Making Room for Community (2)

This is the second in a series of consecutive posts under the same general title.

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Forgiving, Forgetting, and Amnesty


One way never to forget is always to repeat. What is compulsively repeated again and again, over and over one way or another come what may, is never forgotten. It eternally recurs.

As Jean-Louis Chrétien notes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For (Fordham University Press, 2002), it is only what can never be remembered that is truly unforgettable. What is truly never to be forgotten is never to be remembered either. Whatever can be remembered can also be forgotten. Moreover, sooner or later what can be forgotten will be forgotten. If something can be actively remembered, then it is something the keeping in mind of which requires effort. Any effort eventually must tire and flag, including the effort that is required actively to hold something in memory. When that effort does eventually falter, what one until then had been successfully struggling to remember is, despite all one’s efforts, forgotten.

Given such an understanding of what constitutes the genuinely unforgettable, the call of “never forget” applied to some traumatic event such as the Holocaust is always redundant. Trauma cannot be held in memory, not because it is so easy to forget, but because it can never be put there, in memory, in the first place, such that it ever could be forgotten. It will not let itself be forgotten. Instead, the harder we try to forget it, the more compulsively it just keeps on repeating itself over and over and over again in one form or another, as Freud saw and called to our explicit attention a century ago, and as many (including myself) have repeated over and over again after him since then.


There is another way never to forget, however—a way besides compulsively repeating. As paradoxical as it may sound to say so, that other way never to forget is ever to forgive, which at the political-juridical level means to grant amnesty.

To grant amnesty is to let bygones be bygones, as an old cliché has it. To reply with another cliché: That is easy to say, but not so easy to do. It takes resolution—in more than one sense. First, the granting of amnesty takes “resolution” in the sense that it requires being formally announced and committed to.

The resolution of amnesty in that first sense itself requires formally acknowledging the offense for which amnesty is being granted: an amnesty granted for nothing in particular is no amnesty granted for anything at all. One does not let bygones be bygones by pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, pretending that nothing ever really happened is a formula for nursing resentment, rather than granting forgiveness: I may present a friendly face to your face, but really just be waiting for an opportunity to put the proverbial knife in your back when your face is turned. Truly to let a conflict that occurred yesterday go by today requires not only that the conflict be acknowledged, but also that it be honored. That is, truly to grant amnesty or forgiveness requires that the fact of discord not be denied, but recorded and marked, “memorialized.”


At one point in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, a short book published just this year both in its Italian original and in an English translation by Nicholas Heron (Stanford University Press, 2015), but which contains revised versions of two lectures first given in 2001, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses a definitive historical case of the granting of amnesty. Relying on the work of French scholar Nicole Loraux, Agamben writes of how, in Greece in 403 BCE, “following the civil war in Athens which concluded with the defeat of the oligarchy of the Thirty, the victorious democrats, led by Archinus, solemnly pledged ‘not in any instance to remember the past events’ (Ath. Const. 39.6), that is, not to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war.” This, Agamben goes on to say, is “the invention of amnesty.”

According to Agamben, the relevant portion of the Athenian “amnestic oath is usually translated with ‘do not remember’ or even ‘do not be resentful, do not have bad memories (Loraux translates it as je ne rappellerai pas les malheures, I will not recall the misfortunes).” Agamben says that the Greek adjective at issue “thus means ‘rancorous, resentful’ and refers to someone who harbours bad memories.” However, he immediately adds that “it is doubtful” that the Greek verb from which the adjective at issue comes should be taken simply to mean not to cling to one’s unpleasant or painful memories of being harmed. He suggests instead that it “means less ‘to have bad memories’ than ‘to do harm with memory, to make bad use of memories,” then adds: “The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting of a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory.”

The issue of amnesty, so framed, is not whether those who grant amnesty retain painful memories of past harms, as though by granting amnesty they have somehow wiped such memories, and the pain that goes with them, away. Rather, it is an issue of the use to be made of those memories: Those granting amnesty are vowing not to use their memories of past harms against the amnestied, that is, against those who perpetrated the harm.

What I take Agamben to be saying is that a vow not to use memories of some harm someone has done me against the individual who did that harm is indeed a vow not to “harbor” (to use the American rather than the British spelling) whatever “bad” memories I may have of what that individual did. It is precisely the vow, to put the same point just a bit differently by using another of Agamben’s own terms, not to nurture any resentment toward that offender, but instead truly to “let bygones be bygones.”   The bad memories involved here, however, are not “bad” in the sense of being unpleasant or painful to the one who has those memories, as memories of a toothache might well be said to be “bad memories.” Rather, they are bad in intention: They intend, at least at the level of wishes, harm to the one who did harm to the one who has the memories.

Whereas resentment is the harboring of such wishes or intentions to harm back those who have done harm, the granting of amnesty or forgiveness is the decision, which when resolved has the status of a vow or promise, not to harbor any such harmful wishes or intentions, but instead to let them go. “To let bygones be bygones” is just that “letting go” of the past, not some erasure of painful memories.

Indeed, in order for the vow or promise of amnesty to be honored, so must the pain of that for involvement in which the amnesty is granted. Thus, in the case of the ancient Athenian granting of amnesty in 403 BCE, Agamben first writes that the Greek amnesty entailed neither “simply” forgetting nor repressing the civil war that had just occurred, as which could be taken to mean that it did involve such forgetting or repressing, just not only that, but also more as well. But against such misunderstanding, Agamben as it were explains himself by adding immediately that, in fact, civil war cannot be forgotten or repressed, and is instead unforgettable. He writes that stasis or civil war “is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed,” but is, rather, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments,” that is, through deeds or intentions to use the memories of the harm to punish the perpetrators. The painful memories which are an aftershock of the wound for the inflicting of which amnesty is granted serve, in fact, as reminders of the ever present possibility of further wounding, a possibility which must be acknowledged and to which the city must remain open, if it truly to return to itself as a reunited city.

Such an understanding of civil war as a trauma from which the city can never free itself, but which must always be kept open as a possibility in any genuine community reconciliation, is very different from how civil war—and trauma as such, for that matter—is typically understood today. What civil war was for the ancient Athenians, writes Agamben, continuing the same passage cited above, was “[j]ust the opposite [. . .] of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions” (thereby perpetuating the very divisions and conflicts that broke out in civil war in the fist place: politics as the continued pursuit of civil war by other means—a point to which I will eventually return below).

The politics of resentment never forgets precisely because it keeps on compulsively repeating the very thing it is “seek[ing] to render impossible,” that is, seeking to guarantee will “never happen again,” as it is often put. It seeks to close the wound and keep it closed forever. In contrast, the politics of amnesty never forgets because knowing that the possibility of “it” happening again always remains, and that the wound must always, in that sense, be kept open.


Making a vow is one thing, keeping that vow is another. That is the another way in which the granting of amnesty takes resolution. In the sense already explored, the vow must be “resolved” in the sense that it must actually be announced or proclaimed. That is, in one fashion or another it must be performatively uttered. That can take place publicly, as it does when marriage vows are exchanges in a wedding ceremony, for example. Or it can take the private form in which one makes some vow “to oneself,” as a smoker fed up with his habit might vow to himself never to smoke again, without telling anyone else he has done so, or an aspiring musician might silently vow to herself to practice for six hours daily. As those two examples clearly suggest, however, keeping such a resolution takes far greater resolution than just making it. Common experience with “New Year’s resolutions” abundantly confirms that. In truth, the proof of a decision is in the honoring.

Just so must forgiveness, once decided upon and offered, then be maintained. It takes ongoing effort not to lapse back into resentment. In a well-known passage of the Christian Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-22), Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him, wondering aloud if he should do so “as many as seven times.” Jesus replies that rather he should forgive, at least in one common rendition, “seventy times seven times.”

Surely, the point of that saying is not that one should count the number of times the other person gives offense, and only strike back if that number eventually exceeds 490. Nor does one have to take Jesus’ response to mean solely that one should not put a limit to the number of times one is willing to forgive multiple offenses committed by the same person. That can reasonably be taken to be part of what Jesus means, to be sure. However, there is at least one other possible interpretation, which includes that first one but is more expansive, keeping more open. Jesus’s response can also be taken as pointing to the need to keep one’s forgiveness, once extended, going—to maintain one’s offer once made, keeping it open moment by moment. By either reading, at any rate, forgiveness is not a matter to be counted.

Truly forgiving someone for some offense, even for a single harmful act never repeated, is not just a momentary act. It is a decision that, once made, must then be carried out and kept operative. A vow or promise is not just over and done with once made, requiring nothing further from the one making it after that. Once made, the vow or promise must then be kept. If it is not, the one who once made the vow or promise has committed an offense that itself calls for forgiveness.


At least on the basis of the definitive ancient Athenian amnesty Agamben discusses, the reason for the granting of amnesty was nothing such as trying to be good winners or to look magnanimous in the eyes of the vanquished. Nor was it a matter of trying to follow any such moral precepts as doing to others as you would have them to do unto you. Not that there is anything wrong with such notions of right—or, for that matter, with wanting to appear magnanimous or to be a good winner. It is just that none of that is what is really at stake in the Athenian amnesty. Rather, as Agamben himself emphasizes, it is the very life of the polis itself. At issue was the very establishment—or reestablishment, to be precise, since it had been riven in two by the civil war—of the polis or “city” itself. The issue was to renew and preserve the very “civilization” of the civis, we might say, to use the Latin from which our English word city comes.

Thus, the victorious party to the civil war in Athens in 403 BCE granted amnesty to their defeated opponents in order to preserve Athens itself as a true city, civis, or polis: a true “civic community.” Failure to grant such amnesty would in effect have perpetuated the civil war in another form, as I have already remarked above. Not to grant amnesty would have threatened the very continuation of Athens as such a city. Their overriding motivation was to preserve the city as such.

In the very same way, by their own testimony the victims of the recent shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who extended forgiveness to the shooter without even being asked, did so in order to preserve “Mother Emanuel” as the very church, the very “faith community,” that it was. That was central to their motivation.

Thus, in both cases, that of the ancient city of Athens and that of the contemporary church in Charleston, the motivation of those granting forgiveness was grounded at the level of the community as such. In each case, it was a matter of preserving the community itself, as the very community it was. Forgiveness was not granted just for the sake of those being forgiven. Nor was it granted just for the sake of those extending forgiveness. It was done for everybody’s sake.


By chance, on the very day (October 19, 2015) I put up my immediately preceding post, the first in this series on “Making Room for Community,” a follow-up article about the Charleston shootings, which had occurred four months earlier, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article bore the headline of “Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed,” and appeared under the byline of Robert Fausset. It opened this way:

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred an Emanuel A.M.E. Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. . . .

Indeed it was. It was also a grand statement on how Emanuel A.M.E. Church had managed to remain a true church, despite the shootings. Mother Emanuel Church did not react to those shootings by closing up, battening down, and doing whatever else she could to secure herself against any such a horrible thing ever happening again. She resisted the temptation to try to protect herself by shutting out the strangers who came to her doors, a temptation the yielding to which would have been at the price of ceasing truly to be a church, that is, a community of faith, in the fullest sense. Yielding to that temptation would have turned Mother Emanuel instead into a community of distrust, fear, and suspicion, not faith. By closing her doors, Mother Emanuel Church would have closed her doors not only on strangers, but also on herself.

By keeping them open, she kept the faith.

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This series of posts will be continued.

Remnant Communities and the Trauma of Sovereignty


Today’s brief entry from my philosophical journal, an entry which I first wrote last May, concerns once again the thought  of Jenny Edkins, whose field is international relations, and about whom I have written before in this blog.  What is at issue in the entry below, as it is at issue in the essay by Edkins I address, is a question raised by the work of contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben on the concept of sovereignty.  Agamben argues that modern sovereignty grows from a seed planted long before modernity by the ancient Greeks when they distinguished–in Aristotle’s thought especially–between bios, or life in the fully human sense, such as can be captured in “biographies,” which literally means “life-writings,” on the one hand, and zoe, or life in the purely “zoological” sense, on the other.  

Following Carl Schmitt, the right-wing political theorist who eventually used his thought to provide the Nazi state with legal justification, Agamben defines modern sovereignty as that power that draws the line between supposedly fully human life and what Agamben calls “bare life.”  Agamben goes on to argue that the emergence under the Nazis of the concentration camp system, above all the death-camps where the Nazis carried out the “extermination” of the Jews, was the culmination and flowering of sovereignty, so defined.  What is more, he argues that insofar as everyone today is subject to  such sovereignty everyone today is at least potentially, by virtue of the decisions of whoever holds the position of sovereign over one–the position of being “the decider,’ as George W. Bush notoriously identified himself in his role as President–an inmate in “the camps.”

The question that Professor Edkins raises in the article I am considering in the entry below is, in short, that of the form that resistance to such sovereignty can take.  If resistance to sovereignty, as Agamben analyzes sovereignty, is still possible at all, then just how might we make our resistance effective?  Or are we in fact doomed henceforth to trying merely to continue surviving, eking out as best we can one day at a time the “bare life,” as Agamben names it,  to which sovereignty reduces life in “Auschwitz,” “the camps”?

My own very brief remarks interspersed below within and between citations from Edkins point toward what I have come to call “remnant communities” as places where such effective resistance may occur.  My selection of that name is indebted to Agamben, Franz Rosenzweig, and German and Jewish studies scholar Eric L. Santner, each of whom makes use of the term remnant in a way that has become important for me in my own thought.

One of the  key books in which Agamben himself works his thought of sovereignty and “bare life” is tellingly called Remnants of Auschwitz.  Not only were the inmates of Auschwitz remnants–cast off by-products, as it were–of the Nazi state, but all we have for testimony from those inmates themselves are remnants of what would constitute full testimony to the horror in which so many perished, a testimony that could only be made by those who so perished themselves, but who in being exterminated were denied any possibility of bear their own witness.

Then in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life:  Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (University of Chicago Press, 2001) Santner makes central use of the idea of the “remnant,” the “useless,” “good for nothing” cast-off remainder of the processes wherein we establish our “identity.”   It is only as such remnants, or at that level of ourselves where each of us is just such a good-for-nothing, ready-to-be-discarded remnant, that we can be encountered in our pure singularity, our “ipseity” as Santner calls it, to distinguish it from our “identity,” which is always a matter of social construction and what he calls “symbolic investiture” (for example, such investitures as establish my own  identity as a philosophy professor, father, husband, etc.). 

Santner’s use of the idea of the remnant is itself based in part on Agamben’s just mentioned text.  Even more crucially however, Santner’s thought and terminology is grounded in Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption.  In that work Rosenzweig traces what he argues is an essential connection between Judaism and the  idea of “the remnant.” For him, the Jewish diaspora community is just a “remnant community” as I have in mind:  a community alongside and within the dominant–we can say the “sovereign”–society, one which does not set itself up as any alternative to that society, any competitor for sovereign power, but which instead lives out its own rich life as a community without reference, we might say, to that environing, dominant,  sovereign society, outside its laws, in that sense, though the individual members of that remnant community continue to play their various roles in that same sovereign society. 

Another model of a “remnant” community is provided by Benedictine monasticism, which is an insistently “cenobitic” form of monasticism–that is, the monastic life lived out in communities of monks, which is to say communities of solitaries, who live “alone together,” to use a formulation I find helpful.  Each Benedictine monastic community lives out its communal life in a certain, definite “withdrawal” from “the world,” yet a withdrawal in which the monastery–in the sense of the monastic community as such–always remains connected to, and interactive with, that same “world” in various complex ways.  The monastery is a community “in the world, but not of the world,” as one common formulation has it.  It is a place where the irrelevancy of what in medieval Christian discourse is called “the world” is made known, simply by the fact of communal  life being lived at such a place “outside” yet “in” that same “world.”

Yet a third example of what I would call  a “remnant community,” providing yet a third model of the formation and continuance of such a community, would be a “Twelve Step fellowship,” such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as I suggest at the end of the entry below.  Interested readers might wish to refer back to some of my earlier posts, in which I offer further remarks, all relevant to the topic of today’s post, about AA and other such fellowships.

 This is a topic that, in one way or another, will occupy me in many of the entries I will be posting here in the future.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Jenny Edkins, “Whatever Politics,” in Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli, editors, Giorgio Agamben:  Sovereignty and Life (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 70-91.  Page 73:  “Sovereign distinctions [especially between bios and zoe] do not hold; to refuse them, and to demonstrate being in common, is  not to make a new move but only, yet most importantly, to embrace that insight [namely, the insight that such sovereign distinctions do not hold], and to call sovereignty’s bluff.”  Then, page 76:  “Sovereign power is happy to negotiate the boundaries of the distinctions that it makes; what it could  not tolerate would be the refusal to  make any distinctions of this sort.”

Compare [Alain] Badiou’s summation of the truth that comes to pass/takes place as the Sparticist uprising [in ancient Rome–which Badiou discusses in Logiques des mondes]:  [the simple but incontrovertible truth–incontrovertible even by the eventual rout of the Sparticist troops by the Roman legions sent against them, and the crucifixion of Sparticist and his followers–that, as Spartacus was just the first among the slaves of Rome to realize,] “We can go home.”

Compare, also, Yossarian in [Joseph Heller’s novel] Catch 22 [who finally just does “go home,” which in his  case means to check out of the insanity of the World War II Allied war enterprise by deserting to a neutral country].

Trauma and Sovereignty — and Alcoholics Anonymous


After the entry posted yesterday, the next entry of significance pertaining to trauma in my philosophical journal occurs almost a month later. As was also true of the first posted entry and will be true for subsequent entries overall, the entry below was occasions by my reflections on the literature about trauma that I was reading at the time. Just as there is something appropriate, as I mentioned in my previous post, about both the delayed posting of these entries from my philosophical journal and the episodic nature of the entries themselves, so is there something appropriate to the general subject of this website–trauma–about the typically responsive character of all the entries: their being occasioned by reflections engendered by earlier experiences, in this case, earlier reading. The truths carried to us in trauma always require just such response for their reception. What is more, if, as I will be arguing in a variety of entries for future postings, truth itself is unavoidably traumatic, then the coming of truth itself must always take place in such responsiveness.

The entry posted below also introduces the reader to another of my long-standing philosophical and personal interests, that of the philosophy of addiction and “recovery.” Readers unfamiliar with my earlier work and interested in pursuing some of my writing on that topic may consult my book Addiction and Responsibility: An Inquiry into the Addictive Mind, which was originally published in 1993 (New York: Crossroad), and which I have recently made available chapter by chapter online at

Below is the newly posted entry from my philosophical journal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reading Trauma and the Memory of Politics, by Jenny Edkins (Cambridge U. Press, 2003).

Pp.188-189: Very good, clear, short summary of [contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio] Agamben [in such works as Homo Sacer] on how, in the [Nazi concentration/extermination] camps, the zone of indistinction between zoe [Greek for life in the minimal zoological sense] and bios [life in the full, human sense, as involved in a person’s “biography,” for example] is reached. And, even better, she grasps and presents how, for Agamben, testimony bears witness to the inseparability of the two. As she sees it, it is that testimony/witness to their inseparability that truly contests “modern sovereignty.” But she ends by throwing away her own insight, it seems to me, when she goes on to write (p. 189): “The distinction between zoe and bios underlies sovereign power–is fundamental to it.” Her whole analysis shows, on the contrary, that it is not distinguishing between the two that founds sovereignty, but is, rather, the self-dissembling of that very distinction–the engendering of the myth of the natural or original givenness of the distinction, as it it were, rather than the acknowledgment of the artificiality and conventionality of the distinction, [such a mystifying mythification of the distinction being necessary] to get sovereignty up and running in the first place. What testimony/witnessing does is point to the fictional “nature” of the distinction–its non-“naturality,” as it were: the emperor [of Hans-Christian Anderson’s fairytale story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”] never has any clothes! (She ends up saying the same herself, in effect, on p. 232.)

Related: Right after that (pp. 190-191) she discusses the processes whereby the status quo appropriates testimony/witnessing through such devices as memorialization (narratives of rescue and hope), mediatization, etc., thereby diverting, in effect, the potentially disruptive power of such testimony. Well, I’ve long been aware of that precisely as it applies to AA. It could certainly be plausibly argued that AA itself functions as just such a diversion of otherwise potentially disruptive power, by diverting the addict from the angry manifestation of anger itself–that disruptive power–in substance/practice abuse, into “peaceful” channels, so that the addict gets “set straight,” back on the road of socially useful and productive behavior.

Such an analysis is not without power of its own. However, there are two factors about AA, concretely taken in the context of addiction and society in interaction, that tell me the analysis along those lines needs to be thought through into a different analysis, if the analysis itself is to serve any liberating potential. Those two factors are:

1) It is addiction itself–e.g., alcoholism–that actually serves the status quo as a diversion of the potentially disruptive power that the potential addict could otherwise become. Precisely by giving all us social malcontents, us “restless, irritable, and discontented” people [a reference to a well known line from “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous], something to keep us occupied, as it were, the power that is–the “status quo”–effectively neutralizes us. That’s why truly to hear [someone in an AA meeting say, as someone often will, especially if there is a “newcomer” present], “You never have to drink again [if you don’t want to],” is [potentially] so liberating for the alcoholic, but also carries a hidden potential to liberate the socially disruptive power that till then had been so successfully neutralized.

2) That newly liberated potentially disruptive power, in turn, works–not by encouraging/propelling recovered addicts to organize/mobilize for direct political action. That would not accord with the 10th AA tradition, against having any “opinion on outside issues,” as well as the 5th tradition, on keeping “singleness of purpose” (“but one primary purpose” [namely, “to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”].  Rather, the revolutionary potential is AA itself! It is “life together” in AA that marginalizes the very things that, outside AA, marginalize segments of the [larger] society (blacks, gays, women, whomever). In AA [AA members] live together in such a way that all such divisions are set aside. Thus, it is at the level of AA as a border-less, place-less place in the social landscape–a place where, whenever one comes into that place, the fictions of sovereignty are swept away as the fictions they are–it’s as such a place without place that AA simply lets free life occur.

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).