Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the second in a series of posts.

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Part One: The American Way of Remembering (2)

[. . .] we whites seem curiously unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for our own part in racial inequity. If we’re so concerned about “personal responsibility,” shouldn’t we show more?

—Nicholas Kristof, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 7” (NY Times 10/2/16)


We both detested the war [. . . but] both knew that if Hitler was responsible, he wasn’t as important as he was made out to be and he hadn’t invented himself without help.

—Léon Werth, 33 Days, translated by Austin Denis Johnston (Brooklyn & London: Melville House Publishing, 2015, p. 13)


Léon Werth, a French Jew who fled from Paris with his wife and daughter when the conquering Germans approached the city early in World War II, wrote what became the book 33 Days during that time of flight, when he and his family were refugees in their own country. In the line above Werth is speaking for himself and a friend he made along the way—a farmer who earned Werth’s gratitude by granting him and his family genuine hospitality along their way, and whose open, discerning, and honest thoughtfulness also earned Werth’s respect.

Werth and his new friend saw that it was no more than a subterfuge to blame all the destruction of that war on the single figure of Hitler, who “hadn’t invented himself without help,” and was therefore not the only one responsible. They understood that at least a good part of the reason Hitler was being “made out to be” so important was so that those who helped make Hitler possible were could thereby hide—even, and perhaps most of all, from themselves—their own responsibility.

The same basic thing is also at issue in the citation above from Nicholas Kristof, about racism in the United States: The avoidance of responsibility. Such avoidance can take the form of shirking one’s own responsibility by hiding behind some figure who has been “made out to be” much more important. But it can also take the form of projecting one’s own failure to assume one’s own responsibility onto those less fortunate than oneself. Either way, the effect is the same. Both are handy devices for denying one’s own responsibility—for refusing to remember what one has done, and hold oneself accountable for it.

In addition, all too often such slogans as “Always remember!” or “Never forget!” are employed in the same way: to create a sheer pretence of remembering that actually does dis-service to all genuine remembrance. Similarly, all too often, “official” memorials supposedly erected to honor memory actually dishonor it in just such a way. All too often, they just piss on all genuine, spontaneous memorialization, the same way that, as Jeff Chan recounts in the citation with which I began this series of posts, one cop let his dog piss on the memorials that sprang up spontaneously on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, where another cop had killed unarmed Michael Green. To borrow Chan’s way of putting it, they practice that same “American way of remembering.”

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I will continue this series on “Rembering the Third Reich American Style” in my next post.

How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation, continued yet again

This is the fourth of a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense.  The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.

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One of the after-shocks set off by my breaking my leg the first time, when I was three, took the form of what I remember as the recurrent nightmare recounted in my immediately preceding post, a nightmare in which an axe-murderer was on the loose in our house, bent on the brutal murdering of my entire family.  Then, thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one and broke my leg a second time, that second episode set off reverberations in recollections of the recurrence of that old nightmare when I was a child.  As I also recounted in my last post, those reverberations in and as my memory of that recurrent dream culminated before long in a flash of insight wherein I saw, at forty-one, that the axe-murderer of my childhood nightmare was none other than myself—in psychoanalytic terms the “projection” of the boiling rage the fist breaking of my leg set off in me, a projection of that rage onto and into my nightmare’s image of an axe-murderer.

The insight that the after-shock of breaking my leg the second time in 1987 brought me, insight into what had happened when I broke it the first time, way back in 1949, was that the only way the child I was at three when that first blow struck could process what was happening to him was, at least in large part, by such a projection outside himself of the rage with which he affectively responded to that blow at the time.  To use one way of putting it, that child could not directly “own” his own rage.  He could not “own up to it,” as we say.  The reasons for that were complex, including some pertinent to the very idea of “primary” or “precocious” trauma, an idea I have explored a bit in some earlier posts.*  But for my purposes here, I will leave such matters without further discussion, so that I can focus instead on something else—which is how what happened to me thirty-eight years later, when I broke my leg again, involved an interestingly parallel but very different “projection” on my part—significantly different from the one that occurred back when I broke my leg the first time.

In that second projection to go with the second time I broke my leg, in 1987, what in effect occurred was that the first projection, the one that came with the first time I broke my leg way back in 1949, got withdrawn and re-projected differently.  As I have been explaining, in the initial incident and projection the child that I was at the time externalized the negative affect of rage, projecting it in and as the image of the axe-murderer in my childhood nightmare.  What happened when I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later was, as it were, a taking back—an active withdrawal, in the same sense that we withdraw money from the bank–of that initial projection, with and in a new re-projection whereby what I experienced was transformed into positive affect.

That with-drawing re-projection thirty-eight years later of the first projection completed the latter, fulfilled it.  As a man of forty-one I was at long last able to own and own up to what as a child of three I could not and, therefore, did not own and own up to.  Thus—at last!—my leg finally broke once and for all.  After that I was free—but only after that was I free—finally (!) to become (a process that is still ongoing to this day) who I had been all along.  I will try to explain a bit more what I mean.

As I recounted in my last post before this one, by sheer luck and happenstance both the set and the setting in which I found myself in the summer of 1987 replicated the set and setting in which I had found myself in 1949 when I first broke my leg.  To recapitulate what I already said along those lines in my preceding post:  As there were three of us siblings playing during the incident in 1949, so were there three of us colleagues and friends serving as sibling-substitutes in the incident of 1987**; as there were two parents overseeing the activities of the three of us siblings in 1949, so were there two presiding figures to serve as parent-substitutes overseeing the enterprise in which we three sibling-substitutes were engaged in 1987.  Finally, just as the incident of 1949, at least in its nearest after-shocks, involved an institution the day-to-day operation of which depended on the service of mostly-offstage nuns (a Catholic hospital), so did the incident of 1987 unfold in an institution serviced by mostly-offstage nuns (a place of retreat)–though of a different denomination, a difference that made no difference in terms of my twice-breaking leg.

I will let that suffice for my recap of parallels I’ve already mentioned in earlier posts.  Now I will add some new ones that were just as important for what happened to me.

Another such parallel is that both incidents involved experienced abandonment for me.  By speaking of “experienced” abandonment I mean to highlight that what matters is not whether the one undergoing such experience was “really” abandoned or only “thought” so; all that matters is that it was so experienced by that one.  So, as I did in fact already recount in an earlier post, the first incident in 1949 involved for me an experienced abandonment at two points.   At unconscious or at least pre-conscious levels I experienced my parents as somehow abandoning me to the physical pain of the initial breaking blow to my leg, and then repeating and deepening that abandonment by leaving me with all my pain in a hospital for ten days in traction.  Well, in parallel with that first incident, the one in  1987 also included me experiencing myself as being abandoned by the two parent-substitutes involved.   At the very heart of the abandonment in both cases what was at stake was feeling myself crucially left alone in torment by those whom I trusted to “take care of” me.  The excruciating physical pain that went with the first incident, in 1949, was absent in the second one, in 1987.  However, even in 1949 what most mattered in my experience was not the physical shock as such, as intense as it must have been, but the affective—“existential” would not be a bad word for it—shock of finding those I trusted for care not there for me, not pulling me out of my pain and rescuing me, but leaving me alone in it.  In parallel, the pain in which I found myself in 1987 was the non-physical but nevertheless still excruciating pain of coming to feel publicly humiliated, as I perceived it, not only in the presence of the two “authority” figures I was trusting in, without them intervening on my behalf, but also, far worse, by their very hands—at least indirectly, insofar as I humiliated myself by my own behavior, but which behavior in turn was a matter of me doing just what I thought they were giving me to do.  Beyond that, the details of the episode do not matter for my present purposes, any more than does the question of the “accuracy” of how I experienced things, at least in any usual sense of that term.

That experience of abandonment, of being left alone in torment, left alone there by the very ones in whom I deeply trusted and by whom I could never have expected to be so abandoned, was only half of the crucial parallel, however.  Coupled with that sense of abandonment in both cases, 1949 and 1987, was a equally strongly experienced blockage and even prohibition of processing either episode in terms of attributing any betrayal on the part of those in whom I trusted, and who were so suddenly and shockingly abandoning me to deal alone with my own intense pain.  That is, in neither case was blaming the parental authority figures for my torment involved, as though they were somehow at fault for it.

In the 1949 case, what blocked me from such blaming was, in effect, that it would have been even more traumatic for the child of three I was then to entertain the possibility of such deep perfidy on the part those whom I loved and on whose constant and continuing love for me I was utterly experientially dependent—my parents—than it was for me to find myself suddenly and shockingly left alone by them, abandoned to my pain.  Betrayal by those parents, for the young child I was in 1949, was even less conceivable than abandonment itself—and would have been even more tormenting.

Nevertheless, even at three I needed some sort of “account” of what was happening to me—some way of making sense of it.  The sense it turns out I made (as I came to see it, finally, thirty-eight years later) was to relate to my abandonment, in all its torment, as deserved punishment.  Given the strictly unthinkable thought that my parents would betray me, which thought would have torn all ground out from under me and cast me in free-fall into a bottomless abyss, the only thought left for me to think was that all the blame was my own, in effect.

Thus, the axe-murderer of my nightmares did double-duty for me by coupling the externalization of all my un-feel-able rage, on the one hand, and embodying my own self-condemnation—read as an affectively effective sign, my axe-murderer image functions as a sort of performative utterence wherein I pronounced a sentence of condemnation upon myself, as I merited for being the monster I projected myself as being in that same image—on the other hand.  I have always preferred stones that let one kill more than one bird at a time, and my axe-murderer was just such a stone.  He let me finish off the very ones who loved me, and simultaneously in the very process enact my own condemnation to the hell where I belonged, thereby finishing my despicable self off as well.  In him I washed my hands of myself, like Pontius Pilate.

Fast-forward to the incident of 1987.  Because of the conditions under which I had, voluntarily after full and careful deliberation, delivered myself, in company with my two colleague-friends, into the care of the two parental-authority figures who ran things in the setting at issue that summer, the idea of those figures not measuring up to the very trust I was putting in them was finally as unthinkable to me as betrayal by my parents had been for me as a child of three in 1949.  I had submitted myself to their authority because I was experientially convinced beyond a shadow of an existential doubt that they had what I had long been searching for, without ever even knowing it until by hap I found my way to them.  Finding them, or what I thought was them, finding the liberation, the deliverance that I took them to be offering me, was–as I had said more than once to my two colleagues when we all three decided to turn ourselves together for a time over to their care and supervision in the first place–“like going home,” but to a home I’d never known I’d left, until I found my way back to it.  As I have already remarked, the details do not matter for my present purposes.  All that matters is that, as I have also already remarked, the possibility of perfidy on their part was no less inconceivable to me with my mindset in the setting at issue in my summer of 1987, than perfidious parents had been to me thirty-eight years before, in 1949.

Thus, on both occasions, 1949 and 1987, I found myself, experientially, in what R. D. Laing and others have called a “double-bind.”  Alternatively expressed, on both occasions I found myself in a condition of radical “cognitive dissonance”—or what might better be called “existential dissonance,” perhaps.  I was, to put it colloquially, in an insane situation.  As a number of others have observed before me, when in an insane situation the only sane thing to do is to go insane oneself.  That’s just what I did, on both occasions, but in two different ways—different, yet complexly interwined in compound ways, as though to fit the compound, complex fracture of my leg that had first put me in ten-days’ traction.

In 1949, my insanity manifested symptomatically in my dreams, and recurrently in a choice variety of apparently bizarre, repetitive behaviors for the next thirty-eight years.  Then, in 1987, I went insane differently—this time not at night in my dreams, but in broad daylight and in full public exposure.

The closest I can come to saying what happened to me in the middle of my 1987 summer vacation is this:  I went to spend a day in the absolute elsewhere of a psychotic episode—specifically, of a full-blown paranoid delusion.  That, at least, is how I have always categorized it ever since then, and that is close enough for all my purposes.  Beyond that, I am happy to leave it to experts to decide about the “objective accuracy” of that categorization, if any care to waste their expert time on the matter.  For me, it more than suffices, at least provided that one interpret the notion of paranoia broadly—broadly enough to involve what I will call a “positive” form to go alongside the “negative” form that, in my impression at least, paranoia more usually tends to take.

In the case of my own paranoid delusion, I was indeed thoroughly convinced, beyond all possibility of doubt, that there was a massive conspiracy focused on me going on behind my back.  However, whereas (by my impression) in most cases the conspiracy that the paranoiac discerns everywhere to be at work is aimed at doing him harm, in my own case in 1987 the conspiracy was wholly aimed at doing me good.  I was convinced, at a visceral and immediately perceptual level that could only confirm itself more profoundly with each new affection or perception, not that the whole world was out to “get” me, but that all the world was out to help me.  As delusions go, one could not ask for a better one, surely.

That is, in my 1987 delusion I projected upon the two parental authority figures at issue the entirely positive affects with which, on that occasion, I was overwhelmed and swept away no less than I had been by the thoroughly negative affects of pain and terror and responsive rage thirty-eight years before when I first broke my leg in 1949, and projected those negative affects into and as the nightmare image of an axe-murderer.  What is more, when the echoes of the events of my 1987 summer vacation at last died away–which took till that fall, on my way to take my wife to the airport, as recounted in my preceding post—all of the so much louder and longer echoes of what had first happened to me way back in 1949 died away too.  When the din of all those multiple soundings and re-soundings finally stopped, it restored to me the blessing of silence, and thereby let me hear clearly again anew—and feel that way as well.   In the process of all the noisy sound and fury finally dying away, I found to my surprise that the very negative affects that I had only just then discovered to have owned me for so long had also themselves vanished.  Along with all the idiotic sound and fury, the rage and terror and pain were gone.  Those dominant, dominantly negative affects no longer affected me, at least not in any dominating way.  They had all been taken back, withdrawn, as I said earlier in today’s post, from their so-long-standing projection into and as my nightmarish axe-murderer, and recast no longer as something experientially outside me, but rather recast upon me and into me, transformed from pain, terror, and rage into joy, delight, and gratitude.

Said differently, when all the bells and whistles at last stopped echoing in my ears, I was finally able to hear that something had been patiently and persistently knocking on my door for all the while that din had kept itself up.  It was knocking still.  And now I was at last able to answer the knock, and open the door, at least tentatively, given how drained the whole process had left me.

When I did open that door, who I found standing there no one but myself, at last delivered.  My now at last fully broken leg had done the delivering.  In the end, when it was finally done, breaking my leg gave me myself to be.

Accordingly, ever since I broke it the second time, I have been very grateful for my broken leg.  How could I not be grateful, given that it delivered to me such a sudden, unexpected, unmerited gift?  What is more, what difference does it make to me–or my gratitude—how long the giving took?  So it took thirty-eight years from the rap on the door that first announced the delivery, plus some months more than three years before that since the gift was first sent my way (which by hap was on January 1, 1946, the day I was born), for a total of almost forty-two years (till well along into 1987) for the delivery to be completed in my reception of it from the hands of the delivery system—my long-breaking, at-last-broken leg.  So what?

My broken leg delivered me doubly–at least.  First, it delivered me in the sense that we say the mail-carrier delivers the mail:  It brought me to my own door.  But we also call the mother’s labors in bringing forth a child a delivery.  In that sense, too, my broken leg delivered me.  Indeed, in terms of birth and birthing, my broken leg both delivered me of myself, as a skilled midwife might deliver a mother “of” her child, and delivered me to myself, as the same midwife might deliver a child “to” its mother, perhaps even placing it in that mother’s arms, for her then to cherish and nurture.

In sum (at least for this post), the truth I was at last given to see one snowy morning in October 1987 talking with my wife on the way to the airport to deliver her in turn to her pending flight, was that the day I broke my leg was the luckiest day of my life.  In my next post (unless it proves to be the one after that—it’s hard to predict such things), I will address the next day, the day after I broke my leg, which is the day I’ve been living in ever since (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—a trauma-trip of a movie, by the way).

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This series on How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation will be continued in my next post.

* Especially in the series of three posts I recently devoted to the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—the series that immediately precedes this current one on my summer of 1987.

** It is worth noting, as well, that the differences in age between the three of us involved together as friends in 1987 was roughly the same as that between my sister (about 10 years older than I, as is the elder of my two colleague-friends), my brother (about 3 years older than I, and a bit more than that for my second friend), and me.  Another good fit!

How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation

This is the first of a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense.

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When I was three years old, I broke my leg.  Thirty-eight years later, I broke it again—sort of.

I broke my leg at three in the sense that it I was the one whose leg was broken, not in the sense that I was the breaker.  There really was no “breaker” as such.  No one did it to me.  It just happened.  It was an accident.

I am the youngest of three siblings.  My sister is ten years older than I; my brother, three.  Early one Saturday evening way back in childhood, we three were playing together in our father’s “den”—that is, the one-time dining room that he had converted for use to hold a desk with our telephone on it, along with a desk chair and a few other odd pieces of office-like furniture–while our parents were getting ready to take the whole family to the movies.  At one point in our rough-housing together, my brother, six at the time, pushed me.  We had a German Shepherd dog named Duke, who was possessive and protective of us, and never far away from us when we were at home with him.  He was there lying on the floor as we played, and when my brother pushed me, I tripped over Duke.  The result was a compound, complex fracture.  It put me in the hospital for ten days flat on my back, with my legs up in traction.  Though my family is not Catholic, it was a Catholic hospital, staffed by nurse-nuns.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always known that I broke my leg at three.  But I always knew it second hand.  Moreover, it was not until I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later that I found out the real story of what happened that night when I was three.   It was not until then that I discovered my parents had misrepresented the whole thing over all the intervening years.  They had made up a story—intending, I am sure, to spare both me and my poor brother what they no doubt perceived as the pain that knowing the truth might bring us–that became the official, sanctioned family account of the incident.  By that family myth, there was no push to implicate my brother.  Nor did Duke share, however unintentionally, in any blame by lying there for me to trip over him.  Rather, I supposedly went to the kitchen, good little boy that I was (of course), to fetch a facial tissue for one of the adults in the living room (my paternal grandfather and his second wife helped play the adult roles in the official family story, along with my parents).  While I was returning to the living room with the tissue, as the myth had it, I tripped over a jump-rope we kids had left lying on the floor in the den, through which I had to pass on my way.  I fell and broke my leg.  The jump-rope was to blame.

No memories of my own ever gave me reason to contradict that officially sanctioned, well-intentioned lie.  I have no ordinary memories at all of the incident itself.  I remember nothing of our siblings’ play, or of my brother pushing me, me falling over Duke, the breaking of my leg, the pain, or even being in the hospital as such.  I do remember coming home from the hospital, with a full cast to the hip; and I remember when that cast eventually came off, cut off me by our family physician in his office.  That even includes an olfactory remembrance of the rank stench my own flesh gave off, when it was finally set newly open to the air again after its long time under the plaster of the cast.  But I have never had any recollection, at least in the ordinary sense, of the traumatic event itself, the breaking of my leg and my consequent hospitalization, taken there by my parents to be left all alone in the hands of unknown nuns.

By recollection “in the ordinary sense” I mean eidetic recollection, memory manifesting itself in the form of representational images (regardless of whether those images are “true” or “false,” as such notions are usually understood—a matter I have pursued before at this blog-site, but one not directly pertinent here).   I have never had any eidetic recollection of the traumatic event I suffered when I broke my leg at three.  Eventually I did have, however, an emotional recollection of that event—or what might fruitfully be thought of as a re-construction of it, at the affective level, as I will return to later.  That, however, brings me to when I re-broke my leg thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one.

That second time I broke my leg gave me no new broken bones.  It was not a second time I broke my leg in that sense–the sense in which, for example, one might at one time break one bone, then years later break another bone, or even break the same bone again, maybe re-breaking it at exactly the same place.  That latter sort of thing has also happened to me, as it turns out.  When I was seventeen I had a bad automobile accident in which, among other things, I broke my left clavicle.  The doctors elected not to put a pin in the bone, then reconnect it at the point of the break.  Instead, they put my arm in a sling and left the collarbone alone to mend itself, resulting in a bit of a bulge where the mending occurred, because of a slight overlap of the two bone-parts there, and an all but unnoticeable slump to my left shoulder.   Well, just five years ago I had a bicycle-accident in which I broke the same clavicle again, at the same spot, the weakness there helping the break along.

But the second time I broke my leg was not like that.  It was not another break, either of another bone, or of the same bone again, even at the same point as the first break.  Rather, it was, I would like to say, literally and numerically the very same break happening again, for a second time, the repetition of one and the same break, its coming back to strike again.  What happened that second time, when I broke my leg again, was that the impact of the trauma that first struck me when I was three finally registered, as it were.  Only then, when it struck “again” thirty-eight years after it struck at first –only then, in the shock of that long delayed “after-shock” of that first shock itself, to use a term that appropriately alludes to my immediately preceding series of three posts, on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—did it finally get recorded.  Only then, in that so belated after-shock when I was forty-one, did what had happened, setting itself in play by hap, all those years ago when I was three and broke my leg, finally take place.

When I broke my leg again in 1987 I remembered what I could not possibly have remembered before then, for the simple reason that it had not yet taken place—and did not take place until I thus remembered it.  Strange memory, indeed–one that remembers something that has never taken place before it gets remembered!  Just what sort of memory is that–a memory that creates the very event it remembers?

The answer I propose to that question is, to give it an initial formulation, that the sort of memory in question–the sort that is genuinely a creative memory, in which it is “remembering” itself that first actively constructs or builds the place for the event that gets “remembered” finally and literally to take, so that the very occurrence or happening of that event, its e-venting or coming forth, can complete itself, as it were—is, in short, traumatic memory.  It is the memory of trauma, the form to which any memory must con-form, if it is to be a memory of a trauma.  Once again I will use my own experience of recollecting, in the summer of 1987, a traumatic event from my early childhood to elaborate.

As I have already said, I have no eidetic memories, no memories in the form of visualize-able images, of what happened to me when I broke my leg in 1949 at the age of three, nor did my experience of recollecting or remembering that event years later in 1987 involve any such images.  However, as I have also already said, in 1987 I emotionally or affectively remembered that earlier event.  In a sense, in 1987 I relived the experience or lived through it again.  I lived through it again in the same sense that is at issue in the phenomenon of “transference” in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.

In and at the stage of “transference,” the patient, the one being analyzed, unconsciously comes to relate to the analyst in the same way the patient originally related to those at whose hands, or at least while among whom, the patient first suffered whatever it was that, through the analysis itself, eventually emerges as what underlies the neurosis or mental-behavioral issue that brought the patient to seek help through psychoanalysis to begin with.  In transference, the patient “projects” upon the analyst emotions originally felt toward the patient’s parent or other significant person who was the focus of the symptom-originating earlier situation—most typically the emotions involved in a love-hate relationship.  So projecting, the patient “relives” the originating situation again, this time in the therapeutic setting of analysis.  By so reproducing the originating situation within the analytic setting—at least so psychoanalytic theory and practice hold—the patient, with the help of the analyst, has the opportunity to find some way to resolve the problem that, in the originating situation, exceeded all the patient’s capacities to resolve it.

It is only if and when psychoanalytic therapy reaches that stage of “transference,” that such an opportunity, one of resolving something theretofore irresolvable, opens up.  Thus, only if and when that stage is reached does there emerge the very opportunity of any psychoanalytic “cure” occurring, and therewith of the prolonged analysis itself proving to be “successful”

In my summer vacation of 1987, I took part, along with two of my colleagues who were also personal friends, with a number of other individuals from diverse places and backgrounds and whom my two friends and I had never met till then, in a joint project over a period of days.  By pure serendipity, the setting and the dynamics of the group involved, conjoined with my own mindset in relation to the group and our shared task, ended up creating an opportunity for me to go through something analogous to psychoanalytic transference, and to go through it “successfuly.”  That is, in the same sense as that at issue in such transference, what I did in my summer vacation of 1987 allowed me to relive the breaking of my leg as a child thirty-eight years before that, in 1949.  And in my case, the “analysis”—that is, the equivalent, altogether outside of any therapeutic analysis at all, of such analysis—proved to be “successful.”  That is, my later re-experience of my broken leg of many years before proved to be one in which I did not just break my leg again, but was able this time finally to heal that break, which until then had never been properly mended, without me or anyone else even knowing it.  I’d been limping around all those years with an un-attended broken leg without anyone, including me, ever even noticing I had a limp, let alone that my leg-bone still needed proper mending.  It was only when I “re-broke” it in 1987 that I was at last “cured” of my broken leg of 1949.

Lest I create a fall impression, or engender an expectation doomed to undergo frustration, let me add that I still limp.  It’s just that I now limp differently.

It may take me a while to explain.

To be continued in my next post.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 9:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Recurrent Trauma and Representational Memory


Today’s post and my next one, planned for two days from now, on Wednesday, March 18, contain entries in my philosophical journal from last summer concerning a book by Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally, in which he takes to task the idea of the repression of the memory of trauma.  Although in my journal entries below and to be posted Wednesday I am critical of what I understand to be McNally’s own position on the matter, the issues that he and various other scholars have raised perform a valuable service by pointing to crucial obscurities in the notion of repression itself.  Critiques such as his can thus spur us to refine our thinking about repression and related matters, even if they do not provide good grounds for rejecting the very notion of repression, as I understand McNally to be suggesting we do.

As McNally, of one, is well aware, the issue of repression cannot be separated from that of the nature of memory in general, and the connection of memory to representation. All three of those key terms–repression, memory, and trauma–are richly and essentially ambiguous. To my own way of thinking, formed as it has been by better than four decades of reading Heidegger, the challenge is not to remove that ambiguity or even to “control” it, so much as it is to respect it, heed it, and remain open to the flashes of insight that the interplay of the variety of meanings may continue to bring us.

At any rate, I have touched on the interconnections of memory, trauma, repression, and representation in a number of posts already made at this site. The interested reader should refer to the table of contents for this blog that has now been created and posted, to find those earlier discussions. What is more, I will revisit the same general issues many times yet in the entries from my journal still to be posted.

The reservations I express below concerning McNally’s position should not be taken as my final word on the matter of memory, tauma, repression, and representation–or even as any last word on McNally’s view, since my reservations below on that score are meant to be very tentative and exploratory. My own thinking on the whole complex of issues involved here is very much still in process. If and when that thinking eventually succeeds in becoming fully thought, I will no doubt post the news here.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Richard J. McNally, Remembering Trauma(Cambridge, MA:  Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, 2005).  P. 2:  “the  purpose of this book is to lay out the evidence that supports these [following 3] conclusions.”  To wit:  “First, people remember horrific experiences all too well.   Victims are seldom incapable of remembering their trauma.  Second, people sometimes do not think about disturbing events for long periods of time, only to be reminded of them later.   However, events that are experienced as overwhelmingly traumatic at the time  of their occurrence rarely slip from awareness.  Third, there is no reason to postulate a special mechanism of repression or dissociation to explain why people may not think about disturbing experiences for long periods.  A failure to think about something does not entail an inability to remember it.”

Even if we grant his 3 theses, I’ll be interested to see how–if at all–he addresses the issue of what, in effect, motivates not thinking about such experiences for long periods:  If they are so disturbing, why are they not thought about for such long periods so often?  The avoidance  of recollections of disturbing memories is a sort of willful ignorance of them, it would seem.  What does that say about us and trauma?


Some points of interest, at any rate.

P. 35:  “People with posttraumatic stress disorder suffer from involuntary explicit memory [rather than “implicit” memory] as exemplified by unbidden, intrusive recollection of horrific events from their past.  [Which, by the way, would run against the effort “not to think about” such events, surely!]  Involuntary explicit memory deserves more attention from psychologists in how people remember trauma.”

P. 36:  He introduces “what psychologist Ulric Neisser calls a repisodic memory–a memory constructed from repeated episodes of the same type,” and goes on to note:  “The more episodes of a certain type we experience, the harder it becomes to  distinguish among them.” However:  “While repetition makes it harder to retrieve any specific episode, it strengthens overall memory for the entire class of event.  Frequent flyers are highly unlikely to forget having flown on airplanes even though their memories of individual flights may blur together.  Likewise, a person  who suffers many beatings as a child may find it difficult to recall details from any particular attack–unless something unusual occurred during it–yet will never forget what it was like to be subjected to such violence.”  So far, I’d say, okay in general (though [one might wonder] why someone who cites evidence for whatever he can cites none here–for the point on flying or its extension to cover traumatic events as well as such non-traumatic ones today as air travel).  But what he goes on next to make of this is much more questionable:  He faults”some psychologists,” such as Lenore Terr (the only one he actually mentions), who “actually believe that the more frequently a person is traumatized, the less likely the person is to remember having been traumatized,” as, for example, Terr says that children who  experience repeated trauma “often forget,” and may even “forget whole segments of childhood–from birth to age 9, for instance.”

This, he says, “flies in the face of everything we know about memory.”  But I don’t buy that analysis.  Indeed, when I  first read his remarks about “some psychologists” and Terr, I  thought they were merely elaborating upon the points he had just recapitulated on “repisodic” memory–not contradicting them.  Then when I reread the paragraph after being thrown by his concluding remark about “flying in the face” of the evidence, I had to take him to  be meaning that, for Terr, all memory of having been abused would have to vanish, for what she says to be true, analogously to all memory of having flown in airplanes being erased by recurrent flying.

But even by that interpretation, what he claims does not necessarily follow.  It would only follow if there are no sufficiently powerful relevant differences between repeated travelling by air and repeated being abused–relevant with regard for possible mechanisms accounting for Tarr’s claim, even while granting “the evidence” on “repisodic” memory.  After all, for example, flying on airplanes is not as such traumatic (though it may be episodically so, if there is some trouble on a given flight), whereas being abused is as such traumatic.  Well, perhaps the overall numbing that would tend to accompany living in an abusive household flattens being abused itself out to the level of “normal,” which flying virtually never would be (one does not live on airplanes, as one can even on houseboats–and I can imagine someone who’d spent her whole life on a houseboat, surrounded by others living on houseboats, who  might “forget” that it was even a houseboat, and just remember it as a house), such that whole decades could just sort of be lived out, but without making any lasting impression on memory.

I’m not saying that’s how it is, just that that’s how it might be.  But the latter is all it takes to throw McNally’s claim out.

Trauma, Resilience, and the Sovereignty of the Representational Image


The following is the last entry–under the date I originally wrote it last summer in my philosophical journal–concerning various contributions to the collection The Unbroken Soul (H. Parens, H. Blum, and S. Akhtar, eds., Lanham, MD:  Jason Aronson, 2008).


Monday, July 21, 2008

Steven M. Southwick, Faith Ozbay, and  Linda C. Mates (all M.D.s), “Psychological and Biological Factors Associated with Resilience” (in The Unbroken Soul), p. 138:  “Developing animals that are forced to  confront overwhelming and uncontrollable, stressors that they cannot master tend to display an exaggerated or sensitized sympathetic nervous system and/or hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal response to stressors as adults.  In contrast, developing animals exposed to mild to moderate stessors that are under their control and that they they can master tend to  become stress inoculated with a reduced overall response to future stressors.”

Compare my thesis that addiction rates in populations vary [inversely] with experienced effective agency for members of [those populations].  [That is, the higher the addiction rate in a given population, the less will be the individual sense of effective agency among members of that population, and the greater the individual sense of  agency in a given population, the lower will be the addiction rate in that same population.]


Susan C. Adelman (Ph.D.), “From Trauma to Resilience” (Unbroken Soul), p. 158:  “. . . [P]rofound enough traumata may actually cause the hippocampal dysfunction so that at the moment of trauma no memory develops that could later be consciously accessible.  In severe trauma, that is, the full facts of what actually happened may not ever be available [to conscious cognition, at least–representation].  In these situations, the clinician and patient need to work together to observe the contexts of fear and their associations as a way into regaining some knowledge of the trauma.  With these pieces, rather than with  a full memory that cannot be recovered because it does not exist, the patient has the option of reconstructing a story that is meaningful to him or here.  This may be the best available strategy for moving the somatic reactions to the more flexible, symbolically encoded higher cortical regions.”

She [seems to be] equating memory with representational memory, against her own recognition, in fact, that there are multiple “memory systems” in the brain.  Trauma exceeds the sovereignty of the image:  It is not subject to that sovereignty any longer.  To use a formulation paraphrased from [contemporary French phenomenological philosopher Jean Louis] Chrétien, trauma is what is unforgettable precisely because it cannot be remembered representationally.  Like the Heraclitean sun, one cannot hide from it, because it never sets.


According to Adelman (p. 195), “psychoanalytic theory has delineated two theories of  trauma.  One is the ‘unbearable situation’ model and a second, the ‘unacceptable impulse model.'”  (She cites Henry Krystal [see my post before last, for some reflections on Krystal’s contribution to The Unbroken Soul], “Trauma and affects,” in Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 33, 81-116.)  [But insofar as the threatened emergence into awareness of an “unacceptable impulse” itself constitutes an “unbearable situation,” there may really be only one underlying model at issue here, in my judgment.  Nevertheless, the modulation between the “unbearable” something-or-other coming, or seeming to come, “from without,” and its coming, or seeming to come, “from within,” as an “impulse,” is worth attention.]

Being Trauma: A Lesson from Heidegger’s Kant-Book


Late last spring into early last summer, while I  was also continuing to read Michel Henry’s L’essence de la manifestation, I reread, after a number of years, Heidegger’s “Kant-Buch” (“Kant-book”), as it is often referred to, in the original German–Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics), first published in 1929, just two years after the appearance of Sein und Zeit (Being and  Time).  As my reading of Henry’s book generated a number of entries in my philosophical journal, only some of which were directly relevant to my continuing work with the idea of trauma (for one of which, see my preceding post), so did my rereading of Heidegger’s Kant-Buch engender various entries, of which the following, with the date I originally wrote it, is the only one that has more than a passing reference to trauma. 

Before proceeding to that entry, readers might appreciate a reminder that by the term Dasein, Heidegger tells us early in Being and Time, he means that being that each of us–each human being–is.  The literal meaning of the term, as Heidegger often reminds us in his own usage of it, is “Being-[the ‘-sein‘ of the German term]there [the ‘Da-‘].


Saturday, July 5, 2008

It just struck  me for the first time with its full force that by “metaphysics of Dasein” Heidegger does not mean a metaphysics about Dasein, but, rather, the metaphysics–the “transcendence,” the passing beyond beings–that is Dasein.  He says that clearly toward the end of the Kant-Buch (p.231), the reading of which just this morning triggered that insight in me.

In effect,then, Heidegger’s use of the phrase “metaphysics of Dasein” points to what I would now think of as the traumatic essence (in the sense of Heidegger’s usage of ‘Wesen‘ [whereby it carries a strong verbal connotation, as of the bringing together into one of an-wesen, to be present, and ab-wesen, to be absent:  “essence” as the unitary-unifying “sence” of “ab-sence” and “pre-sence,” so  to speak]) of Dasein:   Dasein, as Da-sein, is the wounding of/amidst beings by and with which the place is first cleared and set up for beings to be–the place of letting beings be.

Heidegger goes on in the same general passage (on pp.  232-233) to discuss how, as Entwurf [project, or projection:  literally, forth-cast], Seinsverständnis [understanding of Being:  for Heidegger, Dasein is characterized by always having some sort of understanding, however vague and undeveloped it may be, of what Being–what “to be”–means] is always and necessarily a matter of ripping (entreissen) what is projected (which is first and foremost, as Henry helps me to see, Being, not beings) from out of forgottenness.  What does that say, if not the traumatic essence/nature of Being itself!

And as traumatic in this way–as trauma itself:  “the” traumatic–Being is necessarily (as Entwerfen in Entwurf [pro-jecting, casting forth, in the pro-ject, the forth-cast, we might say]) finite.  Indeed, its finitude is precisely this, its traumatic structure = its structuring structure as the traumatic as such.

What’s more, Heidegger then goes on (p. 234) to note that “everydayness” is how forgetting of Being manifests itself.  That is,  “everydayness”is precisely the sort of numbing in the face of the traumatic that is inseparable from the traumatic as such–from what is precisely traumatizing in the traumatic.  Indeed, as just such numbing, everyday forgottenness of the traumatic is the “work” of the traumatic as such–it is the traumatizing it inflicts.

And precisely because the traumatic, in and as traumatizing, is the working and being-at-work and in-play of such forgetting and forgottenness–such forgetting of the forgotten–any coming to face the traumatic must be remembering, re-internalizing (Wiedererinnerung) of what has been thus forgotten (p. 233 [in my own translation from the German]: “The fundamental-ontological ground-cast of the metaphysics of Dasein as the laying of the ground of metaphysics is therefore a re-membering [Wiedererinnerung]”).

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Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #5–Last of the Series


This is the last of a series of seven consecutive entries, originally written in my philosophical journal last year, occasioned by my reading of British political scientist Duncan Bell’s collection of essays by diverse scholars, Memory, Trauma, and World Politics (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).  The entry below consists solely of three citations from three different pages of the same article from that collection, with no further commentary from me.  The passages do indeed speak for themselves, and echo other passages from other authors I have cited, with remarks of my own, in earlier posts.  At issue are the different ways of remembering and memorializing trauma and its victims.  What political scientist Maja Zehfuss points to in the three passages cited below is the expropriation of victims’ memories by, and exploitation of those same memories in service of salving the conscience of, those same victims’ victimizers–the perpetrators of the abuses at issue.  Though in the case that concerns Zehfuss, the process of expropriation and exploitation was presumably unintentional, there are no doubt all too many other cases that can be adduced in which it is fully intentional.  There are, too cases in which one is uncomfortable attributing either full intention to the expropriators and exploiters of victims’ memories–perpetrators fully knowingly using such a process of memory-robbing to compound the abuse of the victims being robbed of their memories–or inadvertance and ignorance to them, as seems to hold for the case Zehfuss is discussing.  That is, there are cases in which, I would suggest, there is indeed the insertion of ignorance and inadvertance into the situation, but that ignorance itself turns out to be all too motivated, as it were, and the inadvertance all too planned, so to speak.

I will eventually be returning to that issue of an all too motivated ignorance in some journal entries I have already designated for eventual posting on this site.   For now, I will only suggest that, for a prime example, the Bush administration invasion of Iraq, using recurrent references of various sorts in various venues to the memory of the victims of “9/11” seems to fit such a bill.

Friday, May 5, 2008

In Bell, Maja Zehfuss, “Remembering to Forget/Forgetting to Remember” (pp.213-230), p.215:  On May 8, 1985, anniversary of German surrender in 1945, “Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker–urging incidentally that 8 May 1945 should be seen as liberation–cited the cabbalistic saying inscribed at the Yad Veshem memorial [to Holocaust victims, in Israel]:  ‘Wanting to forget prolongs the exile, and the secret of redemption is remembering.’ . . . On Helmut Dubiel’s view, it became clear . . . that Weizsäcker’s discussion had not been differentiated enough.  The saying had been ‘stripped of its Jewish origin’ and strangely referred to ‘the possibility of a moral emancipation of the perpetrator through memory of guilt’.  Klaus Naumann also criticized that von Weizsäcker seemed to be unaware that the caballa deals with ‘the victims of historical injustice,’ not the perpetrators.”

P.219:  In 1988 in his acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German bookk  trade, novelist Martin Wolser criticized what he called “a ‘monumentalization’ of German disgrace” in the “planned [German] Holocaust memorial,” which “has also been called a ‘Kranzabwurfstelle‘ (a place to drop wreaths).  In other words, official commemoration may actually conceal forgetting:  the dropping of wreaths by politicians creates no more than an illusion of remembering.”

P. 220:  Andreas Huyysen (in Twilight Memories:  Marking Time in a Culture of  Amnesia, Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 214) “argues that the issue is not whether to forget or to remember, but rather how to remember and how to handle representations of the remembered past.’  The argument ‘against forgetting’, with its implied imperative ‘remember’, is a move in the struggle over to remember.”

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Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #4


The following is the sixth in the series of seven entries, made earlier in my philosophical journal, that pertain to Duncan Bell’s edition of essays by various contributors in Memory, Trauma, and World Politics (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).  The entry posted below concerns two different articles in Bell’s collection, both by European professors of international relations.  I address the first, by Jens Bartleson, only briefly, then the second, by K. M. Fierke, at greater length.  


Sunday, May 5, 2008

Jens Bartleson (Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen), “We Could Remember for You Wholesale:  Myths, Monuments and the Constitution of National Memories” (in Bell,pp. 33-53), from the last paragraph of the article (p. 53): 

“[What happened to us with the rise and fall of the nation state has left us] as traumatized by the experience of nationhood as we are by the expectations of its demise.  As long as we rely on collective memories as a source of personal identity, we will inevitably face a certain loss of self whenever those collective memories are strategically rearranged to cater to  new political concerns.  The prospective loss of national identity looks scary indeed, yet our sense of personal identity will inevitably remain fragile so long as we seek to derive it from belonging to a community thus constituted.  There is neither a past nor a future that can provide the anchor points for individual or collective identity anymore, since what has been fractured in the present is any connection between memory and identity.  To some, this will pave the  way for a brave new world of individualized memories. . . If this is  the  case, we would then cease to be what we remember and start to remember who we are.”

And then, indeed, we may start to remember the political,  as opposed to politics, and enter into that “coming community”–that community of the always not yet future–wherein the only thing we have in common is the fact that we all die:  the genuinely open community of we who are alone together in the face of death.


K. M. Fierke (she is Professor of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews in Great Britain), “Bewitched by the Past:  Social Memory, Trauma and International Relations” (pp. 116-134 in Bell), first page (116)of her essay, mentions (as do others in Bell) “Maurice Halbwacks, who, through a concept of collective memory explores how present concerns determine what past we remember and how we remember it.  In this theory [which is actually that of Peter Novick, she says, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory–London: Bloomsbury, 1999], collective memory is ahistorical in so far as it simplifies and is impatient with any kind of ambiguity, reducing events to  mythic archetypes.  Memory in this conception denies the ‘pastness’ of its objects and insists on their continuing presence.  [My emphasis.]  A memory once established defines an eternal truth and identity for members of a group.”

I  would read the italicized line at least partly against the grain of her own apparent reading [by interpreting it as follows]:  The manipulation of the traumatic past (A pleonasm?) to form “collective memory” reduces the past, which, as [William] Faulkner says, “isn’t over, it isn’t even past,” to a past present–reduces time to an “image of eternity” [Plato’s line]–and, therewith, reduces the present to that vanishing point between what “was” but “is no longer” and what “will be” but “is not yet.”

A page later (124), she comes back to this (mistaken, I’m saying) idea, after citing a case I’ll come back to in a moment.  She treats the repetition [involved in] that case as follows:  “The victim in the one world [in the case at issue, a father who survived the Holocaust, “in” the world of which he was victim] later does to himself and to others what was done to  him [as this father ends up doing to his daughter], as a way of staying involved with a (now absent) perpetrator [which notion of victim identification with perpetrator I would also reject] or reproducing a (now absent) abusive terrain.”

Against [such a] reading:  The distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma [e.g., in LaCapra]–[or,] as I’d recast it:  between triggering/signifying/activating occurrence and the underlying traumatism it triggers/signifies/activates–lets us realize that neither “perpetrator” nor “abuse” are “now absent” at all!  It is precisely the reduction of the “perpetration” of the “abuse” to a datable, and now dated, now “past,” event/occurrence that locks the “victim” into a sort of endless “eternal now.”  It is precisely because the underlying abusiveness of the situation remains ignored and silenced that it–that very abusive situation [itself]–can only perpetuate itself endlessly.

The case she cites is this (p. 123), from psychiatrist James Glass (Private Terror/Public Life:  Psychosis and the Politics of Community–Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1989):  A case in which “a Holocaust survivor passed on a set of meanings and relational patterns, acquired in the concentration camp [Acquired there?  Or already aquired long before, by birth into the sort of riven, non-communal community that was/is what passed/passes for community in that/this day?], to his  daughter Ruth.  As Ruth was growing up, she was never allowed to express suffering or pain.  If she did, she was told that her suffering could never compare to that in the camps and was thus of little consequence.  The father also replicated the communicative patterns of his Nazi tormentors [Indeed he did!  But not via “identifying” with them!  Rather, because such replication/reproduction of abuse is/was the very structure of the situation in which he continued/continues to find himself] in relating to his daughter, ordering her to ‘perform this, do that, be obedient, stay invisible, don’t get in the way’.  As a result, she never experienced home as place of  safety or security.  She dealt with this acquired worthlessness [one into which, I’d insist, she was born!] by dissociating the ideal public self she presented to the world from the miserable human being she felt herself to be.  The two selves are not distinguished by conscous and unconscious.  [Granted!]  Instead, they are two conflicting self-representations [Yet one of the two “selves”is not represented at all!  That’s the difference!] in which the public self is dissociated from the private self. By the time she was hospitalized for psychosis, she had entered into the world of 1943, without ever having been there physically.  [But that’s just where she’s been “physically,” given the abuse she’s received from her father!  The whole idea Fierke has here, of “the world” of a given date as itself “past” “in reality,” needs to be overturned!]  The beds of hospital became barracks, the staff were SS guards and Kapos.  Her therapist was Josef Mengele, waiting for  the right moment to do experiments on her brain.”  Indeed, that was just who these folks were, in the world Ruth inhabited!  It would be worthwhile to compare this case with that of Artie and his father in Maus.  The two cases have the same structure.

Then Fierke gives a longish citation from “Ruth’s narrative while in hospital” (Bell, pages 123-124), the last lines of which are:  “Is it 1983, 1943?  Does it make any difference?  Is anyone around here human?” 

Ruth may be psychotic, but she’s not stupid!  Does it make any difference?  Isn’t it still “1943”?  Just as 1984 is 1948 [when Orwell’s novel 1984 first appeared] is “now”?

After her remark about the “now absent” perpetrator and abuse, Fierke writes:  “that the daughter could enter into her father’s trauma [She is born into it!], as if [!!  Hardly a mere “as if”!  She is there!] she were reliving the pattern of interaction he had passed on to her [here, Fierke is quite right]. . . . The father did not narrate the story of his experience in the camps as past [and it is not past:  those who do so narrate it, as a past over and done with–just what Jean Améry refused to countenance!–are those who, in a certain sense, suffer from “false memory syndrome”–false and falsifying memory!]; rather he continued to live [unlike those of false and falsifying memory who continue to be dead!] within the linguistic [and far more than merely linguistic!] boundaries of that world.”

In traumatic repetition, says Fierke (P. 125):  “Far from being forgotten, the past is  continually relived in the present.  At the same time, as this past world becomes habitual, there is a forgetting of the uniqueness of the original event. [But there is no “original event” of trauma, insofar as trauma is always structural; and, thus, the very equation of trauma with “an original  event” that has “uniqueness”–i.e., is just an occurrence the occurring of which consigns what occurs to a date–is what forgets the trauma!]  This contrasts with the narrative memory where the self stands outside the past in the present and provides a representation of events gone by.”  I’d say against her, reduces events to what merely “passes by!  The end of the next paragraph, same page:  “Political trauma can be understood as the state in which fear and hypervigilance become habitual.”  No!  When fear and hypervigilance become habitual, political trauma–that is, the opening  of  a gap wherein the genuinely political can at last emerge, restructuring the entire situation–is not allowed.


Fierke, p. 127, on Ben Gurion around and in connection with the Eichmann trial, creating the connection of Israel to the Holocaust:  “The experience of the Holocaust was woven into Israeli identity, rather than distancing it in the  past.”

Given her discussion to this point, what she is doing  here–no doubt unknowingly enough–is conflating such Holocaust victims as Ruth’s father repeating the trauma [on one hand] with someone manipulating and exploiting the Holocaust to construct collective memory [on the other].  It would be the same as equating Bush with one of the survivor victims of 9/11.

She herself goes on to  note, in fact:  “Hitler himself called on the trauma of defeat in the first World War and the humiliation  of the Versailles treaty, in mobilizing an existential threat to German society, to the end of making Germany great once again.”  She prefaces that with a remark of how Milosevic used the same sort of manipulation of memories to justify Serbian aggression in the 1990s.  She goes on, after the remark about Hitler, as follows [pp. 127-128]:

“The United States Bush administration post-11 September 2001 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, made a discursive link between Iran and  the terrorist attacks, a link which lacked evidence in fact.  This was part of articulating an existential threat to America itself, despite, as was later revealed, the absence of any weapons of mass destruction capability on the part of Sadam Hussein.  While these very different contexts are by no  means equivalent [Why not, exactly?], they all relied on similar semantic and logical connections that were retained and repeated and became the container of past memory.  [So at least in that regard they are equivalent!]”

As she correctly goes on to note, “While distorted, the salience of the discursive move [in such cases] is dependent on a context of past experience. . . . [C]ollective anxiety is never purely a product of elite intervention or manipulation, although there is an element of this. The discursive moves are only effective if they respond to deep and genuine social concerns in a time of general malaise, that is, a population has to be receptive to  manipulation.”

Her qualifications are uncalled for here, and just weaken the point of the very observation she is making–which point is no more an no less than that there must first be a trauma before trauma can be manipulatively exploited in the construction of collective memory. 

P. 130 she uses the expression “a politics of trauma,” which is an apt name for the sort of manipulative exploitation of trauma she’s just been discussing.  A politics of trauma is the forgetting of the trauma of the political–a forgetting in the service of the perpetuation of abuse (oppression).


P. 131:  “In the political world, denial, rather than a function of unconscious repression [as it is in Freud], can be understood as a political act for the  purpose of creating a unity of interpretation . . . which require[s] the suppression of alternative memories.”

Indeed!  And such suppression is then not comparable at all to repression and denial in Freud’s sense.  They are two very different things.  The suppression directly intended by such a “political act” of the forced universalization of a single interpretation is, in fact, a manipulative exploitation of the very repression and denial that are an inseparable part of trauma. That’s why, for example, Bush is already calling for a moment of silence to memorialize the victims of 9/11 even before the towers have fallen and the planes have crashed in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

She continues:  “While this process involved an element of repression, it did not require psychological denial.  What is repressed is difference, debate or alternative narratives of the past.”  But this is not re-pression at all!  It is simply sup-pression, as she just said in what I’ve already cited above.

She ends this paragraph so:  “Individuals may be inclined, in a repressive situation [she means op-pressive and sup-pressive], to adopt an interpretation akin to that of the authorities, in order to  survive or avoid conflict, but this  is not the same as repression an in unconscious.”  It most certainly is not.  But the sort of situation she describes should also be carefully distinguished from cases in which those who are oppressed are not even granted the possibility of articulating their oppression clearly–in cases where they are denied any language in which to speak their oppression, as occurs when the “common,” shared language is hijacked as has so largely happened today, when public discourse can only be  formulated in terms that implant an unacknowledgeable prejudgment in favor of the  right wing (e.g., “color blind,” “reverse discrimination,” “illegal aliens,” “special rights,” etc.).

Insofar as the powers that be control even the means and media of communication, suppression and oppression reach the zone of such a maximum–the maximum of the closure of the trauma of the political, the gap granting place for the political, as opposed  to politics, to take place.

Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #3


Below are two more entries I first made in my philosophical journal on the dates indicated.  They are the fourth and fifth of a series of seven consecutive entries addressing some of the articles in the collection Memory, Trauma, and World Politics, edited by Duncan Bell (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006). 


Thursday, May 1, 2008

In Bell, pp. 74-95, by Jeffrey K. Olick and Charles Demetriou, “From Theodicy to Ressentiment:  Trauma and the  Ages of Compensation.”  [I seriously question] their reading of Nietzsche’s Genealogy.  [They seem to me to do an equally questionable] discussion of Scheler, and even worse of Arendt.  Only on [author and Holocaust survivor Jean] Améry are they good.  Overall, [I think] the article is a botched attempt at revalorizing the notion of ressentiment–which should, in fact, be left its stench.


Friday, May 2, 2008

In Bell (pp. 54-73), historian  Jay Winter, “Notes on the Memory Boom:  War, Remembrance and the Uses of the Past,” pp. 58-59, quoting Ernst Renan’s “series of lectures in Paris in 1882–entitled ‘What is a nation?'”: 

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.  Two things, which, in truth, are really one, constitute this soul,this spiritual principle.  One is in the past, the other in the present.  One is the possessing in common of a rich legacy of memories, the other is the present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to  continue to value the individual heritage one has received . . . To have the glory of the past in common, a shared will in the present; to have done great deeds together, and want to do more of them, are the essential conditions for the  constituion  of a people . . . One loves the house which one has built and  passes on.”

Winter comments:  “Such ideas and images were commonplace in late nineteenth century Europe.  What was much newer were powerful means to disseminate them.  Writers on memory reached a much wider audience thatn  ever before.  The expansion of the print trade, the art market, the leisure industry, and the mass circulation press allied to  developments first in photography and then in cinematography, created powerful conduits for the dissemination of texts, images and narratives of the past in every part of Europe and beyond.”

The passage from Renan points to this:  such “collective”or “community” memories are false memories–[but not] in the same sense at issue in [so called] “false memory syndrome”:  They are both manufactured  images, [but the first sort of “memory,” the sort Renan writes about, are] based on and utilize the manipulation of memory and of trauma itself for  some  purpose arrived at by the manipulator, [“collective” as that manipulator may be,] whether conscious or not.

In contrast, “screen memories,” properly so called, issue from the trauma itself, as part of the mechanism  of repression.  Thus, they “screen” in the double sense of hiding or covering over, and of providing a “surface” upon which trauma may project itself.

Sometimes, paradoxically, the very phenomenon of a sort of hyper-real image [of a traumatic occurrence] compulsively recurs and is a common sign of “dissociation,” thereby masking and indicating (at one and the same time) the underlying trauma, serving the very same “repression” of trauma that  is served by “screen memories.”  So such hyper-real images are functionally still “screen memories” [themselves].

The key distinction is between the job of repressing and [that of] manipulating a trauma and the like.

Supposedly “false memories,” in the sense [at issue in so called] “false memory syndrome,” are a form of “screen” memory in the double sense (hide, and give a surface upon which what is hidden projects itself0, as are, too, the hyper-real memories of, for instance, recurrent nightmares or “flashbacks.”

The sort of collective memory Renan describes, however, is not a “screen,” but is manufactured, a product of the manipulation of trauma for the ends of the manipulator.

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.”