Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That closes off hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (2)

This is the second of two consecutive posts under the same title.  My original expectation was that this would also be the final post under that title.  However, the series has now expanded beyond my original plan, and this post has now become the second of a currently planned series of three.  Readers will have to wait till next time to see if I succeed as planned.

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Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho


I first got out of step with myself sixty-eight years ago yesterday, which was my birthday.  I’m a New Year’s baby, born on the first day of the first year of the baby boom that fired up as soon as the guns of World War II stopped firing.  I then spent the next forty-plus years trying to get into step with myself, failing miserably at it time after time, until I finally just gave up trying.  To my surprise, I then—which is going on twenty-eight years ago now—began at last to learn, not how to get in step with myself, but how to keep stumbling along better in my continuing out-of-step-ness.   So I hope, at least.

That mention of hope brings me around to some reflections on some reflections of Jean-Luc Nancy.  Or, rather, it almost does, as I’m about to explain.  That will take me a while, though.  So please have faith—which, in fact, is where I’ll really start, but only after I stumble around some more in preliminaries, as my regular readers know I love to do.

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Such readers, if attentive, may have noticed three words I just used in the preceding paragraph:  faith, hope, and love, these three.  Please keep them in mind.  I will come back to them, after I fill in a bit.

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Stumbling along my way as usual just this past summer I was doing some reading of a book first published ten years ago, but not translated into English until last year (2013).  The book is by French sociologist Bruno Latour, and the English version is called Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech (translated by Julie Rose—Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA:  Polity Press 2013).  Reading Latour’s book triggered my going back, in turn, and rereading a book-length manuscript of my own that I also wrote about ten years ago, but had never published and hadn’t revisited for eight or nine years.  Rereading it again last summer, I was struck enough by my own ten-year-old thoughts that I decided to rearrange the chapters, do some minor editorial cleanup, add one new chapter, and see the whole thing into publication on my own.  Just a few days ago I finished reviewing the galley proofs, and so now I am able to give myself the finished book as a sort of birthday gift, here at the beginning of 2014.

My new/old book is entitled God, Prayer, Suicide, and Philosophy:  Reflections on Some of the Issues of Life.  I will announce here on this blog when it becomes it available, which will be soon.  [NOTE of 1/21/14:  It now is.  See the link provided to the right of my blog site.]  Meanwhile, my reason for bringing it up today in my second and final post on “Traumatic Selfhood:  Becoming Who We Are” (a reason, of course, besides the good, old-fashioned, patriotic American one of hoping to reap monetary profit from doing so) is because it contains some passages pertinent to my current blog topic of trauma, selfhood, and becoming ourselves—those three being themselves among the issues of life on which I reflect in my new/old book.

My conjoined reading and rereading, of Latour and myself respectively, occasioned especially my writing of the new chapter to my book.  In turn, as hap and happenstance would have it, as I was writing that new chapter I was also reading Adoration:  The Deconstruction of Christianity II, an English translation (by John McKeane— New York:  Fordham University Press, 2013) of a recent book by Jean-Luc; and as I continued to write my new chapter, I carried discussion of Nancy’s thoughts over into it.

At one point in Adoration Nancy is discussing what eventually came in Christian theology to be called the three “theological virtues.”  They are called that because they can only be instilled in those who come to have them by God (theos) Himself (to use the Christian way of speaking).  In contrast, what are called the “moral virtues” are those that can be acquired by our own human efforts.  There are seven “cardinal” virtues altogether, according to what eventually became the standard Christian codification (corresponding in number to what eventually became the standard seven “deadly sins”), which goes all the way back to St. Paul himself.  Four of the seven are “moral”:  prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  Those four are under our own power—both to acquire in the first place, and then to go on practicing.  On the other hand, we must depend upon the grace of God (in Christian parlance), to be given the three theological virtues (though we can lose them easily enough on our own, just by failing regularly to use what we have been given, that is, to practice them in our own choices and actions).  The three theological virtues are “faith,” “hope,” and “charity.”

The three go together, and in Adoration, Nancy talks about all three.  Of the first—faith—he writes:   “Faith is given as nothing other than the force of trust in that (or him, or her, or those) of which it is impossible for me to obtain any knowledge that would create any assurance or guarantee.”  He contrasts such faith (foi is the French term at issue) with what he calls belief (French croyance), which he uses to mean holding some more or less definite idea or proposition to be true, as one might, for example, believe that it’s going to rain this afternoon, or that there’s a jolly old elf named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and annually doles out presents globally to children he deems worthy—or “nice,” as opposed to “naughty.”

That is the sense of belief in which to believe something is, in effect, to “think” it to be so, as I might say that I don’t know for sure, but that I think the tallest mountain in North America is Mt. McKinley.  Even if what one believes, in that sense of the term, is something that one does not know for sure to be true, nevertheless such “beliefs” are the sorts of things one at least might eventually come to know.  So, for example, I might say that I “believed” it was raining outside, if I was closed away somewhere in a windowless room and heard a patter on the roof.  But if I went outside and found myself getting drenched in it, I would no longer say I “believed” it was raining, since then I would know it for a fact.

In contrast, faith, writes Nancy (p. 90, with my added emphasis),  “supposes the annulment of all kinds of knowledge and representation.”  It is, as he indicates in the first line I quoted from him above, a pure form of trust—a trust that cannot ever be reduced down to a trusting that any given thing will occur.  The faith that Nancy has in mind is one that always holds itself wide open to receive whatever comes its way, refusing ever to be confined to anything that could be specified in any propositional way as such a faith or trust that such and such will sooner or later prove to be thus and so.

Such wholly open-ended faith correlates perfectly with hope, at least as Nancy understands the notion of that second of the three theological virtues.  “As for hope [espérance],” he writes, “it most properly designates . . . not the hope [espoir] that something—an answer, a conclusion—might come about, but [rather] the tension retained in the trust that something or someone always comes.”  Hope as he has it in mind is the same as what Kierkegaard, in the first of his Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, calls expectancy—specifically, the expectancy of faith, thus correlating the second with the first of the theological virtues, just as Nancy does.

Throughout years of teaching Kierkegaard, I always found it useful to contrast such expectancy with what we would ordinarily call “expectations.”  The expectancy, which is to say the hope, that correlates with what both Kierkegaard and Nancy call faith is, writes the former in the Upbuilding Discourses, is “victory.”   Faith’s expectancy of victory, however, is altogether free of any adulteration by expectations of any sort about just what “victory” is supposed to look like.  It is an expectation-free expectancy that is always already fulfilled, whatever may come—which is why, as Kierkegaard insists (and, as I read him, Nancy would agree) insists, expectant faith is so certain of its victory:  because that victory comes, no matter what comes, just so long as faith remains faith, wide open in hope.

In effect, faith’s hope in victory is so sure and certain, hope’s faith in victory so firm and unshakeable, because that very victory is already given already in the mere fact of having hope and faith.  Accordingly, right after remarking, as already cited, that the proper designation of hope is the trust that something or someone always comes,” Nancy adds: “And that it will come not later but here and now—not coming in order to complete itself in a presence, but so that I come thanks to its coming.”

What is meant by that last remark is nothing salacious,* though it runs the risk of sounding so.  I will venture to put the point this way, running different risks: To have the hopeful faith and faithful hope Nancy is addressing is to persist in granting oneself permission to be granted permission to be-come who one has come to be.  It is holding oneself open, in the open (what Heidegger calls “truth”), to receive the permission, always already granted even before or whether one ever asks for it, that lets one be whatever one has by hap been let to be.   In a short, easily misunderstood formula, we might say that such hopeful faith/faithful hope is fidelity in accepting permission to become oneself.

As for love (the third of the theological virtues, alongside faith and hope), to love—at least to love skillfully, and not in such a way as to rob love of its own definitive intention—is to grant permission.  As faith without hope cannot keep its faith, and hope without faith loses its hope, so can there be neither faith in any hope nor hope in any faith without the love that—free of all distrust and expectation, but faithful come what may, and filled with expectancy—lets be whatever lief be.  That applies to all love, however one takes it, including even “sexual love”—which may be a pleonasm, if one follows certain philosophers, including Nancy (and perhaps even Plato, that old body-despiser).

In love, what comes always comes as a surprise.  That’s why love’s hope cannot be confined within any expectations, and why its faith cannot be denied victory, come whatever may.  That’s love’s famed unconditionality.

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“But,” readers might well be asking themselves, “what does all that have to do with the self?”

Good question!

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And to that question I will devote my next post, the final one—I promise, just trust me!—of what has come to be a three-part series (at least by my present expectation) on becoming ourselves, traumatically belated as that may be.

* Or, if it is at all salacious, that is only insofar as it casts light on the underlying salaciousness of the ordinary way of using the term salacious, which according to my dictionary means “treating sexual matters in an indecent way and typically conveying undue interest in or enjoyment of the subject.”  Nietzsche observes somewhere that the idea of an “immaculate conception”—such as the second most recent official Catholic dogma attributes to Mary, the mother of Jesus—could only arise if one has first “maculated” conception to begin with.  If, as Paul, the Christian apostle to the gentiles, says, to the pure all things are pure, then it is only for those who have already dirtied themselves that there could be anything “dirty” in “sexual matters,” “indecent” in the conveying of them, or “undue” in whatever interest one took in them.  Perhaps for those not already so dirtied, the only indecency would be not to convey such matters, and the only undue interest would be to take no interest in them at all.  On that, readers could profitably consult another recent English translation of some of Nancy’s essays:  Corpus II:  Writings on Sexuality, translated by Anne O’Byrne (Fordham University Press, 2013).

Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (1)

This is the first of what I plan to be two consecutive posts under the same title.

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Become who you are!                                                                                                                                     — Nietzsche

Jean-Paul Sartre, that great champion of the idea of freedom, always insisted that, free as we are, we do not have the freedom to choose the communities into which we are born.  Nowhere does he tell any tale of a reincarnation in which souls between embodiments get to choose where and in what form they’ll next come back.  Our freedom, Sartre says, is a matter of our always having to choose just how we are going to take up the facts of our birth, what we are going to make of those facts.  Those facts themselves, however, are given to us at birth, by birth, whether we like them or not.  Thus, for example, one person will take up the fact of having been born an American by becoming a flag-waiving, government-devouring member of the Tea Party, whereas another will take up the same fact by flying away to join Al-Qaeda and become a suicide-bomber.  We are free to make of the facts of our birth what we will, says Sartre.  Indeed, he says in a famous line that we are “condemned” to such freedom.  In the choices we do make, we have no choice but to make of the facts of our birth one thing or another.  We are never free of having to make such choices—and we are never free of those facts themselves.  We are no less condemned to them than to our freedom itself.

Such freedom, my own freedom, never free of itself or of the conditions of its birth, is traumatic.  I can never catch up to it.  It always comes “belatedly” (nachträglich), as Freud says of the coming of trauma.  In that regard, my freedom is like PTSD, Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder—indeed, more than just “like” it.

The un-chosen, un-choose-able conditions of my birth make demands and place expectations on me.  But just what it is that they demand and expect of me is, as Locke says of the idea of substance, “something, I know not what.”    The facts of my birth, delivered to me by others as part and parcel of my own delivery—delivered over to me and with me by others, well before I even come to know that there are such things as “others,” or that there is some “I” who is other than those others—always come to me as preceding me, and defining just who I am before and beyond myself, in such a way that I can never overtake them.

As so delivered to me as me at my own delivery, the conditions of my own birth actually come to me as what, using the terminology of Jean Laplanche, an important 20th century French psychoanalyst, we could call “enigmatic signifiers.”  In introducing the idea of such “enigmatic signifiers,” Laplanche makes the crucially important point that what is so very “enigmatic” about such signifiers is that they are enigmatic not only to those of us who receive them, experiencing them as somehow addressed to us, and asking something, we know not what, from us.  “Enigmatic signifiers,” teaches Laplanche, are enigmatic not just to those who receive them, but also and above all to those who send them in the first place.  Hegel remarks that the Egyptians were not just an enigma to those who came after them in history, but that the Egyptians were already an enigma to themselves.    In the same way, what is so enigmatic about Laplanche’s “enigmatic signifiers” is that they are enigmatic even to those who send them, not just to those who receive them.  Enigmatic signifiers are so enigmatic to their very senders that those senders themselves are utterly clueless about what they “mean.”

In fact, enigmatic signifiers are so enigmatic that their senders themselves don’t really even know they are sending any signifiers in the first place, let alone what they may signify, once sent.  The senders of such enigmatic signs don’t even know they’re making signs, no matter that those signs’ receivers are so utterly convinced they are as to be beyond all convincing.

Like it or lump it, for example, I was myself born American—of Americans, in America.  As an American, furthermore, one thing I know—I literally cannot ever remember not having known it—is that Uncle Sam “wants” me, as the famous and ubiquitously reproduced old World War I poster graphically depicted.  However, the question that has always remained for me—one that remains to this day and will continue to remain for however many days I have left—is just what Uncle Sam wants me for.  What does he want to do with and to me?  How?  To what end?  And what response does he expect from me in turn, in answer to his so forcefully expressed wanting of me?

What Laplanche teaches me is that Uncle Sam himself has never really known.  Uncle Sam has always been thoroughly befuddled about the matter himself, even to the point of never even realizing he’d ever let his wanting me to be known—or even that he ever had such a want.

To that lesson from Laplanche, however, I cannot resist adding in my own voice that Uncle Sam all too often and all too arrogantly presumes he does know all that.  All too often he presumes to know it “to a ‘t,’ ” as the saying goes.

Saying that is not quite fair though, really.  It is not good old Uncle Sam himself, as it were, who has so often been so arrogantly presumptuous.  It has been those arrogant enough to arrogate to themselves the claim to be able to speak for Uncle Sam, and to tell me in detail just what is expected of me as an American, whether that be to go kill and/or be killed in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or to stay at home and consume consumptively in support of other, younger and abler folk going off to do the killing and/or the dying.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  used to like to say.

But it should not go so, as Vonnegut, for one, also knew very well—and said repeatedly in every way he could think of, in fact.

Actually, by saying that so often in so many ways Vonnegut, I would myself say, was doing his own best to answer the very call “Uncle Sam” made upon him—and always makes upon anyone like him, anyone that old, goateed gentleman has a call upon.  That is, I would myself say that Vonnegut, by writing what he wrote to say what he said, answered in his own way, which is how it always has to be answered, the call that being born American makes upon anyone so born.  Uncle Sam wanted Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., no less than he wants any other such “you,” which means any other American.   And if asked for what Uncle Sam wanted Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  for, even if Uncle Sam himself never really knew it, I’d answer that it was to be just the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., he became.

Now, Uncle Sam also no more knew just who that, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., might turn out, all said and done, to be, than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., himself ever knew. Nor do we, who have survived him.

What made Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,  such a good Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was precisely that he himself always left open the question of just who Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was.  Even for himself, he remained an open question.

So are we all—though for the most part we’d rather not know it.  For the most part, in fact, we make great efforts to convince ourselves that the question we all always remain to ourselves is somehow already closed.  We try to convince everyone, most especially ourselves, that the question of who we are is already closed, if not for us ourselves, then at least for someone or something we presume to know the answer to that question—to borrow an idea from Jacques Lacan, Laplanche’s teacher in psychoanalysis.  We presume that somehow, somewhere there is some such “master,” as Lacan puts it, that is, someone “presumed to know.”  However, that presumption—the presumption that there is somehow, somewhere someone who can be presumed to know who we are, even if we don’t know that ourselves—is presumptuous of us.

There is, in truth, no one at all who can make good on the claim to know who we are.  Whomever we may presume to know, does not.  There is no master who has mastered who we are.  Nor will there ever be.

That includes us:  We will never be such masters of ourselves, either.  And another important lesson Laplanche, for one, can teach us is that the goal—specifically, for him, the goal of therapeutic practice, for psychoanalysts such as himself, but also, underlying that, the goal of being human, for human beings—is not to close the circle of our self-knowledge, somehow allowing us to come to a complete coincidence with ourselves at last.  Rather, to use a favored metaphor of my own, it is to help us learn how to keep limping on in our broken gaits with ourselves once, like Jacob in the Book of Genesis, we have been lamed by the touch of the angel.  That is, the purpose of therapy, or of being human, is not (to use yet another, even more favored metaphor of my own), to close the wounds that have come to define us, but to teach us how to leave them open—and share them with one another, like Christ inviting the disciple Thomas to resolve his doubt by putting his hand in the still open gash in the side of Christ’s now resurrected body.

My favorite, most favored definition of walking is that it is “continuous, controlled, forward stumbling.”  Well, being ourselves is like walking:  It’s not a matter of first attaining and then maintaining some final state of balance, but a matter of constantly coming back upright from losing one’s balance.  I am never in step with myself completely, but am always a stutter-step off.  In that sense, we might say that we never simply are who we, but are always instead becoming it—always becoming what we will never be.

That is so both for us each individually, and for us all together:  Who “we” are is no less problematic for all of “us,” than who “I” am is for every “me.”  Selfhood itself is traumatic, whether the self be taken all alone to itself (in Latin: solus ipse, from which comes our word solipsism) or taken as one of a bunch all alone together.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I will return to this line of though in my next post.  Meanwhile, happy holidays to us all—whoever we are (if anyone) and whatever special days (including none especially) we may hold holy!

The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community — Now Available!



My new book, The Open Wound:  Trauma, Identity, and Community, is now available.  It can be ordered in a print-on-demand paperback version, or in electronic form as a Kindle book.  Both are available through


As regular readers of this blog will recall, I posted the first drafts of most of the chapters of the book here as I wrote them, starting in the fall of 2009 and ending a year and a half later, in the spring of 2011.   Now that those chapters–as well as new material never before published in any form–are now available in the book, I have removed those earlier versions, making the posts containing them no longer available at this blog-site.

Trauma, Its Aftermath, and the Narration of the Self: Lessons from Susan J. Brison


Susan J. Brison is a philosopher and a rape survivor.  She has written insightfully about her own traumatic experience in her book Aftermath:  Violence and the Remaking of a Self.  The entries below from my philosophical journal, first written on the dates indicated, contain what were for my interests important passages from her account, sprinkled with a few remarks of my own.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Susan J. Brison, Aftermath [of her being raped, beaten, left for dead in 1990 in southern France]:  Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. x: 

The prevalent lack of empathy with trauma victims . . . results, I realized, not merely from ignorance or indifference, but also from an active fear of identifying with those whose terrifying fate forces us to acknowledge that we are not in control of our own.

Nevertheless, the trauma survivor must find empathic listeners in order to carry on.  Piecing together a shattered self requires a process of remembering and  working through in which speech and affect converge in a trauma narrative.  In this book  I explore the performative aspect of  speech in testimonies of trauma:  How saying something about the memory does something to it.  The communicative act of bearing witness to traumatic events not only transforms traumatic memories into narratives that can then be integrated into the survivor’s sense of self and view of the  world, but it also reintegrates the survivor into a community, reestablishing bonds of trust and faith in others.

An important point!


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Brison, p. 20, about her rape survivors’ group:  “Our group facilitator [and herself a rape survivor], Ann Gaulin, told us that first meeting [in Philadelphia]:  ‘Although it’s not exactly the sort of thing I can put on my resumé, it’s the accomplishment of which I’m most proud.'”  On the next page (21),  Brison herself writes: 

I am not the same person who set off, singing, on that sunny Fourth of July in the French countryside.  I left her in a rocky creek at the bottom of a ravine.  I had to in order to survive.  I understand the appropriateness of what a friend described to me as a Jewish custom of giving those who  have outlived a brush with death new names [cf. new names for “religious” after conversion].  The trauma has changed me forever, and if I insist too often that my friends and family acknowledge it, that’s because I’m afraid they don’t know who I am. 

Next paragraph, she also writes:

And I no longer cringe when I see a woman jogging alone on a country road where I live, although I may still have a slight urge to rush out and protect her, to tell her to come inside where she’ll be safe. But I catch myself, like a mother learning to let go, and cheer her on, thinking, may she always be so carefree, so at home in her world. She has every right to be.  [My italics, since I think that last is a very important point she is making here.]


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Brison, pp. 65-66: 

. . . many trauma survivors who  endured much worse than I did, and for much  longer, found, often years later, that it was impossible to go on.  It is not a moral failing to leave a world that has become morally unacceptable.  I wonder how some can ask, of battered women, ‘Why didn’t they leave?’ while saying, of those driven to  suicide by brutal  and inescapable aftermath of trauma, ‘Why didn’t they stay?’  [Auschwitz “survivor” Jean] Améry wrote, ‘Whoever was tortured, stays tortured’ and this may explain why he, [Primo] Levi, and [Paul] Celan and other Holocaust survivors took their own lives decades after their (physical) torture ended, as if such an explanation were needed.


P. 74 she also makes a good point:

Whereas rape victims’ self blaming has often been misunderstood as merely a self-destructive response to rape, arising out of  low self-esteem, feelings of shame, or female masochism, and fueled by society’s desire to blame the victim,it can also be seen as an adaptive survival strategy, if the victim has no other way of regaining a sense of control.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Brison, p. 97, quoting Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York:  Routledge, 1996, p. 189):  “If to remember is to provide the disembodied ‘wound’ with a psychic residence, then  to remember other people’s memories is to be wounded by their wounds.”

Brison [herself], pp. 98-99

 And so we must come forward and report that evil has been done to  us.  Doing so does not turn us–or others–into victims.  It may be that the most debilitating postmemories [the term she borrows for remembering the wounds of others, as 2nd generation Holocaust survivors do, for example–i.e., are affected by the memories of their parents and themselves traumatized by those same memories, carrying them on into their own lives] are those instilled by silence.  It is only by remembering and narrating the  past–telling our stories and listening to others’–that we can participate in ongoing, active construction of a narrative of liberation, not one that confines us  to  a limiting past, but one that forms a background from which a freely imagined–and desired–future emerges.

A crucial point from p. 103:

What I emphasized earlier in the book as the central task of the survivor–regaining a sense of control, coming up with a coherent trauma narrative and integrating it into one’s life story–may be crucial to the task of bearing witness, of living to tell, but it may, if taken too far, hinder recovery, by tethering the survivor to one rigid version of the past.  It may be at odds with telling to live, which I now see as a kind of letting go, playing with the past in order not be be held back as one springs away from  it.  After gaining enough  control over the story to  be able to tell it, perhaps one has to give it up, in order to  retell it, without having to ‘get it right,’ without fear of betraying it, to be able to rewrite the past in different ways, leading up to an infinite variety of unforeseeable futures.

In such play, one has freedom toward the past.  Cf. [my own remarks] on “sprung” thought in Addiction and Responsibility, and [Eric L.] Santner [in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life] on recovery as living with one’s stuckness, so to speak.

Confirming that, Brison goes on, p. 103:  “My earlier discussions of the  primary effects of trauma emphasized the loss of  control and the disintegration of the (formerly coherent [as she supposed] self.  My current view of trauma is that it  introduces a ‘surd’–a nonsensical entry–into the series of events in one’s life, making it impossible to carry on with the series.”

Every “event,” in the strong, Heideggerian sense, is  such a “surd.”  Every event is ab-surd.

Brison goes on (still 103, onto 104):

I thought I had made a certain sense of things until the moment I was assaulted.  At any rate I thought I knew how to carry on with my life–to project myself, through action, into an imagined future–the way one knows how to go on in a series such as 2, 4, 6.. . . Not that there was a unique pattern leading ineluctably into a predictable future.  The series could have been continued in any number of different ways. . . . But the assumption was that I could find some way of carrying on the narrative of my life.  Trauma shatters this assumption by introducing an event that fits no discernible pattern.  The result is an uneasy paralysis.  I can’t go on, I can’t stay.  All that is left is the present, but one that has no meaning. . . .

Narrative, as I now think, facilitates the ability to go  on opening up possibilities for the future through retelling the stories of the past.  It does this not by reestablishing the illusions of coherence of the past, control over the present, and predictability of the future, but by making it possible to carry on without these illusions.

Trauma/event is the breaking of the illusion of sense and control.


As part of her following up on the above (pp. 109-110):

It may be that the retroactive attempt to master the trauma through involuntary repetition is carried out, intrapsychically, until a listener emerges [I’d add/gloss:  including–perhaps exclusivelyoneself as such a listener!] who is stable and reliable enough to bear witness to it. Perhaps there is  a psychological imperative, analogous to the  legal imperative, to keep  telling one’s story until it is  heard.  After the story has been heard and acknowledged, one can let it go, or unfreeze it.  One can unclench.


Part of what led Brison to her new view described above was the death one day before Christmas 1995 by suicide of  her brother.  P. 115:

My brother’s death . . . made me rethink the importance of regaining control in recovering from trauma.  Maybe the point is to learn how to relinquish control, to learn by going where we need to go, to repeat the clenched, repetitive acting out without the generation of working through.  The former, although uncontrollable, is, paradoxically, obsessed with control, with the soothing, numbing safety of the familiar.  The latter is inventive, open to surprise, driven to  improvisation.  The former can instill the dangerous, even deadly, illusion of invincibility.  The other can provide the foundation of trust on which new life can be built, the steady bass continuo that liberates the other parts to improvise without fear.

Page 116:  “Recovery no longer seems to consist of picking up the pieces of a shattered self (or fractured narrative).  It’s facing the fact that there never was a coherent self (or story) to begin with.