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Trauma and Event: A Philosophical Archaeology



TRAUMA and EVENT A Philosophical Archaeology Vincenzo Di Nicola This investigation examines the notion of psychic trauma as it has worked through professional discourses in psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry and entered broader public discourses in contemporary cultures to become the emblematic condition of our age, which we may discern as the age of trauma. Badiou’s philosophy of the event provides a stark contrast and precise counterweight for trauma theory. The basic premise of the investigation is that while the event opens possibilities, trauma closes them. As therapeutic discourses and scientific research have become polarized around shifting dichotomous discourses about trauma, cutting across all theories and cultures throughout the last century, we turn to philosophy, its methods and tools to redefine the aporias of trauma and event. Three key philosophers are tasked by this investigation into trauma and event. Michel Foucault, philosopher of discourses and systems of thought, has documented how subjectivation occurs in society. Adapting Foucault’s work on the apparatus and the paradigm to create a new method of inquiry called philosophical archaeology, Giorgio Agamben is our philosopher of the threshold, carefully documenting desubjectivation in states of exception. Alain Badiou, our contemporary Platonist, philosopher of the exception called event, elaborates a typology of bodies-of-truth and subjectizable bodies. The work of this triumviri of philosophers is knit together to forge new answers to the aporias of trauma and event: the philosophical archaeology of the disruption of the discourse of being and the traumatic closing or evental opening of possibilities in the coming community. This investigation is divided into three parts. Part I is a prolegomena to a philosophical archaeology of trauma. The aporias of trauma studies are defined by rewriting specific histories of the philosophical, political and professional discourses that have announced the age of trauma. A reading of the Akedah, the “binding” of Isaac by his father Abraham, frames the aporias of trauma and lends it name to an apparatus that allows the sacrifice of the sons in the name of the father, one generation in the interests of another: Isaac-Machine. Part II conducts a philosophical archaeology of trauma’s estate in three sections, examining first the rupture that creates discontinuity leading to trauma or event. Predicament (which parallels Badiou’s evental site) and porosity (which complements Badiou’s novation, which opens the possibility of change) are notions taken from psychiatry and philosophy. The dichotomous theories of trauma, organized around two ad hoc lists—aleph: trauma as a cultural trope, and beth: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a psychiatric disorder—allow us to understand and define trauma psychiatry contrasted to trauma as distributed phenomena. Trauma is defined as the destruction of experience which is investigated through a series of annotations and excursuses on its cultural origins, from the pharmakon, the skandalon and the scapegoat to a rhetorical reformulation of trauma as catachresis/apostrophe. A new model employing the truth tables of scientific research offers a new vocabulary for trauma and event and their simulacra. Second, the ruins of trauma’s estate are explored by reading three classic novels about trauma and children in wartime—Grass’ Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum, Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Morante’s La Storia/History—showing how Isaac-Machine is deployed as an apparatus, and concludes with excursuses on the text as a form-of-life and a theory of the machine in contemporary society. Third, philosophical excavations reveal and allow us to define nested hegemonies as complex apparatuses operating in society. This is applied to Agamben’s reading of the Muselmänner of Auschwitz as a new paradigm of desubjectivation. Two contrasting readings of the child Hurbinek, witnessed in Auschwitz by Primo Levi and read by Agamben, are polemically left unsutured. Part III responds to a challenge from Badiou to abandon subjective phenomenology as a pillar of modern phenomenological psychiatry to announce a prospectus for an evental psychiatry which will embrace a new phenomenology for psychiatry. The rationale for an evental psychiatry is elaborated by identifying the orphan cases of trauma psychiatry: the threshold people whose suffering is silent and invisible, Badiou’s “uncounted” in Agamben’s “state of exception.” Badiou’s contribution to thought is enshrined in the announcement of Badiou’s Sickle as an instrument of discernment to separate philosophy or psychiatry from its conditions. A detailed case review of “Ellen West,” Binswanger’s foundational case of Daseinanalyse demonstrates the failures of subjective phenomenology in psychiatry. The wagers of phenomenological psychiatry and evental psychiatry are made clear along with an outline for a theory and practice of an evental psychiatry of the threshold. This investigation closes on a new definition of the subject and of the subject of psychiatry. Rejecting the descent into the spiral staircase of the self of classical psychoanalysis and of trauma psychiatry, an evental psychiatry allows subjects to come into view through others, where we are subject to truth. Where trauma psychiatry essentializes the atomized individual, a psychiatry of the event offers an opening outward, to bloom towards worlds and nature, towards community and others, where one becomes two, and more …
A Philosophical Archaeology
A Dissertation Submitted to
The European Graduate School
Division of Media and Communications
in Candidacy for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
By Vincenzo Di Nicola
August 2012
Doctoral Committee
Dissertation Defended 12 August 2012
Saas-Fee, Wallis, Switzerland
Awarded Summa Cum Laude
Professor Alain Badiou, President of the Committee
René Descartes Chair, European Graduate School;
Professor Emeritus, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France
Professor Slavoj Žižek
Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis,
European Graduate School;
Senior Researcher, Institute of Sociology,
University of Ljubljana, Slovenia;
International Director, The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities,
Birkbeck, University of London, England
Professor Wolfgang Schirmacher
Arthur Schopenhauer Chair, Founder and Program Director,
Media and Communications Division,
European Graduate School
Professor Martin Hielscher, Supervisor
Theodor W. Adorno Chair and Dean, Media and Communications Division,
European Graduate School;
Professor, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munchen, Deutschland̈
A Philosophical Archaeology
Vincenzo Di Nicola
This investigation examines the notion of psychic trauma as it has worked through
professional discourses in psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry and entered
broader public discourses in contemporary cultures to become the emblematic condition
of our age, which we may discern as the age of trauma. Badiou’s philosophy of the event
provides a stark contrast and precise counterweight for trauma theory. The basic premise
of the investigation is that while the event opens possibilities, trauma closes them. As
therapeutic discourses and scientific research have become polarized around shifting
dichotomous discourses about trauma, cutting across all theories and cultures throughout
the last century, we turn to philosophy, its methods and tools to redefine the aporias of
trauma and event.
Three key philosophers are tasked by this investigation into trauma and event.
Michel Foucault, philosopher of discourses and systems of thought, has documented how
subjectivation occurs in society. Adapting Foucault’s work on the apparatus and the
paradigm to create a new method of inquiry called philosophical archaeology, Giorgio
Agamben is our philosopher of the threshold, carefully documenting desubjectivation in
states of exception. Alain Badiou, our contemporary Platonist, philosopher of the
exception called event, elaborates a typology of bodies-of-truth and subjectizable bodies.
The work of this triumviri of philosophers is knit together to forge new answers to the
aporias of trauma and event: the philosophical archaeology of the disruption of the
discourse of being and the traumatic closing or evental opening of possibilities in the
coming community.
This investigation is divided into three parts. Part I is a prolegomena to a
philosophical archaeology of trauma. The aporias of trauma studies are defined by
rewriting specific histories of the philosophical, political and professional discourses that
have announced the age of trauma. A reading of the Akedah, the “binding” of Isaac by his
father Abraham, frames the aporias of trauma and lends it name to an apparatus that
allows the sacrifice of the sons in the name of the father, one generation in the interests of
another: Isaac-Machine.
Part II conducts a philosophical archaeology of trauma’s estate in three sections,
examining first the rupture that creates discontinuity leading to trauma or event.
Predicament (which parallels Badiou’s evental site) and porosity (which complements
Badiou’s novation, which opens the possibility of change) are notions taken from
psychiatry and philosophy. The dichotomous theories of trauma, organized around two ad
hoc lists—aleph: trauma as a cultural trope, and beth: posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) as a psychiatric disorder—allow us to understand and define trauma psychiatry
contrasted to trauma as distributed phenomena. Trauma is defined as the destruction of
experience which is investigated through a series of annotations and excursuses on its
cultural origins, from the pharmakon, the skandalon and the scapegoat to a rhetorical
reformulation of trauma as catachresis/apostrophe. A new model employing the truth
tables of scientific research offers a new vocabulary for trauma and event and their
simulacra. Second, the ruins of trauma’s estate are explored by reading three classic
novels about trauma and children in wartime—Grass’ Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum,
Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Morante’s La Storia/History—showing how Isaac-
Machine is deployed as an apparatus, and concludes with excursuses on the text as a
form-of-life and a theory of the machine in contemporary society. Third, philosophical
excavations reveal and allow us to define nested hegemonies as complex apparatuses
operating in society. This is applied to Agamben’s reading of the Muselmänner of
Auschwitz as a new paradigm of desubjectivation. Two contrasting readings of the child
Hurbinek, witnessed in Auschwitz by Primo Levi and read by Agamben, are polemically
left unsutured.
Part III responds to a challenge from Badiou to abandon subjective
phenomenology as a pillar of modern phenomenological psychiatry to announce a
prospectus for an evental psychiatry which will embrace a new phenomenology for
psychiatry. The rationale for an evental psychiatry is elaborated by identifying the orphan
cases of trauma psychiatry: the threshold people whose suffering is silent and invisible,
Badiou’s “uncounted” in Agamben’s “state of exception.” Badiou’s contribution to
thought is enshrined in the announcement of Badiou’s Sickle as an instrument of
discernment to separate philosophy or psychiatry from its conditions. A detailed case
review of “Ellen West,” Binswanger’s foundational case of Daseinanalyse demonstrates
the failures of subjective phenomenology in psychiatry. The wagers of phenomenological
psychiatry and evental psychiatry are made clear along with an outline for a theory and
practice of an evental psychiatry of the threshold. This investigation closes on a new
definition of the subject and of the subject of psychiatry. Rejecting the descent into the
spiral staircase of the self of classical psychoanalysis and of trauma psychiatry, an evental
psychiatry allows subjects to come into view through others, where we are subject to
truth. Where trauma psychiatry essentializes the atomized individual, a psychiatry of the
event offers an opening outward, to bloom towards worlds and nature, towards
community and others, where one becomes two, and more …
Bento de Espinosa
Whose life and work,
notably his Ethics,
embodies the first great break with Western tradition
to create a modern psychology,
integrating passion and reason
“The ‘prince’ of philosophers”
—Gilles Deleuze
Primo Levi
“Häftling Nummer 174517”—
an Italian and a Jew from Turin
—who survived Auschwitz
to become its clearest witness before
succumbing to the “background noise”
“A perfect example of the witness”
—Giorgio Agamben
A Philosophical Archaeology
I Prolegomena to a Philosophical Archaeology of Trauma
Threshold –   The Akedah: The “Binding” of Isaac
II A Philosophical Archaeology of Trauma’s Estate
A. Rupture: Trauma or Event
B. In the Ruins: Trauma and Infancy
C. Excavations: Writing After the Disaster in the Age of Trauma
Threshold –   – Havdalah: “Separation”
III Prospectus for an Evental Psychiatry
Table of Contents
I Prolegomena to a Philosophical Archaeology of Trauma
1. Bracketing Man: An Essay in Philosophical Archaeology
1.1 Spinoza’s Liminality
1.2 Primo Levi: Nested Hegemonies
2. Tricoter: Knitting Together Philosophy
2.1 Foucault, Agamben, Badiou in Trauma’s Estate
2.1.1 Michel Foucault’s Annexation
2.1.2 Giorgio Agamben the Archivist
2.1.3 Alain Badiou in Occupied Territory
3. The Age of Trauma
3.1 Psychology: Introspection and Consciousness
3.2 Foundations of Modern Psychiatry
3.3 Phenomenology in Psychiatry
3.4 “Philosophical Short-Cuts” or Founding Science?
3.5 One Hundred Years of Phenomenological Psychiatry
3.6 Psychoanalysis and Philosophy
3.7 Theology, Genealogy, Archaeology
Excursus on Excursuses
Annotation: Janus-Faced Terms – The Fugue
Excursus: The History of Psychiatry is Not the History of Madness
Trace I – What men do when they know they have to die – Primo Levi
Threshold –   The Akedah: The “Binding” of Isaac
Annotation on the Akedah
II A Philosophical Archaeology of Trauma’s Estate
A. Rupture: Trauma or Event
4. Vita Interrupta
4.1 Predicament: A Nodal Point
4.2 Porosity: Openness to Being
5. Trauma
5.1 A Philosophical Archaeology of the Concept of “Trauma”
5.1.1 A Dichotomy in Trauma Theories
5.1.2 Dichotomising Trauma
5.1.3 Children’s Trauma
5.1.4 Aleph – Trauma as a Trope
5.1.5 Beth – PTSD is a Psychiatric Disorder
5.2 Trauma Psychiatry
5.3 Trauma as Distributed Phenomena
5.4 Trauma: The Destruction of Experience
5.4.1 Mutant Automata
Excursus: Resilience and Transformation
Annotation on Trauma: Catachresis/Apostrophe
Annotation: Pharmakon, Skandalon and the Scapegoat
Excursus: The Ghost in the Machine or the Machine in the Ghost?
6. Event
Excursus: Philology of the Word Événement – Event
6.1 Event as Trauma
6.2 Trauma and Event and their Simulacra
Excursus: Derrida on the Event, Part I
Excursus: Derrida on the Event, Part II
Annotation: An Evental Reading of Lem’s The Investigation
Excursus: “Homo Ludens” and the Event
Trace II – Only nothing is anonymous – Alain Badiou
B. In the Ruins: Trauma and Infancy
7. Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum – Günter Grass
7.1 Arrestment, Capture, Stagnation
8. The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski
9. La Storia/History – Elsa Morante
9.1 A Train of Trauma
Two Excursuses on Living Beings and Apparatuses
Excursus I: The Text as a Form-of-life
Excursus II: Deploying the Machine –
Notes Towards a Theory of the Machine
Coda: Watching “The Reader,” Reading Hegemony
Trace III – Holding asunder the different parts – Friedrich Schiller
C. Excavations: Writing After the Disaster in the Age of Trauma
10. Nested Hegemonies
10.1 Servitude and Salvation
10.2 Defining Nested Hegemonies
10.3 Muselmänner – Nuda Vita
10.3.1 Defining a New Paradigm
10.3.2 “They Called Them ‘Muslims’!”
10.3.3 Trauma as Metaphor
10.3.4 Map to Muselmannland
Annotation on Hegemony/Transparency
11. Hurbinek
11.1 Hurbinek and the Event of Language
11.1.1 Oskars Interstitial Shriek
11.1.2 Who Is that Mute Jewish-Gypsy Boy?
11.1.3 Useppe—Autistic Child-Poet
11.1.4. Hurbinek—“A Speechless Capacity for Speech”
11.2 Hurbinek-Odradek: A Postcard from the Edge
11.2.1 Franz Kafka’s Odradek
11.2.2 Primo Levi’s Hurbinek
11.2.3 Hurbinek-Odradek
11.2.4 A Postcard from Edge: “Return to Sender”
12. Celan Poem Speaking – “Sprich Auch Du / Speak You Also”
12.1 Poet Become Poem
Trace IVA poem can be a message in a bottle – Paul Celan
Threshold –   – Havdalah: “Separation”
Annotation on Havdalah
III Prospectus for an Evental Psychiatry
13. Orphan Cases
13.1 Breaking with Tradition to Reclaim It
13.2 Lombroso’s “Madness and Civlization”
13.3 Wielding Badiou’s Scythe in Psychiatry’s Weed Garden
Excursus: Badiou’s Sickle—Philosophy Against Its Conditons
14. Iterations of “Ellen West”—A Mirror for 20th Century Psychiatry
14.1 V1.0 – Der Fall Ellen West
14.2 V2.0 – “Poor Little Rich Girl”
14.3 V3.0 – The Absent Body
14.4 Making a Case: Iteration/Repetition
14.5 V4.0 – “A Life Unworthy of Life”
14.6 Katechon – “The Which Withholds”
14.7 Ellen West: A Case for Evental Psychiatry
14.7.1 Badiou’s Subjectizable Bodies
14.7.2 Subjectivating Ellen West and Her Circle
14.8 Caseness: A Wager Against Finitude
Coda: Is there a philosophical analogue of the case history?
15. A New Phenomenology for Psychiatry
15.1 Subjective Phenomenology
15.1.1 Phenomenology’s Wager
15.1.2 Badiou’s Objective Phenomenology
15.2 Evental Psychiatry’s Wager
15.2.1 Evental Psychiatry’s Task: Subject to Truth
15.2.2 The Evental Psychiatrist
15.3 An Evental Psychiatry of the Threshold
15.3.1 Rupture versus Continuity
15.3.2 Discourse Therapy
15.3.3 Foucault versus Wittgenstein
15.3.4 Evental Analysis
15.3.5 The Spiral Staircase of the Self or the Subject to Truth
Trace VWe are all no more than haphazard fractions – Stanislaw Lem
Glossary: “The poetic moment of thought”
Annotation on Philosophical Dictionaries
I Works Cited
II Works Consulted
I Academic Texts
1. Cesare Lombroso (1856), “The Influence of Madness on Civilization and of
Civilization on Madness” (translation from Italian)
2. Giorgio Agamben (2010), “The Church and the Kingdom” (translation from
3. Alain Badiou (2010), “The Sons’ Malaise in Contemporary ‘Civilization’”
(translation from French)
4. Vincenzo Di Nicola (2012), “What We Talk About When We Talk About
II Performance Text
Ascent (Bound for the Sky)
Spoken piece, dramatized by Vincenzo Di Nicola
based on a story by George Steiner
Pour guérir quelle blessure, pour ôter quelle écharde dans la chair de l’existence suis-je
devenu c’est qu’on appelle un philosophe?
—Alain Badiou2
One of the advantages of doing scholarly work later in life is a greater clarity of purpose
amid manifold riches. A corollary is that intellectual, moral and personal debts and doubts
accumulate and press upon us. There is no doubt that my mentor Alain Badiou expressed
a simple truth in citing Henri Bergson who said that the questions that choose us and
shape us as philosophers occur in our youth. And two truths emerge from this for me—
that the origin of the question of this investigation of trauma and event is in my own
youth and that all other avenues have not exhausted it. Neither my engagement with
European Jewish history, nor my work as a social scientist and clinical psychiatrist, nor
even the nourishment of poetry have been sufficiently edifying. In Badiou’s terms, the
four conditions of philosophy—politics, science, art, and love—have been inadequate to
treat the contemporary problem of trauma or to explain the emergence of event, how
change comes into the world. I have resisted the transformation of these conditions or
generic procedures into a foundation for philosophy, what Badiou calls a “suture,”
leading to the suspension of philosophy which means philosophy subordinating itself to
one of its conditions.
1 “We will call ‘body’ the worldly dimension of the subject and ‘trace’ that which, on the basis of the event,
determines the active orientation of the body,” Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds, op. cit., p. 79. Another
nuance of ‘trace’ lies in Jacques Derrida’s work where he points to trace as something that comes both
before the sign and after the sign. Traces of Derrida are spectral throughout this investigation, notably in
such “aconceptual concepts” as iterability, the pharmakon, repetition, residue, spectre and the supplement.
See: Niall Lucy, “Trace,” in A Derrida Dictionary (2004), pp. 144-146.
2 Alain Badiou, “Préface,” Quentin Meillassoux, Après la finitude (2006), p. 9. Translation: “What wound
was I seeking to heal, what thorn was I seeking to draw from the flesh of existence when I became what is
called ‘a philosopher’?” Alain Badiou, “Preface,” Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, trans. by Ray
Brassier (2008), p. vi.
The roots of Badiou’s key insight are perceptible in Louis Althusser’s 1966 essay,
“Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses”3 where he outlined his thinking about general
and regional theories and articulated the thesis for which he is known among Anglophone
scholars: “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects.” In effect, this posits that
ideology and the psychoanalytic unconscious are separate things and that only the
ideological discourse has a subject. In wrestling the subject away from psychoanalysis,
Althusser nonetheless left it to psychoanalysis “to explain how the process of
interpellation is conditioned by the unconscious, present in the subject-centred mirror
structure of ideology only in the form of its absence” which is masked “by the presence
of the ideological subject-effect.”4 This division of labour did not settle the matter and
haunts the debates between philosophy (a general theory) and psychoanalysis (a regional
one) to this day, notably in Badiou’s positioning of Lacan’s psychoanalysis as an
antiphilosophy. Althusser saw the task of philosophy as theorizing the conjectural
relations among general theories; although “conjectural,” philosophy provided
“knowledge of the combination of existing Theories.”5
Alenka Zupan
ič offers a resolution reminiscent of Althusser’s in her proposition that there is “a
fifth condition of philosophy: philosophy has to pull itself away from the immediate grip
of its own conditions, while nevertheless remaining under the effect of those conditions.”6
The salience of this issue concerning the transformation of philosophy into its conditions
became clearer for me through this essay by Zupan
ič—a former student of Badiou and a Lacanian theoretical psychoanalyst of the
3 Louis Althusser, “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses,” in The Humanist Controversy and Other
Writing (1966-67), ed. by François Matheron, trans. with an Introduction by G.M. Goshgarian (2003), pp.
4 G.M. Goshgarian, “Introduction,” in Louis Althusser, The Humanist Controversy and Other Writing
(1966-67), op. cit., pp. i-lxii; p. xlvi.
55 Ibid., p. xliv.
6 Alenka Zupan
, “The Fifth Condition,” in Peter Hallward, ed., Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy
(2004), p. 192.
Slovenian school— which compelled me to formulate a response, taken up in “Part III –
Excursus: Badiou’s Sickle—Philosophy Against its Conditions. This aporia is addressed
throughout this work precisely because the relation between any possible definition of the
subject and ideology is at stake here. Specifically, I will shape Badiou’s thinking on the
suturing of philosophy into a tool for critical thought—Badiou’s Sickle (or Shears)—for
liberating philosophy (or any general theory in Althusser’s terms) from its conditions.
Consequently, I cannot hold with the positivist project in the human and social
sciences in general, or the hermeneutic approach of psychoanalysis or the neo-
Kraepelinian aetiopathological model of contemporary psychiatry in particular (pace
their endless iterations), which propose to resolve the aporias of philosophy with their
methods, even when they are as sophisticated as Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis or as
far-reaching as Mara Selvini Palazzoli’s systemic family therapy.7
As Ludwig Wittgenstein stated about psychology:
The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of resolving
the problems that trouble us; though problem and method pass one another other by.8
This is as true for other methods, from psychoanalysis to systems theory, as it is for the
experimental method in psychology. Accordingly, I now turn to philosophy itself—rather
than its conditions—for clarity, if not for consolation.
My first training in philosophy was in Greek and Mediaeval Philosophy with a
Greek tutor, Constantine Georgiadis, at McMaster University. Later I was exposed to a
variety of thinkers, notably Charles Taylor9 at McGill University and students of
77 In Isaiah Berlin’s (1978) terms, they are “the hedgehog and the fox” of twentieth century psychiatrists;
Selvini Palazzoli is the restless, wide-ranging fox, exploring the hidden games of ever-wider social
systems, while Lacan is the persistent hedgehog burrowing into ever-deeper layers of the Real, the
Symbolic and the Imaginary. See Isaiah Berlin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in Russian Thinkers, ed, by
Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, introduction by Aileen Kelly (1978), pp. 22-81.
8 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1958), p. 232.
9 See Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), Philosophical
Wittgenstein in London, whose influence is evident throughout this investigation. The
thinker who influenced my practice for a time when I confronted the aporias of
psychiatry and despaired of finding an edifying vocabulary for them was Richard Rorty.10
His work was not my destination but it was, to use Wittgenstein’s trope, a very pragmatic
ladder for me to climb out of my confusion.
“The funereal science of the numbers of Auschwitz”
As to the source of the aporias of this investigation, no doubt many strands of alienation
and alterity from the displacements of my early life crystallized during a face-to-face
encounter with two survivors of Auschwitz, a man I will call Mr. Nowick and his
psychiatrist (and my mentor), Dr. Leslie Solyom at a McGill University clinic. Frustrated
by my questions about his predicament, the man finally rolled up his sleeve to show me a
blurred blue tattoo on his left arm. Ignorant of “the funereal science of the numbers of
Auschwitz,”11 I froze, entering an intense state of alertness. That situation is etched in my
memory like—like what? A flashbulb? It darkened more than illuminated my
understanding. Like a scar? If so, what was the wound? I was a barely knowing witness
to another’s wound, not my own. Like a rupture? Perhaps—I was made aware of the gaps
already existing in my knowledge and awareness. Like an event? Ah, that is an open
question. Can a rupture be a trauma for one and an event for another? It was an evental
situation, pregnant with contingencies—either to foreclose, through vicarious trauma, or
to open, by witnessing, the possibility of an event. It got a hold of me and never let me go.
And this work is the trace of that trauma/event.12
Arguments (1995).
10 See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989).
11 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. by Stuart Woolf (1961), p. 23.
12 Arieh Shalev articulates the hypothesis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a disorder of recovery
(rather than severe stressors as trauma per se), invoking “two contrasting mechanisms: fear-driven learning
and the processing of incongruous novelty.” In an analogy with emulsion photography, fear is the first
imprint of exposure which is either fixed or allowed to fade by the processing of incongruous novelty.
Earlier experiences set the stage, making the emulsion more sensitive, giving subsequent strong stressors
their scorching quality—what we think of as traumatic. Arieh Y. Shalev, “PTSD: A Disorder of Recovery?”
in Laurence Kirmayer, Robert Lemelson and Mark Barad, eds., Understanding Trauma: Integrating
European Graduate School. No less than the EGS faculty, a community of itinerant
scholars which it hosts, Saas-Fee in the Canton of Wallis, Switzerland is inhabited by the
mountains and the marmots, the local mascot. Indifferent, but not unmoved (climate
change is eroding the Alpine glaciers) by the human sojourners, the mountains stand as
their own presence and authority, reminding us of a new wind blowing in philosophy—
the speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy of Quentin Meillassoux, Graham
Harman and others.13 If the mountains had memories, we would hear tales of Friedrich
Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Theodor Adorno from Austria and Germany, meeting
philosophy and psychoanalysis, madness and death on their trails; Swiss natives Carl
Jung and Ludwig Binswanger summered there; and Karl Jaspers, Nobelist Thomas Mann
and Ignazio Silone took refuge there from Fascist Germany and Italy.
Everywhere I turn in Switzerland, to echo Freud, I find that a poet, philosopher or
psychoanalyst has been there before me. In the Canton of Wallis, Adorno died in nearby
Visp; Rainer Maria Rilke is buried in a churchyard overlooking Raron, a tiny hamlet next
to Visp; even Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity, embraced in a deathly grip, fell
to their end at the nearby Reichenbach Falls. Further afield, Ludwig Binswanger directed
the Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen in the northeast of Switzerland, where the
canonical cases of psychoanalysis and Daseinanalyse were treated—“Anna O,” Aby
Warburg and “Ellen West.” Northwest of Saas-Fee, at Cologny on Lake Geneva, Mary
Shelley imagined a new form-of-life in her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern
Prometheus. Many of them figure in this investigation.
EGS Faculty. Four key professors guided my thinking and my research:
Biological, Clinical, and Cultural Perspectives (2007), pp. 207-223; p. 219.
13 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. by Ray Brassier (2008); Graham Harman, Quentin
Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (2011); Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, eds., The
Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (2011).
Giorgio Agamben, Baruch Spinoza Chair in Philosophy: since working with Prof.
Agamben as his teaching assistant for the seminar on Homo Sacer in 2009, which I
attended again in 2011, he has been a revelation to me in terms of his paradigm of the
“state of exception” and his method of “philosophical archaeology”; the prolegomena to
this thesis as well as the body include numerous excursive essays in philosophical
archaeology addressing methodological issues in my investigations; Prof. Agamben has
kindly given me permission to include his text published in Italian, La Chiesa e il
Regno,14 in my English translation, “The Church and the Kingdom,” as Appendix I – 2;
Alain Badiou, René Descartes Chair in Philosophy: from my first reading of his master
works, Theory of the Subject and the two volumes of Being and Event, to attending his
seminar and lectures since 2009, his theorizing on the subject, being and event have
innervated every aspect of my research on trauma which is imbricated with his powerful
notion of the Event; Prof. Badiou immediately grasped the import of my yoking trauma
in opposition to the Event and graciously encouraged me to entitle this work, “Trauma
and Event”; he observed that my investigation places me at a crossroads and challenged
me to declare the death of psychiatry as such or announce a new “Evental Psychiatry,” a
challenge I respond to in Part III Prospectus for an Evental Psychiatry; Prof. Badiou
also generously shared the text of his Athens presentation, L’identité aléatoire du fils
dans le monde d’aujourd’hui,” published in French,15 which I translated as “The Sons’
Malaise in Contemporary ‘Civilization’,” in Appendix I – 3;
Martin Hielscher, Theodor W. Adorno Chair in Philosophy and Dean, Media and
Communications Division: working with Prof. Hielscher as his research assistant in 2010
for the seminar on “Adorno and Aesthetic Theory” and again in 2011, when he became
my formal supervisor, has made the links between philosophy, history and aesthetics,
notably through Adorno’s work, more palpably real as embodied texts; the felicitous
admixture of a deep engagement with Adorno’s disquiet after Auschwitz and his
aequanimitas make Professor Hielscher an ideal supervisor for my investigation; the
14 Giorgio Agamben, La Chiesa e il Regno (2009).
15 Alain Badiou, “Postface: Le malaise des fils dans la ‘civilization’ contemporaine,” in Sigmund Freud,
Anthropologie de la guerre (2010), pp. 357-370.
excesses and inadequacies of this work remain my own.16
Thomas Zummer, Scholar-in-Residence and Lecturer in Philosophy: my relationship with
Prof. Zummer began with innumerable conversations while he was Scholar-in-Residence
and later as Professor of Philosophy, from Saas-Fee to Venice to New York, leading me to
attend his seminar on Michel Foucault in 2010 and 2011; as Foucault’s research assistant
during the last four years of his life, Prof. Zummer is my conduit to all matters
Foucauldian and rhetorical; I gratefully acknowledge his influence on expressing my
insights into trauma and event in terms derived from classical rhetoric.
Through these critical thinkers, I am connected to a world of scholarship at the
EGS and their many rhyzomic tendrils. I gratefully acknowledge enriching conversations,
lectures and seminars with numerous other faculty members:
Atom Egoyan, Armenian-Canadian filmmaker and lecturer: for his seminar “Film and
Cinematic Languages” in 2010; discussions of his film Ararat and his essay on “the
incarnation of history”;17
Wolfgang Schirmacher, Professor of Philosophy, founder and éminence grise of EGS:
accepted me as a special student, allowing me liberal access to the seminars and faculty
while pursuing my investigations. His pithy and pointed remarks on a broad swathe of
topics and thinkers in Saas-Fee and New York have been uniquely stimulating and
warmly supportive. His volumes in the German Library on German philosophy and
psychology are cherished and cited in this work.18
Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: for his seminar, “Media,
Politics and Psychoanalysis” in 2009, his lectures at the Birkbeck College Critical Theory
School, London in 2011, and the 2012 Žižek Conference, SUNY at Brockport; his
16 Martin Hielscher, “Art as the experience of alterity: Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory,” Poiesis,
2010, 12: 130-141.
17 Atom Egoyan, “In other words: Poetic license and the incarnation of history,” University of Toronto
Quarterly, 2004, 73(3): 886-905.
18 Wolfgang Schirmacher, ed., German Socialist Philosophy, Vol 40 (1997), German Essays on
Psychology, Vol 62 (2001), German 20th Century Philosophical Writings, Vol 77 (2003), German 20th
Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School, Vol 78 (2000).
thoughts on Lacan on trauma and Badiou on the event have been stimulating and fruitful;
Alenka Zupančič, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: for her seminar on
Nietzsche and her lecture on Schiller’s chorus in tragedy;
Seminars and conversations with Pierre Alferi, Judith Balso with Philippe Beck, Judith
Butler, Mark Cohen, Michael Hardt, Laura Marks, Carl Mitchum, Laurence Rickels,
Mick Taussig, Leslie Thornton, the Quay Brothers; and with Simon Critchley on R.D.
Laing and psychoanalysis; Christopher Fynsk on the event in Heidegger; and, finally, a
standout is Avital Ronell, for her seminar on finitude with its close reading of trauma in
von Kleist’s “The Marquise of O–,” and her lecture on authority.
EGS Dissertations. Among EGS students and alumni, I particularly enjoyed reading and
discussing the dissertations of Matthew Giobbi, Joan Grossman, Sigrid Hackenberg,
Terrence Handscomb, Serena Dawn Hashimoto, Sarah Kamens, Vesna Madžoski, and
Vincent van Gerven Oei, all of which are relevant to my own investigations. EGS student
Althea Thauberger introduced me to Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster.19
Richard Mollica, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Director of the
Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, has been a mentor and friend during my training
with him and my research on trauma. Following his inspiring book, Healing Invisible
Wounds, Mollica’s “Manifesto: Healing a Violent World” is a bold call for the global
community of health to rethink how we work with trauma.20 A philosophical
reconciliation of the dichotomy in trauma studies discussed in “Part II – A 2: Trauma” has
been prepared for presentation at the Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma.21
Also important were sojourns at the following centres, conferences and courses:
Society for the Study of Society and Culture/McGill University (Montreal, 2010), where I
presented critical ideas for cultural psychiatry using Agamben’s work on the state of
19 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. by Ann Smock (1995).
20 See Richard Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds (2006); “Manifesto: Healing a Violent World” (2011).
Available: (Accessed 17.06.2012)
21 Vincenzo Di Nicola, “Two Trauma Communities: A Philosophical Reconciliation of Cultural and
Psychiatric Trauma Theories,” Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, Harvard Medical School, Sept 2012.
exception22; Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (University of Turin,
2010); Centro Primo Levi, 4th International Symposium, “Primo Levi, The West and the
Rest” (New York, 2010); Birkbeck College, “Critical Theory Summer School” (London,
2011); Žižek Conference SUNY (Brockport, NY, 2012), where I gave a presentation on
evental psychiatry inspired by the work of Badiou.23
Closer to home, I am very grateful to Reverend Janette Jorgensen for pointing me
to Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial24 on the Akedah and a dialogue on trauma and healing
over the years; Araz Artinian and her family for screening her film documentary The
Genocide in Me at the University of Montreal Department of Psychiatry film club; Allan
Young, Professor of Medical Anthropology, McGill University, shared many of his
articles and presentations on the history of trauma and PTSD;25 Laurence Kirmayer,
Professor of Psychiatry, Director of the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry,
McGill University, trauma researcher, for the opportunity to present aspects of these
investigations to the Culture & Mental Health Research Seminar at McGill.26,27
As always, the support of my family and the intellectual comradeship of my son
Carlo while he was completing his own thesis in international law made this one possible.
I Prolegomena to a Philosophical Archaeology of Trauma
1. Bracketing Man: An Essay in Philosophical Archaeology
22 Ibid., “Where the Exception Becomes the Norm—At the Juncture of Culture, Trauma and Psychiatry:
Applying Agamben’s ‘State of Exception’ to Trauma Studies and Cultural Competence,” Society for the
Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) & Advanced Study Institute in Cultural Psychiatry, McGill
University, Montreal, May 2010.
23 Ibid., “‘This Desire that Isn’t Mine’: Distributed Desire and the Consciousless Subject,” Žižek Studies
Conference 2012, The College at Brockport (SUNY), April 2012.
24 Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. with an introduction by Judah Goldin (1993).
25 His key work is: Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions (1995).
26 See: Laurence Kirmayer, Robert Lemelson and Mark Barad, eds., Understanding Trauma: Integrating
Biological, Clinical, and Cultural Perspectives (2007).
27 Vincenzo Di Nicola, “The Age of Trauma: A Philosophical Archaeology,” Culture & Mental Health
Research Seminar, McGill University Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, Montreal, July 2012.
2. Tricoter: Knitting Together Philosophy
3. The Age of Trauma
Excursus on Excursuses
Annotation: Janus-Faced Terms – The Fugue
Excursus: The History of Psychiatry is Not the History of Madness
Trace I – What men do when they know they have to die Primo Levi
Threshold –   The Akedah: The “Binding” of Isaac
Annotation on the Akedah
1. Bracketing Man: An Essay in Philosophical Archaeology
Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist.[…] As the archaeology of our
thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its
—Michel Foucault28
Bento de Espinosa (1632-1677), who we know as Baruch or Benedict Spinoza,29 opens
something that Primo Levi (1919-1987) closes.30 These two figures set out the contours,
in history and in thought, of my preoccupations. My early engagement with these men
and their preoccupations brought me to psychiatry; the tools of that profession have not
altogether removed this “thorn in the flesh of existence,” in Badiou’s striking image, so I
now turn to philosophy.
Let us say that Spinoza and Levi bracket something. We may choose various
tropes—brackets, parentheses, bookends—to articulate a kind of encapsulation. We can
imagine that which is bracketed as a highlight, a golden age, an enlightenment. We may
also see it as an interruption, a caesura, a rupture, a cut, a hiatus or suspension—a process
of evacuation. We may see it as an ideology (if we think of Marx and Mannheim, and
later, Althusser’s notion of “lacunar discourse”), a hegemony (in Gramsci’s terms), a
culture (in the sense of philosophical anthropology) or as an épistémè or a discourse (as
we see it evolve in Foucault’s thought) .31
We may choose other bookends, other thinkers or events to place the brackets or
anchor an era. In his Second Manifesto for Philosophy, Alain Badiou brackets “the age of
28 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970), pp. 336, 422.
29 For a biography, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (1999).
30 For a biography, see Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, trans. by Steve Cox
31 The evolution of notions subsumed under the rubric ideology, with all the debates and disputes it
engendered is long and complex, going to the heart of politics, sociology and critical theory. I refer in the
first instance to the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology (1846/1932) and its
adoption into the sociology of knowledge by Karl Mannheim (1936). The elaboration of ideology from
Marx along with Lenin’s work on hegemony was developed most profoundly by Antonio Gramsci (1992)
with later glosses by Louis Althusser (1971). The bridge between Gramsci’s and Foucault’s work is implicit
and central. The development of Foucault’s own work from épistémè/episteme in The Order of Things
(1970) to discours/discourse in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) is a fascinating study on its own and
germane to my argument (cf. Alan Sheridan, 1980).
poets from its opening by Hölderlin until its closure by Paul Celan,”32 clearly indicating
Heidegger’s project without naming him. This is a recurrent pairing for students of
European culture. In a study of Celan, for example, Mark Anderson discusses these two
German poets as “martyrs” of “historical coupures”—the French Revolution and the
Both poets have been interpreted as being marked by the negativity of History, at once
witnesses and victims, Hölderlin’s madness and Celan’s suicide representing as it were
the corporeal inscription of this negativity. This parallel also supposes a certain
trajectory: what begins in Hölderlin’s intuition of a Fehl Gottes, an absence or retreat of
the sacred, comes to its negative conclusion in Celan’s indictment of a God tragically
absent during the Holocaust.33
Citing one of Hölderlin’s last poems, “In lovely Blue,” Alan Udoff also asserts
dichterisch wohnet / Der Mensch auf dieser Erde. [Poetically man / Dwells on this
Earth.] Hölderlin’s words belong to the tradition, whose roots are struck in Homer, of
poetry as dwelling on the earth. The Holocaust appears, at both the historical and poetical
ends of this tradition, as its closure. The extremity of this closure sets its seal on its
victims, who stand at the crossways of the negation of being and language. Celan stands
at this null point ... and re-originates the existence of poetic dwelling.34
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe concurs in placing the two poets together, seeing Celan’s work
as both a liberation and a closure:
As of Hölderlin, one can say of Celan that he is a tragic poet, perhaps even the last tragic
poet—the last “possible” one.… The event of poetry [in Celan] is …. the liberation of
art. And a certain type, most probably, of the “end of art.”35
32 Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. by Louise Burchill (2011), pp. 119-120.
33 Mark Anderson, “The ‘impossibility of poetry’: Celan and Heidegger in France,” New German
Critique, Spring-Summer 1991, 53: 3-18; p. 4; emphasis added.
34 Alan Udoff, “On Poetic Dwelling: Situating Celan and the Holocaust,” in Amy D. Colin, ed.,
Argumentum et Silentio: International Paul Celan Symposium (1987), pp. 320-351; pp. 348-9.
35 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, La Poésie comme expérience (1986), p. 65; Mark Anderson’s translation
Foucault might call the same period, ironically, provocatively, the age of man. The Order
of Things arose from an attempt to write an introduction to his French translation of
Kant’s Anthropologie. Kant asked the question, What is Man? Foucault’s book answers
Kant by placing that question in historical context and predicting its end.36
Shall we move the opening of the parentheses forward to Immanuel Kant (1724-
1804) and the Enlightenment? Should we place the closing somewhere else, such as the
European declaration of the New Man in the 1930s—from Fascist Italy to Soviet Russia
to Nazi Germany?37 Or do we choose an emblematic moment of the nadir of the New
Man—Kristallnacht? The Republic of Salo? Auschwitz? The Moscow Show Trials? The
Gulag Archipelago?
Who will represent this moment? Osip Mandelstam feeding his fellow prisoners
the bread of poetry in Stalin’s prisons? Walter Benjamin committing suicide in France on
the frontier with Spain, mere metres and minutes from freedom? Simone Weil choosing a
starvation diet in solidarity with prisoners of war during WWII? Primo Levi witnessing
the walking dead, the Muselmänner of Auschwitz? Paul Celan committing suicide in
(1991, p. 5).
36 This point is made by Ian Hacking in “Self-improvement,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader (1986a),
David Couzens Hoy, ed. (1986a), pp. 235-240; p. 238. In another essay, Hacking (1986b, p. 39) writes:
“[W]hatever Foucault means by detaching truth from forms of hegemony, he does not want the comfort of
the romantic illusions.” See: Ian Hacking, “The Archaeology of Foucault,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader
(1986b), op. cit., pp. 27-40. Hacking (1986b, p. 39) sees Foucault as “completing a dialogue with Kant.
Each question of Kant’s is deliberately inverted or destroyed. ‘What is man?’ asked Kant. Nothing, says
Foucault. ‘For what then may we hope?’ asked Kant.” But Foucault does not say human beings are nothing,
only that the notion of Man is fraudulent. As Hacking (1986b) reads it, so are our projects associated
“within the idea of a transcendental or enduring subject”—optimism, pessimism, nihilism and the like (p.
40). To put it more broadly and make the case more generally, as Thomas Zummer answered a question in
his Foucault seminar about the subject: “Subject, what subject?” (EGS seminar on Foucault, August 2010).
37 Jean Clair, ed., The 1930s: The Making of “The New Man” (2008).
Paris in the shadow of “that which occurred”?38 Or shall it be Hannah Arendt reporting on
the “banality of evil” at Eichmann’s trial in the shadow of the Shoah?39
These questions may be addressed by a philosophical-historical method that
Giorgio Agamben, following Kant and Foucault, calls philosophical archaeology.40
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.41
Clearly, I place this closure of the brackets in the twentieth century, somewhere in
the Nazi or the Soviet world; that which is bracketed is a human construction, however
else we qualify it; and, finally, we must ironize any possible notion of progress associated
with this bracketing. If we can bracket it—and it is in the long run of human history a
comparatively short breath (a gasp?)—it has become a time, perhaps indeed a state, of
exception, as Agamben has documented it.42 For this reason, in order to study this period
I have chosen people or events that are themselves exceptions, excluded, ectopic43
38 Paul Celan, “Speech on Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,” in
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. by John Felstiner (2001), pp. 395-396; p. 395, translation
39 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1994).
40 Giorgio Agamben, op. cit. (2009) traces the term philosophical archaeology from Immanuel Kant.
Clearly there is an archaeology of the term itself, embedded in successive strata of thought from
Nietzsche’s “critical history” to Foucault’s “epistemological field, the épistémè,” where we see glimpses of
Freud’s “regression,” Marcel Mauss’ “historical a priori,” Franz Overbeck’s “prehistory,” Georges
Dumézil’ “fringe of ultra-history” and Benjamin’s “prehistory and post-history.” The link between
psychoanalytic regression and archaeology was intuited by Paul Ricoeur, carefully elaborated by Enzo
Melandri, and explicitly connected to the task of philosophy through Foucault by Agamben. In sum,
Agamben constructs a genealogy from Kant and Nietzsche connecting Freud and Foucault to forge a subtle
and fertile method of philosophical inquiry.
41 Giorgio Agamben (2009), op. cit., p. 89.
42 Ibid.
43 I import the word ectopic from medicine, where it means something out of place, like an ectopic
pregnancy which implants outside the womb. A major theme of my work concerns people out of place,
liminal people, on the threshold, on the cusp (cf. Victor Turner’s social anthropology44),
who are harbingers, messengers (echoing Paul Celan here45), vectors or vehicles—
opening events (as Alain Badiou defines them46) or foreclosing the possibilities of events
(as I argue is the proper definition of trauma).
1.1 Spinoza’s Liminality
To open the brackets, I choose Spinoza as a liminal figure as much for his biography as
for his philosophy and what that philosophy opens: I see his Ethics as the opening of a
modern psychology based on understanding man. Gilles Deleuze crowned Spinoza “the
‘prince’ of philosophers.”47 There are now so many studies of Spinoza in so many
languages and disciplines that it is impossible to choose a canonical study or
interpretation.48 Nonetheless, a masterful reading of Spinoza in the spirit of philosophical
archaeology is offered in Yirmiahu Yovel’s two-volume study, Spinoza and Other
Heretics.49 Yovel provides a very fine, historically-informed and closely-argued analysis
of Spinoza as a liminal figure between Christianity and Judaism. Descending from
Portuguese Marrano Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity while maintaining
their traditions in hiding as crypto-Jews, Spinoza opens major questions of modernity and
migrants and refugees. Two out-of-date terms come to mind—“displaced persons,” from the postwar period
in 20th century Europe, and “aliens,” alienati in Italian, aliénés in French, in medical usage until the 19th
century when psychiatrists were still called “alienists.” This term from the Latin alienus, “other, stranger,”
has both medical and legal connotations. See: Maurice Lipsedge and Roland Littlewood, Aliens and
Alienists: Ethnic Minorities and Psychiatry, 3rd Ed. (1997).
44 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969).
45 “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle,”
Paul Celan, “Speech on Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,” op. cit., p.
46 Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. by Oliver Feltham (2005).
47 Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. by Martin Joughin (1990).
48 Simon Duffy, “Spinoza today: The current state of Spinoza scholarship,” Intellectual History Review,
2009, 19(1): 111–132.
49 Yirmiahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics. Volume I: The Marrano of Reason (1989a); Spinoza and
Other Heretics. Volume II: The Adventures of Immanence (1989b).
identity and may be understood as “the first secular Jew” in Yovel’s analysis,
foreshadowing that unusual ontological chimera called “the non-Jewish Jew” by Isaac
Deutscher.50 By situating him in this historical, theological and philosophical context of
liminality, Yovel helps us recognize Spinoza’s life and work:
It is not hard to understand how a man who is neither a Christian nor a Jew, but who is
divided between the two or who possesses memories of one within the other, might be
inclined to develop doubts about both, or even to question the foundations of religion
Let us anticipate some of the arguments I will develop in Part II on trauma and
event to sketch out an evental reading of Spinoza’s life. As a liminal figure within a
Jewish community that owed its freedom precisely to clear boundaries between itself and
Christian Europe, Yovel argues that such a man was bound to have conflicts within his
community. For complex reasons that are now difficult to reconstruct, Spinoza was
perceived as a heretic by the Jewish community of Amsterdam which charged him and
pronounced a herem, a writ of excommunication.52
The herem was a rupture in Spinoza’s life and in his thought. It opened a breach.
It will be my argument throughout this thesis that such a breach, a rupture in the
continuity of a life, creates a predicament to which one may respond by shutting down,
that is, by becoming traumatized, or by opening outwards, that is, by entering an evental
site and the possibility of change. Trauma or Event.53
We may perceive several features of Spinoza’s predicament:
Continuity is represented by the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam and its
50 Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays, ed. and with an Introduction by Tamara
Deutscher (1968).
51 Yirmiahu Yovel (1989a), op. cit., p. 55.
52 Yirmiahu Yovel, “Why Spinoza was excommunicated,” Commentary, November 1977: 46-52.
53 An event is a “perturbation of the world’s order” which disrupts the local organization or transcendental
of this world “as the rising up of the inexistant attests,” according to Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for
Philosophy, trans. by Louise Burchill (2011), p. 91.
need to maintain boundaries and the creation of “tradition.”
Rupture is Spinoza’s freeing himself from the boundaries of that tradition to ask
questions about the foundations of its authority leading to his excommunication/writ
of herem.
Event is how Spinoza responded to this rupture and the severe consequences it
imposed on him. He recognized in his excommunication an evental site in Badiou’s
terms—a predicament which he undertook with no security but with courage and
grace. This is why he is so admired. He was faithful to this event. Following this, he
wrote his Tractatus Logico-Theologicus and the posthumously published Ethics. He
has been called the first secular or modern Jew—such a thing was practically
impossible before the Enlightenment because one could not easily live outside the
Jewish community.
And finally, subject. In a Hegelian twist, his heresy means that Spinoza was among
the first Jews and the first Europeans to construct a “modern identity that recasts the
meaning of tradition. What does this mean for us? In breaking with Jewish tradition,
he redefines it, his fidelity to his philosophy made him a different kind of subject, one
which we can recognize and sympathize with much more than the undifferentiated
subject of tradition.54
Let us compare him to another great thinker in Jewish history, Moshe ben
Maimon (1135-1204), who we can see as an individual but who despite some hesitations
and soul-searching becomes the canonical authority of the philosophy, medicine and
54 See: Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The lonely man of faith,” Tradition, 1965, 7(2): p. 56. A seminal figure of
the Modern Orthodox movement, a response to the Haskalah or Enlightenment in the light of Jewish
tradition, Soloveitchik wrote in a celebrated essay that “[reason] walks behind, not in front of the man of
faith.” This describes why Spinoza’s path required courage. Reason and faith are two divergent, possibly
irreconcilable paths. This aporia is palpable in Freud and Lacan and presents a difficulty for Gilles
Deleuze’s account of the event as sense. Badiou argues, with Lacan, that if one “consigns what happens to
sense or meaning,” one works towards a “subjective consolidation of religion” since meaning ulitmately
comes from religion. See: “The Event According to Deleuze,” in Alain Badiou, Logic of Worlds, Being and
Event II, trans. by Alberto Toscano (2009), pp. 381-287.
Jewish tradition of his time. His work did engender controversy but he prevailed to
become an authority in the Halachic tradition of Jewish law.55
Here then are two examples of great thinkers who confronted tradition. One,
“Maimonides”—note that it is with his Greek name that he achieves this, not as the
Jewish Moshe ben Maimon, Moses son of Maimon—mastered it and became a brilliant
authority of the Jewish tradition. The other, “Benedictus Spinoza”—note that it is with
his latinized name that he has passed into history, not as the son of Portuguese
immigrants, Bento de Espinosa, much less as the Jewish Baruch Spinoza (the first names
are iterations of “blessed” in Latin, Portuguese and Hebrew)—gives us one of the first
readings of the Torah in philological, exegetical and critical terms. Spinoza is an event for
us because he represents a rupture in the construction of a Jewish identity, opening the
possibility of a new reading of that tradition. As a physician and student of philosophy,
how can I but admire Maimonides who achieved the summit of medical and
philosophical knowledge of his epoch? And while he did not lack courage and
determination, Spinoza’s was the more difficult struggle, eschewing marriage and
academic honours, to live a life of quiet dignity and fidelity to his vision. This is why I
dedicate this work to him and why he is an event for European thought.56
Nevertheless, part of that legacy is now in question. The notion of man that these
brackets encompass, as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggests, is nearing its end.
Paradoxically, its end was announced with fanfare and exuberance with Filippo
Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto”57 and achieved hegemony in the Fascist and Soviet
55 Maimonides, Ethical Writings of Maimonides, Raymond L. Weiss and Charles Butterworth, eds. (1975).
56 This construction of Spinoza’s identity is my own, imbricating Yirmiahu Yovel’s study of Spinoza as a
liminal figure. Spinoza as a transitional figure toward a more universalist contemporary conception of
identity is congruent with Badiou’s reflections on Jewish identity aiming at a “universalism” seen “as the
becoming of a subject that, while not disregarding particularities, goes beyond particularisms; that within
this going beyond accords none the least privilege; and that does not internalize any injunction to glorify
communitarian, religious, or national labels.” See: Alain Badiou, “Part Two: Uses of the Word Jew’,” in
Polemics, trans. with an Introduction by Steve Corcoran (2006), pp. 157-254; p. 165.
57 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Fondazione e Manifesto del Futirismo” [Foundations and Manifesto of
Futurism], in Viviana Birolli, Manifesto del Futurismo (2008), pp. 11-16.
declaration of the New Man, reaching its nadir in the death camps of Nazism and the
Stalinist Gulag. Its denouement came with the post-war world of denial and forgetting
and newer, subtler forms of desubjectivation which we may describe as an evacuation of
the human.
This image of man—the New Man—buries our humanity. Instead of manifestos,
fanfare, declarations and exuberance, we have evasions, negations and denials—a total
failure of memory. We seem to have entered a phase of antimanifestos, with the
declaration of the end of Man (Foucault), the end of poetry (Adorno), the death of the
author (Barthes) and deconstruction (Derrida). The New Man of the Fascists and the
Soviets relegated Futurism to the past. In a reversal of Wittgenstein’s ladder, they
fabricated a descending staircase and then flooded it, drowning themselves.58
And to close the brackets, I choose Primo Levi not only because he was witness to
Auschwitz but because he persisted in telling his story against the evasions and denials of
the post-Nazi world. His is the struggle of memory against forgetting.59 What is bracketed
by Spinoza and Levi is the very notion of man—whose birth was announced in Spinoza’s
Ethics and given its death notice in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Even a guardedly
hopeful philosopher like Agamben, confronts the possibility of witnessing and knowing:
“The aporia of Auschwitz is, indeed, the very aporia of historical knowledge: a non-
coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension.”60
In Spinoza’s Ethics, Proposition 46 states the foundation of what we would call
social psychology, with elements of both John Locke’s associationism and contemporary
attribution theory, in what is a theory of empathy:
58 In a satirical pastiche of Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier 2, Karl Nicholsason has
Mussolini dressed in jackboots descending a staircase, transforming into a naked woman; see: Evelyn
Shapiro, ed., PsychoSources: A Psychology Resource Catalog (1973), p. 168.
59 “The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”—Milan Kundera,
“Sixty-three Words,” in The Art of the Novel, trans. by Linda Asher (1988), p. 130.
60 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (1999), p. 12.
If a man has been affected pleasurably or painfully by anyone of a class or nation
different from his own, and if the pleasure or pain has been accompanied by the idea of
the said stranger as cause, under the general category of the class or nation: the man will
feel love or hatred, not only for the individual stranger, but also to the whole class or
nation whereto he belongs.61
Contrast this with Levi’s report of a profound failure of empathy on the eve of the
transport of Italian Jews from a camp in Fossoli to Auschwitz, 21 February 1944:
Only a minority of ingenuous and deluded souls continued to hope; we others had often
spoken with the Polish and Croat refugees and we knew what departure meant.[…]
The Italian commissar […] decreed that all services should continue to function […] and
even the teacher of the little school gave lessons until the evening, as on other days. But
that evening the children were given no homework.
And night came, and it was such a night that one knew that human eyes would not
witness it and survive. Everyone felt this: not one of the guards, neither Italian nor
German, had the courage to come and see what men do when they know they have to
Women and men, human beings, will live long after this death notice. But these
humans will not be citizens of the American or French revolutions; they will not be living
under Kant’s moral imperative (not even as reformulated by Lawrence Kohlberg or
Jürgen Habermas); nor will they be the alienated workers of Marx and Engels and
certainly not the European New Man.
1.2 Primo Levi: Nested Hegemonies
Like Spinoza, Levi is a liminal figure. An Italian Jew with one foot in the Europe whose
Jews were emancipated by Napoleon and included in modern Italy by Count Cavour63
61 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (1957), p. 53. Spinoza’s Ethics was completed in 1676 but published
posthumously in 1677.
62 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. by Stuart Woolf (1961), pp. 10-11.
63 See: Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 (2008); Luciano Tas,
and another snared in the Third Reich, Levi survived the Auschwitz-Monowitz death
camp to emerge as its clearest witness with a measured voice. Many great questions have
been asked about the Shoah, leading to what historian Raul Hilberg calls “small
answers.”64 Levi shows us that attending to small details yields moments of insight into
the discontinuous discourses nested side by side or within each other in his Lager at
Auschwitz. Through small descriptions and subtle restraint, Levi allows his experiences
to become visible to us. Then, imperceptibly, by an almost evolutionary process of
accretion, the enormity makes itself felt, all the more strongly because it is anchored in
the particulars of the people we meet through Levi’s eyes. His method is resonant with
Agamben’s archaeology: with patience and exacting skill, Levi uncovers the layers of his
internment through a sort of philological archaeology—or is it a geology? Listen to
Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
The Jews are not a historical people
and not even an archaeological people, the Jews
are a geological people with rifts
and collapses and strata and fiery lava.
Their history must be measured
on a different scale.65
To read Levi is to realize that something radical had changed in the construction
of a European, Italian or Jewish identity. Emblematic in my reading is Levi’s rejection as
a Jew by his fellow Jewish inmates at Auschwitz. When I read that, something broke in
me. I would never be able to simultaneously affirm my identities—Italian and Jew. In
Levi’s experience, these two were forcibly separated, not only by the racial laws of
Storia degli ebrei italiani [The History of Italian Jews], introduzione di Giovanni Spadolini (1987).
64 Cited in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1995, p. 59, emphasis added), historian Raul Hilberg says, “In all
my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up
with small answers; and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I
might then be able to put together in a gestalt a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description,
a more full description, of what transpired.”
65 Yehuda Amichai, “The Jews,” in Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers, selected and trans.
by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (1991), p. 59.
Mussolini’s Fascists or the German masters and their Polish collaborators at Auschwitz
but by the other Ashkenazi Jewish inmates from Eastern Europe who used Yiddish as a
shibboleth, defining who is a Jew:
Yiddish was de facto the camp’s second language […] The Polish, Russian and
Hungarian Jews were astonished that we Italians did not speak it: we were suspect Jews,
not to be trusted, besides being naturally, “badoglios” for the SS and “mussolinis” for the
French, Greeks, and political prisoners.66
Levi was liminal, too, in the reconstruction of his memories after Auschwitz. His
readymade tools are memory and words:
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this
offense, the demolition of a man.67
In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi describes interactions with educated Germans after
the war where words like fressen (verb to eat, applied “in good German” only to animals)
and abhauen (verb to cut, to chop off, used in a phrase learned in the camp, meaning to
leave) created a stir:
They looked at me in astonishment […]. I explained to them that I had not learned
German in school but rather in a Lager called Auschwitz; this gave rise to a certain
embarrassment […]. I later on realized also that my pronunciation is coarse, but I
deliberately have not tried to make it more genteel; for the same reason, I have never had
the tattoo removed from my left arm.68
This book documents debates Levi had with the translator of his memoir into
German, doing further research to confirm his memories. In spite of not knowing Yiddish
and only little German, “Mechanical memory had functioned correctly.”69 Levi examines
many words and nuances about his memoir in the chapter, “Letters from Germans.”70
66 Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. by Raymond Rosenthal (1988), p. 100.
67 Primo Levi (1961), op. cit., p. 22.
68 Primo Levi (1988), op. cit., p. 99.
69 Ibid., p. 101.
70 Ibid., chapter, “Letters from Germans,” pp. 167-197.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) teaches us that hegemony makes things seem
obvious, taken for granted.71 Spinoza opens the modern era of cultural hegemony with the
notion of man as the centre of our preoccupations. Levi teaches us the cruelty of that
hegemony—the Italian Fascists bowing to the Nazis’ viral notion of racial purity and
contamination, nested within the eugenics movement with its origins in the England of
Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton,72 that the German guards and the Polish
population accepted as evident commonsense. Through Levi’s witnessing, we are able to
identify something new—not merely Gramsci’s73 notion of cultural hegemony, “layered”
by numerous individual and collective experiences, nor Althusser’s “lacunar discourse”74
where the unsaid and the implicit shape the dominant discourse, nor even the grand
sweep of Foucault’s75 view of discourse shaping society, but something more nuanced
and capable of articulating paradoxes: nested hegemonies. In my notion of nested
hegemonies, 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 co-exist but subtly reinforce each other.
We see, then, that Levi closes many things. This closure does not apply to one
group alone. It is not simply the shame of the Nazi ideology or of Soviet communism and
its brutalities (Levi makes reference to many parallels with the Soviet prison camps76). It
is the end of a shared illusion about our human nature. The Futurists, the Fascists, the
Nazis and the Soviets forthrightly announced their intentions to kill the past and the basis
for that illusion.
71 A brilliant anthropological demonstration of this is in: Mary Douglas, “Self-evidence,” in Implicit
Meanings: Essays in Anthroplogy (1975), pp. 276-318.
72 See: Stephen Gould’s incisive study, The Mismeasure of Man (1981).
73 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ed. by Joseph A. Buttigieg (1992).
74 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in On Ideology, trans. by Ben Brewster
(2008), pp. 1-60.
75 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970); The Archaeology
of Knowledge, trans. by A.M. Sheridan Smith (1972).
76 Primo Levi (1988), op. cit.
The hand-wringing in post-war Europe over how this could happen, the descent
into negations and obfuscations evaporate into air—as Marx predicted.77 Those of us born
after “that which occurred,” as Celan78 characterized the death camps of Europe, cannot
find George Steiner’s questions about “language and silence,”79 about the failure of
language in the face of Fascism edifying or relevant. We do not experience the paradox or
the scandal of listening to Bach or reading Rilke in the evening and tending to the ovens
in the day. It simply occurred. Our impulse is not to mourn or anguish over the death of
the New Man or even the approaching “end of man” announced by Foucault, but to
acknowledge the illusion subtending such beliefs and move on.
Philosophical archaeology provides us with tools to locate and separate these
nested discourses, like landmines, and disarm them. Now, this illusion which we shared
in the hegemony or discourse of modernism, is no longer possible for us. Neither among
the nations that created modernism or the Man of the Enlightenment, nor among the
nations that announced the New Man—Italy, Germany and Russia.
2. Tricoter: Knitting Together Philosophy
I also have my crochet.
It dates from when I began to think.
Stitch on stitch forming a whole without a whole …
Crochet, souls, philosophy …
All the religions of the world ….
All that entertains us in the leisure hours of our existence
77 Cf. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “All that is solid melts into air,” A Communist Manifesto
(1848/2006), p. 7.
78 Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2001), op. cit., p. xxxv, translation modified.
79 George Steiner Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (1982).
—Fernando Pessoa writing as Álvaro de Campos80
There is a lovely French verb, tricoter, meaning in the plain sense to knit or to pedal a
bicycle. Derived from tricot, it’s origin is speculative and perhaps comes from the word
trique, a large stick, and the diminutive suffix –ot, a variant of estrique, from the Frankish
strikan, related to “strike” in English. There is a false etymological relation to tricher (to
trick, cheat or deceive) which in the XV and XVI centuries gave trichot, tricotement,
tricoter, tricoteur meaning chicane, chicaner, chicaneur (argument, to argue, one who
argues). As with many words derived from concrete objects and actions, tricot has a
surfeit of metaphoric associations, from “quick repetitive action” and “strike” to
“erection” (avoir la trique).81,82
My own associations to it are fanciful. With one ear, I hear the tri of triage, from
the French trier, “to sort, select, choose,” used since WWI to mean the sorting of
wounded soldiers into three groups: those who needed immediate care to survive, the
walking wounded who could wait, and those who would die anyway. With the other, I
hear the tri of tricolore, France’s three-coloured flag with its symbolism and the ideals of
the French Revolution, brought together in moderation. As an Italian, il tricolore italiano
of the Cispadane Republic after Napoleon crossed into Italy in 1797 also comes to mind.
So, without threatening violence (strikan) or deception (tricher) and with as little
unpleasantness as possible (chicane), much less an excess of passion (avoir la trique), I
propose a tricotage, knitting together three major thinkers in this work: Giorgio
Agamben, Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault. All three are fluent if not native speakers
of French and share important philosophical traditions. I read them in their original
languages (French, Italian) but will use readily available English translations here for the
purposes of communication, with frequent reference to the originals which I hold to be
authoritative. All three are scholars of etymology, history, philology, and philosophy with
ready access to the Latin and Greek sources of European thought and to French, German
80 Fernando Pessoa, Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems, ed. and trans. by Richard Zenith (1998), p.
81 Available: (Accessed 29.12.2011)
82 Available: (Accessed 29.12.2011)
and Italian philosophical traditions. Agamben adds to this a scholarly interest in the
Hebrew sources of Church history through both Latin and Greek (see my translation of
his essay, “The Church and the Kingdom,” Appendix I - 2).
I understand Agamben simply to be the most careful contemporary reader of
Foucault, much as Lacan read Freud, advancing the Foucauldian project in the areas of
law and liturgy83 and take from him a methodology he proposes as philosophical
archaeology. With a lineage that includes Foucault and Freud, not least with the
invocation of archaeology, this method refreshes thought to make it contemporary. It is a
new form of critical theory. Foucault engages me most on the question of madness, the
end of man, and methodologies for understanding discourses.84 Together, their work
offers new ways to think about ideology or systems of thought, which like different
therapies can be applied to different sorts of problems. Badiou is in a line of major
thinkers who have rethought being and its implications and like his predecessors has
things to say about psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. That is largely because
Event means novation, the bringing of change, new possibilities into being. Unlike his
predecessors, the professionals in those domains have yet to engage him seriously. This
work proposes to do just that.
2.1 Foucault, Agamben, Badiou in Trauma’s Estate
Let us introduce this triumviri properly and identify which elements of their work are
fruitful for this investigation and how their projects intersect, interact and interpellate
each other. To begin (again, as Derrida might say) …
Michel Foucault: philosopher of discourses and systems of thought, has
documented how subjectivation occurs in society; Giorgio Agamben, his finest reader,
reading Foucault in conjunction with Aristotle and Walter Benjamin, employing
philosophical archaeology, is our philosopher of the indeterminate, of the threshold,
83 When he was asked why he worked in these two areas, Agamben quipped that they were the only two
fields that Foucault did not investigate; Homo Sacer seminar, Saas-Fee, 2009.
84 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1958), §133, p. 51:
“There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.”
carefully documenting desubjectivation in states of exception; Alain Badiou: our
contemporary Platonist, philosopher of the exception called Event, elaborates a typology
of bodies-of-truth and subjectizable bodies.
2.1.1 Michel Foucault’s Annexation
In his Pocket Pantheon, Badiou situates Foucault’s ouevre for us:
Of course, we all broke with phenomenology, the theory of consciousness and the last
avatars of psychologism, and he had not a little to do with that. Foucault gambled what
Canguilhem confined to the strictly circumscribed domains of science or medicine on
what we thought came within the remit of the human sciences, history or anthropology.
The clinic, madness, money, linguistics, botany, the penal system, sexuality […] But this
was neither history, anthropology nor the human sciences. It was a gesture that annexed
for philosophy, for pure thought, objects and texts that had been divorced from it. We
occupied the territories of that annexation, even when Foucault’s gesture seems to us to
be incomplete, or difficult to follow.85
Thus, we find ourselves in trauma’s estate, that is to say, its ruins, and we must
find a way through the ruins of this estate, once inhabited by playful and mischievous
gods, humbled by hubris and first described by tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles) and
later by satirists (Voltaire’s Candide, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year). Its first
annexation was by psychoanalysis but having left the house in ruins, philosophy
foreclosed on the property and is now left with the deed to the ruins. We are in occupied
territory of a war fought against psychiatry and psychoanalysis by our predecessor,
Michel Foucault, who left us this legacy. This invocation of trauma’s estate reflects
André Malraux’s novel of the failed first Chinese revolution, Man’s Estate.86 The failure
in the case of trauma was a double one, by both politics and psychoanalysis.
2.1.2 Giorgio Agamben the Archivist
85 Alain Badiou, “Michel Foucault (1926-1984),” in Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy,
trans. by David Macey (2009), pp. 119-124; p. 121, emphasis added.
86 André Malraux, Man’s Estate, trans. by Alastair MacDonald (1948).
Agamben calls Primo Levi “the land-surveyor of Muselmannland,”87 which is to say the
ruins of man’s estate, now called trauma’s estate. If Levi is the cartographer and surveyor,
Agamben is the archivist at the registry office. I see him a little like a character in a tale
by Kafka. He is not one of the hapless victims, nor a persecutor deploying an infernal
machine to deliver the sentence. Agamben is perhaps the guard at the door of the law, or
the clerk of the court in Kafka’s tales. This is one side of Agamben: documenting
contemporary states of exception, with the same kind of delicacy and dexterity we see in
Walter Benjamin or Primo Levi. Rarely have I encountered such a conjunction of
temperaments and themes: surely, Benjamin-Agamben-Levi is a coherent body of
thought in itself. Another side, which Agamben shares with Benjamin, I would
characterize as the modern machinations of the messianic. With the delicate
efflorescences of etymology and genealogy he calls philosophical archaeology, Agamben
dissects the origins of contemporary aporias and renders them urgent and decisive for us
in ways that make his wager starkly clear.
Fellow Italian political philosopher Toni Negri also sees two Agambens. One is in
“a continuous confrontation with the idea of death,” the other “seizing the biopolitical
horizon” like a “Warburg of critical ontology.” Moving beyond Hegelianism, the
Hegelian left and even Benjamin, Negri argues that Agamben goes “beyond the state of
exception by going through it” to show “how immanence can be realist and
revolutionary.” Not since Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge have we had a book
that announced a new paradigm in philosophy. Negri is characteristically combative in
his review of Agamben’s The State of Exception yet ends in revelation:
This is an annoying book in its development and its dualisms, yet extraordinary in its
realisation. It clarifies an issue which post-structuralist and postmodern philosophy had
so far only circumscribed to no avail—turning, on the contrary, the biopolitical
perspective into a verifiable and possible experience. A copernican experience.88
87 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz (1999), op. cit., p. 69.
88 All quotes from Toni Negri, “The Ripe Fruit of Redemption,” trans. by Arianna Bove, 15 April (2004),
emphasis added. Available: (Accessed 4.09.2010)
2.1.3 Alain Badiou in Occupied Territory
Slavoj Žižek’s insight concerning Badiou’s project is that Being and Event is a pair that
implies a third, World (Being/Event/World), just as Freud’s The Ego and the Id implies
the Superego (Ego/Id/Superego) or Lacan’s Imaginary/Symbolic/Real.89 In this
investigation, Trauma and Event, the implied third is the Subject—
Trauma/Event/Subject. The pairs that emerge are trauma/event, and how each of these
impact the subject: event/subject and trauma/subject. Trauma is opposed to event,
whereas subject emerges and comes into being through event. Trauma, in this view, does
not give rise to the subject, but rather desubjectivation, what I call the evacuation of the
Using Badiou’s objective phenomenology, we will demonstrate how the
subjectizable body is applied to psychiatry and examine trauma and the interplay between
trauma and event as the core of psychiatric phenemona with a proposal for a new
psychiatric phenomenology. This new psychiatric phenomenology has a relational
psychology and is at heart a social psychiatry, coherent with Badiou’s notion of the
With his masterworks, the trio of Theory of the Subject91 and the two-volume
Being and Event,92 Badiou offers psychiatry several things:
A new theory of the subject,
A philosophical foundation for relational psychology and therapy through a new
definition of being as multiple,
A new method he calls objective phenomenology (versus intentional or subjective
89 Slavoj Žižek, “On Alain Badiou and Logiques des Mondes,” available online at: (Accessed 11.12.2011)
90 See: Part III – Prospectus for an Evental Psychiatry.
91 Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, trans. by Bruno Bosteels (2009).
92 Alain, Badiou, Being and Event, trans. by Oliver Feltham (2006); Logics of Worlds, Being and Event II,
trans. by Alberto Toscano (2007).
Furthermore, Badiou announces that, “I will plot these connections without any relation
whatsoever with the conscious subject.”93 In that light, we could sum up Badiou’s project
with two concepts, “a subjectless object” and “an objectless subject.” The first, a
subjectless object, conforms to Quentin Meillassoux’s realist theory of the object that
holds that logic is in the world itself, independent of any conscious percipient.94 The
second notion of an objectless subject, is critical for psychology, psychiatry and
psychonalysis. In contradistinction to Althusser’s debate with Lacan over the subject,
where the subject becames the name of a function, the interpellation of its body into
apparatuses and confines it to a kind of objectivity, Badiou argues that subjectivity tears a
“hole in sense,” and like the Event, is an irruption that is undecidable and unpredictable.
So, this is my tricotage, a knitting together and a sorting out of a troika or
triumviri of philosophers95 I call to task to open alternative paths to the rather well-tread
aporias about trauma to link them to the Event: the philosophical archaeology of the
disruption of the discourse of being and the evental opening or traumatic closing of
possibilities in the coming community.
3. 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 Caruth96
93 Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. by Louise Burchill (2011), p. 45, emphasis
94 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. by Ray Brassier, preface by Alain Badiou (2008).
95 As I write this, I hear the notes of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Troika,” the fourth movement of a symphonic
suite composed in 1933 for the Soviet film, “Lieutenant Kijé” (1934) based on Yuri Tynyanov’s story. Two
fine performances are by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado and the Berliner
Philharmoniker conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
96 Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” in Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), pp. 3-12;
p. 11.
What has happened in our contemporary world such that the experiences of disaster and
displacement, migration and exile, horror and terror, separation and loss, catastrophe and
misfortune, humiliation and shame, “the nightmare of childhood” or “the state of
exception,” and other vicissitudes of life—what Freud called the discontents of
civilization—have been reduced to the passive victimization subsumed under the rubric
of trauma? Caruth calls it a catastrophic age. Why do we experience things this way in
our time and why has trauma become the emblematic experience of contemporary life to
the point that we may invoke the epithet “the age of trauma”?
To understand how trauma has become an emblematic experience and trace its
pervasive presence as cultural trauma, we will conduct a philosophical archaeology of
trauma and its many associated discourses and apparatuses. It is difficult to characterize
trauma as a unified discourse or as a spectrum, even within a given discursive formation
such as psychoanalysis or psychiatry. The best way to find our way through this thicket of
aporias is to discern a shifting, porous and unstable dichotomy. For now, we will call the
poles of this dichotomy aleph and beth. These poles are not so much clearly defined and
discrete as they are dichotomous, separating according to the discourse at hand. In her
genealogy of trauma, Ruth Leys (who trained in physiological and psychological sciences
as well as history), they are called mimetic and antimimetic theories of trauma.97 From the
perspective of cultural-intellectual history, Wulf Kansteiner who cites Leys
sympathetically, sees a scientific–metonymic pole and a literary–metaphorical pole of
what he sees as a “trauma discourse spectrum.”98 Since “spectrum” suggests an
underlying order, dichotomy or dialectic better captures the dynamic relationships among
trauma discourses. Even that is only an approximate characterization as at times the two
poles of a perceived dichotomy do not acknowledge or communicate with each other, as
Kansteiner contends.
In their inquiry into the emergence of the “empire of trauma,” physician/social
97 Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (2000). See her faculty bio at:
(Accessed 31.01.2012)
98 Wulf Kanstainer, “Genealogy of a category mistake: a critical intellectual history of the cultural trauma
metaphor,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 2004, 8:2: 193-221.
anthropologist Didier Fassin and psychiatrist/anthropologist Richard Rechtman, trace a
dual genealogy of “post-traumatic stress” which they characterize as scientific and moral.
The scientific strand, in the domain of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis,
addresses trauma both theoretically and in actual practice. The moral strand, related to
social conceptions, “traces changes in attitudes to misfortune and to those who suffer it”
and “towards the authenticity of such suffering.”99
Didier and Fassin find the way these two strands interact most revealing. Posing a
series of questions about how this came about across time, across cultures, across
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 historical era of suspicion that hung over victims of violence”
(which I characterize as an epistemological shift away from the Jaspers’ experiential cut
based on a scientific understanding) and the more powerful continuity towards a moral
affirmation of trauma as “the ultimate truth.”100
In some articulations, the strands are so finely interwoven that separating them
requires dexterity and making conscious choices about discourses and practices. This is
the case with the influential presentation of cultural trauma by Cathy Caruth which is
criticized with precision and clarity by Wulf Kansteiner and Harald Weilnböck.101 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. This explains the length and complexity of this investigation and
my numerous annotations and excursuses. Straddling both poles of this dichotomy, I had
to make each of them intelligible by placing them in their context through surveys of
discourses and practices. The further I went, the more I had to explicate the context of
99 Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of
Victimhood, trans. by Rachel Gomme (2009), p. 8.
100 Ibid., p. 9, emphasis added.
101 Ibid.; 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 Psychotherapy,” in Astrid Erll and Ansgar
Nunning, eds., ̈Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (2008), pp. 229-
each discourse or practice in new terms, rather than cite them as received wisdom. This
requires a different history of psychology and psychiatry and a different genealogy of
trauma. And by reading texts at the core of cultural trauma’s preoccupations—fiction and
poetry, memoirs and witnessing—through philosophy and critical theory, I hope to
illustrate how philosophical archaeology may approach and refresh our understanding of
We will start with a survey of the issues at stake in the history of academic
psychology and psychiatry in defining trauma. These revolve around: consciousness and
phenomenology, the definition of the subject, and issues of language, memory and
representation. I have collected and consulted many histories of psychology and
psychiatry. We may eliminate the more partisan or chauvinistic forays into establishing
nationalistic or sectarian 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.102 Again, 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 psychiatry, on the other hand, revolves
around the crucial question of the experiential chasm, as Karl Jaspers put it: either we can
or cannot cross an empathic bridge to understand the most alienating experience that
psychiatry had encountered at that time: schizophrenia. We can line up all the approaches
and contributions around this question: those who agree with diagnostic categories
(whether based on Kraepelinian aetiopathology—the so-called “medical model”—or
Jaspers’ phenomenology as a science of understanding signs and symptoms) see a
phenomenological chasm between the psychotic patient and the psychiatrist, while those
who are continually looking for other ways to undertand alienating experiences (from
Viktor Tausk’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the “influencing machine” to Eugène
Minkowski’s existential psychiatry to R.D. Laing’s social phenomenology but we may
also include behaviourism and systems theory) explicitly reject, as in the case of
Minkowski and Laing, or simply do not adhere to this way of framing the question, as in
the case of John Watson’s behaviourism or Gregory Bateson’s systems theory.
102 See: Excursus: The History of Psychiatry is Not the History of Madness.
With this map of the history of psychology and psychiatry, we will be able to
examine how another cut, rupture leading to trauma, is understood as psychopathology.
3.1 Psychology: Introspection and Consciousness
Academic psychology had a promising start in the late 19th century at Harvard University
with the brilliant William James, whose Principles of Psychology (1890) remains a
canonical text integrating European influences from Franz Brentano to Wilhelm Wundt,
in the experimental study consciousness by the introspective method. In his authoritative
history of introspection in psychology, Edwin Boring regarded consciousness as “the
most fundamental of all the postulates of Psychology.”103 The philosophers, physiologists
and physicists who founded the new experimental psychology in 1850-1870, such as
Fechner, Lotze, Helmholtz, Wundt, Hering, Mach and others, were all in agreement:
103 Edwin G. Boring, “A history of introspection,” Psychological Bulletin, 1953, 50(3): 169-189; p. 170.
Psychology—even the new “physiological psychology”—was essentially the study of
consciousness, and its chief method was introspection.104
Yet, American psychology soon became defined in a very different way by John Broadus
Watson whose 1913 manifesto is a nodal point in the history of psychology:
The time has come when psychology must discard all reference to consciousness. [...] Its
sole task is the prediction and control of behaviour; and introspection can form no part of
its method.105
Half a century later, British psychologist Cyril Burt proclaimed:
Today, […] the vast majority of psychologists, both in this country and in America, still
follow his lead. The result, as a cynical onlooker might be tempted to say, is that
psychology, having first bargained away its soul and then gone out of its mind, seems
now, as it faces an untimely end, to have lost all consciousness.106
Psychology as a profession became invested in the project of carving out an
identity in the academy, veering from a mindless behaviourism to a meaningless
cognitivism. When psychology finally started taking consciousness seriously again, it
took a detour into artificial intelligence and the mind as a computer and is now occupied
with the neo-Darwinian project of proving that mind has evolutionary roots.107 A large
part of academic psychology has been continually subordinated to the research paradigm
of the day, ready to redefine its core interests based on what is operationally possible as
104 Ibid.
105 John Broadus Watson, “Psychology as the behaviorist views it,” Psychological Review, 1913, 20: 158-
106 Cyril Burt, “The concept of consciousness, British Journal of Psychology, 1962, 53(3): 229-242; p.
107 Jerome Bruner, an architect of the “cognitive revolution” expressed chagrin that the field became
“subordinated to the ideal of computability (p. 10) and “simulated mentalism” (p. 7) where meaning
became computability. His thinking about psychology and its subordination to its subdisciplines is
strikingly similar to Badiou’s notion of philosophy and its conditions. See: Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning
(1990). His overview of the history of psychology is deeply informed and philosophically nuanced.
opposed to what is meaningful, and is thus reduced to methodolatry. What mainstream
academic psychology lacks is a coherent overall theory, notably on such central questions
as defining what is a subject, emotion and meaning. Academic psychology finally got
over its physics envy only to substitute it with biology envy—from “the ghost in the
machine”108 to “the selfish gene.”109 Airily dismissive of psychoanalysis and the concept
of the unconscious, cognitive sciences now privilege the study of language and memory.
Summary: The salience of the debates over consciousness and introspection as
academic psychology’s object and method of study, respectively, is that we see them
mirrored and repeated in the dichotomous discourse on trauma today. In a non-trivial
way, the polysemous question, What is the subject? is never resolved/resolvable in
psychology, neither as a general definition of the field (the study of consciousness, the
prediction of behaviour, the science of mental life110), as an object of study
(consciousness, behaviour, cognition), nor as an understanding of persons (mind and thus
identity as emergent from physiological processes, as a historical fiction ascribed to
bodies emitting behaviours, consciousness emergent from a computer-like brain shaped
by evolution). As a result, the aporias of the trauma experience—from intense
remembering to repression, from a kind of concrete dulling of affective life to
overwhelming anguish and dread, from the impossibility of communicating painful
experiences to exquisitely-wrought witnessing through memoir, fiction and poetry,
invoking questions of language, memory and representation—have no sure address in
psychology. Again in a non-trivial way, it is as if psychology has to reinvent itself (and
the world) for each new subject of study. It is certainly the case with trauma.
3.2 Foundations of Modern Psychiatry
To study a complex clinical problem like trauma, we need careful and critical essays of
the type attempted by thoughtful clinician-scholars such as Karl Jaspers in Germany and
108 Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (1975).
109 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1989).
110 William James (1890) called psychology “the science of the mind”; George Miller (1991), a pioneer in
cognitive psychology, called it “the science of mental life.”
Aubrey Lewis in Britain.111 We may characterize them as descriptive nosography, staying
very close to clinical observations and patients’ subjective experience with selective
naturalistic studies of patients’ lifeworlds. Their contributions are very similar to
Agamben’s essays in philosophical archaeology.
A school of psychiatry was founded on this notion, with phenomenological and
existential elements, to become one of the pillars of psychiatric practice. Mayer-Gross’
Clinical Psychiatry is the cornerstone of modern British psychiatry. The Preface to the
Third Edition in 1969, after his death in 1961, puts Willy Mayer-Gross squarely in the
tradition of German psychiatry and as a pioneer contributor along with Jaspers and others
“to the remarkable flowering of clinical psychiatry in the development of
‘phenomenology’, i.e., the exact study and precise description of psychic events, which
are a primary requisite for their understanding.”112 The first sentence on the first page of
this volume reads:
This book is based on the conviction of the authors that the foundations of psychiatry
have to be laid on the ground of the natural sciences.113
A section about existential analysis and related theories makes a distinction
between Jaspers’ phenomenology and existential analysis, describing the latter as “a
variety of attempts to solve the problems of psychopathology by the use of philosophical
short-cuts, instead of the relatively slow method of investigation with the disciplines of
natural science.114 What folows is a characterization of the appeal of existential analysis
to those with philosophical or metaphysical interests rather than scientific methodology,
111 Aubrey Lewis, Inquiries in Psychiatry: Clinical and Social Investigations (1967a); The State of
Psychiatry: Essays and Addresses (1967b); The Later Papers of Sir Aubrey Lewis, introduction by Michael
Shepherd (1979). There are essays on the terms anxiety, hysteria, psychogenic, paranoia and paranoid,
classifying phobia, endogenous versus exogenous, the psychopathic personality, as well as more general
reflections on whether the basis for psychiatry should be empirical or rational, philosophy and psychiatry,
and the history of classification and diagnosis in psychiatry.
112 Willy Mayer-Gross, Clinical Psychiatry (1969), p. xiii.
113 Ibid., p. 1, emphasis in the original.
114 Willy Mayer-Gross, ibid., p. 25, emphasis added.
with “adherents in philosophy and literature as well as in psychiatry” and is likened to
previous eras in the history of thought, especially with romantic writers and philosophers
in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Against the “Cartesian prejudice”—the split of the subject and the object—the
existentialist, it is argued, “wishes to start by using as a basic unitary concept for the
understanding of all human life the awareness of the individual himself in the world,
‘Being-in-the-World’,” from which are derived “the concept of ‘ontology,’ the doctrine of
being and the basis of all philosophy,” noting that Heideggers formulation of “Being-in-
the-World” as “a state of solitude and anxiety” and “pessimistic outlook” had a “natural
appeal” to the postwar European generation.
This is contrasted with the work of such “serious and humane psychiatrists as L.
Binswanger, V. von Gebsattel and E.W. Straus” who championed a “more direct, more
total, less piecemeal approach to psychiatric patients and their symptoms.” Their aim was
to “bracket together all objective phenomena” by placing “subjective experience into the
centre of psychology” and linking it to Jaspers’ phenomenology. Lacking another
description, the author calls this approach the “opposite of behaviourism.”
Under such descriptions as constructive-genetic anthropology, existential analysis
and existential anthropology, these workers used empathy to “understand the world of the
depressive, the obsessional, the manic or the patient with ideas of reference.” Empathy is
described as “putting themselves into the patient’s situation,” using the “totality of this
understanding to interpret individual symptoms.”115
To highlight the distinction, Mayer-Gross repeats that phenomenology is “a
factual approach, based on the work of Jaspers” while existentialism seeks
“philosophical short-cuts.” It attributes to this group the view that psychology is not part
of natural science or that scientific psychology is “irrelevant for the understanding and
treatment of psychiatric patients.” Binswanger is cited as the philosophical spokesman:
115 Ibid.
“the ground and soil, in which psychiatry can take root as a science in its own right, is
neither cerebral anatomy or physiology, nor biology, neither psychology, characterology
and typology, nor the science of the person, but man (‘der Mensch’).” While noting some
strengths of this school, Mayer-Gross’ summary concludes that the existentialist would
isolate psychiatry from “all other modes of study of the mentality of man” and be
deprived of mutual fertilizing among them.116 This prediction has been entirely borne out
in the four decades since this was written.
3.3 Phenomenology in Psychiatry
Now, what is this founding science of psychiatry called phenomenology? In his classic
textbook, Allgemeine Psychopathologie, published in German in 1913 and translated as
General Psychopathology (1997), Karl Jaspers describes it thus:
Phenomenology sets out a number of tasks: it gives a concrete description of the psychic
states which patients actually experience and presents them for observation. It reviews
the inter-relations of these, delineates them as sharply as possible, differentiates them and
creates a suitable terminology.117
Jaspers then adds that as we cannot perceive the psychic experiences of others directly,
we must make “representations of them,” for which we need an “act of empathy, of
understanding.” Phenomenology is often invoked today by psychiatrists who wish to
116 All quotes from Willy Mayer-Gross, ibid., pp. 25-26.
117 Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology, trans. by J. Hoenig and Marion W. Hamilton (1997), p. 55,
emphasis in the original.
emphasize precisely this empathic approach.118 “Our chief help in all this comes from the
patients’ own self-descriptions,” Jaspers wrote, adding, “An experience is best described
by the person who has undergone it.” In a footnote, Jaspers references his 1912 paper119
and outlines a history of the term phenomenology:
The term phenomenology was used by Hegel for the whole field of mental phenomena as
revealed in consciousness, history and conceptual thought. We use it only for the much
narrower field of individual psychic experience. Husserl used the term initially in the
sense of ‘a descriptive psychology’ in connection with the phenomenon of consciousness;
in this sense it holds for our investigations also, but later on he used it in the sense of ‘the
appearance of things’ (Wesensschau) which is not the term we use in this book.
Phenomenology is for us purely an empirical method of inquiry maintained solely by the
patients’ communications. It is obvious that in these psychological investigations
descriptive efforts are quite different from those in the natural sciences. The object of
study is non-existent for the senses and we can experience only a representation of it. Yet
the same logical principles are in operation. Description demands the creation of
systematic categories, as well as a demonstration of relationships and orderly sequences
on the one hand and of sporadic appearances, unheralded and unforeseen, on the other.120
Let us go back to the contrast that Mayer-Gross suggests between phenomenology
and behaviourism. Another section on Pavlovian psychiatry reviews Pavlov’s work in
physiology in the Soviet Union and the application of learning theory, including Western
forms of behaviour therapy, to psychiatry very positively, especially with neurotic
conditions but not with schizophrenia and other psychotic states. In retrospect,
behaviourism and learning theory have had their day but the contrasts of the questions
posed by behaviourism and phenomenology are still instructive and were addressed in a
118 For a fine example by a compassionate clinician, see: Richard Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds:
Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World (2006), pp. 14-19.
119 Karl Jaspers, “Die phänomenologische Forschungsrichtung in der Psychopathologie,” Zeitschrift für
die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, 1912, 9: 391-408. English Translation: “The phenomenological
approach to psychopathology,” British Journal of Psychiatry, 1968, 114: 1313-1323.
120 Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology, op. cit., p. 55, emphasis in the original.
unique volume with leaders in psychology, philosophy and history.121 For our purposes,
the issues revolve around the question of consciousness and the experiential chasm.
Derek Bolton, who is both a philosopher and a psychologist, revisits Jaspers’
legacy, as the distinction between meaningful and causal connections, understanding and
explaining. In this analysis, 20th century psychiatry is the transition from the meaning
model to the causal model and there is no doubt that most people who see it this way, see
it as progress. Jaspers had an understanding of the difficulties encountered by the subject
and subjectivity and the question of consciousness, with roots in German scientific
traditions. Reading the same texts, I see different landmarks in this territory. “Causal”
versus “meaningful” are punctuations.
Bolton states that, “Jaspers was the first to grasp the relevance of the new
problematic to psychiatry, and perhaps the last to be able to hold on, even-handedly, to
both epistemologies. Jaspers emphasized the importance of both the science of
psychopathology and the indispensable need to understand meaning by empathy.”122 He
laments, however, that “no coherent account of how these two methodologies could
together be coherent and valid.”123 I disagree insofar as there is an implicit model in
Jaspers who uses empathy as a useful discriminating tool. We can describe experiences
phenomenologically and empathize to arrive at understanding and meaning of the
patient’s lifeworld, to use Husserl’s term. Where these fail, as in psychosis (and, no
doubt, by extension dementia, profound mental deficiency and neurological disorders),
the construction of meaning fails, as does empathy for self and other, and, this approach
would conclude, we are dealing with brain disease. Again, Jaspers’ experiential chasm is
121 T.W. Wann, ed., Behaviorism and Phenomenology: Contrasting Bases for Modern Psychology (1964).
The contributors include committed phenomenologists (R.B. MacLeod, Carl Rogers, both psychologists)
and behaviourists (B.F. Skinner, a psychologist; Norman Malcolm, a philosopher), as well as scholarly
commentators from both psychology and history and philosophy of science (Sigmund Koch, Michael
122 Derek Bolton, “Shifts in the philosophical foundations of psychiatry since Jaspers: Implications for
psychopathology and psychotherapy,” International Review of Psychiatry, August 2004, 16(3): 184-189; p.
185. Bolton did his doctoral work with Wittgenstein’s student G.E.M. Anscombe at Cambridge University.
123 Ibid.
a cut in two senses. It describes the chasm between patient and psychiatrist into which
meaning and empathic understanding fall into an abyss; and it is a cut, a separator of this
dual approach of phenomenological psychiatry from psychoanalysis and other
hermeneutic approaches that persist with the attempt to understand notwithstanding the
difficulties and limits of the task.
In the early history of modern psychology, the move away from consciousness
was motivated by the lack of a scientific method so researchers simply studied what
could be measured, such as physiological responses or behaviour. In the history of
psychiatry, the split concerns whether phenomena can be understood and given meaning
or explained causally with a strong preference for brain explanations.
Summary: The way Jaspers used phenomenology in psychiatry is inspired by but
differs from Husserl’s use of it in philosophy; Jaspers founded the modern era of
descriptive or phenomenological pyschiatry based on patients’ own self-descriptions.
This makes him a co-founder with Kraepelin of modern psychiatry. Today, we read
Kraepelin as being more concerned with causal connections and explanation and Jaspers
with meaning and understanding. What makes this a complex judgement is that they
introduced these notions to bring order to a mass of information and while they show
these tendancies, each tried to address both tasks, especially Jaspers. The philosophical
critique that phenomenology is concerned with appearances rather than ontology is not
altogether true for Jaspers’ phenomenological psychiatry and his continued influence in
psychiatry today. Bolton’s characterization is historicist and distorts Jaspers’ influence on
one hand and misconstrues his contributions on the other. Jaspers offered a bridge
between what we perceive today as reductive causal explanatory models and more
embracing models aimed at meaningful understanding. That he reads this as lacking a
coherent theory reveals positivist preferences. Bolton champions cognitive behaviour
therapy (CBT) which I call a chimera. Where is the explanation in that theory of how
cognition is related to behaviour? It is a series of assumptions of that relationship and
practical ways of managing that link. Except for a plethora of outcome studies that meets
the needs of the psychology industry, CBT represents no advance in our understanding
and its contributions were already present in a more lucid form in Viktor Frankl’s
logotherapy.124 Furthermore, Mayer-Gross’ overview introduced a sharp distinction
between this use of phenomenology and the disparate group of psychiatrists who,
inspired by the same sources and aporias, constructed versions of existential psychiatry
and analysis. The real epistemological cut is between those approaches dedicated to a
search for meaning in all experiences, however absurd or destructive (witness Tausk and
Frankl), and those who introduce an experiential cut as a tool in itself to explain alienated
and alienating experiences, such as schizophrenia (Jaspers).
The interesting question concerning trauma is: how would Jaspers have
understood trauma? Would he have undertaken a kind of phenomenological archaeology
to empathize with a traumatized patient or would he have experienced a chasm with the
most profoundly traumatized patients?
3.4 “Philosophical Short-Cuts” or Founding Science?
For the last century, during the modern era of psychiatry, philosophers have been
privileged interlocutors in creating new vistas in psychiatry. This is a different story than
either psychiatrists or philosophers usually tell, and only partly told by Foucault who is
part of the story himself. While Jaspers established phenomenology as a founding science
of psychiatry which was respected by authorities such as Mayer-Gross, kindred
approaches in existential psychiatry are accused of looking for “philosophical short-cuts.”
The story told by philosophers about psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis is
perhaps even more complex because, I would argue, they have been privileged
interlocutors as well as critics of these disciplines. Substantive philosophical
commentaries range from Wittgenstein’s papers on psychology125 to Heidegger’s
correspondence with Binswanger whose work he followed with interest.126 In
124 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, trans. by Ilse Lasch,
preface by Gordon W. Allport (1959).
125 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology Vol. 1, G.E.M. Anscombe, Heikki
Nyman and G. H. Von Wright, eds. (1991), Vol. 2 (1994).
126 Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters, ed. by Medard Boss, trans. by
Franz Mayr and Richard Askay (2001).
Foucauldian terms, these various disciplines come together to create a discourse or
épistémè and these discursive elements combine with nondiscursive elements such as
clinical practice, social policies and legislation to form an apparatus. Together with
psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, philosophers worked to found a science
of phenomenology ranging from an account of existence (Edmund Husserl, Martin
Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre) to a psychology of perception (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and
above all, phenomenological psychiatry (Karl Jaspers) and existential psychiatry (Eugène
Minkowski) and its offshoots, especially existential analysis (Ludwig Binswanger) and
social phenomenology (R.D. Laing). These contributions, whose avatar is Jaspers’
phenomenological psychiatry, join Kraepelin’s aetiopathological model as the twin
foundations of modern psychiatry.
This is a knowingly selective view of psychiatry’s foundation and evolution. It is
not a history as such, although it is historically-informed, nor is it an exhaustive survey.
What I have left out are the cognate disciplines, allied professions and subdisciplines of
psychiatry. They have their own importance but they are not what defines the core of
psychiatry’s mission. While a number of subdisciplines have made their bid to redefine
psychiatry, they have not managed to convince the field with their wager: child
psychiatry, for example, tries to make the argument that development should be the core
of psychiatry, either through attachment theory or developmental neurobiology; family
therapy made the argument that systems theory could radically redefine the field both in
theory and in practice. Many other examples may be elaborated, from community
psychiatry, to epidemiology and public health, and social and transcultural psychiatry.
Two others are in a different class: first, the dethroned paradigm of psychodynamic
psychiatry based on Freudian psychoanalysis, and second, the newly-crowned paradigm,
a two-stroke engine comprised of evidence-based medicine and a scientific soup of
neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience.
3.5 One Hundred Years of Phenomenological Psychiatry
This is a sketch of the phenomenological era in philosophy and psychiatry during the last
century, using Jaspers’ 1912 paper as a historical milestone.127 Throughout this century,
these two discourses have been imbricated in ways that suggest Badiou’s notion of a
suture. For some, like Althusser, psychoanalysis (and by extension, psychiatry) is
subordinated to philosophy, while Freud and Lacan privilege psychoanalysis in defining
and treating the subject. Karl Jaspers, who genuinely straddled both fields in which he
excelled, created the synthesis of phenomenological psychiatry as a founding science.
Many of those who followed addressed both disciplines with ease, including Ludwig
Binswanger, Jean-Paul Sartre, R.D. Laing and Michel Foucault.
In the two columns below, key thinkers in philosophy and psychiatry and their
major works and key ideas are listed side by side to show their affinities and
Philosophy Psychiatry
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Subjective/intentional phenomenology The Phenomenological Approach to
Influenced the entire school of Psychopathology” (1912)
phenomenological and existential General Psychopathology (1913)128
psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis Eugène Minkowski (1885-1972)
Existential psychiatry
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966)129
Being and Time (1927) “The Case of Ellen West” (1944-45)
(dedicated to Husserl) Daseinanalyse—Existential analysis
Dream and Existence (1930; French translation
with a preface by Michel Foucault, 1954)
127 Karl Jaspers, “Die phänomenologische Forschungsrichtung in der Psychopathologie,” op. cit.
128 Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology, op. cit. Jaspers cites Husserl in both of his works noted here.
129 Binswanger trained with Bleuler and Jung and conducted detailed and lengthy correspondence with
both Heidegger and Freud. Binswanger was also influenced by Martin Buber’s I and Thou.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) R.D. Laing (1927-1989)
Being and Nothingness (1943) The Divided Self (1960), Self and Others (1961),
“Existential psychoanalysis Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre’s
has not yet had its Freud” Philosophy 1950-1960 (preface by Sartre, 1964)
Ontological insecurity, mystification,
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)
Black Skins, White Masks (1952)
A new theory of consciousness, combining the
psychiatric and the political
The Wretched of the Earth (preface by Sartre,
with famous line, “Violence, like Achilles’ spear,
can heal the wounds it inflicts.” 1961)
With his major works, Theory of the Subject, Being and Event and Logics of
Worlds, Being and Event II, Badiou broke with intentional phenomenology and redefined
the subject as a relation between an event and a world, forcing a rereading of the
psychiatric projects founded on phenomenology and its implicit theory of the subject.
This creates the conditions for a critique of what I have come to call trauma psychiatry
and, by engaging Badiou’s triad of “being, event, subject” in the pairing of “trauma and
event,” we have may encountenance the possibility of announcing a new psychiatry of
the event.
Philosopher Psychiatry (proposed)
Alain Badiou
Theory of the Subject
Being and Event I & II “Trauma and Event”130
Objective phenomenology Evental psychiatry
Multiplicity Relational psychology
130 I am grateful to Alain Badiou for his “blessing” to entitle my work, “Trauma and Event,” in the spirit
of this line of inquiry. See: Part III - Prospectus for an Evental Psychiatry.
Evental site Predicament
Concerned with the uncounted Liminality, threshold people
3.6 Psychoanalysis and Philosophy
I have limited my survey to the relation between philosophy and psychiatry. The
relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis is as complex and strongly mediated
by psychiatry, psychology and other clinical professions which changes across societies.
Badiou’s relation to Lacan’s psychoanalysis is complex in that both thinkers see the
relation between philosophy and psychoanalysis in agonistic terms. For our purposes, let
us recall Badious positioning of Lacan as an antiphilosopher. The detailed introduction
to Badiou’s book on Wittgenstein as an antiphilosopher covers this question adequately
while we await a work by Badiou on the matter.131
As for Freud and his relation to philosophy, every philosopher has something to
say about Freud and psychoanalysis. It is a relation of anxiety and apprehension.
Philosophers want to show that they have read and understood Freud. In my view, this is
insufficient. No matter how salient psychoanalysis is for us, Freud himself was neither a
philosopher nor a psychiatrist. He founded something else. Lacan understood this and I
believe that some European schools of psychoanalysis made the right choice to separate
psychoanalysis from medicine and psychiatry. These are complex questions. Two recent
studies clarify Freud’s separation from philosophy: Mladen Dolar’s essay on Hegel and
Freud and Alfred Tauber’s masterful study of Freud as a reluctant philosopher.132
A more complete study of this line of inquiry would include, minimally, a review
of the pioneering work of Dilthey and Wundt as early philosophical psychologists, as
well the thought of Brentano which is important in the development of phenomenology
(with his notion of intentionality) and for Freud as well.133 It is clear that psychoanalysis
131 Alain Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, trans. by Bruno Bosteels (2009).
132 Mladen Dolar, “Hegel and Freud,” e-flux, Journal #34, 04/2012. Available: http://www.e- (Accessed 24.06.2012). Alfred I. Tauber, Freud: The Reluctant
Philosopher (2010).
133 The compass points of such an inquiry are evident in the excellent introductions to these works by
Wolfgang Schirmacher, ed., German Essays in Psychology, Vol 62 (2001; the essays by Dilthey, Husserl
which gave rise to the notion of psychic trauma cannot itself encompass it nor wholly
explain trauma.134 Neither can psychiatry, which has become the gatekeeper for
psychopathology and for the creation of psychiatric nosography, answer this question. In
“Part II, Chapter 5: Trauma,” a dichotomy in trauma theories is presented. The first
column, aleph, is part of the legacy of psychoanalysis. The other column, beth, is the
more psychiatric construction of trauma as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Medical anthropology has made a contribution in understanding the invention of
PTSD135,136 and cultural psychiatry elucidates the cultural context of psychiatric processes
in both the patient and the practitioner.137
3.7 Theology, Genealogy, Archaeology
Theologians mostly wrung their hands or reached for theodicy. I neither want to
defend the goodness of God (Leibniz, Voltaire’s target in his poem on the Lisbon
and Wundt are essential) and German 20th Century Philosophical Writings, Vol 77 (2003; notably the essay
by Jaspers on existential philosophy).
134 Werner Bohleber, Destructiveness, Intersubjectivity, and Trauma: The Identity Crisis of Modern
Psychoanalysis (2010).
135 Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions (1995), op. cit.
136 Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma (2009), op. cit.
137 For our purposes, there are basically two kinds of contributions in cultural psychiatry today: one is to
situate psychiatric phenomena—trauma in this case—in cultural context, another is more critical of the
psychiatric project to define trauma. Although medical anthropologists collaborate with cultural
psychiatrists in both kinds of studies, psychiatrists tend to look to social science to broaden the
inclusiveness and reach of their categories, while social scientists tend to question the validity of
psychiatric categories. The problem is that being a clinician requires “tender-mindedness,” to use William
James’ phrase, while being an investigator and bold thinker requires more of what he called “tough-
mindedness.” Tender-minded clinicians tend towards sophrosyne—moderation and balanced judgement.
This is evident in a multi-authored volume by Kirmayer, et al., where both types of studies are represented,
grouped into neurobiological, clinical and cultural perspectives in a purported “integration.” In fact, only
the last chapter by the editors attempts such an integration which simply acknowledges the aporias of
trauma studies without a clear path through, followed by an epilogue on the “vicissitudes of
interdisciplinary integration.” See: Laurence Kirmayer, Robert Lemelson and Mark Barad, eds.,
Understanding Trauma: Integrating Biological, Clinical and Cultural Perspectives (2007).
earthquake) nor put God on trial (see Elie Wiesel138). As Richard Rorty said, we are
slightly embarrassed by such questions and articulating the reasons are complex and
precarious. The problems for any theology of trauma are adequately represented by the
Akedah, the “Binding” or Sacrifice of Isaac, as an aporia for philosophy. Even Wiesel,
who is a deeply religious Jewish survivor of Auschwitz questioned his faith and his own
story, told in his memoir Night, is a significant father-son story and reflection on the
meaning of filial piety. Only the most fundamentalist of believers can answer the aporia
of Auschwitz on the basis of faith, but I believe the rupture between human reality and
divine command was evident in the story of the Akedah.139
None of these perspectives or reductions can treat the question of trauma
satisfactorily. Once the empirical facts and the history are put on the table and the social
and cultural context elucidated, we are still left with deep questions of meaning, touching
on being. These meanings cannot be sorted out by recourse to data although these data
beg interpretation. Only philosophy can clarify the questions for us. And of the methods
available to us, I choose Agamben’s philosophical archaeology as my method of inquiry.
Critical studies in media by Ulrich Baer,140 Georges Didi-Huberman,141 Péter
Forgács142 and Tzvetan Todorov143 have made their contributions as have literary theorists
from Maurice Blanchot, Jean-François Lyotard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to Jacques
Derrida and others, including critics and translators, from Paul Auster to John Felstiner
138 Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (1979).
139 Many theological accounts were consulted during these investigations. Of these, the work of
Emmanuel Levinas is most appealing but Gregory Baum, Emil Fackenheim, Hans Jonas, Serene Jones,
Richard Kearney and Jean-Luc Marion were also consulted, some of whom appear in this work, albeit
indirectly. The working hypothesis on theology for this investigation is best expressed by Richard Kearney
in his book, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (2001).
140 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (2002).
141 Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. by Shane B.
Lillis (2008).
142 András Rényi, ed.,“Col Tempo” The W. Project: Péter Forgács’s Installation, trans. by Éva Bárbas,
Miklós Bodóczky and Tim Wilkinson (2009).
143 Tzvetan Todorov, Memory as a Remedy for Evil, trans. by Gila Walker with photographs by Naveen
Kishore (2010).
and Michael Hamburger on the poetry of Celan. Genealogy is helpful but not incisive
enough. Beyond philology and genealogy, so productively employed by Friedrich
Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals or Raymond Williams in his Keywords, add to this
the masterful investigation by Ruth Leys in her Trauma: A Genealogy.144
Philosophical archaeology reaches more deeply and at the same time, offers a
more pragmatic treatment as it asks the question how it engages its past and stitches it
into current practice. This is so radically new and incisive a method as to warrant
Wittgenstein’s description of it as a philosophical treatment. The word ‘treatment’ here is
not just a homonym of the word we use in psychiatry but indeed an embodiment of the
very spirit of understanding the sources of phenomena.
Excursus on Excursuses
Physicians collect “clinical pearls” to make sense of complex medical phenomena. These
are usually empirical, time-tested observations about patients, such as, Starve a fever,
feed a cold. In psychiatry, there is an instructive distinction between the circumstantial
and tangential historian (meaning the patient as narrator of his own story). The
circumstantial historian talks round and round a point but eventually makes his way to the
mark, whereas the tangential historian continues veering off the point so that it is hard to
grasp where he started or see where he is going. Circumstantiality is taken to be a
symptom of obsessionality, while tangentiality suggests a psychotic process. Both styles
are digressive; both of them distract us from the history we wish to get from the patient.
And it is also true that they tell a story in and of themselves.
The opening pages of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy are a knowing gesture
by the narrator who constantly intrudes into the text with a kind of delaying tactic that
builds tension almost to the breaking point. The first-person narrator of this 18th century
novel brings us to the scene of his procreation and delays the crucial moment with a
series of descriptions, deviations and divagations that are not only comical but also make
the point that it was these very delays that created an imbalance in the actual composition
144 All of these thinkers are engaged and cited below.
of his being (reflecting the scientific thinking of the time). By digressing and taking
excursions into other matters, the narrator artfully captures our attention and frustrates
our wish to know more, making us delightfully aware of the narrator’s character and the
contingency and necessity of certain facts of life. Simultaneously. Precisely: we come
into contact with the character’s obsessionality—and our own. And we are left with the
maddening experience of tangentiality—Are we going mad? Will he ever get to the
point? How was such a creature ever conceived?—until we relinquish the need to control
the narrative and abandon ourselves to its vagaries and pleasures. The character of
Tristram Shandy is nothing if not a very digressive narrator and the text is composed
entirely of picaresque excursions which in fact prove to be the substance of the story.
The excursus is just this sort of digression in an academic text. It is somewhere
between the high-brow scholium or scholion (from Greek σχόλιον “comment”,
“interpretation,” which could not have a better academic pedigree than Spinoza’s scholia
in his Ethics) and the low-brow vulgarizations or marginalia written by students. The
most famous mathematical marginal note—Fermat’s last theorem—was discovered by
his son in the margins of his father’s edition of Diophantus, the Alexandrian
mathematician, with the comment that the margin was too small to contain the proof.
An excursus from the main text is an aside, a diversion, a divagation, an
excursion; let us call it a deviation, a day-trip on a longer journey. (We can call it a
parenthesis.) The word comes from the Latin, excurrere, “to run out,” and has at least two
somewhat opposing countercurrents in contemporary academic usage:
(a) A “lighter” digression, almost a diversion from the main text in order not to distract from
the main argument versus a separate section or appendix to comment more “seriously” on
a particular point or deepen the argument of the text.
(b) On one hand, the excursus in embedded in the main text (not written in the margin as an
afterthought, relegated like a subaltern to the foot of the page or an endnote appended like
a second class citizen sent to the back of the bus); on the other hand, its function is to
unpack the meanings of the text.
One of my first encounters with the excursus was in Brigitte Berger and Peter
Berger’s The War Over the Family, a work of advocacy, where it is employed to highlight
the polemics over the politics and sociology of the family.145 Jürgen Habermas also
employs excursuses (the English plural; not “excursi,” if we followed the Latin) in his
overview on modernity.146
Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History has many “Glosses” that enliven the text,
serving all the functions suggested here, and more.147 Agamben’s text, just as Franco-
Czech writer Milan Kundera (1988)148 consciously composes his novels, has an almost
musical, contrapuntal structure. In his Homo Sacer series (Homo Sacer I; State of
Exception, Homo Sacer II, 1; The Kingdom and the Glory, Homo Sacer II, 2; The
Sacrament of Language, Homo Sacer II, 3; Remnants of Auschwitz, Homo Sacer III),
excursuses are marked with the Hebrew letter , aleph. Leland de la Durantaye’s149
critical introduction to Agamben’s work has didactic “Scholia” sprinkled throughout the
text, in an effort to deepen our understanding of Agamben’s rich, allusive writing. Finally,
in his Il Regno and la Gloria, Agamben uses both the excursus throughout and a
Soglia, “Threshold,” after each chapter, acting as a pause and a preparation.150
In his first gloss on one of Montaigne’s essays, Agamben lets the French master
tell us the story of his fall from a horse, his loss of consciousness and the gradual
recovery of his senses. Then Agamben offers his gloss:
This memory furnishes Montaigne with the pretext for a series of digressions, where the
145 Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger, The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground (1984).
146 Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. by Frederick
Lawrence (1990).
147 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. by Liz Heron (2007).
148 Milan Kundera, “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” in The Art of the Novel, trans. by Linda Asher
(1988), pp. 71-96.
149 Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (2009).
150 Giorgio Agamben, Il Regno e la Gloria (2009). English version: The Kingdom and the Glory, trans. by
Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (2011).
twilight state [Agamben is too wise a reader to miss the neurological overtones of this
poetic but scientifically precise phrase] comes to stand for a form of experience which,
albeit specific, is also in a sense experience at its extreme and most authentic,
emblematically summing up the entire scope of inquiry of the Essays.151
An excursus, then, in a text as in life, is a pretext for allowing contingency—even
horrific ideas or frightening accidents—to enter our lives, and to be open to what is
extreme and authentic to become real events for us.
Annotation: Janus-Faced Terms – The Fugue
In these annotations, key bivalent, bimodal Janus-faced terms in philosophy and
psychiatry are explored: pharmakon—the philter that is both a poison and a remedy;
Achilles’ spear that both wounds and heals; the Akedah—God commands the “binding”
of Isaac then saves him; skandalon—the rock over which we stumble is also a foundation
stone; katechon—what is “withheld” is a safeguard against the evil it announces; and,
finally, trauma is a wound that activates growth. In this first excursus on Janus-faced
terms, I explore the fugue in music (contrapuntal composition) and in psychiatry (a
disturbed state of consciousness).
The English term fugue (Fr. ‘fugue,’ Ger. ‘fuge,’ It. ‘fuga’) dates from the 16th century
with origins in the the French word fugue and the Italian fuga.152 These vulgarized forms
of the Latin fuga retain their bivalent heritage in both fugere (‘to flee’) and fugare (‘to
chase’). The adjectival form is fugal. Musical variants include fughetta (It. ‘a small
fugue’) and fugato (It., a passage in fugal style within another work that is not a fugue).153
151 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History (2007), p. 44.
152 “fugue n.The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Twelfth edition. Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus
Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Universi
de Montréal (Accessed 23.06.2012)
153 “fugue” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. Michael Kennedy and Joyce Kennedy. Oxford
University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Université de Montréal
(Accessed 23.06.2012)
Fugue noun.
1. (Music) a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the
subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.
2. (Psychiatry) a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often
coupled with flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain
forms of hysteria and epilepsy.154
In her 19th century novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot, offers this
delightful description of musical duets spilling over into contrapuntal love:
Surely the only courtship unshaken by doubts and fears must be that in which the lovers
can sing together. The sense of mutual fitness that springs from the two deep notes
fulfilling expectation just at the right moment between the notes of the silvery soprano,
from the perfect accord of descending thirds and fifths, from the preconcerted loving
chase of a fugue, is likely enough to supersede any immediate demand for less
impassioned forms of agreement. The contralto will not care to catechise the bass; the
tenor will foresee no embarrassing dearth of remark in evenings spent with the lovely
soprano. In the provinces, too, where music was so scarce in that remote time, how could
the musical people avoid falling in love with each other? Even political principle must
have been in danger of relaxation under such circumstances; and the violin, faithful to
rotten boroughs, must have been tempted to fraternize in a demoralizing way with a
reforming violoncello. In that case, the linnet-throated soprano and the full-toned bass
We have repeated in the psychiatric notion of the fugue state, whose name is
borrowed from the musical form or texture (there is a debate as to its musical quality) of
the fugue, a similar paradoxical enchainement or enjambment156 that we see in Plato’s
154 “fugue n.The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008), op. cit.
155 George Eliot, Book VI: The Great Temptation. Chapter 1: A Duet in Paradise,” The Mill on the Floss
(emphasis added). Available: (Accessed
156 Compare Agamben’s use of this term; see: Alex Murray and Jessica Whyte, eds., The Agamben
Dictionary (2011), pp. 62-63.
pharmakon, Achilles’ spear, the Akedah—the “binding” of Isaac that I call “Isaac-
Machine,” the Biblical skandalon or the trauma trope. Whereas in music, contrary
(“contrapuntal”) elements that we may imagine “chase” each other or appear to “flee” the
main musical statement are brought together to produce pleasingly complex harmonics
(described in the passage from The Mill on the Floss), in psychiatry, the flight is a
dissociative state with interrupted memory and the simultaneous loss and recreation of
personal identity (a celebrated example occurred in the life of Agatha Christie). Again,
there is a rhetorical conflation of two Latin roots—fugere, to flee and fugare, to chase.
This Janus-like face of core notions in psychiatry goes back to the roots of our
philosophy and our culture. We have built in to our culture, that is to say, our way of
thinking (Agamben would call this an apparatus157), this aporia of bimodal or bivalent
notions, a bringing together of opposites, an opposition of elements that is surely not
accidental. Is it to hide, to preserve or protect, to stultify, to segregate those with
knowledge and those who lack it? There are such hints. We see them in Leo Strauss’
Persecution and the Art of Writing.158 They are the “things hidden since the beginning of
the world,” as René Girard has it with his invocation of Paul.159 A hidden order, as some
read Foucault (inaccurately, in my view, that is to say, without nuance).
For the subject of our investigations, it is as if something in our culture wants
traumas to be events (emblematization) and events to arise from traumas (alchemical
157 The apparatus, a key concept in this investigation, has been deployed in the work of several thinkers.
See: Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in On Ideology, trans. by Ben Brewster
(2008), pp. 1-60; p. 41. Gilles Deleuze, “What is a Dispositif?” in Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of
Madness. Texts and Interviews, 1975-1995, ed. by David Lapoujade, trans. by Ames Hodges and Mike
Taormina (2007), pp. 343-352. Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh,” in Power/Knowledge:
Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. by Colin Gordon (1980), pp. 194-228; see pp. 194-
198. Giorgio Agamben, “What is an Apparatus?” in What Is An Apparatus? and Other Essays (2009), pp.
158 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952). This work was recommended by Michel
Foucault to Thomas Zummer; personal communication, New York City, May 2010.
159 René Girard, Things Hidden since the Beginning of the World, trans. by Stephen Bann and Michael
Metteer (1987).
transformations). I want to pose the question: what is the origin of that impulse or
response, how does it express itself and what does it mean for us?
There is a well-known distinction about cognitive styles in medicine concerning
classification and diagnosis: there are lumpers and splitters. That is, those who see
commonalities among phenomena and want to group them together (lumpers) and those
who perceive differences and nuances and want to separate them (splitters). A fascinating
line of inquiry in cultural anthropology concerns categories for thinking food. The most
noted example is Lévi-Strauss’ culinary triangle: the raw, the cooked and the boiled (used
to great effect in Žižek’s work). The anthropology of Mary Douglas in her classic
analysis of purity and danger is even more fruitful and relevant for my opposition of the
pair trauma/event.160 Along the same lines of separating the sacred and the profane, Jean
Soler’s essay on the Jewish rules for kashruth is perceptive and instructive.161
Cognitive style and cultural categories aside, I am concerned in this work with
conflations, reductions, evacuations. As Foucault said, structuralism wanted to “evacuate
the concept of the event.”162 I very much want the concept of the event to flourish to be
the basis for a new vision of psychiatry. Furthermore, I want to question Janus-faced
terms that have brought us as a culture to such a confused understanding of trauma as
both wound and transformation. In our culture today, trauma is Janus-faced: it is both a
cut and a joining, it makes us splitters and lumpers, where there is the purity of separating
truth from falsity, the sacred from the profane, with the always-attendant danger of
mixtures, hybrids, compromises.
160 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Conceptions of Pollution and Taboo (1966).
161 Yet, it’s final line landed like a bomb in the world of ideas. On the evidence of Biblical dietary
restrictions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Hebrew mind, he concluded, was intolerant of compromise
and mixtures (the edible and the non-edible)—“and not only in its cuisine.” This sort of analysis is well-
established in Douglas’ work, yet its use by Soler, who was a French diplomat stationed in Israel for eight
years, was a betrayal of the anti-categorical argument Soler so carefully built, degrading into polemics. See:
Jean Soler, “The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews” (trans. by Elborg Forster), The New York Review of
Books, June 14, 1979 (emphasis added).
162 Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings
1972-1977, ed. by Colin Gordon (1980), pp. 109-133; p. 114.
Excursus: The History of Psychiatry is Not the History of Madness
What difference does it make—for theory, for research, for policy, and for societal ethics
—to change the border between a social and a health problem? The moral, the political,
and the medical are culturally interrelated, but how do we best interpret that relationship
and its implications?
—Arthur Kleinman163
This excursus is an introduction to the complex issues of reckoning the history of some
key ideas related to my investigation—madness and reason, medicine and psychiatry. The
result is that we cannot assume the history of ideas and practices and that each
investigation needs to rewrite its own history. Just as each field of endeavour constructs
its own notions of subject and subjectivity—its own psychology, if you will—each
problematic needs to read the theories and practices, or discursive formations and
apparatuses in Foucault’s terms, that construct it. This is another iteration of
philosophical archaeology: histories are not to be found “ready-made” by others and
waiting for us to read them passively, we must constantly refresh our understanding of
the origins of discourses and practices to render them contemporary and useful for the
purpose at hand. In this sense, Agamben brings a great clarification to Foucault’s ouevre:
not as received wisdom (not even, and perhaps especially, on the history of madness) but
as a method of inquiry. Writing history is problem-solving. In my medical school, which
adopted the most radical pedagogy in the history of medical education, there were no
core courses and strictly speaking there was no curriculum, learning was neither
organized by lectures, nor evaluated by traditional examinations. The pedagogy was
integrated into practice. The entire approach was based on biomedical problem-solving.
163 Arthur Kleinman, Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine (1995), p.
Addressing the history of a question or puzzling over a philosophical problem are like
this: you reach for the tools you need to solve the problem at hand.164
Having trained at the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, The Bethlem Royal
Hospital in London (founded in 1247 and mythologized in popular culture as “Bedlam,”
with nuances ranging from anarchy and confusion to madhouse and folly), associated
with the Institute of Psychiatry and the Maudsley Hospital (founded in 1948) of the
University of London, and at two prestigious North American psychiatric hospitals—the
Allan Memorial Institute (founded in 1940) associated with McGill University in
Montreal, and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (founded in 1811), associated
with Harvard University, I have developed something of a perspective on psychiatric
history. Several of my papers and books touch on aspects of psychiatric history (family
therapy, Di Nicola, 1985a, 1985b, 1997, 2011; social psychiatry, Di Nicola, 2012) or the
history of psychiatric phenomena (anorexia nervosa and culture-bound syndromes, Di
Nicola, 1990a, 1990b, 1992; posttraumatic stress disorder, Di Nicola, 1996).
History of Psychiatry
Tom Burns (2006). Psychiatry: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University
Diego De Caro (1997). La Psichiatria Attraverso I Secoli. Napoli: Casa Editrice Idelson.
Edward Shorter (1997). A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age
of Prozac. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Jurandir Freire Costa (2007). Historia da Psiquiatria no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro:
164 McMaster University Medical School was founded in 1969. Ironically, for a new medical school with a
radical pedagogy, one of its strengths was in the history of medicine. I wish to acknowledge my tutorials
with Prof. Charles Roland, Chair of the History of Medicine, with whom I debated the work of Michel
Foucault and who started me on a life-long interest in the history of medicine, pursued inter alia at the
Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.
Michael H. Stone (1997). Healing the Mind: A History of Psychiatry from Antiquity to
the Present. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Edwin R. Wallace IV, John Gach, eds. (2008). History of Psychiatry and Medical
Psychology. New York: Springer.
Franz G. Alexander and Sheldon T. Selesnick (1966). The History of Psychiatry: An
Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought and Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present.
Introduction by Jules H. Masserman. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
The subtitle of the Alexander and Selesnick volume makes my argument quite clear: the
history of psychiatry is not the history of madness or even of a professionally defined
psychiatric disease but rather of “psychiatric thought and practice.”
A scholarly journal, History of Psychiatry, is published in collaboration with the UK’s
Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Then there are more specialized histories:
Henri F. Ellenberger (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and
Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.
Eliot S. Valenstein (1986). Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of
Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness. New York, NY: Basic
Michael Shepherd, ed. (1982). Psychiatrists on Psychiatry. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Robin M. Murray and Trevor H. Tanner, eds. (1990). Lectures on the History of
Psychiatry. London, UK: Gaskell/Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Three volumes are of historical interest in that they document the history of “anti-
psychiatry” and a mainstream academic psychiatrist’s rebuttal:
Robert Boyers and Robert Orrill, eds. (1972). Laing and Anti-Psychiatry.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
David Ingleby, ed. (1981). Critical Psychiatry: The Politics of Mental Health.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Antony Clare. Psychiatry in Dissent: Controversial Issues in Thought and Practice
(1976). Foreword by Michael Shepherd. London: Tavistock Publicationsm.
History of Madness
These texts are quite different than Roy Porter’s anthology, The Faber Book of Madness
Dale A. Peterson (1977). The Literature of Madness: Autobiographical Writings by Mad
People and Mental Patients in England and America from 1436-1975. Stanford
University PhD.
Dale A. Peterson, ed. (1982). A Mad People’s History of Madness. Pittsburgh, PA:
University of Pittsburgh Press.
Roy Porter. (1987). A Social History of Madness: The World Through the Eyes of the
Insane. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Roy Porter, et al., eds. The Anatomy of Madness. 3 vols.
Andrew T. Scull (1979). Museums of Madness: The Social Organization of Insanity in
Nineteenth-Century England. London, UK: Allen Lane.
Andrew Scull, ed. (1981). Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen: The Social History
of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
None of the foregoing texts approach the scope and reach of Foucault’s investigations
into the discourse of madness.
Two of his original French texts have been elaborated in English editions:
1. Maladie mentale et personnalité. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954.
Maladie mentale et psychologie. Revised edition. Paris: Presses Universitaires de
France, 1962.
English editions:
Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Harper Colophon
Books, 1976.
Madness: The Invention of an Idea. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Harper
Perennial Modern Thought, 2011. Reprinted with a new title.
2. Folie et Déraison/Histoire de la Folie
First published in French as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la
folie à l’âge classique. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1961.
A new French edition with a new preface by Foucault, along with appendices
appeared as Histoire de la Folie à l’âge classique. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1972.
English editions:
Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard
Howard. New York: Random House, 1965; New York: Vintage Books, 1973.