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].

Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #2


The two entries below, a brief one I first wrote in my philosophical journal in April of last year followed by a longer one I wrote two days later, is the second of a series of seven addressing various essays from the collection Memory, Trauma, and World Politics, edited by Duncan Bell (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006). 

The first entry consists solely of the citation of a line from Bell, plus some lines from a speech Bell cites by George W. Bush.  The conjunction of the two speaks for itself.

 The second entry addresses a piece by political scientist Jenny Edkins, whose thought I respect highly and have already reflected upon in more than one earlier post.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Bell [in his introductory essay to the volume], p. 14:  In post 9/11 public life memories of both Vietnam and the attack on Pear Harbor have been invoked repeatedly and for multiple and often contradictory reasons.”  E.g., Bush in speech to Air Force Academy 6/24/04 [as Bell quotes him]:  “Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the united States.  We will not forget that treachery and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy.  Like the murderous ideologies of the 20th century, the ideology of terrorism reaches across borders, and seeks recruits in every country.  So we’re fighting these enemies wherever they hide across the earth.”


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In Bell’s anthology, Jenny Edkins, “Remembering Relationality:  Trauma Time and Politics” (pp.99-115 [in Bell]), p. 106:  “Already, in both these thinkers [French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and French philosopher Jacques Derrida], we can discern the idea of trauma:  as the traumatic lack around which [as a “quilting point”] the subject is structured in Lacan, and as the aporetic or traumatic moment of decision at the heart of the political in Derrida.  We also find in these approaches the idea of traumatic memory, or, rather, the way in which the traumatic moment is forgotten, or indeed invisible.”

The trauma is “forgotten” only at/as representable, however.  At/as the level of affect, it is “remembered.”  This gap between representation and affect is itself the act of/which is the trauma:  trauma is the opening of a gap between representational understanding and the affectivity ([Heideggerian] Befindlichkeit) that accompanies it, is  equiprimordial with it.  That trauma–which is the trauma, “structural trauma” [as Paul Eisenstein calls it], trauma itself–opens the space into which political sovereignty and theoretical science and technology can rush, to set themselves into play there (a “shadow play”?).

Edkins, p. 107:  “Trauma is clearly disruptive of settled stories.  Centralized, sovereign political authority is particularly threatened by this.  After a traumatic event what we call the state moves quickly to close down any openings produced by putting in place as fast as possible a linear narrative of origins.  We have seen already how this happens after a non-founded founding moment.”

Thus, as she all but says herself (just not, so far as I can tell, drawing the final implications of her own analysis), “sovereign political authority” is itself founded in and as the  covering over of trauma in the projection of an illusion of origin and ground to salvage itself from its own violent groundlessness.  The movement is the same as the abuser “justifying” his abuse by projecting it back onto the “badness” of the victim of the abuse.  What, in effect, occurs is the rationalization of violence, which is, in turn, the denial of the trauma of the victim of violent abuse.  Thus, for example, Hobbes traces sovereignty back to the  trauma of the war of all against all, where “man is wolf to man,” thus masking the war/violence that the sovereign perpetrates upon his/her “subjects.”

Edkins, p. 108, follows up:  “However,  some people want [unlike the sovereign} to try to hold on to the openness that trauma produces.  They do not want to forget, or to express the  trauma in standard narratives that entail a form of  forgetting.  They see trauma as something that unsettles authority and that should make settled stories impossible in the future. I have proposed that it might be useful to call this form of time that provides an opening for the political ‘trauma time’, as distinct from the linear, narrative time that suits state or sovereign politics.”  (Her footnote 30 to this, on p. 251, says “the time of the state is similar to Benjamin’s ’empty, homogeneous time'” in Illuminations, p. 252.)

Later on p. 108:  “Politics is the regular operation of state institutions, elections, and such like within the framework of the status quo. . . . The political on the other hand is the moment where established ways of carrying on do not tell us what to do, or where they are challenged and ruptured:  in traumatic moments, for example.”  (Though, she goes on to say, there are problems with the distinction.)

Trauma is a betrayal in the double sense of breaking trust and revealing.  Re the first (p. 109):  “So what traumatic encounter does, then, is reveal the way in which the social order is radically incomplete and fragile . . . nothing more than a fantasy–it’s our invention, and it is one that does not ‘hold up’ under stress.  When it comes down to it, for example, what we call the state is not a protector, the guardian of people’s security.  On the contrary, it is the very organization that can send people to their deaths, by conscripting them in times the state is under threat and sending them to fight its wars.”  Overall,:  “First, there is a betrayal of trust that threatens [ordinary national or family] relationality:  relationality expressed as national or family belonging turns out to be unreliable, for example.  Second, the radical relationality that is normally forgotten is revealed or made apparent.”

Memory, Memorials, and Art Spiegelman’s Shadow


Art Spiegelman is  the cartoonist author whose two volume comic-strip book Maus deservedly won him a Pulitzer Prize.  A native New Yorker, he and his family were in the city when the attacks on the Twin Towers occurred on 9/11/2001.  The entry from my journal posted below concerns his subsequent treatment of those attacks, and of the public, “official” responses to them, in his subsequent book In the Shadow of No Towers.

Readers can find a few more of my reflections on Spiegelman’s work–Maus in the case of that earlier post–in “Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #1,” posted at this site earlier this  month, on January 7. 

On the dubious nature of official or semi-official “memorializations” of shared or public trauma, see Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and my comments on it in my earlier journal entry posted at this site on December 14, 2008, under the title “Trauma, Sovereignty–and Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York:  Pantheon Books, 2004), “The Sky Is Falling,” a two large-paged essay by Spiegelman at the beginning of the  book:

“Only when I heard paranoid Arabs and Americans blaming it all [that is, blaming “9/11″] on the Jews did Ireel myself back in, deciding it wasn’t essential to know precisely how much my ‘leaders’ knew about the hijackings in advance–it was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalized the attack for their  own agenda.”

Next page, same essay:  “I wanted to sort out the fragments of what I’d exper-ienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw . . .”

The two–the “instrumentalization for their [“my ‘leaders'”] own agenda,” and the flood of media images–form a whole.  Each feeds and reinforces the other.

Plate 10 [in Spiegelman’s book], 1st frame is all text, the opening of which is:  “Nothing like commemorating an event to make you forget it.”

The Trauma of Philosophy

The entry from my philosophical journal reproduced below is a short one.  It stands alone between the entry posted yesterday,  which is a response to my reading political scientist Jenny Edkin’s Trauma and the Memory of Politics, and the entry for my next posting, which begins a series of entries in which my reflections are elicited by reading feminist scholar Ann Chetkovich’s An Archive of Feeling.   In contrast, the entry below stands on its own, rather than as evoked by any specific reading.  In it I very broadly and quickly sketch a critical reading of philosophy itself as the manifestation of a trauma–or, more specifically, of a mechanism to keep a trauma at bay.

In my mind, the critical sketch of philosophy from the entry below sets up rich resonances with another critical sketch of philosophy, by Franz Rosenzweig in the opening pages of The Star of Redemption, to which I refer the interested reader.   To give a brief summary,  in those great opening pages of his master-work Rosenzweig addresses the whole history of philosophy since Socrates, and contrasts it with the “New Thinking” Rosenzweig himself endorses, and sees as finally beginning to emerge only with Nietzsche, eventually to become more fully represented by Heidegger, especially in the latter’s famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland, in the 1920s with Ernst Cassirer about the interpretation Kant.  Rosenzweig presents philosophy from Socrates to Nietzsche as a sort of suicide.  As Rosenzweig interprets it, the Socratic philosopher chooses to negate flesh-and-blood life itself in favor of a bloodless projected Ideal reality, making that choice in order never to have to face the fear of deathhead on.  By Rosenzweig’s analysis, the “otherworldliness” of philosophy until Nietzsche manifests an attempt to avoid the fear of death by avoiding ever fully living.
The interpretation of which I  give a thumbnail sketch in the entry below should be seen as moving within the horizon first opened by Rosenzweig’s critique.

Sunday, February 2, 2008

From its inception philosophy has defined itself by a movement of exclusion–exclusion of that from which philosophy differentiates itself, and precisely [only] in such differentiation becomes itself.  Thus, in its founding movement philosophy gives priority to that against which it defines itself.  It can come to itself only as the negation of its opposite, as,  for Nietzsche, the “good” of the “good/evil” distinction [in the first of the three essays that make up his Genealogy of Morals] can come to itself only as the exclusion of its opposite, which has status independent of, and prior to, the “good,” which comes as a sort of afterthought, almost.

Hence the obsessiveness of philosophy’s return to defining itself [rather like the dog of the Christian gospel that returns to its own vomit, to use one of my favorite analogies], since that can never be accomplished  for  sure.  Only what needs no  movement of distinguishing itself from what it extrudes and excludes, in order to  come to  itself, can ever fully “accomplish”itself.  Or, rather, only what never needs to accomplish itself at all, but what simply is in its fullness, like the sun in the Prologue to [Thus SpokeZarathustra, can escape the excremental cycle–the cycle of excreting its own opposite and opposing itself to it in in obsessive retention–[Giorgio] Agamben’s [notion of] ban.

Since its inception in Plato, philosophy has bound itself to the ban of sophistry.  No wonder [then that] philosophy always reeks of solipsism, which is the shit of philosophy.

What would a thinking which was not under such an excremental ban be like?

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.