Are We All Americans? Kakar’s Distinction between “Community” and “Communalism”


In the journal entry below, I continue my reflections on Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s The Colors of Violence.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Following up form yesterday:

Kakar uses a good distinction between “community” and “communalism.”  To use his formulation on pp. 191-192:  “Communalism as a state of mind, then, is the individual’s assertion of being part of a religious community, preceded by a full awareness of belonging to such a community.  The ‘We-ness’ of the community is here replaced by the ‘We are‘ of communalism.”

But–again–what if the very “awareness” of being a member of a community–one’s “cultural/communal identity”–does not, as he says, “precede” the “assertion” thereof, except and unless it is a retrospectively cast myth/fiction of the origin of the community, membership in which is being “asserted”?

P. 191, before the sentences already quoted, Kakar borrows Oscar Peterson’s suggested stages of “an individual who, as a consequence of a shared threat, is in process of self-consciously identifying with his or her ethnic group.”  But is the very constitution of the ethnic  group itself as a definite “we” another, retrospective projection of itself as already having been there all along?  And isn’t the very constituting of a threat as a “shared” one a part of that very process–i. e., isn’t the “sharing” itself something that must be communicated in Heidegger’s sense in Being and Time [whereby “communication“–Mitteilung,” in German–is taken seriously in its etymological meaning of sharing with], in order to come into being at all? 

Following Peterson, Kakar says the first stage of “the change from community to communalism” is:  “First, I declare to all who share the crisis with me that I am one of them–a Hindu, a Muslim [or whatever].”  With regard to that, it is striking to think of the headline in Le Monde the morning after the 9/11 attacks:  “We are all Americans now.”  Then go on to compare both (“all Americans” [on one hand] and “all Hindus,” or the like [on the other]) with Eisenstein’s notion of all Germans of conscience identifying themselves as Jews [when Nazi persecution of Jews first began]–how different history would ahve been had that happened after Kristallnacht in 1938, for example!  Those three cases of self-identification with/constitution of a self-defining group are significantly different from one another, in ways that deserve to be studied.  For example, there is something offensive [to me] about the Le Monde identification, especially insofar as it is an identification with the very “community” that marginalizes all member of “other” communities, and silences/refuses to let be heard/to hear the voice of the marginalized that sounds in the 9/11 attacks.  In contrast, insofar as globalized capitalism marginalizes both Hindus and Muslims in the “global market,” constitution of, and identification with, either of those two communities, “Hindu” or “Muslim,” has a liberatory potential completely lacking in the constitution of, and identification with, a global “American” community, as in Le Monde.  That last is not at all liberatory.  In contrast to both, “we are all Jews” in Nazi Germany is wholly liberatory, and escapes the very oppression of any “communalism” at all in favor of a constituting and identifying with a genuine, genuinely open community.  (And I’d be willing to venture the guess that only “open” communities [such as, in that context of Germany in 1938, would have been constituted and identified by “We are all Jews”] are “genuine” communities, as opposed to communalisms, so to speak, at all.)

Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #1


In the entry below from my philosophical journal, as in those for my next few postings, I continue my exploration of works by contemporary American historian and trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra.  Both today’s entry and the one I will post next contain a series of related but independent, separate numbered items pertaining to various  aspects of his thought.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

(1)  The use of the Holocaust as what LaCapra calls a “founding trauma”–e.g., as used too often by Israel–does not honor the debt all of us alive after the Holocaust owe to the dead.


(2)  LaCapra ([History and Memory] After Auschwitz, p. 166) quotes Art Spiegelman [comic-strip artist, winner of the Pulitzer Prise for his two-volume Holocaust comic-strip classic  Maus] in an interview on the Poles who witnessed the Holocaust:  “The Poles were the victimized witnesses.”

That notion, of “victimized witness,” is useful.  It covers all witnesses to abuse, from those who try to do something to stop the abuse, to those who are gleeful in watching it.  Just to witness abuse is, as such, itself traumatizing.  That, I  think, is the deep  truth in what Spiegelman says–in the concept he formulates in his remark.


(3)  La Capra comes (After Auschwitz, pp. 182-183) close to saying what I would about “false memory syndrome”:  “Here ‘recovered memory syndrome’ is not a pathology. . . . It is rather a subcase or even a metonymic exemplar of a larger problem concerning the difficulties of memory with respect to traumatic events…”

He does not go quite as far as I would, which would be to argue that all memory is traumatic, and to combine that with the double sense I’ve used [before, in earlier posted entries from my philosophical journal] of “screen” memories, whereby they (1) mask/cover at the time time–indeed, as such “masks/covers” of what cannot be masked as such–that they (2) become the “surface” (screen) upon which the trauma projects itself (in and as the image).

Memory is always symbolic!


(4) LaCapra comes very close (p. 187 [of same book]) to what, following Eisenstein, I would also say about what such disasters as the Holocaust come from:  “Particularly when one avoids recognizing the sources of anxiety in oneself (including elusive sources that are not purely empirical or historical in nature), one may be prone to project all anxiety-producing forces onto a discreet other who becomes a scapegoat or even an object of quasi-sacrificial behavior in specific historical circumstances.”  He gives the figure of the Jew in German culture as an example.


(5)  LaCapra (p. 195 [same book]):  “. . . historical events of the seismic nature and magnitude of the Holocaust may, in transgressing a theoretical limit, pose a challenge to the distinction [between structural and historical trauma, with the former defined earlier in this paragraph as “the condition of possibility that generates a potential for  trauma”]:  the structural (or existential-transcendental) seems to crash down into the empirical.  Thus [it can come to serve in effect] as an index of God’s intention in history,” or the like.

Might this not be because catastrophes such as the Holocaust arise from  an idolatrous identification of the traumatic, which is as such a structural, transcendental, existential  birth of the historical, empirical, [and] individual, with one instance of that which it so makes possible, with, that is, an isolable, historical “this” such as “the Jew”?

The Trauma of Avoiding Trauma


In this, my first posting of the new year, I continue my discussion of the works of contemporary American historian and Holocaust expert Dominick LaCapra, that I began in my final three postings from last year.  As is true for all of the postings at this site, today’s consists of an entry from my philosophical journal.

The so called Historikerstreit–“battle between historians”–referred to in the entry below was a dispute, waged in the public media in Germany in the mid-1980s, between defenders of the “intentionalist” interpretation in accordance with which the annihilation of the Jews was a deliberate policy intended and pursued by the Nazi leaders from the beginning, and those who argued for a more “gradualist” account, in which the Holocaust was the eventual result of decisions made to address unforeseen demands and opportunities as they emerged with the unfolding of historical events.  Most controversial was the claim by some in the latter camp, above all in the works of historian Ernst Nolte, that the Nazi genocide was itself largely a response to earlier Stalinist genocidal acts and threats, so that, at least in Nolte’s account, the Nazi “final solution to the Jewish question” came to be relativized, and its moral horror accordingly diluted.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reading LaCapra, especially his 1998 book, History and Memory After Auschwitz, shows me that Eisenstein’s critique of him [see my first posting on this site, for December 11, 2008] on the point is, perhaps, not sufficiently attentive to how he [LaCapra] handles the distinction between what he calls “structural” and “historical” trauma. Bot on the basics involved, I still side with Eisenstein:  More than the distinction just needing to be “problematized” but still retained, which is LaCapra’s stand, it really needs to be abandoned, which is what Eisenstein almost says.

A specific point that I might want to use to critique the whole distinction, preparatory to  abandoning it, could use LaCapra’s consistently claiming that the Holocaust (which he  prefers to call the Shoa in his 1998 book) is an example of an “historical” trauma.

Well, he also insists, per his basic stance, on p. 48, on “the need to explore the problematic relations between structural and historical trauma without reducing one to another.”

Yet, my point:  The “Shoah” itself emerged, as Eisenstein excellently points out, from a process of what, by LaCapra’s conceptualization , would have to be taken as a “reduction” of structural trauma to an historical trauma–namely, to the historical trauma which is (for the Nazis, mainly) “the Jew.”  That is, the Shoah itself is the horrendous completion of the very process of trying to treat an underlying (structural) trauma (the phrase ‘structural trauma’ actually becomes pleonastic, at this point in my own analysis) as though it could be traced to  an identifiable historical agent or cause.

In outline:  The German defeat in World War I is “read,” by the German right, as a matter of a “‘stab in the back, rather than seen to be symptomatic of an underlying repressed–“unmourned,” to speak as LaCapra might: not publicly acknowledged and processed–“structural” problem.

Hence, to  sum up:  The Shoah itself is a result of the very reductionism,  in effect, that LaCapra criticizes in reference to subsequent treatments of the Shoah itself.


With regard to the very need for “mourning,” and the public dimension of that very process, LaCapra is very good.  (Whether and, if so, how far, and how, his/Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy can be kept useful, I’ll leave undiscussed here.)  On p. 71, in that connection, he quotes Andreas Huyssen on how, in the Historikerstreit of 1986, as in the “failure of the intellectuals” to deal with German reunification post 1989, “one wants,” in Huyssen’s words, “to get away from a past that is considered either a burden or an embarrassment in order to construct an alternative agenda for the future.”  In contrast, to borrow from AA (which LaCapra does not), what the sort of mourning LaCapra calls for is a matter of going through a process at the end of which one “neither regrets the past, nor wishes to shut the door on it” [a close paraphrase of a line in Alcoholics Anonymous], but can draw from it as a resource.

Also:  the same avoidance is not only what gave rise to Nazism and the Shoah (cf. Eisenstein’s counter-dominant reading of [Thomas Mann’s novel] Doktor Faustus:  Not Leverkuhn [the novel’s protagonist] but rather the bourgeois narrator is the representative of what led to the German disaster [of the Nazi period]), but also  what gave rise to the Bush wars [in Afghanistan and then in Iraq] and the Bush attack on civil liberties.

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Traumatic Uniqueness and the Proscription of Idolatry


This will be my final posting at this site for this year, 2008.  I anticipate putting up my next posting on January 5 of the new year.

My discussion of the works of Dominick LaCapra continues in today’s posting, as it will in the first few entries I plan to post early in 2009.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Both in the work above [Writing History, Writing Trauma] and in History and Memory After Auschwitz (Cornell University Press, 1998), LaCapra advances (see pages 7 and 26 in the work  just cited) a useful notion of “uniqueness” which liberates that concept from any purely numerical criterion.  For him, [to speak of] the uniqueness of, say, the Holocaust, is to say that a “limit” is reached in/by such events such that (p. 26) “something radically transgressive [of those limits] or incommensurable [with them] has occurred.”

As he goes on to say:  “The limit may be reached more than once in history and still remain distinctive or even unique in a specific, very important sense.”  As he puts it earlier (p. 7), when an event of such uniqueness happens:  “In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something  ‘unique’ happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation.”

In effect:  In an event such as the Holocaust there is a breakdown of the notion of uniqueness as numerical, where it means “one of a kind,” and a breakthrough into a sense and site of uniqueness as no  longer “of a kind” at all.  In that second, traumatic (we could call it) sense, the  unique is no longer any kind of  kind. 

Later that same day:

LaCapra (n. 21 on pp. 32-33, History and Memory After Auschwitz):  “From the perspective of a radically transcendent conception of the sublime, such as that of Jean-Francois Lyotard, the immanent sublime (notably including sacrifice) would be a degeneration  of an unrepresentable, radical alterity that is misappropriated when it is rendered immanent or ‘spectacularized.’ . . . One may also argue that the prohibition of representation [in Judaism, presumably] is a safeguard against–or foreclosure of–the immanent sacred, notably including the role of sacrifice.”

Compare Eisenstein [see my first posting on this site, for December 11, 2008,] on the Lacanian “quilting point.”

In general:  idolatry.

The History of Trauma, the Trauma of History


Today’s posting contains the first of a number of entries from my journal that pertain to the work of the influential contemporary American historian and trauma-theorist Dominick LaCapra, who  has written especially about the Holocaust.  The journal entry contained in my first posting on this site, on December 12, 2008, already mentioned LaCapra, but only in connection with work of literary theorist Paul Eisenstein, a specialist in German literature.  I also mention Eisenstein again in the entry below.  Today’s entry, and those to follow that will  continue to address LaCapra’s thought, should be taken in conjunction with that earlier entry, from my initial posting.  They all concern, either directly–as is true both for the entry from my first posting and for the one posted below–or indirectly, LaCapra’s drawing of a distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma.

On my way of taking the notion of “screen memory,” which also comes up in the posting below, what I say there should be compared with what I say on the same topic in my posting for December 17, 2008, “Gender, Trauma, and Screen Memories.”  I will have still more to say on that matter in future postings.


Monday, March 11, 2008

In Writing History, Writing Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) Dominick LaCapra writes about distinguishing [between] “structural” and “historical” trauma. He writes (p. 82):  “When structural trauma is reduced to, or figured as, an event, one has the genesis of myth wherein trauma is enacted in a story from which later traumas seem to derive (as in Freud’s primal crime or in the case of original sin attendant upon the Fall from Eden).”  He regards this as a source of confusion and warns against two opposed errors:  (1) “to generalize structural trauma so that it absorbs or subordinates the significance of historical trauma,” and (2) “on the contrary, to explain all post-traumatic, extreme, uncanny phenomena and responses as exclusively caused by particular events or contexts    . . . what one might term reductive contextualism . . . for example, deriving anxiety in Heidegger’s thought [where it plays a major role in Being and Time and other early works] exclusively from conditions in interwar Germany.”

LaCapra, despite [prefacing] this whole discussion with the remark, “The belated temporality of trauma and the elusive nature of the shattering experience related to it render the distinction between structural and historical trauma problematic,” immediately adds, “but do not make it  irrelevant.”  Yet, his way of going on to make [the distinction] does not, I’d say, justify itself.  It seems to me that his way of drawing the distinction is not acceptable, given the very remark with which he has begun (about its problematicity):  It does not reflect how–and where–the distinction must be problematized.

Eisenstein is much closer to  the mark, when he  insists that “historical” trauma presupposes “structural” trauma:  In effect, what makes an “event” traumatic is  that it focuses, both revealing and concealing at once, the structural fault or trauma at issue.

The way I’d put it is by using Freud’s notion of “screen memory.”  I’d say the “historical” event is traumatic precisely and only insofar as it functions as a “screen” for the underlying structural trauma.  And I’d insist on a double sense of “screening”:  first, the sense, to the fore for Freud, of masking, dissembling, covering-over; but also, second, the sense of being a projection surface, as in the movie screen for filmed images.

To paraphrase Spinoza:  Nothing is ever traumatic, save screening make it so.  Precisely because of  its “belated, elusive” quality, “structural” trauma must and can take place (literally) only by screening (i.e., maskingly projecting) itself as a specific image–screening itself, in short, as “historical” trauma.

In turn, “historical” trauma is  not a kind of trauma distinct from “structural” trauma.  Rather, it is the taking place of structural trauma itself.

So it would be better to speak, perhaps, of the historical and structural “faces” of trauma–or, perhaps, to drop the whole distinction.

After all, what really “took place” in the Holocaust?  In and as “9/11”?  In the outbreak of World War I?  What these “events” are cannot be separated from their event-ful character–how they carry their own time with them, as, precisely, the “belated,” “elusive,” traumatic character of temporalization itself.

LaCapra follows up his discussion by an example referring (p. 83) to [some other contemporary] historians’ writing, [wherein he finds the idea that] “once there was a single narrative that most Americans accepted as part of their heritage,” but has now come apart into diverse stories.  LaCapra says this is “close to reductive contextualism . . . in which the proverbial past-we-have-lost becomes the  metanarrative we have lost.”  He wonders when that metanarrative was ever in place, and suggests, instead, “one might argue that there never was a single narrative and that most Americans never accepted only one story about the past.”

But, in effect, the [other] historians at issue can be taken to be themselves sharing, with one another and unspecified “others,” what amounts to a screen memory.  In that case, one is not dealing in the first place with any simple “empirical” claim and its denial (as LaCapra denies it), but with a “truth” the truth of which is itself traumatic, in effect.

Next page (84), he writes:  “. . . structural trauma . . . may not be cured but only lived with in various ways.  Nor may it be reduced to a dated historical event or derived from one.”  But, to speak paradoxically, neither can a “historical” trauma be”cured,” or “reduced to a dated historical event.”  Or, to bring the paradox to its sharpest form:  A dated historical event is no longer an historical event at all!  History is not a series of datable events at all; history is traumatic; it is event-ful.

Finally, on yet the next page (85), the last page of the chapter (“Trauma, Absence, Loss”) to which this discussion belongs, LaCapra writes, “But historical traumas and losses may conceivably be avoided and their legacies to some viable extent worked through . . .”  However, as I’ve noted in this journal earlier this year [see my journal entry for December 26, 2007,  posted on December 12, 2008, as the first posting for this site, “Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy”], the connection of history to trauma (which is what I’m suggesting is  how the whole supposed distinction between two types or levels of trauma, “structural” and “historical,” needs to be recast) is  such that it is especially the attempt to avoid “historical” trauma–that is now to  say, to avoid history in its trauma:  the trauma which ishistory–that condemns us to the ever more insistent escalation of the very trauma we are so trying to avoid.  Another paradox:  The avoidance of trauma generates the worst trauma.

Gender, Trauma, and Screen Memories

The entry from my philosophical journal posted below is the first of three engendered by reading An Archive of Feeling:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Duke University Press, 2003), by lesbian feminist scholar and English professor Ann Cvetkovich.  The issue her work raised for me in the following entry concerns what has come to be called “false memory syndrome,” a phrase that developed in a context of the battles fought in the 1990s in the public media, law courts, works of scholarship, and elsewhere, over a wave of what were claimed to be widespread “recovered” memories of theretofore “repressed” experiences of childhood sexual abuse. 

For me, however, what is involved belongs within a broader context, which concerns the complex work of memory in all trauma, and especially the notion of what, since Freud, has been called “screen memories.”   As Freud classically formulated the concept, a “screen memory” is something that looks like a memory, but is actually a device that the mind uses to keep a memory from surfacing, to “screen it off” from memory, as it were.  Accordingly, a “screen memory” would  serve to screen the remember-er from the truth.  It would be something that presents itself as a memory, but the real purpose of which would be to keep the person who has it from having to  remember–having to remember, that is, a deeply disturbing experience that threatens to be overwhelming if remembered.   

Reading Cvetkovich’s book helped me to begin to think about a different way of taking the notion of  “screen” memory, however.  As it affected me  in my reading, it suggested that so called screen memories might more fruitfully be taken, not as “screening off” something, in the sense of hiding it from view behind something else (screening it from view), but as providing the surface upon which what might be called “structural” memory could project itself in the first place.  That is, instead of taking the notion of screen in the sense of what blocks or screens something from view, the role of so called screen memories in trauma might be taken in the sense that we talk of a movie screen, for example:  a surface upon which images can be projected, and without which no “views” (“images”) could be forthcoming. 

If we begin to hear “screen” in that way, then a screen memory ceases to be a distorted and distorting misrepresentation of some supposedly actual past event, a misrepresentation that presents itself as a memory but that is actually designed to conceal the truth about the past.  Instead, a screen memory would be what first of all provided the very possibility for the truth of the past to show itself, to  become a phenomenon, to  project itself in and as an image. 

Ultimately, I would say that the “screen memories” involved in trauma “screen” in both senses at once:  They simultaneously conceal or mask the past, and reveal or disclose it, and they do the one only in and with the other.  Future postings will surely give me opportunities to explain and explore that idea more fully.   

What follows is the first of my three entries on Cvetkovich’s book:

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feeling–pp. 34-35: Her discussion suggested to me that the story of Freud’s espousing then abandoning the sexual abuse theory of the origin of hysteria can be taken as an instance of the ambiguity with which trauma itself traumatizes.  Eisenstein [in Traumatic Encounters], distinguishing [following LaCapra] “historical” and “structural” trauma, may not see that the very traumatizing that trauma is/accomplishes is by way of the engendering of the myth of itself as having an “historical” “origin” [despite the clear tendency of his own analysis in just that direction].  Just so, the sexing-gendering trauma of the production of woman as second class citizen/object of desire–what Eisenstein might see here as “structural” trauma–gives rise to  the myth of an origin an event or series of events of childhood sexual abuse.  The hysteric’s “memory” of such abuse is a masking/revealing of the structural abuse built into being made a woman in our world.

Just so, too, does the emergence of the “false memory” reaction to the 1990s proliferation of “memories” of abuse serve precisely to perpetuate the structural abuse/trauma, by showing up as illusory the supposed “memory.”

The truth, however, is that the memory is all too true!  What is remembered is the truthof the structural, “everyday” abuse involved everywhere in the production of woman–that truth manifest in the memory work, the “memory” of abuse as the work in which the truth of the structural abuse is put into play.

If one learns how to “read”them, then the supposedly”false” memories of abuse are not false at all, but are the truth.

To Begin: Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy

As I wrote in the text for a talk I was invited to give in May, 2008, to the Political Theory Club at the Korbel School (formerly the Graduate School) of International Studies at the University of Denver, and which I entitled “Trauma, Truth, and the Sovereignty of the Image”:

“Recently, my thinking and research has come to focus on the intersection of a number of concepts or figures/tropes of diverse provenance but sometimes surprising convergence: (1) ‘trauma,’ in the sense at issue–to cite a definitive example–in Freud and psychoanalysis; (2) ‘event,’ as that term comes to be deployed in the works of such continental European thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, and Žižek; (3) ‘truth,’ as used (some might say abused) within that same European philosophical tradition; (4) ‘sovereignty,’ primarily in the political sense at issue in contemporary discussions centering around the recovery of the thought of Carl Schmitt–for example, and especially, in the works of Giorgio Agamben; (5) ‘representation,’ in both the political and the philosophical-literary senses—the ‘image’ of my title; and (6) ‘the political,’ in the sense of that term in which such recent continental European thinkers as Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe would distinguish between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.”

That nexus of concepts first began to come into focus in my thought in connection with a class I taught at the University of Denver in fall term of 2005. My work on those themes in conjunction with that class soon resulted in an article which has since been published online in The Electronic Book Review (“9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn’t Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson”). Since that time, I have continued to work with the interconnections of the concepts involved. Then, in December of last year, I resumed, after a long gap, the practice of keeping a regular “philosophical journal,” more or less restricting my entries to recording my responses to what I was reading at the time in the relevant literature on trauma, a literature which I have been continuing to explore to the present.

I have decided to devote this blog to sharing entries from that journal, beginning with the earliest one pertaining to trauma, which I wrote in February, 2008, and which is reproduced below. As I am able in the future, I will add further entries, until catching up to the present, after which I will continue to add any new entries as I happen to write them. At times, I may also preface an entry with further current reflections such as this one, when that seems appropriate. When it seemed necessary for the reader’s sake, I have provided additional information or explanation within brackets added to the original text of my entries.

There is something appropriate in having a definite delay between the date I originally wrote these episodic entries about trauma, and my decision now to make them available to others. After all, Freud has taught us well that it belongs to how trauma works—how it traumatizes—that there be a certain characteristic Nachträglichkeit or “belatedness” of traumatic impact, a sort of being out of temporal synch with itself, which manifests precisely in episodic recollections and insights that are somehow pushed beneath the surface of the traumatized mind by the traumatizing event itself, only to surface after a delay, sometimes of sizeable duration. Correspondingly, perhaps the most traumatically proper way to write of trauma is episodically and in fragments. Freud’s own writings on trauma surely fit that pattern, at any rate, which gives me a good precedent.

I hope that there is also something traumatically appropriate about dropping the reader suddenly down my entries mid-stream of their current, as it were, without attempting to fill in the thought and reading that led me to make those entries in the first place, or projecting an outline–like a bad fighter telegraphing his punches–of how my thinking has progressed since the date of the given entry. As many of those same entries will at times address, trauma itself has a way of dropping us down in the middle of what seems to be an ongoing story in which we are playing some part, but in which we find ourselves without access to the script, or any clear sense of the storyline.

At any rate, to delay the delay no further, I have reproduced below the first entry from the relevant passages of my ongoing philosophical journal, beginning with its date of original entry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading Paul Eisenstein, Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject (SUNY, 2003).

He does a very nice analysis of liberalism [in the classic sense of that term, not the modern, American one] as sharing [with Fascism] the endeavor to avoid trauma (pp. 42ff). But it strikes me that he fails fully to appreciate what his own analysis shows. I can use a phrase of his to point to what I think that is—what his analysis does show. At the very start of that analysis, he uses the phrase (p. 42) “the prevention of future catastrophes” to name the goal at which he aims his own analysis (he does go on in the next sentence, ‘Or at least, that . . . ,” to weaken his goal statement a bit, but that does not concern what I want to say here).

The argument he advances is that both liberalism and National Socialism end up “disavowing” the traumatic kernel (the Lacanian point de caption, “quilting point”) that is “internal” to any political order (like the point of “decision” from which law/right themselves come, according to Schmitt—though Eisenstein does not draw that connection). They disavow that “traumatic instability/inconsistency” that is internal to social order, by turning it into a definite historical something, rather than keeping cognizant of its “transcendence”—by giving the quilting point (p. 45) “a context, a history, from the beginning” (he writes that of “the figure of the Jew” in National Socialism, but his analysis shows it also applies to the liberal construction of any such starting point as [John] Rawls’ “original position”).

What it seems to me he misses in this excellent analysis is precisely what it brought most clearly to my own attention. That is, that the very endeavor to “prevent” such catastrophes as the Holocaust is itself precisely a move of the sort he so clearly exposes in liberalism and National Socialism. In short, it is precisely the endeavor to secure oneself against a future recurrence of catastrophe that generates just such recurrence—indeed, that requires such catastrophe to found itself and whatever order it imposes, found itself and its order in and as the very disavowal of the un-disavowable occurrence of trauma.

As I noted in the margin of his book on p. 42, the discussion could also be cast in terms of the notion of idolatry as I explore it in Addiction and Responsibility [New York: Crossroad, 1993] and especially in my article on RB 7 [“Humility, Maturity, and the Love of God: Reflections on RB 7,” The American Benedictine Review]. National Socialism, liberalism, and Eisenstein’s own notion of “preventing future catastrophes” are all “idolatrous,” in that they all make the contextualizing, historizing moving whereby a “transcendence” is made into an “object”—to sue the Kantian language Eisenstein himself does here. They all make God into an idol.

Entered a bit later the same day:

Eisenstein himself elsewhere all but sees and says what I write above. Thus, he argues, contra [contemporary American historian] Dominic LaCapra, that “structural trauma” is indeed and clearly the “precondition” for “historical trauma,” and that it is only by remembering/
”repeating” the former that we can lessen the frequency of the latter. But what does that entail, if not that the very focus on “preventing” “historical” trauma engenders that very trauma? Only, as Eisenstein argues, in remembering structural trauma can we not keep on doing “deadly” repetitions/recollections of historical trauma, acting them out again and again (as, for example, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians can be seen to be a re-enactment of the Holocaust itself, with new victims and with the old victims now become victimizers).