“Screen-Visions,” Prophecies, and My Mazatlan Weekend (3)

This is the last post of a series of three under the same title.  After this post, I am taking the summer off; but I will return to blogging sometime this fall.

*     *     *     *     *     *

We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. . . . The present crisis, permanent and omni-lateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception.

— The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*


In what I have come to regard as the truly proper sense of the term, a “prophecy” is a telling, a speaking-forth and thereby letting-be-seen, of truth. Prophecy tells truth in a way that emphasizes what might be called the “futural” dimension of truth’s nature as sheer arrival. Truth as truth is always in arrival—which literally means “touching shore” (from Latin ad-, to or toward, and ripa, shore)—insofar as truth itself is the casting of light wherein what is shows itself.   When that light stops shining, truth stops being truth. It follows that only a literally “fore-casting” speaking of truth, one that casts truth forth, speaks truth truthfully, that is, truly accords with the always advent-al (from Latin ad-, plus venire, to come) nature of truth itself: Only prophecy truly tells the truth.

So understood, a prophecy is a sort of screen-vision, an “image” in and as which truth literally fore-casts itself. The term “screen-vision” should be taken in a sense parallel to that in which we speak of a “screen-memory,” in the sense I have discussed in this blog before—as well as in my book The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community (CreateSpace, 2013). In that sense, a screen-memory is a memory that simultaneously conceals and reveals—or more precisely reveals in its very concealing and conceals in its very revealing—thereby reflecting the very nature of the trauma of which it constitutes the “memory.” Insofar as a trauma is an event that, when it strikes, cannot be “processed” or “comprehended” by those it strikes, such an event cannot be retained in any simply representational image, as though in a snapshot. It is in that sense not available to be “remembered” at all, if remembering is taken to be no more than pulling up some sort of representation of an earlier, already comprehended or experientially processed event, its quasi-photographic reproduction in a “memory image.” What has never produced at the level of such an image in the first place cannot later be re-produced in one either.

Thus, as traumatic, an event is not an objectified externality that can simply be referenced by images or other signs that are supposed to represent it thanks to some iconic, indexical, or even just conventionally symbolic connection. In that sense, the relation of images to the traumatic is actually the same as that of “sacred languages” to the sacred, as Benedict Anderson describes that notion. “A sacred language,” as I wrote in recounting Anderson in my preceding post, the second of this series, “does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.” In the same way, what we might call a traumatic image—whether in the form of a “memory,” or of a “vision”: that is, casting backward or forward respectively—would be an image that was not distanced from the traumatic event it imaged, distanced in such a way that we could speak of how closely the image “resembled” the traumatic event itself. Instead, the image would itself belong to the traumatic event as such, literally pro-jecting or retro-jecting rather than just “re-presenting” it.

So, for example, the “screen-memory” of a traumatic event itself belongs to that very event, being part of its event-ing, as we might put it. The screen-memory of a trauma is itself, we could say, one of the “after-shocks” set off by the initial shock of the trauma as such—thus belonging to the very process whereby the traumatic shock continues to “register” itself. In that way—serving in effect as what we might call “after-images” of trauma, to parallel talk of “after-shocks”—screen-memories of traumas would be images in which those traumas retrojected themselves, or made their mark backward into “memory” itself. They would thus serve as a sort of “screening” of trauma, in the sense of a sort of surface on which (more properly, “as” which) trauma could cast itself.

If taken as “representations” of “what actually happened,” such memories would indeed be “inaccurate,” often extremely so. They would therefore be “false” memories in the sense at issue in talk of “false memory syndrome” and the like: memories that, taken as subsequent, reproductive representations of a preceding event from which they stand away at a temporal distance, mis-represent something already presented at some preceding time. All treatment of traumatic screen-memories as such falsifying representations, however, is a falsifying treatment of memory itself, which is really never such a paltry thing as a mere recording device, an apparatus for taking snapshots, as it were.

In contrast to any such “snapshot” images, traumatic screen-memories stand to the trauma they remember as sacred languages stand to the sacred they bespeak. Sacred languages do not refer to the sacred but rather name it, speaking it forth. In the same way, screen-memories do not represent trauma but rather embody it, showing it forth. And since trauma as such “conceals” itself, in the sense of always in effect withdrawing itself away from what can be comprehended within experience, that self-concealment must be respected in any proper memory image of trauma. Traumatic memories must remember traumatically, as it were.

In parallel fashion, what I am calling “screen-visions” must envision traumatically. Just as screen-memories are not re-screenings of features already shown before, so are screen-visions not previews of coming attractions. Put differently, they are not predictions: saying what will be, before it has come (from Latin pre-, plus dicere, to say). Rather, they are prophecies: voicings forth of truth (from pro-, plus a derivative from Greek phanai, to speak). We might also say that screen-visions are truth-projections (from pro-, forward or forth, and Latin iacere, to throw or cast): truth casting itself concretely forth before us, in order then to cast its light back, upon what is and has been there all along—retro-jecting itself to manifest as and in screen-memories.

That double-stroke of retrojective projection, in turn, clears a space and time—e-jecting it, we might say: that is, casting it out and open. It is there, in that opening, that we have room to dwell.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I made the same mistake in Mazatlan in 1982 that I would say Günther Anders made in Japan in 1958 (see my preceding post): I confused prophecy with prediction. I interpreted what I was seeing as a vision of things yet to be, in the sense of things that had not happened yet, but would some day, after an interval (concerning the length of which I was able to form no definite conclusion). However, I eventually—but already long ago by now—came to a very different understanding, in accordance with which what I saw on the beach in Mazatlan back then was no prediction of what would someday be, but was instead a screen-vision, which is to say a truth-projection, of what is.

At any rate, whether taken to be a prediction or taken to be a prophecy, what I “saw” in Mazatlan in 1982 came to me in a sort of double vision, as it were. I saw at once two different but interrelated things. The first was what I can best express as the sheer vacuity and nullity of what passes for reality itself today at the level of surface appearances. By “surface appearances” I mean all the standard stuff–good, bad, and middling—of our modern commercial “civilization,” as epitomized by a middle-aged, relatively well-off American couple briefly escaping the dreary northern winter of Denver by flying away to spend the Valentine’s Day weekend at a touristy beach resort in a town that lives off such tourism along the warm, Gulf-coast of Mexico.   I saw the emptiness of “all that,” projected as its inevitably coming collapse.

The other thing I simultaneously saw—in effect seeing through all the glitter of the surface of the pretend reality, to what that surface disclosed in the very attempt to cover it over, seeing though to it as it were the lasting, underlying sense of the very sensory level through which I saw it—was the inexorable return and triumph of the very thing all the glitter and glitz of modern global market commerce is designed to mask and devoted to keeping away, or at least to perpetually postponing. I saw, through the irreal itself, the return of the real, as it were.

*    *     *     *     *     *

In accord with my initial, mistaken understanding of the nature of my vision at the time, I took the “return” at issue to be something that was going to occur eventually, rather than as something already here. But as I eventually came more fully to understand it, my vision on the beach at Mazatlan was actually a sort of invitation to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, so to speak, that is, to stop sham-living in a sham reality, and instead simply to start really living now, today—just taking up residence in the reality of what I would years later, in The Open Wound, come to call “the irrelevance of power.” It was an invitation to live awake to the nullity and insignificance of the whole global commercial illusion I was seeing through: to stop granting that illusion any status, any authority over me any longer.

In one longstanding tradition, the devil himself is said to have no power except what we give him ourselves by our resistance to him. That’s one way of appreciating the Christian injunction against resisting evil. Then, too, there are vampires as they were depicted in the movies that gave me nightmares in my childhood: those vampires who come into our rooms to suck our blood, and turn us into vampires ourselves in the process, but who can come in at all only if we first let them in—which, of course, they use all their considerable wiles to tempt us to do.

Though I did not make use of the vampire metaphor at the time, what I both saw and already knew that I saw even back in 1982 when I first had my Mazatlan vision, was that our entire contemporary “civilization” is essentially vampiric in that old, Hollywood way. It sustains its own undead existence only by sucking the blood of the living, and in the process turns all the living into undead bloodsuckers too. However, the problem with bloodsucking, and in the process converting all whose blood is sucked into bloodsuckers themselves too, is that inevitably all the blood eventually gets sucked, so there’s no more blood left for the sucking, and then the whole bloody, sucking thing just collapses. On the beach during my 1982 Mazatlan weekend I saw and understood how true that was of our whole “civilization,” vampiric as it is in its very essence.

But what I basically forgot to apply back in 1982 was that other part of vampire lore I also always knew, that part about us having to let the bloodsuckers in, before they can even begin the whole business. Perhaps better put, I neglected back then to appreciate fully the application to our vampiric global system of the Christian wisdom—a wisdom, I should add, that can in fact also be found in other traditions, perhaps especially the Buddhist one—about resistance only giving power to what it tries to resist.

I thereby failed fully to appreciate that we don’t even have to wait for the devil’s reign to end, before we can come out of hiding and go about living our lives again, and living them “abundantly,” for that matter, just as Christ tells his followers he wants them to do. All we have to do is stop giving power to that old devil. If we do, then—poof! he’s gone! We then see, too, that he never really had any power of his own over us anyway, that it was all just an illusion we bought into, letting him get into us. We can just stop buying into that illusion.

When we do, we will see that the sun has been there shining brightly all along, the grass and other vegetation growing luxuriantly, and the whole world just waiting for building.

*     *     *     *     *     *

When the house in which we’ve been living since 1991 was itself being built, we had an “invisible fence” installed to keep the three dogs we had then confined to the part of the property we wanted to confine them to. To build such a “fence” it was only necessary to bury a small, insulated wire a few inches below ground, around the area we wanted to confine the dogs to. The wire was then hooked into a low-voltage source of electricity. Then some put electrode-equipped collars went around the dogs necks, so that when the dogs tried to cross over the line where the hidden wire was buried, they’d get a little jolt of electricity. They’d yelp and jump back. After a very short they were conditioned to stay properly within the area we wanted to confine them to.

Everything worked exactly as promised. Soon, we didn’t even need to make the dogs wear the special collars anymore. They just stayed put in their invisible pen.

Not long after that, however, the TV cable company came around and did its usual sort of thing. That is, it buried TV cable where it wanted, without really caring where other things might already have been buried. As a result, they cut the dog-jolting lines of our “invisible fence.” So no electricity flowed through the wire any longer. That meant, of course, that the dogs would no longer get jolted if they crossed the line enclosing the area where we wanted to keep them in bondage.

Nevertheless, the dogs never crossed that line anyway, such slaves to our will had they become. Their prior conditioning continued to bind them. Absolutely nothing was holding them in any longer, except their own ignorance of the fact that they nothing was holding them in.   They no longer saw that they had any option. Therefore, they no longer had any option, really.

The vision I had on the beach back in 1982, the vision of the grass growing back over the pathways of the Camino Real and the jungle reclaiming all the asphalted highways around Mazatlan, was not a vision of any distant future. It was a vision of a future already come—the only future there is, has been, or will be, really: the future that shows itself to have been there all along, just waiting for us to enter into it. After all, it’s really been ours all along, just waiting for us to see it, and understand that it’s ours for the entering. Only our ignorance stands in our way.

We just need to be effectively shown that we have an option, which we can then just begin exercising. We don’t even have to resist anything first.**

*Translated by Robert Hurley—Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 25.


**Here, resistance is to be understood in the ordinary way—namely, as a reaction against something that acts originally. As such reaction, resistance not only remains dependent upon what it reacts to, but even ends up being robbed of its own definitive intention, so that it actually strengthens the very power it tries to resist, as Christ was not alone in seeing. That there are other, no longer self-defeating forms of resistance, offering options to dependent reaction, is something about which I have already written in The Open Wound. I will write of the matter again on this blog in the future, probably in a post or post-series I’m currently thinking of calling “Striking Back, Standing Up, and Striking Out,” inspired by the story of the contemporary New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, as told in his 2001 memoir A Place to Stand and the documentary film released under the same title earlier this year (2015).

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Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #2 of 5


This is the second of five posts of entries from my philosophical journal dealing with Testimony, the important book by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  The entry was originally written on the date given below.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Felman, “Education and Crisis,  Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” Ch. One of her and Laub’s book,  pp. 41-42: 

The Holocaust testimonies in themselves are definitely, at least on their manifest level, as foreign to “poetry” as anything can be, both in their substance and in their intent.  Yet many of them attain, surprisingly, in the very structure of their occurrence, the dimension of discovery and of advent and the power of significance and in part of a true event of language–an event which can unwittingly resemble a poetic, or a literary act.  The very real, overwhelming and as such traumatic aspect of these narratives engages, on the other hand, both the clinical and the historical dimensions of the testimony. . . [which are] implied as well by Celan’s poetry.  What makes Celan’s poetry crucially poetic (even in its post-aesthetic, antipoetic stage) is . . . its formal insistence on the unpredictability of its own rhythm.  In thus insisting on the unpredictability of its own music . . . Celan’s poetry insisted, in effect (as did Mallarmé’s), on the risky unpredictability of the endeavor of the  witness, who does not master–and does not possess–his testimony or his “message in the bottle” [Celan], which may or may not reach a “you” [addressee].  I would suggest, indeed, that both the mystery and the complexity of the endeavor of the testimony and of its compelling power derive, precisely, from this element of unpredictability, from what is unpredictable, specifically, in the effects of the exchange and the degree of interaction between the historical, the clinical and the poetical dimensions of the testimony.

Page 53:

I would venture to propose, today [after a crisis of witnessing that took place in her own class on trauma and testimony], that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis:  if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught:  it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents . . . but that no one could recognize,and that no could could therefore truly learn, read or put to use.

Looking back at the experience of that class, I therefore think that my job as a teacher, paradoxical as it may sound, was that of creating in the class the highest state of crisis that it could withstand, without “driving the students crazy”–without compromising the students’ bounds.

Later, same page:

Both this kind of teaching and psychoanalysis are interested not merely in new information, but, primarily, in the capacity of the recipients to transform themselves in function of the newness of that information. . . . Testimonial teaching fosters the capacity to witness something that may be surprising, cognitively dissonant.

Part of her own “testimony” in and to the class at issue was to mirror the class’s responses back to them, in a sort of reflective listening.  She says of that (p. 54):

My own testimony to the class, which echoed their reactions, returning to them the expressions of their shock, their trauma and their disarray, bore witness nonetheless to the important fact that their experience, incoherent though it seemed, made sense or that it mattered.  My testimony was both an echo and a return of significance, both a repetition and an affirmation of the double fact that their response was meaningful, and that it counted.

I think she blows it there:  If she is right, then neither she nor her class,  in their “testimony,” bore witness–testified–at all to the Holocaust, but merely used it–no less than the worst Hollywood usage for profit’s sake–for exterior purposes,  and thus repeated the silencing of the Holocaust testimony that they purported to honor.  After all, the experience of those in the Holocaust did not “make sense” and did not “matter,” was not “meaningful” and did not “count”!

A truly traumatic or event-ful teaching would shatter the students and leave them shattered.  In a colloquial sense it would indeed “teach them”–teach them to think their lives mattered or counted at all, any more than did the lives of the dead in the Holocaust.

There is no “redemption.”


Laub writes chapters two and three.  Two is “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.”  P. 57 (the first of the chapter): 

While historical evidence to the event which constitutes the trauma may be abundant and documents in vast supply, the trauma–as a known event and not simply as an overwhelming shock–has not been truly witnessed yet, not been taken cognizance of.  The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to–and heard–is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance,  the “knowing” of the event is given birth to.  The listener, therefore, is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo.  The testimony to the trauma thus includes its hearer, who is, so to speak, the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed for the first time.

I’d extend that, to cover what are called “screen memories” as such, which, as I suggested in my [Philosophy and] 9/11 class last fall, not only or primarily veil what is to be remembered, but also and above all provide the surface on which memory itself can be projected, and without which no memory can occur.

 Laub goes on (p. 60) to provide an excellent example of this sort of “screening,” which reveals in and as its very “concealing.”  It is the example of a woman recounting her experience of the rebellion at Auschwitz.  Laub, in a group  of historians who discount her testimony because it is clearly “historically inaccurate” (she remembers all four of the crematoria chimneys being blown up, when “really” only one was), replies as follows (he’s quoting himself [in the third person]): 

“The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of the chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial:  the reality of an unimaginable occurrence.  One chimney blown up in Auschwitz was as incredible as four.  The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence.  The event itself was almost inconceivable.  The woman testified to an event that broke the all compelling frame of Auschwitz, where Jewish armed revolts just did not happen, and had no place.  She testified to the breakage of a framework.  That was historical truth.”  (Cf. Nixon quitting in 1974!  [That was the “historical truth” of  Nixon’s Presidency.])

Nor does it say anything that (p. 61) one of the historians observes that the event “historically, made no difference,” because it was not only “put down” but also even “betrayed by the Polish resistance,” none of which makes it into the woman’s testimony.  Laub is wiser than that.

He goes on to  argue (p.. 61):  “Of course, it is by no means ignorance that I espouse.  The listener must be quite well informed if he  is to  be able to  hear–to be able to pick up the cues.”

Indeed, I’d add, as Freud and “Irma’s dream” also exemplify, if the listener does not know the presumed “facts,” then the symbolic clout of the testimony–its very being as testimony, then–can never be heard, and never spoken (insofar as, Laub being right on this, the hearing/listening is inseparable from the  event of the narrating/witnessing), since it is only in the gaps between the  “facts” and the “memory” that truth occurs–the sort of “historical truth” Laub is concerned with.

By telling him [of her remembered experience of the Auschwitz revolt], the woman for the first time comes to know of the event.  P. 62:  “And it was through my listening to her that I  in turn came to understand not merely her subjective truth, but the very historicity of the event, in  an entirely new dimension.”  He learned the very historical truth of it, I’d say. 

She was testifying not simply to historical facts, but to the very secret of survival and of resistance to  extermination. . . . She saw four chimneys blowing up in Auschwitz:  she saw, in other words, the unimaginable taking place right in front of her own eyes.  And she came to  testify to the unbelievability, precisely, of what she had eye-witnessed–this bursting open of the very frame of Auschwitz.  The historians’ testifying to the fact that only one chimney was blown up in Auschwitz, as well as to the fact of the betrayal of the Polish underground, does not break the frame.  The woman’s testimony, on the other hand, is breaking the frame of the concentration camp by and through her very testimony:  she is breaking out of Auschwitz even by her very talking.

Indeed, in this crucially important–historically true–sense, every testimony to the Holocaust is itself the breaking out from Auschwitz–again and again, for the very first time.

P. 63: 

Because the testifier did not know the number of the chimneys that blew up; because she did  not know of the betrayal of the Polish underground and of the  violent and desperate defeat of the rebellion of the Auschwitz inmates, the historians said that she knew nothing.  I thought that she knew more, since she knew about the breakage of the frame, that her very testimony was now reenacting.

As the Psalmist sings of the vacuity of the rich and the powerful:  “I passed by again, they were not there.”

That’s the truth of Auschwitz, just as his resignation was the truth of Nixon.

Also p.63:

It has happened to me many times that thinking back to  a psychoanalytic session with a patient, I suddenly realize that I understand it.  Everything falls into place and comes together. . . . Such sudden illuminations are not rare.  They often do not last, however.  I do forget them before my next appointment, and my patient and I sink back into the routine of everyday quabble.  It is as though two  simultaneous dialogues proceed and the ordinary one, the one that is commonplace, prevails. 

Cf. Heidegger on authenticity/inauthenticity.

The decay of truth.

P. 71:  “Survivors beginning to remember often desire to be alone, although very much in someone’s presence; the listener has to be exquisitely responsible to these cues.”


Laub, Ch. 3, “An Event Without a Witness:  Truth, Testimony, and Survival,” p. 91:

The testimony [namely, of Holocaust survivors] is inherently a process of facing loss. . . .

It is the realization that the lost one are not coming back; the realization that what life is all about is precisely living with an unfulfilled hope, someone saying:  “I’ll be with you in the very process of your losing me.  I am your witness.”


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.

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 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.