Reading Trauma, Trauma Reading

“Reading can be traumatic, but then trauma can also teach us how to read.” That thought itself came to me recently as I was reading.

Specifically, I was reading a line by the cantankerous but important and influential eighteenth century German “counter-Enlightenment” figure Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788).  My thought of the crossing between reading and trauma was triggered by one line of his that especially caught my attention.  In “Miscellaneous Notes on Word Order in the French Language,” at one point Hamann writes:  “Readers who see not only what one is writing about but also what one intends to be understood can easily and happily continue these notes . . .”*

Long ago, Aristotle is said to have said of himself that he was a friend of Plato, his great mentor, but that he was a better friend of truth.   Well, if Plato wanted the sorts of students who would read him the way Hamann is pointing to in the line above, then in being a better friend of truth Aristotle was being a true friend of Plato.  At any rate, I read Hamann himself as wanting such friends for readers—or such readers for friends: it’s the same thing.

When I read the line from Hamann recently, I was also working on my preceding post, “Traumatic Selfhood:  Becoming Who We Are (3),” in which I cited a passage from Heidegger’s 1924 treatise, The Concept of Time.   No doubt at least in part because of that coinciding, when I read Hamann’s line I also thought of what Heidegger says about friendship in his short preface to that manuscript, which he tells us was occasioned by his own reading of the then-recently published correspondence between Wilhelm Dilthey and Count Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, addressing Dilthey’s great subjects:  the nature of history as such, and the essential historicity of human being.     At one point Heidegger admonishes his own readers—at least as I read him—that the “proper appropriation” of Yorck’s contributions to Dilthey’s work can only take place by understanding Yorck’s letters “as those of a friend, whose sole concern is to help, through living communication, the one with whom he is philosophizing” to arrive where that co-philosophizer is trying to go in that very philosophizing, and thereby also to help himself to arrive at his own goal beside him.

A good friend is precisely someone who can in a certain important sense see where one is going more clearly than one can oneself.  It is someone who, in our communications with her or him, can, as it were, pick up on the pointers we ourselves give as to where we are ourselves most inwardly tending, and help us see it more clearly ourselves.  Such a friend literally gives us ourselves.

To do that, a friend—at least one not lacking in what Buddhists’ call “skillful means,” which is to say the know-how not to lose track of her own intent as a friend, and to end up hurting rather than helping the one she has befriended—communicates with her friend through an exchange of what, following psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche (who I also cited in my preceding, 3-post series on “Traumatic Selfhood”), we might call “cultural products.’’  That is, a friend skilled (by gift and/or training) in friendship will receive and respond to whatever communications, written or oral, her friend sends her way, the same way his brother Theo—according to Laplanche in “Transference:  It’s Provocation by the Analyst,” one of his Essays on Otherness (London:  Routledge, 1999)—received and responded to Vincent Van Gogh’s letters.  Theo, writes Laplanche (page 224), was “as much an analyst without knowing it as Fliess was for Freud” (and the knowing reader, even one who never heard of Fliess, presumes from that remark that Fliess was quite a good such analyst for his friend Freud). Laplanche explains that, as the addressee of Vincent’s letters, Theo—although bearing that definite name, well known to his brother Vincent, of course (just as any analyst bears a name known to those who come to that analyst for analysis)—served not as any particular named, but as an essentially anonymous recipient, behind whom, as Laplanche puts it, “looms the nameless crowd, addressees of the message in the bottle.”

The lesson Laplanche is teaching in such passages—the lesson Theo Van Gogh himself seems somehow to have learned:  the lesson of how to be an analyst of the very best kind, which is to say “an analyst without knowing it”—is the same as that taught by any effective practice of what, in our pop-psych culture, is most often called “reflective listening.”  In such practice one keeps oneself still and silent as one listens to another (or to “oneself as another,” to borrow the title of one of Paul Ricoeur’s fine late books), who says whatever that other says.  But, precisely in order to hear what the others says as clearly as one possibly can hear it, one listens to the other with one’s two ears simultaneously cocked in two different but complementary directions, as it were.  One listens with one ear cocked to what the other is saying, while at the same time keeping the other ear cocked to oneself—that is, to one’s own emotional response to what that other is saying.  One does that precisely to perform a sort of phenomenological reduction on oneself and one’s own responses to the world, as I would put it.  That is, one does it just so that one can put one’s own responses, and all the assumptions that go with them, “out of play,” as Husserl liked to say, “suspending” them, “putting them within brackets.”  One thereby opens and holds open a space, and holds oneself open in that space, open to receive whatever communication the other has to offer, rather than choking it off immediately with one’s own voice.

True listening requires the listener to open such a space, and to inhabit it, waiting upon the other as that other may communicate.  Such a listener waits upon the other to communicate herself as she will, rather than waiting for any particular communication to come from her.  The listening is filled with expectancy, but without any expectation, opening to the other the possibility freely to be whoever she may turn out to be, surprising herself along with the listener.

Most of the time and for the most part, we don’t really listen to one another at all.   Instead, we just wait for the other to shut up, so we can lip off in turn.  In my classes before I retired, I used to ask my students to attend to the difference between two different sorts of “conversation.”  The first, which I called “cocktail-party conversation,” was the sort in which some topic emerges in the course of the conversation, and then the parties to the conversation take turns—whether politely or rudely depending upon how many cocktails each has consumed—expressing their opinions on that topic.  Often, all the expressing of opinion includes a strong component of attacking one another’s opinions (or ways of expressing them).  Such attacks can range from reasoned tweakings of minor points to withering sarcasm that ridicules not only the other’s opinion as egregiously ridiculous but also the other herself for holding such an opinion.  Less often, though still frequently enough, it can also include the conversation partners, in whole or in (itself sometimes divisive) part, giving support to one another’s opinions.  At any rate, what is involved in such conversation is a matter of informing one another of what one already thinks (or at least thinks one thinks) about a given topic, the point of such conversations always being to have one’s own say—that is, to get one’s turn in the turn-taking so that one can inform the others of what one already thinks, or at least thinks one thinks, or would like others to think that one thinks, or think others would like/loathe one to think, or the like.

Much talking but no actual thinking takes place in such coctail-party conversations.  Thinking is not the point of them.  Almost always all the thinking (insofar as there is any at all, which is often debatable) has been done before the conversation has even begun, which is to say that all the opinions have already been formed.  Even if it turns out that some of those opinions only arise during the very course of the conversation, such opinion-formation is not the point of the conversing.  Rather, the point is to inform one another of those opinions.  The process is one of exchanging information.

In contrast, there is another sort of conversation, one I will leave nameless, for certain reasons that will soon become apparent to many Hamannianly attentive readers.  This second sort of conversation is the sort we might have when, together, we discuss some topic of which none of us already has a formed and cherished opinion, on the expression of which one is fixed.  In such a second sort of conversation, the parties conversing do not already know “what they think”—that is, what “opinion” they have—about the matter under discussion.  Rather, their conversing together about it is itself the process whereby, together, they “think it through.”  Furthermore, the end point of the conversation, that point at which it reaches its goal or purpose, the point at which the thinking through itself is through, is not the point at which the parties to the conversation have at last formed opinions of their own.  The end point of the thinking through of the matter under discussion is no “fixation of belief,” in Charles Sanders Pierce’s sense of that expression:  It is not the formation of any “opinion” at all.  It is more nearly the opposite, namely, the letting go of all opinions and beliefs, of everything one thinks one knows, in order to think together.  The goal is not to bring the thinking to rest, so that it can then cease, but to bring it to an every more thoughtful ongoing—or “on-thinking,” an on-going thinking-on about whatever it is that has given itself to be thought about in and through the conversation.

Conversation of that second sort is utterly lacking in value.  It is good for nothing.  It accomplishes no purposes, achieves no goals, serves nobody’s interests, scores no points, gains no adherents, produces no profits, wins no friends, and influences no people.   It is without use to anyone—or at least it is an altogether inefficient means for doing anything that serves anyone’s self interest, and it can be made so to serve only in complete disregard of its intrinsic nature.  Of and in itself, it is no more than what Laplanche calls a “cultural product.”

It is conceivable, of course, that someone could try to seduce somebody else, to give one possible example, through engaging in such conservation, either with the same person one was trying to seduce, or with some third party in the presence of the object of one’s sexual interest.  One might not even have anyone in particular in mind, or care if it is even anyone one already knows.  One might be trying to attract someone—anyone (at least anyone who fits one’s own sexual taste), God knows who—to one’s bed, by engaging in such a conversation all alone by oneself, for example, by writing a book (or a blog post) and then publishing it.

That would be like writing a novel and seeing it into print in a hardbound edition in order to provide oneself with a good doorstop.  As I put it myself long ago in my first book, The Stream of Thought** (the second of the three volumes of which is, among other things, a sort of novel, by the way), one would thereby indeed have a novel doorstop!  But that has nothing to do, really, either with being a novel or with being a doorstop.  Similarly, one might write a novel with the intent of thereby getting rich and famous and going on the Oprah Winfrey Show—or whatever has become the equivalent to that by the time I post this (when, many years ago, I first started using that same line in my classes, I said “the Phil Donahue Show”).

At any rate, Laplanche himself suggests that one might indeed try to write a book of such a remarkable quality and wit that it would make one sexually desirable to some reader somewhere, who would then contact the author and provide the latter with an opportunity to score a sexual conquest.  “But,” Laplanche remarks, “what an extraordinary going-beyond it takes”—that is, what unnecessary, uncertain extremes that goes to, in order to get where one is trying, by the assumption, to get!  “Going beyond oneself,” he adds, “but above all going toward another who is no longer determinate, and who will only incidentally [if ever!] be the object of an individual sexual conquest.”  How inefficient!

Laplanche insists on what I already remarked above myself:  all that has nothing to do with the “cultural product” itself at issue in such cases.  It has nothing to do with the novel, essay, or other communication that one writes as such.  No matter how novel my imagined novel doorstop might be, it leaves unaffected how novel the novel itself might be as a novel:  I can just as well use a copy of a schlocky romance pot-boiler as of Anna Karenina to prop open my door, if that’s all I’m looking for, but that says nothing at all about the literary heft of either novel.

As Laplanche points out:  “Modern studies of language have clearly shown that communication [or, if I see what Laplanche’s intends to be understood here, at least the sort of communication that occurs in what I call a cocktail-party conversation—though far from only there] is a pragmatics:  to communicate is to manipulate, to produce an effect on someone.”  But, he immediately goes on to argue, by addressing itself to a “no longer determinate,” anonymous other (even if that other, at no expense to such anonymity, is known and spoken to by name, as Vincent Van Gogh wrote his letters to his brother Theo), “cultural production,” and therefore the sort of communication which is such a thing, “is situated from the first beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect.”  A bit later, he adds that it is “a constant proposition in the cultural domain” that “[i]t is the offer which creates the demand.”  He expands and explains:  “The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture.  The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural,” which breaks into and breaks apart all pragmatics.  As chipmunks are not for anything, save for chipmunking itself, so are communications as “cultural productions” not for anything, save communicating.  They are in no way dependent upon any “pragmatics.”

As “cultural production,” however, communicating, we might say, is co-mund-icating, from the Latin mundus, “world”:  Communicating with one another, we share, and in sharing build, our world, a human place to dwell, which—“dwelling— is itself, in turn, keeping on communicating.

So understood, communication as such has nothing to do with the transfer of information.  It is solely a matter of speaking and listening to one another, for no other purpose than just to keep on doing ever more of the same.  Or, rather, it is a matter of speaking together with one another and listening together with one another to what is being said in our talk, using that talk to give voice to itself.  In that process, we refuse to reduce ourselves, as parties to the conversation, to anything we may know—or think we do—of who we are.  Eschewing such presumption, we share a friendship that clears an opening for each of us to be whoever we may chance to come to be.

To return to reading (in fact, we have never left it, as those of us who read as Hamann would have us read will already have read):  Reading is a form of listening to another—an always anonymous, unknown other—attentive not only to what that other says but also and above all to what that other intends to be understood by what she says, as Hamann puts it.  It is to leap ahead of the other, and help clear the way for the other to get where that other is going—even if that does not occur “this side of the grave,” by the way, to borrow a phrase from Gregory Bateson.   Reader and writer go hand in hand together to wherever it may turn out they are going together.  That is even and especially so when the going just keeps on going, generation after generation, as it will with reading anything worth reading (even if nobody ever reads it).

As with all listening, the challenge in reading is to become and remain an equally nameless and unknown friend to a nameless, unknown other whose writing one reads, which is to say to whom one listens.  In turn, the challenge in becoming and remaining such a friend lies in steadily refusing to care one whit for whomever it may be who authored whatever one is reading—that “cultural product” of communication written to no end other than that of communicating.

To put the same point personally, the best way to read what I write is not to give a fig about me (to substitute a euphemism for a certain, oft-used, scatological phrase).  If you think you already know me, and that you can somehow help me to see—and to be—the same “me” you think you see when you look at me, then you are not going to read me.  At most, you’ll be involved in some pragmatic enterprise of coercing things to come into agreement with your own preconceptions, cutting everything (yourself included) down to a chosen idolatrous size of your own.

If you really want to do some “going-beyond,” as Laplanche puts it (at least in the English translation), then just read, which is to say listen.  Read/listen, and do nothing else—even and especially when you write/speak in turn yourself.  If you do that, then you will be open to hearing what itself goes beyond anything that may be said, to what is there to be heard in what is said, sounding through it.  You will hear not only the sounded speech but also the silence to which the sounds of speech give voice by breaking it, like a bell ringing out in the night.

If your reading becomes such listening, you will have become a Hamannian kind of reader, which is the very best kind.

* The translation is that of Kenneth Haynes, from the volume he edited of Hamann’s Writings on Philosophy and Language (Cambridge University Press, 2007), page 29.

** To my chagrin, when The Stream of Thought was published in 1984 in a hardbound edition in New York by The Philosophical Library, it did not sell enough copies at its market price of $27.50 to make me rich and famous and put me on television talk-shows, as I had, of course, hoped it would.  Though it long ago went out of print, I still have some authors’ copies of it left, which I’d be happy to sell today for the bargain-basement price of $14.95, plus shipping expenses of $5.17—it’s a big book—for a total of $20.12.  As a special bonus offer, for the first five book-lovers who send me their checks (I think I still have that many left somewhere), I’ll even include my autograph inside the front cover.  Just let me know if you’re interested, by emailing me at, so we can arrange payment and you can get your very own copy.  (It makes a great doorstop, I should mention, in case you don’t want to read it.)

Published in: on January 31, 2014 at 4:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (3)

This is the last of a series of three posts under the same title.

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I want to begin by indicating where I am going.  So, to sum up now what is to follow, here’s what I’ll end up saying:

We become who we are not by coming to be, but by being to come.*

In other words, our being is a being underway.  To become ourselves is not to get to the end of our journey, but to stay always on our way.  Becoming ourselves at last is not finally getting all the becoming done.  Instead, it is giving up, finally, of all expectation of ever being done with becoming, which is to say with always keeping going along our way, always being underway.

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At one point in MetaMaus (New York:  Pantheon Books, 2011) graphic author Art Spiegelman addresses his interaction with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, during the time the former was researching and creating Maus, his now classic graphic novel about the Holocaust and its aftermath.  In the context of that discussion, Spiegelman remarks (on page 36) on how, during the course of that interaction with his father, “Vladek displayed himself to be a much more complex character than I’d, literally, have imagined.”  He then writes:  “In a sense it’s like when people talk about a friend and say, ‘He’s not himself today.’  Well, we’re reduced down for convenience sake to a series of tropes and twitches, but we are none of us ourselves.  And that’s what makes us a self . . .”

He’s right:  What makes us a self is precisely that we are never ourselves.  To be a self is always to be out of sorts.

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In Being and Time Heidegger says that the conversion from inauthenticity to authenticity—that is, from not being our own, to being our own (or, to put it just a bit differently, from owning up to who we are, and not owning up to it)—is not a matter of leaving the inauthentic behind, like some discarded garment.  To use some terms and examples of my own, the conversion from inauthenticity to authenticity is not like the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly.  Nor is it like a snake shedding its old skin.  Rather, such conversion is a matter, in effect, of the re-contextualizing of the whole—whatever whole it is that is undergoing the conversion.

According to Heidegger the authentic self always arises out of the inauthentic, and always returns it; the former never leaves the latter behind.  Another way of putting that is to say that one’s self is always one and the same self, both when it’s inauthentic and when it’s authentic.  It’s just that “authenticity” is authentically being the inauthentic self one always is anyway.

That’s always how it is for us—that is, for all of us, whoever we are:  each and every one of us.  And—just “by the way,” as it were—how it is for us is that most of the time we are mostly not ourselves at all, but just one of all those others.  Most of the time, we are mostly nobody in particular, but just anybody, just “someone or other,” a bunch of indifferent referents for the impersonal pronoun one. Heidegger’s good at pointing that out, too.

He points it out at length in Being and Time, first published in 1927.  He does the same thing in a much shorter—and, therefore, potentially much clearer—manner in The Concept of Time, written in 1924, containing an earlier version of much of the same material.  The German edition of that 1924 text was first published in 2004 as the 64th volume of the complete edition of Heidegger’s works, and the paraphrases and translations that follow are my own.

In the passage I have in mind from The Concept of Time (on pages 26 and 27 in the German version), Heidegger begins by observing that, in our everyday lives together with one another, we identify both ourselves and others with what we do—by which we ordinarily mean do “for a living,” as Americans, especially, put it.  That is, to speak in the vernacular of our global market culture of today, we define ourselves and one another by what we do for money, what we get paid to do:  our “jobs” or “occupations.”

What fits such monetary fixation especially well is what Heidegger says next, which is that, so identified, none of us is ever really her or his own.  Rather, we are all, as it were, owned by our jobs, or at least by whatever powers it may be who pay us for doing those jobs.  We might catch Heidegger’s drift by saying that through such common identification with what we do, we are all effectively dis-owned, which is to say stripped of belonging to ourselves:  Own-er-ship over ourselves is assigned elsewhere—namely, for the most part, to whom- or what-ever, even and above all if that turns out to be nobody and nothing in particular, holds the strings to the purse from which we draw our day’s pay.

As Heidegger observes, in such a situation, which is our everyday situation today, we are all equally dis-owned from ourselves.  In that situation, who each one of us is—in the jargon that has become universalized through modern philosophy: the “subject” of such everyday life—is captured by the indefinite personal pronoun “one.”  He writes (page 27):

The subject of everyday being with one another is “one.”  The differences maintained between one of us and another occur within a certain ordinariness of what is customary, what is fitting, what one let’s count and what one doesn’t.  This worn-down ordinariness, which in effect noiselessly suppresses every exception and all originality, pervades and dominates “one.”  In this “one” [we] grow up, and more and more into it, and are never entirely able to leave it.

In short, insofar as all of us are “one,” then we are none of us ourselves.

And that, as Spiegelman says, is what makes each of us a self in the first place.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The real problems start when we forget that what makes us ourselves is that we’re never ourselves but are always, as I put it earlier, “out of sorts” with ourselves—or, as I put it even earlier yet, that we are always “out of step” with ourselves.  In the struggle to get right with ourselves, to come into lockstep with who we are, so that we can be all of one sort, we enter that forgetfulness.  Surrounded by the fog of forgetting, we cling.

That closes off hope.

Recently, in a group setting, a friend of mine passed on something she’d herself heard—that the word hope should be heard as an acronym for “Hang on!  Pain ends!”  When I first heard that from her, what popped into my mind was the thought that hope could just as well be taken to be an acronym for “Hang on!  Pleasure ends!”  After all, both (pain and pleasure) do (end).

Hope itself need not.  However, it will, if one clings—which is to say “hangs on.”

Accordingly, the second thought that came to me after I heard the line about hope being a matter of “hanging on,” was that in my own experience it was the very opposite that opened into hope.  That is, for hope to spring up in one’s heart, all one really needs to do in the face of either pain or pleasure is to remember that both do indeed end, and let that memory bring one relaxation.

It’s worth noting here that one can practice such hoping.  Or, to articulate that a bit more fully, one can practice holding oneself in openness to the gift of hope.  Yet holding oneself in openness to receive what is given—and please notice the difference between “holding on,” as one might to some idolatrously cherished opinion, and “holding oneself in,” in the sense that one might hold oneself in openness to new ideas, rather than clinging as tightly as one can to old, familiar ones—is itself already to hope.  Therefore, to practice staying open to the gift of hope is already, as such, to have received that very gift.  So what I said at first is still perhaps best:  the practice at issue is the practice of hope itself.

That’s “victory”—the very victory that Kierkegaard says is the expectancy of faith!

In my own case, it was my faith in another friend at another time, a time quite some time ago now, that allowed that other friend to teach me how to be victorious—or, rather, to help me realize that I already was, by my very faith itself.  That other friend was a former student who had become a family friend, but whom we hadn’t seen for about ten years.  He came back into our lives at just the right point for me to be receptive to what he had to give me—in the process repaying me handsomely, by Nietzsche’s lights,** for having once been his teacher.

What my friend taught me was the essence of the practice of meditation, at the very most basic level of responding to one’s own body’s response to the physical pain that accompanies holding oneself in an assigned physical posture when one meditates.  The particular form of mediation he practiced himself and passed on to me was a Buddhist one of sitting meditation, and my back-then-not-even-old body sent me signals of pain, primarily but not exclusively from my knees, when I tried holding myself steady in even the least stressful basic positions on a cushion.  My natural bodily response to those signals was, of course, to tense toward the pain, trying to isolate it and draw away from it.  What my former student taught me, his erstwhile teacher, in turn was to try to counter—as in “en-counter,” and not as in “go against,” which is to say resist—that tendency.  I was, instead of holding on against the pain, to hold myself open to it.  He promised (and I trusted his promise, since he spoke with no more authority than that of love, by the way, a way to which I’ll return below, I promise) that if I practiced doing that, I would discover something that is easy to say but not so easy to do.  I would discover that the very endeavor to avoid pain, to tense in the presence of it and struggle to withdraw from it—that is, to hold on against it—only worsened the pain, and prolonged it.  Whereas, of course (and as therapy for chronic pain sufferers teaches them), by relaxing toward pain—letting oneself go into it—one cleared the way for the pain to pass in its own time, and to end, as all pain (as well as all pleasure) will end, if we but let it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The love that my younger friend, my former student, gave me that day was nothing smarmy or sentimental.  That is, it had nothing of the clinging, voluntary or involuntary, to self and selfishness that itself so often clings to our love, distorting and perverting it, robbing it of the fulfillment of its own most defining intention and making it altogether miss its own mark, dis-owning it of itself.  It was wholly “disinterested” love, in the best, truest sense of that:  a love that took no interest in itself at all, but gave all its interest to who or what it directed itself to—in this case, myself.  My former student now turned teacher in turn made no effort, on the occasion in question, to “fix” me in any way.  He made no effort to take any of my cares away.  Rather, to use Heidegger’s way of putting the matter, he went ahead of me and cleared the way a bit so that I might the better take up those cares for myself, since after all they were indeed my own.  By clearing the way a ways that way, he let me stay underway on my own way.

That’s what love’s got to do with it, with the business of becoming who we are (which is not at all the business of GM or any other business, by the way).  As St. Paul says somewhere, without that, everything else counts for nothing, and less than nothing.  That includes the other two of the true “Big Three” (to use a now no-longer very business-wise useful phrase from the business world) Paul names for us:  faith, hope, and love—those three.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I want to end this series of three posts on the trauma of selfhood, of becoming who we are, by going back to where I started, in the sense of where the thought of this series first arose for me, which was in reading the works of the twentieth century French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche.  Or at least I want to begin to end this series there, since where I’ll actually end it will be somewhere else.

In “A Short Treatise on the Unconscious,” the second essay in the collection of his Essays on Otherness, Laplanche characterizes the classic psychoanalytic situation in which the analysand (the one being analyzed) lies on a couch behind which the analyst sits, out of sight and for the most part silent while the analysand does the speaking, as one of enclosure.  That is, it is a situation designed precisely to enclose the analysand, just as the dark of night encloses us as we walk along alone in it.  Laplanche is concerned to point out that it is precisely because of this being enclosed by and within it that, for the analysand, the analytic situation “constitutes an unprecedented site of opening, one which is, properly speaking, quite unheard of [elsewhere in ordinary] human experience.”

What the analytic enclosure opens the analysand to is nothing other than herself or himself—only herself or himself as always and ever outside herself or himself.  The analytic space, or its like (if it has any likes, as I will suggest it does, and yet still doesn’t, below), provides each of us who may enter into that space an enclosure, which is to say in effect a “safe” place, in which we are granted space to be those very selves we are, but which we can be only insofar as we are all always “beside ourselves” (to use a wise phrase from our everyday, ordinary way of speaking, which we ordinarily do not use so wisely).  In psychoanalysis, of course, that self that is always beside oneself, yet always at least a stutter-step off one’s own pace, is called the id, which is Latin for “it.”  That’s the psychoanalytic way of saying what one ordinarily says by “one,” in the sense Heidegger points to when he observes that the “subject” of everyday life is just “one,” which means everybody alike and nobody in particular.

Hence, right after remarking on how the analytic enclosure provides “an unprecedented site of opening,” Laplanche goes on by writing:  “Let us remember that if the id has its origin in the first communications, [nevertheless, and for that very reason, in fact,] what is proper to it [as “it”:  Latin id] is that it does not talk.  What brings the id to language, and more broadly to expression, can only be the result of the complex process which is the analytic treatment.”

The (very Heideggerian) note I made to myself when I first read those lines from Laplanche is also worth citing at this point:  “The id is the un-said of the said.  As such, it is what sounds by breaking into the silence broken by the speaking of language.”  What I mean is such speaking as the analysand does in voicing free associations, or recounting dreams, or, in general, just droning on and on in the enclosure provided by the (often deeply irritating) silence of the analyst, who just refuses to jump in and do the analysand’s work for her, and by that very refusal creates the remarkable—indeed, “properly speaking, quite unheard of”—“site” where the unheard of can be heard, precisely still in and as the never said, and therefore never heard from.  Such speaking is the breaking of the silence that lets the silence itself be heard.

I have never myself been in psychoanalysis.  Nor have I at present any plans to go into that particular place of enclosure, as fine—and frightening—as Laplanche makes that site sound.  Nevertheless, I have a strong sense of having been in similar en-closing-ly safe-scary places, where I have found analogues of the analyst Laplanche also discusses.  One such place I have been is the enclosure of meditation, and my analyst-analogue, the one who guided me to and in that place of enclosure, was my friend and former student.  Another such place I have personal familiarity with is a meeting, any meeting, of Alcoholics Anonymous or any other Twelve Step group inspired by AA.

By bringing up such analogues to the psychoanalytic site, I am in no way meaning to suggest that Laplanche is wrong is say that that site itself is truly “unprecedented.”  What I mean to say is that all such sites are equally without precedent, equally, “properly speaking, unheard of”—each and every one of them.

All such places are utterly irreplaceable.  That is, there is no substituting of one for another, any more than one can substitute one love for another, at least if love owns up to itself.

Indeed, all such places, each and every one, are places of love, which is to say unprecedented, unheard of places where we are at last allowed to become who we are, without every being it.  And it is only in such places, the places of love, that we are ever allowed to be ourselves, even and especially when we are utterly beside ourselves, out of sorts, not ourselves at all—but always betting everything on the come.

After all, that’s always what love awaits, isn’t it?

* Whether that remark is salacious or not, depends on the ears with which it is heard:  If the hearing is attuned to coming to be, it will be; otherwise, not.

** Nietzsche says somewhere that that one repays a teacher badly, who remains always only a pupil.

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!

Intrusive Thoughts and Cultural Trauma

Perhaps nothing written is meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the writer’s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of honesty. 

— Marilynne Robinson, New York Times 11/17/13*

We never come to thoughts.  They come to us.

                    –– Martin Heidegger, “Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens” (1947)

There is no thought without urgency.

               –Jean-Luc Nancy, Qu’appelons-nous penser? (2012/2013)


Whenever thoughts do come to us, they come as intruders.  They break in upon us, disruptive, urgent, unruly, and demanding.  But after all, just as chipmunks are for chipmunking (as I used to like to say in my classes before I retired from teaching), that’s what thinking’s for.

Some of the unruly thoughts that have recently been urging themselves upon me, disrupting my thoughtlessness and demanding my attention, have come to me while reading a new publication by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.  Actually, it is the subsequently reviewed and corrected transcript of a public conversation between him and Daniel Tyradellis, a younger German philosopher.   That conversation took place in Berlin just one year ago, in November 2012, and was published a bit less than a year later by diaphanes, in both French and German versions.  I’ve been reading the French edition, entitled Qu’appelons-nous penser? (Bienne-Paris:  diaphanes, 2013), which can be rendered into English as “What do we call thinking?

The title given the book in its simultaneously published German version is in one way, perhaps, more suggestive of what is under discussion in its pages.  The book was brought out in Germany as Was heisst uns denken?  That title is richly ambiguous.  Uns is German for us; and the question posed by the German title can be heard—and should be, if we’re to be thoughtful in our hearing—in two different ways at once.  On the one hand, it can be heard as asking,  “What to us is called thinking?” or, in more colloquial English, “What do we call thinking?”  Yet on the other hand, the German question can be heard to ask,  “What calls us to think?” or, to interpret the German a bit more heavily, “What calls for thought, or thinking, from us?”

One reason the two ways of hearing the German should both to be kept in mind, at least if we are to hear thoughtfully ourselves, is because, of course, what we ourselves happen to call thinking is clearly not altogether unrelated to whatever it is that calls for thinking from us.  After all, insofar as our thinking and our calling are in order, what we call thinking should surely and above all be whatever it is we are called upon to do, by whatever it is that most especially calls thinking forth from us.   Indeed, a good initial stab at giving an ostensive definition of just what we call thinking—just what we call by that name, or at least what we should call by it—is that thinking is what we do when we respond appropriately to the call of what calls upon us to think, obeying the command it issues us.

That attempt at definition will be informative for us, of course, only if we can identify what it is that calls for thinking from us, as well as what it is we are supposed to do, to answer that call.  Otherwise, it tells us nothing, or at least nothing pertinent to determining what it is to think.

All that is old hat, of course, to anyone at all familiar with Martin Heidegger’s 60-year-old work, Was Heisst Denken?   The title Nancy and Tyradellis give to the published transcript of their public dialogue, especially but not only in its German version, is meant to evoke that earlier work by Heidegger, the title of which has been translated correctly enough into English as What Is Called Thinking? but which, as anyone who has read that work knows, could also have been no less correctly translated as What Calls For Thinking? and/or What Calls Thinking Forth?

Well, what does?

I won’t try directly to answer that question in this post.  I’ll just content myself with giving some indications, which I hope will excite some thoughts of my readers’ own about the matter, impelling them to think about it for themselves.

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In the closing lines of his conversation with Tyradellis, Nancy tells us that his thinking, at least, is always “in response to questions or requests” (to give my own free translation, as I will continue to do in the citations from him that follow).  “That also says that ‘think’ signifies ‘feel,’ ‘experience,’ ‘receive’,” he goes on to tell us.  Feel, experience, or receive what?  Nancy answers that question for us, too.  To think, he writes, is to feel, experience, or receive “impulses, affects, excitations, in-citations,” and the like.

So, according to Nancy, thinking is the response we are called upon to make to what comes to us from without, and incites us to think, gives us the impulse or urge to do so.  That is the urgency of all thinking.  And as the line from Nancy the reading of which incited me to cite it at the beginning of this post already says, without urgency, there is no thought at all.

What, exactly, does what calls for us to think call for from us?  Nancy gives us a significant hint (as though incited to provide the answer before we even felt the impulse to ask the question), when, earlier on in his conversation with Tyradellis (pages 20-21), he begins by talking about the experience of writing.  He says that “in writing there is an impulsion” toward “that altogether particular pleasure that one experiences when one sees that the writing proceeds of itself, as though on its own.” The pleasure at issue is the one we have all felt from time to time, when our writing goes so exceedingly well that it writes itself through us, as it were, without us any longer working at it especially.

Furthermore, Nancy adds, not just he but everyone wants to see what he or she writes “appear, and stay alive!”  That is, what Nancy goes on to describe as the pleasure of seeing one’s way open up of itself before one “in an entirely autonomous manner,” is a pleasure internal to the very process of writing as such:  To write is to go along this autonomously self-opening way—a way which, as it were, uses the writer’s writing to open itself step by step as the writer writes along it.

Coupled with this pure autonomy of writing is an equally pure anonymity.  Precisely because the way that opens itself up in writing finally does so all on its own, no one can ever finally own what is written.  In the final analysis, what’s written never belongs as a possession to any one person or even any possible range of persons, all the way out to the limitless infinity of “everybody.”  Even when one writes “privately,” as one does in a personal journal, for example, one experiences the same “impulsion” that Nancy talks about:  the impulsion toward letting what one has written go forth of itself, to live a life of its own.

That is why, whenever one writes, no matter how “private” one intends to keep it, one always writes to be read.  That is, one always writes to be read not just by oneself, but by another, even if that other “is only a creature of the writer’s mind,” as American writer Marilynne Robinson writes to be read in the lines above, from her review of the recent publication of the Flannery O’Connor’s personal journal of prayers addressed to God and never intended for publication, at least as publication is ordinarily thought of.   We might well add that even an atheist might well write just such a prayer journal, addressed to just that same addressee, with just that same expectation of being read, even though the writer is convinced there is no God there to receive the address.  That’s just another way of saying what Marilynne Robinson says in the lines I’ve cited from her, lines themselves incited by her reading of O’Connor’s private prayer journal, written to God alone.

All that’s just how it is with writing:  Writing is always, as writing, both impulsively urgent, and uncontrollably free, both wholly autonomous and totally anonymous.

It’s the same with thinking.  It, too, goes where it will, a law unto itself; and nobody owns it, either.

Writing for myself at least, I never know what I think till after I’ve finished writing it.  For that reason, I always hated it when teachers during my interminable school days would make me write out and turn in an outline before writing and turning in the paper supposedly guided by that outline.  The only way I was ever been able to do that was by writing the whole paper first, then outlining the thing after the fact, to try to please whatever picky pedant pedagogue required an outline of me.

In turn, that’s one reason I was pleased to read Nancy saying, right after discussing the peculiar pleasure particular to writing, in all its anonymous autonomy (and remarking that, “of course, that has something to do with thought”):   “One doesn’t write philosophy in accordance with a plan:  I want to say such-and-such, I want to produce this or that closed signification.”  Of course, one also doesn’t write without any initial, initiating idea at all—that is, without some sort of impulse, excitation, or incitement to try to go in a certain general direction.  “To be sure,” Nancy writes, “one has an idea; but that idea draws itself out.  And at the end, the result is something that one has not foreseen.”

When I first sat down to write what has become this present post, for example, I had just such a vague, general idea of where I wanted to go.  That idea included working with the passages from Nancy that I’ve been working with.  Bringing in Marilynne Robinson’s remarks did not occur to me at the time, however.  That’s because I hadn’t read them yet.  And that, in turn, is because they were not even published yet—they had not yet “appeared,” to use Nancy’s fortuitously felicitous term.  But then, when I came across those remarks a few days ago, the thought came to me that they fit right in with what I was trying to say.  So I added them to my unplanned plan as it continued to unfold under my very gaze as I continued to write.  (Happy coincidences like that are part of the way it goes with writing and/or thinking, I’ve always found, even if I’ve not always found them when I most felt I needed them.)

One thing that, unlike the remarks from Robinson’s review of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, was always included in my general sense of what I wanted to write about in this post was a passage from another French author besides Nancy.  That is a passage that reading Nancy’s own comments about writing and thinking brought to my mind, unbidden—a passage about “culture” by the post-Lacanian French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, in something by him that I also read just recently, namely, “Transference:  Its Provocation by the Analyst,” one of his Essays on Otherness (London and New York:  Routledge, 1999).

The passage at issue is a fine, long one (on pages 223-224) in which Laplanche is discussing Freud’s Der Dichter and das Phantasieren (“Poets and Fantasizing”).  Laplance first observes that Freud nowhere asks the question, “what, quite simply, drives the Dichtersit venia verba [pardon my saying so]—to ‘dicht’ [“poetize,” if you’ll pardon my translating it so].  Why create in order to communicate, and communicate through creating.  And above all, why communicate in this way—that is, by addressing no-one, aiming beyond any determinate person?”

Laplance then goes on to note:  “Modern studies of language clearly show that communication is a pragmatics:  to communicate is to manipulate, to produce an effect on someone.”  Then he goes on—in a discussion that reminds me of one of my own, in The Stream of Thought (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1984), about “novel door-stops,” that is, novels used as door-stops—to acknowledge that, of course, one can engage in “cultural production” (writing novels, or books of philosophy, for example) for “glory and profit,” or even to procure sexual conquests.  “But,” Laplanche remarks, “what an extraordinary going-beyond [that is, what a cumbersome, round-about way] it takes to get there.  Going beyond oneself, but above all going towards another who is no longer determinate, and who will only incidentally be the object of an individual sexual conquest”—if ever!  “Through this dimension,” Laplanche continues,

cultural production is situated from the first beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect. . . . The addressee [addressed by “cultural production”] is essentially enigmatic, even if he sometimes takes on individual traits.  So it is with van Gogh’s Theo, who is as much an analyst without knowing it as is Fliess for Freud, for behind him looms the nameless crowd, addressees of the message in a bottle.

This is no sort of elitist position, “for what can be termed ‘the cultural’ exists from the moment the human becomes human:  cave-paintings, idols, and probably music and poetry.”  Such an address to such an anonymous, enigmatic addressee “prolongs and echoes the enigmatic messages by which the Dichter himself, so to speak, was bombarded [namely, by his parents’ or parent-substitutes’ enigmatic messages sent to him when he was an infant].”

In a not so enigmatically significant move, Laplanche replaces the currently omnipresent term “consumer” with that of “recipient” as a name for the one to whom the cultural “product” is addressed.  “It is of the essence of the cultural product,” he writes,

that it reaches him [the recipient] with no pedigree, and that it is received by him without having been addressed to him.  The recipient’s relation to the enigma is thus different from the author’s, a partial inversion of it.  But here too, the relation is essential, a renewal of the traumatic, stimulating aspect of the childhood enigma [that is, of the “enigmatic signifiers”—enigmatic first and above all to their very “senders,” as Laplanche never tires of insisting—sent without even knowing it, by parents baffled about having sent them, to their at least equally baffled children as recipients].

In turn, “the ‘art critic’ ” or critic’s equivalent, including the person who “does non-clinical psychoanalysis,” is

caught between two stools:  the enigma which is addressed to him [that is, the cultural product in relation to which the “art critic” himself or herself is but one of the limitless crowd of anonymous recipients], but also the enigma of the one he [the “art critic”] addresses [in turn], his public (for it is too easy to forget that one always does [such critical or analytical work on cultural products as does the “art critic”] in order to write about it [for/to an anonymous recipient of that new writing], to communicate it in turn.

It is the offer which creates the demand:  a constant proposition in the cultural domain.  The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture.  The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural, which is by definition intrusive, stimulating and sexual.

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This very post is itself, of course, a cultural product.  I can only hope that its readers, which is to say the whole anonymous, endless crowd to whom it is addressed, like a message in a bottle, find it “intrusive, stimulating and sexual.”  I feel an impulse to add that, so far as I know at any rate, I am not using it to procure any sexual conquests or for any other pragmatic purpose.  I’m just thinking.  May it in turn, taking on a life of its own, give rise—as Paul Ricoeur once famously (and rightly) said the symbol does—to further thought!

What more could I ask?

* In a review of the recent publication of Flannery O’Connor’s private prayer journal.