say, was doing his own best to answer the very call “Uncle Sam” made upon him—and always makes upon anyone like him, anyone that old, goateed gentleman has a call upon.  That is, I would myself say that Vonnegut, by writing what he wrote to say what he said, answered in his own way, which is how it always has to be answered, the call that being born American makes upon anyone so born.  Uncle Sam wanted Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., no less than he wants any other such “you,” which means any other American.   And if asked for what Uncle Sam wanted Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  for, even if Uncle Sam himself never really knew it, I’d answer that it was to be just the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., he became.

Now, Uncle Sam also no more knew just who that, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., might turn out, all said and done, to be, than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., himself ever knew. Nor do we, who have survived him.

What made Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  such a good Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was precisely that he himself always left open the question of just who Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was.  Even for himself, he remained an open question.

So are we all—though for the most part we’d rather not know it.  For the most part, in fact, we make great efforts to convince ourselves that the question we all always remain to ourselves is somehow already closed.  We try to convince everyone, most especially ourselves, that the question of who we are is already closed, if not for us ourselves, then at least for someone or something we presume to know the answer to that question—to borrow an idea from Jacques Lacan, Laplanche’s teacher in psychoanalysis.  We presume that somehow, somewhere there is some such “master,” as Lacan puts it, that is, someone “presumed to know.”  However, that presumption—the presumption that there is somehow, somewhere someone who can be presumed to know who we are, even if we don’t know that ourselves—is presumptuous of us.

There is, in truth, no one at all who can make good on the claim to know who we are.  Whomever we may presume to know, does not.  There is no master who has mastered who we are.  Nor will there ever be.

That includes us:  We will never be such masters of ourselves, either.  And another important lesson Laplanche, for one, can teach us is that the goal—specifically, for him, the goal of therapeutic practice, for psychoanalysts such as himself, but also, underlying that, the goal of being human, for human beings—is not to close the circle of our self-knowledge, somehow allowing us to come to a complete coincidence with ourselves at last.  Rather, to use a favored metaphor of my own, it is to help us learn how to keep limping on in our broken gaits with ourselves once, like Jacob in the Book of Genesis, we have been lamed by the touch of the angel.  That is, the purpose of therapy, or of being human, is not (to use yet another, even more favored metaphor of my own), to close the wounds that have come to define us, but to teach us how to leave them open—and share them with one another, like Christ inviting the disciple Thomas to resolve his doubt by putting his hand in the still open gash in the side of Christ’s now resurrected body.

My favorite, most favored definition of walking is that it is “continuous, controlled, forward stumbling.”  Well, being ourselves is like walking:  It’s not a matter of first attaining and then maintaining some final state of balance, but a matter of constantly coming back upright from losing one’s balance.  I am never in step with myself completely, but am always a stutter-step off.  In that sense, we might say that we never simply are who we, but are always instead becoming it—always becoming what we will never be.

That is so both for us each individually, and for us all together:  Who “we” are is no less problematic for all of “us,” than who “I” am is for every “me.”  Selfhood itself is traumatic, whether the self be taken all alone to itself (in Latin: solus ipse, from which comes our word solipsism) or taken as one of a bunch all alone together.

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I will return to this line of though in my next post.  Meanwhile, happy holidays to us all—whoever we are (if anyone) and whatever special days (including none especially) we may hold holy!

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Wonderful!

    The image of falling forward in the direction of becoming ourselves certainly feels familiar. The falling, even failing, becomes richer as it supports our becoming. While our freedom may be constrained, choosing the direction of our becoming is all we might hope for in living an authentic life.


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