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Two Trauma Communities: A Philosophical Archaeology of Cultural and Clinical Trauma Theories



While the philosophical precedence of “event” opens up possibilities for cultural theory’s and psychiatry’s disciplinary interests, trauma closes them down. Yet, we cannot characterize trauma as a unified discourse or spectrum even within one discipline. Cultural and psychiatric trauma theories are intertwined not only across but even within each individual theory or group of researchers. What brings conceptual order to the concept of trauma and to trauma studies are dichotomies as separators or markers that divide the discourses along different axes and conceptualizations. Ruth Leys’ dichotomy between mimetic and antimimetic theories of trauma is a seminal example of this trend, constantly inviting and defeating all attempts to resolve its self-confirming and inexhaustible meta-concept of trauma. In the effort to philosophically reconcile these competing cultural and psychiatric trauma theories, in this chapter I make three modest proposals: First, I believe that trauma has accrued a supplementarity or excess (cf. Jacques Derrida). In Freudian terms, this supplementarity is overdetermined or multiply-determined. I maintain that a great proportion of the variation may be attributed precisely to the “looping effects” (cf. Ian Hacking) between the clinical use of trauma and its cultural avatar. Second, we must separate the various ways in which the word trauma is deployed and differentiate our vocabulary for different aspects of the trauma process. Third, and most salient, trauma must be separated radically from event, which is the subtext of cultural trauma theory. The aim of this essay is to lay the foundation for a philosophical reconciliation of these competing cultural and psychiatric trauma theories, and to open new prospects for interdisciplinary research in these intersecting fields.
Trauma and
Suffering and the Limits of Theory
Eric Boynton and Peter Capretto
Afterword by Mary-Jane Rubenstein
fordham university press
New York 2018
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chapter 1
Two Trauma Communities:
A Philosophical Archaeology of Cultural
and Clinical Trauma Theories
Vincenzo Di Nicola
Threshold—הַבְדָּלָהHavdalah: “Separation
Open closed open. Before we are born everything is open in the uni-
verse without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us.
And when we die, everything is open again. Open closed open. That’s
all we are.
yehuda amichai1
Prologue: The Age of Trauma
In a catastrophic age, [. . .] trauma itself may provide the very link
between cultures: not as a simple understanding of the pasts of others
but rather, within the traumas of contemporary history, as our ability
to listen through the departures we have all taken from ourselves.
cathy caruth2
What has happened in our contemporary world such that the experi-
ences of disaster and displacement, migration and exile, horror and terror,
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18 Vincenzo Di Nicola
separation and loss, catastrophe and misfortune, humiliation and shame,
“the nightmare of childhood” or “the state of exception,” and other vicissi-
tudes of life—what Freud called the discontents of civilizationhave been
reduced to the passive victimization subsumed under the rubric of trauma?
Cultural trauma theorist Cathy Caruth calls it a catastrophic age. Why is
our experience constructed this way in our time and why has trauma be-
come the emblematic experience of contemporary life to the point that we
may invoke the epithet “the age of trauma?”
It is diffi cult to characterize trauma as a unifi ed discourse or as a spec-
trum, even within a given discursive formation such as psychoanalysis or
psychiatry. The best strategy to fi nd our way through this thicket of apo-
rias is to discern a shifting, porous, and unstable dichotomy. The investiga-
tion of trauma in this chapter straddles both the clinical and cultural poles
of this dichotomy; my task, in part, is to make each of them intelligible by
placing them in their context through surveys of discourses and practices.
In what follows, I describe the poles of this dichotomy under the rubrics of
aleph and beth. While they are neither clearly delineated nor discrete, they
offer a heuristic for understanding the dichotomized ways that trauma theo-
rists approached the discourse at hand. This requires a different history of
psychology and psychiatry and a different genealogy of trauma.
The age of trauma takes place in trauma’s estate. To understand how
trauma has become an emblematic clinical experience and trace its per-
vasive presence as cultural trauma, this chapter conducts a philosophical
archaeology in the ruins of trauma’s estate, excavating its many associated
discourses and apparatuses.3
Provisionally, we may call “archaeology” that practice which in any
historical investigation has to do not with origins but with the moment
of a phenomenon’s arising and must therefore engage anew the sources
and traditions.4
Philosophical archaeology allows us to discern the relationships among
rupture (predicament, state of exception, evental site), trauma (the destruc-
tion of experience, of the possibility of experience), and Event (contingent,
unpredictable, undecidable). I invoke the work of Giorgio Agamben and
Alain Badiou to oppose trauma to Event, making an absolute distinction
between them: trauma does not conduce to Event; Event does not arise
from trauma. Human predicaments emerge in evental sites, where rupture
occurs. Neither the rupture nor the predicament is predictable or decid-
able in advance. As trauma psychiatrist Lifton says of survivors of disasters
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Two Trauma Communities 19
and genocides, we may open out, porous and permeable to novation, or
close down, emptied and evacuated, in a traumatized state.
By reading texts at the core of cultural trauma’s preoccupations—fi ction
and poetry, memoirs and witnessingthrough philosophy and critical
theory, I illustrate how philosophical archaeology may approach and re-
fresh our understanding of trauma. I contend that trauma is not the generic
name of a predicament or even of a particular experience but a generic name for
the destruction of experience. Yet it also offers keys for translation—if not
paths of reconciliationamong the communities that address trauma and
Event: those who hold by trauma/Event as a radical disjuncture, those who
hope for a transformation of trauma into Event, and those who harbor the
transcendent view of trauma as Event.
A Philosophical Archaeology of the Concept of “Trauma”
In her genealogy of trauma, Ruth Leys deploys mimetic and anti mimetic
theories of trauma.5 From the perspective of cultural-intellectual his-
tory, Wulf Kansteiner, who cites Leys sympathetically, sees a scientifi c–
metonymic pole and a literarymetaphorical pole of what he describes as a
“trauma discourse spectrum.”6 Because “spectrum” suggests an underlying
order, “dichotomy” or “dialectic” better captures the dynamic tensions
among trauma discourses. Even that is only an approximate characteriza-
tion as at times the two poles of a perceived dichotomy do not acknowl-
edge or communicate with each other, as Kansteiner contends.
In their inquiry into the “empire of trauma,” physician/social anthro-
pologist Didier Fassin and psychiatrist/anthropologist Richard Rechtman
trace a dual genealogy of “post-traumatic stress” which they characterize as
being divided into scientifi c and moral strands. The scientifi c strand, in the
domain of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis, addresses trauma
both theoretically and in practice. The moral strand, related to social con-
ceptions, “traces changes in attitudes to misfortune and to those who suffer
it” and “towards the authenticity of such suffering.”7
Fassin and Rechtman fi nd the way these two strands interact most re-
vealing. Posing a series of questions about how this occurred over time,
across cultures, through disciplines and social discourses, they believe as
I do that the key is in examining this dual genealogy at each crucial turning
point. They see an underlying “discontinuity marked by the end of the his-
torical era of suspicion that hung over victims of violence” (which I char-
acterize as an epistemological shift away from the experiential cut of Karl
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20 Vincenzo Di Nicola
Jaspers’ phenomenological psychiatry) and the more powerful continuity
toward a moral affi rmation of trauma as “the ultimate truth.”8
In some articulations of trauma, these strands are so fi nely interwoven
that separating them requires dexterity to discern the mesh of discourses
and practices. This is the case with the infl uential presentation of cul-
tural trauma by Caruth, which is criticized with precision and clarity by
Wulf Kansteiner and Harald Weilnböck.9 At times, the tissue falls apart in
our hands as we do this work and we lose the very pattern we are trying
to reveal.
A survey of the issues at stake in the history of academic psychology
and psychiatry in defi ning trauma reveals that these revolve around: con-
sciousness and phenomenology; the defi nition of the subject; and issues of
language, memory, and representation. Consulting histories of psychology
and psychiatry, we may eliminate the more partisan forays establishing sec-
tarian claims. First, let us separate the history of madness from the history
of psychiatry, which are not only two different maps, but altogether two
different territories. For our purposes, the history of psychology revolves
around the question of consciousness, both as a philosophical question
and as a technical or methodological matter. The history of modern psy-
chiatry, on the other hand, revolves around the crucial question of the
experiential chasm, as Jaspers put it: Either we can or cannot cross an em-
pathic bridge to understand psychosis, the most alienating experience that
psychiatry had encountered at that time. And psychosis, constructed as
schizophrenia, became in Angela Woods’s resonant phrase, “the sublime
object of psychiatry.10
We can line up all the approaches and contributions around this ques-
tion: whether the subjective experience of psychosis is accessible to psy-
chiatry or not. Those who agree with diagnostic categories (based on
Krae pe lin ian aetiopathologythe so-called “medical model”— or Jaspers’s
phenomenology as a science of signs and symptoms) see a phenomenological
chasm between the psychotic patient and the psychiatrist. Whereas those
who are continually looking for other ways to understand alienating expe-
riences (starting with Viktor Tausk’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the
“infl uencing machine”) explicitly reject (as with R. D. Laing’s social phe-
nomenology) or reframe the question (as with John Watson’s behaviorism
or Gregory Bateson’s systems theory).
With this map of the history of psychology and psychiatry, we may
examine how another cutrupture leading to traumais understood as
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Two Trauma Communities 21
Trauma: A Confusion of Signifi ers
It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are
people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-
alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes, and they
produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in
search, in torment.
yevgeny zamyatin11
The psychiatry of trauma is the psychiatry of the “dead-alive” in Zamya-
tin’s terms, of the “state of exception” and “bare life” in Agamben’s phi-
losophy,12 and what Badiou calls the “reactive subject.”13 The discourse of
psychic trauma is marked by a confusion of signifi ers. There is a confusion
among what we may separate conceptually into predisposing, precipitating,
and prolonging factors of trauma, to which we may add protective factors. This
is the model of the psychiatric formulation employing the biopsychosocial
model. Furthermore, we need to separate direct, immediate traumatic im-
pacts from delayed, latent, or long-term consequences, called sequelae in medi-
cal terms. Finally, we may call this schema a trauma process. The term pro-
cess implies diachronic evolution over time with sequences and a synchronic
interplay of factors at any given moment in time.14 Thus, we may usefully
separate the traumatic process into these factors: (1) predisposing traumatic
contexts or situations that place individuals at risk—we may call these distal
determinants, such as causes and infl uences; (2) precipitating traumatic trig-
gers are proximal determinants; (3) prolonging factors amplify, augment, or
extend the traumatic process synchronically or diachronically; (4) protec-
tive factors dampen, diminish or mitigate the traumatic process.
The key question then becomes: What makes trauma traumatic? Is it
the threat that something hurtful may happen, the experience of the injury
itself, or living with the consequences of the threat of injury? Which aspect
is the trauma and which traumatic? Is this confl ation of predisposing, pre-
cipitating, and perpetuating factors normal? Is this typical in medicine or
psychiatry? Infections work like this; “fl u,” the common term for infl uenza
means the virus, getting infected and suffering with the symptoms. None-
theless, the very notion of medical progress means the clear identifi cation
of different phases of a disease process and its determinants. These are the
psychiatric questions.
In philosophical terms, we need a vocabulary for what Agamben calls
“desubjectivation”—the “dead-alive” (Zamyatin), “bare life” (Agamben),
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22 Vincenzo Di Nicola
and “states of dissociation,”15 but we also need to open space for what Fou-
cault called “subjectivation”—for the Event and for the faithful subject, as
Badiou has described them.16 This distinction opens only the fi rst of many
dichotomies that emerge in every trauma discourse. In the onomasiology
(from Greek, ὀνομάζω onoma¯zo, “to name”) of traumahow we name
trauma—we encounter dichotomies and bivalent notions throughout.
A Dichotomy in Trauma Theories
I think that many philosophers secretly harbor the view that there is
something deeply (i.e., conceptually) wrong with psychology, but a
philosopher with a little training in the techniques of linguistic analysis
and a free afternoon could straighten it out.
jerry fodor17
At fi rst sight, Caruth thus appears to defi ne trauma in ways that are
quite compatible with psychological research on trauma and post-
traumatic stress. However, unlike most of her contemporaries who
study the vicissitudes of mental suffering in a clinical context, Caruth
goes on to celebrate the experience and the concept of trauma as pro-
viding unprecedented insight into the human condition.
wulf kansteiner and harald weilnböck18
Two opinions emerge over cross-disciplinary research: One is from a phi-
losopher who, true to the linguistic or analytic tradition, unveils the belief
that some clear thinking can resolve the conceptual problems of a fi eld like
psychology. Jerry Fodor’s self-deprecatory remark refl ects the thinking of
many empirically oriented psychologists and psychiatrists. Continental
philosophers describe them as positivists although these same empiricists
would update the term with the concept of “the evidence” (as in “evidence-
based medicine”).19 The other opinion, more strongly expressed by two
historians, is that literary and cultural theorists (including philosophers)
who are not trained in clinical work and do not read psychotherapeutic
literature carefully, have confl ated “the traumatic and the non-traumatic,
the exceptional and the everyday” and even “obfuscate the essential dif-
ference between the victims and perpetrators of extreme violence.”20 In
my prologue, I observed that we cannot characterize trauma as a unifi ed
discourse or as a spectrum even with one discipline. What seems to bring
conceptual order to the concept of trauma and to trauma studies is to dis-
cern a dichotomy as a separator or marker that divides the discourses along
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Two Trauma Communities 23
different axes and conceptualizations. This is a meta-concept that creates two
groups, or two poles, around which certain notions or studies or emerging
traditions congeal. Yet any given separator that creates a dichotomy is itself
shifting, porous, and unstable.
In describing two theories of trauma she names mimetic and antimimetic
theories, Ruth Leys lucidly demonstrates that “from the turn of the cen-
tury to the present there has been a continual oscillation between them,
indeed that the interpenetration of one by the other or alternatively the
collapse of one into the other has been recurrent and unstoppable.”21 Fur-
thermore, she notes that historically, the mimetic/antimimetic dichotomy
constantly invites and defeats all attempts to resolve it. Leys predicts that
our current debates are “fated to end in an impasse.22
Leys’s genealogy becomes part of the meta-concept of trauma, such that
her mimetic/antimimetic dichotomy confi rms the notion of a dichotomy
but does not exhaust it. Other dichotomies come into play and while we
can separate their poles, they do not match evenly with each other and are
sometimes even incongruent and incompatible. What I appreciate most
about Leys’s analysis is her conclusion that trauma has a historical struc-
ture, an idea that is congruent with Foucault’s notion of a discursive forma-
tion or épistémè. Trauma, as a concept or theory with its associated prac-
tices, has become an apparatus. In The Order of Things, Foucault invokes
“points of heresy”23described by Étienne Balibar as opposing disciplines
within an épistémè or paradigm that form a structured opposition.24
Not only has “trauma” been constructed and deployed as an apparatus
describing something we want to name and explain, but as Kansteiner and
Leys emphasize, it is hard not to reach for this apparatus as an explanatory
model, with all its confl ations and confusions. Secondly, Leys convincingly
demonstrates that the two theories are intertwined not only across theories
but within each individual theory or group of researchers. In concluding,
Leys acknowledges the intractability of the dichotomy and eschews a meta-
position from which one can assess the aporias that she sees as intrinsic to
this fi eld.
My meta-concept places Leys’s approach within a larger one: Hers is
one dichotomy among others. This is not to say that we can take a stand
above the dichotomy but that if we see it as an apparatus, which is a dis-
course with a strategic function, we can discern that it functions not as
one dichotomy, but an epistemological cut in any possible discourse about
trauma. We see this in the bivalence of crucial terms in this archaeology,
from the word “trauma” itself and the metaphors used to describe it, to the
ways in which “wound” is deployed in Western culture. From Achilles’s
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24 Vincenzo Di Nicola
spear that both cuts and heals,25 to Plato’s pharmakon, which is both a poi-
son and a remedy,26 this bivalence reaches its apogee in the current cultural
theory of trauma which I call trauma as Event.
Leys’s analysis of a historically structured dichotomy and its repetition
is a short step from Derrida’s notions of iterability and dissemination.27 Der-
rida’s notion of iterabilility concerns repetition and differenceeverything is
a trace, a version of something else that both repeats and changes. Through
dissemination, this process always creates a supplement to philosophy, both
inextricable and intractible. In fact, I can think of no better examplar of
Derrida’s theory than Leys’s repetitive, unresolvable mimetic/antimimetic
dichotomy. Impregnated with traces and fostering supplementarity, the
mimetic/antimimetic dichototomy continually disseminates.
Nonetheless, I eschew her pessimistic conclusion that it is intractable.
Her advice is to be pragmatic and that clinicians should not fuss over an
exact fi t between theory and practice. While this is practical, as a clinician
I maintain that there must be a minimal coherence in our interventions
and as a philosopher I hold that it is provided by theory. The alternative is
a kind of blind empiricism or positivist science cobbling together practical
tools with an eye on behavioral outcomes and little regard for scientifi c
merit on one hand and for subjectivity and meaning on the other.
The dichotomy in trauma theories will be intractable insofar as we un-
wittingly repeat it, a point Leys makes lucidly by observing that each gen-
eration rediscovers the notion of traumatic stress. Once we are aware of
trauma as an apparatus, we may more consciously entertain other theories,
as Kansteiner suggests, by fi nding a new lexicon for trauma.
Kansteiner calls for “low-density” psychological concepts that “avoid
the moral and existential excess of the trauma claim,” hoping that greater
conceptual precision will allow us to differentiate between trauma and the
culture of trauma.28 Kansteiner wants to interrupt what philosopher Ian
Hacking calls “looping effects” between professional and public or cultural
My own proposal is more nuanced but also stronger and is the heart
of my thesis. First, I believe that trauma has accrued a supplementarity or
excess (echoing both Derrida and Kansteiner here). This supplementarity
is “overdetermined,” as Freud would say, or more simply, multiply deter-
mined. I suspect that a great proportion of the variation may be attributed
precisely to the “looping effects” between the clinical use of trauma and its
cultural avatar. Second, I believe that we must separate the various ways
in which the word trauma is deployed and differentiate our vocabulary for
these different aspects of the trauma process. Third, and most salient, I
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Two Trauma Communities 25
believe that trauma must be separated radically from Event, which is the
subtext of cultural trauma theory.
Dichotomising Trauma
With this introduction, let us now examine some of the characteristics of
the trauma trope according to two columns or groupings of dichotomies:
aleph and beth. The reason that I do not simply offer a defi nition at the out-
set is to reveal the armature of the construction of the concept and how it
is deployed as an apparatus. We need to know the structure of the armature
so that when we examine what is built around it, we know why it has the
shape it does. The list includes my characterizations of major contributors
to trauma studies.
What this representative but not exhaustive survey demonstrates is that
the word trauma has become too broad and inclusive, too vague and un-
xed, too (am)bivalent and polysemous, too deterministic and fatalistic
an idea. All the other descriptors set the stage for an emblem to emerge
that then binds them into an explanatory notion; once an emblem appears,
it retrospectively creates its own precursors, in the well-known process
Freud called Nachträglichkeit, belatedness or deferred meaning, which La-
can crafted as après-coup. And while it is true that trauma also invokes the
inverse of these terms, its deployment as a trope reveals fi ssures and con-
tradictions that one term cannot contain.
As we see in the epigraphs from Fodor and Kansteiner and Weilnböck,
most scholars read each other’s domains but harbor strong opinions about
their claims. Working on the threshold between disciplines I hear such
confessions all the time. This is no less true for trauma studies. Philoso-
phers such as Badiou do not believe that empiricism will resolve the apo-
rias of ontology and many other domains, and he is dismissive of number
crunching in medicine.30 Culturally responsive researchers hold that em-
pirical studies will clarify the picture of trauma, by conducting qualitative
research with sophisticated methodologies that reach into subjective expe-
rience (for example, experience sampling methods) and personal narratives
and are suspicious of what they see as abstract (read “distant”) philosophi-
cal refl ections.
The tension is not just between ontology and phenomenology. We
could take the theme of trauma (or Event) and unspool a thread through-
out all the major thinkers of the continental tradition (accepting this some-
what arbitrary classifi cation with the caveats that Critchley enunciates in
his treatment of the subject).31 From psychoanalysis to phenomenology,
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א—Aleph בBeth
Oligosemia, asemia (Concreteness,
loss of meaning and expression) Polysemia
a (Sensory and expressive overload)
Broad Narrow
Vague, unfi xed Rigidly defi ned
Ambiguous Clear
Subjective experience Objective experience
Illness as metaphor Metaphor as illness
Victims as emblems of social or political
Phenomenological descriptions of victims’
Resilience Vulnerability
Process Outcome
Vicarious traumatization Direct exposure
Sequential traumatization Discrete incidents, without accumulation
Freudian legacy Kraepelinian legacy
Psychoanalysis Psychiatry
Trauma as event Event as trauma
Mimetic Antimimetic
Threat is incorporated Purely external incident
Identifi cation with aggressor Assault from without
Response is determined by other life
Response due to characteristics of
traumatic incident
Doubts about veracity Trauma victim not complicit in her
Victim’s status as witness doubted Victim is aloof, a spectator of her trauma
Shatters or disables cognitive and perceptual
Victim can see and represent the
experience to herself and others
Memory doubtful Memory preserved
Hermeneutic understanding Positivist /scientistic explanation
Diffi cult to recover memories Memory of the incident recoverable
Object relations model Psycho-economic model
Collapse of internal object relations Excessive arousal
Breakdown of internal communication Uncontainable anxiety breaks through the
stimulus barrier
The experience of total abandonment
precludes integration of trauma by
narrative means
“Pure trauma” which is “nameless”
Special class of “man-made disasters” such
as the Holocaust, war, ethnic persecution,
torture aims to annihilate historical-social
Naming trauma is a historicization after
the fact; the analytic task is to recognize
such screen memories and reconstruct
the authentic story
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Two Trauma Communities 27
Literary-metaphoric pole Scientifi c-metonymic pole
Cultural trauma Psychological, psychotherapeutic
conception of trauma
Lack of historical and moral precision Historically informed accounts
Aestheticizes violence Recognizes suffering
Confl ates experiences (victims, perpetrators,
Accurate distinctions among those
involved in trauma
Moral Scientifi c
Social conceptions Psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis
Trauma as the ultimate truth Discontinuity/era of suspicion
Dominick LaCapra
Everyday psychological challenges Extraordinary psychological ordeals of
extreme violence
Lloyd deMause Philippe Ariès
Childhood is a nightmare Childhood is a cultural invention
Alice Miller Freud
Ubiquitous childhood violence Childhood sexual seduction is a fantasy
Richard Mollica
Witnessing the trauma story Traumatic experiences of everyday life
Resilience, self-healing of victims
a The descriptors in these two columns are based on my reading. These are my terms: oligosemia,
diminished meaning, and asemia, loss of meaning (seen in trauma literature as concreteness, loss of
meaning and expression); polysemia, multiple meaning or surfeit of meaning (describing sensory and
expressive overload).
b Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy.
c These are the key models in current psychoanalytic trauma theories. See Werner Bohleber, “The
Development of Trauma Theory in Psychoanalysis,” in Destructiveness, Intersubjectivity, and Trauma:
The Identity Crisis of Modern Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2010).
d Kanstainer, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake.”
e Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma.
from neo- Kantians to critical theorists, from post-modernism to post-
colonialism, from feminism to cultural studieseveryone has something
to say about trauma. The thoughts about trauma are rich, nuanced, allu-
sive, suggestive, sometimes contradictory and enigmatic but quickly polar-
ize in any discussion.
Leys has documented her thesis well, showing a dichotomy of trauma
theories based on imitation or mimesis. Again, her analysis is powerful
but not exhaustive. My greatest concern, however, is that trauma is too
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28 Vincenzo Di Nicola
pre-conceived and, ultimately, too emblematic a condition. The fact that
there are mimetic and antimimetic features within most theories belies the
probability that this is the single differentiator. My argument is that com-
plex, heterogeneous phenomena are bound to pique our interest and a wish
to bring order to them. Sometimes, the order we perceive is a pragmatic
heuristic to guide our thinking, like Wittgenstein’s ladder that is used to
climb then discarded. When we consider the emotional intensity of the
subject of trauma and the social, academic, and political investments in
trauma as an apparatus, meaning that it serves a strategic function, that
renders it still more complex.
It is important to point out that most complex phenomena can be bro-
ken down into two or more groups, yet the question is to what extent does
such a schema explain the phenomena in causal terms (this translates into
the positivist values of reliability, predictability, and control), how does it
advance a broader understanding on the level of meaning, and is it a prac-
tical plan for action? Several of the contributors cited address the prac-
tical or therapeutic aspects of a given conception of trauma. Leys does
so explicitly, as does Kansteiner on a therapeutic level. Fassin and Recht-
man address broader questions about social and public policy in terms of
trauma victims as witnesses for such things as recognition of their status as
sufferers and gaining refugee status. We could add the dimension of com-
pensation and indemnifi cation of victims of torture, violence, and geno-
cide. Surprisingly, some commentators are transparently indifferent to the
treatment of victims of trauma because they valorize the trauma trope on a
cultural-symbolic level, concerned with philosophical or historical truths.
Manfred Weinberg is cited as an example by Kansteiner and Weilnböck.32
Again, the list items do not line up with complete coherence as they articu-
late different pivots or separators in different domains.
Threshold—עֲקֵידָה—The Akedah: The “Binding” of Isaac
Abraham made everything ready for the sacrifi ce, calmly and quietly,
but as he turned away Isaac saw that Abraham’s left hand was clenched
in anguish, that a shudder went through his bodybut Abraham drew
the knife.
Then they turned home again and Sarah ran to meet them, but Isaac
had lost his faith. Never a word in the whole world is said of this, and
Isaac told no one what he had seen, and Abaham never suspected than
anyone had seen it.
søren kierkegaard33
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John Gerassi: And Kierkegaard? [. . .] How did you react to god order-
ing Abraham to kill his son?
JPS: Not as I was supposed to. To me god was the state ordering its
subject to do as told.
jean-paul sartre in conversation with john gerassi34
“Isaac-Machine”—The Akedah as Apparatus for Children’s Trauma
One of my concerns in working with children and trauma is the use of
children as emblems of adult preoccupations. This is my rule of thumb:
The more that is said about abstract childhood and development, the less at-
tention is given to actual children and their growth. A corollary is the use of
childhood and development as metaphors.35 The word “development,” along
with words such as “culture,” “ideology,” and “trauma,” is among the most
complex words in European languages.36 Neither illnesses nor stages of life
are properly understood metaphorically.37 This approach risks the expro-
priation of experience and difference.
Teleological thinking, that is thinking about something in terms of its
end-state whether as a purpose, goal, or simply as an outcome, is particu-
larly precarious with children. One of the great problems with the notion
of resilience is that we tend to value the outcome over the process, such
that the adult outcome is given more weight than the child’s lived experi-
ence. In my reading of three novels about children during war38 and Primo
Levi’s account of the child Hurbinek in Auschwitz,39 notions such as Adélia
Prado’s desdobravel, “unfolding,”40 and Agamben’s potenza, “potentiality,41
offer valuable alternatives to imagine children’s experiences.
Two other issues with children are especially salient. One concerns
vicarious trauma. Can children be traumatized indirectly by witnessing
trauma? The hypothesis is that their attachment to caregivers renders
them more at risk to be indirectly traumatized if their caregivers are di-
rectly traumatized. The gamut includes being hurt in the same incident,
witnessing the incident against a caregiver, or having the incident about a
caregiver recounted to them.42 Psychological and philosophical questions
include whether this is a question of dependency on adult caregivers, at-
tachment processes between and among signifi cant persons in the life of
the child, and empathy for the pain and suffering of others. These are far
from resolved and my review of this literature reveals a stark problematic:
Our current models of attachment, development, and empathy are woe-
fully inadequate. On the issue of development, the term has lost value as a
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30 Vincenzo Di Nicola
research question and we need other conceptions to understand children’s
emotional, cognitive, and philosophical growth.43 Agamben’s work is very
intriguing and promising here: A subtext of much of his work has been lan-
guage, potenza, infancy and indeterminacy, the threshold between arthron
and phone.44
Finally, a crucial question with children concerns sequential traumatiza-
tion.45 Is it a single, overwhelming incident or traumatic context that trig-
gers a traumatic response, or a series? Do they accumulate? Are there
sleeper effects that lie latent, only to be expressed or become symptom-
atic later? Do they amplify each other? Are there mitigating factors that
dampen the likelihood of a traumatic outcome? Is there a particular se-
quence of incidents or factors that is salient in some way for a given child?
On the other hand, is each day a new life? Should we understand the child
more in terms of his lifeworld in a social web at a given moment and con-
centrate on the relationships and incidents at that moment? Single incident
or a series? A cross-section of the child’s life now or over time? Some of
these questions have been addressed in the historical and public health
research discussed later.
We may add other concepts and theories of children’s trauma to our list.
There is a strong debate about the history of childhood and the family. In
Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariès articulated the thesis that until the
Enlightenment and modernity, children lived in a more undifferentiated
state of being in a supposed golden age of family and social relationships
in Europe. Ariès argued that childhood as a distinct phase of life was a
relatively recent discovery in the West.46 We could say that Ariès did for
childhood and its allied institutions, the family and the school, what Fou-
cault did for the clinic and the prison. Lloyd deMause attacked this thesis
vehemently with his work on the history of childhood: “Ariès’ thesis is the
opposite of mine [. . .] a special condition known as childhood was ‘in-
vented’ in the early modern period, resulting in a tyrannical concept of the
family which destroyed friendship and sociability and deprived children
of freedom.”47 DeMause called for historical research on the “untold story
of child abuse.”48 In this view, there was never a golden age of childhood,
children having been abused and punished since antiquity. I trace the ori-
gins of this story to the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition,
the Akedah, or “binding,” of Isaac. In this story, when Isaac is bound on an
altar for sacrifi ce by his father Abraham at God’s command, an angel in-
tervenes with the injunction, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad.”49 “Isaac-
Machine” is the name we give to an apparatus that generates the myth of
Isaac’s sacrifi ce.50 An apparatus is defi ned as something with “the capacity
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to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the ges-
tures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.”51 Our collective
unwillingness to recognize this social history was refl ected in Freud’s de-
nial of sexual abuse as the sexual fantasies of his female patients.
The study of the relation between childhood adversity and its sequelae
would have to wait a century for the pioneering study of adverse childhood
experiences by Vincent Felitti and associates. The study “found a strong
graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or house-
hold dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of
the leading causes of death in adults.”52 Furthermore, the “seven categories
of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons
with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have mul-
tiple health risk factors later in life.”53 These results address the questions
posed in the preceding paragraph about sequential traumatization and the
cumulative effect of adverse events. This study spawned a cottage industry
of research and refl ection on the medical and mental health consequences
of adverse childhood events and on health risk behaviors.
אAleph—Trauma as a Trope
One way to make sense of this, a hypothesis of the order of Leys’s mimetic/
antimimetic dichotomy, is to see the aleph list as the Freudian legacy.54
Clearly, the positivistic sciences of academic psychology and psychiatry,
which seek objective empirical data for causal explanations, could not tol-
erate this. This happens repeatedly in these fi elds—a creative and gifted
clinician or scholar has an insight and then the “researchers,” the accoun-
tants and bookkeepers of the academy, come along and defi ne and research
the idea to death.55 The beth list is the Kraepelinian legacy. Narrower,
more pathological in its discernments, neo-Kraepelinian psychiatry draws
a sharp line between health and disease (if the investigator is biologically-
oriented or given to evolutionary psychology, both of which favor categor-
ical thinking) or health and illness (if the investigator is more given to the
social sciences and a hermeneutic, socio-cultural or narrative approach).
It is also of note that this dichotomy refl ects a split in psychiatry/
psychoanalysis between the French and the American traditions.56 In both
traditions, trauma is an apparatus in Agamben’s sense of the term. Each of
these approaches engenders risks. Using trauma as a cultural trope means
we have lost the specifi city, the distinctness of the term. It no longer is
simply the name of something, pointing to that something. It becomes a
condition, an emblem of its own. It becomes reifi ed.
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32 Vincenzo Di Nicola
As an apparatus, trauma is a rupture or cut, emblematic of many other
types of cuts. Trauma as a psychiatric disorder is also an apparatus, an ap-
paratus in a different discourseit is a different kind of cut. Psychiatric
trauma implies a dual cut: It conceives of a cut within subjective experience
and places the subject herself in a different category across a chasm be-
tween trauma and normal experience. This is Jaspers’s phenomenological
cutthe chasm between the patient’s experience and the psychiatrist’s ex-
perienceand his lasting legacy. He single-handedly shaped and changed
psychiatry. Ultimately, this is what R. D. Laing confronted in psychiatry in
trying to bridge the chasm established within psychiatry about the nature
of schizophrenia. His entire oeuvre may be understood this way. What is
relevant from his work at this juncture are these thoughts from Laing’s
text: “The term schizoid refers to an individual the totality of whose ex-
perience is split in two main ways: in the fi rst place, there is a rent in his
relation with his world and, in the second, there is a disruption of his rela-
tion with himself.”57 In describing the dual rent or rupture of the schizoid
experience, Laing offers an uncanny mirror of currrent descriptions of
trauma. In fact, just as Leys despairs of resolving the rift in the mimetic/
antimimetic dichotomy she delineated, Laing objected that the technical
vocabulary of psychiatry “consists of words which split man up verbally in a
way which is analogous to the existential splits we have to describe here.”58
Laing also remarked that no view of the person as a unitary whole existed
in the language of psychiatry or psychoanalysis to address the existential
splits he described. Now, whereas historian Leys does not perceive this
possibility, another historian Kansteiner does in his suggestion of fi nding
“low-density” psychological concepts. As a clinician, I believe this project
worthwhile and promising.
בBeth—PTSD Is a Psychiatric Disorder
The beth list,59 as already noted, is the Kraepelinian legacy: more defi ned,
more circumscribed, a more objective etic description in anthropological
terms.60 This list has become the domain of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD) studies by academic psychiatry and psychology, and all that they
imply. There are debates within this camp: “conceptual bracket creep” is
a key one. Precisely because this approach wants to defi ne criteria and use
them for both theoretical and practical clarity in diagnosis and research,
loose boundaries of the criteria whereby the brackets keep expanding (so-
called “bracket creep”) to accommodate more possible types of trauma is
a conceptual threat.61 As a response, psychiatry has created the concept of
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“complex PTSD” for really severe cases. This demonstrates Leys’s thesis
once again: Each pole reacts defensively to maintain its position and defeat
resolution of the dichotomy.
Several more dichotomies are evident in the way that PTSD has been
defi ned and deployed by the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiat-
ric Association. The psychiatric approach emphasizes exposure to an ex-
treme traumatic stressor that involves direct or indirect potential for seri-
ous injury or death to oneself or others. Initially (circa 1980), PTSD was
constructed as a normal response to an abnormal situation and the stress
was on the “trauma” (although clearly implied, the single term “trauma,”
meaning traumatic insult, situation, or vector, is not differentiated from trau-
matic impact, even today). Discussion of vulnerability factors was avoided as
“blaming the victim.” Just a decade later, given that most people do not de-
velop PTSD in response to potentially traumatic incidents, specialists be-
gan to study differential responses. Rather than focus on the traumatizing
incident or situation, research shifted to the qualities of the traumatized
person. PTSD was declared psychopathology, a paradigm shift that clearly
puts the study of trauma in the beth column as a psychiatric disorder, still
considered exceptional but not because traumatic incidents are exceptional
but because individuals who succumb are vulnerable. The most striking
aspect of the defi nition of PTSD is that there are two distinct groups of
signs and symptoms: One involves persistent vivid re-experiencing of the
traumatic incident, the other is expressed in persistent fearful avoidance of
the incident and everything associated with it, from thoughts to situations,
accompanied by numbing, detachment, and withdrawal.62
This difference perceived in the clinical responses to extreme traumatic
stressors is most puzzling. Either we have put together very different sorts
of human experiences that might be better sorted out separately or, as Leys
suggests, it is inherent in the nature of trauma and this generates the di-
chotomy she describes. While I see many other parallel dichotomies, my
meta-concept is an observation of the bivalent history and deployment
of the notion of trauma. It is diffi cult, therefore, to decide whether a di-
chotomy or cut is built into our way of perceiving or whether it is possible
to establish by phenomenological (or other) methods what people experi-
ence in such predicaments to arrive at new ways of understanding trauma.
I hold that it is exceedingly diffi cult to effect such changes by empirical
studies, even with very sophisticated and nuanced ethnographic, context-
sensitive methodologies. As we saw with the nineteenth-century notion of
degeneration, trauma too will pass.63 Theory, clinical practice, and social
discourses interact in such complex ways, including Althusser’s lacunar
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34 Vincenzo Di Nicola
discourse, Foucault’s épistémè and apparatus, Agamben’s paradigm, Hack-
ing’s looping effect, and my notion of nested hegemonies (a complex ap-
paratus whereby parallel or contradictory discourses coexist and subtly re-
inforce each other64), that trauma remains unpredictable, and in its current
confi guration, undecidable.
The notion of “looping effects” described by Hacking addresses the
intertwined nature of theories of trauma. Looping effects are the recip-
rocal infl uences between discourses and apparatuses.65 Hacking gives the
example of diagnoses, which are created and used in practice: The patient
identifi es with the diagnosis and interacts with it, and this in turn loops
back to the clinician. Repeated many times in a community, this loop-
ing exchange between professional and public discourses infl uences how
trauma is perceived, deployed, and subtly reinvented over time.
Absent from my lists are Caruth’s own assertions about her theory.
While Kansteiner is critical of her approach, things are somewhat more
complex and subtle. I see Caruth’s approach and the cultural trauma the-
ory more radically: trauma as Event. In this view, trauma is a limit experi-
ence, shattering known categories such that it becomes incommunicable,
non-representable, beyond language. And yet, it opens something. There
is a sense of awe in the face of life at the limits of life, a wish to “honor”
the experiences there and not impose or demand an accounting of it. As
Kansteiner says, there is an imperative not to disturb it and almost an in-
terdiction of narrative. Again, the mimesis: The trauma is propagated in
ways that cannot be known, even directly experienced; it is merely regis-
tered or imprinted somehow and transmitted through a community and
down the generations. And again, the paradox: mimetic, unknowable, pres-
ent at times in its absence, contagious yet incommunicable. Kansteiner is
provoked by the idea that this should not be disturbed. Systemic family
therapy calls this an isomorphism, whereby a relational process is mirrored
in the observer.66 Psychoanalytic theory names similar processes: transfer-
ence and countertransference.67
I think it possible that this theory does describe part of the lived expe-
rience of trauma and for that reason we should know it, investigate it in
order to identify its presence and ways of spreading as soon as possible,
alleviate it as best we can, and prevent it if at all possible. This is the moral
imprecision of which Kansteiner complains: Surely, no matter what truths
and knowledge about life emerge from the testimony of trauma survivors,
no one would wish torture, violence, and desubjectivation to receive it.68
Let us understand, however, that this risk inheres in the study of hor-
ror. The vicarious entering into another life—lifeworld as Husserl called
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it, simply world for Badiou, and predicament for me69is the most precari-
ous of things. Not for nothing did Jaspers introduce the phenomenologi-
cal chasm we experience in the encounter with radical alterity. The tools
available to surmount that alterityanalogy and metaphor, “fortunate
confusion” and digression, contradiction and irrelevance, and many other
tropesare imperfect and should be used with caution.70
Trauma psychiatrist Mollica counsels us to listen to the “trauma story”;71
Miller wrote about being an “enlightened witness”;72 LaCapra suggests
we can glean a faint echo of suffering even on the screen by a process he
calls “emphatic unsettlement” (which sounds like the receptive version of
Brecht’s alienation effect), understood by Kansteiner as a “dispositional
unease,” based on our capacity for mimetic affection.73 These efforts at
empathy are worthwhile no matter their limits. My most important reser-
vation is that we do not arrive at extreme or categorical judgments based on
empathy, as Jaspers did. Above, I wrote that the phenomenological chasm
refl ects the diffi culties of reaching others; thus we should avoid dichoto-
mous thinking based on empathy alone. Amazingly, Caruth and cultural
trauma theory seem to join Jaspers and phenomenological psychiatry on
this point: trauma today brings usvictim and interlocutor togetherto
the limits of being and of communicability just as schizophrenia did for
Trauma Psychiatry
The act of naming is the great and solemn consolation of mankind.
elias canetti74
Trauma psychiatry is the reconfi guration of the fi eld of psychiatry around the
“ubiquity of the contemporary politics of trauma,” coalescing three emer-
gent fi elds described by Fassin and Rechtman in The Empire of Trauma as
“psychiatric victimology, humanitarian psychiatry, and the psychotrauma-
tology of exile.”75 This reconfi guration naturalizes the concept of trauma,
universalizes it, and demonstrating Hacking’s “looping effect,” trauma is
no longer confi ned to psychiatric diagnosis, rather it is now “embedded in
everyday usage.”76 In a chilling parallel of the concerns of thoughtful and
incisive scholars such as Kansteiner and Weilbock, LaCapra and Leys, Fas-
sin and Rechtman argue that trauma is the new language of the event.77
This new fi eld is directed at a new public. Fassin and Rechtman ob-
serve that the new task of psychiatry is not to treat people who are sick but
who are “suddenly affected by the impact of abnormal events.”78 In a very
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36 Vincenzo Di Nicola
precise Foucauldian formulation, they note a dual social innovation: “the
invention of new areas of knowledge and practices, and the discovery of
new patients and subjects.”79
This grasps my essential claim about the age of trauma. From its pas-
sionate advocates, above all Caruth who has articulated cultural trauma
theory in an accessible and infl uential manner, with an anti-clinical spin
by Weinberg where trauma is treasured and not to be trampled upon by re-
membrance and narrative, to its concerned critics ranging from Fassin and
Rechtman’s dispassionate sociocultural inquiry to more militant attacks
from Leys, Kansteiner, and Weilnbock—trauma has become ubiquitous,
embedded in the quotidian, and the subject of new fi elds. The invocation
of trauma’s estate refl ects Andre Malraux’s novel of the failed fi rst Chinese
revolution, Man’s Estate. The failure in the case of trauma is a double one,
of both politics and cultures.80
Trauma as Distributed Phenomena
There is a relationship between the defi nition of the subject and the defi -
nition of trauma. In Badiou’s ontology, one becomes a subject through a
tripartite process of recognizing, naming, and being faithful to an Event.
In my work, the subject is not bounded by the skin of the individual but
is defi ned as a distributed/relational subject.81 In relational psychology,
which is a cognate of intersubjective psychoanalysis and social psychiatry,
subjectivity/identity is distributed, which means it is contextual, relational,
dialogic.82 Each of these terms is both distinct and overlapping. “Con-
textual” means that an individual is situated in a community, a world in
Badiou’s terms. “Relational” means that encounters and exchanges occur
among subjects in their worlds. “Dialogic” means that encounters and ex-
changes take the form of language and form discourses.
In the tripartite process of the Event, something that arises from the
evental site must be recognized and named before it can be pronounced an
Event. Elisabeth Cathely, a character in Badiou’s novel, Calme Bloc Ici-Bas,
insists that even a terrorist gesture, an act of rebellion that is obvious,
must be named: “What happens, everything that really happens, should
be signed. Only nothing is anonymous.”83 Badiou’s naming is very clearly
a relational and dialogic process. In Badiou’s ontology, as in relational psy-
chology, naming implies a dialogue, as community. The third part of the
process of the Event is fi delity. Elisabeth demonstrates fi delity even as the
Event is emerging, which she insists on naming. It becomes a recipro-
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cal process of recognition-naming-fi delity. From this process, the subject
arises/constructs itself.
Not only is the subject situated and distributed, but trauma itself is a
distributed notion. One word is inadequate to indicate the complex facets
involved in trauma. For simplicity, we may describe them as Tt, the Trauma
trigger, Tp, the Trauma process, and Ti, the Trauma impact:
Tt = Trauma trigger (aspects: incident, stressor, vector)
Tp = Trauma process (aspects: context, predicament, evental site)
Ti = Trauma impact (aspects: reactions, consequences, sequelae)
All three facets of trauma are distributed. It is not diffi cult to agree that
trauma triggers (Tt) are potentially distributed across persons: they are in
the environment, natural or human, e.g., an earthquake, a plague, terror-
ism or war. Nor is it diffi cult for relational therapists and child psychiatrists
to perceive the predicament of trauma (Tp) as an interpersonal process
where the burden of trauma is shared with signifi cant others in a family
or a community, sometimes amplifying (the horror of seeing a loved one
attacked), sometimes mitigating (the reassuring presence of a signifi cant
person) the individual’s suffering. Furthermore, social psychiatry, commu-
nity psychiatry and public health— all of which adopt a group, community
or popoulational approacheasily see trauma as distributed phenomena.
Finally, trauma impact (Ti) must also be seen as distributed. The construc-
tion of trauma, from how it is experienced to how it is signifi ed, is an in-
terpersonal process as well. This does not deny individual experience but
rather places it in a more comprehensive framework. This might appear to
be at odds with more biological modelsneurobiology and genetics for
exampleor some psychoanalytic models emphasizing individual history
and psychic structure (see Werner Bohleber) but it is not: many genes are
modulated by the environment and neurophysiology and biochemistry also
respond to social context, not to mention pathophysiological processes.
For example, blood pressure is exquisitely sensitive to social context and
people have the physiological accompaniment of anxiety such as rapid res-
pirations and accelerated heartbeats triggered by the slightest of stimuli.
Whereas Event opens possibilities, trauma closes them. Whereas the
evental site (predicament, world) opens the possibility of the Event and
through fi delity, too, the Event/subject comes into being (i.e., subjectiva-
tion), the closure of possibilities through trauma eclipses the subject (i.e.,
leads to desubjectivation). A corollary is that if an Event can and must be
named, trauma, through a process of desubjectivation, is nameless. This is why
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38 Vincenzo Di Nicola
Levi feels compelled to witness and to allow those who cannot talk to “wit-
ness through these words of mine.”84 Is that what Adorno meant in his
controversial declaration about poetry after Auschwitz? Is poetry a wit-
nessing, a naming?
Let us not be confused or confl ate matters. Even when careful docu-
mentation can unequivocally describe what happened, this is not the same
as naming it.85 To name something means to grasp its meaning deeply, to
seize its decisive features, to know it ontologically. An external descrip-
tion cannot exhaust everything that can and must be said about it. It is not
phenomenology, which is concerned with appearances, but ontology that
confers a name. Ontologically, true trauma cannot be named; it remains
nameless. Phenomenologically, we can describe it, seize its shape, and out-
line its borders. But, we do not enter it.
Returning to Adorno (and if we approach Auschwitz, we cannot avoid
him) is neither an endorsement nor a criticism but rather an acknowledge-
ment of the seriousness of the wager he made about Auschwitz. He is not
a weather-forecaster, a diviner, or a soothsayer. He was looking at what
occurred and had the decency to express shame and regret. There is a se-
riousness of purpose in Adorno, even if we defi ne the aporias differently.
And yet, there are diffi culties with the construction “after Auschwitz.”
As Jean-François Lyotard notes, “ ‘After’ implies a periodization. Adorno
counts time (but what time?) from ‘Auschwitz.’ 86 Lyotard asks, “What era
ends and what era begins with this event?”87 We may make suggestions
about where to place the brackets for the Event, attaching them provision-
ally to certain fi gures or circumstances. Like my meta-concept of dichoto-
mising trauma or the phenomenological gesture of “bracketing,” Adorno
offers Auschwitz as a model, not an example. An example illustrates an idea
but remains indifferent to it; a model “brings negative dialectics into the
real.”88 Lyotard captures this presciently:
This model responds to this reversal in the destiny of the dialectic: it
is the name of something (of a para-experience, of a paraempiricity)
wherein dialectics encounters non-negatable negative (un négatif non
niable), and abides in the impossibility of redoubling that negative into
a “result.” Wherein the mind’s wound is not scarred over.89
Let us pause on this a little longer. Wittgenstein posed the question, “How
does one philosopher address another?” Answer: “Take your time.”90 Jean-
François Lyotard expressed the namelessness of trauma with one of the
most trenchant analogies about the camps: How does one measure an
event when all the instruments for its measurement are broken? Geoffrey
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Hartmann acknowledges this yet notes the aftershocks are felt and that
new instruments must be built.91
One more thought from Lyotard reading Adorno which is related to
how Lyotard imagines limit experiences. Lyotard makes much more acces-
sible what others say in more abstract language. In place of Adorno’s “after
Auschwitz,” Lyotard says “within Auschwitz”:
The Auschwitz model would designate an experience of language which
brings speculative discourse to a halt. The latter can no longer be pursued
after Auschwitz, that is, within Auschwitz. Here would be found a name
within which we cannot think, or not completely. [. . .] It would be a
name of the nameless. [. . .] It would be a name which designates what has
no name in speculation, a name for the anonymous. And what for specula-
tion remains simply the anonymous.92
Annotation on Trauma: Catachresis/Apostrophe
Let us consider the Greek defi nition of catachresis (or abusio in Latin) in the
rhetoric of Aristotle: “in naming something that does not have a proper
name of its own, metaphor should be used.”93 A classical deployment af-
rmed that catachresis, “ocurs when a new, bold, or improper name is used
for the literal or proper one.”94 Catechresis is a supple rhetorical device
often invoked in the Latin sense of abuse or misuse, but more interestingly
in the sense of a place marker, “taking the place of” and “standing in for.”
This is the sense that emerges from Thomas Zummer’s discussion of
Narcissus’ refl ex—“that initial, momentary, arrestment of the body as
Narcissus stared, immobile and transfi xed”95—where he takes his refl ec-
tion to be another:
It is this dual aspect in mediationsuture et rupture that constitutes
what one might call a science-fi ctional body, a body both technical and
irreal which cohabits the spaces of the real. A body which, as both
appearance and apprehension, partakes of the real, even as it forms a
catachresis, a scar, sealing over, marking the place of the real, a space it
cannot ever fully occupy, or fi ll.96
Building on this, we may elabroate trauma as a rhetorical confi guration ar-
ticulating the gestures “rupture/continuity” with the tropes “catachresis/
apostrophe”: Trauma, defi ned as a rupture, fi ssure, negativity or absentation
may be considered, from the point of view of a rhetorical confi guration, as a form
of catachresis, a trope which, in this case, means a “sealing over” or “cover-
ing” of a break, absence, or aporia. However, it is also the case that catachresis is
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40 Vincenzo Di Nicola
neither wholly stable nor is it pure, which is to say that it is not unaffected by other
forms of fi guration. A more appropriate description of trauma, therefore, may be
that it operates like a catachresis, which is at the same time also an apostrophe
(a “turning away,” Latin: aversio, French: volte-face). The catechretic “scar”
or “cicatrice” turns away from itself—that is, from the wound—only to return
again, as another form of address, possibly elsewhere.
Trauma: The Destruction of Experience
You have therefore come to this house to destroy.
What have you destroyed in me?
You have destroyed, simply
—with all my past life—
the idea that I have always had of myself.
pier paolo pasolini97
We can now weave various strands from Adorno and Lyotard together
with Agamben and Badiou to defi ne trauma and make a map of trauma’s
estate. Earlier, we said, if Event must be named, trauma is nameless. Badiou
teaches us that the Event must have a name. Adorno teaches us the name-
lessness of trauma. Agamben, in exploring desubjectivation in our time, is
in a sense, the antipsychologist, the antiphenomenologist. Let me explain:
If phenomenology, starting with Hegel is the “science of the experience
of consciousness,” which has been the core preoccupation of modern psy-
chology—we see this manifestly in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s psychology
of perceptionthen Agamben has explored repeatedly and in different
ways in his opere fi losofi che the destruction of experience. This is why as a
child specialist I am so taken with his key work, Infancy and History, which
is quite simply an antiphenomenology of childhood.98
In trauma’s estate, trauma is not the generic name of a predicament or even of
a particular experience but a generic name for the destruction of experience.
Understand: not the destruction merely of a given experience but of a
capacity for experience.99 This is what makes it the opposite of Event. With
this defi nition, we can again examine the dichotomous columns of signs
and symptoms of trauma and theories of trauma and begin to pose the
larger and more signifi cant question of the relation between trauma and
Event. We may understand that trauma can mean the loss of memory and
the coarsening and concretization of language (loss of symbolic meaning
and metaphoric communication) and the diminution of conscious human
being. In an essay on states of exception and states of dissociation, I cata-
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Two Trauma Communities 41
logued a disquieting group of contemporary experiences from alexithymia
to cyranoids and zombies with the concomitant increase of a passive, disso-
ciative ventroloquism.100
Trauma evidences desubjectivation such that in the strict sense, one
cannot speak of a traumatized subject. A traumatized person begins to lose
his subjectivity, the nadir of which becomes the Muselmänner—such totally
desubjectivated entities that they enter an indeterminate zone between the
human and non-human, the dissociative dummies of the ventriloquism of
power, living a bare life, denuded of the word.101 In a reversal of our bodily
nature where consciousness takes the form of the neurophysiological ap-
paratus which we may call incarnated thought, in the state of exception
trauma means bodies speaking words, like Hurbinek’s meager mastiklo or
Epilogue: Disarming the Desubjectivation Machine
The modern state functions [. . .] as a kind of desubjectivation machine.
giorgio agamben103
In the survivor experience, one can either close down or open out.
robert jay lifton104
Philosophical archaeology allows us to discern the relationships among
rupture (predicament, state of exception, Evental site), trauma (the destruc-
tion of experience, of the possibility of experience), and Event (contingent,
unpredictable, undecidable). In this investigation, I have invoked the work
of Agamben as the philosopher of desubjectivation and Badiou as the phi-
losopher of the Event. I have opposed trauma to Event, making absolute
distinction between them; trauma does not conduce to Event, Event does
not arise from trauma. The Akedah (“Isaac-Machine”), “Achilles’ spear”
and other apparatuses are located in what Agamben calls a “zone of in-
difference” or what Badiou calls an “evental site.” Human predicaments
emerge in evental sites, where rupture occurs. Neither the rupture nor the
predicament is predictable or decidable in advance. As trauma psychia-
trist Lifton says of survivors of disasters and genocides, echoing Amichai’s
poem, we may open out, porous and permeable to novation, or close down,
emptied and evacuated, in a desubjectivated, traumatized state. This offers
keys for translationif not paths of reconciliationamong the commu-
nities that address trauma and Event: those who hold by trauma/Event as
a radical disjuncture, those who hope for a transformation of trauma into
Event, and those who harbor the transcendent view of trauma as Event.
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42 Vincenzo Di Nicola
In a boldly original doctoral dissertation with Badiou, Terrence Hands-
comb proposes the theory of a subject-body in the form of an abstract mu-
tant automaton: “Mutant automata are not the faithful subjects of events.
Following the occurrence of a pseudodialectic turn of events, mutant-
automaton-subjects instead suffuse the registers of the imaginary at the
level of the symptom.”105 This philosophical proposition has already taken
dramatic shape in the desubjectivated bodies of the Muselmänner of the
Nazi death camps.106 And we risk repeating it in dissociative states as cyra-
noids and zombies in our current state of exception.107
Caveat: Poetry, prose, memoir can still express what must be said,
give form and voice to what will not lie still, but within Auschwitz, to read
Adorno through Lyotard, they will not redeem us. If we grant so much
power to the word, why is it that writers who wield it with awe-inspiring
capacities themselves despair of the word, and all-too-often, of life itself?
When he was asked why he wrote plays when he despaired of saying some-
thing of value, Samuel Beckett famously replied, “They’re only words; it’s
all we have.”108 Eugene Ionesco wrote in his journal, “But not everything
is unsayable, only the living truth.”109
Beautiful words, sounds, and images are no longer adequate. They have,
as Adorno anguished and warned, become entertainment.110 They will not
protect us, despite Mollica’s moving appeal in his work, Healing Invisible
Wounds. They may comfort us, make the pain more bearable and offer vis-
tas of beauty that are possible in another life, “under another sky” in Levi’s
haunting phrase. Some of those who survived Auschwitz found the words
to become a messenger, to express bitterness, to laugh darkly, or to become
a witness. Yet poets Paul Celan and Jean Améry committed suicide. Ta-
deusz Borowski committed suicide and Primo Levi’s death was pronounced
a suicide.
Isaac-Machine, the apparatus that governs child abuse, and other ma-
chinesstarting with what Agamben calls the “anthropological machine,”
followed by Auschwitz-Machine, Gulag-Machine, and all the machines for
destruction and desubjectivationwill have to be dismantled and rendered
inoperative.111 If not, the minefi eld that I call predicament (where rupture
occurs) and in which we may discern states of exception (or evental sites)
will shut down our lives into trauma. In our current predicament, philo-
sophical archaeology, snif ng out the apparatuses and the machines like
a bomb-detector, must identify and disarm them. Only then can we pa-
tiently wait to see if we will recognize the Events that are scattered around
us like so many haphazard fragments of a puzzle.
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Threshold—“We Are All No More Than Haphazard Fractions”
What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle—what
if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things fl oating around in it, and from
time to time some of them get stuck together by chance to make some
kind of whole? What if everything that exists is fragmentary, incom-
plete, aborted, events with ends but no beginnings, events that only
have middles, things that have fronts or rears but not both, with us
constantly making categories, seeking out, and reconstructing, until we
think we can see total love, total betrayal and defeat, although in reality
we are all no more than haphazard fractions.
Perfection, fullness, excellence are all rare exceptions they occur
only because there is such an excess, so unimaginably much of every-
thing! The daily commonplace is automatically regulated by the
world’s vastness, its infi nite variety; because of it, what we see as gaps
and breaches complement each other; the mind, for its own self-
preservation, fi nds and integrates scattered fragments. Using religion
and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble
all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of
things, to make everything respond in one unifi ed voice like a bell
chiming to our glory. But it’s only soup [. . .] The mathematical order
of the universe is our answer to the pyramids of chaos.
stanislaw lem, the investigation112
This chapter is based on a presentation to the Harvard Program in Refugee
Trauma, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Mass., October 15, 2012,
and my doctoral dissertation, Vincenzo Di Nicola, Trauma and Event: A
Philosophical Archaeology (Saas-Fee, Wallis, Switzerland: European Graduate
School, 2012).
1. Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open, trans. Chana Bloch and Chana
Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), 6. Amichai’s poem takes its inspira-
tion from the Babylonian Talmud. “Threshold” is a key notion throughout
my work on culture and trauma, inspired by anthropologist Victor Turner’s
work on liminality, transitional states, and threshold people. See Vincenzo
Di Nicola, On the Threshold. Selected Papers. Volume I: Culture, Families and
Culture Change (New York: Atropos Press, forthcoming). Havdalah, meaning
“separation” in Hebrew, is a Jewish ritual marking the end of the Shabbath
and the beginning of the work week. Like the Sabbath, havdalah is a shib-
boleth, a marker punctuating difference and change; it opens and closes, and
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44 Vincenzo Di Nicola
is itself on the cusp between the sacred and the profane. As such, the thresh-
old is a zone of indistinction, a central theme in the philosophy of Giorgio
Agamben. Cf. Entries on “Indistinction” and “Threshold” in The Agamben
Dictionary, ed. Alex Murray and Jessica Whyte (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni-
versity Press, 2011).
2. Cathy Caruth, Introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed.
Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 11.
3. Philosophical archaeology is a philosophical-historical method refi ned
by Giorgio Agamben, in the footsteps of Michel Foucault. Agamben traces
the term from Immanuel Kant. An archaeology of the term itself reveals
it to be embedded in successive strata of thought from Nietzsche’s “criti-
cal history” to Foucault’s “epistemological fi eld, the épistémè,” where we see
glimpses of Freud’s “regression,” Marcel Mauss’s “historical a priori,” Franz
Overbeck’s “prehistory,” Georges Dumézil’s “fringe of ultra-history,” and
Walter Benjamin’s “prehistory and post-history.” The link between psycho-
analytic regression and archaeology was intuited by Paul Ricoeur, carefully
elaborated by Enzo Melandri, and explicitly connected to the task of philoso-
phy through Foucault by Agamben. Agamben constructs a genealogy from
Kant and Nietzsche, connecting Freud and Foucault to forge a subtle and fer-
tile method of philosophical inquiry. Adapted from my doctoral dissertation,
Vincenzo Di Nicola, Trauma and Event. Cf. William Watkin, “The Signature
of All Things: Agamben’s Philosophical Archaeology,” MLN 129 (2014).
4. Giorgio Agamben, “Philosophical Archaeology,” in The Signature of
All Things, trans. Luca D’Isanto and Kevin Attell (New York: Zone Books,
2009), 89.
5. Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2000).
6. Wulf Kanstainer, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intel-
lectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor,Rethinking History: The
Journal of Theory and Practice 8 (2004).
7. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An
Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Rachel Gomme (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2009), 8.
8. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 9, emphasis added.
9. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 9; Wulf Kansteiner
and Harald Weilnböck, “Against the Concept of Cultural Trauma or How
I Learned to Love the Suffering of Others without the Help of Psychother-
apy,” in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Hand-
book, eds. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008).
10. Angela Woods, The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clini-
cal and Cultural Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
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11. Yevgeny Zamyatin, “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other
Matters,” ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg, in A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny
Zamyatin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 110.
12. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2005).
13. Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Louise Burchill
(Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2011).
14. See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles
Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Reidleinger, trans.
Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1983).
15. Vincenzo Di Nicola, “States of Exception, States of Dissociation:
Cyranoids, Zombies and Liminal People,” in Letters to a Young Therapist: Rela-
tional Practices for the Coming Community (New York: Atropos Press, 2011).
16. Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy.
17. Jerry A. Fodor, Psychological Explanation: An Introduction to the Philoso-
phy of Psychology (New York: Random House, 1968), vii.
18. Kansteiner and Weilnböck, “Against the Concept of Cultural
Trauma,” 230.
19. See: Alison Faulkner and Phil Thomas, “Editorial: User-led Research
and Evidence-based Medicine,” British Journal of Psychiatry 180 (2002): 1–3;
D. D. R. Williams and Jane Garner, “The Case Against ‘The Evidence’: A
Different Perspective on Evidence-based Medicine,” British Journal of Psy-
chiatry 180 (2002): 8–12.
20. Kansteiner, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake,” 194.
21. Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy, 299.
22. Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy, 305.
23. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sci-
ences (New York: Pantheon, 1970).
24. Nicolas Duvoux and Pascal Sévérac, “Citizen Balibar: An Interview
with Étienne Balibar,” trans. Michael C. Behrent, Books and Ideas (Novem-
ber 26, 2012).
25. “Violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has in-
icted,” Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface, in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth,
trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 30.
26. Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara
Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
27. Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Cf. Niall Lucy, A Derrida Dic-
tionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); Simon Morgan Wortham, The Derrida
Dictionary (London: Continuum, 2010).
28. Kansteiner, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake,” 195.
29. Kanstainer, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake.” The elaboration of
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46 Vincenzo Di Nicola
Hacking’s “looping effects” is mine. See Ian Hacking, “The Looping Effect
of Human Kinds” in Causal Cognition: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. Dan
Sperber, David Premack, Ann James Premack (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon
Press, 1995).
30. Alain Badiou states, “We live in the era of number’s despotism [. . .].
And medicine itself, apart from its pure and simple reduction to its scientifi c
Other (molecular biology) is a disorderly accumulation of empirical facts,
a huge web of blindly tested numerical correlations.” Number and Numbers,
trans. Robin Mackay (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2008) 1–2 (emphasis in
31. Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Ox-
ford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
32. See Kansteiner and Weilnböck, “Against the Concept of Cultural
Trauma,” 231. “Weinberg states explicitly that ‘the clinical aspect is pre-
cisely what does not interest meor only in a marginal way about
trauma’ (173).”
33. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (New
York: Penguin Books, 2006), 13.
34. John Gerassi, ed. and trans., Talking with Sartre: Conversations and
Debates (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 54.
35. Vincenzo Di Nicola, “On the Rights and Philosophy of Children,”
Transcultural Psychiatry 32, no. 1 (1995).
36. See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
(London: Fontana, 1983); Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan
Morris, eds., New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Ox-
ford: Blackwell, 2005); Barbara Cassin, Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies:
Dictionnaire des Intraduisables (Paris: Le Seuil / Le Robert, 2004).
37. Illness as metaphor has been explored forcefully by Susan Sontag:
Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978); AIDS and Its
Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989); Regarding the Pain of
Others (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).
38. Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, Elsa
Morante’s History: A Novel.
39. Primo Levi, The Truce, trans. Stuart Woolf (Boston: Little, Brown,
1965), 23.
40. The affi rmative ending of Adélia Prado’s great mission poem, “Com
licença poética,” is “Mulher é desdobrável. Eu sou.” With poetic licence: A
woman unfolds and unfurls. I do. In Adélia Prado, Poesia Réunida (São Paulo:
Siciliano, 1991, my translation).
41. “Man is a being of pure potentiality [potenza pura], which no identity
and no vocation can exhaust”: Giorgio Agamben, La Potenza del Pensiere:
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Two Trauma Communities 47
Saggi e Conferenze (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2005), 330 (my translation, empha-
sis added).
42. Vincenzo Di Nicola, “Ethnocultural Aspects of PTSD and Related
Disorders Among Children and Adolescents,” in Ethnocultural Aspects of
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Issues, Research, and Clinical Applications, ed.
A. J. Marsella, M. J. Friedman, E. T. Gerrity, et al. (Washington: American
Psychological Association, 1996).
43. Gareth Matthews concluded that either children ask serious philo-
sophical questions or philosophy is not a mature activity. Work on children’s
ethical and scientifi c thinking suggests we need new ways to think about
“development.” See Gareth B. Matthews, The Philosophy of Childhood (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); David Archard, Children: Rights
and Childhood (London: Routledge, 1993); Di Nicola, “On the Rights and
Philosophy of Children.”
44. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience,
trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 2007).
45. Hans Keilson, “Sequential Traumatization of Children,” Danish Medi-
cal Bulletin 27, no. 5 (1980).
46. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life,
trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Vintage, 1962).
47. Lloyd deMause, “The Evolution of Childhood,” in The History of
Childhood: The Untold Story of Child Abuse, ed. Lloyd deMause (New York:
Peter Bedrick Books, 1988), 5.
48. deMause, “The Evolution of Childhood,” back cover.
49. Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. with an Introduction by Judah
Goldin. New Preface by Judah Goldin (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Pub-
lishing, 1993).
50. Beyond referencing “apparatus” in the Foucault/Agamben sense,
“Isaac-Machine” was inspired by German playwright Heiner Müller’s ex-
traordinary play Die Hamletmaschine / “Hamlet Machine.” See Heiner Müller,
Hamlet-Machine and Other Texts for the Stage, ed. and trans. Carl Weber
(New York: PAJ, 1984).
51. Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” in What Is an Apparatus
and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2009), 14. Agamben’s defi nition of apparatus follows a read-
ing of Michel Foucault’s work.
52. Vincent J. Felitti, R.F. Anda, N. Nordenberg, et al., “Relationship
of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Lead-
ing Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no. 4 (1998), 245.
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48 Vincenzo Di Nicola
53. Felitti, Anda, Nordenberg, et al., “Relationship of Childhood Abuse
and Household Dysfunction.”
54. In Hebrew, aleph, representing the number 1, is the fi rst letter of the
Hebrew alphabet and the word, emeth, meaning truth. The legend of the
Golem has it that to deactivate the clay Golem, which had exceeded its mis-
sion, the Rabbi who created him erased aleph, the fi rst letter of emeth, written
on its foreword to animate it, leaving only meth, meaning death.
55. An example is René Girard’s mimetic theory, which is rich in explana-
tory power and a goldmine for the analysis of a broad variety of social and
cultural practices. Although he argued it was easy to verify rivalry in infants,
such experimentation, Girard concluded, would be “of limited value. It would
not be at the intellectual level of the theory [. . .] which cannot be subjected
to empirical verifi cation or falsifi cation through empirical testing, or the
canons of contemporary science, especially the principle of falsifi ability. The
complexity [. . .] is too great for that.” See René Girard, “The Anthropology
of the Cross: A Conversation with René Girard,” in The Girard Reader, ed.
James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996), 277.
56. For a perspective on the evolution of psychoanalysis in France by an
American, see Sherry Turkle, “French Anti-psychiatry,” in Critical Psychiatry:
The Politics of Mental Health, ed. David Ingleby (Harmondsworth: Penguin
Books, 1981), 15083. For a French perspective, compare Alain Badiou and
Élisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan Past and Present: A Dialogue, trans. Jason
E. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
57. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Mad-
ness (London: Tavistock, 1960), 17.
58. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self, 19.
59. In Hebrew, beth representing the number 2, functions as a preposition
meaning in, at, or with. The name of the letter is a homonym for the Hebrew
word for house. I associate it with this group, which is more enclosed or
encased, “housed” within certain limits.
60. The emic/etic distinction originating in linguistics is used in anthro-
pology and other social sciences to denote subjective emic descriptions of
insiders versus objective etic descriptions from outsiders.
61. See Richard McNally, Remembering Trauma (Cambridge: Belknap/
Harvard, 2003), 281.
62. See Richard J. McNally, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” in Kaplan &
Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, ed. Benjamin J.
Sadock, Virginia Alcott Sadock, and Pedro Ruiz (Philadelphia: Lippincott,
Williams and Wilkins, 2009).
63. Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–1918
(Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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Two Trauma Communities 49
64. In Primo Levi’s witnessing of Auschwitz, I discerned nested hegemonies,
a complex apparatus where “parallel (e.g., the eugenics movement, the New
Man, Nazi anti-Semitism) or even apparently contradictory (e.g., Aryan
superiority, Ashkenazi exclusivity) discourses may not only coexist but subtly
reinforce each other.” Vincenzo Di Nicola, Trauma and Event, 36.
65. Hacking, “The Looping Effect of Human Kinds.”
66. See “Isomorphism” in The Language of Family Therapy, ed. Fritz B.
Simon, et al. (New York: Family Process Press, 1985).
67. See: Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontilis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis,
trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. (London: The Hogarth Press and the Insti-
tute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973).
68. For examples of such searing and pained testimony, see Primo Levi,
Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier, 1961); Paul
Celan, “Sprich Auch Du,” in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John
Felstiner (New York: Norton, 2001), 76.
69. Vincenzo Di Nicola, A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families, and
Therapy (New York: Norton, 1997), 119.
70. These tropes are drawn from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambi-
guity (London: The Hogarth Press,1984). Recall Sontag’s concerns about the
uses of metaphor.
71. Richard Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in
a Violent World (New York: Harcourt, 2006).
72. Alice Miller, “The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Soci-
73. Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 41 and, passim; Kanstainer, “Geneal-
ogy of a Category Mistake,” 211–12.
74. Elias Canetti, The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations, trans. H. F. Broch
de Rothermann (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).
75. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 10.
76. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 6.
77. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 6.
78. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 10.
79. Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 10.
80. André Malraux, Man’s Estate, trans. Alastair MacDonald (London,
Metheun: 1948).
81. Vincenzo Di Nicola, A Stranger in the Family.
82. Vincenzo Di Nicola, Letters to a Young Therapist.
83. Alain Badiou, Calme Bloc Ici-Bas (Paris: P.O.L., 1997), 383 (my
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50 Vincenzo Di Nicola
84. Primo Levi, The Truce, 23.
85. Agamben and Badiou address the names attributed to the destruc-
tion of European Jews. Agamben criticizes the word Holocaust (Remnants
of Auschwitz, 28–31), Badiou the term Shoah. Celan referred to this series
as “that which occurred.” I share Raul Hilberg’s concern about names and
numbers: They gloss over individual suffering, augmented by the sequential
traumatization and impacts of each life, multiplied by all those who share
or witness that suffering. Aggregating such suffering by names or numbers,
where the multitude becomes one (for example, a genocide, the Holocaust),
runs counter to a philosophy of the multiple.
86. Jean-François Lyotard, “Discussions, or Phrasing ‘After Auschwitz,’
in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1989),
36092; 363.
87. Lyotard, “Discussions, or Phrasing ‘After Auschwitz.’
88. Lyotard cites Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; Lyotard, “Discussions, or
Phrasing ‘After Auschwitz,’ ” 363.
89. Lyotard, “Discussions, or Phrasing ‘After Auschwitz,’ ” 363.
90. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans.
Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 80.
91. “The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard surmised that the
shock of the Holocaust was so great it destroyed the very instruments by
which it could have been measured. But the aftershocks are measurable: we
are deep into the process of creating new instruments to record and express
what happened. The instruments themselves, the means of expression are
now, as it were, born of trauma.”—Geoffrey H. Hartmann, The Longest
Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2002), 1.
92. Hartmann, The Longest Shadow, 364.
93. This elaboration of trauma as a rhetorical confi guration emerged from
conversations with Thomas Zummer, European Graduate School, August
2009. Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Ken-
nedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 224.
94. J. F. Lake Williams, An Historical Account of Invention and Discoveries in
those Arts and Sciences, which are of Utility or Ornament to Man, vol 1 (London:
T. and J. Allamn, 1820), 161.
95. Thomas Zummer, “Arrestments: Corporeality and Mediation,” in
Stitch & Split: Selves and Territories in Science Fiction, curated by Constant
vzw (2006), 1–13; 2. Available at /doc/ 19719356/
96. Zummer, “Arrestment,” 2–3 (emphasis in original). With his gloss on
Narcissus, Zummer grasped the arrestment that rupture instills. Ovid’s Nar-
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Two Trauma Communities 51
cissus says, “Possession dispossessed me.” Blanchot’s gloss is signifi cant: Ovid
forgets that Narcissus does not recognize himself. Narcissus’s dispossession
in Ovid occurs as a kind of Freudian insight or aftersight, a disruptive refl ec-
tion, whereas in the myth Narcissus’s rupture comes fi rst as a non-recognition
of self. See: Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 12528.
97. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Teorema (Milano: Garzanti, 1968), 104 (emphasis
in original, my translation).
98. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History.
99. I am saying a capacity rather than the capacity for experience; such capac-
ity is in several registers, which may be recovered, recuperated, repaired,
restored, or restituted separately or collectively, and/or it is possible that
individuals may acquire new capacities for such operations and for the expres-
sion of their experiences.
100. Vincenzo Di Nicola, “States of Exception, States of Dissociation,”
101. Primo Levi, The Truce; Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The
Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books,
102. Levi, The Truce. Levi reports on the child Hurbinek, born in
Auschwitz, whose paltry life is represented in these few repeated syllables
belonging to no known language.
103. Giorgio Agamben, “ ‘I Am Sure that You Are More Pessimistic than
I Am . . .’: An Interview with Giorgio Agamben,” trans. Jason Smith, Rethink-
ing Marxism 16, no. 2 (2004): 115–24; 116.
104. Robert Jay Lifton, “Witness to an Extreme Century,” 165th Annual
Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Philadelphia, Pa. (May
105. Terrence Handscomb, Sinthôme: Mutant Automata in an Ill-founded
World (PhD diss, European Graduate School, 2011), ii.
106. Primo Levi, The Truce (1965); Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Ausch-
witz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York:
Zone Books, 1999).
107. Vincenzo Di Nicola, “States of Exception, States of Dissociation.”
108. Samuel Beckett, cited in Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?
(Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 161.
109. Eugene Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal, trans. Jean Stewart (London:
Faber and Faber, 1968).
110. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Christian Lenhardt, ed.
Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
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52 Vincenzo Di Nicola
111. Giorgio Agamben, The Open; Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).
112. Stanislaw Lem, The Investigation, trans. Adele Milch (New York: Avon
Books, 1974), 179. In this metaphysical police procedural, Lem attributes
cause without agency, existence without consciousness.
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Conference Paper
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Plenary Address: “Take Your Time: Seven Lessons for Young Therapists” In these seven lessons for young therapists, a practising psychiatrist and psychotherapist with more than 40 years’ experience surveys what therapy is about and how it works, from behaviour therapy and family therapy to psychodynamic psychotherapy. Ranging from what to read and how to begin therapy, the lessons cover therapeutic temperaments and technique, the myth of independence and individual psychology, the nature of change, the evolution of therapy, the search for meaning and relational ethics, and finally, when therapy is over. 1. People come into therapy in order not to change – When does therapy begin? 2. Therapeutic temperaments – Who conducts therapy and why? 3. The family as a unique culture – Relational psychology and relational therapy. 4. Changing the subject – How does therapy work? 5. One hundred years of invisibility – The evolution of therapy from the 19th-century era of the symptom through the 20th-century era of therapy to the 21st-century era of change. 6. Making meaning – Making sense, technique, and doing good: Relational ethics. 7. “And on the seventh day, the Lord rested …” – When therapy is over: The myth of closure, flow, and slowness in therapy. This plenary address integrates the author’s model of working with families across cultures presented in A Stranger in the Family: Families, Culture, and Therapy (1997) and elaborated in his Letters to a Young Therapist (2011) with his more recent work on trauma in Trauma and Transcendence (Capretto & Boynton, eds., 2018), and “Take Your Time,” his Slow thought manifesto (2019).
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"Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Lessons for the Global Mental Health Movement" by Noam Schimmel and Vincenzo Di Nicola Global Mental Health & Psychiatry Review, 2022, v3, no3, 9-10
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M Stohlman-Vanderveen (Interviewer), V Di Nicola, “The Crisis of Psychiatry Is a Crisis of Being: An Interview with Vincenzo Di Nicola,” Recently Published Book Spotlight, Blog of the American Philosophical Association, October 8, 2021.
This chapter reviews the history of academic psychology and psychiatry, using trauma as a focus. The history of psychology revolves around the question of consciousness, including the method of introspection, addressing the issue, “What is the subject?” The history of modern psychiatry, on the other hand, revolves around the crucial question of the experiential chasm, as Karl Jaspers defined it in his phenomenological psychiatry. Jaspers’ phenomenology is one of the two foundations of modern psychiatry along with Kraepelin’s classification. One hundred years of phenomenology and its relation to psychiatry is outlined through its key contributors in both fields. Much of it was founded on Husserl’s intentional or subjective phenomenology, while Badiou’s objective phenomenology is founded on his ontological theory of the subject and of the event. Finally, the possibility of evental psychiatry based on Badiou’s ontology is introduced.
This chapter addresses a great challenge for psychiatry as a medical discipline, namely, its hybrid disciplinary status. On one hand, it belongs to nomothetic and, on the other, explanatory domains of science although it is not properly identified with either of them – thus constituting the so-called explanatory gap. In effect, psychiatric diagnosis is characterized by a relatively high level of reliability and controversial claim to validity. In order to escape from a theoretical grounding, psychiatry has gradually adopted the neo-positivist stance of instrumental classifications. The rationale behind those systems is to operationalize conventions, guidelines, and criteria which combine in various ways a categorical approach with dimensional measures. In conclusion, prospects for the future development of psychiatric classification are discussed.
Whereas Protagoras proclaimed that, “Man is the measure of all things,” today’s science has become the all-purpose measure that Stephen Jay Gould (The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996) characterized as “the mismeasure of man.” Much social science and biomedical research is marred by scientism and methodolatry. Psychiatry’s critical theoretical gaps are reviewed: (1) the lack of a consensual psychology, (2) the lack of an organizing consensual model of psychiatry, and (3) the lack of a consensual theory of change. To remedy them, three possibilities for a philosophy of psychiatry are outlined: (1) to view psychiatry’s crisis as a “pseudo-problem” (Wittgenstein), to settle for “weak thought” (Vattimo), and (3) to refound psychiatry on ontology or being (Badiou). Being is offered as the proper measure of humanity. Three types of thinkers in psychiatry are identified: systematizers (e.g., Kraepelin), anti-psychiatrists (e.g., Basaglia, Fanon, Lacan, Laing), and methodologists (e.g., the Evidence-Based Medicine group), as well as two psychiatric temperaments: the more “experiential” phenomenological temperament and the more “scientific,” technocratic temperament. The Greek ideal of sophrosyne (a wise, judicious balance) is contrasted to the asymptote (law of diminishing returns) of current paradigms.
This chapter inverts the logic of anti-psychiatry to investigate four key critical psychiatrists whose contributions represent “psychiatry against itself.” They are Italian psychiatric reformer Franco Basaglia, Martinican revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, French psychoanalytic rebel Jacques Lacan, and Scottish radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. What is intriguing about the psychiatrists associated with the anti-psychiatry movement and what unites them is negation. Each psychiatrist negated some aspect of contemporary psychiatric practice that made him a rebel, a radical, a reformer, or a revolutionary anti-psychiatrist. Each wielded a tool the author names Badiou’s sickle. Psychiatry and anti-psychiatry are explored using Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical archaeology. The work of two other influential figures is also reviewed: American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz on the myth of mental illness and French psychologist-philosopher Michel Foucault on reordering medical perception and psychiatric thought. A closing Envoi explores why mental health cannot be reduced to games and wordplay or fanciful notions of madness.
This chapter offers an overview of the interplay of the mind-brain problem and paradigm formation in psychiatry and the way in which it contributes to controversies and shifts in the dialogue across the disciplines that constitute mental health knowledge. Special attention is paid to implications of Cartesian dualism, eliminative materialism, and reductive physicalism in general, which outline the sometimes incommensurable conceptual frameworks in the history of psychiatry and in contemporary scientific efforts to explain mental disorders.
The Case of Ellen West by Ludwig Binswanger [The case of Ellen West: An anthropological-clinical study (trans. by Werner M. Mendel and Joseph Lyons). In: Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology (Rollo May, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger, Eds.). New York: Basic Books, pp. 237–364, 1958] is at once the founding case of existential analysis, one of the most famous cases in modern psychiatry, and a “whodunit” mystery involving the founders of psychiatry. Its aporias – hidden problems and unresolved questions – cast a shadow on existential analysis and phenomenological psychiatry. Binswanger proposed an analysis of “the existential Gestalt to which we have given the name Ellen West.” The complexity of her case triggered a series of consultations with Emil Kraepelin, pioneer of psychiatric classification, who diagnosed melancholy (a profound depression), while an unnamed “foreign” psychiatrist found simple psychasthenia (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Binswanger diagnosed schizophrenia, confirmed by Eugen Bleuler, who named this emblematic condition of psychiatry. Convinced of her incurable diagnosis, Ellen West demanded to be released. After 3 days with her family, she wrote that she felt relieved, yet that evening she took poison and died. Writing more than 20 years after her death, when the principals of the case were dead, Binswanger declared her suicide “authentic.” Was her death an “authentic suicide” as he insists, an “assisted suicide” (Naamah Akavia, Sci Context 21:119–144, 2008), or a case of “psychic homicide” (David Lester, Psychoanal Rev 58:251–263, 1971)? Despite numerous consultations and multiple rereadings of her case from psychiatry and psychoanalysis to history and philosophy [Michel Foucault, “Introduction et notes,” in Ludwig Binswanger, Le rêve et l'existence (trans. by Jacqueline Verdeaux) Paris: Vrin, pp. 65–119, 1954], “Ellen West” remains an enigma. The case of “Ellen West” is a mirror of twentieth-century psychiatry, declares phenomenology as a dead end for psychiatry (Vincenzo Di Nicola, Letters to a young therapist: Relational practices for the coming community . New York/Dresden: Atropos Press, 2011), and is presented as a case study for evental psychiatry based on the work of philosopher Alain Badiou. The striking range of psychiatric opinions expressed about Ellen West’s predicament leads to philosophical reflections about what constitutes a “case” in psychiatry.
Psychology and psychiatry have generated multiple models with competing claims. Changes that are part of knowledge accumulation come under different names – paradigms, theories, and revolutions. Medical and social sciences are replete with binary oppositions and false dichotomies which distract real progress. A framework is outlined for breaking down different psychiatric theories and practices into “fast” and “slow psychiatry.” Another way to map these differences is to examine centrifugal (dispersion) versus centripetal (integration) impacts of psychiatric theories and practices. What eludes all such dichotomies is complexity. Contemporary culture finds subjectivity and complexity unwieldy leading to reductionism. Three examples of reductionism in medicine and psychiatry are discussed: (1) depression and the “chemical imbalance” myth, (2) schizophrenias and their reductions, and (3) “anorexia multiforme” as a cultural chameleon. These problems have led to the “bracket creep” of ever-expanding diagnostic criteria of DSM-5 contrasted to the slim promises of neuroscience-based criteria. Attempts to apply neuroscience to aesthetics and the arts reveal its limitations compared to the humanities and social science and richer narrative models in psychotherapy and psychiatry.
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Journal of the International Association of Transdisicplinary Psychology (JIATP) States of Exception, States of Dissociation: Cyranoids, Zombies and Liminal People-- An essay on the threshold between the human and the inhuman Vincenzo Di Nicola A new spectre is haunting the liquid landscape of contemporary society: the spectre of the cyranoid. Cyranoids are those verbal zombies, apparently normal on the exterior, whose interiority becomes impoverished, atrophies or never grows. Continually mouthing the words and thoughts of others, unable to hear the totality of their own voices, cyranoids become emptied of human expression. Unlike the original zombies of Haiti, though, they are not created by a drug-induced state or by entrapment in a religious cult but by much more subtle means …
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is increasingly identified as a key disorder affecting public health agendas because most people are exposed to a traumatic event at some time in their lives, and it is one of the major causes of burden of disease. In this chapter, the recently revised definitions of PTSD are reviewed, discussion of prevailing models are addressed, the course and mechanisms underpinning PTSD is explained, and preferred therapy options are described. One of the themes of this chapter is that PTSD is a contentious disorder insofar as it has attracted considerable debate in recent years, and this controversy has increased with recent changes to the diagnostic criteria.
Book synopsis: This book investigates the specific conception and descent of a language of 'degeneration' from 1848–1918, with particular reference to France, Italy and England. Daniel Pick shows how in the refraction and wake of evolution and naturalism, new images and theories of atavism, 'degenerescence' and socio-biological decline emerged in European culture and politics. He indicates the wide cultural and political importance of the idea of degeneration, whilst showing that the notion could mean different things at different times in different places.
Psychiatric symptoms do not co-occur randomly; some are more likely to covary than others. What accounts for such syndromic clustering?¹ One explanation holds that an underlying categorical disease entity is the common cause of the emergence and covariance of the symptoms that reflect its presence. Hence, major depression can be the common cause of anhedonia, insomnia, and fatigue just as a malignant lung tumor can cause bloody sputum, dyspnea, and chronic cough.
ABSTRACT: examine the concept of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through 2 perspectives—the developmental perspective and the ethnocultural perspective / the 1st section examines the developmental perspective through a review of key studies of PTSD in children and adolescents / the 2nd section focuses on the ethnocultural perspective through reference to current knowledge and practices identified with transcultural child psychiatry / the 3rd section integrates current knowledge regarding the cross-cultural study of PTSD in children and adolescents cultural family therapy: a model (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)