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Trauma, History, Philosophy

(With Feature Essays by

Agnes Heller and Gyrgy Mrkus)

Trauma, History, Philosophy

(With Feature Essays by
Agnes Heller and Gyrgy Mrkus)

Edited by

Matthew Sharpe, Murray Noonan, and Jason Freddi

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Trauma, History, Philosophy (With Feature Essays by Agnes Heller and Gyrgy Mrkus),
Edited by Matthew Sharpe, Murray Noonan, and Jason Freddi
This book first published 2007 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing
15 Angerton Gardens, Newcastle, NE5 2JA, UK
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Copyright 2007 by Matthew Sharpe, Murray Noonan, and Jason Freddi and contributors
All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
ISBN (10): 1-84718-378-6, ISBN (13): 9781847183781


Introduction: Why Trauma Now?................................................................ 1

Matthew Sharpe
Part I: Trauma
Chapter One............................................................................................... 10
Thinking Trauma
Max Deutscher
Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 25
Trauma, Truth, and Reality in Freuds Thought
Jason Freddi
Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 56
The Question of a Weltanschauung: Freud, Stoicism and Religion
Douglas Kirsner
Chapter Four.............................................................................................. 76
Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian
Fear and Trembling
Annette Larrea
Feature Essay........................................................................................... 102
The Shame of Trauma, the Trauma of Shame
Agnes Heller
Part II: Historicity
Chapter Five ............................................................................................ 122
Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence
Joanne Faulkner


Table of Contents

Chapter Six .............................................................................................. 142

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgment
in Primo Levis Grey Zone
Adam Brown
Chapter Seven.......................................................................................... 164
Resistance and Reconciliation: Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice
Philipa Rothfield
Chapter Eight........................................................................................... 186
Supposing History Were a Woman, What Then? Some Timely
Meditations on Tyranny
Matthew Sharpe
Feature Essay........................................................................................... 210
Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy
Gyrgy Mrkus
Part III: Philosophy
Chapter Nine............................................................................................ 230
Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery
Daniel Ross
Chapter Ten ............................................................................................. 247
Starting From this Uncertain Terrain
Jessica Whyte
Chapter Eleven ........................................................................................ 267
Against Political Theology
Geoff Boucher
Chapter Twelve ...................................................................................... 282
Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth
and Bernstein
Robert Sinnerbrink

Trauma, History, Philosophy


Appendix One.......................................................................................... 303
Freuds 150th: Beyond the Party Poopers
Jason Freddi
Appendix Two ......................................................................................... 308
To Rupture the Matheme with a Poem: A Remark on Psychoanalysis
as Anti-Philosophy
Justin Clemens
Appendix Three ....................................................................................... 313
Neuropsychoanalysis and the Future of Psychoanalysis
Matthew Sharpe
List of Contributors ................................................................................. 325
Works Cited............................................................................................. 329


The topic of trauma was raised to the centre of twentieth century European
thought by the work of Sigmund Freud. Trauma is central to Freuds
work at both its beginning and its end. Trauma appears as a pivotal
concept in his 1890s case studies on hysteria. It returns, at the basis of the
later metapsychology, in Freuds works written after the First World War.
Yet the last century as a whole was arguably a century of traumas: the
traumas of total war, of global economic crises, of state-sanctioned
genocides, of displaced and stateless peoples, the Cold War and the
shadow cast by the mushroom cloud. A sense of trauma, unsurprisingly,
pervades much of twentieth century European thought, especially that
written in the centurys middle decades. The younger Heidegger, adapting
Kierkegaardas Larrea examines in her essay in this collection1
elevated angst to a privileged phenomenological instance in Being and
Time. Heideggers later work, and such darker 1930s essays as
Overcoming Metaphysics, meditate on how the gods have fled the
modern epoch, and how only their unfathomable return might save us from
the most consummate nihilism. Heideggers student, Levinaswhile
sometimes refusing so much as to write his teachers namealso assigns a
central place throughout his career to trauma. In Levinas earlier work, it is
the uncanny il y a that threatens to re-engulf the fragile world of sense.
After the war, it is the traumatism that would attend and upset our
everyday encounter with Other(s). Within the Marxian orbit, Adorno and
Benjaminotherwise distant from the phenomenological tradition which
Adorno lampoonedeach conceived of history as importantly one single
catastrophe, from the Stone Age to the age of total war. In the
psychoanalytic field, Lacans linguistic re-conception of the Freudian
subject sees it as founded upon a properly traumatic exigency; the event of

Chapter 4 below.


castration wherein the child comes to know it cannot be the mothers fully
satisfying Thing. Lyotard and Jameson, later in the century, each tried to
document the changes in the cultural dominant in the first world since
the wars by pointing to the centrality of the sublime in postmodernism or
the postmodern conditionan aesthetic notion which responds, as Kant
stressed, to the overpowering, unlimited, or even monstrous.2 Post-war
French thought came to address itself more and more to what is
exceptional, sublime or differentthat which, when it is not expressly
traumatic, would be inassimilable to metaphysical, political, or
administrative calculation. In the 1960s and 1970sin the wake of the
decline of Marxismuncovering the irreducible and (quasi)transcendental status of such exceptional instances was charged with the
ethico-political task of pointing us beyond the embrace of modernist
universalism. In the more recent work of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou,
by contrast, the valorisation of a rupturous Event or Act is being invoked
as the way towards a different universalism to come.
Within philosophy as outside of it, then, trauma remainsfor better
or for worseparticularly contemporary at the start of the new century. As
both Deutscher and Markus point out in their essays3, the term trauma
came to psychoanalysis, and thereby to European philosophy, from the
medical sciences. Freud first used the term to describe the pivotal causal
events that the free associations of his first analysandshysterics like
Anna Oseemed to always return to, whose conscious recollection
proved to have therapeutic effects. These events, Freud aimed to suggest,
are as fractious in the fabric of individuals self-understandings as the
puncturing of skin or breaking of bones in physical traumas. Yet in the
wake of the events of the twentieth century, and with renewed force after
2001, trauma has taken on a wider currency. As in Freuds Moses and
Monotheism4, commentators and historians today talk widely about
collective traumas. The example that primarily comes to mindone which
both Joanne Faulkners and Daniel Rosss essays differently address
here5is the 11th of September 2001 attacks on the United States. It was
Jacques Derrida who pointed out how the naming of this event as 911
almost before the footage of the attacks and falling towers had ceased
being repeatedreflected a deeper bewilderment. Around the world, we
recited 911 as a mantra to name what had previously been as
geopolitically unthinkable as it had been uncannily anticipated in myriad

Kant, Critique of Judgment, 499.

Chapter One and the first Feature Essay, respectively.
And see Freddis Chapter Two below.
Chapters Six and Nine below.

Why Trauma Now?

big budget disaster films. In this way, even the political claim that on
that day, everything changed is surely insufficient, when it is not
politically motivated. There was a violence done also to the Wests very
sense of what was possible and impossible, what the future might bring,
and whether anyone could either anticipate or prevent the very worst.
It is remarkable, however, that manifold other examples of
contemporary, collective traumas, historical or imagined, could be cited:
the Asian tsunami of December 2004, the terrorist attacks in London,
Spain and Bali, Hurricane Katrina, the periodically-renewed panics about
global pandemics, new immigrants, fears about ecological collapse, peak
oil, and nuclear proliferation. Multiple commentators have observed that
today the haunting sense that some catastrophic trauma might be just
around the corner seems to be the uncanny flipside of the convergence of
parliamentary politics in the first world, and the invariably glowing
accounts of the world economy. As quickly as the worlds and nations
economies grow, so too seemingly does the widespread sense that
somehow, something, radically unforeseeable is about to be visited upon
us. From risk theorywith its unanticipatable but potentially overwhelming,
human-caused dangersto the actual rolling back of civil liberties
because of the possibility of future terrorist attacks, todays conjuncture
seems already traumatised or else to be preparing itself, Stoically, against
the inevitable. As Slavoj Zizek once put it, the end of the world as we
know it has become much easier to envisage today than any more modest,
social democratic or other political reform.6 In the meanwhile, there will
be acrimonious culture wars fought about peoples sexual and religious
choices, how to come to terms with the violences hidden in nations
origins and histories7, and the rapidly advancing biomedical technologies
that seem indeed to be ushering in a set of new, if not post-human
(Fukuyama), possibilities. The political, far from giving up the ghost, will
instead colonise the cultural realm, trailing advertisements as it goes. And
while all this makes for enlivening newspaper copy and big box office
takes, Susan Sontag was also surely right when she commented:
that even an apocalypse can be made to seem part of the ordinary horizon
of expectation constitutes an unparalleled violence that is being done to our
sense of reality, to our humanity.8


Zizek, The Spectre of Ideology, 1.

See Chapter 7 below.
Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors, 178-179.


The essays in Trauma, Historicity, Philosophy arise, with two invited

exceptions, from out of papers delivered at the 2006 Australasian Society
for Continental Philosophy Conference at Deakin University. They each
differently address the topic of trauma in European thought, its history, its
application to understanding historical events, and its resonances in
contemporary philosophy and theoretical debates. The main body of the
collection is divided into three parts, according with the books title. The
collection also features two essays by the distinguished keynotes at the
conference, Agnes Heller and Gyorgy Markus. Agnes Hellers essay
builds on Hellers earlier work on shame and culture to address the
interconnections and differences between our understandings of trauma
and shame, examining cases taken from opera, literature, and history.
Gyorgy Markus, by contrast, masterfully addresses the philosophical
antecedents of psychoanalysis notion of trauma with a view to possible
counter-strategies to todays overwhelming sense of impending doom.
To mark the 150th year since Freuds birth (2006), finally, the editors have
appended three shorter essays written on the contemporary situation and
meanings of psychoanalysis.
The four essays in Part I, Trauma, each deal directly with trauma
and its history within twentieth century European thought. Chapter One by
Max Deutscher provides a wide-ranging and often poetic reflection on
trauma focussing on Hannah Arendts thought. Deutscher draws the
etymological link between trauma and dream (traum) as a means to
reflect on the single most divisive issue in contemporary Australias
culture wars: how contemporary Australians are to come to terms with
the founding trauma of European settlement in this country, and the
violent confrontation and supplanting of aboriginal civilisation. Particular
focus in Part I, however, falls on Freuds thought. Jason Freddis essay
(Chapter Two) provides a detailed archaeological account of Freuds
developing thoughts on trauma from the early 1890s, before opening on to
wider reflections about psychoanalysis, and the provenance of Freuds
later idea of collective or inherited trauma. Douglas Kirsner in Chapter
Three focuses on the ethics of Freuds thinking and psychoanalytic
practice. Interestingly, Kirsner proposes a link which Markus Feature
Essay also suggests between psychoanalysis and the ethics of ancient
Stoicism. Retrieving this Stoic, ethical dimension to psychoanalysis,
Kirsner proposes, will be pivotal if psychoanalysis is to survive and
flourish in the new century. In Chapter Four, Annette Larrea addresses the
too often forgotten influence of Soren Kierkegaards thought about angst
and the religious in 20th century existentialist and post-structuralist
writings. Larreas essay focuses on Kierkegaards and Derridas

Why Trauma Now?

contrasting readings of one of monotheisms traumatic originary scenes:

Abrahams sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, halted only by the
intervention of the angel.
The four essays in Part II address Historicity, taken in the
philosophical sense given to the term by Heideggerwhat it is to be
reflexive beings, situated at once as the legatee of a tradition or
tradition(s), and open to a horizon of future possibilities. It has been
widely remarked that the modern period, with its signature conceptions of
progress, placed unprecedented emphasis on human artifice and history (as
against God or nature) as the legitimating ground of its ideas and
institutions. If the time consciousness of modernity is one which looks
forward to a better future, it is from out of a confidence born of the
backward-looking sense of the invariable progress of human history. In
Kants paradigmatic formulation, the modern enlightenment represents
humanitys coming to maturity, leaving behind its self-incurred infancy
and tutelage. Or as Hegel put it, the sun of world history rose in the East
only to set in the West, in whose dusk-borne light the entire course of
human endeavours takes on a single legitimating sense. The centrality of
trauma to the thought and experience of the twentieth century and today
thenthe ruins that Benjamins back-turned angel sees piling up in his
wakehas to reflect a crisis in the self-consciousness, if not the wider
project, of the modern age. To proffer another observation that might serve
to highlight this: today it is not least the scientists, those harbingers of
Baconian or Cartesian modernity, who advise us that our ecological end is
night. By contrast is generally only figures associated with the political
right who advise us that all is well and that this is anything like the best of
all possible worlds.
The essays in Part II of Trauma, Historicity, Philosophy address the
series of difficult questions which recent history poses to us: are there
some historical traumas, for example the Shoah (as in Browns and
Rothfields Chapters) or 911 (as Faulkners Chapter considers) that are
so traumatic they can never be wholly integrated into our collective selfunderstanding without violence? Does the sense that we, innocent, have
been traumatised, create its own potentials for over-reaction and
misrepresenting the Other?9 Can we ask for and expect reconciliation
from peoples subject to the most atrocious historical brutalities (as
Rothfield asks), or would successful reconciliation, paradoxically, mean
that the irrevocability of past injustices has been betrayed? Differently,
what does the widespread acceptance today of Kojeves neo-Hegelian

See Chapter Six, by Joanne Faulkner.


notion of an end of history, alongside motifs from Carl Schmitt,

betokenfrom Fukuyama to Agamben or Leo Strauss (as Sharpe asks)? In
the contemporary conjuncture, is it the height of modernist conceit that
speaks in such claims to understand the entirety of humanitys shared past,
or has it rather come to signify a deeply exhausted and reactionary
The essays in Part III, Philosophy, each address contemporary
debates in contemporary philosophy and critical theory, inflected by their
engagement with questions surrounding trauma. Ross Chapter Nine uses
the philosophical thought of Bernard Stiegler to reflect on contemporary
terrorism. Ross interest, shaped through engagements with Husserl and
Freud, falls on how contemporary terrorists deploy media technology to
achieve their political and psychological ends. Jess Whyte in Chapter Ten
presents a powerful exposition of the political texts of Giorgio Agamben,
and Agambens contention that all legal or political regimes bear what
might be called in other language a traumatic heart, in the abandonment
of subjects to constituted, sovereign power. Geoff Bouchers Chapter
Eleven, a counterpoint, critically challenges todays renaissance of Carl
Schmitts thoughtone of whose key spokesmen Agamben is. Boucher
focuses in particular on Schmitts reading of Hobbes. His Chapter
highlights the necessary, supplementary role religion plays in Hobbes
Leviathan, to bolster the social contract, and insure it against free riders. If
thinkers on the left return to Carl Schmitt today, Boucher ends by
challenging, does this not imply a commitment to a similar theological
ground for politics? In Chapter Twelve, finally, Robert Sinnerbrink
reflects on the role of experiences of moral injury in contemporary critical
theory, focussing in particular on the recent debate on this matter between
Bernstein and Axel Honneth.
As an end to this Introduction, the editors would like to sincerely thank all
the contributors for their patience, commitment to the project, and hard
work. A particular debt of gratitude is owed to our two Feature authors,
Gyorgy Markus and Agnes Heller, for their wonderful essays and support.
We would like to thank also the many anonymous referees who
adjudicated on the essays to be included in the final book, and those which
were omitted. Thanks go also to the Arts Faculty at Deakin University for
the financial assistance which made the 2006 Australasian Society for
Continental Philosophy possible. For his tireless work as conference
Treasurer and organiser, a special debt of gratitude goes to Doctor Lindsay

Why Trauma Now?

Dawson. On a personal note, I would like to thank my fellow editors,

Murray Noonan and Jason Freddi, for their help with editing this book,
and in preparing the final document and bibliography. Thanks are also
offered to Associate Professor Ian Weeks, Therese Van Wegen, Maxine
Haire, Maurice Alexander, Dylan Nickelson, and the Deakin Geelong
philosophical community for their help in running the event on the days,
and in the final preparations. This collection also would not have been
possible without your efforts.



Dreaming traumata
Trauma, from a Greek word meaning wound, now summons up
internal and emotional injury more immediately than it does a laceration or
broken bone. A trauma unit in a hospital treats, not simply those with
injuries, but those whose injuries have placed them in a state of shock,
requiring intensively supervised recuperation. It is a bad trip that has you
sent to the trauma unit. You are liable to be left with emotional wound
nightmares. Traumatic stress syndrome means the emotional aftershock
of serious bodily wounds. Like the original breaks themselvesthe
traumatait is a serious state, involving patterns of repeated thoughts and
feelings that centre upon the occasion of those wounds.
Since Freud, at least, trauma has been brought alongside traum
(dream)a word with an utterly different etymology. Robert Schumanns
Traumerei (Dreaming)1, in its steady sonorous gravity places, for the
night, firm borders against the days traumataangry words from the ones
you love, collisions with miscomprehension. In the psychoanalytic sense
(not restricted now to Freudian theory) trauma is a condition that derives
from the distress and disturbance caused by some sort of wound, physical
or emotional, and then becomes repressed rather than lived through and
lived out. When we fail to work our way out of some acute distress and
disturbance, trauma, the wound, originates inhibitions, fears and behaviour
that are inappropriate to what prompts them. Our thinking is a bad
dreaming. This traumerei of the trauma is closely related, I shall argue, to
thinkings own trauma.
Trauma is a live term. Medical and scientific concepts of trauma
continue to interact with the emotional or psychoanalytic tones of the
No. 7 in the series of piano pieces by Robert Schumann (Kinderscenen
(Childhood Scenes) Opus 15.

Thinking Trauma


word. For instance, trauma tropism is a botanical term for an abnormal

growth or curvature of a plant that results from a wound. So, trauma and
traumerei have become terms of which we can ask, in the French
expression2, quest-ce quils auraient voir ensemble? In German,
traum has passed through two main different though related senses. The
simplest, a sequence of sensations passing through a sleeping persons
mind, goes back at least to about 1250 CE. In Old English, dream was
joy, mirth, music, which does prompt a speculation about a projection
onto sleeps images and sensations of what is dreamy, as enjoyable in a
luxurious and relaxed fashion.

Private Thought, Public Privation

As processes that each summon up an epithet like hidden, dreaming and
thinking (like traumata and traumerei) see something in each other, too.
Norman Malcolm3 used to ask how dreaming could be a process. To
announce that one is dreaming is already to have come out of sleep that
contained the dream. He might have said almost the same about thinking.
You ask me what I am thinking about, and to answer I must immediately
use the past tense. This fact doubles the sense of thinking as being, like
dreaming, a hidden process if it is a process at all. Arendt quotes
Epicurus the Stoics injunction to be a philosopher by living in hiding.
From earliest childhood, in learning to speak we learn of the dangers of
speech.4 Thinking is a response to these dangers. It is part of our privacy
in thinking we learn to keep speech to ourselves. Until we learned this
trick we voiced thoughts without their being first a separate activity.
Thought was simply in our utterance. The subsequent adult and
philosopher dreams of a childs mind as a state prior to innocence itself,
prior to the wound that divided thought from speech. Since it is out of our
need for privacy that thinking becomes inaudible, audible thought is
bizarre Talking to yourself! Though, we might voice a conversation in
our car as we drive to work, trialling what we are going to say at a
meeting, perhaps. (The cara capsule of privacy moving in the interstices
of public ways.)

See Jacques Derridas Given Time, for a story about what the gift and time have
to do with each other.
I evoke the heydays of that brand of conceptual philosophy that had an ear for
what we would normally say.
...from the moment I could speak, I was ordered to listen... (Cat Stevens, Cats in
the Cradle).


Chapter One

Thoughts absence from view is understood by what the thinker has in

view. That is to say, I understand that, in its absence from my eye or
ear, still, thought occurs. I do this by, myself, thinking of what you,
the thinker, has in view. A bifurcation between mind and body is the
philosophical mythology concerning this fact. Absorbed in the nature of
time, difference, and identity, perhaps, one is lost to the world, but these
absorbing objects drop out of intellectual sight in the instant of reinvolvement in everyday business. This sublimation5 of thoughts own
traumaits break-off of world and thought as if thought had its own time
and space generates the sense of two worlds of mind and matter.
In locating the attractions and pitfalls of thinking, Arendt calls
attention not only to thought as hidden and withdrawn, but, equally, to the
rupture it creates within the world of life. If, for Hegel, the philosopher
lives in the land of thought, remarks Arendt, it is thinking makes it seem
as if the world outside thought has a deep lack6a withdrawal of being.
Only the Ideal is Real says Hegel, finally. In Being and Time,
Heidegger, too, senses an oblivion of being in the world if that world is
bereft of thought. Only in thought is there a true presence of being, an
opening up of it, he declares (Life of the Mind, 88).7 Thus, Heidegger
associates the recovery of truth with aletheiaan awakening from the
forgetfulness (Lethe) that flows between the world of the living and the
spectres in Hades. Arendt is inspired by the underworld as a figure for
philosophy and proceeds to use it to recast the problem of thought and its
disassociation from the world, along with its negotiable relation to the social
involvement of daily life. She depicts thought as a departure from the social
world and the re-entry to the world as the forsaking of that thinking. The
succinct words of David Hume sharpen the sense of the world as blown
away by the wind of thoughtand how social life returns to prevail over
those arguments that disturb everything we take for granted in life:
Where am I or what? From what causes do I derive my existence? What
beings surround me, and on whom have I any influence, or who have any
influence on me. I am confounded with all these questions. .. (N)ature
herself ..cures me of this philosophical melancholy. .. I dine, I play a game
of backgammon, .. and when I woud return to these speculations they

A change from gaseous to solid state, bypassing the intelligible intermediary of

the liquid form.
Arendt is considering the Hegel of The Phenomenology of Spirit ([1807] 1967).
There is something of this in Sartre when he observes, Only in absence, when
the Other becomes my object of thought, can I think of him as a true subjectivity
Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 286-7. See Deutscher, Genre and Void, 153-156.

Thinking Trauma


appear so cold and straind that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into
them any farther.8

Within a tradition that can include classical Stoicism and Thomas

Nagels View from Nowhere, thinking attempts to get ahead of time to
regard the world from the position of one already dead unaffected by
public issues, regarding death with equanimity as if already on intimate
terms with it. To break with this objectivity9 Arendt speaks
While thinking I am not where I actually am; I am surrounded not by
sense-objects but by images that are invisible to everyone else. It is as
though I had withdrawn into ... the land of invisibles, of which I would
know nothing had I not this faculty of remembering and imagining.
Thinking annihilates temporal as well as spatial distances. I can anticipate
the future ... as though it were already present, and I can remember the past
as though it had not disappeared.10

Like Orpheus, whose Eurydice relapses into Hades when he turns back to
look at her (Life of the Mind, 86), such thinking is gone in the blink of an
eye when I turn back towards it to write it down in a public gesture. Only
thought can traverse the indefinitely extended temporal distances of a
time continuum that stretches from the nearby into the distant .. past or
future.11 But it is thought itself that converted the no longer and the not
yet into the far distant.

ThoughtLost and Blind

Where are we when we think? asks Arendt. She might well have asked
When are we where we think? Thinking relates in a peculiar way to time
because it is out of orderinternally disordered and out of phase with the
order of events in the world. The time of thought relates to the time of
worldly events in the way that the time frame of a play relates, in shocking
contrast, to the clock at which I glance to check that I will not miss the last

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, O.U.P., Oxford 1978, 269.

I would argue that it is a spurious objectivity. Cf. Deutscher Subjecting and
Objecting, 1983, Ch. 1.
Arendt, Life of the Mind, 85.
Ibid, 85.


Chapter One
[T]he thinking ego .. summon(s) into its presence whatever it pleases from
any distance in time and space ..(from this point of view its everywhere)
is a nowhere. (A) nowhere .. by no means identical with the twofold
nowhere from which we suddenly appear at birth and into which .. we
disappear at death.12

Arendt reads this figure of the thinking ego into Valrys epigram
Tantt je pense et tantt je suis; when we think, the thinking ego places
us as anywhere and thus nowhere. In the same figure, the thinking ego
travels instantly to whatever region it thinks ofthe ego is no-when.13 By
thinking we wound the temporal and causal order, but to think is not to
step out of that order. To proceed, I would say that freedom in relation to
time is a power of temporal thinking, which is, itself, an event ordered in
time like any other event. It is our power to bring before the mind events
from any location in time and space. This freedom involves a dualism of
thinking ego and human bodya figurative one. By metaphor we
describe our escape from a strict temporal and causal order. Our
descriptions build up, as a phenomenology, a world of thought.
Arendt writes that the site of thought is a precious place where the
ungraspable whole of ones existence from birth to death can be
pondered. This site has to be occupied as if by an enduring presence in
the midst of the worlds ever-changing transitoriness, she says. It is when
we dwell in these lands of intellectual dreams (territories and dwellings
not to be despised) that we need the fiction of a sheer continuity of the Iam. If this ever-present I think is itself but an Augenblick it is,
nevertheless, within that blink that I position myself with respect to past
and future. I must accept the disappearance of that position itself when, in
the instant of blindness necessary to my use of past and future, I turn to do
what falls to me at that very moment.


Ibid., 200.
In Kants time [as] the form of inner sense of the intuition of ourselves and of
our inner state, time is our apprehension of events as in the future, happening
now, and as long ago. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B49, B50, cited in
Arendts The Life of the Mind, Vol I, p.201. There is no immediate sensory
intuition of the unchangeable historical relations of earlier and later, but the old
flow of time from future towards the past and a fixed relation of all events
ordered by earlier than and later than take on a different slant within Arendts
frame. Ones changing relation to an event as future, then dealt with and finally
recalled, is itself a series of events ordered as earlier or later than each other.

Thinking Trauma


Dreaming Trauma into the Land

The Australian Dreaming makes a material connection between traumata
and traumerei. In each of the Pintupi, the Pitjantjatjara and in the Aranda
languages, the one word is widely used for word, for mark, for
singing, and for law. The land becomes settled and ceases to be wild
country14 when a song-line deals with major trauma, creates a new
Dreaming, and inscribes the result into recognisable and usable landforms.
It is by certain practices of singing that the terrain is constructed as
significant country, as a social area, as a place to dwell.15 The singing of
the land is a vital practice. It is not just singing about the land. In this
singing of the land, a cluster of ideas and facts are grasped togetherhow
to find your way about, how to get to recognise marks in or on the land
which otherwise are too faint, how to tell the land of your own group from
that of another, how to feel at home in the land to know it as being familiar
with it. It is vital to succeednot only to find water or to find your way
back to camp, but to be able to find your way through other
terrainsalready marked by other groups of Aborigines as significant to
them. The land is marked by words that are formed and memorised in
songs, whose insistent repetition of narratives produces confident
recognition of the features that comprise what the ex-European (etc.)
Australians tend to call landscape. Getting hold of these narratives
involves getting involved in the dramatic theme16 that is translated as the
The marking of country is achieved by this learning how to name its
features, by the same process in which those names come to life in the
narratives of the Dreaming. The singing that thus marks the land also
marks the people who are inscribed by the process. In prodigious feats of
memory the songlines are inscribed in the brain, and the body itself is
inscribed in the ceremonies of admission to the Dreaming of the land. The
stories mark the ethical life of the people who sing them to each other and
who, in a sort of Derridean relve, raise up the country for themselves
and others, by these iterations. The figures in the narratives, whose

In Reports from a Wild Country, Deborah Bird Rose elaborates the notion of
wild country. Aborigines said that James Cook and those with him, as they
settled the land, turned it into wild country.
I am thinking of how Heidegger intensifies the sense of the word in Building,
Dwelling, Thinking, in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Krell,
Routledge, London 1977, 343-363.
We have to make our best judgement about what concept to choose in this


Chapter One

trauma is enacted upon the landscape, switch in size as the story requires,
and form a country within what early (neo-) Australian explorers described
as an empty land.
Like the people themselves, the inscribed country is from the
Dreaming (tjukurrtjanu), the ground of being.17 Dreaming may refer
both to the specific stories and to the whole creative epoch. When they
describe events, Pintupi contrast The Dreaming (tjukurrpa) with those
events and stories said to be yuti, which signifies visibility or some other
form of sensory presentation to a subject. Directed to an axe, someone
says There it is over there, visible (yuti). A kangaroo emerges from the
bushes, becomes visible (yutirringu). Or a person listening for an
approaching car says the sound of the motor has become yuti. They
question and make clear whether they are talking about the Dreaming.
Not tjukurrpa, but what really happenedmularrpa. Mularrpa has its
standard or usual most everyday meaning as real true actual as
opposed to untrue, fictitious or lie, but though strictly contrasted with
it, the Aboriginal word tjukurrpa (the Dreaming) is not its negation.
The Dreaming as Law exists within its form of life.18 Singing is an
essential element in most ritual performances19 because the songline
follows in most cases the direction of travel of the beings concerned and
highlights, if cryptically, their notable as well as mundane activities. Most
songs then, have a geographical as well as mythic referent, so by learning
songlines men become familiar with literally thousands of sites even
though they have never visited them: all become part of their cognitive

Thoughtful philosophical anthropologists search for various alliances of the

language of the Dreaming, such as with those of Greek mythology and Platonic
Forms. Various such connections are made by figures as diverse as Strehlow
Aranda Traditions (Melbourne U.P. 1947), Central Australian Religion
(Australian Association for the Study of Religion, 1978), Fred Myers, Pintupi
Country, Pintupi Self (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1986)
and Nancy Munn, Walbiri Iconography (Cornell U.P., Ithaca), The
Transformation of Subjects into Objects, Religion in Aboriginal Australia (ed. M.
Charlesworth et. Al, UQP 1984). Also, use is made of contemporary notions such
as Derridas trace, relve and an enlarged sense of writing in, for instance, Of
Grammatology (Johns Hopkins U.P. 1974) Writing and Difference (R. and K. Paul,
London 1978) and Margins of Philosophy (Harvester Press, Brighton). These ideas
of textuality and reality are juxtaposed with Aboriginal practices of singing the
Here, of course, I am alluding to Wittgensteins approach to meaning, in his
Philosophical Investigations.
Myers description of Mardudjara practices would seem typical of most
Aboriginal groups.

Thinking Trauma


map of the desert. The importance of the Dreaming in dealing with the
land can be gauged from some notes from an explorers journal which
conveys what an abyss of nothingness that land appears to be, without that
poetic, inspired and yet also practical imagination, by means of which
aborigines see and move in the land, in terms of its sung/dreamed
significance: Words can give no conception of the ghastly desolation and hopeless
dreariness of the scene which meets ones eyes from the crest of a high

Stephen Muecke remarks that the mistake of the neo-Australian21 eye is

to see the land as a failed landscape. The song cycles of the dreaming, he
suggests, are not constructing a landscape at all which (he cites Lyotard) is
more a matter of transporting visual expectations from one physical
environment to another ... trying to bring a sensory organisation
appropriate to the first, and making it apply to the second. (Bruce
Chatwin, in Songlines, quotes D.H. Lawrences similar perception of the
peculiar, lost, weary, aloofness of Australia.) The newcomers are unable
to match their picture-postcard imagination of a landscape with
anything they can discover by culturally unaided sight alone. It is that
absence in vision that they express as if they could see something
ghastly desolation. Muecke explains in this way what was invisible to
the explorers:
Song cycles ,, work with memory in that they progress nomadically, going
from place to place across a stretch of country, literally following the
footsteps of the ancestors who first walked their and created the forms.
Knowing the performance text means also to know the country .. in terms
of water and game, as well as [in] historical and spiritual significance.22

Through the songlines of the Dreaming, the word (name, mark and law)
creates the difference between a desolate nothing and a world within
which one can be at home. Myers discusses at length the complex word

Carnegie, Spinifex and Sand, 251.

My term is one convenient way in which to signal the continent and life of the
great southern land before the most recent large influx of people that began in the
late eighteenth century. Perhaps australian without the capital can signify all of
us at any time who are born in or naturalised to this country, and Australian is the
word that signifies being an australian nationala notion in process and flux since
the federation of the States.
Muecke, Textual Spaces, 44.


Chapter One

ngurra whose simplest sense, he claims, is that of extension in space. But

this is not an empty extension, measured in some number of paces or days
of travel. To attempt to live in such a space would be the attempt to
possess the land by one whose mind is still constructed elsewhere. It is for
them that this land is ghastly desolation in which the explorer is lost,
weary and aloof. For those who have raised up the land within a
Dreaming, whole tracts of this unmarked and wild country become a
living space. They have made ngurra out of earth, rocks, trees and
animals. The word refers to socialised space, both as the area of a
temporary camp, and as enduring and extensive country.
homeliness of this ngurra is at once the human creation of a camp and
the creation within an objectified Dreaming, of country.23

Dreaming and Inscribing the Land out of Trauma

Within the details of the Dreaming narratives, we find how trauma is
embedded within australian traumerei, Dreaming. In the story of Native
Cat24, a Tingarri revenge party have become possums with extraordinary
powers of crossing vast areas of the land. They are chasing a man who had
eloped with his mother-in-law. In their pursuit they transgress Native Cats
territorial borders, and suffer fatal consequences. The song of their wideranging pursuit is now included in the cycle of songs that permit and
enable Aboriginal travel across tribal lines. The lines of the Tingarris
pursuit of the eloping man map large areas of terrain and help to define
Native Cat sees emu fat on the ground and knows the Tingarri men have
sneaked into the country. It is not their land. Worse, the Tingarri have not
shared the emu with him. Native Cat pursues the Tingarri, who have now
transformed themselves into wild dogs.25
Native Cat approaches and frightens the Tingarri women. He thrusts his
throwing stick into the earth.

Suddenly the figure of Native Cat becomes enormous. This is typical of

the figures that will become land formations. They may be present in the

Myers does speak in terms of landscape, which is not appropriate according to

Lyotards explanation of it.
I have abridged this story as related by Fred Myers in Pintupi Country, Pintupi
Self (University of California Press 1986, 61-4).
One has to read the translations of these spare stories somewhat as one would a
libretto for an opera-ballet.

Thinking Trauma


story as dancing with or pursuing human beings, having much the same
dimensions as us. But then their dimensions change as they engage in their
traumatic acts so that, in their death, these ancestral figures occupy the
space of rock-pools, fissures, or mountains. In their agonistic finality they
attain the dimension of landforms:
Native Cat opens up a huge hole with his throwing stick. Many of the
Tingarri young men are killed. The remaining Tingarri men come up his
throwing stick like ants.26
Native Cat is sitting on the edge of the hole, crying because of having
blasted the young Tingarri men away.27
Native Cat takes the remaining Tingarri men and women to Lake
MacDonald, hunting and performing ceremonies along the way.28
There, the remaining Tingarri are killed by hail and lightning produced by
Native Cats two sons. But, exhausted in this production of the elements,
Native Cats two sons die. They turn into snakes.
Stricken with grief, Native Cat bashes himself in the forehead with a stone
axe, and his body becomes a stone formation still visible in the lake.

This lake of tears might signify the permanent grief of a powerful figure at
his destructiveness. We find the figure of the personalised force that forms
the landscape, presented as overcome with remorse and loss, striking
himself in the head with his own axe and bringing himself to earth.29
In comparison with Native Cat, the Dreaming figure of Blind Snake30
is presented as frail physically and emotionally. Eventually, as a figure
of blindness, as one who must live out that trauma, Blind Snake achieves a
kind of power.
It is as if the storyteller had regarded ants crawling up his throwing stick and
imagined them as men, so that the narrator himself is suddenly immense.
The figure of this Dreaming takes no satisfaction in revenge. He grieves at the
results of his excess of anger.
Here, the song provides further details of getting from one place to another.
These figures are neither like the Greek gods nor like the Christian One. They
are not perfect not even exemplars. They act violently, destroying young
initiates, and then are overcome with remorse. The Yahweh of the Hebrews, who
repents after sending the devastation of the Flood, is most akin to what we read
A songline of the Ngalia and Walbiri, described by Charles Mountford in
Winbaraku and The Myth of Jarapiri (Rigby, Adelaide, 1968) p.14-15.


Chapter One
The blind snake, Jarapiri Bomba, usually stayed in the camp of his wives
and children who cared for him and provided him with food. Whenever the
snake-man heard any of the other Winbaraku people performing a
ceremony, he would find his way to their dancing ground. He would cause
confusion by trying to take part in the rituals.
As time went on, the various Winbaraku people left their individual
dancing grounds. They assembled on an open plain to the northeast of the
present hill of Winbaraku to perform their ceremonies together. But the
blind Jarapiri Bomba could not be persuaded to return to his camp. He was
always getting under their feet. The Winbaraku people sneaked away from
the dancing ground, leaving Jarapiri Bomba behind.
Becoming aware of the silence the blind snake-man groped his way
from place to place searching for his wives, his children and his old
companions, realizing after a long search that he had been deserted, he sat
down on the plain and mourned from loneliness. The body of Jarapiri
Bomba is a large spherical boulder at the foot of a low bluff.

Again, the vulnerability of the ancestor is the theme, but here the
weight of the ancestral figure that forms the centre of the story is reversed
in relation to those at whose social margins he lives. For Native Cat,
vulnerability arrives at the end of the action. In contrast, Blind Snake is a
figure of vulnerability from the start. Like a child trying to join the games
of the others but blind to the rules they already know, he finds himself
always on the outer edge a primordial story of marginalisation. His final
power upon the land is achieved without violence, and yet it is
significant and permanent. He becomes a memorial, beyond erasure, at
the foot of a low bluff - at that point where one might begin to ascend into
the dramatic terrain raised up by other more obviously powerful ancestors.
The blindness of the stumbling figure that lived on the margins of society
is matched by the social blindness of those ancestors endowed with sight.31

Settlers, Unsettled: Living Out Ones Dreaming

Someone describes their hair-raising experience in seeing rock-paintings
that include the themes of the European arrivers/invaders. That electrifying
experience is empathy with the new trauma in the traumerei, tjukurrpa, of
the inhabitants. The paintings, done on rock, mark a response at the time
and place of the trauma. They evoke for those of us who are the

For all that the story lends itself to interpretation as a sort of morality play, the
spirit of such stories is very different from the Greek idea of the Fates that
determine the course of events even while we humans, in hubris, take ourselves to
be working out our own destiny.

Thinking Trauma


descendants of the arrivistes, the trauma not only of the inhabitants but
also of those arrivistes themselves, and thus of our inheritance of it. We
live in the consciousness of being the dispossessors, and can hardly,
hardily, possess the land.
For neo-Australians to possess the land is a trauma for them/us the
dispossession must be continually repressed even as it is enacted and reenacted. In Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen describes one of the
sweeter of the traumerei of the arrivistes. A dream of reciprocal enjoyment
of each others difference while in their company is expressed in the figure
(as trope) in the fact of the dance. They were dreaming of their arrival as
an act of innocence. Perhaps the Australians (the as-from-the-origin-al
ones) were not dreaming in that way. They are more likely to have been
already uneasy about what was going to happen. Or they simply did not
know. Perhaps they could not have imagined the extent of the designs
upon their land that lay within the bodies of the dancers who for the time
were in reciprocity with them. As to the arrivistes, perhaps their dancing
was a dreaming of a new world that would escape the material conflict
their settlement was bound to precipitate.
It is a thought whose status is dangerously commonplace that waking
life may be lived as the enactment of a dream. We do have such an idea of
living ones dream as the object of life is not yet degraded biodegradable
as it is bound to be.32 To live out ones life in the dream of finding or
achieving something, sustains and structures life even when nothing of the
dream is realised and one scarcely can hope that anything might be
achieved. To live life as framed within such a dream is to risk degrading
the specificity of whatever one does and experiences. Yet, to the dreamer,
those specificities are raised up as if to a higher level. Within such a lived
dream, the gritty details of what one actually does and experiences must be
bracketed out if the dream is to retain its eminence. At the same time, that
awkward actuality is given a glow, a reliably recurrent evanescence, as we
live towards the object within the framework of the dream.
One might hesitate to judge that this living out of a dream is bound
to be a traumatic life. Visibly and sensibly it may be lived without constant
anguish or shock, depending on the luck of the game. If a trauma is the
permanent mark left from an experience, a mark that generates a living
dream, then a traumatic life is not essentially a bad dream. In acting out
ones life as a kind of dream, one is liable to become unable to take life
seriously and to fail to feel either the pleasure or the hurt caused by what

Such dreaming-in-life may be closer to an Australian tjukurrpa than it is to

what occurs in a Cartesian sleep.


Chapter One

one does or by what happens. Such a life, though still the expression of
trauma, is not therefore defined as one of suffering or shock.
There are resolved and resolving ways of rendering a trauma into life.
When he was seven years old, a child who was to become the painter
Frank Auerbach was sent from Germany to England. His parents he was
never to see again murdered by the Nazis. In a videotaped interview he
says, in even tones, that he has never felt anything much about that. He
became a painter whose life turned out to consist of a certain iterated
practice. On each of a number of days each week he would paint a
different person; the person who came on that day would continue to come
each week for thirty years or more. He produced, not obsessive or fixated
results, but paintings that are extraordinary both as explorations in
paintings possibilities and as portraits. The paintings are layered traces of
the years of painting, scraping back and repainting, and of the growth and
changes in his subjects over the years. Such is one possible response of
thought to trauma to embed separation and loss into something that gains
a life and impetus of its own.33
One may think more lightly about living a dream. One of the
characters in David Williamsons Emerald City, a Sydneysider knows the
meaning of life to live in a house with a waterfront. His life is his living
out of this dream. Less dangerous, perhaps, than the older one that the
Marxist living-ly dreamed.34 Traumata of social injustice become a
Dreaming of the emergence of a classless society. Less drastic than our
contemporary religious devotee who living-ly dreams too, but of a selfexplosion that would catapult him to bliss, and project the living remnants
of his adventure to realise the degradation of their life.
These ways of dreaming living-ly also connect trauma with traumerei,
but in a direction opposed to resolution or catharsis. Daydreaming may be
despised as useless activity. But Auerbachs painting like aboriginal
tjukurrpa is closer to the daydream than to acting out in response to a
wound. Even Williamsons more benign neo-Australian who lives out the
If this dreaming-in-life is far removed from what we experience in sleep, it has
even less to do with daydreaming that it does to does thinking. A revolutionary
who lives out the dream of an ideal society will despise daydreaming about ideals
becoming reality. Our contemporary member of a terrorist cell will not spend his
or her precious time in daydreaming of murder by self-immolation as the ultimate
form of social criticism.
It is not enough to say lived and dreamed. The suggestion that for all the
practical sound and political reality of Marxist practice, it was the living out of a
dream. Perhaps it would read better as that the Marxist dreamed, livingly.
The livingly then becomes a punning neologism for lovingly.

Thinking Trauma


dream of a harbour frontage must work relentlessly, whether in real-estate

speculation or other toil legal or not. To daydream his living on part of
the Sydney harbour is a waste of time for this practical man.
Now, if ones traum of life itself, though enacting or compensating for
an injury is not ipso facto a life of pain lived not as if blighted in
comparison with that of common humanity this is not to deny the shock
of pain and loss that generates the accomplishment. There would be much
to say about the singular life that was Frank Auerbachs a life lived
better than most and perhaps as happily as many and producing
extraordinary work. We can discern from his art something of the dream
he lived out, but we do not thereby know much of his thoughts or dreams.
In Australian terms, it is his public dreaming that he offers. For our
philosophical dreaming, Descartes enacted a perplexity about how to mark
sleeping from waking. This puzzle was part of his thinking, and his claim
Though I were dreaming still I would exist implies that philosophical
thinking would be fully at home within a sleeping dream, firmly in the grip
of Lethe.35

Thinking as Escape, Enjoyment, Falling

Kafka gave us an image of a He who is subject to pressure both from
behind, from the past, and from ahead, from the future. Subject to this
pressure either to succumb to the past, or to be blind to it when responding
to the future, Kafkas He imagines a place or time within which he
escapes these pressures. We can sympathise with the predicament. The
past invites us since we can only think of it it cannot be changed. Since
the futures demand is upon our will, it can seem that to think is to find a
place of pure spectatorship. But thus arises the sense of an antagonism
between thinking and willing, Arendt would argue. Thinking and willing
must come to terms in more than an evasive response to the moral pressure
of the world itself. If thinking may become its own dwelling place, it
should be as more than such a haven from commitment.
So, in our thought about thinking we can set out from a different place.
We may recall how even while enjoying something we may be caught in a
moment of memory or comparison. We fall to thinking about what we
were enjoying. Where is the wound? Or where is the excess of pressure
from which we sought some escape? One might argue in response that to
drop out of ones enjoyment of the present requires the existence of some
It is in a-lethia, though, that we recognise the dreaming that is the nub of our


Chapter One

wound, old or new, implicit in the enjoyment from which we have made
our exit into thought. Otherwise one cannot explain why we shift, if
momentarily, from enjoyment to thinking. Thinking is not on the same
plane, down on all fours with eating, playing sport, or joking with friends.
There would appear to be no common scale on which to rate the
enjoyment of thinking as greater than the activities from which we made
our exit. But at least some of the facts of life appear to be simpler.
Sometimes we escape from what we are doing, if only for moments, even
though enjoying what we did, because also we enjoy taking the time to
think. It remains a haunting thought, though, that a wound occasions our
every deep reflection our retreat to that private conversation. As if the
need to think implies that our contentment, satisfaction or happiness with
what we do actively is always less than completed. As if thought might
complete what the world lacks.
Perhaps I associate traumerei with thinking and that with traumata
primarily because thinking is its own trauma, even when not unpleasant or
troubling in itself and not simply an escape from a world that seems
nasty, brutish and short, either. I am motivated towards making those
connections for reasons that involve Arendts comparison of thinking as
hiding or dying what I would describe as a cadence. In a dying fall,
thinking is the opening up of a fissure within everyday normalcy. We gain
access to an underside of life. To think is to act like Lewis Carroll when he
opened up the ground beneath Alice so that she descended in free fall, into
a crevasse with no base. As in every free descent, Alice is unable for the
moment to do anything about it. Since the fall gives her nothing to do,
however, she is capable of recovering from the shock. She begins to take
note of what she passes in the fall, and might start to wonder what else
passes her by during her subterranean flight.


This paper is a study of Freuds attempt to validate the truth of what he

had discovered in the psychoanalytic clinic. The field of psychoanalytic
inquiry is the human psyche, and the proper object of its inquiryat least
in the Freudian methodis the transference-neurosis, which is the
manifestation of the neurotic symptoms in an erotic relation to the person
analyst. Once a transference-neurosis is established, the analyst interprets
the analysands speech in order to manifest the transference in the field of
language. But, as philosophers from Karl Popper to Jurgen Habermas
have queried, what objective grounds are there for maintaining the truth
of psychoanalytic interpretation, theory and practice?1 For some analytic
schools this question is beside the pointtruth in analysis is an exclusively
intradisciplinary matter. Freud, however, was not content with selfvalidation and sought repeatedly for an objective ground upon which to

Habermas puts it as follows: ...the experience of reflection is the only criterion

for the corroboration or failure of hypotheses. If this fails to corroborate there
remains an alternative reading: either the interpretation is false (that is, the theory
or its application to a given case) or, to the contrary, the resistances, which have
been correctly diagnosed, are too strong, Habermas, J. Knowledge and Human
Interests, 266. This is to demonstrate the impossibility of inter-subjective (i.e.,
objective) corroboration of psychoanalytic interpretation, theory and application.
From this Habermas develops a depth hermeneutic understanding of
psychoanalytic self-forming in which, Narrative explanations differ from strictly
deductive ones in that the events or states of which they assert a causal relation is
further defined by their application. Ibid., 272-3.


Chapter Two

found psychoanalysis. Freud modeled psychoanalysis the natural science

of human nature.
The psychoanalyst makes an interpretation in analysis. Now Freud
understands that this interpretation only exists within some frame of
reference, what Freud called, in his later writings, a construction. This
construction is given to the analysand piece by piece as therapeutically
appropriate interventions.2 The construction is itself an application of the
Freudian metapsychology to the individual mind under analysis. The
metapsychology is the formulation of a unified set of propositions
regarding fundamental laws of the psyche. And lastly, the metapsychology
is itself founded on a mythology of instincts.3 This superstructure in place,
Freud however keeps one eye on the empirical whenever as he
repeatedly does he sets out to validate the interpretations derived from
the metapsychology as applied to the individual analysand. There are two
means of scientific validation: one empirical, one experimental. The
former involves checking ones analytic interpretation with direct
recollection of family members of the subject in therapy. The unique
milieu of Freuds practice in Vienna meant that he was one of the few
analysts to have ready recourse to this means of validation. And it was
subsequently thought to be an ethical breech by many analysts. The
experimental approach claims that one can operationalize the
psychoanalytic metapsychology in order to test certain propositions by
experimental method and/or direct observation, so refining the
superstructure within which interpretation is made.

See Freud, Constructions in Analysis.

It is only too easy to fall into a habit of thought which assumes that every
substantive has a substance behind it - which gradually comes to regard
consciousness as standing for some actual thing; and when we have become
accustomed to make use metaphorically of spatial relations, as in the term subconsciousness, we find as time goes on that we have actually formed an idea
which has lost its metaphorical nature and which we can manipulate easily as
though it was real. Our mythology is then complete, Freud, Studies in Hysteria,
170; and, a late reference: The theory of the instincts is, as it were, our
mythology. The instincts are mythical beings, superb in their indefiniteness. In our
work we cannot for a moment overlook them, and yet we are never certain that we
are seeing them clearly. Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,
131. cf. also, Lacan: The drives are our myths...This must not be understood as a
reference to the unreal. For it is the real that the drives mythify, as myths usually
do: here it is the real which creates desire by reproducing in it the relationship
between the subject and the lost object, Lacan, Ecrits, 723-4.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


The stake of this paper will be to contend, alongside figures such as

Jacques Lacan and Jonathan Lear, that this later, distinctly psychoanalytic
conception of the truth proper to the talking cure, only becomes
conceptually possible alongside Freuds revised theory of trauma, from
which it discernibly emerged.4 A theory of traumahowever conceived
is foundational for the psychoanalytic conception of the mind and
subjectivity. Yet Freuds theoretical revisions after 1896 established with
increasing degrees of conviction that one cannot found a coherent theory
of mind on the basis of the early, dissociation theory of trauma. This
first Freudian theory of trauma held that historical experiences of
seduction, whose factual truth could be forensically verified, produced a
class of memories which become dissociated from the individuals
consciousness and thereby exert pathogenic influence.5 After 1896, Freud
famously abandoned his seduction theory; not out of any callous
turning away from the real sufferings of the victims of real infantile
seductions, as critics periodically repeat, but because the empirical facts
no longer supported the theory. So Freud turned his attention to the
psychical basis of trauma, coming to understand that trauma had far less to
do with external events than the proper ordering of the psyche and, by
extension, human civilization. The traumas which brought patients to his
clinic were tragic by-products of a normal generative process of human
Importantly, it followed from this important shift that, any theoretical
regression towards Freuds dissociation theory of trauma, as is not
uncommon in the contemporary analytic scene, is conceptually and
foundationally questionable from a Freudian perspective. Yet, in the
recent attempts to validate psychoanalysis by neuroscientific means of
investigation and within the modern field of ego psychology (influenced
as it is by psychiatric classifications such as Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder), trauma has been increasingly re-conceptualized in exactly this
way.6 The restatement of the reasoning that lead Freud to revise the theory
of trauma and by necessity his entire metapsychology, thus assumes
renewed importance in the contemporary context. This paper shows how
Freud used the revised theory of trauma as a bridge towards objective

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Freud, Inhibition, Symptoms and

Shades of this are also present in the hermeneutic reading, where trauma is
interpreted as an excommunicated symbol, brought about by a defensive action of
the self in order to preserve a self-deception.
e.g., Kandel Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and the New Biology of Mind.


Chapter Two

validation of psychic reality. This being so, the paper also lights upon
certain conclusions which follow from Freuds revised theories.
In this first part we look at why Freud rejected the materialist view of
mind to posit the existence of a psychical reality (mind) and an
unconscious. Freuds rejection of the materialist conception of mind
followed from his reflections upon the empirical facts, including the use of
a quasi-experimental method and a statistical analysis though crude of
the facts. Thus, the usual starting point for the psychoanalytic
investigation of psychic reality is Freuds rejection of the seduction theory
of hysteria.7 This is indicated in a now famous letter of 21 September
1897 to his friend and sometime mentor, Wilhelm Fliess, in which he
wrote, ...there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one
cannot distinguish between the truth and [the] fiction that is cathected with
affect.8 But let us turn firstly to Freuds even earlier work in which he
posits the dissociation theory of trauma as the aetiology of hysteria.

Part I: Trauma and the beginnings of Psychic Reality

In 1892 Freud introduced a theory of hysteria in which he stated that
patients suffer from pathogenic memories, contending that the content of
the pathological memory is the result of a psychic trauma.9 Trauma was
defined as an impression that had failed to find adequate discharge in
thinking, affect and motor reaction.10 The traumatic memory acts
pathologically only because it is kept out of consciousness, in a state of
dissociation from consciousness. This is the line of thinking developed in
the Studies in Hysteria .11
In 1894 Freud added the stipulation that the aetiology of hysteriai.e.,
the pathogenic memoriesinvolved sexual ideas.12 By 1896, he had
concluded that the memories resulted from passive sexual experiences
during early childhood which retroactively constitute the origin of
psychical trauma when activated by a so-called exciting cause usually

See Freud, The Hereditary and Aetiology of the Neuroses; Freud, The
Aetiology of Hysteria.
Freud, Extracts From the Fliess Papers, p. 260.
See Freud, Early Studies on the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical
Phenomena, 27-8.
Ibid., 30.
Freud & Breuer, Studies in Hysteria.
e.g., Freud 1894, The Defence Neuro-Psychoses, 62: Such unbearable ideas
develop in women chiefly in connection with sexual experiences and sensations...

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


in adolescence.13 Freud had even constructed various developmental

models correlating the age of the childhood seduction trauma with the
various forms of neuroses.14 This scheme would later inform the study of
libidinal phases and points of fixation. 15
With further investigation, the aetiology became increasingly complex.
In the onset of illness in mature subjects, Freud conceived the notion of
retroactivity, by which mechanism the infantile trauma only gained its
traumatic quality with the resurgence of libidinal drives during puberty:
It may be a matter of chance, but I have the impression from them [the
patients] that a passive sexual experience occurring after the age of eight
or ten can no longer be the foundation of a neurosis.16

This is to be contrasted with the memory of a sexual seduction during

early childhood:
Owing to the changes produced by puberty, the memory will exercise a
power which was entirely lacking when the experience itself took place;
the memory will produce the same result as if it were an actual event. We
have, so to speak, the subsequent effect of a sexual trauma.17

In these statements, we see how Freud has moderated his position from a
belief in seduction as the critical fact, to the resurrected memory of a
seduction as the critical fact. When the memory recurs during puberty it
arrives charged with a sexual force that was not present when the memory
was made. He only has a step further to position a motivating force (i.e., a
drive) behind the resurrected memory.
He achieves this firstly, via the theory of repression. On the basis of
clinical observations, Freud invents the theory of repression to explain the
hysterical mechanism. He had already expressed the opinion that the

Freud, The Hereditary and the Aetiology of the Neuorses, 149; also Freud,
The Aetiology of Hysteria, 194-96.
e.g., The letter to Fliess of 30 May, 1896, in Freud, Extracts, 229-30.
See Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. Freud thought at the time
that, The last word on the subject of traumatic aetiology was spoken later by
[Karl] Abraham, when he pointed out that the peculiarity of the sexual constitution
in children is precisely calculated to provoke sexual experiences of a certain kind,
namely, traumas (Freud, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement,
Freud, The Hereditary and the Aetiology of Hysteria, 149.
Ibid., 151.


Chapter Two

symptoms of hysteria could be understood only by tracing the symptoms

back to traumatic experiences18, butas he later wrotein time,
... the aetiology broke down under its own improbability and under
contradiction in definitely ascertainable circumstances...Analysis had led
by the right paths back to these sexual traumas, and yet they were not

Freud persevered and revised his hypothesis of the seduction theory,

If hysterics trace back their symptoms [under free association] to fictitious
traumas, this new fact signifies that they create such scenes in phantasy,
and psychical reality requires to be taken into account alongside actual

Freud soon found that the experience of a memory from the time of
puberty onwards as traumatic had a relation to social and moral strictures
against the auto-erotic activities of childhood. He saw that one of the
major challenges of latency and adolescence is the managing of guilt
associated with the persistence of these activities. So the fantasies of
seduction reported by his patients, were interpreted as projections of the
active component in the autoerotic activites onto a loved one in the childs
immediate vicinity.
Predisposition and experience were here linked up in an indissoluable
aetiological unity; impressions which were entirely commonplace, and
would otherwise have had no effect, became exaggerated by the
predisposition into traumas giving rise to excitation and fixation; while
experiences stimulated factors in the predisposition which, without them,
might have remained long dormant and perhaps never have awakened.21

This passage is quoted from a 1914 paper in which Freud reflected back
on his early studies in hysteria. It highlights the problem of psychic reality
and external reality, which has dogged the trauma debate ever since.
Historically speaking, the decisive revelation occurred during the writing
of the Interpretation of Dreams (1900), begun during 1896, wherein Freud
discovered that the dream is a wish-fulfillment. But this idea lay dormant
while Freud continued with his attempts to formulate a mechanistic theory

Freud, On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena.

Freud, On the History , 299.
Ibid., 300.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


of the neurosis, a task which preoccupied him intensely for the period
roughly 1894 to 1897/98.
We get an inkling of the problem and its solution in the Fliess
correspondence. Freud tries to tease out the relation between (a.) fantasy
(as an infantile form of wish-fulfillment), (b.) traumatic memory of the
primal scene of seduction, and (c.) impulses which he says are derived
from the memory. And we can see in this early formulation that it is the
memory that has precedence over the impulse. So he talks of protective
fictionsi.e., sublimations of the factsproduced by the neuroses to
provide a structural protection to the self, that must avoid contact with the
pathogenic memory. In his treatment he has to work through these
protective structures to retrieve the pathogenic memory into
consciousness. These protective fictions will later be formally explicated
as screen memories in the context of a drive theory.22
Importantly for the development of psychoanalysis, we see Freuds
shift towards a drive theory in, for example, the letter of 2 May 1896.
Freud says he has learnt that, in hysteria, it is not the memories themselves
that are repressed, but impulses derived from primal experiences:
...the psychical structures which, in hysteria, are affected by repression are
not in reality memories since no one indulges in mnemic activity without
a motivebut impulses which arise from the primal scenes.23

Freud is then not yet at a theory of the drive (Trieb), but we see clearly the
germ of the dynamic unconscious of 1899.24 Furthermore, it leads
inevitably to an assumption about the psychological causation of
psychological effects. Consider the following statement by Freud:
Whether any reality is to be attributed to the unconscious wishes, I cannot
say. Reality must of course be denied to all transitory and intermediate
thoughts. If we had before us the unconscious wishes, brought to their final
and truest expression, we should still do well to remember that psychic
reality is a special form of existence not to be confounded with material


Freud, Screen Memories.

Freud, Extracts, 247.
i.e., of Interpretation of Dreams, which was completed by the end of 1899 but
published at the turn of the centuries..
Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 548 (Freuds italics).


Chapter Two

The possibilities opened by this break from the material causation of

psychic events are enormous for Freuds work. Freud is then able to
discover and describe the role of fantasy in mental life and its central place
in the aetiology of mental disorder. He turns to dream phenomena, and
finds that unconscious fantasy is the key motivator of the manifest dream
content. With this established in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he
launched a project, which was to last over many years, to extend these
conclusions over a whole range of phenomena hitherto considered to be
supernatural or accidental and beyond the reach of rational inquiry.
By attributing the phenomena in question to psychical causation, Freud
proceeds to de-mystify instances of forgetting and slips of the tongue,26
humour and jokes,27 dj vu,28 the premonitory dream,29 false memories,30
telepathy,31 and religious feelings of revelation,32 oneness with the
universe, and piety,33 not to mention an extensive catalogue of writings
de-mystifying religious doctrine and belief (see below, Part IV).
Freuds claim is that, in each instance, the subject mistakes or overaccentuates the psychical reality for material reality. Thus the belief in the
material reality of psychical reality is in fact a delusion, while the
psychical reality itself, is an illusion. Turning to one of Freuds later
works, we find that illusion is
...derived from the life of phantasy which, at the time when the sense of
reality developed, was expressly exempted from the demands of the
reality-test and set apart for the purposes of fulfilling wishes which would
be very hard to realize.34


Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

Freud, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.
Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 394-5; Freud, Wit, 169-71; Freud, Fausse
Reconnaissance in Psycho-Analytic Treatmen; Freud, The Uncanny; Freud,
A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, 309.
Freud, Screen Memories; Freud, New Introductory Lectures, Lecture XXX.
Freud, A Preminatory Dream Fulfilled; Freud, A Childhood Recollection
from Dichtung und Wahrheit.
Freud, Dreams and Telepathy; Freud, Some Additional Notes On Dream
Interpretation, Section C.
Freud, A Religious Experience.
Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents.
Freud, Civilization, 774.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


What this means is that the fantasy provides a substitute-satisfaction in

psychic reality for a failure to achieve satisfaction of that wish in material
reality. Freud noted that,
In contrast to material reality, these phantasies possess psychical reality,
and we gradually come to understand that in the world of the neurosis
psychical reality is the determining factor.35

The conclusion that psychical reality is the decisive kind or the

determining factor in the neurosis has the great methodological
advantage of distinguishing clearly the field of investigation. And he can
designate psychoanalysis as the science created specifically to investigate
the nature of this psychic reality, recognising that while it is grounded in
the biology of material reality, the material reality of the psyche is not the
p[roper subject of a science of the mind. In doing so, Freuds comments
should limit the applicability of the results of inquiry to the psychical
realm. However, Freud was not content with limiting his science in this
manner, insisting upon some objective validation of psychoanalysis which
would ensure its viability as a science. In one of his final publications, he
restated this long held commitment to the method of science, pointing to
what he designated the two assumptions that presuppose
psychoanalysis. The first is localisation, i.e.:
mental life is the function of an apparatus to which we ascribe the
characteristics of being extended in space and of being made up of several

The second is that an idea which is unconscious may be psychical, but that
these unconscious ideas have a somatic concomitant.37
These assumptions, in themselves quite commonplace among
scientific thinkers of the last two centuries, seem to preclude any
transcendent ground of being. Whether Freud held this to be the case is
difficult to answer, because he has openly stated that psychoanalysis is
presupposed on two assumptionsnot truthsand Freud has made
clear, as I showed earlier, the mythical origin of psychoanalytic
metapsychology, even of the biological re-orientation Freud began in
Freud Introductory Lectures, 598. See also, The Case History of an Infantile
Neurosis, 603n: It is a matter of indifference whether we choose to regard it as a
primal scene or as a primal phantasy.
Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 145.
Ibid., 158.


Chapter Two

Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). In that paper Freud reconceptualised the notion of instinct in association with a new definition
of trauma, linking trauma with the mythical.
He observed that, in events of acute trauma, no memoryin the sense
of a perceptof the event is retained in mind. Now if we hold, as Freud
did, that the functions of apperception and memory are apportioned to the
ego, then trauma must be an overwhelming of the ego. If the ego-id
system is regulated by the pleasure principle and, in its modified form, the
reality principle, then how is the psyche regulated during the instant of
trauma, in which the system is exposed to extreme pain and then seeks to
repeat that pain? It became necessary to introduce a new regulating
principle which he labeled the repetition-compulsion. This is beyond the
pleasure principle in that it does not conform to the law of constancya
kind of psychical homeostasis, or inertial principal. Rather, the repetitioncompulsion insists upon reinstatement of some earlier condition of
This revision required a formulation of psychical conflict at a level of
abstraction higher than that of the dual instinct theory, which set ego
drives (aimed at self-preservative) against sexual drives (aimed at
preservation of species).38 The highest order of conflict now takes place
between death instincts and Eros; both pursuing the aim to reinstate an
earlier condition.39 The conflict between self-preservation and
preservation of the species was now seen as falling within Eros. The death
instinct seeking to reinstate a condition of inorganic rest. Freud thinks the
new formulation of so fantastic a kind as to qualify as a myth rather than a
scientific explanation (Freud 1920, p. 660). This is one reason why many
scientifically minded psychoanalysts of a positivist persuasion have
maintained the earlier definition of instinct (see footnote 9). But to do so is
to conflate the psyche-soma distinction that has created so much debate
(and confusion) when talking of the mind, and typically leads to
reductionist inventions, such as the reducing the mind to neurology or
brain-chemistry. The revised trauma theory of 1920, via the notion of

See Freud, Three Essays.

See Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This definition of instinct should
be distinguished from Freuds earlier conception of the instinctor drive
[Trieb]as the, ...borderland concept between the mental and the physical, being
both the mental representative of the stimuli emanating from within the organism
and penetrating to the mind, and at the same time a measure of the demand made
upon the energy of the latter in consequence of its connection with the body
Freud, Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. 413-4.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


repetition-compulsion, makes possible Freuds important late findings

about social psychology and conscience40 and history and memory41;
something that the earlier instinct theory could not readily provide, being,
in essence a theory of correspondence, and the correspondenceor
representationalmodel of the mind is always liable to reduction to base
physiology, something that Freud always resisted.42
To restate: In the event of a potential trauma, an event is so extreme
that when the id drive seeks to bind the stimulus in the ego, it fails.
Instead, the id encounters reality in place of the ego and is thereby
changed. In this we see that trauma is foundational for unconscious
structure and fantasy. The ego is that part of the id which is adapted to
reality; when the ego fails this task, the id is left exposed. Certain
developmental considerations follow: the erection of a superego will be
understood as the outcome of trauma relating to castration fears. This
process once and for allexcept in extreme situations like a war trauma
closes off the id (unconscious) from external reality and all further
instances of psychic change are thenceforth mediated via the ego,
probably by non-traumatic meansi.e., education.
Concomitant with this revised psychoanalytic mythology came an
adaptational model in which the ego is designated, in one of its aspects, as
that part of the id modified (adapted) to the demands of reality (i.e.,
biological and social reality). He pursued this biologicaldistinctly
Darwinianline of thought most definitively in The Ego and the Id (1923)
where he shifted the analytic focus from the unconscious to the ego,
defined as the psychic organ of adaptation to reality. With the ego so
defined, and the structural modelid, ego and superegoin place, he
now had a more complex but more flexible model to discuss the problems
of psychical and material reality.
In this mode he conceived that the ego is influenced from three sides:
the id (the libidinal and aggressive drives), the superego (the cultural
norms), and external reality (the adaptational factor). The id was thought
of as the unbound region of the mind. The superego is, simply put, the

e.g., Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Freud, The Ego
and the Id; Freud, Civilization.
e.g., Freud, Beyond; and, Freud, Moses and Monotheism.
Stimuli from external or internal sense organs of a certain relative magnitude
create a mental drive that is its representative. As representations, the concept
could not adequately account for structure (i.e., repetition), because the psychic
structure keeps collapsing to a somatic concomitant that is real because not


Chapter Two

internalisation of cultural norms passively acquired in early childhood and

structured into the psyche by the trauma of the castration complex. The
superego goes to constitute a part of psychical reality. As for external
reality, this is represented in two waysand this is decisive for our
investigationfirstly, through the five senses as interpreted through what
Freud called the apperceptive apparatus of the ego, and secondly, via
traumatic experience, which overwhelms the ego, but simultaneously
structures its defensive and pleasure-seeking patterns. It is to the latter that
we shall now turn our attention, suffice to say, that the former aspect has
decisively influenced the American and perhaps also the British neoFreudian tradition, because it is seen to open the door to cognitive,
perception-based psychologies and learning theory, so making feasible the
operationalising of psychoanalysis for experimental testing. This leads,
for instance, to Hartmanns claim, endorsed by the influential
psychologist/psychoanalyst David Rapaport and down to Eric Kandel in
our own day, that psychoanalysis is a general psychology of the human
Freud himself becomes an inspiration for this attempt by his insistence
upon the strictures of natural science and his later efforts to use analytic
theory to tell us something about the nature of external reality.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that trauma is the bridge between
psychoanalysis and these other sciences. It is only through the theory of
trauma that we can conceive of external reality influencing psychic reality
in a structuralindeed, in a mythicalway. This is why the theory of
trauma is so central to any psychological theory that wants to draw
inferences in the reverse direction: drawing inferences about external
reality and history from the study of mind.

Part II - Psychic Reality and Material Reality in the Clinic

The events that led to Freuds abandonment of the seduction theory in
favour of a new theory of infantile sexuality have been alluded to above,
and elsewhere have received fairly comprehensive treatment.44. I want
instead to focus on the empirical data from analytic treatment that led to
certain modifications in technique and to the corresponding theoretical
developments in Freuds thinking about trauma.


Hartmann, Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation; Rapaport, The

Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory; Kandel, Psychiatry.
See Garcia , Freuds Seduction Theory; and Furst, Trauma.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


In the early 1890s, Freud had made use of the therapeutic method (the
cathartic method) devised by his elder colleague, Dr. Josef Breuer.45
The theory behind this practice held that pathogenic memories of
traumatic experiences were kept out of consciousness by dissociation
(later this is replaced by the concept of repression). The treatment
required an abreaction (catharsis) of the energy invested in the traumatic
memory. This was achieved by bringing the memory into consciousness,
variously by hypnosis, hands-on therapy, and later by a kind of verbal
provocation. In some cases the treatment was successful, though it was
found generally not to be sufficient for a lasting cure. Even when modified
by advancements in technique including free association method and
theorization of the transference, etc., Freud found that something always
remained that was unanalyzable; something intractable in the psyche over
which insight held no sway. And it was this remainder that stimulated
Freuds reflections on the clinical technique of psychoanalysis.
Initially, he described this intractability of the symptom as resistance
to analysis resulting from the analysands erotic attachment to his/her
symptoms.46 He soon found cases, like melancholic depression, in which
the eros was attached to a painful, instead of a pleasure-seeking
structure.47 This did not conform to the model of humans as pleasureseeking animals; some humans were irreversibly attached to painful
experiences (masochism). He later refined the theory to identify the
elements which contributed to the resistance.48 Of chief interest to the
present discussion on trauma was the notion of a repetition compulsion as
a key element of the resistance.49 This would later be characterised by
Freud in different contexts as inertia of the id50 and inertia of the
libido, and otherwise as the manifestation of the death drive in the
A whole range of clinical data brought to his attention this problem in
the closing years of World War I and after. There was the failure of the
analysis of the Wolf Man, the discovery of intractable depression in


See Freud [& Breuer], Studies.

Freud, The Dynamics of the Transference.
Freud, Mourning and Melancholia.
See Freud, Analysis terminable and Interminable.
Freud, Beyond.
Freud, Ego and the Id.
Freud, Civilization, 785.


Chapter Two

melancholia, the repetitiveness of childs play and the fact of traumatic

Freud had observed that traumatic events resulted in certain
movements (structures) in the psyche that refuse to conform to the
pleasure principle.53 Thus, a sufferer from a war neurosis or other
traumatic neurosis will continue to repeat the traumatic memory of the
event in his dreams, like a traumatized child who will repeat in play a
traumatic experience. But in both cases, memory is not quite the right
term, because there is no content to the traumatic memory. It rather
takes on the structure of a drive (on analogy with the biological drives) in
its compulsive repetitiveness. As such it is the memory of a pattern of
pain. And the childs play, for example, will make use of a range of object
memories and actual objects to exercise the structure of this traumatic
memory.54 This is a repetition compulsion, that comes as if from outside
the self and to which the ego is itself subject. This allowed Freud to talk of
the daemonic quality of the repetition compulsion. It is the basic
structure forming movement in the psyche by which the relations between
ego, superego and id are constituted and fixed. Distinct from repetitions
taking place within the ego, such as in obsessional neurosis, which has its
foundation in a reaction-formation of the ego against the drives, in the
trauma that sets in motion a repetition compulsion the ego cannot offer
any resistance, and thus the structures set in motion guarantee the limits of
psychoanalytic intervention. At most, psychoanalysis can provide
signification for the experience, but the experience itself cannot be
recovered or undone, in the way one might recover a forgotten memory ot
undo the ego restrictions in an obsessional neurosis.55
These observations were brought in line with the earlier observations
concerning the failure of patients to abreact certain traumas (described
above) to create a new model of the psychea structural model. What is

Respectively, in Freud, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, Mourning

and Melancholia, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Psychoanalysis and the War
Remembering that the reality principle is defined as a modification of the
pleasure principle under influence of external reality, and thus actually preserves
the logic of the pleasure principle. (Freud, Formulations Regarding the Two
Principle in Mental Functioning; see also Freud, The Economic Problem in
One can see how easily that this formulation, when isolated from other parts of
Freuds complex model, can give rise to hermeneutic readings of psychoanalysis.
For further discussion of these points in relation to obsessional neurosis, see
Freud, Inhibitions, Chapter V.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


structure, asks Freud? Structure is repetition. Repetition is the result of

trauma, and trauma is the overwhelming of the ego by a force outside the
ego but within the psyche stimulated by an event external to the psyche.
Thus, psychic structure is seen to be the consequence of trauma. Secondly
trauma relates to the soul not the body.
At this point Freud invoked Platos conception of Eros. At birth, our
psyche is all Eros. Psychic reality and material reality are undifferentiated
for the subject in this state of primary narcissism.56 Only gradually does
the ego differentiate from id and the state of ego narcissism to love objects
in the world for what they are. Each successive differentiation is subject to
the action of trauma, and so the ego is repeatedly overwhelmed and Eros
moves to bind the psychic experience in a new matrix. The psyche is
structured early in life when the ego is weak. The decisive event being the
trauma of the castration complex which leads to superego formation and
the tripartite mental structure.
In the 1920 paper Freuds discussion of trauma is put in terms of a
dynamic field of forces. We can see the exposition most clearly in his
1926 paper on Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. He had in 1920 spoken
of the traumatic neurosis as a fright-neurosis in which one encounters a
danger without being prepared for it, and further stressed that
apprehension by the ego is a state of consciousness which protects
against fright and therefore against the fright-neurosis.57 In 1926,
apprehension of a danger is recognized by the ego in the release of anxiety
as a signal of possible impending trauma. Anxiety is, therefore, on the
one hand an expectation of a trauma, and on the other a repetition of it in a
mitigated form.58
Freud talks of two kinds of danger to which the ego may be exposed.
Where the danger emanates from an external source, he talks of
objective anxiety, and where the danger threatens from an internal
source, the anxiety is called neurotic anxiety. And there is a kind of
dangerparticular to childhooda social anxiety arising the feared loss

See Freud, On Narcissism; also Freud, Civilization, Chapter 1. Note that Freud
used the word ego in various ways. At times it designates the whole psyche,
other times just the self representation. Genetically, he sometimes spoke of an
undifferentiated ego-id matrix being the psyche at birth, see Freud, Outline.
see also Hartmann, The Development of the Ego Concept in Freuds Work, or
Rapaport, An Historical Survey of Psychoanalytic Ego Psychology for historical
reviews of Freuds use of ego; and Lacan, The Ego in Freuds Theoyr and in
the Technique of Psychoanalysis for a clinical perspective.
Freud, Beyond, 641.
Freud, Inhibitions, 751.


Chapter Two

of loved ones. This is soon transformed to a superego anxiety (guilt) with

the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Freud proposed the following
sequence: anxietydangerhelplessness (trauma) to explain how
anxiety, as a signal of immanent danger, progresses in an escalating series
to trauma.
A danger situation is a recognized, remembered, and expected situation of
helplessness. Anxiety is the original reaction to helplessness in the trauma
and is reproduced later on in the danger-situation as a signal for help. The
ego, which has undergone the trauma passively, now repeated it actively in
a weakened version, hoping to have the direction of it in its own hands. It
is certain that children behave in this fashion towards every painful
impression they receive, by reproducing it in their play. In thus changing
from passivity to activity they attempt to master it [the trauma]

Freuds twofold theory of anxietyas a primal trauma and as the memory

of a traumahas caused serious theoretical problems for analysts in the
ego psychology tradition.60 For our purpose, the important thing to note is
that in a traumatic situation of danger in which the subject is helpless,
objective and instinctual dangers converge.61 That is, Freud again
confirms that it is the psychical reality that matters in the event of trauma.
When the situation of danger occurs, and the ego fails in its function to
apprehend (cathect) the danger, the instinctualidpart of the psyche
moves to cathect the stimulus and we see a replication of the traumatic
process out of which was born the individual (differentiated) psyche.
Furthermore, this movement of the id initiates, as it were, a new psychic
structurea new repetition compulsion, i.e., a psychical fixation to the
traumawhich must be worked through in the manner of earlier infantile
psychic fixations. 62
It then follows from these developments that the actual event that
caused a traumatic response will have left no memory tracethe egos
apperceptive apparatus failed to bind the stimulus in this way.63 Trauma is
not a memory; indeed, cannot maintain a memory as memory is a function

See e.g. Rangell, On the Psychoanlytic Theory of Anxiety, and, A Further
Attempt to Solve the Problem of Anxiety; and Schur, The Ego and the Id in
Freud, Ibid., 752.
Freud, Beyond, 641.
Ibid., ch. IV.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


of the ego which is overthrown in the event of trauma. So the

remembering in analysis of this trauma is going to require some form of
construction to name the trauma and bring it into language.
It is evident that Freud was aware of this analytic datum, prior to its
confirmation in his work with traumatic neuroses. In an early paper,
Screen Memories,64 Freud found that there was a certain class of
memories which people would recall with absolute certainty as a memory
from their childhood. However, an examination of the facts by reference
to family members, etc., would often discover that the event did not occur
as recalled in the memory. Thus Freud concluded in this paper that this
class of memoriesscreen memoriesare in fact a fantasy projected
back into childhood. Behind the screen memory one finds an infantile
repressed wish, which has been toned down (distorted) in a manner similar
to that achieved by the dreamwork. Freud noted the generally indifferent
subject matter and drew attention to a particularly interesting point that, in
the majority of these screen memories,
...the subject sees himself in the recollection as a child, with the knowledge
that this child is himself; he sees this child, however, as an observer from
outside the scene would see him...Now it is evident that such a picture
cannot be an exact repetition of the impression that was originally
received. For the subject was then in the middle of the situation and was
attending not to himself but to the external world...this contrast between
the acting and the recollecting ego may be taken as evidence that the
original impression has been worked over.65

This paper led Freud to question whether in fact we have any memories at
all from our childhood: Memories relating to our childhood may be all
that we possess.66 In conclusion, and in a way which reflects his notion
of retroactivity (Nachtrglichkeit), Freud wrote:
Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as
they appeared at the later periods when they were revived. In these periods
of revival, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to
say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives,
which had no concern with historical accuracy, had their part in thus
forming them as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.67


Freud, Screen Memories.

Freud, Ibid., 68.
Ibid., 69 (my italics).


Chapter Two

This incidental though important text, written around the time of

publication of Freuds dream-book, preempts the problem of trauma dealt
with in 1920. It proves in the clinical setting to the psychoanalysts
satisfaction that no memory of childhood events can really be recovered,
and even if it could, it is the individuals distortion of these eventsthe
psychic realitythat is clinically significant. Freuds 1920 and 1926
papers provide the theoretical foundation for this clinical evidence
gathered twenty years previous. Thus the stage is set for Freuds last
major works on this theme: the delineation of an historical truth out of the
illusion-dominated psychic reality.

Part III Truth: Historical and Fantasmatic

In the study on Construction in Analysis, Freud is stimulated to this
investigation by asking how it is in analysis that one can tell that an
interpretation is correct, when sometimes No means Yes.68 Freud
wrote that the analysand offers three kinds of material to the analyst: (1.)
fragments of the lost memories in dreams; (2.) ideas garnered by free
association; and, (3.) the hints of repetitions of the affects belonging to
the repressed material to be found in actions performed by the
patient...both inside and outside the analytic situation. He added that,
the transference which becomes established towards the analyst is
particularly calculated to favor the return of these emotional connections.69
Freud prefers to talk here of constructions rather than
interpretations, because what is being built is a history of the wishes
(fantasy) of the early period which has been forgotten (infantile amnesia),
but which persists as unconscious drive structures. The process of testing
a construction for its historical truth does not end with the yes or no of the
patient, but rather, with the indirect evidence of subsequent material
brought forth by the patient in combination with the presentation of
subsequent constructions by the analyst. Indeed the earliest constructions
are formed based upon indirect evidence from the material brought into
analysis. The construction is designed to provide form (content) to the
traumatic events (and the corresponding unconscious structures) for which
there is no a priori content.
It follows then that no construction is ever complete, and no yes or
no spoken by the analysand will ever be definitive. Every construction
is necessarily a description of only a part of the truth. The most telling

Freud, Constructions in Analysis.

Ibid., 258.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


indicator for Freud of the historical truth of a construction is an emotional

response, or aggravation of a symptom, subsequent to an interpretation.
The affective component reveals a connection between the construction,
from which was derived the interpretation, and the actual unconscious
complex which has been posited by the construction. By this means, the
historical truth of the psyche is gradually discerned from the stream of
psychic disclosures. The affective responses are only telling indicators
within the context of an established transference-neurosis; and for Freud,
any interpretation outside of the transference-neurosis risks running
wild of the facts..
The study of an individuals history is used as the basis for Freuds
examination of the history of a people. In Moses and Monotheism70, Freud
is convinced that the belief of the Jewish nation are a delusion, founded
upon the illusion of a Father-God modeled on the type of ones own
father. Freud tells us that he is in agreement with the Jewish people on the
truth of their claim to be the chosen people of the one true god, but
stipulates that he is talking of an historical truth, relating to a long-past
historical event, not the material truth as it is claimed by the pious.71 And
so Freud proceeds in his analysis to argue that the historical truth is
founded upon the person of Moses and the recollection of his teaching.
The force of Mosaic Law among the Jewish nation is attributed by Freud
to a psychic phenomena observed in the individual, which by analogy he
extended to the Jewish nation. As such, the essay is noteworthy, not for
the claim that Moses was an Egyptian, but rather, for its attempt to
demonstrate the making of a god.
The foundation of Freuds claim is a basic Darwinian premise that
ontogeny repeats phylogeny; an idea he expressed in many places, but in
most detail in Totem and Taboo, his study of the primitive psyche in
children and in totemic cultures.72 The Moses book attempts to invert the
methodology, by suggesting that the development of the individual psyche
be understood as the essence of the phylogenetic psyche. This claim
would seem to presuppose a common ground of being that must be either
anthropological thus historical or transcendent. Indeed, Freud wrote
[since Totem and Taboo] I have never doubted that religious phenomena
are only to be the return of long since forgotten, important

Freud, Moses and Monotheism.

Ibid., 129
Freud, Totem and Taboo.


Chapter Two
events in the primeval history of the human family and that...they are
effective on human beings by force of the historical truth of their content.73

In other words, human beings since they first became distinctive as

such have increasingly differentiated their psyche through language and
cultural invention, but each differentiation is constructed within the
genetic structure of the earlier inventions.74 According to Freud, nothing is
lost in the unconscious: earlier phases and stages of psychic development
remain under the surface, and in instances of strain, or near trauma, the
psyche can regress to these earlier forms, so proving their ongoing
existence in the unconscious. So when it came to the question of
phylogenetic inheritance of acquired characteristics, Freud was an avowed
Lamarckiana decidedly rare position to hold following the discoveries
of Mendel. Freud had his reasons. He did not see that the traditions
communicated by the collective memory of a people in words and
symbols were sufficient to account for the facts. Furthermore, it seemed
that environmental influence could create inheritable variations in innate
drive patterns, such as sublimation of the anal drive, or the unusual case
cited by Anna Freud, of the sublimation of the cannibalistic urge.75 Freud
found that he could do without this factor in biological evolution, such
If we assume the survival of these memory traces [non-symbolizable
traces] in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gulf between individual
and group psychology: we can deal with peoples as we do with an
individual neurotic.76

In the Moses book he makes the claim that the Mosaic inheritance only
achieved force, when after an extended period of idol worship,
corresponding to the latency period of individual development,
repressed guilt associated with the murder of Moses returned with great
force, initiating acts of atonement and the (re)instatement of the Mosaic
Law. Thenceforth, any misfortune befalling the people of Moses was


Freud, Moses, 58.

Freud used an archaeological analogy of new cities built on the ruins of fallen
Anna Freud with Joe Sandler, The Analysis of Defense, 496-7.
Freud, Moses, 100.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


understood as a punishment for their lack of constancy so reinforcing the

guilt complex.77
In conclusion, Freud is attempting to demonstrate how an external
eventthe murder of Mosesthough being of little significance at the
time of happening, is just like those childhood seductions, which, when
recollected in puberty return with the force of the drives as traumatic
recollections. And, as in the case of the individual with trauma, the event
is represented by screen phenomena shaped onto the drive. Freuds book
attempts to interpret the biblical texts as screen phenomena of this sort.
Above all, he is undertaking a very Mosaic project, in revealing the false
idols of his Jewish forebears. Especially the notion of chosen people,
which is seen as an infantilism that, at the same time, reflects a spiritual
drive towards the supremacy of the individual psyche over the national.
And we must not forget Freuds caveat regarding the discussion on future
of an illusion:
I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of religious feeling
than with what the ordinary man understands by his religion, that system
of doctrines and pledges that on the one hand explains the riddle of the
world to him with an enviable completeness, and on the other assures him
that a solicitous Providence is watching over him. 78

Freuds scientific universalism, with its Christian bases, is the silent

partner in his critique of the Jewish faith.

Part IV Science and Philosophy: the Quest

to free men from Illusion
In Freuds 1924 paper, Neurosis and Psychosis, in which he begins the
process of integration of his early theoretical formulations with the new
structural model of the mind, he considered the features distinguishing
neuroses from psychoses as follows: in the former, the ego maintains its
allegiance to reality, so a part of the id is suppressed; in the latter, the ego
defers in favour of the id, so withdrawing from (suppressing) a part of

Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, in a recently translated work, has
made interesting reflections upon Freuds work in relation to memory, guilt and
the burden of revelation (see esp. Chapter 2)
Freud, Civilization, 771. In its place, Freud quotes the words of Goethe, He
who has Science and has Art, / Religion, too, has he; / Who has not Science, has
not Art, / Let him religious be!


Chapter Two

reality. This follows Freuds 1923 formulation (in The Ego and the Id)
that the ego is subject to drives on three fronts: from the id, the superego
and reality. The task for the ego is to find the best adapted solution for the
satisfaction of these often conflicting structures. When the adaptation
fails, neurosis or psychosis result.79
He further elaborated this concept by depicting the course of illness as
two stages. The first being a loss of reality; the second, an attempt at
recovery. By this means he was able to compare the course of illness in
neurosis and psychosis. Thus, the ego, confronted by a situation of
frustration will, for a neurosis, reject the instinctual demand of the id; and,
for a psychosis, reject the demand of reality (i.e., the social norm, or the
objective physical facts of realitythe superego may be involved in this
psychic dynamic as a mediator between the social [external] reality and
the ego). The neurotic represses a part of the psychic reality that is the
instinctual demand; the psychotic denies the external reality of the
situation. Abstracting these concepts to a higher level, one can see that
both the psychic reality and the external reality, are both psychical frames
of reference, and the distinction between repression and denial begins to
blur. Though he went some way to a clarification of this point in his paper,
On Negation:
...the subject matter of a repressed image or thought can make its way into
consciousness on condition that it is denied. Negation is a way of taking
account of what is repressed; indeed, it is actually a removal of the
repression , though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed.80


One of Freuds second generation students, Robert Waelder, added the

repetition-compulsion as an independent drive to which the ego is subject. In
speaking of a principle of multiple function he try to deal with the problem of
the overdetermination of psychic events, by proposing that every psychic act
(mental event) be understood as an attempt to solve simultaneously a multiple of
functions. Waelder positioned a decision making ego as the limiting factor for
sufficiency of the model. The synthetic function of the ego determines the most
efficient act for simultaneously solving the demands imposed upon the ego from
without and within the self. The determinants, actively and passively experienced
by the ego, are thus the relations of the ego to the id, to the superego, to the
external world, and to the repetition-compulsion. He argued that the analysis of
these demands from the eight points of view is necessary to determine
sufficiently the full nature of any psychic act. Waelder, The Principle of Multiple
Freud On Negation, 182.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


And so applying this to the problem of psychosis, he interpreted the

psychotic delusionbased on denialas a pathology of the judgement,
which is itself a derivation from the interplay of primary impulses.81
Negation is seen as an intellectual sublimation of the aggressive drive. It
comes to predominate the psychic orientation of the psychotic due to a
defusion of the erotic and aggressive instinctsnormally present in an
ambivalent attitude to external objects. And so,
The achievement of the function of judgement only becomes feasible,
however, after the creation of the symbol of negation has endowed thought
with a first degree of independence from the results of repression and at
the same time from the sway of the pleasure principle.82

By this formulation, Freud shows that the syntactic form in which a

repressed content can be verbalised, can bring with it insight into the
structure of the unconscious psychic conflict. By seeing this pathology of
the judgement in the psychosis effected by negation, the psychosis is
located as a disorder within the ego, distinct from the neurosis which is
structured as a conflict between the ego (supergo) and id.83
Freud then tells us, that the second stage of the course of illness is the
attempt at recovery or substitute for reality. He notes that, in this
stage, the courses of illness are much more closely aligned. In both, the
attempt at recovery serves the struggle for power on the part of the id
which will not allow reality to dictate to it.84 At this point all Freud can
say is that both the psychotic and the neurotic draw the material from
which they construct their substitute for reality from the world of fantasy.
And he says that the psychosis attempts to set the fantasy in place of
external reality, as the chief realityand is thus, as described above, a
pathology of the judgement. In the neurosis, the fantasy too remains
dominant but the ego accepts a compromise in its relations with external
reality (with objects) in order to satisfy the demands of both the
unconscious fantasy and of reality, though in a less than satisfactory way.
Hence neurosis causes great discomfort and distress. It can achieve this is

Ibid., 185.
Freud here associated the function of negation with his earlier developmental
model which views the progress from a pleasure-ego to a reality-ego as being
founded on the possibility of negation. negation is thus prior to, and alternative to,
repression. see Freud, On Narcissism, for the exploration of early ego
Freud, Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis, 279.


Chapter Two

reality, by displacement of affect, by which the fantasy is glad to attach

itself, like a childrens game, to a part of realitysome other part than the
one against which it must protect itself.85 This realises the symbolic
significance of objects for the neurotic.
Freud had pointed out, in his paper, The Unconscious, that a
distinguishing feature of the substitute-formation of schizophrenia, is the
predominance of the word-relation over that of the thing.86 Now it had
been observed that in both neurosis and psychosis, the word-idea is
dissociated from the concrete-idea (the thing); yet, in neuroses, the
libidinal cathexis (investment) remains with objects, so making
displacement of affect possible; whereas, in the psychoses, the attempt at
recovery comes about by way of the word-idea, so indicating that it is
words rather than objects that are libidinized in the attempt at recovery,
such that Freud can say the mode of thought in schizophrenia treats
words as though they were things, and concrete things as though they
were abstract.87 This again shows up the function of judgement in reality
testing, as that which must distinguish between what is real, in the sense
of being present external to the subject, from what is imaginary and
internal to the subject.88
We must also draw attention to the construction of the delusion, which
constitutes the substitute reality for the psychotic. Freud argues that there
is always a kernel of historical truth at the core of a delusion. The
patients conviction extends over from this truth on to its delusional
wrappings.89 This led Freud to reflect that, The delusions of patients
appear to me to be equivalents of the constructions which we build up in
the course of analytic treatment.90 But in his own mind he was sure that
there was a difference.
Earlier, he had paused to contemplate theoretical abstractions in the
same context, saying:
When we think in abstractions there is a danger that we may neglect the
relations of words to unconscious concrete ideas, and it must be confessed
that the expression and content of our philosophizing begins to acquire an
unwelcome resemblance to the schizophrenics way of thinking.91

Ibid., 282.
Freud, The Unconscious, 133.
Ibid., 133-136.
See Freud, Loss of Reality, 183.
Freud, Moses, 130.
Freud, Constructions, 268.
Freud, The Unconscious, 136.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


A passage which goes some way to explaining Freuds general disdain for
philosophical thought of the system building kind. He sought to ground
his own thinking in a scientific approach, orientated towards empirical
validation. But the problem remained of finding an adequate language to
speak of the different kinds of realityor truthpresent in a.) the
delusion of the psychotic or Freuds philosopher from the construction
of the analyst; and, b.) the illusion of a religious system of belief from a
scientific theory of reality.
This problem was further complicated by Freuds discussions of
illusion in Civilization and Its Discontents where Freud talked of
civilization as the neurosis of mankind not distinguishing at all between
civilization and culture.92 He could do this by nominating the
superego as the inheritor of the cultural norms which enforce upon the ego
of every individual a compromise between satisfaction of his own desires
(aggressive and sexual) and the demands of the group (culture). This
conflict between superego and id is just that which makes possible
neurosis.93 So for Freud, a pathological solution is the norm for
civilization, and the culture all but forces upon us substitute-gratifications
for our frustrated instinctual needs. The situation remains dynamic,
because this culture that is the compromise between the drives of the
individual and the demands of the culture, is itself a product of the same
The argument becomes very fine herein, as Freud attempts to tease out
the space between the neurotic and psychotic solutions. He says
ultimately, we are each trying to avoid the neurotic solution, because this
is renunciation of instinct, and instinct is insatiable, yet the psychotic
solution is just as dangerousif not more soas it leads the creation and
belief in imaginary worlds that are not subject to rational interventions.
Freud offers us only the notion of sublimation as the single enlightened
means of consolation. The chief forms of which are the artists
enjoyment in creation and the scientists in solving problems or
discovering truth.94 This is very important in understanding what Freud
later does with the Jewish religion. These two activities seem to Freud
higher and finer, though he acknowledges a difficulty in quantifying such

The word culture describes the sum of the achievements and institutions which
differentiate our lives from those of our animal forebears and serve two purposes,
namely, that of protecting humanity against nature and of regulating the relations
of human beings among themselves (Freud, Civilization, 776a).
See Freud, Neurosis and Psychosis.
Freud, Civilization, 773.


Chapter Two

a qualitative reading. For the majority of mankind, who are not gifted with
the capacity and circumstance to sublimate the drives to this extent, there
is two alternatives (setting aside the non-psychological solutions of
chronic intoxication and diversionary interests, i.e., work): flight into
illusion or acceptance of delusion i.e., neurosis or psychosis .95
The two possibilities are further complicated by their relation to a
societal contexta set of norms enforced unconsciously via the superego
structurebecause some illusions and some delusions are normal, that
is, they are culturally acceptable. Indeed, they are actually foundational to
culture. Religious symbolism is one such example. But this does not stop
Freud from identifying the pleasure in viewing an artwork as an illusory
satisfaction; nor does he avoid the conclusion that the religions of
humanity too, must be classified as delusions:
The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that
to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the
great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of

And in another place, we find the following critique of religious doctrines

...insusceptible of incompatible with everything that we have
discovered about the reality of the world, that we may compare them if
we pay due regard to the psychological differences to delusions...The
riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our
investigation...scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a
knowledge of reality outside ourselves...97

Ibid., 771-772.
Ibid., 771.
Freud, Future of an Illusion, 27-28. We must be careful here in not reading this
as Freuds rejection of science of the mind, for psychoanalysis is literally thatan
analysis of the structure of the unconscious (silent) mind. Consider the following
citations: As a specialized science, a branch of psychologydepth psychology
or psychology of the unconsciousit is quite unsuited to form a Weltanschauung
of its own, Freud New Introductory Lectures, 218; And on the scientific
Weltanschauung: [Science] asserts that there is no other source of knowledge of
the universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified
observations...and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition or
inspiration, Ibid. He goes on to attack philosophyfor the illusion that it can
produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe, though in fact that
picture must needs fall to pieces with every new advance in our knowledge...Its

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


But surely Freud will not argue against the existence of God merely
on grounds of proof? Well, to a point he does. It is clear that the preceding
statement leads to a mistaking of a psychological fact or proof, for an
epistemological one. It is something of fallacy to have proved god does
not exist because you have proved that he is an illusion based on infantile
fantasies, for indeed God may exist and our image of him be a fantasy.
But we need to be careful with our use of terms, because clearly God does
not exist in any kind of existential way provable by scientific experiment.
Freuds method is a science of the mind; an analysis of the psyche, and
Freuds science was of the differentiation of the parts of the psyche
between the two poles of the natural (empirical) and the mythological
(transcendental) ground. Let us reflect upon these notions in the context of
some of Freuds own final observations on his science:
In our science as in the others the problem is the same: behind the
attributes (qualities) of the object under examination which are presented
directly to our perception, we have to discover something else which is
more independent of the particular receptive capacity of our sense organs
and which approximates more closely to what may be supposed to be the
real state of affairs...Reality will always remain unknowable.98

And he then describes what is done in the physical sciences:

The yield brought to light by scientific work from our primary sense
perceptions will consist in an insight into connections and dependent
relations which are present in the external world, which can somehow be
reliably reproduced or reflected in the internal world of our thought and a
knowledge of which enables us to understand something in the external

Freud then makes an ingenious application of this approach by

suggesting that with psychoanalysis the procedure is quite similar:
We have discovered technical methods of filling up the gaps in the
phenomena of our consciousness, and we make use of those methods just
methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological
value of our logical operations, and to a certain extent admits the validity of other
sources of knowledge, such as intuition Ibid, 219-20. It is interesting to note that
Freud equivocates elsewhere in his discussion of mysticism as a primary source of
symbolic experience. see Freud, Civilization, towards the end of Chapter 1.
Freud, Outline, 196.


Chapter Two
as a physicist makes use of experiment...In this manner we infer a number
of processes which are in themselves unknowable and interpolate them
in those that are conscious to us.100

So the analyst forms a conception of the unconscious thought process that

is the intervening variable in the manifest empirical data (i.e., the stream
of free associations into consciousness). Bearing in mind that the
intervening variables are posited within a construction which has its
basis in Freuds metapsychology with its mythological foundation. As
long as one remains in the analytic situation, and concerned with the
question of historical truth in the context of an analytic construction the
logic holds. The logic holds because of the fact of transferencei.e., the
erotic bond between the two persons in analysiswhich brings the
psychical reality of the analysand into a casual relation with the psychical
reality of the analyst: the analysand falls in love (and hate) with the
analyst in a repetition of earlier infantile love relations to parents. In the
work of analysis the fantasy is progressively differentiated from the real
relationship between the analyst and the analysand, and so is revealed the
imaginary dimension of the psyche, where illusion dominates.101
To follow through the consequence of these statements we find that
God is an illusion based on infantile libidinal relations to the father; the
father enforces the laws and customs of the household, which in turn are a
function of the same laws and customs of the society; and so the
ethical/moral dimension is inherited via the superego as an internalization
of these laws and norms by which the individual superego is thus
mortised together with the cultural superego.102 As to the origin of the
laws and norms, this is the concern of Freuds cultural books beginning
with Totem and Taboo and culminating in the discussion of historical
truth in Moses and Monotheism. For Freud the conclusion is
unavoidable: religion is a product of the irresolvable cultural-individual

Ibid., 197.
It seems to me that there is the possibility of dialogue between Freud and the
ancients if one were to see Freuds notion of illusion as if it were the psychic
source of the early Christian/Stoic libido dominandi. This would require us to see
psychical illusion as a problem of concupiscence rather than a problem of gods
and the realm of ideas. This may be distorting Freuds own project. But from this
interpretation, the political philosopher may see something in Freuds diagnosis
that would clear the way for political philosophy to begin; a point admitted by Leo
Strauss in an early review of Freuds Future of an Illusion. Strauss, Sigmund
Freud, Future of an Illusion, 208.
Freud, Civilization, 800.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


conflict and is thus, the sum of the achievements and institutions which
differentiate our lives from our animal forebears.103 Furthermore, with
his native skepticism, Freud cannot legitimize any notion that might
address eternal truths his science is a progressive one of open-ended
discovery. So he attacks also the truth claims of religion and applies a
scientific justification to the material question of the existence of God.
When he finds the answer is noit too is an infantile intrusionhe is in a
position to add that the religious belief system is, therefore, a delusion
which papers over the denial of that part of reality which says, God does
not exist; or, stated positively: Providence has no bearing upon human
Freuds attempt on the Moses question, and the attempt of analysts
everywhere to engage publicly in historical and political contexts, can be
seen to have the effect of destroying the private sphere which makes the
analytic investigation possible. The independence from objective reality
(i.e. a shared social reality) that allows the investigation of psychic reality
to proceed on its own ground. This is the pre-condition for the analytic
situation to occur and for the discovery of a private realm in the revelation
of an individuals psychic reality distinct from his (imaginary) cultural
Is it justified for this sciencepsychoanalysisthat has as its truth
criteria the subjective experience of the individual, to make claims about
the nature of material reality? Whilst one can prove in the analytic
situation the infantile nature of belief in god; one cannot prove, nor
disprove, the material reality of God in the analytic setting. In fact the
proof of an analytic construction is perhaps not to be established on any
objective groundsin the sense it is not accessible to the unanalyzed
observer, much in the way the philosopher cant communicate his message
to the uninitiated. Aspects of the system of meta-theory (meta-psychology)
supporting the construction in analysis may receive objective confirmation
from other scientific (objective) approaches, but the analytic construction
itself, being based on the explication of fantastical (imaginary) relations
does not seem to permit conclusions accessible to objective confirmation,
simply because fantasy exists in a reality (id) closed off from the objective
(interpersonal) reality of a social and material existence, except in the
psychoanalytic partnership, which is interpreted through a theory of Eros.
The sole basis of Freuds claim for science (and art) as something
higher than religion, because of its sublimated nature, is its adaptation to

Ibid., 778.
See Ibid., 771.

Chapter Two


the facts of reality; to what is manifest. Yet this is puzzling at another

level. For if one takes the psychical reality as real, and indeed as
something of equalif not highersignificance than external reality for
the human being, and this is what psychoanalysis makes as an article of
faith, than should not the psychical reality of religious belief and other
articles of culture be considered high, also, in their importance to the
question of human being? The fact that people have the need of a
benevolent Providence to guide their affairs is a real needan
indisputable phenomenon. It is true that in the analytic situation we find
religious phenomena to be an illusion, and there may be very good reasons
that the analyst will argue for the disillusionment of certain religious ideas
that a person may hold. This is because the analyst is concerned with a
psychic reality, not a political one. From the political point of view, it is
quite clearphenomenologicallythat religious belief and practice is
Freuds moral judgment upon these illusions is prominent in the
critique of religion and other non-sublimated cultural products. The
penetration of the truth behind these delusions and illusions is not in
accord with the empirical fact of belief. Indeed Freuds own model of
sublimation, defined in his letter to Einstein as the subordination of
instinctual life to the dictatorship of reason, is considered by him in all
probability...a Utopian expectation.105 Scientific investigation is a search
for truth; by exposing the myth of Moses he informs us that he has
pursued the truth of things; he has found the historical truth behind the
Moses legend and the Jewish people may now be disillusioned; and
further he has discovered the material truth, that there is no God, that that
too is illusion. Yet what of the reality of illusion in a social context? This
is the point on which Freuds legacy remains ambiguous. His stated aim of
bringing reason to bear upon the irrational is itself a hopeless illusion
perhaps the greatest of them allfor any but a small minority of people .
Illusion is all too real for human kind. Elsewhere he does claim that the
difference between a psychotic delusion and religious delusion is only the
fact of the latter being shared with other people.106 Perhaps that would
also be a useful definition of scientific methodology. The decisive fact
would then be the social detail of shared belief. Perhaps it is from this
point of view that the psychoanalyst might legitimately venture a political
application of theory. But even here, the shared belief in a delusion may
lead us all to destruction. Surely science promises more than this? Freuds

Freud, Why War?, 284.

Freud, Civilization, 774.

Trauma, Truth and Reality in Freuds Thought


method has opened up mans psychic reality and brought us closer to the
great problems of truth, belief and political necessity.


Freuds debt to Stoicism has been insufficiently discussed, despite Freuds

sober, later response to what he came to see as permanent traumas
attending the human condition. Freud was born in Austria in 1856, and
lived in Austria until 1938. After Germanys annexation of Austria in
March, 1938, Freud left for London in June to die in freedom from the
Nazis, before the beginning of World War II in 1939. As a Jew, Freud was
an outsider in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The traumas of the Great
War followed by revolutions and hyperinflation, the rise of Nazism and
Fascism, the Great Depression and the looming tragedies of World War II
and the Holocaust placed him right at the centre of a context that
demanded very special responses. In this chapter, I will argue that the crux
of Freuds special response to his times was a Stoic one. Freud's attitude
toward science had a distinct ethical slant taken from the ancient world,
via Freuds classical education. Freud had a lifelong passion for antiquity
and was profoundly interested in Egyptian, Greek and Roman
civilizations. Richard Sterba, who worked closely with Freud, has in
particular noted the influence of humanistic studies on Freuds character,
values, and attitude. From 1868 to 1873, Freud attended a humanistic
Gymnasium where he intensively studied Greek and Latin together with
the major literary works of the ancient period. Eight hours a week was
devoted to Latin over 8 years while 6 hours a week were devoted to Greek
over 6 years and all the major authors, such as Homer, Sophocles, Plato,
Tacitus, and Seneca, were studied in class as well as private lessons with
the professor.1. We can think of the terminology he used deriving from
Greek myth, including the Oedipus and Elektra complexes, and his theory

Sterba, The Humanistic Wellspring of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic

Quarterly, 43 (1974), pp. 167176, 170.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


of narcissism, Freud, as is well known, had an estimable collection of

ancient artifacts and even considered psychoanalysis an archeology. He
collected Freuds clinical method involved detachment, but not moral
coldness and indifference, any more than ancient Stoicism did. The Stoics
wanted to be therapists of the mind or soul (psuche) just as physicians
cared for the body, and just as in the 20th century psychoanalysts have also
set themselves this task. For both Freud and the Stoics, reason was in
battle with the passions and required clear sight to have a chance of
prevailing over them.

The Later Freud and the discontents of civilization

Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments,
and impossible tasks. in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative
Sigmund Freud.2

In Civilization and its Discontents, written in 1930, Freud stresses the

consequences of our vulnerability as human beings, our need for
protection from each other, as well as from the overpowering elements of
nature. Certain results flow from the realities of our biological
vulnerability as well as from the fact that the nature of living in any
culture whatsoever inevitably involves ineluctable conflicts, not only
between individuals or between societies but also between individuals as
such and the societies in which they live. The essential point for Freud is
that we live in privation or lackour wishes for pleasure cannot be
fulfilled in any of these arenas. According to Freud, the purpose of life is
simply the program of the pleasure principle which dominates the
operation of the mental apparatus from the start and is, although
efficacious, at loggerheads with the whole world, with the macrocosm as
much as with the microcosm. There is no possibility at all of its being
carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it.3
Happiness has little role in Freud's conception of the world here. This
thought indeed follows from this crucial premise that happiness is not
achievable through the direct functioning of the pleasure principle, except
in sudden and intense episodes.
However, unhappiness is quite a different matter. It emanates, Freud
tells us, from three sources: It results from the ravages of the body, from
the external world and, most painfully, from other people. The idea that

Freud, Civilization and its Discontents., 64145, 75.

Ibid, pp. 7677.


Chapter Three

we need to proceed from our fragility or vulnerability was a central notion

in Greek philosophy4 and also formed the basis for Hobbess view of the
social contract that would move us beyond the nasty and brutish state of
nature. Although we would like to fulfill all our wishes, this is simply not
possible. Therefore, it is a question as to how we fare against other people
and the elements, which will inevitably frustrate us. Freud has a tragic
view of civilization. On the one hand, much individual and social neurosis
and misery derives from the creation of civilization, which requires
renunciation of many of our fundamental, especially sexual and
aggressive, drives. The normal civilized person is for Freud neurotic5
and Freuds psychoanalysis is therefore political, at least in a broad sense
of the term. On the other hand, primitive life without civilization would
be, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish, and short, even though many of our
basic drives would not need to be repressed. In a Stoic fashion Freud
wanted to deconstruct our illusions and spur us to live, without illusion,
in reality. Yet for the later Freud, the human species had never, and
perhaps could never, properly develop beyond our cultural childhood. As
he famously argued during World War I:
Our mortification and our painful disillusionment on account of the
uncivilized behaviour of our fellow citizens of the world were
unjustified. They were based on an illusion. In reality our fellowcitizens have not sunk so low as we feared because they had never risen so
high as we believed.6

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle,7 Freud argued that the pleasure

principle, which holds that we seek the immediate gratification of our
drives, must be modified with the advent of civilization by the reality
principle, which involves the subservience of the pleasure principle to the
demands of reality (e.g., work is required to bring about future pleasure).
By channelling our sexual instincts toward new nonsexual aims, we can
perform valued tasks such as artistic creation and intellectual inquiry.
Freud called this sublimation. Work, which can be immediately
unpleasurable and involves the inhibition of our erotic wishes, becomes
socially valued and the direct expressions of sexuality becomes
downgraded. Moreover, human beings are not gentle creatures whose

Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness.

Freud, Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, 177204.
Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. In J. Strachey, Ed. & Trans.,
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,
Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 764.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


main aim is to be loved. We are by nature aggressive and destructive. Our

mutual hostility constantly threatens civilization with disintegration. The
death drive for later Freud vitiates the possibility of any harmonious
cultured human unity. The history of civilization is the struggle between
Eros and Thanatos, between the life and death drives.
For Freud, then, civilization is a compromise. At best an uneasy peace
exists between antagonistic drives, which are not fulfilled. Civilization
implies frustration. The communists believed private property creates
aggressiveness. They held that the death drive is culturally produced, and
that as such aggressiveness is the result of bad social organization. Freud
maintains just the opposite. Civilization can never bring harmony,
depending as it does on the rather serious impairment of our sexual life
and the suppression of our aggressiveness through internalizing it as guilt
(the superego). The mark of civilization is its discontents (Unbehagen). It
might seem ironic that the inventor of the pleasure principle, the priority of
the drives and their seeking of satisfaction was so skeptical about the
fulfillment of pleasure, and thus so alive to the extent of destruction and
death in the human condition. However, Freud was intent on describing
reality as he saw it, and stressed how pivotal it was for humans
individually and collectively to recognize and work within it. Freud was
no Calvinist, whichever civilizing function Eli Zaretsky has recently
assigned it in comparison with the Protestant work ethic.8 Freud never
thought that pleasure was sinful, or that there was anything wrong with
pleasure at all. On the contrary, Freud thought the fulfilment of pleasure
was central to human life, but the way to achieve this was to recognize the
primary role of reason in organizing our affective life. Freud did not want
to discard or even reject emotion, but he did not want us to be subject to
them. His method of achieving this was through the adoption of what he
thought of as the scientific method of detachment and cool rational
assessment of evidence. In the realm of therapy, this meant having the
detachment of the surgeon.

Freudian Ethics and/as Stoicism

How best can we live our lives? The issue of Freuds scientific approach
has often been seen as independent of his ethics, or psychoanlysis has been
seen to not have any ethics at all. Encouraged by many of Freuds own
texts, Freud has been seen as somehow caught up in the flow-over of the
burgeoning of science in the 19th century. The plausible hypothesis here is

Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis, 9.


Chapter Three

that Freud wanted to curry favour for himself or psychoanalysis with

medical or scientific authority or that he needed to express his new
discoveries in the language of the time. Although there is validity to these
viewpoints, they do not address the degree or kind of enthusiasm with
which Freud embraced the scientific attitude. His relentless search for the
sources of behaviour in unconscious motives, mostly with sexual and
childhood contexts, scientifically assumed causal determination (but not
determinism), explaining individual case histories as instances of wider
laws at work. Moreover, Freuds concept of psychoanalytic neutrality
marked the centrality of the recognition and withdrawal of emotional
investment in understanding our psychological world and relationships.
Not only does this notion of analytic neutrality reflect an attempt to be
distant from the patient in the name of science as such. It also reflects an
underlying mood in Freuds work expressing an ethical viewpoint.
The extent to which Freud was a Stoic thinker has been not often
discussed in the psychoanalytic literature. Philip Rieff mentions Stoicism
only twice in his classic work Freud:The Mind of the Moralist. Rieff notes
how far Freuds attitude to the body and its demands was materialistic, in
stark contrast to religious cures of souls. Rieff saw psychoanalysis as
much closer to the Stoic view, another form of dialectical explanation,
which recognized the influence of mind without repudiating the body.9
Although Rieff notes the connections between Freuds theory of the
constitution of mind with those of the Stoics, though, I will not discuss
these connections here. My interest is rather in how issues of values, ethics
and a normative stance are common to Freud and the Stoics.
Again, Rieff (and others) has signalled an emerging awareness of this
ethical proximity of Freud with the Stoics. Rieff notes that Freuds:
taste for Shakespearewhose characters and situations embody many
of the precepts of the Stoic psychologyis further evidence of an indirect
but genuine affinity between psychoanalysis and the psychological
theories of Stoicism.10

Carlo Strenger is more explicit:

Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. 17.

Ibid, 17. Differently, Rieff proposed that Stoicism compounded the prophetic
aspects of Freuds ideas: Both prophet and Stoic have as their chief duty the
maintenance of self-identity in the face of permanent crisis. The Stoic function of
Freuds crisis psychology is the day-to-day maintenance of self-identity. Ibid,

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


Freuds ethic is Stoic: he believes that the clash between inner nature and
external reality is essential to the human condition. There is no preestablished harmony between the structure of the world and the nature of
our desires. Like all stoics from Zenon through Seneca to Spinoza he
points out the extent to which we are able to influence fate is extremely
limited. Hence he believes that the one way we have to live a more or less
decent life is to curtail our own desires. Freud does not believe that
happiness is something we can reasonably strive for.11

On this Freudian view, Strenger suggests, we can reasonably strive for

dignity, if not for happiness: the sense of standing up to the hardships and
complexities of life without losing our lucidity. Strenger moreover argues
that Freuds ideal of the Stoic healer is helpful to the patient and for
professional ethics, keeping the analyst from the seductions of both
illusion and flesh.12 He explains the classical Freudian ethic in these terms:
maturity and mental health depend on the extent to which a person can
acknowledge reality as it is and be rational and wise.13
In an essayThe Pagan Freud Peter Loewenberg observed that the
culture of reference for the Austrian secular Jewish intelligensia to which
Freud belonged was Hellenic Roman, symbolised by the statue of Athena
standing in front of the Greek Parliament building in Vienna14. In fact
Freud bought his own statuette of Athena, describing it as his favourite to
his analysand, H.D. He chose that statue as one of two to be smuggled out
of Austria when he left for London in 1938, and felt proud and rich under
the protection of Athene when it was restored to him in Paris en route to
London.15 Freud did not like modern art, or even painting in general, but
relished the works of literature and sculpture which exerted a powerful

Strenger, The Quest for Voice in Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 89.

Ibid, 8990.
Ibid, 119. See Rorty, The Two Faces of Stoicism: Rousseau and Freud,
Journal of the History of Philosophy, 34, 1996, 335356 also discussed Freuds
Stoicism in terms of the connections with his theory of mind, and Robertson
elucidates some useful connections between Stoicism and psychotherapy
(StoicismA Lurking Presence (Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal, 16,
2005, 3540). In The Unconscious Wish and Psychoanalytic Stoicism
(Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 27, 1991, 332350) Shabad explores the way that
claims to reality can represent defenses against wish and disillusionment,
representing the denial of superego functioning instead of rational appraisals.
Loewenberg, Pagan Freud in his Fantasy and Reality in History, (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1995), 16-32, 26-27.
Burke, The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freuds Art Collection, 92. Burke devotes
this book to the description, meaning and importance of Freuds collection of
ancient artefacts.


Chapter Three

effect upon him.16 Freuds extensive collection of Egyptian, Greek and

Roman artefacts, which amounted to an obsession, one he rarely
discussed, although he claimed to have read more archaeology than
According to Loewenberg, Freud lived and died a Stoic:
Freud was a philosophical Stoic and lived his personal life by that creed
learned from Seneca and Epicitus in his humanistic gymnasium The
essemce of Stoic philosophy as Freud learned it and practiced it was to
accept the inevitable with dignity and resolution18

Freud never wanted to be deceived about his health, always wanting to be

clear-sighted and to be aware of the truth about the cancer of the jaw,
which he had for the last 16 years of his life. He underwent 33
increasingly radical operations on his mouth, rarely complained and rarely
took analgesics as they would interfere with his clarity. He continued
working as a psychoanalyst until just 2 months before his death on 23
September, 1939 when he died, according to Loewenberg, a Stoic pagan
to the end, believeing in life. Death was the necessary outcome of life.19
I want to develop the implications of the idea of Freud as Stoic still
further, increasing the reach and depth of the concept in Freud. Because
the Stoics, both Greek and Roman, advocated detachment, this is often
misinterpreted as indifference to pain and pleasure in the sense of being
almost ideally robotic. But they were, together with the Epicureans and the
sceptics of Hellenistic philosophy, trying to be therapists of the mind on
the model that physicians took care of the body. If philosophy is seen as
therapy, the Stoical stance can be understood as a way of mastering
external reality and a way of living. My concern here is not with whether
Hellenistic philosophers understood unconscious processes, but with their
attitude and values they adopted in how they approached the world.
Philosophy was no arcane activity for the ancients, but a practical
therapeutic endeavour. It was a practice for the soul as medicine was for
the body. As Nussbaum puts it:
The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and RomeEpicureans,
Skeptics, and Stoicsall conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing
the most painful problems of human life. They saw the philosopher as a
compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of

Ibid, 93.
Ibid, 4.
Loewenberg, The Pagan Freud, 27.
Ibid, 28.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual

technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an immersed and
worldly art of grappling with human misery.

The philosophers of Ancient Greece were a distinctive part of the

society that produced them. The philosophers, from the sophists to the
Stoics, responded in practical terms to practical issues.21 Philosophy and
medicine were even seen by Plutarch as a single field which apply both to
passion and physical illness. Passion or Pathos is the root of our
pathology, which has both senses.22 The Greeks thought that
eudaimonia, often translated as happiness (but more literally, having a
good daimon in one's soul), was not to be seen as solely a psychological
state of pleasure. Rather, happiness lay in the fulfillment of human goals,
of the flourishing of personal but distinctly human capacities. It meant the
achievement of human capacities over a wide range of goals. A feeling of
pleasure may accompany the active fulfilment of a goal but happiness was
not itself psychological pleasure. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle
distinguished between the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself and the
view that happiness was constituted by the fulfilment of the collection of
the goals a person has. The feeling of happiness is not an aim but comes as
a side effect of the fulfilment of goals and the state of happiness derives
from the flourishing in the fulfilment of the potential or goals and is thus
not a state of mind.
Sometimes Stoicism is understood as the cultivated attempt to be
indifferent to pleasure or pain, which seems strongly at odds with the
centrality to Freud's thought of the pleasure principle. Yet the way to
pleasure may not be a direct hedonistic one, in both Freud and the Stoics.
Pleasure in Freuds pleasure principle relies on the pursuit of the
fulfilment of the particular drive. The fact that Freud compared growing
up as importantly (though scarcely entirely) going beyond pleasureseeking indicated that he was not advocating a simple hedonism. Like the
Greeks, Freud recognized the centrality of the passions and their struggle
with reason. This ongoing struggle meant that although the passions were
by default the stronger party, it was better for humans both individually
and collectively that the passions did not predominate. Freud did not

Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 3;

see also Oatley, Emotions and Human Flourishing. (Cognition and Emotion, 11,
1997, 307330).
See Bryant, Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece: A Sociology
of Greek Ethics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics.
See Foucault, The Care of the Self, 54, 142.


Chapter Three

discard or even reject emotions and passions but believed it best for us not
to be subject to them and to be guided by reason.
The term Stoic is often used today for someone who can suffer pain
without displaying feelings or complaining. It derives from the Stoa
Poikile, the Greek term for the painted porch that the ancient schools
founder Zeno spoke from in the Athens Agora in 308 BCE. Not being
dominated by emotion, the Stoic can make level-headed decisions based
on reason in a clear, logical, and unbiased way that relies on reality rather
than being distracted by wishes and emotion. Pursuing the truth was seen
as a major virtue without the distraction of anguish and suffering which
stood in the way of clear and sound judgment. Although detachment from
the passions was prerequisite, this did not preclude suffering from being
an intrinsic part of life. Nonetheless, it meant that it did not rule or
dominate the individuals life. Attachments were to be chosen, not
determined. The Stoics promotion of apathy derives from the original
meaning of the Greek term apatheia, relating to a-pathos, without feeling,
suffering or emotion. Pathos originally meant what befalls one. This
relates to a basic Stioc sense that the idea of suffering involves passively
(as in the word patient) being victim to control by suffering. Apathy,
then, involves overcoming such control and putting some agency into the
human being. Notably, this approach clearly has resemblances to
important aspects of religions such as Buddhism.
Notably, Sterba has suggested that Freuds values as well as his
attitude and behavior seem in many features to be shaped according to
what the Romans designated as virtus.
Virtus comes from vir, the Latin word for man designating masculinity,
referring to personal emotional fortitude, self-discipline, endurance in
defeat, and restraint in victory. But the Roman virtus is more than this.
Its essence is the devotion to a cause far beyond ones personal interest.
For the Roman citizen of antiquity, virtus implied before anything else
the devotion to the Roman state, the public cause, the res publica. It was
this devotion which expressed itself in the constantia, a main feature in
the complex of attitudes comprised by the term virtus. What strikes
me is that Freuds devotion to his cause, his res, the scientific edifice
which he built, is comparable to the virtus of the Roman expressed in his
devotion to the res publica.

Sterba maintained that in adverse circumstances, in which he tore the

mask off deception and civilization, Freud followed Horaces advice:
Sterba,. The Humanistic Wellspring of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic
Quarterly, 43, 1974, 167176, 175.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


Keep your cool if things get tough. It is this endurance and constantia
that we admire so much in Freud. In this he followed the great examples of
antiquity which his humanistic education had made alive for him.24 The
values are clear in a letter Freud wrote to James Jackson Putnam on March
30, 1914: The great ethical element in a work is truth and again truth and
this should suffice for most people. Courage and truth are of what they are
mostly deficient.25 Notwithstanding that Freud is often regarded as being
interested in the pursuit of pleasure, we see again then that Freuds views
owe more to the Stoics than to Epicurus or the utilitarians.
The special role Freud grants to reason in ethics was of course scarcely
the most ringing or unqualified endorsal of it that the modern age has seen.
But Freud at least granted the quality of insistence: The voice of the
intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing.
Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of
the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of
mankind. . . . The primacy of the intellect lies, it is true, in a distant,
distant future, but probably not an infinitely distant one.26 The double
negative of the not infinitely distant demonstrates how little hope Freud
had in the short or even medium term for mankind. He regarded our best
hope for the future as lying in the intellect or reason being able to
establish in time a dictatorship in the mental life of man. Freud
postulated the crucial role for such a domain of reason that it would
prove the strongest uniting bond among men and lead the way to further
unions. In contrasting this liberating role, which would bring people
together with that of religion, Freud shows us why he saw religion in such
a negative light. Whatever, like religions prohibition against thought,
opposes such a development, is a danger for the future of mankind.27
Reason was for Freud in a battle with the passions and needed at least
clear sight to have a chance of prevailing over them. As is evident from
this quotation, according to Freud, the role of the passions was so great
that a very long battle was necessary to put them in place to some extent.
That for Freud was the human condition. Freud suggested in his
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, delivered in Vienna during the
dark days of World War I, that psychoanalysis was the most wounding of
the three great blows to human narcissism he lists therethat the earth
moves around the sun, that we are descended from the apes and not the
angels and that of psychoanalysis that the ego is not even master in its

Ibid, 176.
Hale, (ed.), James Jackson Putnam and Psychoanalysis, 171.
Freud, The Future of an Illusion. 53.
Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, 171172.


Chapter Three

own house.28 This final blow was hardest to take because it committed us
to the greatest change in our attitudes and behavior with, not surprisingly,
the least chance of success. It is interesting that Copernicus, Darwin, and
Freud were scientists who saw themselves as using a rational scientific
method. The fact that there are other great blows to human narcissism that
Freud did not mention such as earthquakes, illnesses, or many religious
doctrines demonstrates that Freuds emphasis was on the scientific
dethroning of the ego.
The scientific approach that Freud adopted was a matter of
temperament that fitted with his Stoic morality. His particular mood of his
investigation was Stoic: a Stoicism mixed with the scientific, heuristic
assumption that everything is determined was mixed with a Stoic outlook
or perspective. Why Freud adopted the natural scientific umbrella in the
first place may indeed have been connected with his Stoic outlook. One
can think here of the latters unbiased, impartial, objective, distant, even
muted indifference to the outcomes of reasoning from a disinterested
perspective. Of course, many later developments including those of
Ferenczi, British object relations schools and self psychology explicitly
went beyond Freud in their assumptions and mood in their approach to
human experience. Freuds famous statement about the importance of
psychoanalysts modeling their treatment on that of the surgeon abundantly
illustrates the issue of Stoic detachment at least as much as that of
science. Freud insisted with force, I cannot advise my colleagues too
urgently to model themselves during psycho-analytic treatment on the
surgeon, who puts aside all his feelings, even his human sympathy, and
concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the
operation as skillfully as possible.29 Note Freuds analogy with the skill
required for an operation in the context of setting aside all feelings for the
success of the psychoanalytic operation. Freud emphasized this further:
Under present-day conditions the feeling that is most dangerous to a
psycho-analyst is the therapeutic ambition to achieve by this novel and
much disputed method something that will produce a convincing effect
upon other people.30 Here he was again Stoical in the resolution about
performing the function itself no matter what its impact on popularity.
Freud explicitly recognizes requiring this emotional coldness in the
analyst which he justifies by saying that it creates the most advantageous
conditions for both parties.31

Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part III, 284285.

Freud, Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-analysis, 1. 115.
Ibid, 115.
Ibid, 115.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


Freuds well-known analogy of the analyst as a mirror to the analysand

also displays and requires a Stoic approach by the former. Freud writes
that the analyst must be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should
show them nothing but what is shown to him.32 This is presented in the
context of Freuds responding to the question as to whether analysts
should share their defects, conflicts, intimacies, and confidences with their
patients, thereby placing them on an equal footing. Freud condemns this
affective technique as involving suggestion and straying from the main
task, which is the analysis of the analysand not the analyst. In particular, it
muddies the waters of the resolution of the transference, all of which
means that the modifications to psychoanalytic technique differ from true
psychoanalysis.33 Of course, the true psychoanalysis of the period was an
informal affair of a few months' duration, not the superanalyses of
decades later, nor had training analysis yet been invented. Freuds case
histories of the period do not provide a rigid picture of Freuds technique.
It is useful to think of Freuds technique as classical in nature and later
approaches, particularly in the United States, as modern.34 This implies
that the mirror analogy is simply an analogy and that it need not be
forbidding or rigid, although it means that Freuds view was that the
unconscious needs to be observed at work in the most neutral of
circumstances. Analytic neutrality means that the analyst is disinterested
(not uninterested), impartial, and as objective as possible in helping the
psychoanalytic process along.

Psychoanalysis, Religion and Illusions

Happiness is never, for Freud, a psychological state to be aimed for, but
lies in the transient and often-abortive fulfilment of the drives. Even his
much-criticized concept of sublimation is to do with the giving up of
short-term pleasure for longer-term benefits. Civilization itself was for
Freud based on sacrificing a portion of happiness for a portion of security.
Although the pleasure principle meant the pursuit of pleasure, the reality
principle involved the view that reality cannot be foced or massaged into
any kind of utopia, if even a good society is achievable. In such a reality, a
Stoic attitude would at least bring longer and deeper happiness than other
diversions afford. But we note that although Freud adopted the stance of

Ibid, 115.
Ibid, 117118.
See Freud, Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis; Lipton, The
Advantages of Freuds Technique as shown in his Analysis of the Rat Man. Int. J.
Psycho-Anal, 58, 1977, 255273.


Chapter Three

the scientific method, this in itself did not mean moral coldness and
indifference any more than Stoicism did. Detachment is not indifference,
and Freud saw detachment as ethically and therapeutically efficacious. We
can see this further by examining his approach to religion, a decisive issue
for Freud, we would argue, exactly for the reason thatalthough he
denied thisFreud aimed to set up his own Stoic Weltanschaung in the
remains of old Europe.
In his lecture The Question of a Weltanschaung35 and elsewhere,
Freud contrasted the religious Weltanschaung with the scientific approach
as polar opposites. For Freud, the religious Weltanschaung was built on
wish and illusion, which had its basis in the mainsprings of childhood
emotion whereas, in contrast, the scientific approach was built on real
issues and how best, without illusion, we can deal with them. Religion, for
Freud, primarily involves consolations, the fantasized fulfillment of
childish needs and drives, the need for protection and the need for a
greater force to protect us:
Religion is an attempt to master the sensory world in which we are
situated by means of the wishful world which we have developed within
us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But religion
cannot achieve this. Its doctrines bear the imprint of the times in which
they arose, the ignorant times of the childhood of humanity. Its
consolations deserve no trust.36

Freud by contrast embraces a Weltanschaung that incorporates the

critique of the dominance of passions and argues that the passions should
be subservient to reason. Like Marx, Freuds worldview positioned
religion as an illusion that was little more than a symptom of alienated
needs, although the two thinkers differed as to whether these precipitating
needs were remediable. Both men shared the progressive scientific view
that the need for religion was itself a symptom of social ills and that the
way to abolish religion was not so much to abolish its inherent illusions
but, as Marx put it in his introduction to his Critique of Hegels
Philosophy of Law, in the demand to abolish the condition that requires
illusions.37 For Freud, religion provided a hallucinatory fulfilment of needs
that were produced by the human condition as such. This meant that our
weakness, the inevitability of death, the lack of control we have over the
inevitable vagaries of nature, and our fellow beings mean that we turn to
religion to satisfy these otherwise-insatiable needs. Religion thus assists us

Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, 158183.

Ibid, 168.
Marx, Toward the Crititque of Hegels Philosophy of Law: Introduction, 249.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


at once with satisfaction, protection, and ethics. We experience these

needs especially as children, but never fully grow out of them, and they
continue to exert an influence on us. These are part of a Weltanschaung
that Freud contrasted with psychoanalysis: No, our science is no illusion.
But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we
can get elsewhere.38
Why then was Freud so tough on religion? I propose it was because
Freud saw it as the direct opponent of scienceCopernicus, Darwin, and
Freud were all scientists who pushed back illusion in this combative sense.
Yet the point of psychoanalysis in particular is that, in addition to
providing scientific insight into understanding the human world, it
challenged the driving force behind our illusions, tracing the genesis of
their motivational origins of their all-too-ready appeal. Freud identified
religion as an illusion in the title of his most famous work on that topic
The Future of an Illusion.39 In this work and elsewhere, Freud
deconstructed religion as so prototypical an illusion as to be what he
termed the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the
obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, and
in particular out of the childs conflictual relationship to the father. If this
view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is
bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that
we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of
development. Our behaviour should therefore be modelled on that of a
sensible teacher who does not oppose an impending new development but
seeks to ease its path and mitigate the violence of its irruption:
Our analogy does not, to be sure, exhaust the essential nature of religion.
If, on the one hand, religion brings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly
as an individual obsessional neurosis does, on the other hand it comprises
a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as
we find in an isolated form nowhere else but in amentia, in a state of
blissful hallucinatory confusion.40

Did Freud get it right? Religion was surely a major competitor for a
Weltanschaung for anyone like Freud prone to discussing the big
questions Freud poses in such works as Cilization and Its Discontents.
Psychoanalysis and its institutions have themselves been compared to
religious denominations.41, I have elsewhere termed the manner of much

Freud, The Future of an Illusion.

Ibid, 43.
E.g. Kernberg, Institutional Problems of Psychoanalytic Education. Journal of


Chapter Three

transmission of psychoanalytic mantle occurring via anointment.42 The

attraction of psychoanalysis as a quasi-religion or ideology, as well as a
heuristic device, thus needs to be factored in to any adequate account of its
history and nature. To claim that others have a Weltanschaung, while
Freud simply had the position of a pure scientist, was at best rhetorical. At
worst, it gave way to the effects of systematic ideological blindness about
psychoanalysis as science, psychotherapy, and movement. Freud saw only
one edge of the two-edged sword of psychoanalysis here. He was blind to
how much he had created a Weltanschaung of his own, which was
reflected in the psychoanalytic cause and movement. This lack of insight
into his own creation has arguably had damaging effects on the further
development of psychoanalytic institutions and the psychoanalytic
Historically, religion has been a human need that enshrines values, a
way of understanding the human world, which can lead us to focus on a
way of living. But the major achievement of the enlightenment arguably
lay not so much in the replacing of religion by science as in the separation
of church and state. Instead of religion being dominant in all spheres of
life (including politics and science), it became a private matter. When state
religions prevailed, this was for the advantage of the state-supported
sociopolitical system. Marx thought religion would simply fall away as
advances in society were able to replace the material causes of the
metaphysical human need for religion. Marxs view of religion was as a
projection and ersatz satisfaction of human needs. Freud disagreed. He
thought such needs could not be satisfied by society. One consequence of
this position is that religion would have to continue to be attractive,
always, as a false promise. It was Freuds Stoic response. Freud was
against ideology, yet he failed to understand the grip of ideology or
Weltanschaung in the movement he himself created. Freud failed to
analyse this powerful need he found in the human condition itself, as it
developed through psychoanalysis, an all-too-human human creation.
Systematically, he did not understand what a powerful tool he had
discovered that itself impacted on the science he established. How much
had the religious Weltanschaung impacted on what he often revealingly
termed our science? How much had it become part of that science in the
cult-like way that psychoanalysts have often behaved, institutionally and
the American Psychoanalytic Association, 34 (1986), 799834; Sorenson,
Psychoanalytic Institutes as Religious Denominations (Psychoanalytic
Dialogues, 10, 2000, 847874).
See Kirsner, Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


Freud denied adopting a Weltanschaung and thought psychoanalysis

could help us understand why we thought we needed one. Freud
deconstructed the religious Weltanschaung, as he said by showing how
religion originated from the helplessness of children and by tracing its
contents to the survival into maturity of the wishes and needs of
childhood.43 Freud always saw religion as a closed system because it
stopped at a certain point and adopted a Weltanschaung allegedly opposed
to the open system of science. The influence of religion could diminish as
people increasingly saw that the scientific way was better. Yet with all its
advantages, Freuds image of religion was arguably rather simplistic, even
if the model he opposed is taken to be the version the masses imbibe. It is
a generalization to assume that religion is mainly, if not wholly, about
illusory protection. Other aspects of religion, such as important human
values, models for behavior, feelings of togetherness, could also be seen as
primary. In fact the etymological origin of the term religion has the sense
of a bondfrom the Latin word religare, meaning to reconnect or bind
together, as in to place an obligation on. But it also means to rely upon,
in the sense of dependence and trust. The bond and trust between humans,
and between humans and their deemed gods, is central to most societies.
Freud acknowledges no such social functions.
Emile Durkheims sociological analysis of the functions of religion, by
contrast, was much more inclusive than Freuds approach. Sociologist
Lewis Coser cites the Durkheimian scholar, Harry Alperts, classification
of Durkheims four major functions of religion as disciplinary, cohesive,
vitalizing, and euphoric social forces. Religious rituals prepare men for
social life by imposing self-discipline and a certain measure of asceticism.
Religious ceremonies bring people together and thus serve to reaffirm
their common bonds and to reinforce social solidarity. Religious
observance maintains and revitalizes the social heritage of the group and
helps transmit its enduring values to future generations. Finally, religion
has a euphoric function in that it serves to counteract feelings of
frustration and loss of faith and certitude by reestablishing the believers
sense of well-being, their sense of the essential rightness of the moral
world of which they are a part:
(R)eligion as a social institution serves to give meaning to mans
existential predicaments by tying the individual to that supraindividual
sphere of transcendent values which is ultimately rooted in his society.44


Freud, New Introductory Lectures, 167.

Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context,


Chapter Three

In The Illusion of a Future, a direct and sympathetic response to

Freuds The Future of an Illusion, Oskar Pfister marshals significant
arguments against Freuds generalizations about religion, including the
fact that there are other functions of religion than wish-fulfillment; the fact
that religions are often quite different in their doctrines; that wishfulfillments are not unusual in the history of science so there is nothing
unique about religion in this regard45; that anthropomorphisms exist in
other fields, even in psychoanalysis such as the idea of a censor.46 He
argues that although Freud may well be right about some forms of
religion, he has moved from some to all without evidence.47 He refutes
Freuds assumption that religion is or has to be intrinsically hostile to
scientific thought48 and suggests, Religion should become for us not a
police force that conserves, but a leader and beacon toward true
civilisation from our sham civilization.49

Conclusion: Analysing Analysis, Retrieving Ethics

Freud made a seminal distinction between the drives with their
satisfactions and their sublimations in the flourishing of civilization.
Without the renunciation of the drives, according to Freud, the accretions
of civilization would not have taken place. Not only does civilization
mean that we are better protected from our fellow humans (as in Hobbess
development from the state of nature) but we are able to achieve real
advancements such as in health, welfare, quality of life, art, literature, and
architecture. All this depends on cooperation between humans not just
under threat or fire. Humans are vulnerable, which makes us in need of
protection and help. We are not self-sufficient as individuals, and our
sociality is virtually inescapable. However, Freud stresses the importance
of our fear of each other and how to deal with it. Freud compared the
history of the journey of civilization with the development of the
individual, although he also said they were analogies to help understand
social phenomena.50 Significantly, both journeys require not just
Roazen, On the Freud Watch: Public Memoirs, 563.
Ibid, 565.
Ibid, 567
Ibid, 576-569.
Ibid, 569. Pfister makes many more friendly objections to Freuds simplistic
view of the nature of religion, including Freuds scientism and his undue optimism
about science and its adequacy.
Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 43.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


compromise and balance but renunciation. However, he describes the

impulses as being suppressed and not repressed. (Suppression is
conscious but repression always for Freud involves unconscious
ideation). According to Freud:
Civilization is after all built entirely on renunciation of instinct, and every
individual on his journey from childhood to maturity has in his own
person to recapitulate this journey of this development of humanity to a
state of judicious resignation. Psychoanalysis has shown that it is,
predominantly, though not exclusively, sexual instinctual impulses that
have succumbed to this cultural suppression.51

One portion allows itself to be diverted from its immediate aims and thus
to be of service to sublimated aims. (How exactly a culture is a living
entity that can do any such thing Freud never explains). However, another
part persists in the unconscious and still seeks satisfaction directly. The
point is that the civilized part of the drives, through sublimation, does not
directly seek pleasure as such. Civilization is beyond pleasure.
Although Freud collected icons and clearly loved literature and art,
then, he was not enamoured of civilization itself. Who could blame him?
His lifelong experience in Vienna went from trenchant anti-semitism
through the war to end all wars of 1914 to 1918 followed by the collapse
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism,
and the Anschloss. Dynamic intrinsic conflict within culture itself
produces progress while maintaining, even increasing, some problematic
modes of dissatisfaction as evidenced in war. However, it would be wrong
to conclude here that this is simply a war between instincts that demand
satisfaction. The higher results of sublimation are not simply a delayed
form of instinctual pleasure, they are real human achievements that relate
to their origins as the cooked transcends the raw or the Mona Lisa goes
beyond just paint and canvas. Although Freud deplored so much about
civilization, its achievements differed in kind from the elemental forces
that produced it.
The New Introductory Lectures were written in 1933, in the still darker
period soon after the end of Worlod War I. The contrast between the
attractions of religious and ideological Weltanschaungen as opposed to a
scientific approach was understandably uppermost in Freuds mind. But in
contrasting these approaches and putting psychoanalysis clearly into the
category of science, he arguably stopped his critique too soon. Freud did
not inquire into what happens to a science that has become a movement,

Freud, A Short Account of Psychoanalysis, 207.


Chapter Three

which even shared significant characteristics with the religion he so

opposed. What are the consequences for psychoanalysis of its being
scarcely an ideal type of natural science but also a movement, a body of
knowledge, a set of professional associations, theories about human nature
and culture, educational institutionsand ethics? We have argued that
Freud often conflated ethics and science, and his scientific approach was
really, very often colored by an unrecognized ethical stance. As Paul
Roazen suggests:
The problem of ethics itself ... .is one which has traditionally been difficult
to establish securely as a legitimate subject within psychoanalysis. Yet
Freud ... has been flourishing in countries like France where
psychoanalysis has been kept closely allied to philosophy. Freuds effort
to demarcate psychoanalytic psychology from ethical thought was taken
literally in America, thus not absorbing the full implications of all Freuds
writings, which certainly included an explicit moral component. The
future of psychoanalysis may depend on the extent to which the political,
social, and strictly philosophic sides of psychoanalysis continue to be
explored. Such an enterprise should make it less likely that clinical
practices become rigidified.52

As Roazen suggests, this approach is necessary for the future of

psychoanalysis if it is to survive or to prosper. Freud displayed
tremendous courage in making forays into such varied regions as religion,
anthropology, philosophy, war, biology, sexuality, culture, society,
education, and neurosis at both individual and collective levels. A look
across the range of the wide-ranging titles of Freuds works reveals his
fundamental interest in the human condition and the way we live our lives
together. The vision of the Freud, whom W. H. Auden claimed was often
wrong, and at times, absurd, but became a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives53 was far broader than the
current, constricted view of the role of psychoanalysis. Renowned literary
critic Harold Bloom went so far to recently state that Freuds conceptions
are so magnificent that they now form the only Western mythology that
contemporary intellectuals have in common.54 Freud suggests, I have
always been of the opinion that the extramedical applications of
psychoanalysis are as significant as the medical ones, indeed that the


Roazen, On the Freud Watch: Public memoirs, 55.

Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud, 166170.
Coutu, A Conversation with Literary Critic Harold Bloom, in Harvard
Business Review, 79, (2001), 65.

The Question of a Weltanschuung: Freud, Stoicism, and Religion


former might perhaps have a greater influence on the mental orientation of

In his last decades Freuds vision increased still further, reaching out to
a wider scope. However, in the years since Freuds death, the
psychoanalytic vision has narrowed and become truncated. Arguably, and
to its detriment, it has often become insular. In many parts of the world,
psychoanalysis is in retreat. It is now further than ever from being taken to
be a cultural asset around the world. In many places, it has ceased playing
the roles that it had come to play by the 1960s and 1970s: as a framework
for discussion, and as a theory of human nature and the human condition
with practical, clinical consequences.56 Yet this essay has argued that, one
hundred and fifty years after Freuds birth, we can still admire Freuds
exceptional ethical vision and courage. We can, and should, still treat his
contributions as an ethical view of the human condition, which subverts
many of our taken-for-granted assumptions, and challenges us to re-look at
ourselves with different eyes. The very range of Freuds relentless
concerns amounted, in his own biographical case, to a form of life that
contrasted with the way that psychoanalysis has subsequently narrowed
itself down. Whereas once it embraced collective and philosophical
concerns, today it too often has been restricted to a narrow and ofteninsular focus upon questions of technique. Freuds ethics in todays
psychoanalysis seems almost beside the point. But the point for us is that
relatively little of the ethical vision and courage of Freuds daring and farreaching spirit of inquiry remains within it. Psychoanalysis is currently in
danger of disappearing from the cultural, intellectual, and therapeutic
scene because it has become so self-encapsulated and self-preoccupied. If
it is to survive, I have suggested in this chapter of Trauma, Historcity,
Philosophy, it must rebroaden itself, and one vital component of this
would be for it to acknowledge its founding Stoical and ethical


Freud to Hendrik de Man on December 13, 1925 (cited in P. Gay, Freud: A Life
for our Time, 310 n).
See Kirsner, Psychoanalysis and its Discontents. In Psychoanalytic Psychology,
21, 2004, 339352.


mustnt responsibility always be expressed in a language that is foreign to

what the community can already hear or understand only too well?
Jacques Derrida, Gift of Death, 741

1. Introducing ethics to anxiety

According to a certain mode of thinking about responsibility, to pair this
concept with a term such as trauma, anxiety, or the sublime, would
represent a fundamental contradiction2. Blanchot captures this banal sense
of the concept when he says: Responsible: this word generally qualifies
in a prosaic, bourgeois mannera mature, lucid, conscientious man, who
acts with circumspection3. The responsible man is careful, he calculates
the consequences of his actions and is always able to justify himself when
accused. He is not anxious or trembling, he is lucid, conscientious, dependable, responsible. There are a number of thinkers, however, for whom
this contradiction would not present itself with such obviousness and
force. The context of Blanchots quote in fact occurs in a passage where he
implores his reader to try and understand how Levinas has renewed [the
concept of responsibility], opened it up to the point of making it signify

Derrida, The Gift of Death, 74.

I would like to thank Lachlan Brown for editing suggestions on an earlier version
of this chapter.
Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster,.25

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


(beyond all sense) the responsibility of another philosophy4. Here also

one cannot help thinking of Kierkegaard who, as John Milbank put it, like
Kant, yet in a totally divergent and far more ingenious fashion sought to
transfer the moment of sublime anxiety from the realm of aesthetic
spectatorship to that of ethical involvement.5 The influence of these two
thinkers on Derridas work, in particular in The Gift of Deaths penetrating
analyses of responsibility, is as obvious as it is complicated. Certainly this
key move of introducing ethics to anxiety is repeated by Derrida in his
own unique mode. He is intent on bringing the anxiety, the distress, the
paradox to bear on our most commonsense and our most philosophically
reasonable accounts of responsibility.
In particular, Derrida offers this analysis in the third chapter of The
Gift of Death by way of an interpretive appropriation of Kierkegaards
well known work Fear and Trembling6. Contrary to crude interpretations
of this text, Derrida maintains that ethics is not simply rejected in its encounter with anxiety (or the fear and trembling occasioned before the absolute command of God). Rather he sees that Kierkegaards target is a
particular conception of the ethical (as the universal), which does not prevent him from reaffirming ethics in repetition.7 Derridas description
here, which comes from his early essay Violence and Metaphysics, provides the clue for understanding his own later appropriation of Fear and
Trembling in The Gift of Death, a project which could likewise be described as an attempt to reaffirm responsibility in repetition8. Derridas
aim in this text is to call into question a certain conception of ethical responsibility that has become too attached to the universalits laws, rational
justifications and good conscienceby suspending it and interrupting it
through the anxiety-inducing call of the singular other. What this suspension or sublime rupture involves for Derrida and what happens to the

Maurice Blanchot, quoted in Waldenfels, Response and Responsibility in Levinas in Adriaan T. Peperzak (ed), Ethics as first philosophy: the significance of
Emmanuel Levinas for philosophy, literature, and religion, 50.
Milbank, The Sublime in Kierkegaard in Phillip Blond (ed) Post-secular philosophy: between philosophy and theology, 141-2.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling; Repetition.
Derrida, Writing and Difference, 111. Derrida writes: From [Kierkegaards]
point of view, the ethical moment is Hegelianism itself, and he says so explicitly.
Which does not prevent him from reaffirming ethics in repetition, and from reproaching Hegel for not having constituted a morality.
Derrida, however, will substantially diverge from Kierkegaard concerning what
ethics repeated looks like in his analyses. See below, Fn.10.


Chapter Four

concept of responsibility in the wake of its exposure to Kierkegaardian

fear and trembling are the questions which lay before us.

2. Derridas theme: rethinking responsibility

In the context of Derridas wider body of work, the reflections contained
within The Gift of Death form part of a whole series of writings on ethics
and politics in which responsibility is one of the most centrally reoccurring
themes. As Hent de Vries has put it: In Derridas understanding of religion, ethics, and politics, the motif of unlimited, infinite, or absolute responsibility is repeatedly unfolded, depending on context or specific
occasion.9 Derridas work thus displays an enduring preoccupation with
the task of rethinking our concept of responsibility with exposing the
historicity of this concept and undertaking a genealogical analysis of its
origins and inheritances. As the title of the first chapter of The Gift of
Death puts it, this is what Derrida sees as the task of uncovering the Secrets of European Responsibility; of being attentive to the hybridity of the
philosophical tradition concerning responsibility. Here we touch on what
becomes an increasingly central and indeed defining feature of Derridas
philosophical approach in his later writing: namely, the attempt to stage an
exposure between the mainstream philosophical tradition and other
voices in that tradition. According to Derrida, it is only though this exposure that the gaps and silences within the official history of philosophy
can be made to speak. Interestingly for the later Derrida, these other
voices are quite often religious. We see for example, in The Gift of Death,
the way that Derrida appropriates (via Kierkegaards interpretation) the
story of Abrahams near sacrifice of Isaac recounted in Genesis 22. Here,
as he attempts to discover the hidden history of the concept of responsibility, Derrida is intrigued by the structure of exposure at work in Kierkegaards analyses, where, as de Vries puts it, the ethical and political
modelled after their Kantian (and Hegelian) interpretations are exposed
to the figure of the religious10. This exposure is the structural move that
Derrida wants to mimic and appropriate in his own examination of the
concept of responsibility. Stated in basic outline, his analysis will take the
form of exposing the demand of general responsibility (defined by ethics) to the demand of absolute responsibility (exemplified by Abraham in
his relation to God). Importantly, however, as Gasch points out, Derridas

de Vries, Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida,

Op cit., de Vries, Religion and Violence, 4-5, my italics

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


innovative interpretation of the heritage of responsibility consists neither

in attempting to mediate between both demands nor in establishing their
golden mean11. Rather, like Kierkegaard, Derrida wants us to linger a
while longer with the anxiety, which here becomes an anxiety for philosophy in recognising that a fundamental aporia haunts and structures one of
its most precious ethico-political concepts.
Yet, while Derrida takes Kierkegaard as a model for his approach, he is
certainly not primarily concerned with producing a faithful reconstruction
of Kierkegaards intentions. Indeed there is a sense in which Derrida attempts to excavate what he sees as the key insights of Fear and Trembling
in order to reuse them for his own purposes12. Therefore for Derrida the
Abraham story becomes something like a therapeutic exercise in critical
self-examination, a kind of staging-ground where contemporary ethics and
theories of responsibility can be scrutinised and tested. As such he is primarily interested in the way in which Fear and Trembling gets to the heart
of some of the most important questions for any ethics of responsibility:

Gasch, European Memories: Jan Patoka and Jacques Derrida on Responsibility in Critical Inquiry 33 (Winter 2007), 309
In fact, at perhaps some of the most crucial points, Derrida substantially disagrees with Kierkegaard and seeks to rewrite the moral of the story in his appropriation. The clearest point of difference is that for Kierkegaard, Abrahams faith
and hope that he will receive Isaac back and then his subsequent return to the
ethical (i.e. not having to go through with the sacrifice) is of the utmost importance. Abrahams ordeal is thus understood to teach him important things about
God, for example that God does not require human sacrifice but provides an animal substitute and eventually in Christian analogical interpretations, that God will
in fact sacrifice himself, ultimately leading to the end of the sacrificial system and
the prioritising of self-sacrifice over the sacrificing of others (whether human or
animal). For an excellent interpretation of Kierkegaards transfiguration of the
ethical along these lines, see Stephen Mulhalls Inheritance and Originality: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001). Now, while
Derrida hints on occasion at these aspects of the story, he ultimately diverges in
finding the first movement of giving Isaac up (Abrahams infinite resignation)
to be the crucial ethical step. For him, a return or reward (receiving Isaac back)
only muddies the purity of the gift. In spite of this, Derrida believes he is able to
replicate the essential structure of Kierkegaards analyses in his own nondogmatic doublet. He acknowledges however that his appropriation will have the
effect of both diluting the implications of Kierkegaards arguments but also, he
contends, of reinforcing their most extreme ramifications. This essential movement
which Derrida seeks to appropriatea movement which he believes is able to radically transform our concept of responsibilityis that of imposing a supplementary
condition upon ethical generality (Derrida, Gift of Death, 79); an everlasting
impression such as only anxiety can leave.


Chapter Four

namely, that of the relation between the universal and the singular; and
parallel to this, the question of the relation between the theoretical (knowledge) and the practical (the instant of decision and action). Derridas
analyses of responsibility can thus be read as an extended meditation on
the scope and depth of these problems for ethics. Is the category of universality sufficient to respond adequately to the question of what it means to
be responsible? Have we yet considered the dangers and limits of ethics
as the universal; of a responsibility which, as Derrida suggests, is all
knowledge, justifications, calculation, and rationally certified good conscience? Are there any limits, any moments of exemption, exception, or
suspension when it comes to this universality? Is there any room for the
claims of singularity? Derrida turns to Kierkegaard in order to think
through these questions because he finds in him the ammunition for rethinking more than a few modern philosophical assumptions concerning
ethical and political responsibility13.

3. Kierkegaard: the anxiety, the distress, the paradox

But we are curious about the result, just as we are curious about the way a book
turns out. We do not want to know anything about the anxiety, the distress, the
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 63.

Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling,

was extremely concerned with the sanitization of Abraham which he took
to be occurring in his day. He writes: What is omitted from Abrahams
story is the anxiety We forget it and yet want to talk about Abraham.14
In the course of his analysis, de Silentio diagnoses in us a tendency to always rush towards the result, to how the story ends and what the outcome
of the ordeal will be; we have neither time nor the stomach to handle the
anxiety. In contrast to this flight, Fear and Trembling can be described in
one sense as simply an extended exercise in tarrying a while longer with
anxiety in order to experience just why it is that one does not weep over
Abraham, one approaches him with a horror religiosus as Israel approached Mount Sinai.15 Abrahams ordeal is described as an experience
of anxiety, and his story, told in a rather anxious mode by Johannes de
Silentio, is seemingly aimed to generate anxiety in us as wellan experience which de Silentio feels is hard for one to come by these days with the

Ibid., de Vries, Religion and Violence, p. xv.

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 28. My italics.
Ibid., 61.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


many distractions of the hooting carnival crowd who deafen one another
with their noise and clamor, keep anxiety away with their screeching.16
According to de Silentio, taking a moment out to contemplate the anxiety
of the knight of faith who walks alone in his dreadful responsibility
might be just the therapy ethics as the universal is in need of.
But what exactly is this anxiety, this fear and trembling? Are the two
terms synonymous, and furthermore are they substitutable with other similar terms: distress, trauma, fear, anguish, and so on? Ostensibly it would
seem that Kierkegaard does indeed use some of these terms interchangeably within Fear and Trembling. For example, he often uses the term anxiety or the phrase the anxiety, the distress, the paradox to refer to
Abrahams ordeal of fear and trembling. Here anxiety seems to refer to the
experience of undergoing a trial which may involve pain, hardship and the
isolation of being misunderstood.17 However, at another level, further
definitional clarification is required, especially considering that anxiety
is a central topic of Kierkegaards corpus, receiving its own book-length
treatment in The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym of
Vigilius Haufniensis)18. Yet even within this text, anxiety is described in a
number of different and specific ways19. For our purposes, however, it
may be best to begin with a working definition of anxiety in its broadest
Kierkegaardian sense. Here we must note firstly that anxiety in Kierkegaards work does not refer to a merely psychological phenomenon (although it certainly is this). Rather, anxiety is analysed by Kierkegaard as a
definitive structure of human personality and indeed rationality20. In a way
which underscores the measure of the young Heideggers debt to Kierkegaard, anxiety is for Kierkegaard the mood which reveals our freedom and
our essential relationship to possibility and the future21. It is thus altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something
definite22; it is an inexplicable, indeterminate nothing the anxious pos16

Ibid., 80.
Ibid., 64-67.
Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, Reidar Thomte (trans), Princeton
University Press, Princeton, 1980. All quotes in text from this edition.
A glance at the contents page of CA with its complex titles and elaborate schema
is by itself enough to confirm this point.
George Pattison, The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Acumen Publishing, Chesham,
2005, p.47.
Gordon D. Marino, The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino (eds), Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1998, p.320.
Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, 42.


Chapter Four

sibility of being able.23 This is anxiety as the well known dizziness of

freedom above the yawning abyss of ones own infinite possibility.24
Furthermore, for Kierkegaard, this anxiety has a dual character: it can
function both negatively (opening up great dangers) and positively (opening up great benefits). The key question thus becomes how does one respond to this anxiety, which is an inescapable fact of being human?
The Concept of Anxiety presents three possible relations an individual
may take up to anxiety, which for Kierkegaard are of profoundly differing
merit. Firstly, one may never have been in anxietywhich is simply a denial and repression of anxiety; a flight from it. The only cure for such a
spiritless person is a good dose of anxiety.25 The second relation to anxiety stems from its negative function and the grave existential dangers it
opens up. This relation consists in succumbing in anxiety or grasping at
finitudenamely, of sinking into evil or as Kierkegaard would put it, of
making the leap (fall) into sin. These first two responses effectively constitute death for Kierkegaard. As such Kierkegaard writes that to be in anxiety is an adventure that every human being must go throughto learn to
be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in
anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety.26 Anxiety is an all or nothing ordeal
for Kierkegaard, immeasurably dangerous and yet holding out the promise
that: whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the
ultimate.27 Here then we come to the third possible relation a person
might take up to anxiety, namely, that of being educated by it. For Kierkegaard this is essentially a religious education which leads to only one
thing: Therefore he who in relation to guilt is educated by anxiety will
rest only in the Atonement28; anxiety saves through faith. Obviously then
these three relations indicate that when it comes to anxiety, Kierkegaard
sees the stakes as incredibly high. Here there are only two outcomes: either one emerges from the depth of the abyss (having understood anxiety
and been led to faith), or one falls irrevocably into it (having catastrophically misunderstood anxiety and perhaps been lost for good).29
Anxiety then in its positive function can be identified as fulfilling a
therapeutic roleit mercifully breaks in, interrupting and awakening one
who is spiritless. The contrast between the two more explicit relations to

Ibid., 44.
Ibid., 61.
Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, 157.
Ibid., 155.
Ibid., 162.
Ibid., 158-159.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


anxiety and thus possibility is also cast by Kierkegaard in therapeutic

terms. The first relation consists in fleeing. In being overpowered by the
assaults of anxiety, one shrinks back and usually enters into denial by taking shelter amongst others in an attempt to hold [anxiety] off with noise
and confusion. In contrast, the one who is educated by possibility remains with anxiety and in a sense anxiety ends up serving her and leading
her where she wants to go. As a result, when the terrifying ordeal of anxiety announces itself, this person actually bids it welcome and greets it
festively.30 Interestingly, Kierkegaard likens this particular response to
the therapeutic situation of a patient undergoing medical treatment31:
he shuts himself up with the anxiety and says as a patient would say to the
surgeon when the painful operation is about to begin: Now I am ready.
Then anxiety enters into his soul and searches out everything and anxiously torments everything finite and petty out of him, and then it leads
him where he wants to go.32

Anxiety is thus presented as having a purgative effect, purifying the individual through the intense experience of its ordeal and leaving one healed,
liberated, and free. Thus Kierkegaard writes: When salvation is posited,
anxiety, together with possibility, is left behind. This does not mean that


Ibid., 159.
Here it is possible to identify a parallel with certain therapeutic conceptions of
trauma in (Lacanian) psychoanalysis. Consider for instance the affinities between
Kierkegaards account of anxiety and the description given below by Marcus
Pound detailing the role of trauma in the clinic: Psychoanalysis does not just
resign us to the trauma or real of existence, it uses it. Indeed, this is the analysts
job: to traumatise the analysand, breaking through the analysands neurotic defences by confronting him with the trauma of his unconscious desire, destabilising
the ground of the analysands experience. Yet precisely because the point of
trauma brings ones symbolic supports and neurotic defences into question, the
event is, as Kirby Farrell puts it, always supercharged with significance and always profoundly equivocal in its interpretative possibilities. Like traditional religious-conversion experience, it can signify rebirth and promise transcendence, or it
can open onto an abyss Once again, trauma is not seen as an impediment, but
the positive condition of experience (Marcus Pound, Eucharist and Trauma,
New Blackfriars 88 (1014), 187194, 191) Despite many differences, a basic comparison presents itself as obvious: like Kierkegaards anxiety, Lacans trauma is
not only a negative state but can also have a positive or useful function. Both
function to destabilize the subject, making it uneasy and disturbed by pulling away
its supports; both contain the greatest risk and the greatest promise.
Kierkegaard, Concept of Anxiety, 159.


Chapter Four

anxiety is annihilated, but that when rightly used it plays another role.33
This is Kierkegaards vision of a right relation to anxiety, where anxiety
plays a positive function. One finds confirmation of this attitude to anxiety
in a journal entry where Kierkegaard writes: Fear and Trembling (see
Philippians 2:12) is not the primus motor in the Christian life, for it is
love; but it is what the oscillating balance wheel is to the clock it is the
oscillating balance wheel of the Christian life.34 Here fear and trembling
is put in its place, it has a circumscribed role rather than being the central
driving force. Nevertheless, it still performs a positive tempering function:
it checks and balances the extremes of confident self-assurance, reminding
one to be vigilant and to work out ones salvation with due seriousness and
awe before God. Therefore the Christian for Kierkegaard is not driven by
fear and a desperate, dark enthusiasm as Kant worried35, but rather by
love. Fear and trembling or anxiety helps one avoid complacent good
conscience at best and at worst arrogant hypocrisy.
This positive or redeeming function of anxiety is only dealt with in
the final and shortest section of The Concept of Anxiety. Yet it is just this
aspect which has most often been seized upon by subsequent thinkers. As
we indicated above, later authors have attempted an ontologisation (e.g.
Heidegger)36 or secularisation (e.g. Sartre) of Kierkegaards analyses37,


Ibid., 53.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 259; see Ibid., also de Vries, Religion and
Violence, p.150
Kant writes, concerning Phil. 2:12 where Saint Paul commends his readers to
work out your salvation with fear and trembling, that this is a hard saying,
which, if misunderstood, is capable of driving one into the darkest enthusiasm.
Quoted in Ibid., de Vries, Religion and Violence, p.156
That Heideggers analyses draw on this sense of anxiety is seen even more
clearly in some of his early lectures where he seeks to give Phenomenological
Explication of Concrete Religious Phenomena in Connection with the Letters of
Paul (see Martin Heidegger, The Phenomenology of Religious Life, Matthias
Fritsch and Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei (trans.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2004.) Here he draws out the role of anxiety in the expectation of the early
Christians for Christs return (the parousia). Heidegger describes their awaiting and
hope as an absolute distress, an entering-oneself-into anguish.(Heidegger, The
Phenomenology of Religious Life, 67) He notes that Paul doesnt offer any objective determinations to their question of when Christ will return, but rather urges
his readers to be awake and sober, to ignore the lulling comforts of those who
speak of peace and security and instead remain vigilant (73-4). Anxiety here
then goes hand in hand with expectation and hope; its temporality is an eager, impatient awaiting.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


having found in his psychological/proto-phenomenological account of

anxiety a category with vast philosophic potential. To think then that anxiety is capable of revealing something crucial about ourselves to us; of performing an educational, purifying or potentially reorienting function is to
repeat a Kierkegaardian theme38. Derrida it seems can also be characterised as involved in a similar repetition in his analyses of responsibility. For
he too believes that a little fear and tremblingsome exposure to the
anxiety, the distress, the paradoxas it were works wonders in dissolving
complacent and sanitized versions of responsibility. Anxiety then is no
longer antithetical to responsibility (a negative to be eradicated) but rather
the positive condition and prerequisite for any attempt to thematise and
indeed act responsibly, precisely in that it prohibits responsibility from
ever being assumed in freedom or in good conscience39. For Derrida, this
strange and intimate acquaintance between anxiety and responsibility is
nowhere better witnessed in all its paradoxical complexity than in the
Abraham of Fear and Trembling.

4. Derridas appropriation of Fear and Trembling

for rethinking responsibility
In his absolute relation to God, Abraham stands out as the perfect case
study for Derrida of one who is both uniquely addressed by and exclusively responsible to an Other. Interestingly, Derridas analysis focuses on
secrecy and silence as being the prime outworking of this relation of absolute responsibility. This indicates that Derrida sees Problema III40, the
final section of Fear and Trembling, as developing a fundamental aspect
of Abrahams position. Of course, such a reading seems to follow de Silentios own emphasis, given the amount of space he dedicates to this
problema in comparison with the first two41. For de Silentio, the terrifying
aspect of Abrahams ordeal and the locus of the anxiety lies precisely in

For reflections on the success or otherwise of transposing Kierkegaards thought

into secular projects see Ibid., George Pattison, The Philosophy of Kierkegaard.
Concerning appropriations of anxiety in particular see pp.82-9
Mahn, Jason A., Felix Fallibilitas: The Benefit of Sins Possibility in Kierkegaards The Concept of Anxiety, Faith and Philosophy Vol. 23 No.3 July 2006,
Ibid., de Vries, Religion and Violence, p.150
Entitled: Was It Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal His Undertaking
from Sarah, from Eliezer, and, from Isaac?
De Silentio devotes more than double the number of pages to this final question
than he does to either of the first two Problemata.


Chapter Four

the fact that Abraham remains for the most part silent; that he cannot
speak, cannot make himself understandable to anyone and cannot explain
why he is willing to do this terrible thing42. Derrida follows de Silentio in
that he finds these concerns of hiddenness and concealment to be the most
interesting and crucial insights into Abrahams position. As a result, he
writes that both his and de Silentios are discourses intent on linking the
question of secrecy to that of responsibility (GD 58).
Not surprisingly then, Derridas first quotation from and comments on
Fear and Trembling in The Gift of Death are from Problema III. Derrida
reports that in this Problema, Kierkegaard reflects on the double secret
operating in the story of Abraham: that between God and Abraham but
also between the latter and his family (GD 59). Of Abrahams situation of
responsibility Derrida writes:
To the extent that, in not saying the essential thing, namely, the secret between God and him, Abraham doesnt speak, he assumes the responsibility
that consists in always being alone, entrenched in ones own singularity at
the moment of decision. Just as no one can die in my place, no one can
make a decision, what we call a decision in my place. But as soon as one
speaks, as soon as one enters the medium of language, one loses that very
singularity. One therefore loses the possibility of deciding or the right to
decide. Thus every decision would, fundamentally, remain at the same
time solitary, secret, and silent. Speaking relieves us, Kierkegaard notes,
for it translates into the general.43

This quote reveals exactly what it is that makes Abraham a figure of such
exemplary significance for Derrida in his genealogical rethinking of responsibility. It is because Abraham shows that responsibility demands
irreplaceable singularity.44 This singularity refers to a certain solitude but
also and more importantly it alludes to the essential non-substitutability of
the individual: in both death and decision no one can take my place45.

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 71, 77, 80, 113. Needless to say, this represents a highly stylized account of the biblical story on the part of both de Silentio
and then also and perhaps even more so with Derrida. It is not the case that Abraham does not speak at all and Derrida acknowledges this (Derrida, Gift of Death,
59). Furthermore, the story is considered in isolation from the context of Abrahams ongoing relationship with God as narrated in Genesis.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 60.
Ibid., 44. My italics.
In the second chapter of GD, Derrida frames the notion of singularity within an
analysis of the Heideggerian notion of irreplaceability and the non-substitutability
of ones death. He says: Yet only death or rather the apprehension of death can
give this irreplaceability, and it is only on the basis of it that one can speak of a

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


However, the connections here are not as immediately obvious as Derrida

implies and are dependent on some very specific definitions. In fact, initially one might well suspect that Derrida is foisting a false dichotomy
upon the reader. On the one side he places language/speaking/knowledge
and on the other, singularity/decision/secrecy. In this regard a closer investigation of the terms of the argument is required.
To understand why Derrida opposes singularity to speaking in such a
radical manner, one must see its place in a wideroriginally Kierkegaardiancritique of a certain conception of ethics. Such a perspective
reveals that Derridas argument is in fact heavily reliant on what he takes
to be Kierkegaards definitions. And here is Derridas view on the matter:
According to Kierkegaard, ethical exigency is regulated by generality (or
universality); and it therefore defines a responsibility that consists of
speaking, that is, of involving oneself sufficiently in the generality to justify oneself, to give an account of ones decision and to answer for ones

This at least seems to be an accurate description of Johannes de Silentios

view, who begins each of the three Problemata of Fear and Trembling
with the premise: The ethical as such is the universal.47 However,
through numerous (and none too subtle) hints, de Silentio makes it very
clear that he is simply borrowing this definition from another: it is the Hegelian conception of the ethical that is being presupposed and tested in
each Problema, and this has important implications48. According to
Hegel, the ethical is not some abstract principle or unchanging reality
which one must apprehend via pure reason; it is not the Moral Law
(whether the Platonic Form of the Good, Thomistic Natural Law, or the

responsible subject (GD 51). Singularity it seems is deaths gift to us. Explaining Heideggers account, Derrida writes, It is in the being-towards-death that the
self of the Jemeinigkeit is constituted, comes into its own, that is, comes to realise
its unsubstitutability, i.e., its irreducibly different singularity (GD 45). Derrida
goes so far as to claim that the various arguments of Heidegger, Patoka, and Levinas on this point intersect in spite of their differences in that they all ground
responsibility, as experience of singularity, in this apprehensive approach to
death. (GD 43).
Derrida, Gift of Death, 60-61. My italics.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 54, 68, 82.
Derrida himself points this out in his essay Violence and Metaphysics, see
above Fn.4.


Chapter Four

Kantian Categorical Imperative49). It is rather the much more concrete,

culturally-flavoured and historically mediated Sittlichkeit (usually translated ethical life). De Silentio himself actually uses the Danish equivalent of this German word at the start of the first Problema (translated in
the text as social morality)50 to directly define how he is using the notion
of the ethical. Westphal summarises Hegelian Sittlichkeit as referring to
the laws and customs, institutions and practices of a given people or society. It is in terms of these that one is related to the good and hence one is
ethically justified as an individual only by virtue of being one exemplification of something more general or universal, e.g. a good wife, citizen, etc.
The ethical is thus the universal in the sense of the concrete universal of
the social order.51
The question of sacrifice makes this even clearer. It is important to
note that Abraham is not exiled from the ethical simply because he is
willing to sacrifice his son, since this is precisely what the tragic hero does
that makes him a hero. The crucial difference between Abraham and the
tragic hero is that the latters sacrifice is justified in terms of benefiting the
universal52, whereas Abrahams is pointless: It is not to save a nation, not
to uphold the idea of the state that Abraham does it[but] For Gods
sake.53 The usual (Hegelian) sacrificial economy is that of the subordination of individuals to the civic whole; the sacrifice of the individual to the
totality54a few deaths for the lives of many is seen as a sensible calculation, a justified sacrifice. Abraham however makes his sacrifice according
to another economya divine one in which he is able to give up everything
because by faith he believes he will receive it all back. He sacrifices Isaac
not to some higher universal (in fact to sacrifice Isaac is to destroy any
prospect of a future nation for Abraham), but to God for whom all things
are possible, even raising the dead. Abraham had faith by virtue of the
absurd, for human calculation was out of the question that he would re-


Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard and Hegel in Ibid., Cambridge Companion to

Kierkegaard, p.106.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 55.
Ibid., Westphal, p.110.
The authentic tragic hero sacrifices himself and everything that is his for the
universal; his act and every emotion in him belong to the universal; he is open and
in this disclosure he is the beloved son of ethics. This does not fit Abraham; he
does nothing for the universal and is hidden.Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling,
Ibid., 59.
Ibid., Milbank, The Sublime in Kierkegaard, p.144 and 155 fn. 45.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


ceive Isaac back.55 Thus his sacrifice could fittingly be called an antisacrifice56 since it defies the usual justificatory logic accompanying
sacrifices of the individual to the universal. Abrahams faith is precisely
this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal.57
Johannes de Silentio thus concludes that Abrahams act is totally unrelated to the universal; the only point of contact being that Abraham
transgressed it.58 Or put slightly less dramatically, he determines his
relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute.59 This, however,
leaves Abraham in the anxious situation of being destined to endure the
martyrdom of misunderstanding.60 He cannot speak, because to speak is
to express the universal, to explain ones actions, to make oneself understandable to others, and hence to be publicly justified. This is why it is
glorious to belong to the universal, to enjoy the wonderful security of
being understood in its friendly abode. If only Abraham could have partook in the glorious expression of the universal, in a kingly sacrifice of his
son to the universal in order to save the state61, then he would have found
rest from anxiety and approval of his deeds. But his failure to accomplish
anything for the universal62, his silence, secrets, and singular responsibility
is an offence to ethics, which demands disclosure.63 It is now clear why
the issue of secrecy and of Abrahams not speaking is so important to both
de Silentio and then to Derrida: it is because it is the most fundamental
expression of his exclusion from the ethical realm when defined as the
universal. Thus Derrida writes: Because, in this way, he doesnt speak,
Abraham transgresses the ethical order and he summarises Abrahams
situation as follows: By keeping the secret, Abraham betrays ethics.64 Of
course by now it should be clear just what kind of ethics is being betrayed.
However, it is not only Hegelian philosophical conceptions of ethics
which Abraham is guilty of transgressing, but also simple commonsense
notions of the ethical which on the whole define responsibility in terms of
a speaking and answering for oneself; a justifying of ones actions in public. Derridas emphasis on the singularity and secrecy of Abrahams situa55

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 35.

Ibid., Milbank, The Sublime in Kierkegaard, p.144
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 55.
Ibid., 59.
Ibid., 70.
Ibid., 80.
Ibid., 77.
Ibid., 76-77.
Ibid., 113.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 59.


Chapter Four

tion is thus designed to disrupt our normal discourseboth philosophical

and commonsenseconcerning responsibility. He writes that we think that
responsibility is tied to the public and to the non-secret, to the possibility
and even the necessity of accounting for ones words and actions in front
of others, of justifying and owning up to them.65 And of course it is about
thisDerrida has no intention of denying this or of seeking to end practices
of public accountabilityand yet, he asks, is not Abraham a witness to us
of another equally compelling demand without which responsibility is not
possible66: namely, that of the necessity of singularity and secrecy. Here a
contradictory demand to that of general responsibility and the universality
of ethics is introduced, a demand which Derrida labels that of absolute
Derrida thus studies Abraham in order to study the structure and logic
of absolute responsibility. His appropriation of the story is driven by his
attempt to elaborate a hyperbolic and impossible dimension of responsibility in contrast to what general responsibility requires.67 As such, the two
demands are defined as being impossible to have together: either one
speaks, offers reasons, tries to justify ones actions and make them understandable to the public in terms of universal principles, or, one remains
silent, one offers no account or response, and remains entrenched in ones
own singularity. Either one exercises a general responsibility (as defined
by Ethics) or one exercises an absolute responsibility (of which Abrahams faith is an exemplary instance). One cannot be translated into the
other. What this account of responsibility seems to entail then is the possibility that ethics itself, with its demands for accountability and justification, could function as a deceptive temptation that could actually end up
making one irresponsible. Or rather: adhering to the demand of general
responsibility will cause one to forgo the demand of absolute responsibility, hence paradoxically making one absolutely irresponsible.


Ibid., 60.
Ibid., Gasch, European Memories: Jan Patoka and Jacques Derrida on Responsibility, p.306.
Thus he writes: Absolute responsibility is not a responsibility, at least it is not
general responsibility or responsibility in general. It needs to be exceptional or
extraordinary, and it needs to be that absolutely and par excellence It must remain inconceivable, indeed unthinkable (Derrida, Gift of Death, 61). Derridas
treatment here hinges on a methodological approach which is repeated many
times in his work with various topics such as hospitality, gift, forgiveness, friendship, mourning and so on. These analyses are usually structured in terms of Derridas notorious possible-impossible aporia.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


However, to stop here after having simply offered two opposing conceptions of responsibility would hardly constitute much of a philosophical
achievement. What has still been left unasked is the crucial question of the
relation between the two terms the general and the absolute. Derrida,
although, does go on to problematise any easy separation. He develops the
aporetic nature of the relation between the two contradictory demands by
explicating the way in which absolute responsibility in the same instant
both betrays and yet also paradoxically upholds ethical generality. In
Abrahams case this is the point that, as Kierkegaard had already argued,
[Abraham] must love Isaac with his whole soul and only then can he
sacrifice him.68 Derrida articulates the paradox as follows:
Abraham must assume absolute responsibility for sacrificing his son by
sacrificing ethics, but in order for there to be a sacrifice, the ethical must
retain all its value; the love for his son must remain in tact, and the order of
human duty must continue to insist on its rights.69

It seems then that to exercise absolute responsibility one is called to both

denounce, refute, and transcend all duty, all responsibility, and every
human law, to betray everything that manifests itself within the order of
universal generality while still recognising, confirming, and reaffirming
the very thing one sacrifices, namely, the order of human ethics and responsibility.70
Here then we see that general responsibility and absolute responsibility
are intertwined and dependent on one another in an aporetic manner. This
for Derrida constitutes the paradoxical truth of our responsibility71,
which he sums up in a key passage on page 61 of The Gift of Death. For
him the story of Abraham and Isaac illuminates for us the aporetic structure of responsibility in that it demands two contradictory things, namely,
both substitution and singularity. As Derrida puts it:
Such is the aporia of responsibility For responsibilitydemands on the
one hand an accounting, a general-answering-for-oneself with respect to
the general and before the generality, hence the idea of substitution, and,
on the other hand, uniqueness, absolute singularity, hence non-substitution,
non-repetition, silence, and secrecy.72


Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 74.

Derrida, Gift of Death, 66.
Ibid., 66-67.
Ibid., 79.
Derrida, The Gift of Death, 61.


Chapter Four

What Derrida arrives at then is a conception of ethical responsibility

which sees it as caught up in or consisting of an insoluble and paradoxical
contradiction between responsibility in general and absolute responsibility73; between the two demands of substitution (the general)74 and of singularity (the absolute). By this stage of Derridas reading then it has
become very clear that the implications of his analyses of responsibility
are not limited solely to Abrahams case. Rather, as Derrida explicitly
states, he believes that he has successfully demonstrated how [t]he account of Isaacs sacrifice can be read as a narrative development of the
paradox constituting the concept of duty and absolute responsibility.75
Thus while Derrida concurs with de Silentio in finding the Abraham story
to be monstrous, outrageous, and almost inconceivable, Derrida also wants
to ask (perhaps just to get up the noses of the moralizing moralists and
good consciences): But isnt this also the most common thing? Derrida
thus proceeds to advance the seemingly strange position that the extreme
situation in which Abraham finds himself is in fact the most common and
everyday experience of responsibility.76 The basis on which he advances
this generalising appropriation is the alterity of the other.

6. Alterity
The simple concepts of alterity and of singularity constitute the concept of duty
as much as that of responsibility
Derrida, Gift of Death, 68.

Derridas conception of alterity constitutes the heart of his concept of responsibility. As such, it is also the presupposition that drives and shapes
his appropriation of Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling. Derrida claims
that to understand this story and accept the moral of morality which he
derives from it does not require one to come from a particular religious
faith or to believe in the wholly other God or necessarily that the Genesis
22 story is anything more than a myth. It does however require a certain
point of view77, which is introduced by Derrida in the elliptical formula
Tout autre est tout autre (every other (one) is every (bit) other). It is

Note: Derrida is using this term very differently here from the way Levinas employs it to speak of our responsibility for the other. Levinas usage of the term
substitution is aligned with the singular other (rather than generality).
Derrida, Gift of Death, 66.
Ibid., 67.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 78.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


this quasi-tautology concerning absolute alterity which serves as the interpretive key for Derridas analyses, functioning as the point at which he
sees himself as both displacing Kierkegaards own emphasis and yet reinforcing its most extreme ramifications.78
Kierkegaards own emphasis, according to Derrida, is on the alterity or
otherness of God alone, as Kierkegaard put it, on the infinite qualitative
distance between God and man. Certainly this theme attracted Derrida
along with many others to Kierkegaards work, a point which Derrida
suggests to Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics: Kierkegaard had a
sense of the relationship to the irreducibility of the totally-other in the
direction of a certain Abraham79. But the problem for Derrida is that with
Kierkegaard, absolute alterity stops with God. With Kierkegaard the absolute uniqueness of Jahweh doesnt tolerate analogy.80 Yet such analogy is precisely where Derrida wants to go, or rather, he wants to go
further, envisioning what we could call a structural or formal identity
between every Other and God as Absolute Other. This is the point of the
formula Tout autre est tout autreevery other, each one, is wholly other
in the way God is. Structurally then there is no longer any way to distinguish between the infinite alterity of God and the same infinite alterity of
every human, or of the other in general.81
As such, in Derridas appropriation of the Abraham story, the name
God simply becomes a place-holder for the absolute other82; the most
appropriate word we have for designating the meaning of infinite alterity
and absolute singularity. This then is the basis on which Derrida sees the
extraordinary story of Abraham as revealing the very structure of what
occurs everyday83. Since for him each of us is infinitely other in our absolute singularity, then what can be said about Abrahams relation to God
can be said about my relation without relation to every other (one) as
every (bit) other, in particular my relation to my neighbour or my loved
ones who are as inaccessible to me, as secret and transcendent, as Jahweh.84 Thus, when read from the point of view of every other as wholly
other, Fear and Trembling [t]hrough its paradox speaks of the respon78

Ibid., 79.
Ibid., Derrida, Violence and Metaphysics, p.111.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 79.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 84.
Caputo, John D., Instants, Secrets, and Singularities: Dealing Death in Kierkegaard and Derrida in Kierkegaard in post/modernity, Martin J. Matust k and
Merold Westphal (eds), Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1995, 201.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 78. My italics.


Chapter Four

sibility required at every moment for every man and woman.85 The concept of absolute responsibility, which Abrahams faith exemplifies for us,
concerns how to respond to the singularity of the wholly other. And who
is the wholly other to whom I must respond in this unconditional fashion?
The answer for Derrida is everyone; every other.
At this point it seems hard to know whether what is being claimed is
something radically new (as well as something potentially heretical and
blasphemous in the eyes of traditional orthodoxy), or on the other hand,
something entirely common, even somewhat ordinary and obvious, which
is simply being thrust before us in a provocative and startling manner. To
suggest such a reading is not too far from the spirit of some of Derridas
own comments and his general approach in Gift of Death of juxtaposing
the extraordinary with the quotidian. Put crudely, perhaps the point is just
simply that it doesnt make sense to debate degrees of infinite alterity.
Everything here though would seem to hinge on what Derrida means by
alterity, and in particular, by its being complete, absolute or pure (i.e. not
available in quantitative differences of degree)86. Derridas formulations
certainly provoke questions. Does he mean that the other is transcendent,
exterior, inaccessible, unknowable, separate? And even if these extreme
words are used what do they then mean? In particular, what do they precludeis immanence, relationship, communication, or transformative interaction necessarily ruled out?87.

In fact, I would suggest that this is perhaps the key question which commentators on the Derrida-Levinas-Kierkegaard debate (especially concerning the relation
between the ethical and religious) must face. In order to understand what is at stake
in claiming that there can be only one absolute other or in maintaining that
there are in fact a multiplicity of absolute others, it would be essential to clarify
just what is meant by the wholly other in each thinkers system. What kind
of distinction (ontological or ethical) is being made and what particular point is
each trying to articulate in appealing to this notion? There are important differences here which cannot simply be ironed over. Derrida himself weighs into this
debate in chapter four of Gift of Death with his own synopsis of where Levinas and
Kierkegaard stand with relation to each other (see Derrida Gift of Death, 82-4).
Derridas frequent comments that separation, distance and non-knowledge are in
fact the condition of the social bond and the element of hospitality should be
enough to give us pause here before jumping to conclusions. In one place, he goes
so far as to declare that the absolute transcendence of the other is not an obstacle
but the condition of love, of friendship, and of war, too, a condition of the relation
to the other. (Jacques Derrida quoted in Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida, John D. Caputo (ed.), New York, Fordham University
Press, 1997, 14.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


The Gift of Death however does not give easy answers to such questions, mainly because in it Derrida seems to give a much more extreme
view of alterity bereft of the many nuances which are central to his approach to this question in other texts, particularly to his earlier critique of
Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics. Are we to consider this a weakness of the text or can any coherent account be given of the role absolute
alterity plays in Gift of Death? Based on the key issues that have been
brought out, it is clear that one of the key meanings of Derridean alterity
and singularity in their co-constituting of Derridas concept of responsibility lies in Derridas interest in the notion of the exceptioni.e., not a particular subsumed under the universal category and dealt with according
merely to rules and lawbut rather something unique, singular, other. But
how can one express this in the generalising language of philosophy?
Levinas move was to borrow the predicate infinite, usually used for
Gods transcendence, and to apply the formal design of this idea to the
other. His intention here was neither to make humans God nor to reject
finitude but rather to suggest that the other, like God, cannot be reduced to
and synthesised into a higher dialectical unity. The otheryou, in the second personare infinite, absolute, i.e. you exceed totality, and your principle relation to universality is not that of being a particular instance of the
genus, but rather of being an interruption; a singular unexpected disruption. And if every other is wholly otheri.e. if each one is defined by singularity and alterity then here we seem to have ironically stumbled across
a new universal, which Derrida fittingly calls the universal exception or
the law of the exception.88
To say then that the simple concepts of alterity and singularity constitute the concept of responsibility amounts to saying that the category of
universality or generality is never by itself enough to respond adequately
to the question of what it means to be responsible. Unless, that is, the universal law becomes precisely the law of the exception. Tout autre est tout
autre signifies that each one is singular, an exception to the universal,
hence capable of interrupting its laws with its singular and anxietyinducing call to responsibility. In this way it is, as Derrida puts it, proposition that seals the contract between universality and the exemption of
singularity.89 A contract, a paradox, an aporia, which according to Derrida must be recognised as lying at the heart of our concept of responsibility, constantly to be negotiated, if responsible is indeed what we want to

Derrida, Gift of Death, 87.

Derrida, Gift of Death, 87.


Chapter Four

7. Conclusion: Responsibility Repeated

So for Derrida, firstly and most fundamentally, each and every one is encountered in their singularity and alterity: as an exception to the universal/general/totality. In this encounter I am obligated with an absolute
responsibility to respond to and for that other.90 This is how singularities
(exceptions) relate to one another, if they can relatein this way, for
Derrida, we are each immediately propelled into the space or risk of absolute sacrifice. Each of us acts like Abraham. This is the sense of responsibility as gift; of an unlimited absolute responsibility that overflows the
framework of duty and law and debt because we are dealing each time
with a unique individual. However, as noted above, this does not mean
that the demand of general responsibility is negated, since it arises inescapably as soon as there is no longer only me and the other but (after
Levinas) the entry of a third. Derrida writes: There are also others, an
infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I
should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility (what Kierkegaard calls the ethical order).91 Justice demands
equality: I must take into account others, weigh things up, compare the
incomparable, and negotiate my duties and responsibilities via the universalisable sense of the law. But here, due to the constraints of my finitude,
things become impossible. Paradoxically then, I must and yet I am unable
to exercise an absolute responsibility to each one in general. For Derrida
this entails that an economy of sacrifice is inherent in all responsibility (an
economy which can be a source of enormous unrecognised injustice). Furthermore it signifies that there is a limit to the justifications we can provide for all these decisions and sacrifices of others we are constantly
making. Thus Derrida writes:
I can respond only to the one (or to the One), that is, to the other, by sacrificing the other to that one. I am responsible to any one (that is to say to
any other) only by failing in my responsibility to all the others, to the ethical and political generality. And I can never justify this sacrifice, I must
always hold my peace about it.92


As Derrida puts it: As soon as I enter into a relation with the absolute other, my
absolute singularity enters into relation with his on the level of obligation and duty.
I am responsible to the other as other, I answer to him and I answer for what I do
before him. (GD 68).
Derrida, Gift of Death, 68. My italics.
Ibid., 70.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


Although this of course is a peace held only in fear and trembling,

acutely aware of the extent of its responsibility, of the sacrifices on which
its very life is premised. Derrida sees this economy of sacrifice operating
at every step we take from the choice of which occupation to devote oneself to, not the mention which fellow human beings to love, clothe, and
feed. In each responsible decision I make to respond in a singular manner
to this one, I am of course in some sense fulfilling my duty. But I am sacrificing and betraying at every moment all my other obligations: my obligations to the other others whom I know or dont know, the billions of my
fellows who are dying of starvation or sickness.93 Such a conception of
responsibility as originary being-guilty94 may be small comfort to end on,
but then again anxietys role was never to placate good conscience, it
merely offered to chastise it.95
But so much for conceptual analysis, where does this leave the acting
individual, to ask the Kierkegaardian question? If responsibility is structured by two contradictory demandsby a double bindhow does one
act responsibly? How can one establish what the responsible thing to do in
each case would be? Those who are hoping for concrete prescriptions and
programmes ready for immediate political implementation may well find
themselves disappointed here. Central to the rethinking of responsibility
found in Derrida, as well as in Kierkegaard and especially in Levinas, is
the attempt, as Bergo puts it, to enable us to rethink ethics as a summons
and a call, before it is a prescription or a calculus.96 This emphasises the
sense of responsibility as responsiveness; as an openness to hearing the
appeal of the other and a readiness to respond to them in their singularity.
Furthermore, it involves the acknowledgment that responsibility can rely
on knowledge and calculation only up to a certain point, reasons cannot
always plug up every hole and every sacrifice made cannot be justified.
Rather, responsibility must assume its burden: I must decide and act. And
any decision here can only go by way of the trial of undecidability,
which, like Kierkegaardian anxiety, is an unsettling suspension that requires resolution in the leap of decision.
Each responsible decision thus requires a negotiation between the two
demands of the singular and the general, issuing in a double response,

Derrida, Gift of Death, 69.

Ibid., 52.
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 100.
Bettina Bergo, Anxious Responsibility and Responsible Anxiety: Kierkegaard
and Levinas on Ethics and Religion in Rethinking Philosophy of Religion : Approaches from Continental Philosophy, Philip Goodchild (ed), New York: Fordham University Press, 2002, p.121.


Chapter Four

which, as Gasch puts it, is the invention, each time anew, of a rule according to which both contradictory demands could be met simultaneously97. On the one hand, the responsible person must act on the basis of
knowledge and universal ethical norms; she must be able to give an account of her actions and justify herself by virtue of reasons acceptable to
the public ethical generality. But this demand alone fails to capture what is
perhaps most vital to our concept of responsibility. Responsibility also
entails a calling to relate to the other beyond the universalisable sense of
the law, in a singular manner and in the excessive terms of absolute responsibility, sacrifice and gift98. It is the negotiation of these two impossible demandsin theory and in practicethat constitutes for Derrida the
task of responsibility. Significantly, this structure of negotiation also parallels quite closely Derridas analysis of the relation between law and justice
in Force of Law.99 Absolute responsibility, like justice, is an impossible
passion which calls one forth in the task of responsibility. It is in the name
of justice that one deconstructs the law and is open to the possibility of
more just revisions. Likewise, the impossible demand of absolute responsibilitythe originary moment of responsibility such as it exposes me
to the singular other, the one who appeals to me100constitutes an interruption to any ethical generality, i.e. any closed context designating my
duties and responsibilities to others. In Gift of Death Derrida seeks to
elaborate over and again the way in which this interruptionthe sublime
suspension of the ethical continuum by the call of the othercan be an opportunity for transforming our ethical practices and institutions to new and
unique situations.
So where then should we say that the philosophical dividend and critical weight of Derridas approach to the question of responsibility lies? If
for critical eyes his introduction of aporia, paradox and contradictory demands hadnt appeared promising at first sight, our argument would be
that, itself paradoxically, this is in fact where the merit lies. It is precisely
by elucidating the two demands which structure our concept of responsibility that Derrida is able to expose in an incisive manner the dangers
which face us in all our responsibility-talk. He has room in his account to
examine the limits and risks inherent in this concept (rather than only unending praise for a new modern virtue); repeatedly warning us that irre97

Ibid., Gasch, European Memories: Jan Patoka and Jacques Derrida on Responsibility, p.310.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 63.
Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority in
Deconstruction and the possibility of Justice, 3-67.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 71.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


sponsibility is never far from insinuating itself in everything that goes under the name of responsibility (whether in philosophy or the newspaper).
Derridas risk-analysis of our attempts to thematise responsibility can
thus be drawn out according to responsibilitys two demands. Firstly then,
what would be the danger and risk inherent in absolute responsibility and
its demand of singularity, exclusivity and secrecy? Well, this practically
goes without sayingit is not hard to come up with a myriad of examples
of pseudo-Abrahams claiming a higher voice commanded them to commit
some horrible crime. Our media nearly daily relates widespread, presentday fears of terrorist acts which are often associated with a religious extremism that deceptively resembles absolute responsibility. The danger
here would be to demand no account of such a higher call; secrets here
one could easily argue would be a recipe for the worst possible irresponsibility. Nevertheless, given the emphases of Gift of Death, one might conclude that Derrida considers his readers to have more than enough
awareness of such dangers, since he barely focuses on themalmost without a word he alarmingly passes them over. The danger he does focus on,
one that we rarely have drawn to our attention, is that of general responsibility.
The risk of this form of responsibility is embodied for Derrida, in those
absolutely sure of their moral rectitude. Derrida labels them the knights of
good conscience, parodying their knighthood against Kierkegaards
calling Abraham the knight of faith, and evoking other famous critiques
of good conscience morality such as those found in Nietzsche and Sartre.
Responsibility Derrida observes is a word that has caught the attention of
good consciences everywhere today. They consider it to be the prime
virtue, the Good itself101, they are the defenders of responsibility before
mentell us your reasons, justify yourself before us. It would thus seem
that the great justificatory project of our time is no longer Theodicy102 but
rather egodicy, which Derrida defines as the autobiography that is always auto-justification.103 Derrida articulates the extent to which this concerns him in fairly extreme terms, at one point, identifying this incessant
demand for accounts and justifications as a kind of violence. Rodolphe
Gasch expresses this concern acutely:
As Patoka's analyses of the decadence of modern Europe seek to show, it
takes very little for such a democratic model of responsibility and of rendering reason to become totalitarian. Indeed, the legitimate demand intrin101

Jacques Derrida, On the Name, 17.

Literally, the justification of God, for example, in relation to the problem of evil.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 62.


Chapter Four
sic to the concept of responsibility to publicly account for oneself and one's
deeds can easily turn into a means of oppressionas has amply been demonstrated under Stalinism and Zhdanovism in the former Soviet Union, but
examples of which can also be found in the U.S. with its obsession with
public confession...104

The problem Derrida points to here is not the legitimate demand for
reasons but rather the incessantness of it; its being everywhere (including
in philosophy105). Derrida is thus making a point about how, underlying
this enthusiasm for giving an account which generates the incessantness of
the demand, there is a philosophical misunderstanding of what reasons and
accounts can accomplish; a failure to recognise the limits of general responsibility. Derrida variously designates this limit: absolute responsibility, the secret, and the right not to respond, and Abraham appears to him
as the narrative incarnation of this paradox. Derridas claim then is that a
respect for this limitan acknowledgement of the claims of singularity
must always remain part of our concept of responsibility, since, as Gasch
puts it, it is the necessary antidote to a conception of responsibility that,
based on knowledge, can always become a tool for the benefit of the
worst.106 One might thus suggest that where the virtue of being unconditionally confident in ones moral and religious position overshadows
and makes unrecognizable the virtues of constant self-questioning, unease,
and anxiety107, there responsibilitythe ability to respond and be responsive to othersmay well be seriously impaired (a condition to which democracies as much as individuals are susceptible108). Hannah Arendt
makes a similar point in the context of discussing the possibility of re104

Ibid., Gasch, European Memories: Jan Patoka and Jacques Derrida on Responsibility, 307.
Derrida describes this situation as follows: Let us insist here on what is too
often forgotten by the moralising moralists and good consciences who preach to us
with assurance every morning and every week, in newspapers and magazines, on
the radio and on television, about the sense of ethical or political responsibility.
Philosophers who dont write ethics are failing in their duty, one often hears, and
the first duty of the philosopher is to think about ethics, to add a chapter on ethics
to each of his or her books and, in order to do that, to come back to Kant as often
as possible.(Derrida, Gift of Death, 67).
Ibid., Gasch, European Memories: Jan Patoka and Jacques Derrida on Responsibility, 307.
Ibid., Mahn, Jason A., Felix Fallibilitas: The Benefit of Sins Possibility in
Kierkegaards The Concept of Anxiety, 254.
Ibid., Mahn, Jason A., Felix Fallibilitas: The Benefit of Sins Possibility in
Kierkegaards The Concept of Anxiety, 275 fn.2.

Anxious Responsibility: Derridas Appropriation of Kierkegaardian

Fear and Trembling


sponsibility after the Holocaust. She argues that only those who do not
content themselves with the hypocritical confession God be thanked I am
not like that but rather in fear and trembling have finally realized of
what man is capable can there be any reliance today when it comes to
fighting fearlessly, uncompromisingly, everywhere against the incalculable evil that men are capable of bringing about.109 It is this fear and
trembling, which is intimately linked to responsible action, that Arendt
claims is indeed the precondition of any modern political thinking.110
To return then to the question posed at the beginning of this chapter:
what has Derridas suspension of responsibilityhis exposing it to the
anxiety of absolute responsibilityachieved? How is responsibility reaffirmed and transformed in the repetition? Derrida states the conclusion
dramatically: there is no longer any responsibility which does not fall
prey to the paradox of Abraham111, since the singularity and alterity of the
other imposes a supplementary complication upon ethical generality112.
In each responsible decision we are all asked at every moment to behave
like knights of faith, that is, to assume our responsibility with a certain
fear and trembling before every other as wholly other. Derridas interpretive appropriation of Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling is thus most fundamentally an appropriation of a certain mood or mode of approach to
questions of ethics and responsibility, which are of course never merely
questions of theory but always imply an involvement in action, doing, a
praxis, a decision that exceeds simple theoretical understanding113.
Following Kierkegaard, Derrida attempts to draw out the kind of anxious
concern (earnestness) which is the very precondition and momentum of
responsibility. Derridas is an attempt to grasp the benefit of anxiety in its
ability to interrupt the perpetual slide of responsibility towards delusions
of infallibility, unperturbed good-conscience and obsessions with selfjustification. Thus for Derrida, the aporia remains to haunt good conscience, responsibility is anxious or it is nothing at all.


Arendt, Hannah, Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, in Jerome

Kohn (ed.), Essays in Understanding, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1994, 155.
Op cit., Arendt, Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, 155.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 78.
Ibid., 79. My italics.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 26.


1. The concepts (shame, trauma).

I mention shame and everyone knows what I mean. True, when I
continue and tell that shame is an affect beside other affects like
elementary fear, disgust, joy and sorrow, in that it is innate, empirically
universal, and present in all healthy specimens of the human species, this
would not strike my listeners as self-evident. Yet I could easily refer to
personal experiences, to examples from old myths, dramas, legends,
observations of anthropologists, and soon all my listeners would agree. I
could then continue and remark that although shame is present in all
healthy specimens of our species, the triggers of shame come from the
outside and they can be very different and also historically changing.
One does not need many examples to confirm this very evident
conception. Everyone will accept without further ado that the affect of
shame plays a central role in the process of socialization and that the
experience of shame is feared. Finally, it is easy to accept the proposition
that although the triggering stimuli of shame are different in different
cases, they have a common background: namely the expectations of the
community. We are ashamed before the eye of the others, the regard of the
others. And even if the regard is absent, we are confronted with the virtual
regard, and can anticipate the terror of shame. Finally, already children
know that the regard of the others which can expose us to shame functions
as a moral authority. It normally penalizes with shame the deviation from
the expected behavior. Later on, or later in history and in personal history,
humans come to discover another moral authority beside the regard of the
others, the internal authority of the voice of conscience.

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


By contrast with shame, if I mention trauma, only very few people

understand what I mean and even they seem sometimes to know it but
obscurely. I will not find this concept in myths, in poetry, not even in
philosophy. It is a new psychological concept borrowed from the clinical
description of a somatic shock resulting mainly from accidents. The
concept became accepted in psychoanalysis just over a century ago,
wherein it has been used by Freud, Lacan and others. More recently it was
borrowed this time from psychoanalytic literature, also relying on it, by
historians like the partisans of the history and memory school. All this
may give rise to suspicion. We may want to ask the primitive yet still
justified question as to whether trauma exists at all. Is there such a
phenomenon we call trauma or is trauma just a metaphor or an allegory
standing for something we are unable to grasp?
Even a very tentative answer to this question presupposes the
distinction between three different concepts of trauma. In fact, Freud
discussed all the three. They are: individual or personal trauma, structural
trauma and historical trauma. Structural trauma is structural in that like
shame, it is experienced or at least can be experienced by every specimen
of our species. For Freud (and later Lacan) the Oedipal trauma is not just
personal but also structural. The huge difference between original shame
and original trauma may be that the first is conscious, the second
unconscious or repressed. Freud even referred, in Inhibitions, Symptoms,
and anxiety, to birth as a structural trauma. Coming into the world is a
traumatic experience common to us all. Critics point out that the biblical
story of the original sin is arguably a narration of the collective memory of
the original trauma. I would add to this that according one interpretation of
the Zohar, the Garden of Eden is the mothers womb. One could
countersign this beautiful interpretation without speaking of trauma.
Contrary to the concept of structural trauma, historical trauma always
involves a story, or consists of several stories .In Freuds retelling of the
origins of Judaism and indeed of religion per se, the story does not begin
with our natural condition, but with guilt. The killing of the father in the
presumed prehistory of the human race brings about society, family and
religion. The interpretation of the presumed killing of Moses in the
biblical Jewish history also follows Freuds general choreography. It
begins with the spirituality of the Egyptian Aton cult attributed to Moses,
continues with the alleged murder of this first, Egyptian Moses, before
passing by way of the repressed guilt of several generations to return in the
religion of the prophets.
Individual trauma, finally, is by definition personal. Every person is
traumatized in his singularity even if the type of the trauma happens to be


Feature Essay

structural, as in case of the Oedipal trauma. But there are several typical
non-structural personal traumas as well. Being typical and being personal
do not contradict one another. Indeed, the most frequently discussed
personal traumas are frequently discussed just because they are considered
typical today, such as the trauma of the battered child, the trauma of being
raped, the trauma of the battlefield, the Holocaust trauma. The latter is a
special case for it is deeply related not to a structural, but to a historical
trauma. I will talk about these traumas later in relation to shame.
But let me first return to and repose the previous question. Is there such
a thing as trauma, as personal, structural or historical trauma, beyond the
somewhat tentative propositions we have given hitherto? In answering the
question it is best to follow Foucaults footsteps in his famous History of
Sexuality. There was no sexuality before the Victorian age, says
Foucault. In the same sense, I rejoin, there was no trauma. That is,
certain phenomena or experiences which we now consider as constituents
of trauma were in other periods, and in other cultures even today
understood and interpreted as constituents of another syndrome, or other
narratives. When someone had irrational fears he was perhaps diagnosed
as having been possessed by demons or bewitched by a rival. When
someone committed suicide she was perhaps called to Heaven to assist her
dead mother. A strong traumatic experience could and has also been
interpreted as a kind of revelation impossible to verbalize. Several typical
responses to trauma like depression, distrust, fits of anger, or self-isolation
are portrayed by Shakespeare in the character of Hamlet. Some symptoms
of a traumatic experience were perhaps less evident or less strong in
persons who were less sensitive than their modern successors. I guess that,
eminently, this is why Hamlets figure strikes us as utterly modern.
Trauma is thus part of a specifically modern narrative or narratives.
Its symptoms and syndromes appear clearly in the 18th century, the age of
reason, perhaps just because it is supposed to be an age of reason. Yet they
appear in the romantic or post-romantic school then among men of
enlightenment. There are exceptions. I mentioned trauma syndromes,
although every trauma is a set of two such syndromes. First comes the
syndrome of the trauma experience itself, and afterwards, not even soon
afterwards, the trauma syndrome as a neurotic syndrome .The trauma
experience cannot be directly diagnosed, only the Nachtraegliche (Freud)
neurotic symptoms which form in its wake. It is from those later
symptoms that one can make learned guesses, so says psychoanalysis,
about the triggering trauma experience itself. There is then no strict causal
relation between the experience and the symptoms of the neurotic
syndrome. The relation is rather between the conditioning and the

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


conditioned. The constellation of the Nachtraeglich symptoms depends on

many circumstances. It depends not only on the trauma experience, its
type, power and lengths, but also upon the psychological, moral, and
intellectual character of the trauma victim, her age and former experiences,
whether the neurotic trauma syndrome will be utterly devastating or a
more manageable thing.
Both the experience of trauma and how it appears in neurotic illness or
symptoms are described differently by different authors. There are some
common features, however, in all descriptions. Let me enumerate them.
The experience of trauma, it is agreed, is one of being confronted by an
overwhelming force which threatens the subject with annihilation, with
being depersonalized, isolated or rendered helpless, totally controlled by a
power s/he does not understand. This experience, because of the profound
upset to ones being that it involves, is typically then repressed. The
aftershock is then characterized variously by denial, silence, the
impossibility to remember or remembrance without emotion or anxiety;
thus emotional impoverishment, impotency, a constant need for
recognition or reassurance manifest in ego trips or fits of rage; the feeling
of being unwanted, the urge for irrational repetitions; the splitting or
multiplication of the personality; the feeling of unreality, loneliness,
depression, suicide, or irrational pains as somatic symptoms. Not all
symptoms are normally present in one syndrome. Rather, subjects
responses to trauma typically combine several of the previously
enumerated symptoms.
Trauma then is like a gunshot which hits the psyche with deadly force.
As a result the traumatic wound never heals. One can dress the wound. Yet
even if the wound is properly dressed, the scar will never disappear. I will
not enumerate the many and various remedies the different psychological
literatures recommend, only the few which will play a role in my further
inquiry. First, in responding to the trauma, one tries to remember,
remember with feelings, to recall not just pictures but also feelings. The
subject needs and tries to talk about the experience. Talking helps
remembering. One has to trust at least one person with this recollection.
One has to talk to a person who believes us and believes in us
unconditionally. In this way, the subject seeks and receives not just
psychological, but also moral and intellectual help, help to understand
what has happened to them, but also help in coming to make judgments
about it. The main obstacles to the dressing of the wound of the
traumatized psyche are to be sought in the essence of trauma itself.
Traumatic experiences, by their nature, produce the phenomena which
prevent the traumatized being able fully to treat them. The psychological


Feature Essay

literature on trauma discusses this issue repeatedly. Yet there are

additionally two tremendous obstacles which prevent the traumatized
dressing the wound the traumatic experience has made in the psyche,
which are less frequently discussed, perhaps because they are almost selfevident. It is these two factors I want to take up in what follows. These
two factors are shame and fear.
I begun by numbering shame and fear among the innate affects, present
in every healthy specimen of our species. I also mentioned that although
the affects are innate, the trigger stimuli come always from the outside.
We are always ashamed of someone and are afraid of something or
someone, for example afraid of being shamed. The presence of those two
obstacles to dressing or addressing the psychological and existential
wound made by a traumatic experience, together with the circumstance
that they are far from being equally strong and resistant in every person
even if the trauma experience seems to be equal (for example in two
sexually abused children) draws me to propose what perhaps seems a very
wild hypothesis. There is perhaps a structural trauma, but it cannot be the
trauma of birth or at least not of birth alone. Even less can it be the
Oedipal trauma of Freuds imagining, for this Oedipal trauma would only
be manifest in men, and presupposes the presence of the (culturally and
historically specific) nuclear family. If on the other hand we argued that
this structural trauma is that of birth, this would be both historically
indifferent and gender-indifferent. We could, it is true, understand the
differences of the strength in trauma neurosis in this way, by arguing that
for a person who underwent a heavy birth trauma experience, every other
trauma will be secondary and thus more powerful, reinforcing the original
or archaic trauma experience Yet the strong presence of shame as one of
the strongest obstacle to treating and even to remembering the trauma
experience cannot be the reinforcement of birth trauma.
My wild hypothesis is then the following: the original trauma is a
structural trauma, for everyone undergoes it. It is however neither Oedipus
nor the experienced-forgotten experience of birth. It is rather the painful
process we each undergo of dovetailing our genetic endowments as a
newborn of the species to the expectations, norms and rules of the social
and historical world into which we are thrown by the accident of birth. As
I already mentioned, shame and fear are the two main vehicles of this
dovetailing, socializing or civilizing process. Yet the two a prioris, the
genetic and the social a prioris, as I have named them, cannot be entirely
dovetailed .And far from being only a negative or melancholy fact of our
condition, it is to this original traumatic incompatibility of the genetic or
natural and the social that we owe two of our great capacities, the capacity

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


of laughter and the capacity of crying. Every traumatic experience is the

experience of isolation, of incapacity, of being exposed, subjected:
involving all the kinds of feelings we must overcome in a normal
socialization process. Yet even when this trauma is overcome to the degree
necessary for the individual to attain to psychological and social
normality, the fear of failing before ones social milieu and the shame of
not meeting social expectations can remain deeply hidden in our psyche.
The personal traumas we can each undergo are then repetitions and
reinforcements of this original trauma. Sometimes they belong to the
original trauma to the extent that makes an entire cure entirely impossible,
as in the cases of battered or sexually abused children. Here the psyche is
too deeply wounded before it can develop. Instead of outside help by the
adult world, this world appears for the victim of such personal traumas
wholly threatening and hostile. Sexually abused or battered children will
not be able to laugh on the world and on themselves.
So far I have mentioned fear and shame as the two great obstacles to
dress the trauma wound. In what follows I will only talk about shame, the
fear of shame of course then being implied. In order to support my wild
conception I will also put another card on the table. This is the card of the
so-called collective trauma. Later on I will return to the discussion of the
collective trauma narratives. For the time being I just mention that all
collective trauma narratives are erected on and against a background of
shame. They turn a story of shame into a story of positive self-identity,
and this is at the heart of their meaning.

2. The shame of trauma

Needless to say, shame is by no means normally related to traumatic
experiences. Anthropologists frequently mention so-called shame cultures.
In a shame culture the regard of the representatives of the Community
alone plays the role of moral authority. Thus one is ashamed, undergoes a
shame experience, any time when s/he fails to live up to the rules or
expectations of this Community .Whether one deviates by ones own fault
or not is normally of no or very little importance. For example, in Salman
Rushdis novel titled Shame, three sisters withdraw into total isolation to
avoid shame they would otherwise face, because one of themwe never
get to know which onebecomes pregnant. They do not feel guilty for the
pregnancy. Guilt and shame are often kept entirely apart. One can be
guilty without being ashamed and one can be deeply ashamed without
feeling guilty. Although we do not live in pure shame cultures in the
contemporary West, we experience guiltless shame and shameless guilt


Feature Essay

even nowadays more frequently than we might expect. Although the kind
of shame elicited by a trauma is just a special case within the general
shame phenomenon, it will turn out that a few typical figures of shame in
general can be observed in cases of trauma-elicited shame. Let me then
enumerate types of trauma-elicited shame. One can be ashamed of oneself
because of (1) being a victim, (2) because the act committed against you or
by you is normally considered shameful, (3) because you are what you are
(4) because of your guilt or seeming guilt for some crime, the so called
witness guilt included; or (5) because you are ashamed for others,
relatives, friends, or even strangers, and especially for the ones by whom
you are victimized.
A few among the five enumerated types can be combined, although not
all. It is among other reasons because you are ashamed or afraid to be
ashamed that you cannot talk about your trauma and try to erase it even
from your memory. This kind of shame can be alleviated either by a
trusted friend or by a collective trauma narrative, which inserts the
personal trauma into the fibers of collective identity. One is ashamed to be
a victim. One is generally ashamed by being defeated, by losing
something, be it a position, wealth, business, love, trust, election or
anything. One is ashamed for being refused by a publisher, by a lover, by
parents or children. Jealousy, vanity and envy, the three most ridiculous
vices are also connected to the fear of being or becoming victims.
Indeed, trauma is experienced first and foremost as the extreme
experience of being victimized. Trauma sufferers can be victims of abuse,
victims of rape, victims of a terrorist act, Holocaust victims and so on. Yet
most them are victims. And it is shameful to be a victim. Why? People
can quote, together with Hannah Arendt, that victrix causa deis placuit
sed victa Catoni, and perhaps for some this sentence might ring true, yet,
even if it does, we are still ashamed of being victimized. The cause of
victims can please us more than that of the victors, yet we do not want to
be seen as victims unless we want to penalize the person(s) who
victimized us, whom we hate and on whom we desire to take revenge.
A person who is victimized, especially without showing strong
resistance, experiences herself in a position of passivity, immobility,
helplessness, orbrieflythe position of total loss of freedom. In a
situation of loss of freedom, of minimum autonomy, the victim feels her
identity broken into pieces and her self-respect shattered. She can also feel
herself guilty. Guilt feelings, in the situation of a total loss of control, also
seem paradoxical. On the one hand such affects lack all rational
foundation; on the other hand they create or imply the illusion of freedom.
If someone feels guilty in the situation of being victimized, she denies the

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


possibility of the total loss of her autonomy, and in this way never loses
entirely either identity or self-respect. If I feel guilty I experience myself
as a person who has always been at least up to a minimal degree in charge.
The feeling of guilt in the aftermath of a trauma experience is rooted in the
very trauma experience, yet it is also the sign of resistance, of the sole
possible resistance against the trauma experience, a kind of Abwehr
Mechanismus, just like fever in the case of a serious infection .Thus the
sense of guilt performs a double function. I believe that it follows from a
psychological misreading of the significance of the victims feeling of
guilt to persuade her of being entirely innocent, Surely, I do not mean that
a rape victim asked for it or that a battered child should justify the brutal
acts of his torturers. I do not mean that they should accept coresponsibility with their victimizers. A Holocaust victim is certainly not
co-responsible for the gas chambers and mass murders. He is not
responsible for the crimes committed by the slightest degree. Yet a
survivor can still feel guilty for surviving while others were murdered.
Lucretia, a model Roman matron, committed suicide after she has been
raped, yet not because she was traumatized but because she knew that she
brought shame on her husband. As a contrast we could consider the case
of Donna Anna from Mozarts opera Don Giovanni. It is a modern case
and a far more complex one. Don Giovanni is a story which begins with
attempted rape. Don Giovanni climbs into the bedroom of Donna Anna,
who mistakes him for a moment in the darkness of night for Don Ottavio,
her fiance. Donna Anna defends herself, resists, cries out for help. Don
Giovanni, seeing himself to be this time defeated, then tries to escape, with
Anna following him, crying out for assistance in halting him. At this
moment Annas old father appears, and challenges the rapist for a duel.
Yet Don Giovanni, young and strong, easily kills the old man.
Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte portray here a very serious and typical
trauma experience. We may speak even of an accumulated trauma. That a
strangers climbs into Annas bedroom and tries to rape her is itself
traumatic. The trauma is then accentuated by the murder of Annas father.
The beloved father is killed by the rapist. And in addition, Donna Anna
experiences a strong feeling of guilt. It was she who mistook Don
Giovanni for Don Ottavio, and it was because she cried out against him
that her father entered the duel which would take his life. This aggravating
trauma, the murder of Annas father, is visible. Annas grief is
overwhelming. So is her passion for revenge. Yet the loud grief, the
passionate call for revenge covers up another silence. Anna remains silent
about the attempted rape. She cannot speak about it, she is so ashamed.
She does not trust anyone with her experience. And she feels guilty. Yet


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precisely her guilt cannot find a direct, only an indirect expression. She
pretends to herself as much as to Don Ottavio that she grieves only and
exclusively for her father, and that her troubled emotional state is due to
the feeling heart of a devoted daughter. Don Ottavio senses the
irrationality of Annas grief, but in his love he never judges her.
How well Mozart and da Ponte understand a trauma and the trauma
expressions! We do not know how much time elapsed between the trauma
and the trauma narrative: Era gia alquano We know only that some
time had elapsed after the traumatising experience, when Donna Anna one
day recognized Don Giovannis voice. Under the impact of recognition,
and the attendant reinforcement of the trauma, she only at this point starts
to speak, overcoming her shame and confessing also her guilt to the only
man whom she trusts. Anna tells Don Ottavio the whole story as she can
recall it.
One may believe that whenever the story is remembered and told to a
trusted Other that the trauma neurosis disappears. Yet Mozart and da
Pointe were better psychologists. Donna Anna was not in fact raped, but
the attempted rape left a terrible wound on Annas psyche: a frigidity or
phobia of sexuality. The same girl who before the rape attempt, was
willing to embrace her fiance in her bedroom, becomes terrified even by
the thought of marriage. She cannot, she dare not make love: she is too
afraid. And this is what even the good and loving Don Ottavio does not
understand. He believes that Anna is just mourning, that she is cruel and
unloving in denying him their mutual happiness, when the truth is that
Anna is not cruel so much as incapacitated. Crudele? Ah no giammai,
mio ben she answers with her love, yet not with her ability to overcome
the trauma. She asks for time, and again and again for time, just for one
year more. Yet the traumatic scar will never disappear.
All trauma narratives, be they told in life, in a drama or in a novel,
require a listener. This will be someone whom the trauma victim trusts
absolutely, and who for their part believes in the victim and her
truthfulness absolutely. Thus Don Ottavio would have never reproached
Anna for the situation she found herself in. Unconditional mutual trust
annuls shame. One can strip ones soul naked and be ashamed of nothing.
Yet still one feels oneself guilty. When the attempt to strip the soul naked
is made, yet at the end fails, one is thrown back into shame and life comes
to an end.
Or consider the case of Rebecca and Rosmer in Ibsens Rosmersholm.
Contrary to the story of Donna Anna, we only come to know about
Rebeccas original trauma close to the very end of the play. She, as a
young girl, perhaps even as a child, was sexually abused by her stepfather

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


who, as it turned out, was her real father She becomes dependent on him
and cares for him as long as he lives. Rebecca shows many typical
neurotic trauma symptoms, for example the impoverishment of her
emotional life. But her narrative or confession was not so much a
confession of psychological trauma, but a confession of moral guilt and
responsibility. No trauma acquits anyone from moral guilt and
responsibility. Ibsen believes up to a point in the healing power of
goodness and love. But only up to a point. The scar, again, remains there
where it was.
Fear of shame can make trauma victims postpone telling their story
even if they wouldperhapsbe otherwise able to tell it. Yet fear of
shame can close the soul forever. If one does not speak of a trauma for
years, he will finally lose his capacity to talk. The experience, which was
not entirely repressed becomes after a while entirely suppressed, perhaps
for good. When I was recently reading the autobiography of Amos Oz I
was struck by the authors literary, and not just literary, strategy of a
traumas narrative postponement. The mother of Amos Oz committed
suicide when the boy was 12 years old. The suicide was preceded by
several episodes of deep depression. The boy felt betrayed, unloved,
abandoned by the mother and understood nothing. AndWell, the author
of the autobiography begins his narrative almost directly with the mothers
suicide, but then he tells other stories. Later on he returns to it, but he
evades continuing to tell, before the episode returns in scattered narratives
again, after his having written some further 580 pages in the English
edition. Thus he finally ends with the suicide narrative. In one or the other
episode he describes vividly the trauma of the little boy who made himself
believe that had he been a good boy and fulfilled his mothers
expectations, she would have never committed suicide. The guilt was in
him, he, the boy is the embodiment of guilt.
Yet this is not the most astonishing thing in this autobiographical
novel. What is most astonishing is that, in this novel, written close to the
authors seventies, Oz talks for the first time about the suicide of his
mother and his trauma! He had previously never talked to anyone about it:
neither to his beloved wife, nor to his children, whom he unconditionally
trusted: indeed to no one. Why not then? And why now, why after more
than fifty years? What role, in particular, did the factor and feeling of
shame play in this continuous silence?
The boy is brought up in Jerusalem at a time when the self-image or, in
psychoanalytic parlance, the ego ideal of an Israeli boy was that of the
strong, muscular, healthy, laboring and constantly happy youth. When Oz
joined a kibbutz at the age of 15, he adored the type, at the same time as he


Feature Essay

realized that he could never be like them ,because he felt deeply inferior.
To speak of a mother who suffered from depression and committed suicide
would have been impossible. Indeed, his mothers suicide itself had to be
hidden as the greatest secret, because it was the deepest shame. The
teenager Oz tried to forget it, and having remained silent for so long he
believed that he had entirely forgotten it. Now he tells it to us, his readers,
yet one can feel his effort to overcome tremendous internal obstacles: not
only the obstacles of the failing memory of a now-elderly man, but also
the obstacles of dried-out emotions and of a life of silence. Oz is no more
ashamed. The case of Amos Oz is then a good exemplification of a special
type of shame. Oz is ashamed for himself, yet he was a trauma victim. Yet
he was not only ashamed about himself, but also about his mother: indeed,
he was ashamed because of her mother. In addition he was victimized not
by any enemy, and not by any violence pr threat directed at himself, but by
a person who loved him and never willed him any harm. His behavior was
not shameful. If anything, what was shameful was the action of his
The case of Oz in this way leads us back to shame as an original,
innate, primitive and general affect and to the archaic expression of shame.
One is not ashamed only of what oneself is doing, but also for the acts of
ones parents, children, and countrymen, or for what they are. Of course,
every case of trauma is different. Yet the characteristic of shame to reach
beyond the person experiencing it to others is typical in the traumatic
experiences of victimized children. In Truffaus s film, Finally Sunday
for example one of the boys gets panic-stricken because of the prospect of
a medical examination at school. He tells crazy stories and enumerates
mad excuses in order not to be examined. It turns out that his body is full
of ugly scars, that he has been battered for years. He wants to avoid being
seen, because he is deeply ashamed. Not just of the ugly scars, yet of his
family. He loves those who in an alcoholic fit of rage keep beating him to
take revenge on him for their own ruined lives. One is in this way
victimized by someone in whom one, as victimized, can yet also see to be
a victim. This is also often the case with battered wives. People are
ashamed of both of their own victimization as well as for the victimization
of those close to us.

3. Shared trauma, collective trauma as the alleviation

of shame
In times when it is regarded as customary or a normal kind of behavior
that husbands beat their wives and parents their children, the experience

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


can still be devastating for the victims, yet it is not shameful. The victims
can speak. And precisely because this sharing of the experience of being
victimized is not shameful, the devastating experience can not properly be
described as a trauma. The victims can and will still feel helpless,
passively exposed to the powerful and the strong. Of course, they
experience the loss of freedom. Yet if one knows that everyone in their
place is exposed to the same or similar cruel treatmentthat there is a
common fateone will not experience the total loss of ego-control, the
abuse and annihilation of ones personality characteristic of trauma. In
such cases one can rightly expect psychological scars, yet not the kind of
scars, traumatic scars, which cannot disappear.
I referred to this common observation to emphasize the psychological
factors behind the already mentioned historical circumstance that
traumathe concept and the narrative of traumais a modern
phenomenon. It has to do something with the so-called civilizing process
and with the modern declarations that all human being are of equal worth
and to be treated accordingly. For every deed or act which contradicts the
surface values of our world becomes shameful and must remain hidden.
Nowadays, our urbane enlightenment implies also the awareness that those
civilized norms are very often not followed, and that it is much more
frequent than we think that people, especially family members, are not
treated without the minimum respect philosophical modernisms prescribe,
but are abused and misused. It in fact belongs to the process of modern
enlightenment to be able to talk to and about battered women or abused
children, so as to make them understand that their suffering and the cruelty
of their beloved ones is not an unprecedented exception ,but quite
frequent. And this knowledge that there are others who became victimized
the same way, that their case is not isolated, alleviates the terror of shame.
If there is no shame, one of the obstacles of remembering and talking will
be removed
Collective trauma narratives work in another way than this type of
therapeutic enlightenment, and their essential features are also different
and unique. But one of their functions is shared. Both alleviate shame. But
collective traumas can do even more. They can turn shame into pride.
What does it mean then let us ask, that a people or a community undergoes
a trauma experience?
Traumatic experience is psychological, and thus usually held to
personal. Let me refer to the experience of defeat and abandonment of the
young boys of the Australian Army at Sebastopol in World War 1. What
they underwent was a trauma. The survivors of the trauma must have felt
guilty, and must have exhibited many of the symptoms and psychological


Feature Essay

after-shocks associated with their trauma. But they died a long time ago.
What remained is Anzac Day, and the trauma narrative. It is the trauma
narrative which is inherited by future generations. In this case shame, the
shame of the victimization, of being abandoned and finally defeated has
been transformed by a collective narrative into pride, a position more
usually associated only with victors. The narrative then influences also the
psychological and ethical character of the collective. It creates a certain
framework for experiencing the world in individuals in later generations,
as when Australian soldiers today are described and describe themselves
as diggers, like the men at Gallipoli.
By contrast, if collective trauma stories reinforce shame rather then
turning it into pride, hatred and aggression follows. Let me refer here to
the famous German narrative of Dolchstossthe knife thrust in the
backthat contributed greatly to the growing influence of Nazism in the
1920s and 1930s. (I mention as an aside that shame is often acted out in
hatred and aggression. In this essay, unfortunately, I do not have time to
address this angle. I can only instead advise you to turn to one of the
greatest psychologists ever, Fyodor Dostoyevski.)
Let me briefly elucidate the relation between personal trauma
experience and collective trauma by reflecting on the example of
Holocaust trauma. In the aftermath of the holocaust trauma two of the
most serious after-effects of trauma in particular appear in the psyches of
the survivors, depending on their age at the time of the trauma. Among
those who were over 13 at that time, suicidefollowing episodes of
depression was frequent. To cite only writers: Amery, Borowski, and
Primo Levy all committed suicide. This is significant, for they were
writers who have broken through the wall of silence, and according to the
book, the ability to talk should have eased their burden of guilt and horror.
But it did not. The same people whose wound was aggravated by telling
their story to the point that they suicided were among those who started to
write the Holocaust trauma as a collective narrative, and so present and
preserve the testimony which keeps the memory of the Shoah alive and
traumatic in the soul of those who never lived through the trauma in
person, including those who were not yet born when the Holocaust
happened. Very soon there will be no single survivor of the Holocaust
alive, yet the Holocaust narrative as collective trauma will not die.
The Holocaust trauma is the most telling exemplification of the
victimization of every single member of a people, without any
understandable reason. Victimization went here to the furthest possible
extreme, the premeditated attempt at total extermination. Every Jew, from
the newborn to the oldest, was sentenced to death by the Nazis without

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


conviction. This was the situation of absolute victimization. As Imre

Kertesz formulated in his autobiography, the Holocaust survivor became
an accidental person, for he remained alive by an industrial accident
Every survivor of the Holocaust , especially the death camp inmates and
those who lived among strangers alone in hiding were victimizes and felt
themselves victimized. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper,
being victimized is shameful. Yet being victimized without resistance is
many times more shameful.
There were three different reactions by the survivors, yet all the three
involved expressions of shame. Firstly, many denied being Jews;
secondly, many denied that the Jews alone were specially selected
victims; thirdly, it was proposed that survivors should forget Auschwitz
and remember only the resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. Which type of
shame reaction a survivor identified themselves with depended on their
pre/history, their upbringing and/or their ideology. Assimilated Jews went
entirely into denial. Since Jews are the eternal victims there must be some
reason for it. And even if there are none, they should not share anymore
this unfortunate Jewish fate, and especially their children should not. It is
irresponsible to bring Jewish children into the world, as specifically
Jewish. One should not simply erase Auschwitz from memory; the
children should not even know that they were born Jews. Being born
Jewish is shameful. Here we witness a case of unwanted otherness, the
unwanted otherness which will be always penalized. But this self-denial
also means a silence. For one can never speak of ones shame.
The second group consisted mainly of politically committed survivors,
especially those who joined left wing parties, like the communist or social
democratic parties or any other movement which claimed (with or without
justification) that it had actively participated in the resistance to the Nazis.
These survivors never forgot the persecution, the concentration and the
death camps. They talked about them, told stories about their collective
trauma. Neither did they deny being Jews, but what they did deny was that
the victimization of Jews was a special or unique case, even stressing how
Auschwitz was a lager also for anti-Nazi fighters, especially communists
and social democrats. Most films about the Nazi concentration lagers
portrayed for many decades only the plight of resistance fighters or
prisoners of war as victims of death machines. It indeed in some ways
took several decades to discover the Holocaust of the Jewish population
of Europe, as the radical, directed and total attempt at the extermination of
a whole people. To emphasize that the Jews were not specially selected,
that they shared a common fate with all the fighters of the resistance,
meant to deny ones difference, and the racial and religious traits that


Feature Essay

animated the Nazis genocide. To deny this difference from the other
victims is a specific case of the fear of shame. These Jews were not
ashamed for having been in Auschwitz, but they pretended that they had
been there not as Jews.
The third group of survivors, who evinced a third type of response to
the trauma, consisted mainly of Zionists. They were not ashamed to be
Jews. But they were ashamed to be the kind of Jews who let himself
slaughtered like sheep. The Jews should have resisted. They should have
revolted. They became victims without resistance, and this is what is truly
shameful and unbearable. The shame was brought upon the Jews because
of the Diaspora, because of their life in ghettos, or because they became
too pliantly adjusted to being the maltreated pariah or other. The Jews of
Auschwitz in this way became for these Jews the shame of European
Jewry itself.
All the three previous reactions belonged to the aftershocks of the
Holocaust trauma itself. They are symptoms, manifesting at a conscious
level what were meant to hide, to cover, to misplacenamely, aftershocks
working underneath or on the unconscious level. But there was a fourth
reaction evident among many survivors, which I would call the authentic
one that combated the shame of trauma, and won over it. These survivors
worked though the trauma, their own trauma, in exercising their memory,
in breaking though the internal resistance the protective mechanisms of
their psyche. This was their greatest moral victory. Because only in this
lonely labor of working through their memories, the memories of their
trauma, could they remain true to those who were murdered instead of
them. I would mention here the names of four further writers: Amery,
Levy, Borowski, and Kertesz, although there are several others, less
important maybe yet not less brave. The collective Holocaust trauma is
very largely built on the testimonies of these brave witnesses.
As every collective trauma, this trauma is also built on a collective
experiences, that is on the personal but shared experiences of a generation
of individuals. They tell their stories, which representand not only
present the personal and also general cases of traumatic victimization.
Of course, there are statistics too, and there are histories. Yet in a trauma
narration no one can replace the survivors, those who were there and bear
witness. I repeat then that very soon no single Holocaust survivor will be
alive, yet the collective trauma will live on. I do not mean it will live on
just in collective remembrancealthough it should and willyet also in
repeated re-living, every year, in a non-codified, even religious sense. The
function of a collective trauma narrative is to outbalance and perhaps even
extinguish shame. The more the collective traumatic experience becomes

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


widespread, the less the members of a traumatized community will be

ashamed. If one listens to the testimonies of the last surviving witnesses of
the Holocaust one will notice that they are no longer ashamed to be
Jewish, or because they did not resist. .Even those who were ashamed 20
years ago are no more ashamed, although the trauma can never be
overcome. They now participate in the common memory, in a common
experience, in one and the same story.

4. The trauma of shame

Perhaps I will not be broadening the concept of trauma too much if I come
to talk about the trauma of shame. Yet, being exposed to shame can
undoubtedly have a traumatic effect. We all know that being put to shame
can makes us feel small: that the regard of the other can be overwhelming
and annihilating. Shame can rob us of our sense of identity and our pride:
can threaten us in this way with annihilation as a personality, if not as a
living being. But there is a great difference between the pre-modern ages
and our modern one. Since we are judged by two moral authorities and not
just by one (our conscience as much as the social Other), our conscience
can override the judgment of the communitys regard that puts us to
shame. One can still be ashamed yet this shame will not in such a case
become traumatic, due to the internal authoritys oversight. Conversely,
many times in our lives, of course, we feel pangs of conscience because
we are ashamed when we should not, rationally, befor example, in
many cases of victimization.
Let me return briefly to the difference of shame and guilt. I find this
important, for several authors speak about the survivor shame in the same
sense as we have spoken here about the victims shame. One can feel
guilty before ones conscience or before the regard or anticipated regard of
others. These two guilts can coincide, but they do not generally do so.
There can for instance be a gray zone between victim and perpetrator. In
Auschwitz one could be selected as member of a special brigade.
Differently, many former citizens of the second world could and did
become an informer under threat in a communist prison cell. In this latter
case, no one else would know of ones shame, yet the individual, and his
conscience, did. As La Capra has said, it is not you who possess memory
but memory possesses you. The memory is in such casesand in several
other cases unbearable .For the sake of a relative psychological health,
then, what Freud called the psyches censor starts to work. Just like in case
of dreams as described by Freud, different (or even fantasmatic) manifest
memories can push the memory which truly possesses us into the


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background. It is common observation that after the fall of the Nazi system
most Germans claimed to have been victims of the regime in order not to
be regarded as perpetrators. This observation may seem to contradict the
opening gambit of this paper, that victimhood is always shameful. Yet this
formulation needs qualifications. It is shameful whenever the victims are
in minority, and the perpetrators are in the position of overwhelming
power. Yet in cases like the German one, of a systemic change, the former
victims or alleged victims are of course the victors. The psyches agency
of censorship is, however, in operation in almost all survivors. Not to
remember, to erase memory is just one step. Replacing memory with more
flattering, less traumatic or shameful, memories is the other. These are
normally empowering memories of resistance, even of heroism: poetic
fantasies. Just like the feeling of guilt, the retouching memory also helps
to built up lost self-respect. But it can be dangerous. For one can be found
out. And if one is found out, the almost-erased shame reaction appears
again in full force and, often, becomes traumatic.
Without mentioning names let me refer to two recent episodes from
Hungary. Due to the newly opened archives of the secret police and
public access to the old files, it has been proven that several well known
Hungarian intellectuals served for a time as police spies. Most of them
have not exhibited traumatic shame. I speak about two of them, who did
I mention in advanceaccept the role of the informer a half a century ago,
in 1957, in very dark times, when many people were hanged in Hungary
without any reason whatsoever. They were both released from the hire of
the secrete police in the early sixties. The first of them spied on his
colleagues, his own sister and brother-in-law. For 4O years he then
conducted a normal life as a professor. As he said before the television
camera, the only thing he hoped in life was that he will die before the
shame of his past came to light. He was stricken by the fear of exposure,
of the trauma of shame. With the public disclosure of his complicity with
the secret police, he said, he now feels totally annihilated. The
overwhelming feeling he has is shame. He accepts now the worse
punishment. He understands if his sister, with whom he entertained the
best familial relations in all those years, will never forgive him.
The second intellectual I will mention reported about film directors,
and their loyalty or disloyalty to the regime. When after 5O years he was
confronted with his own files, he first declared that becoming an informer
was the most heroic deed of his life, that he was proud of it, for he had
saved thereby a friends life. The interesting thing is not that no witness,
document or else verified his story. Indeed, all available evidence pointed
to its falsity. This was obviously a story he invented for himself and that

The Shame of Trauma, The Trauma of Shame


he had come to believe in; a fairy tale which he had carried with him
perhaps for the whole 5O years since his time as an informant. He
repressed his memories; the psychological censorship then created a
cover-up narrative, yet stillsymptomaticallythe truth possessed him.
He became professionally obsessed by the character of the parvenu, who
betrays his dreams, principles, friends and sells his soul to the highest
bidder, builds up a successful career, yet at the end loses himself and
collapses, or else justifies their betrayals in their work. He punished
himself though the fate and the fraudulent arguments of his own creatures.
But the very moment that he himself became the hero of his own stories,
he as it were wrote the worst possible script. Belatedly now he also
realizes that the heroism saga was just a humbug: that he was simply
terrified and feared for his own future on the basis of his repressed past.
I note that the common reaction to his case was that his false step is
indeed pardonable, for he was a young man living in a tyrannical regime,
and hence potentially under deadly threat. What is hardly pardonable
however is not the mans guilt but his silence. Nothing would have
happened to him, not even strong disapproval had he come out with a truer
statement at the time of the system change. And why did he not do this?
He did not, for the fear of his shame. The typical trauma reaction, namely
silence and the impossibility to talk, is then typical not only in the cases of
post-traumatic illnesses and syndromes, but also in what we might call the
pre-traumatic state of mind: in the desire to postpone the shame trauma,
avoid it, never experience it before oneself or others.
Earlier in this paper I argued that the sense of guilt, in cases of trauma,
is a factor that can go towards maintaining ones personality or identity in
its wake. The guilty one, as guilty, is never entirely dispossessed of
freedom: s/he remains always a personality, if only in shambles. Yet this is
not the case when the sense of guilt expresses moral guilt. For moral guilt
means also responsibility. Trauma victims can feel guilty, yet they are not
morally responsible for their victimization. And this is an essential, if not
absolute, difference in the two types of cases. There is no katharsis for
trauma victims. The survivor cannot move on and become another
person, because the wound never heals and the scar will always remain.
Still, I believe that katharsis is possible whenever shame itself becomes
traumatic, if with the help of the regard of others one can reach the
repressed memories of moral guilt and conduct ones life accordingly. The
skeptics will say, with Claudius in Shakespeares Hamlet, that repentance
is not orderly, if one still possesses everything for whose sake the crime
was committed. Yet there is no final judgment. None of us is or can be the
final judge. Yes, there is essential difference between neurotic guilt feeling


Feature Essay

of trauma neurosis on the one hand, and guilt following a crime which has
been committed and the fruits of which one still enjoys. But, I would add,
this difference is not absolute.
Just read Kertesz. The syndromes of trauma neurosis can make a
person unbearable, unfeeling, raging, irrational. But even if one cannot
control ones psychical state, one can still know oneself to the degree
necessary to act decently, or at least to not enter situations where one will
not be able to control oneself. Trying to outbalance our psychical, moral
and intellectual character with one another to the degree that none of them
should be oppressed or even seriously hurt, is perhaps the most difficult
task in life.



In response to the epochal events of the 11th of September 2001,

philosophers, commentators, and politicians have situated the West
variously in relation to the concepts of innocence and guilt. The most
familiar position refers to the innocence of victims of terrorism, who,
going about their workaday lives, were unprepared for the attacksand,
moreover, had done nothing to provoke them. That very day, President
Bush addressed the nation, clearly defining the terms by which the acts
would henceforth be understood: as an evil committed against innocents
by outsiders. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to connect the attacks to
Americans democratic and market freedoms, stating: America was
targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and
opportunity in the world.1 In the field of philosophy, a return to the
tradition of just war theory has furnished a lively discussion about what
constitutes innocence in the first place, with respect to the special combat
conditions of this new age of terror.2 In this case it is taken for granted
that the relevance of innocence consists in determining the legitimacy of a
combative action. Innocence thus defined is a condition of being outside
the proper scope of war: untouchable as concerns conflict and mortality.
A contrary position exemplified by Noam Chomsky3 characterises
America as an ambiguously guilty party in relation to the global situation

George Bush. Address to the Nation. 8:30 p.m. EDT, 11 September 2001. See
accessed July 2006.
Coady, Terrorism and Innocence. The Journal of Ethics 8 (2004): 3758;
Primoratz, Civilian Immunity in War. The Philosophical Forum 36, no. 1
(2005): 41-58; Fullinwider, Terrorism, Innocence, and War in War after
September 11.
Noam Chomsky, 9-11.

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


leading to 9/11. This view is supported by the history of the U.S.s

protracted involvement in political affairs in the region from which the
attacks originated, as well as the C.I.A.s integral part in the arming and
training of Osama Bin Laden. In this light, the issue of guilt and innocence
becomes more complicated. For, although we may say that those killed in
the attacks were not personally responsible for the terrorists grievances,
average citizens of Western countries benefit from conflicts in other lands,
both past and present. Our flourishing is predicted upon the suffering of
others, whether for their labour, their land, or their resources. This relation
to others is thus permeated with guilt, even if not the strict (and legal)
sense of guilt that might justify the actions of those terrorists who
ploughed planes into buildings in 2001.
In this vein, Robert Fisk situates himself rather more personally than
Chomsky with respect to Western guilt. Indeed, writing about his vocation
as a war correspondent, he can be seen to take on the mantle of guilt on
the Wests behalf:
[I]f I had wanted to quit, if I grew sick of the horrors I saw, I could pack
my bag and fly home Business Class, a glass of champagne in my hand,
always supposingunlike too many of my colleaguesthat I hadnt been
killed. Which is why I cringe each time someone wants to psycho-babble
about the trauma of covering wars, the need to obtain counselling for us
well-paid scribes that we may be able to come to terms with what we
have seen. No counselling for the poor huddled masses that were left to
Iraqs gas, Irans rockets, the cruelty of Serbias militias, the brutal Israeli
invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the computerised death suffered by Iraqis
during Americas 2003 invasion of their country.4

With these words, Fisk articulates his sense of guilt in terms of a denial
of trauma. Despite what some theorists after 9/11 have called vicarious
traumaincurred through proximity to those who suffer5Fisk insists that
he is not traumatised. He of all people, whose very function is to witness
others suffering, and to place himself in a reckless proximity to the
consequences of Western involvements in the Middle East. Through this
gesture of self-effacement, Fisk resists the urge to colonise others trauma.
Rather, he pays respect to the profound suffering through which we are
separated from peoples in the third world; and in this way he renders their
dignity for our Western eyes.

Fisk, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, xxiii.
Alexander, "Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma." In Cultural Trauma and
Collective Identity; Kaplan, Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in
Media and Literature.


Chapter Five

This essay addresses itself to two key questions. First, how are we to
assess recent applications of the term trauma operative after 9/11 in the
context of other global events, and our guilt or innocence with respect
to them? Opening this question out, we might ask with Robert Fisk after
the correctness of the use of trauma to describe the state of Western
culture in relation to terrorism. After all, who ultimately bears the burden
of this trauma: the Western citizen, or the outsider whom they exclude
and fear? Those who position themselves alongside Chomsky and Fisk
would suggest that this attribution of trauma to Western subjectivity is
entirely inappropriate, serving only cynical political ends; that it invokes,
rather, a reinvention of history that sets the geopolitical clock back to zero
precisely at ground zero, the wound6 left by the felling of the twin
towers. The political efficacy of trauma in this context consists in its
association with innocence: because trauma results from an unforeseen
(and uncalled for) event, for which the community is justly unprepared.
Setting aside the question of the political propriety of invoking cultural
trauma in this connection, I would argue that this emphasis upon
innocence presupposed by this notion of trauma fosters an inward looking,
pathological response to 9/11and one which ignores the experiences of
others affected by terrorism. The essays second question, then, is how
might the model of trauma be used productively, to heal wounds between
the West and the Middle East? Fisk denies trauma in the face of his guilt:
yet, according to Cathy Caruth,7 trauma represents precisely the guilt of
having survivedguilt, indeed, characterises survival for Caruth.8 For it

The easy metaphor of a wound is frequently drawn upon by trauma theorists in

relation to the absence of the twin towers. An excellent example is found in E. Ann
Kaplans description:
The great yawning crematorium at the end of Manhattan continues to fester
like a sore without bandages or healing salve. The great pit can be watched
from inside the spacious Winter Garden, increasingly the site to which
relatives of victims return to peer into the crematorium as if into their
loved ones grave. I have returned many times to gaze as well, still in
disbelief at what I am seeingnamely the footprints of those great towers
now no more, surrounded by the disturbing remains of so many. (Kaplan
Trauma Culture, 136)
Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.
Gutkin remarks on the peculiarly Christian take that Caruth has on Lacanian
theory, whereby to live is to be guilty, to be in some sense fallen. Later in this
essay I will also draw a connection between the psychoanalytic account of trauma
and Christian theology. See Gutkin, "Grief, Survival, and the Ethical Real." The
ther: the online journal of the SFSLS. URL:

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


is an important, if banal, consideration that the trauma afflicts only those

who survive the event, and that the survivor thus embodies the burden of
memorialising those who did not. Fisk is surely right to question the place
of privilege given to Western suffering in the conflicts of the Middle East,
even as they extend to our own territories. However, if the trauma can be
understood as a site of witnessing, then perhaps it is an appropriate starting
place from which Western subjectivity might come to accommodate those
peoples whom it has historically displaced and exploited. The essay will
explore the limits of the attribution of trauma to the experience of
Americans after 9/11, as well as the ethical possibilities and imperatives
that are opened through the appeal to trauma as an explanatory, as opposed
to a merely rhetorical, tool. I will navigate this enquiry through the
expositions of trauma offered by Freud and Lacan. The essay is divided
into two parts, the first of which addresses the traumas pathology of
repetition, emergent of a fixation upon the innocence of victims of terror.
The second attempts, by contrast, to open up a possible trajectory for
trauma that is implicit within, yet largely neglected by, these
psychoanalytic accounts.9 Rather than innocence, this second deployment
of trauma will be grounded in the guilt that accompanies survival, and the
need to continue to live together with our wounds. Readers familiar with
Jacques Lacans Seminar XI10 may recognise the headings employed to
signal this difference, Automaton and Tuch: the former representing a
disabling repetition, and the latter, an exterior, or cause, that might provide
a site for overcoming it, and thereby, I suggest, for the witnessing of
others suffering.

I Automaton
The impact of the attacks of September 11 continues to reverberate as the
uncanny commonplace about which much Western political rhetoric is
now organised. This date marks the beginning of what is apparently a new
public discourse about the relation of the Western subject to the foreigner,
accessed July 2006.
9. Kelly Oliver also writes of the possibility of a mode of attentiveness, or
witnessing, in response to what she perceives as the impoverishment of concepts
of otherness received through post-structuralism and psychoanalysis. Informed by
this approach, trauma might be utilised to foster a sense of responsibility to the
other, rather than to reify ones own innocence and imperviousness to blame. See
Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition. 2001.
10. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of
Jacques Lacan Book XI.


Chapter Five

conceived at best as immigrant and interloper, and at worst as a potential

terrorist. In academic discourse this event has been taken up as the
contemporary paradigm of the trauma, where perhaps in our not so distant
past the Holocaustand more recently, guerrilla warfare in Vietnamhad
so brutally embodied the breaching of humanitys impossible limit. The
scale and visibility of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, in particular,
engendered a repetition compulsion symptomatic of the trauma. This
eventrepresented through the frame of the affect of disbeliefwas
played and reprised from numerous angles over and over again on the
television screens of the world as if the horror of that spectacle could
only be realised once every possible perspective upon it had been
exhausted. As the mantra is repeated, over and over, that nothing can be
the same after this event, we find an appeal to the notion of an unhealable
wound, an unpayable debt, and a revision of temporality11 that all marks
the trauma.
The attacks of 9/11 elicited responses from the world at large, and the
philosophical community has been no exception. In particular, this
response has been framed in terms of discussions of evil12, as well as
trauma.13 I will draw out the significant connections between these
approaches to the phenomenon of terror shortly. For the moment, note that
the immediate effects of 9/11 are readily understood in terms of a
symptomatology of trauma. The element of surprise so critical to the
effectiveness of the terrorist act also constitutes the trauma, as defined by
Freud in the wake of the First World War. According to Freud, the trauma
results from a shock to the mental apparatus caused by a large quantum of
stimulation for which one is insufficiently prepared. The repetition of this
incursion in dreams, and the transference, represents a belated attempt to
master the situationto lay claim to the experience.14

Trauma signals the beginning of temporality insofar as the subject is formed in

relation to it. However, it also marks the beginning of communities and cultures to
the extent that civilisation can be seen to be founded upon an act of violence,
genocide, or (according to Freud) parricide. See especially Sigmund Freud, Totem
and Taboo.; and Moses and Monotheism: An Outline of Psycho-Analysis and
Other Works.
Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since
9/11; Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy;
Schrift (ed), Modernity and the Problem of Evil.
See Kaplan 2005; Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From
Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11; Smelser, Epilogue: September 11,
2001, as Cultural Trauma in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity.
Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle in On Metapsychology: The Theory of

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


Freud famously illustrates this process of mastery by reference to his

grandsons invention of a game. As the story goes, whilst staying with his
daughter and her family, Freud found himself on a number of occasions
babysitting the child while his daughter left the house for a few hours.
During her absences, his grandson amused himself by playing a repetitive
game. By throwing and retrieving a cotton spool, Freud argues that the
little boy could reappraise the situation: it was now he who violently sent
his mother away, and returned her to him at his own whim. Thus, he could
imaginativelyand sadisticallyregain control over his mothers
comings and goings.15 Declaring the object representing his mother gone
(fort!) or here (da!) in turn, the child exercised his will over a world
largely beyond his control. His distress was in this way alleviated through
the construction of a new set of relations (and a new language) with which
to negotiate the world.
Philosophers and cultural theorists have been quick to apply this
principle of trauma to phenomena following the events of 9/11. For
instance, as E. Ann Kaplan notes, the proliferation of public displays of
mourningthrough image and versein the weeks following the attacks
indicates a traumatic reaction16; and the apparent need to go over and over
the sequence of events accords to the structure of repetition we see in
cases of the suffering of individual traumas. While for Freud this
compulsion to repeat indicates an attempt to master stimuli that had taken
one by surprise; for Kaplan, the mainstream medias continuous repetition
of the event represents an attempt to consolidate a homogenous
viewpoint.17 Neil Smelser attributes the about-face in Bushs opinion polls
(from negative to positive), and the major parties bipartisan response to
the attacks, to the work of trauma.18 This can be understood in terms of
Freuds hydraulic account of the drive. A demonstrated consolidation of
political forces accords to the need to bind energy, as a defence against
further attack.
Perhaps the most curious indication of a traumatic response to the
attacks, however, has been an obsession over questions of intelligence.
How much did the government know? And how could such a sophisticated
military apparatus have been taken by surprise by apparent amateurs?
Such anxiety culminates with the various conspiracy theories doing the
rounds on the world-wide-web: the notion that thousands were sacrificed
for political advantage, or for treasure buried beneath the World Trade

Freud Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 2836.

Kaplan Trauma Culture, 713.
Kaplan Trauma Culture, 13 and 16.
Smelser, Epilogue, 268.


Chapter Five

Center.19 This anxiety about information is suggestive of a proximity to

the uncanny (both familiar and unsettling) unconscious for Freud20: and
the feeling that in the face of the other, we confront a dark, repressed
reflection of the self. In this light, anxiety motivates intelligence gathering,
in a belated attempt to shore up ones defences against the other. And this
other, in turn, represents ones ownmost possibility, such that the only
thing separating the American from the terrorist is a conscious
identification with democracy.
The belief that the US government knew in advance about the attacks,
and perhaps even orchestrated them, could likewise be interpreted as an
exercise in coping with trauma. The conspiracy theorist ironically affirms
a faith in the integrity of a system that might decisively let one through,
but could never have been taken off guard. The U.S. government is in this
way situated as comparable to Freuds primal father, who keeps to
himself all the spoils of power, and thus denies the citizen a place at the
table. The conspiracy theory provokes a regression to Oedipal crisis (in
relation to the state), and a need again to renegotiate ones relation to the
authoritative father and unavailable motheras seen in a childs game.
Like the repetition compulsion associated with trauma, the official
investigations and reports21, and the conspiracy theories together represent
Americas attempt to reappropriate to itself, or take control of, the atrocity
by which it is wounded.
If we turn to Lacanian theory, these post hoc information-gathering
exercises might also signify Americas effort to resituate itself in relation
to the terrorist. For Lacan the trauma becomes central to the original
organisation of subjectivity. Accordingly, the trauma signals a moment of
rupture wherein a piece of the self (represented by the childs spool)
splits off to become part of the object world (the object a). This object
thereby galvanizes the subjects investment in the world of commerce with
others. Lacan explains this, again, in terms of the fort-da game:
This reel is not the mother reduced to a little ball by some magical game
worthy of the Jivaros22it is a small part of the subject that detaches itself

Dylan and Jason. Loose Change (2nd Edition). Directed by Dylan Avery. 2006.
Freud, The Uncanny.
The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
The Jivaros, or Shuar, were a Native American tribe best known for shrinking
the heads of their enemies. It was believed that through this practice the victims
soul was appropriated, and that in turn this enabled the Jivaro to control and
harness the labour of the enemys wives and daughters. In this context, Lacan

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


from him while still remaining his, still retained. It is the repetition of
the mothers departure as cause of a Spaltung [splitting] in the subject.23

For Lacan the trauma is pivotal to the structure of ordinary experience,

as an act of self-immolation or self-alienation through which subjectivity
is situated, and the force of the Law internalised. In this light the affect of
fright provides us with an orientation to our environs, and a purpose. We
are thus ushered into a world ordered by the more diffuse and insidious
affect of anxiety: An anxiety characterised by nostalgia for the lost piece
(object a) that split from the self in that momentor event, or
awakening that we call consciousness.
This deal struck with the worldwherein the object a is exchanged for
desire, or an orientationis for Lacan an essential element of a
subjectivity born of trauma. It is also for this reason that our traumatic
experience of 9/11 binds us to an enemy whose presence is never certain;
thus reducing us all to an anxious awaiting. Yet the anxious effect of terror
serves the terrorist as well as the government whose citizens it threatens.
For, by tapping into the primal scene of subjectivity wherein identity and
desire is formed, the act of terror has the power to reorganise the citizens
subjectivity. In this way, terrorists and politicians alike can exploit
ruptures to citizens sense of safety, and in their relations with others. The
trauma model thus also explains the atavistic identification with
Nationhood that has arguably swept much of the first world after 11
September 2001. 9/11 has provided an occasion for the US and her allies
to shore up the states boundaries, but also to reinvent the states identity,
as well as the subject as citizen. All these relations are situated with
respect to the malevolent other, in whom an essential piece of ones newly
conceived self (the object a) is projected.
At this point, we might now ask after the contribution this scene of
trauma makes to the force of the innocence narrative, constitutive of
American identity since (at least) 11 September 2001. In order to elucidate
this genesis, let us return to the Garden of Eden: exemplifying that
carefree ignorance of a perfectbut mythicalhumanity, unpolluted by
worldly knowledge. This is the understanding of innocence mobilised by
Bush when he talks of freedoms that must be protected24 from Muslim
appears to ridicule Freuds interpretation of the fort-da game through his
redeployment of it.
Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 62-63.
In the brief period before the media had coordinated a homogenous reaction to
9/11, even Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to pondering the question, with
Laura Bush, why do they hate us so much?thus opening a vista onto the other


Chapter Five

extremism. It is also a concept implicitly evoked by Freud when he

describes the mental apparatus prior to the trauma, as having been
unprepared for a shock. The trauma, like the fall, divides the subjects
history in two by resituating her relations to others and to herself. The
contaminant that intrudes upon innocencethe exotic fruit within the
Garden of Edenis knowledge, and more precisely, a knowledge of
evil. As Susan Neiman amply demonstrates25, our normative sense about
the kind of evil 9/11 embodies is precisely that which lies beyond ones
domestic sphere, the perfect garden in which one is situated.26 The revival
of philosophical discussions of evil after 9/11 can thus be understood in
relation to the trauma, where radical evil accords with the uncanny: or a
foreign particle that intrudes upon our comfortable existence and
understanding. Evil and the trauma come from the same place: an outside
through which our humanity is constituted.
The dangerous knowledge that founds subjectivity according to the
biblical Eden story can be understood more concretely as a knowledge of
mortalityones own and that of others, somewhat crudely rendered by
psychoanalysis as castration.27 For, once subjected to a psychoanalytic
reading, this biblical narrative relates another more pertinent primordial
situation: that is, the inauguration of the split subject. The loss of
innocence and the gaining of wisdom occasioned by trauma is a
condition of ones taking up of a place in the social sphere. It is a
knowledge that allegorically introduces a cut between divinity and
mortalitybetween complete and partial beingand through which the
human story begins. But as Slavoj Zizek counsels, we must distinguish the

that was only to be cut off by George W. Bushs famous response, they hate us
because of our freedoms. The closing of this question represents a lost
opportunity for communication and for learning, making way instead for the
interpellation of an identity as citizen, according to a new world order already
at work in neo-conservative literature.
Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, 283.
Neiman differentiates 9/11 from Auschwitz by characterising the latter as a
modern evil, whereas the first is decidedly old fashioned (hence, she argues,
our surprise at encountering it): Banal evil [i.e., after Arendt, that of Auschwitz]
emerges from the fabric of ordinary life that September 11 ripped through. At
ibid., 283.
According to Sophocles rendering of the original Greek myth from which
psychoanalysis has taken so much nourishment, Oedipus guesses the answer to the
Sphinxs riddle (what starts the day with four legs, has two at midday, and at the
end of the day has three) as a manand the essence of the riddle is that man is

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


historical event from the narrative structure (or fantasy) by which we

make sense of it:
[A] true historical break does not simply designate the repressive loss (or
progressive gain) of something, but the shift in the very grid which
enables us to measure losses and gains.28

In this light, innocence emerges as a salient feature of Western identity

only once it is lost through the catastrophic event of 9/11. This event can
be understood to produce the innocent subject in the very moment that
innocence is taken from us. We are thus awakened to our essenceas
innocent, free, and democraticprecisely when innocence, freedom and
(more contentiously) democracy are taken from us. The anxiety that
subtends this subjectivity, however, is the unconscious suspicion that we
had none of these qualities in the first instance.
That the terrorist is easily cast in the role of the harbinger of evil and
doom lends biblical tones to the attacks upon America that are easily
exploited in that nations overtly religious public culture. But, the place of
the terrorist is thus also complicated, as he is caught up in a collective
fantasy that stretches back to the beginning of Judeo-Christian civilisation.
The Muslim radical delivers death along with a pseudo-messianic
purpose, like a Judas who sells America out only the better to realise its
destiny. The terrorist thus represents an ambivalent opportunity for the
US, through which it might come into its own in a new political age
galvanised by 9/11. The terrorist delivers American identity precisely by
trespassing against what all Americans had taken for granted: their creed
or fundamental law. This identity is revealed as capitalism through the
attacks on the World Trade Centre; and as militarism, through those on
the Pentagon. So here, too, the trauma is the site of a beginning and a new
identityas America launches its twofold refashioning of the Muslim
world, through war and the opening up of new markets.
In this way, Bushs government has been able to exploit a situation that
not only has deeply biblical resonances, but alsothis being the
psychoanalytic pointappeals to the very psychological formation of its
citizens. The trauma of 9/11 produced a sense of internal rupture and
disorientation also figured, biblically, by the fallor a loss of innocence
through which innocence is constituted. By cultivating these resonances,
governments have been able to mobilise a desire to return to this lost
state of innocence, rhetorically articulated as freedom (ironically,
through measures that precisely curtail their freedoms). But what dubious

Zizek The Plague of Fantasies. 13 (emphasis in the original).


Chapter Five

benefit does this constitutive loss of innocence deliver to America? By

means of an equivocation, a very specific sense of innocence comes to be
generalised: the victims innocence becomes a sense of national
guiltlessness regarding the world in general, and thenhere is the
political dangera platform of blamelessness from which to launch
various aggressions against others. Such aggression, in the new, posttraumatic discursive framework, amounts to an almost sacred act of
absolution for the US: a cleansing through which all acts that proceed
from this state are accorded a kind of piety. In this sense, innocence can
become a dangerous weapon in the hands of the righteous, with an agenda
implicitly involving other peoples. Innocence accords the moral
authority to appropriate from others what one sees as ones own due.
As Chomsky and others have argued, this sublime illusion of
Americas innocence is maintainedwith the cooperation of the
mainstream mediathrough the regulation of information about what
happens elsewhere. In particular, information respecting how Western
nations benefit from conflicts in other lands is regulated, or ignored. As
the biblical scene depicts, knowledge is a vehicle for evil: the innocent and
free might be compromised in their innocence and freedom, if a more
candid version of events were available to them. Truth comes into conflict
with patriotism in such a context. But especially the knowledge of
mortality pollutes Western innocence, and perhaps this is why the death
counts of innocents in Iraq has been such a contested issue between
independent and mainstream media outlets.29 At stake in the war on
terror is the question of who has a right to innocence, understood as a
blissful ignorance of mortality. Such a freedom may well be the coveted
object of the terrorists hatred, but not from sheer envy. Rather, Western
innocence and freedom (conceived as the right not to be confronted by
death in ones everyday world) is founded upon a history of occupation
and exploitation of other peoples, including those in the Middle East.
Terrorisms unsettling effect thus signals to us what the terrorist wants:
precisely through the heightened state of vigilanceand a forced
confrontation with our own mortalityour freedom is appropriated from
The ethical force of my argument is to suggest that the potential for an
encounter with the others suffering is covered over once the meaning of
One such alternative information source regarding civilian deaths in Iraq is The project describes itself as the worlds only
independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths
in Iraq that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention by the USA and its

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


September 11 is fixed as the primal event demanding retributionor a

return to innocence through which all geopolitical perspective is
jettisoned. To learn from 9/11and to fully appreciate its traumatic
characterwe must first recognise that this date does not represent the
inauguration of a historical chain of events, but rather issues from another
place: a mere echo of the suffering through which Western freedom can be
taken for granted. To restore a comprehensive understanding of trauma,
and its work in relation to terrorism, it is imperative to acknowledge the
guilt that is coupled with innocence in the trauma. In the section that
follows, then, I will attempt to draw out an understanding of trauma as
such a nexus of guilt and innocence, which can bring the subject into a
precarious relation to its others.

II Tuch
Those attuned to what was happening in the Middle East prior to
September 11 may attest to having already expected something of that
kind to occur. According to Robert Fisk, for instance, 9/11 was not so
much a disorienting and wounding spectacle, as an event that made sense
of the things he had witnessed over the past thirty years. It was an event
that rendered more palpable something that beforehand had only been
implicit. Viewed from this perspective, perhaps 9/11 merely coordinated
(or, in Lacans parlance, quilted) a set of circumstances that could only
be apprehended in the light of this eventmuch like a film might be
reinterpreted with respect to a twist of plot. This relation to September 11
may still be understood as traumatic. But following Zizek, the historical
event shifts the grid that organises experience: it does not denote the
inauguration of experience per se.30 In this light, 9/11 might represent a
jolt that opens us to the question of the others mortality, rather than
binding us to a solipsistic resolve not to pose such questions. For such a
resolve is caught in the movement of automaton, thus leading only to the
repetition of errors rather than insight. This section brings psychoanalysis
to bear upon the essays central question: how the understanding of 9/11 in
terms of cultural trauma might be used more productively. My aim is to
adapt the potential of the trauma model, not only to help heal the wounds
of those Americans affected personally by the eventbut more precisely
as a vista through which to appreciate a different trajectory of suffering:
one that preceded, and perhaps even precipitated, the attacks on the United
States. In particular, I will develop the notion of trauma as a place of

Zizek, Plague of Fantasies, 13.


Chapter Five

witnessing, by reference to Lacanian theory. In so doing, I will also pose a

challenge to Lacans account of the trauma, which arguably folds in upon
itselfthus turning a deaf ear to the suffering of others. What I seek is an
account of trauma that elucidates our ethical obligations to the one who
woundsor strikes out from having been woundedrather than an
account that attempts to return us to a lost scene of pure innocence.
Such a deployment of trauma would also need to reinterpret the role
of knowledge, by departing from a notion of it as corrupting. Knowledge
alters, but it also brings maturity, whereas the American flight to oldfashioned values after 9/11, I would argue, represents a psychologically
regressive move. The knowledge delivered by the trauma overwhelms
precisely because it is genuinely other: that is, it cannot simply be
assimilated to our way of being, but instead connects us to other ways of
beingand modes of being that even seem to threaten our own. Thus,
what is needed is a working through of the trauma that takes account of
the suffering that resorts to terror, and not only the suffering that is left in
its wake. Such working through would involve a recognition of the
connection between our dead and theirs. The basis for recognition of each
others suffering is an axiom: that our difference from one another is
essentially traumatic. We affect one another from another placethe
unanticipated and uncanny outside (what Lacan will call the Real) that
nonetheless wields the authority of inevitability upon us.
In his Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis, Lacan situates psychoanalysis as the fundamental
scientific endeavour, modulating in a more radical way this relation of
man to the world that has always been regarded as knowledge.31
Psychoanalysis, Lacan submits, is far from being an idealist discourse. It
concerns itself resolutely with investigating the Real: an outside, or
otherness, that insists itself upon us precisely in so far as it cannot be
assimilated to consciousness. For this reason, Lacan contends,
psychoanalysis is at bottom an ethical enquiry that attempts to negotiate
the relation between the self and the other, by interrogating the site of their
encounter in the trauma. This otherness, the real, is both revealed and
occulted by the trauma: it is the cause [tuchmeaning literally chance
or fortune] of the fantasy, the dream, or the transference, while at the
same time subsisting beyond the repetition [automaton, or Wiederholung].
In other words, it gives the representation, but thereby cannot be
encapsulated by it. The Real, or the encounter with otherness, is only
experienced as the representations uncanny residue: what lies in wait

Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 63.

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


within the dream (or the fantasy, or the transference) for us to catch up to
it (this is what Lacan proposes here is meant by Freuds enigmatic refrain
wo es war, soll Ich werden).32 The Real calls out to be understood in the
trauma, but is continually missed by consciousness: the Real is that
which always comes back to the same placeto the place where the
subject in so far as he thinks, where the res cogitans, does not meet it.33
We thus find in the trauma both an unbearable pathology, expressed
through the automaton (the compulsion to repeat the painful experience),
and something that lies beyond repetition, and beyond the scope of the
self-same subject of experience. This otherness of the beyond afforded
by the trauma addresses us, and we are beholden to respond to it. Lacan
dramatises this ethical dimension of the trauma with reference to a fathers
dream of his recently deceased son, first recounted by Freud in The
Interpretation of Dreams.34 The interpretation concerns not so much a plot
within the dream itself, as the manner of awakening from it. For the father
is woken by his sons reprimand in the dream, only to find that the one
relieving his post at the death bed in waking reality has fallen asleep, and
that his sons body has caught alight from a nearby candle. Within this
oneiric allegory of slumber and wakefulness, Lacan focuses his analysis
upon the reproachful voice that awakens the father: Vater, siehst du denn
nicht, dass ich verbrenneFather, cant you see that I am burning? Lacan
This sentence is itself a fire-brandof itself it brings fire where it falls
and one cannot see what is burning, for the flames blind us to the fact that
the fire bears on the Unterlegt, on the Untertragen [that which underlies, or
awaits attention], on the Real.35

Accordingly, the accusation cant you see Im burning can be

understood to conceal within it something more primary: something that
abides in the dream, and from which the childs voice awakens him.
Likewise, the encounter with otherness is situated beyond the repetition
and moreover is concealed by repetition, and by the representation of it.
The question posed by Freud, and reprised by Lacan, is: what would

Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. in The Pelican Freud

Library (1973), 112, as it is situated at the conclusion of a discussion of the
relation of the ego to the id. In brief, this epigram refers to the notion that our
deepest instinctual life is experienced as elsewhere, or other, so that I can only
ever catch up belatedly to my desire.
Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 49.
see Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 57 9.
Ibid., 59.

Chapter Five


cause the father to dream such a thing, whereby he is awakened to the

reality of his burning child? Does the dreamt of voice refer the father to
the fever just passed, or does it mediate the sound or light of an actual fire
in the next room? Crucially, does it attempt to conceal the childs death by
prolonging sleep, or does it awaken the father to this death? The object
cause of the dream remains obscure, and perhaps is concealed all the more
by the attempt to interpret it. For these attempts to explain away the dream
render it mundane and logical, whereas what is compelling about the
dream is the uncanny coincidence of these events: the fever, the fire, the
fathers inattentiveness, and his overwhelming sense of guilt at having
survived his young son. That this dream is over-determinedthat there are
too many circumstances that might have caused itarguably renders any
one interpretation inadequate.
The fathers burning dream is evocative and sympathetic in the
extremeparticularly for those who fulfil for someone the symbolic
function of the parent, and perhaps especially the father. Lacan, too,
establishes his own connection to the father:
For it is not that, in the dream, he persuades himself that the son is still
alive. But the terrible vision of the dead son taking the father by the arm
designates a beyond that makes itself heard in the dream. Desire manifests
itself in the dream by the loss expressed in an image at the most cruel point
of the object. It is only in the dream that this truly unique encounter can
occur. Only a rite, an endless repeated act, can commemorate this not very
memorable encounterfor no one can say what the death of a child is,
except the father qua father, that is to say, no conscious being.36

The father can only be addressed as such in the dream, because the
unconscious is the theatre in which identity is assembled. Lacan forges his
connection to the father, Freud: in this instance, a grandfather observing
the tormented game of fort-da.
I, too, have seen with my own eyes [] the child, traumatized by the fact
that I was going away despite the appeal, precociously adumbrated in his
voice, and henceforth more renewed for months at a timelong after,
having picked up this childI have seen it let his head fall on my shoulder
and drop off to sleep, sleep alone being capable of giving him access to the
living signifier that I had become since the date of the trauma.37


Ibid., 59
Ibid., 63.

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


While Freud interprets the childs voice in terms of wish fulfilment, as

a device for prolonging sleep, Lacan marks his difference from Freud by
stating emphatically that the voice is what awakens the father to the
Real: the loss that gives rise to dreaming and desire. According to Lacan,
the dream provides access to a Real that is also symbolic, or more
precisely, which can only be realised symbolically in the dream. As
Slavoj Zizek points out, the father only realises the death of his child
(which is his own death symbolically, qua father) by dreaming itlike a
cartoon cat who, caught in mid air, only falls once it looks down and thus
realises the laws of physics.38 In other words, a double mortalityreal
and symbolicis given through the dream; and this is met with the double
death of child and father.
The lesson to be taken from this would seem to be that (to paraphrase
Zizeks memorable maxim) one always dies twice. The death of a loved
one is always a missed encounter, which only becomes realor is
realisedafter it accedes to another register: the symbolic (where the dead
can then be commemorated, and our loss compensated through a
cannibalistic identification with the deceased). The missed encounter
characterises trauma in general, as what takes one off-guard and so
produces the obtuse readiness met with in anxiety. This need to symbolise
and commemorate is frequently invoked in relation to the hoped for
working through of 9/11. Yet, as intimated earlier, this memorialising
approach is of limited value, attending to only one face of the imperative
that lies in abeyance for us within the trauma. There are resonances and
significances of these attacks upon America that are obscured by the
reflection pools and majestic architecture proposed for the site of the
fallen towers.
Cathy Caruth articulates this relation of father and son through the
dream differently, and in terms perhaps more germane to the concerns of
this essay.39 For Caruth, the dream demonstrates the fathers connection to
his sons death not in relation to his own symbolic death, but rather
through his survival. This survival, in turn, becomes a manner of
mourning for the son, the only thing one can do in the face of the death of
another. Caruth takes from Lacan the understanding of the childs voice as
indicating a beyond that awakens, and the awakening itself she interprets
as exemplary of the trauma: for in awakening from the dream the father
encounters his lossthe irreplaceability of his dead sonand the
unavoidable imperative to survive it40, in the face of devastating guilt.

Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 134.

In Caruth Unclaimed Experience.
Ibid., 104.


Chapter Five

Trauma, according to Caruth, is a means of survival that links the living to

the dead, through what she calls an ethics of memory.41 And with
reference to the structure of the fathers dream, survival comes to be
conceived as ethical precisely because, by awakening, the father answers
his sons call to him:
[T]he trauma that the dream, as an awakening, re-enacts is not only the
missed encounter with the childs death but also the way in which that
missing also constitutes the very survival of the father. His survival must
no longer be understood, in other words, merely as an accidental living
beyond the child, but rather as a mode of existence determined by the
impossible structure of the response. By shifting the cause of the
awakening from the accident of the candle falling outside the dream to the
words of the child inside the dream, that is, Lacan suggests that the
awakening itself is not a simple accident, but engages a larger question of

What this dream thus articulates is the integral connection between the
dead and those who survive them, in the case of fathers and their children,
but also more generally, in the sphere of culture and historyand between
cultures that share a history, or whose histories happen to collide.43
As much as Caruth is inspired for her understanding of the fathers
dream by Lacanand especially, his appeal to an otherness, or beyond,
that calls to the fathershe departs from him significantly when it comes
to the conclusion each draws from it. After his discussion of the beyond
that the boys voice indicates, Lacan attempts to interpret (reductively) the
uncanny element of the dream, or the trauma. And precisely here, in the
attempt to interpret the dream, his account of the trauma falls back into its
fated solipsism. For according to Lacan, that to which the encounter bears
witness is not the othereven in so far as they are deadbut rather the
separation that brings into being the split subject. Lacan negotiates this
passage, from difference and otherness to sameness and the splitting of the
I, first by returning to a discussion of repetition, as that which not only
obscures otherness (the new) but also engenders it:


Ibid., 91 112.
Ibid., 1001.
As Len Gutkin points out, Caruths analysis appears merely rhetorical, and even
fatuous, to the extent that this historical and political dimension is not observed.
Caruths account of the fathers personal trauma connects to the geo-political when
she discusses, in a separate chapter, her reading of Moses and Monotheism in terms
of trauma, as the foundation of the Jewish civilisation.

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


The adult, and even the more advanced child, demands something new in
his activities, in his games. But this sliding-away (glissement) conceals
what is the true secret of the ludic, namely, the most radical diversity
constituted by repetition in itself. It can be seen in the child, in his first
movement, at the moment when he is formed as a human being,
manifesting himself as an insistence that the story should always be the
same, that its recounted realization should be ritualised, that is to say,
textually the same.44

Lacan then connects this ludic diversity (relating to play) and

repetition to Freuds famous discussion of trauma and separation in
Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The trauma, Lacan argues, refers us back
to the separation from the mother, exemplified by the fort-da game,
wherein a piece of the self, represented by the spool, is detached and
circulated: thus establishing a relation to the world through a relation to
oneself. By this account, what the trauma recalls is the primal scene of the
subject, and all subjectivity establishes itself through a traumatic process
of negotiation wherein part of the self is alienated in order that a
connection to ones environment may be established. The trauma and the
dream provide an access not to an otherness beyond the self, but rather to
the living signifier: a beyond through which the other is gathered,
regulated, and subordinated to the function of reflecting back the self.
Hence, where Lacans analysis of trauma begins by providing a possible
frame through which to encounter otherness, I would accordingly propose
that it also closes, by predicating the subject upon the denial of the others
otherness. For, the other has been reduced to a lost piece of the self, the
object a. This, again, returns us to the automatic movement that
determines the pathology of revenge found in the response to 9/11. But
can this move be circumvented, such that we are able to honour the sense
of otherness seemingly granted by the trauma?
As we have seen already in Caruths analysis, the occluded and
mourned object of the dream, the fantasyor in short, the repetition
neednt be reduced to an estranged piece of the self. In order to
comprehend trauma, and the knowledge that it can impart, it is first
necessary to suspend the urge to fold the other back into the self, so that an
encounter with the other as other might take place. This encounter is
unlikely to be pleasant. Indeed, by definition a confrontation with genuine
otherness will be shocking and even harmful. What is unsettling about
trauma is precisely the proximity to a strangeness that exceeds our
expectations of it. The attempt to manage and control a piece of the real

Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 61.


Chapter Five

belies the fact that the other resists our subjection, or domestication. To
paraphrase Bataille,45 communication demands an attempt to move outside
ones own sacred hearth, and to risk oneself for the sake of forming a
relation with the other. Our history with the Middle East is marked by the
reduction of its people to caricatures, first as the infidel, then through
orientalism, and more recently through the spectre of the terrorist. And
while actual terrorists might present us with our own, monstrous and
distorted image,46 beyond the terrorist dwell people who do not
approximate this ideal, but who continue to be materially affected by the
war against terror.
To reflect again upon the example of trauma given by Lacan and
Freud, through the refrain Father, cant you see Im burning, we might
ask ourselves what our own fire-brand, the twin towers, conceals. What
awaits us beneath this spectacle, and to what secret realisation do its
flames blind us? And with Freud and Lacan, we might also ask: does this
dream of two burning towers prolong sleep, or incite wakefulness?47 And
to what should we now be waking? Or, would it be better to remain asleep,
thus perpetuating a dream of sameness, innocence, and victim-hood?
Beyond the dream, the fantasy, and the construction of our own identities,
what demands to be witnessed is the others sufferingor the other in
their humanity. With September 11 the trauma manifests as an autistic
mode of repetition, or automata: in Americas official response, the
building of monuments, the conspiracy theories, and even the terrorist act
itselfperpetrated by those who, in a feat of pathological sacrifice, live up
to our own worst nightmares. Beyond this repetition, and beyond the
concern for identity and sameness, the traumas hidden capacity abides in


See Bataille, On Nietzsche.

While the terrorist is often imagined as radically other and beyond reason,
those who have been critical of the West, or engaged in terrorism against Western
countriesfrom the Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb, to Osama Bin Laden and the
plane hijackers on September 11 have lived and studied in Western countries,
and in this sense are more like Westerners than are their compatriots in the Middle
Indeed, the comparison between the events of September 11 and depictions of
America under attack in Hollywood films was remarked upon at the time by
academics and the public alike. Arguably, these events conform to Americas
cultural imaginary, whereby the nation must see itself always as the injured and
therefore innocent party. The comparison with Pearl Harbor, an event that is
frequently appealed to as definitive of American military identity, has also been
made ad nauseam. For this reason, I feel there is a certain correctness in referring
to 9/11 as a dream.

Terror, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence


the knowledgeimmanent to the experience of traumathat others suffer

as well.


With this duly vague definition, Special Squad, the SS referred to the
group of prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria.
It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often
completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who must be sent into
the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers, pull gold teeth
from jaws, cut the womens hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the
contents of the luggage; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee
the operation of the ovens; extract and eliminate the ashes.
Primo Levi on the Sonderkommandos, from The Grey Zone1

The practice of European philosophy has undergone radical developments

in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The mass extermination of Europes
Jews has heavily influenced the writings of, among others, Theodor
Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Jean Amery, Jacques
Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Franois
Lyotard, Slavoj iek and Giorgio Agamben. Major strains of reflection
include the notion that philosophy was partially responsible for the
Holocaust and must attempt to make some kind of reparation for its
culpability;2 that philosophy has been irrevocably transformed by the

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 34.

For an example of this line of thought, see Lyotard, Heidegger and the Jews. For
more on the controversy over Heidegger, see Patterson, Nazis, Philosophers, and
the Response to the Scandal of Heidegger, in Ethics After the Holocaust:
Perspectives, Critiques, and Responses; Rdiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger:
Between Good and Evil; Milchman and Rosenberg, eds., Martin Heidegger and the

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


destruction wreaked by Nazism;3 and that philosophy itself may no longer

be possible in the wake of the systematic murder of the Jews, and how it
might survive this challenge.4 Following this last theme, this paper
explores the classical philosophical problems of choice and moral
judgement, both of which are thrown into disarray when one delves into
one of the most extreme situations within the Nazi extermination camps:
the circumstances of those Jewish prisoners forced to perform the
gruesome work in the gas chambers and crematoria as a temporary
reprieve from being killed themselves. The question of whether or not
such individuals may be considered moral agents, and hence whether or
not they can and should be judged, has far-reaching implications for postHolocaust philosophy, and for our wider understandings of the nature and
limits of moral agency.
A fundamental characteristic of the Holocaust was the unresolvable,
arguably unprecedented, ethical dilemmas that confronted many of its
Jewish victims. Along with a growing preoccupation with the nature of
evil,5 most Holocaust-related texts on ethics have focussed primarily on
the perpetrators,6 whilst few by comparison have been written on their

See several of the essays in Bemporad, Pawlikowski, and Sievers, eds., Good and
Evil After Auschwitz: Ethical Implications for Today; Patterson and Roth, eds.,
After-Words: Post-Holocaust Struggles with Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Justice.
See Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Politics: The Fiction of the Political;
Cooper, Ideology, Moral Complicity and the Holocaust, in Moral Philosophy and
the Holocaust; Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, The Nazi Myth, Critical Inquiry 16,
no. 2 (Winter 1990); Rosenberg and Marcus, The Holocaust as a Test of
Philosophy, in Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark
For recent publications on the nature of evil, see Ophir, The Order of Evils:
Toward an Ontology of Morals; Kekes, The Roots of Evil; Patterson and Roth,
eds., Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil, and the Holocaust; Katz, Confronting Evil: Two
Journeys; Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy;
Bernstein, Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation; Katz, Ordinary People and
Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil.
For ethical discussions concentrating on perpetrators, see Roth, Ethics During
and After the Holocaust: In the Shadow of Birkenau; essays by Fasching and
Askanasy in Frey, ed., The Genocidal Temptation: Auschwitz, Hiroshima,
Hiroshima, Rwanda and Beyond; Koonz, The Nazi Conscience; Haas, Morality
After Auschwitz: The Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic; Burleigh, Ethics and
Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide. For ethical discussions relating to
bystanders, see Barrett, Bystanders, Conscience and Complicity During the
Holocaust; Freeman, Is Limited Altruism Morally Wrong? in Moral Philosophy
and the Holocaust.


Chapter Six

victims.7 Nonetheless, aspects of behaviour on the part of persecuted Jews,

particularly those in so-called privileged positions, have attracted much
attention and inspired a great deal of controversy.8 The traumatic
experiences of Jews imprisoned within concentration camps and ghettos
not only included physical and emotional torment, but also frequently
consisted of being coerced into making decisionswhat Lawrence Langer
terms choiceless choicesat the expense of fellow inmates.9 In dealing
with situations such as these, contemporary understandings and
representations face great obstacles, especially when it comes to the
question of passing moral judgement. In 1986, Primo Levi, an Italian
Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, published an enormously influential essay
on this very issue. He called this essay The Grey Zone. Levi stressed the
need to abstain from judgement in certain cases, an impotentia judicandi, a
sentiment reinforced in Agambens more recent reflections on Auschwitz
and the grey zone, to be discussed further.10
While Levi maintains that the perpetrators of the Holocaust must be
judged for their actions, he warns that moral judgement of their victims
under certain circumstances is inappropriate. However, although a moral
judgement of Jews in extremis may be illegitimate, representations of such
individuals and groups suggest that it is also impossible not to judge them.

In addition to the work of Lawrence Langer to be discussed later in the paper, see
chapter 5 of Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust and several of the essays in
Cargas ed., Problems Unique to the Holocaust. Also Maclean, You leaving me
alone? The persistence of ethics during the Holocaust, Studies on the audiovisual testimony of victims of the Nazi crimes and genocides, no. 12 (June 2006);
Kamm, Harming some to save others from the Nazis, in Moral Philosophy and
the Holocaust; Guiliani, Abberant Freedom and Impious Heroism: Observations
on Conscience and Suspension of Ethical Evaluation in the Auschwitz Case, in
Good and Evil After Auschwitz: Ethical Implications for Today; Jones, Moral
Responsibility in the Holocaust: A Study in the Ethics of Character; Rosenthal,
The right way to act: indicting the victims, in Echoes from the Holocaust:
Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time. Most of these ethical discussions focus
on Jews in ghettos rather than camps, much less the experiences of the
Most of the controversy has centred on criticism of the pre-war and wartime
Jewish leadership in various European countries, and a prime example of this is
Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. For a critique of
Arendts judgements, see Robinson, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight: The
Eichmann Trial, the Jewish Catastrophe, and Hannah Arendts Narrative. Another
key figure in this controversy is historian Raul Hilberg, whose work Arendt draws
heavily on. See Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews.
See Langer, Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit.
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


Through an exploration of Levis representation of the Jewish

Sonderkommandos (Special Squads) forced to service the extermination
machinery in Auschwitz-Birkenau, this paper will show that even Levi
himself could not abstain from judging those he argued should not be
judged. An analysis of Inga Clendinnens direct response to Levis
representation of Jews, which also draws on the concept of the grey
zone, will demonstrate that she too is unable to withhold judgement.
Paradoxically, it would seem, the grey zone warns against judgement but
at the same time requires it. I will argue that Levi and Clendinnen are right
to insist that the Sonderkommandos should not be judged, but that the
representations of both writers reveal they pass judgement nonetheless. It
is here that instances of extreme trauma pose perhaps insurmountable
obstacles to representation, and expose the fragility of human judgement
when confronted with a morally liminal situation.

Primo Levis Grey Zone and the issue of judgement

Having measured up the meanders of the grey zone and pushed to explore
the darkest side of Auschwitz, not only for judging but mainly for
understanding the true nature of humans and their limits, is one of the most
inestimable contributions made by Levi to any future moral philosophy.11

The concept of the grey zone is a crucial part of Levis final book, The
Drowned and the Saved. It proved fundamental to his understanding of his
Auschwitz experience, and has since been appropriated, often uncritically,
in the fields of Holocaust studies, philosophy, law, history, theology,
feminism and popular culture.12 Tim Blake Nelsons recent feature film,
The Grey Zone (2001), is inspired by Levis essay.13 Levi addresses the
troubling issue of prisoners who, in response to dehumanising and life11

Giuliani, Centaur in Auschwitz: Reflections on Primo Levis Thinking, 45.

For specific examples of these areas, see Petropoulos and Roth, eds., Gray
Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and its Aftermath; Todorov,
Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps; Luban, A Man Lost
in the Gray Zone, Law and History Review 19, no. 1 (Spring 2001); Browning,
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland;
Roth, In Response to Hannah Holtschneider, in Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil, and
the Holocaust, 53-54; Card, Groping Through Gray Zones, in On Feminist Ethics
and Politics; Cheyette, The Uncertain Certainty of Schindlers List, in
Spielbergs Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindlers List.
Nelson, The Grey Zone. Nelsons film focuses on the 12th Squad of Auschwitz
Sonderkommandos to be discussed later in the paper.


Chapter Six

threatening persecution, or out of a desire for power, privilege or profit,

compromised themselves by, to use Levis term, collaborating with
their Nazi captors. Levis grey zone is essentially a metaphor for moral
ambiguity, and is described as having ill-defined outlines which both
separate and join the two camps of masters and servants. It possesses an
incredibly complicated internal structure, and contains within itself enough
to confuse our need to judge.14 The grey zone is important as it
destabilises clear-cut distinctions, such as that between good and evil,
and warns against hasty moral judgementor, in some cases, calls for it to
be withheld entirely. For these reasons, an acknowledgement of the grey
zone complicates representation, which Levi shows to be strongly related
to judgement. Commenting on the complexity of the camp experience and
the human need or desire for simplification early in his essay, Levi
the network of human relationships inside the Lagers [camps] was not
simple: it could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors.
In anyone who today reads (or writes) the history of the Lager is evident
the tendency, indeed the need, to separate evil from good, to be able to take
sides, to repeat Christs gesture on Judgement Day: here the righteous,
over there the reprobates.15

Here, the notion that simplification results from passing moral judgement
in and through representation is clear. Indeed, Levi opens his essay by
stressing the prominenteven necessaryplace of simplification in
human affairs: What we commonly mean by understand coincides with
simplify: without profound simplification the world around us would be
an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves
and decide upon our actions.16 To put the problem Levi evokes briefly:
understanding requires representation, which involves moral judgement,
resulting in simplification. While Levi focuses primarily on the Auschwitz
concentration camp, he and many others argue that the grey zone and the
associated problems of judgement and representation apply more widely to
other Nazi camps, the ghettos, and perhaps further.17 Nonetheless, the

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 27.

Ibid. 23.
Ibid. 22.
Along with mentioning various collaborating governments, such as those of
Norway, Vichy France and Italy, Levi situates SS Oberschaarfhrer Mhsfeldt
within the grey zone. See Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 27-28 & 40-41.
Furthermore, Levi makes it clear that the grey zone is also evident in the Soviet
gulag. See Ibid. 25, 27 & 31. Other scholars apply the grey zone to bystanders,

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


focus of this paper is restricted to Auschwitz, and specifically the

experiences of the Sonderkommandos.
Drawing on Levis aversion from Manichean allegories and warning
against moral judgement, Shoshana Felman writes:
To talk about the Holocaust from a position of self-righteousness and
rightness is to deny the very essence of the Holocaust, which was to render
this position unavailable The moral implications of the Holocaust are
such that our task today is to find ways, precisely, to rearticulate the
question of ethics outside the problematicand the comfortof a
judgment that can be delegated to no human tribunal.18

Indeed, Lawrence Langer argues that Auschwitz had completely

sabotaged the ethical vision that [Levi] cherished as a human being.19
Nonetheless, as will be demonstrated later, Levi was unable or unwilling
to abandon his humanist foundations completely. While some
commentators have credited Levi with establishing a new ethical system,20
others contend that he failed to do so. Adam Katz writes of Levis
ultimately unsuccessful struggle to uncover a mode of political thought
resister-collaborators, or groups and individuals in situations unrelated to the
Holocaust. See Warmund, The Gray Zone Expanded, in The Legacy of Primo
Levi; Bergen, Mourning, Mass Death, and the Gray Zone: The Ethnic Germans of
Eastern Europe and the Second World War, in Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of
Mourning and Memory at Centurys End; Pamela Ballinger, Who Defines and
Remembers Genocide After the Cold War? Contested Memories of Partisan
Massacre in Venezia Giulia in 1943-1945, Journal of Genocide Research 2, no. 1
(2000); Dariusz Stola, Jedwabne: Revisiting the Evidence and Nature of the
Crime, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17, no. 1 (Spring 2003); Beth GriechPolelle, Image of a Churchman-Resister: Bishop von Galen, the Euthanasia
Project and the Sermons of Summer 1941, Journal of Contemporary History 36,
no. 1 (January 2001); Torre, The Limit and the Unlimited, in Good and Evil After
Auschwitz: Ethical Implications for Today; Eric D. Weitz, Racial Politics without
the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and National Purges, Slavic
Review 61, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 27; Victoria Sanford, The Grey Zone of Justice:
NGOs and Rule of Law in Postwar Guatemala, Journal of Human Rights 2, no. 3
(September 2003).
Felman, After the Apocalypse: Paul de Man and the Fall to Silence, in
Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, 123
(authors emphasis).
Langer, Legacy in Gray, in Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and
Witness, 198.
See, for example, Gordon, Primo Levis Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to
Ethics; Giuliani, Centaur in Auschwitz: Reflections on Primo Levis Thinking.


Chapter Six

and public intervention adequate to the changes in political space of which

the gray zone is symptomatic, i.e. a condition of universal complicity
and powerlessness.21 In a similar vein to Felman, Katz argues that by
implicating all humanity, the Holocaust destroyed the notion of the
objective observer/bystander that humanistic thinking so heavily relies on,
thus leaving a breach in contemporary ethics.

Approaching the ethical void: Agamben on Auschwitz

Giorgio Agamben is one philosopher who has attempted to respond to the
ethical void purportedly left by Auschwitz. In his book Remnants of
Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Agamben appropriates Levis
concept of the grey zone in his exploration of the devastating effects of
unlimited power on human beings. For Agamben, survivor testimony
demonstrates that life is possible even in the most extreme and diabolical
circumstances, where all human dignity has evaporated. Following this
line, he focuses his attention on the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos and, to
a much greater extent, on the category of prisoners designated
Muselmnner, who Levi characterises as an anonymous mass, continually
renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in
silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really
suffer.22 Confronted with these liminal figures and what he perceives as
the resulting disintegration of an ethics founded on human dignity,
Agamben seeks a new ethics through survivor testimony.23 He opens his
book with a concession that the Sonderkommandos experiences and
environment defy full comprehension. Agamben cites the testimony of
Salmen Lewental, one of several members of an Auschwitz Special
Squad who buried written manuscripts near the Birkenau site: Just as the
events that took place there cannot be imagined by any human being so
is it unimaginable that anyone could exactly recount how our experiences
took place.24 I will return to Lewentals testimony in my conclusion.
Katz, On Maelstroms Large and Small, Metaphorical and Actual: Gray Zones
in the Writings of Primo Levi, Cultural Studies 13, no. 3 (1 July 1999): 423.
Levi, If This is a Man; and, The Truce, 96.
For further discussion of Agambens engagement with the Muselmann through
Levis writings, see McClellan, Primo Levi, Giorgio Agamben, and the New
Ethics of Reading, in The Legacy of Primo Levi.
Lewental, cited in Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the
Archive 12. Six manuscripts have been discovered, though it seems that many
more were written but never found. The manuscripts are published in English in
Bezwinska and Czech, eds., Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


Agamben holds that while Auschwitz is, indeed, the very aporia of
historical knowledge, an attempt to understand such extreme
circumstances is still paramount. He disagrees with Lewentals comment
that the Sonderkommandos will not give historians much work to do.25
However, reflecting on Levis grey zone, Agamben notes a crucial
obstacle to any attempt at understanding, namely, the problem of
judgement: The unprecedented discovery made by Levi at Auschwitz
concerns an area that is independent of every establishment of
responsibility, an area in which Levi succeeded in isolating something like
a new ethical element.26 Despite this statement, Agamben connects the
perceived breakdown in ethics more with the Muselmnner than with the
Jewish prisoners Levi represents in his essay on the grey zone, such as
those in the Sonderkommandos. Positioning the Muselmann as the guard
on the threshold of a new ethics, an ethics of a form of life that begins
where dignity ends,27 Agamben connects the grey zone inextricably
with the concepts of the threshold of indistinction and state of
exception developed in his earlier work.28 However, generalising Levis
concept to the extent that Agamben does arguably takes the grey zone
out of its historically specific context. As Dominick LaCapra points out,
the gray zone in its historical sense is not so much a threshold of
indistinction or even a state of exception as a condition of extreme
equivocation that is created largely through the practices of perpetrators

Prisoners in Crematorium Squads Found at Auschwitz. For more detail on the

manuscripts, see Cohen, Diaries of the Sonderkommando, in Anatomy of the
Auschwitz Death Camp.
See Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 12.
Ibid. 21.
Ibid. 69. Slavoj iek also stresses the necessity (and impossibility) of
identifying with the Muselmnner and recognising their humanity. See iek,
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions on the (Mis)use of a
Notion, 73-81; iek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of
Christianity, 155-159. It is also noteworthy that iek gives attention to the notion
of forced choice, drawing on the Sophies Choice of popular culture as a limit
case. See iek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out, 6977. For ieks source text, see Styron, Sophies Choice. While ieks writing
broaches similar themes to Langers choiceless choices, it elicits key differences,
and so will not be discussed here. For more on ieks forced choice, see iek
and Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/ Ages of the World, 37-46.
See Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.


Chapter Six

and imposed on victims, typically in the form of double binds or

impossible situations.29
Such double binds are analogous to Langers notion of choiceless
choices, which has frequently been connected to Levis grey zone.30
Stressing the inappropriateness of pre-existing categories of
representation, Langer finds choiceless choices to be a defining feature
of the Holocaust. He characterises these dilemmas as crucial decisions
[that] did not reflect options between life and death, but between one form
of abnormal response and another, both imposed by a situation that was in
no way of the victims own choosing.31 Decisions, if they can be called
that, on the part of persecuted Jews like those in the Sonderkommandos
were made under extreme duress, and the notions of intent or volition,
which Risa Sodi identifies as central to most concepts of justice or
judgement,32 are invariably next to impossible to evaluate in such dire
circumstances. Furthermore, Agamben writes that it is essential that law,
which contaminates moral and theological categories of judgement and
responsibility, not presume to exhaust the question.33 In turn, the impact
of religious discourse on morality is highlighted in Levis aforementioned
statement regarding the pervasive need among those writing about the
Holocaust to repeat Christs gesture on Judgement Day: here the
righteous, over there the reprobates.34 Most importantly, one must not
lose sight of the fact that Jews were forced by their persecutors into
various privileged positions so that they would contribute to the
extermination process and hence further the Nazis genocidal goals.
Refusal by Jews to cooperate couldand often didmean death. The men
chosen for the Sonderkommandos had no alternative other than immediate
execution. Yet despite the dire consequences for refusal that faced Jews,

LaCapra, Approaching Limit Events: Siting Agamben, in Witnessing the

Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust, 285.
For the most recent connections between the grey zone and choiceless
choices, see the collection by Petropoulos and Roth, eds., Gray Zones: Ambiguity
and Compromise in the Holocaust and its Aftermath.
Langer, Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit, 72.
Significantly, Langers writing on choiceless choices draws heavily on Levis
earlier works, particularly his first memoir, If This is a Man (1947).
Sodi, A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz, 10.
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 17-18.
Agamben stresses the confusion between ethical categories and juridicial
categories. Ibid. 24.
For more on the potential for conflict between ethical and religious judgement,
see Giuliani, Aberrant Freedom and Impious Heroism: Observations on
Conscience and Suspension of Ethical Evaluation in the Auschwitz Case, 237-38.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


victims caught up in the destruction process continue to attract moral

judgement and pose large obstacles to our understanding.
In discussing such highly sensitive issues as moral ambiguity and
compromise on the part of some Jews, there is always a danger of
blurring the crucial distinction between victims and perpetrators. Drawing
heavily on Levis writings, Agamben confirms that Levi was not interested
in making judgement or granting pardon: the only thing that interests him
is what makes judgment impossible: the gray zone in which victims
become executioners and executioners become victims.35 However, this
arguably takes the problem of ambiguity further than Levi intended. In
exploring the grey zone, Levi was concerned with discovering under
what circumstances judgement is impossible. He writes in his essay that
forced to judge, [he] would light-heartedly absolve all those whose
concurrence in the guilt was minimal and for whom coercion was of the
highest degree.36 The long and complex process of Nazi persecution
leading up to and during Jewish prisoners incarceration constitutes the
very real bio-political origins of the grey zone, which Levi goes to great
lengths to detail in his essay. Hannah Arendt, who views the camps as the
true central institution of totalitarian organizational power, emphasises
the total domination of prisoners, including the intentional and
systematic erasure of Jews legal status, personal identity and moral
being.37 While Arendt has been much criticised for her accusations of
collaboration against Jewish leaders in the ghettos, she, like Levi,
suggests the extreme circumstances of the camps render moral judgement
inappropriate.38 Nonetheless, Arendt appears to contradict her argument
when she writes of the employment of the Jewish Sonderkommandos in
the actual killing process, asserting that they committed criminal acts.39
Members of the Sonderkommandos mainly worked with corpses and never

Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 17.

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 29.
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 437-57. Arendt evokes a situation
reminiscent of Langers choiceless choices here too: Who could solve the moral
dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of
her three children should be killed? Ibid. 452.
See, in particular, Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of
Evil, 117-25. In her criticism of the Jewish Councils, Arendt uses the terms
collaboration and cooperation interchangeably. See Ibid. 11, 91, 124 & 143.
Arendt makes a clear distinction between the limited freedom of decision and of
action in the ghettos and the utter lack of this in the camps. See Arendt, The Jew
as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, 248-49.
Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 91.


Chapter Six

handled the gas, and were therefore not involved in the actual killing
process. In describing the Nazis policy of co-opting prisoners to do their
dirty work, Arendt herself seems close to blurring the fundamental moral
distinctions that would be in play here when she states: the distinguishing
line between persecutor and persecuted, between the murderer and his
victim, is constantly blurred.40
Above all, Levi holds that the distinction between victim and
perpetrator must be maintained.41 Furthermore, while perpetrators were
seldom born sadists, and some exhibited moments of hesitation and even
humanity, they must still be judged.42 Indeed, Agamben seldom
mentions the SS, much less their role in bringing about the moral
quandaries at the core of the grey zone. It is only the victims trapped in
impossible situations, such as the members of the Sonderkommandos, for
whom moral judgement must be suspended. Levis grey zone is not an
area where the categories of victims and perpetrators are irrevocably
blurred; where, as Agamben suggests, victims become executioners and
executioners become victims. Indeed, there seems nothing more
inherently judgemental than this statement.43 Echoing a sentiment
expressed by many survivors, Levi writes that it must be clear that the


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 453.

See Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 32-33. As Dominick LaCapra points out:
The grey zone serves to raise the question of the existence and extent of
problematicat times more or less dubiously hybridisedcases, but it does not
imply the rashly generalised blurring or simple collapse of all distinctions,
including that between perpetrator and victim. See LaCapra, Writing History,
Writing Trauma, 79.
See Levis analysis of Oberschaarfhrer Mhsfeldt in his essay. Levi, The
Drowned and the Saved, 40-41.
Agambens later description may be more appropriate, where he describes the
grey zone as a place where oppressed becomes oppressor and the executioner in
turn appears as victim. See Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and
the Archive, 21. However, towards the end of his book, Agamben defines the grey
zone as analogous with the Muselmann (133), indicating the extent to which
Agamben expands the grey zone in order to position all human beings as
indelibly compromised. While Muselmnner, the living dead, or non-persons, of
the Lager, did suffer the incomprehensible extremes of dehumanisation at the
hands of the Nazis, and cannot be condemned for any morally ambiguous act they
may have been capable of, they were not exemplary of Levis grey zone, but
would perhaps be placed last of all in it. Indeed, as Agamben himself makes clear,
the Muselmann was universally avoided by all other prisoners, and was the
frequent target of the collaborators. Ibid. 43 & 52.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


greatest responsibility lies with the system.44 Nonetheless, with regards to

the Jewish prisoners ostensibly positioned beyond moral judgement by
Levi, the grey zone exhibits a central paradox.

Indecipherable realm or moral spectrum?

A paradox of judgement
In his essay on the grey zone, Levi focuses primarily on those prisoners
he terms collaborators, particularly the Kapos (chiefs) of labour squads,
the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos, and the controversial Jewish Council
official Chaim Rumkowski of the Lodz ghetto. In the case of the
Sonderkommandos, Levi declares that our need and ability to judge
falters, stressing that we should meditate on the story of the
crematorium ravens with pity and rigour, but that a judgement of them
be suspended.45 Likewise, he clearly states that the same impossibility of
judgement paralyses us when considering Rumkowskis leadership of
the Lodz ghetto. While we should not condemn Rumkowski, Levi writes
that we cannot absolve him on the moral plane either.46 In short, Levis
essay holds that certain Jews in extremis should not be condemned or
absolved for their actions, suggesting that representations of these victims
require some form of sustained ambiguity. Nevertheless, the separation of
representation and (moral) judgement is far from simple, if not impossible.
Indeed, even Levi himself struggles to withhold judgement when
representing the Sonderkommandos.
Levi invariably treats the grey zone metaphorically, utilising other
linguistic variants at times, such as grey band, grey conscience and
grey man.47 On the other hand, the concept also possesses a spatial
element, with the word zone connoting a physical area that is cut off. In
light of Levis warning against judgement in the case of privileged Jews,
such as those in the Sonderkommandos, the grey zone suggests an

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 28. See also Langbein, People in Auschwitz,
519-20; Lengyel, Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz, 196.
Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 41 & 43.
Ibid. 49.
Levi uses the grey band and grey, ambiguous persons in his essay, The Grey
Zone. See Ibid. 33 & 40. Levi refers to a vast zone of grey consciences in his
earlier discussion of Chaim Rumkowski, published as Story of a Coin. See Levi,
Moments of Reprieve, 171. The phrase grey man is taken from Risa Sodis
interview with Levi, during which he spoke of Austrian collaborator Kurt
Waldheim as uomo grigia (grey man), which Sodi translated as grey zoner. See
Sodi, An Interview with Primo Levi, Partisan Review, no. 3 (1987): 365.


Chapter Six

indecipherable realm of ambiguity, in which pre-existing ethical

frameworks do not apply. Indeed, early in his essay, Levi writes: The
world into which one was precipitated was terrible, yes, but also
indecipherable: it did not conform to any model, the enemy was all around
but also inside, the we lost its limits.48 However, at various points
throughout the essay, the grey zone also gives the impression of
constituting a moral spectrum, along which inmates and persecutors alike
can be situated. Levis analysis of a brief moment of reluctance on the part
of SS Oberschaarfhrer Mhsfeldt, who was assigned to supervise the
killing process at Birkenau, concludes that he too must be placed, though
at its extreme boundary, within the grey band.49
Reflecting on the broad reach of the grey zone, Levi writes at one
point that within [the grey zone] must be catalogued, with different
nuances of quality and weight, Quisling in Norway, the Vichy government
in France, the Judenrat in Warsaw, the Sal Republic in Italy, right down
to the Ukrainian and Baltic mercenaries employed elsewhere for the
filthiest tasks and the Sonderkommandos.50 Here, Levi implies that the
Judenrte (Jewish Councils) and Sonderkommandos may be compared
with collaborators whose level of coercion was of an entirely different
kind, if coercion existed at all (which in some cases it did not). Indeed, the
fact that the collaborationist Vichy regime in Frances unoccupied zone
was arguably motivated by strong anti-Semitism and often acted in
anticipation of German orders, would seem to disqualify any
comparability with the forced cooperation of the Jewish leaders and
crematorium workers.51 As will be shown in the next section, Levi does
judge the Sonderkommandos to bear a certain weight, if not outright
condemning them at times. There would seem to be a paradox of
judgement in Levis grey zone, which is simultaneously characterised as
indecipherable realm and moral spectrum. Confronting the choiceless
choices of the Sonderkommandos, Levis grey zone warns against
judgement but at the same time requires it.


Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 23.

Ibid. 40.
Ibid. 27-28 (my emphasis).
For extensive accounts of the collaboration of Vichy France with the Nazis, see
Burrin, Living with Defeat: France under the German Occupation, 1940-1944;
Marrus, Coming to Terms with Vichy, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 9, no. 1
(Spring 1995); Webster, Petains Crime: The Full Story of French Collaboration
in the Holocaust.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


Representing those beyond moral judgement:

Levis Crematorium Ravens
Levi describes the conception and organisation of the Sonderkommandos
as National Socialisms most demonic crime.52 While varying numbers
of prisoners made up the Sonderkommandos in the death camps of
Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, up to 1,000 men at a time, the
vast majority of them Jews, were assigned to work in the gas chambers
and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In return for performing the tasks
required of them, the Sonderkommandos had access to ample clothing,
bedding, food, cigarettes and alcohol, all taken from newly arrived
transports. There were thirteen successive Special Squads in the
Birkenau extermination camp, as each group was routinely executed after
approximately four months. Members of the Sonderkommandos also
succumbed to sporadic executions and suicide, with the extreme
circumstances the Nazis imposed on them arguably making even the latter
a form of murder.53 Reflecting on such horrific duties performed under
imminent death, Levi notes that here one hesitates to speak of
privilege.54 Very few Sonderkommando members survived the war, and
fewer still have spoken of their experiences or written memoirs.55
The experiences of the Sonderkommandos exemplify Langers concept
of choiceless choices. Most Sonderkommando members, chosen on
arrival at the camp orless commonlyenlisted as a form of punishment,
continued to facilitate the killing process until they themselves were
exterminated. Any refusal was answered with immediate death. Yet there
were some who resisted. Levi notes the exception of a group of four
hundred Jews from Corfu who refused to undertake the gruesome work,

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 37.

For further discussion of the issue of Jewish suicidesalbeit in a different, less
extreme, contextsee Opfermann, Suicides or Murders? in Problems Unique to
the Holocaust.
Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 34.
For an example of this rare testimony, see Muller, Auschwitz Inferno: The
Testimony of a Sonderkommando. Also Grief, We Wept Without Tears:
Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz; Friendler, Siebert,
and Kilian, Zeugen aus der Todeszone: Das judische Sonderkommando in
Auschwitz; Langbein, People in Auschwitz 191-202. Video testimonies of
Sonderkommando members have been included in films such as Lanzmanns
Shoah and Laurence Rees Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. The artwork of a
former Sonderkommando member can be found in Olre, David Olre, 1902-1985:
A Painter in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz.


Chapter Six

before being subsequently gassed. Additionally, Levi writes with

understandable praise of the 12th squad of Sonderkommandos, which
undertook an armed act of resistance in October 1944, destroying one
crematorium in the process.56 Levi had previously mentioned the Birkenau
revolt twice in his writings, but made little comment on the daily activities
of the Sonderkommandos. Significantly, in his first memoir, If This is a
Man (1947), Levi wrote of the Sonderkommando resisters as helpless and
exhausted slaves like ourselves, [who] had found in themselves the
strength to act, to mature the fruits of their hatred.57 In Resistance in the
Camps, an article published in 1966, he described the uprising as the
most important episode of active rebellion against Nazi power in the
extermination camps, praising its desperate boldness.58 Levi uses similar
language in his essay on the grey zone, however here he draws a clear
distinction, contrasting the Sonderkommando resisters with the miserable
manual labourers of the slaughter the others, those who from one shift
to the next preferred a few more weeks of life (what a life!) to immediate
death.59 While Levi immediately follows this by reiterating that I believe
that no one is authorised to judge them, not those who lived through the
experience of the Lager and even less those who did not live through it,60
the implicit judgement in Levis characterisation of these others is clear.
Levis judgement of the Sonderkommandos is evident in his
description of their situation as an extreme case of collaboration.61 The
intended negative connotations of the Italian word collaborazione used by
Levi are just as clear as they are in its English translation. Yehuda Bauers
discussion of Jews in privileged positions in his book Rethinking the
Holocaust suggests a distinction should be made between cooperation,
which signifies unwillingly yielding to superior force, and
collaboration, which stands for collusion based on identical ideological
premises or a conviction that the Germans would win the war.62 Under
this definition, Jews seldomif evercollaborated with their German
oppressors. Bauers distinction is made with the privileged members of

Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 41.

Levi, If This is a Man; and, The Truce, 155.
Levi, The Black Hole of Auschwitz, 20.
Levi writes that it must be remembered that it was precisely the Special Squad
which in October 1944 organised the only desperate attempt at revolt in the history
of the Auschwitz Lager. See Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 41-42.
Ibid. 42.
Ibid. 34.
Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, 148. Bauer takes this distinction from Trunk,
Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


the Jewish Councils and their police forces in the ghettos in mind,
however it is equally applicable to the camps, and the Sonderkommandos
are no exception. The actions of the Special Squads, influenced by an
almost unimaginable degree of coercion, can only be described as forced
cooperation, not collaboration. Furthermore, after Levi states that no
Sonderkommando members have spoken willingly subsequent to their
liberation, he contradicts this by drawing on the testimony of Filip Mller
several pages later.63 Indeed, Levis attitude towards the
Sonderkommandos is further revealed when he inaccurately suggests they
were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration due to
the alcohol they had access to.64 While there was much drinking among
the Sonderkommandos as a coping mechanism, they had to be both
physically and mentally fit in order to endure the gruelling work shifts,
which often lasted twelve hours or longer. Levi also makes a disparaging
claim regarding the Sonderkommando testimonies written with utmost
care amidst the inferno and buried for posterity at Birkenau. He argues that
from men who have known such extreme destitution one cannot expect a
deposition in the juridical sense of the term, but something that is at once a
lament, a curse, an expiation, and an attempt to justify and rehabilitate
themselves.65 While the memoirs and manuscripts of the
Sonderkommandos do sometimes contain elements of self-justification,
they also provide detailed statistics and descriptions of the extermination
process and those involved. In any case, Levis statement seems to suggest
that the members of the Special Squads need to justify and rehabilitate
Perhaps the most telling indicator of Levis judgement of the
Sonderkommandos, however, is his literary analogy with the monatti of
Alessandro Manzonis canonical Italian work, The Betrothed. A constant
intertext throughout Levis writings, Manzonis historical novel depicts
the city of Milan ravaged by plague in the mid-Seventeenth century. The
figures of the monatti are based on those men who removed the corpses
from the houses and streets to mass graves, transported the sick to the
lazaretto (containment area), and burned or fumigated any potentially
infected matter. Manzonis characterisation of the monatti is
overwhelmingly negative. He writes that:


Levi, The Drowned and the Saved 34 & 41.

Ibid. 36.


Chapter Six
The only men who generally took on the work of the monatti were those
more attracted by rapine and licence than terrified of contagion or
susceptible to natural feelings of revulsion They entered houses as
masters, as enemies, and (not to mention their thieving or treatment of the
wretched creatures reduced by plague to passing through their hands) they
would lay those foul and infected hands on healthy people, on children,
parents, wives, or husbands, threatening to drag them off to the lazaretto
unless they ransomed themselves or got others to ransom them with
money [They] let infected clothes drop from their carts on purpose, in
order to propagate and foster the plague, for it had become a livelihood, a
reign, a festival for them.66

Later in the novel, some of these depraved creatures are described as

drinking alcohol whilst sitting on a pile of corpses, with one exclaiming
Long live the plague, and death to the rabble!67 At one point, Manzoni
describes a filthy monatto as briefly showing a kind of unusual respect
and involuntary hesitation when faced with the body of a young girl
killed by the plague. It is here that Levi makes a connection to the unique
incident in Birkenau when a young girl survived the gas and was
temporarily cared for by the Sonderkommando members who found her.
Levi describes these Jews, debased by alcohol and the daily slaughter, as
transformed by the survivors presence, although she was discovered and
executed soon after.68 Nonetheless, the parallel Levi makes between
Manzonis monatti and the Jews of the Sonderkommando seems to involve
more than a brief moment of pity, particularly when considering Levis
concluding comment that compassion and brutality can coexist in the
same individual and in the same moment.69 In the words of poet Michael
OSiadhail, in Levis representation, the Sonderkommandos had Fallen
beyond his compassions greyest zone.70


Manzoni, The Betrothed, 454-55.

Ibid. 487.
Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 39. The account of the incident Levi draws
on is taken from Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctors Eyewitness Account, 114-20. A
Hungarian Jew, Nyiszli was chief pathologist for Dr. Josef Mengele at Birkenau
and served as physician to the Sonderkommando and SS.
Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 39.
See the poem Ravens in OSiadhail, The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to
the Holocaust, 72.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


From Grey to White: Responding to Levis Grey Zone

While Levi recoils from the Special Squads, the Australian historian Inga
Clendinnen takes a vastly different tone in the chapter of her book,
Reading the Holocaust, entitled Inside the grey zone: The Auschwitz
Sonderkommando.71 Clendinnen gives much emphasis to the allegedly
easy-going, humane relationships shared between members of the
Sonderkommandos and their SS guards, characterising the former as men
who laboured for long hours in an intimate and semi-harmonious
environment.72 Following this, Clendinnen comments on a documented
scenario that has resulted in two conflicting interpretations, and which
exemplifies for us the different judgements placed on the
Sonderkommandos by Levi and Clendinnen. The scenario is taken from
the memoir of Auschwitz survivor Miklos Nyiszli, who briefly describes a
soccer game being played between the Sonderkommando and SS in front
of an excited audience shouting and laughing at the proceedings.73 Levis
reaction to this in his essay on the grey zone is predictably strong.
Taking the liberty of elaborating on certain details, Levi describes the
spectators at the game: they take sides, bet, applaud, urge the players on
as if, rather than at the gates of hell, the game were taking place on the
village green.74 In stark contrast to this, Clendinnen describes the match
as a particularly eerie example of comradely fun: an impromptu twilight
football match between scratch teams from the SS and the SK, with
much shouting and laughter from players and onlookers alike.75 The
differences between these two descriptions prove instructive on just how
crucial the use of language can be. Levi hears Satanic laughter behind
the match, viewing it as symbolic of the SS consummating its corruption

Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, 73-91.

According to Clendinnens account, Sonderkommando members and their SS
overseers cooperated during visits by camp superiors to give a false impression of
efficient work being completed under harsh rule. Even the beatings, Clendinnen
writes, were more restrainedat least recognisably humanthan elsewhere in
the camp. Clendinnen notes that, at least prior to the general reorganisation in May
1944, both sets of parasites lived best when they lived in comfortable symbiosis.
While she briefly qualifies her remarks so as not to exaggerate the ease of
relations, to deny the vileness of the mens tasks, or to minimise their absolute
vulnerability before their masters, her positive account of Sonderkommando-SS
relations is substantial, if not overwhelming. See Ibid. 82-85.
Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctors Eyewitness Account, 68.
Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 38.
Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, 86.


Chapter Six

of the Jewish prisoners: You are like us, you proud people, dirtied with
your own blood76 On the other hand, Clendinnen interprets the
situation as men being allowed to recognise each other, even if briefly, as
human beings.77 Both Levis and Clendinnens interpretations of the
football match are clearly underpinned by their moral judgements.
Interestingly, Agamben also reflects briefly on this match, which he calls
the perfect and eternal cipher of the gray zone.78 He quotes Levis
description (and judgement) without consulting the original source,
dismisses the notion that the soccer game signifies, as Clendinnen asserts,
a brief pause of humanity, and confirms that I, like the survivors, view
this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp.79 As
noted earlier, Agambens use of the concept of the grey zone is highly
generalised, and his concerns here rest more with the event itself, hence he
does not linger on the members of the Sonderkommandos.80 This is
perhaps indicative of Agambens own emphasis on the impossibility of
judgement, although it is nonetheless noteworthy that Levis judgement of
the Sonderkommandos remains unquestioned.
Clendinnen reiterates Levis warning against judgement and goes to
great lengths to emphasise the inappropriateness, if not impossibility, of
moral evaluation. Claiming to lack any footing from which to judge the
Sonderkommandos, Clendinnen nonetheless moves towards absolving
them of any responsibility.81 As Robert Gordon notes however, Levis
grey zone is not a plea for mitigation. Its power lies precisely in its


Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 38.

Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, 86. Noting a few rare instances of SS
refusal to murder Jews with whom they had had prolonged close contact with,
Clendinnen adopts an almost sentimental tone: some small sense of community
and some recognition of the other as a comrade, seems to have bloomed in that
unlikely place, and in that blooming lightened one corner of the darkness that was
Auschwitz. Ibid. 87.
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 26.
For Agamben, the match seems to represent human indifference, and the
potential for habituation in the face of ever-present violence, hence it must be
stopped for humanity to have any hope. The match also incorporates shame, both
that of the survivor and those with no direct experience of the camps. While Levis
concept of the grey zone can be tentatively linked to survivor guilt insofar as it
involves the (unwarranted) shame felt for living at the expense of others, this was a
legacy of the twisted logic of the camps. Indeed, Agamben himself dismisses
Levis analysis of survivor guilt as puerile. See Ibid. 88.
Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, 76.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


acknowledgement that there is guilt and innocence at work.82 The crucial

point, as cited from Levi earlier, is that in the case of the
Sonderkommandos and other so-called privileged Jews, human beings
particularly those who did not directly experience Nazi persecution during
the Holocaust, but even those who didlack the necessary requirements,
whether moral faculties or legal institutions, to judge them. Most tellingly
of all, the sense that Clendinnen seeks to justify the Sonderkommandos
actions is clear when she ends her discussion on a note of outright praise:
Ought the men of the Sonderkommandos be judged morally defective
because, surviving long enough to become habituated to the iron
circumstances of their existence, they strove to make a kind of life in the
midst of the horror? My own inclination is to admire their toughness of
spirit. Adaptability is a human virtue, requiring its own brand of courage.83

The contradiction in Clendinnens analysis is only too apparent in the

rhetorical question that follows this passage: And surely it is absurd to
evaluate moral performance in a setting studiously designed to deny the
autonomy, indeed the moral existence, of the majority of its members?84
To write with admiration of positive human virtue and courageous
efforts to make a kind of life, as if the members of the
Sonderkommandos were stubborn pioneers, appears ill-fitting when
describing such an ambiguous existence. The opposite tendency of this
outright absolution can be found in Joram Warmunds essay on the grey
zone. While criticising Clendinnens exculpation of the Special Squads,
Warmund makes the highly dubious comment that not all individuals in
the Sonderkommandos were doing their work purely because they were
under orders.85 It is difficult to imagine what ulterior motives he may
have had in mind.

Conclusion: To meditate with pity and rigour

Primo Levis writing on the grey zone has raised complex dilemmas that
are still far from being resolved, if this is at all possible. The approaches of
Giorgio Agamben and Inga Clendinnen are exemplary of two extremes in
terms of responding to the Holocaust. For Clendinnen, the unprecedented
situations related to the grey zone are still distinguishably human; they

Gordon, Primo Levis Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics, 10.

Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, 91.
Warmund, The Gray Zone Expanded, 173.


Chapter Six

still seem to entail the existence of relatively unproblematic choice, and

can thus still be evaluated according to normative moral principles.
Significantly, Clendinnen has stated that she wrote her book on the
Holocaust to exorcise some of its horror by steady looking,86 and her
humanistic analysis arguably does just this at the expense of the events
historical complexity. Meanwhile, Agamben stresses the collapse of
former ethical frameworks based on notions of dignity and freedom.
Focusing on the ethics of survivor testimony, he argues that the knowledge
that human life continues in the most extreme degradation, knowledge
that is imparted to us through the testimony of Levi and Salmen Lewental
for example, now becomes the touchstone by which to judge and measure
all morality and all dignity.87 But what does this mean when judgement is
at once illegitimate and inevitable? At such a distance of time and
experience, how are we to remember those prisoners who encountered the
choiceless choices in the extreme situations of the Holocaust?
If it is the case, as Slavoj iek puts it briefly, that only a free choice
is morally binding,88 then it is clear that we must abstain from judging
Jews in extremis, and the Sonderkommandos are no exception. However,
when considering this need to withhold moral judgement, those who seek
to represent the traumatic experiences of Jews are confronted with vast
obstacles. It has been shown that, in spite of Levis imperative warning not
to judge the Sonderkommandos, both Levi and Clendinnen clearly pass
judgement in their representations. The grey zone paradoxically warns
against judgement but at the same time requires it, and the sustained
ambiguity desired by Levi remains elusive. Amidst the debris of the
Holocaust and in light of the trauma of choiceless choices, what may be
said of judgement and the certainty with which we pass it?
Few testimonies have filtered down to us from the Sonderkommandos.
It would seem fitting to end with a passage from Lewentals fragmented
and partially indecipherable manuscript, unearthed on 17 October, 1962,
near the crematoria in which he spent his last months in the Birkenau
We were shamed of one another and we dared not look one another
in the face. Our eyes swollen with pain, shame, tears and
lamentations, each of us burrowed into a hole to avoid meeting
another [] I admit that I, too, [] it appeared that my actions, too,
[] were [] the truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one

Clendinnen, Agamemnons Kiss: Selected Essays, 2.

Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 69.
iek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out, 74.

The Trauma of Choiceless Choices: The Paradox of Judgement

in Primo Levis Grey Zone


wants to live because one lives, because the whole world lives. And
all that one wishes, all with what one is, if only slightly, bound [] is
bound with life first of all, without life [] such is the real truth.89

It is significant to note that even in this testimony, exuding so much

sorrow and guilt, Lewental, who was involved in the planning for the
aforementioned Sonderkommando uprising, himself judges some of his
fellow crematorium workers shortly after the lines cited above:
And here is the crux [] of our Kommando, which I have no intention to
defend as a whole. I must speak the truth here, that some of that group
have in the course of time so entirely lost themselves that we ourselves
were simply ashamed. They simply forgot what they were doing [] and
with time [] they got so used to it Day after day they stand and look
on how tens of thousands of people are perishing and [do] nothing.90

Confronted with a morally liminal situation, it is clear that the problem of

judgement is particularly acute. In what may be an impossible task, may
we, following the suggestion of Primo Levi, meditate on the
Sonderkommandos with pity and rigour, but let a judgement of them be
suspended? Perhaps the only certainty to be found here is that the legacy
of the Holocaust for philosophy is bound to continue.91

Bezwinska and Czech, eds., Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of
Prisoners in Crematorium Squads Found at Auschwitz, 136 & 139.
Ibid. 139. Curiously, Langer views Lewentals statement as description, not
judgment. See Langer, The Dilemma of Choice in the Death camps, in Echoes
from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time, 125.
I would like to sincerely thank Justin Clemens, Pam Maclean and Matthew
Sharpe for their invaluable suggestions throughout the writing of this paper.


Ragged tears in walls, roofs, and floor structures created by explosions and fires
are complex forms and figurations, unique in their history and meaning. No two
are alike, yet they all share a common aspect; they have resulted from the
unpredictable effects of forces released in the calculated risks of war. They are the
beginnings of new ways of thinking, living and shaping space, arising from
individuality and invention.
Lebbeus Woods1
There are concepts that have gained an entirely new meaning because of the
ghetto. Revenge. Irreconcilability. One must reorient, just as the ghetto dwellers
were forced to experience the world in a new way. The Christian ethic is no more
adequate for this purpose than the Jewish ethic. A new philosophy of history
would have to be written, or rather; it is already in the making. It was the people in
the ghetto who recorded its first sentences.
Jean Amry2

Kill Bills Beatrix Kiddo is the most deadly woman in the world.3
Dragging herself from the brink of destruction, Kiddo proceeds to wreak
havoc upon all those who attempted to destroy her. Beatrix epitomizes
unforgiving revenge. She is the vengeful God, Nietzsches creditor in On
the Genealogy of Morality who seeks retribution as his due, nay pleasure

Woods, War and Architecture, Pamphlet, 19.

Jean Amry, In the Waiting Room of Death, Reflections on the Warsaw Ghetto,
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill, Vol. 1; Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


in the retribution.4 Nietzsches celebration of punishment gestures

towards the spectacle of the scaffold, whose voyeuristic manner of
consumption puts the suffering of the criminal on display. Kiddo is the
victim who takes the law into her own hands, Nietzsches blond beast
armed with a sword and the thirst for revenge.5
In Australia, the State Government of Victorias Department of Justice
is currently circulating a community consultation paper which proposes a
Victims Charter aimed to assist victims of crime.6 Although political nod
to right-wing law and order campaigns, the paper acknowledges that
victims need to be brought back into the fold of criminal prosecution.
This was not always so. Up until the 19th century, victims were not only
central, they were the instigators of most criminal proceedings in England
and Europe.
The emergence and eventual expansion of Crown
prosecution, that is, its incorporation by the state, has led to a situation
where critics argue that: the criminal justice systems only interest in
victims relates to what they are able to contribute to evidence.7 According
to these views, victims have become a disenfranchised group who have
ceased to be active participants in the justice process.8
The Victorian Governments draft Victims Charter purports to serve
the interests of victims, by inserting them into the existing system of
criminal prosecution. Victims are to comply with the system and not vice
versa. Kiddo refuses to subject herself to state forms of justice, preferring
to exact revenge in a manner of her own choosing. In this, she resembles
Robert Meisters unreconciled victim, who refuses the subject-position of
the reconciled victim.9
Whilst acknowledging that victim reparation was unfinished business,
the Chair of South Africas Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC),
Desmond Tutu, nevertheless took pride in the Commissions work:
When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it
becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them
without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality.

Kiddo differs from Nietzsches blond beast in one respect: she has a good
memory for past offences. Her acts of violence are given meaning in relation to
the commission of prior offences. See Nietzsche, Ibid., Second Essay: Guilt,
bad conscience and related matters.
Department of Justice, Victims Charter Community Consultation Paper.
Shapland, cited in Dept. Justice, loc cit., 8.
My emphasis, Dept. Justice, loc cit., 8.
Meister, Ways of Winning, The Costs of Moral Victory in Transitional
Regimes, 81-111.


Chapter Seven
that we might be a blessing to others. Quite improbably, we as South
Africans have become a beacon of hope to others locked in deadly conflict,
that peace, that a just solution is possible. If it could happen in South
Africa, then it could certainly happen anywhere else.10

Beatrix Kiddo represents a willful, if virtual, resistance to this

trajectory. Such resistance is not merely virtual or the stuff of film,
though. It was expressed by a number of people last year in Sarajevo, the
capital of a country officially divided into two states as part of an ongoing
truce that ended an awful war.11 During a conference discussion on
reconciliation and the inadequacies of the Dayton Peace Accords twostate division of Bosnia, Munira Subai, an activist from Srebrenica,
quipped that she would like to see her country divided into two groups
comprising good people and bad peopleproposing that she would live
with the good ones. Her remark was made in a place which has not yet
brought, and may never bring, its many war criminals to justice.12 It was

Tutu, Forward, 2.
The following remarks occurred during a conference entitled, Pathways to
Reconciliation and Global Human Rights, held at UNITEC, Sarajevo, August
2005. It was organised by the RMIT Globalism Institute, in conjunction with the
Global Reconciliation Network (of which I am a Founding Member), and was
sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.
To date, the International Criminal Tribunal of former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has
indicted and charged 161 persons, and convicted 47. A Bosnian War Crimes
Chamber (WCCP) was established in Sarajevo in 2005. It has jurisdiction over the
whole of Bosnia. It held 20 trials in 2005, and began its first genocide case in
2006 (11 have been accused in relation to the Srebrenica massacres). It is hoped
the WCCP will take over the work of the ICTY when it runs its term in 2010.
Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns about the limited resources available
to the WCCP in the face of complicated indictments which are being transferred
from the ICTY, Human Rights Watch World Report 2006, pp. 342-3. These
convictions and their indictments can only address a fraction of the cases
associated with the disappearance of thousands during the conflict. The
International Commission on Missing Persons has estimated between 15,000 and
20,000 missing persons are unaccounted for. Their initial work is being continued
by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovinas Federal Commission for Tracing
Missing Persons (FCTMP) which identifies human remains through DNA
identification matching the tissue of living relatives. So far, 12,000 have been
identified in this way (personal communication with Amor Maovi, Chairman
FCTMP, August 2005). These figures indicate the breadth and extent of the
missing, their painstaking identification and subsequent burial, in face of the 47
plus convictions attained so far (supra). Subai is the head of the Movement of
Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves. She is involved in the group burials of
identified victims, established a memorial centre in Potoari near Srebrenica, and

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


made alongside a comment by another that: I want to know who the war
criminals are and to see them brought to justice, so that I can have a coffee
with a Serb person, sit on a bus next to someone, without thinking this
man may be a war criminal, someone who might have killed my sons.13
For Subai, who lost 26 members of her family in the Srebrenica
massacres, there can be no reconciliation without justice, no (re)integration
without accountability.14
A different expression of resistance came from Ranko MilanoviBlank, a Bosnian journal editor, who rejects reconciliation as a barbaric
practice which divides people so as to contrive to bring them together in
conditions which he cynically describes as the bare fact that people from
different ethnic groups attended an event or were in the same project.15
Milanovi-Blank posits the singularity of individuals against the binarism
of group-imposed ethnic identity, the twin terms of Bosnian reconciliation.
His professedly monadic ontology obviates the need for reconciliation
inasmuch as individuals do not have to reconcile with anybody because
they were and are not against anybody.16
Each of these figures represents a certain kind of resistance or refusal.
By enacting her own brand of justice, Beatrix Kiddo is the unreconciled
victim who achieves just revenge (or just achieves revenge) outside state
forms of justice or reconciliation. Munira Subais purported division of
Bosnia into the good and the bad implicitly refuses reconciliations notion
of reintegration, projecting a division of her own choosing, until justice
can achieve its own reckoning. Milanovi-Blank rejects the mannered
binarism of reconciliation in the name of creativity.17

has organized yearly commemorations of the losses associated with the massacre.
She lost her teenage son and husband.
Cited in: Editorial, Halilovich, Phipps, Adams, James and Bakalis, Pathways
to Reconciliation, 5.
This is not a rare sentiment but was expressed by numerous signatories to a
statement coming out of the Pathways to Reconciliation conference: Accessed July 2006.
Milanovi-Blank, Creativity, Openness and Reconciliation, 8.
Milanovi-Blank, Stvaralatvo Naspram Pomirenja, 105. A related rejection of
ethnically differentiated identity is performed by those who prefer to say they are
from former Yugoslavia rather than identify in ethnic terms as, say, Bosnian Serb
or Serbian Croat.
Milanovi-Blank is editor of the Hard-core multi journal for literature and
culture Album, which has produced 23 editions since 1997. He sees the work of
Album as fostering creativity and openness between individuals rather than a
collectivized totality.


Chapter Seven

Taken together, these positions, in anti-Oedipal fashion, refuse to

insert themselves into the folds of a normalization that would enable a
telos of reconciliation.18 It could be argued that all three are holding out
for something more or maybe less than reconciliation, that they resist entry
and passage through a sort of normalization that wants to get better, to
unify and be healed, a trajectory that for Tutu and many others is a
necessary condition of peace. Each refuses the subject position of
reconciled victim because to do so implies some kind of loss: of revenge,
of criminal justice, of the loss of singularity ormaybeof the loss of
loss itself (i.e., the ability to mourn, to grieve, and to demand justice).
What are we to make of these expressions of resistance? Is it plausible
to refuse reconciliation? Can a country with a genocidal past afford not to
reconcile? Perhaps we should answer each of these resistances in turn,
arguing, like Tutu, that reconciliation is the only way towards a better
future. There is a way of looking at past conflict which demands a
reconciliation whose function is to restore or, at the very least, to address
that which was lost or damaged and, secondarily, to traverse and mend the
divisions of conflict in order to enable, if not to guarantee, a future free
from the atrocities of the past. By distinguishing itself from the
calculations of justice, reconciliation is able to stage a coming together of
conflictual difference in order to both draw a line in the sand and step over
it towards a horizon of unification and peace.19
Robert Meister makes this very clear in his writings on political
transition: that, projects of national recovery are about coming together to
negotiate a collective attitude towards the past which can serve the future.
Such an attitude captures what Nietzsche calls a critical form of history:

The reference to the anti-Oedipal evokes Deleuze and Guattaris project in AntiOedipus, where the anti-Oedipal stance represents a resistance to the normalized
subject of psychoanalysis, in particular, via the passage of the individual through
the structures of the Oedipus complex, see Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus,
Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Jacob Finci, the driving force behind legislation to establish reconciliation in
Bosnia promotes reconciliation over the impossible calculations of justice. He
argues that, like so many Nazi war criminals, Bosnias numerous perpetrators may
never be brought to justice, and that it is impossible to calculate an appropriate
tariff for the many atrocities committed during the conflict. In Fincis view,
reconciliation is able to achieve something that the criminal justice system cannot,
including setting a common, historical record for future generations. Finci,
President of La Benevolencija, Vice President of the coordinating body of Bosnian
NGOs, interviewed by P. Komesaroff and P. Rothfield, August 2005. See also his
speech in Pathways to Reconciliation. Finci, Keynote Address: Truth and
Reconciliation CommissionsPerspectives and Experiences.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the
strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by
bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally
condemning it; every past, however, is worthy to be condemnedfor that
is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always
played a mighty role in them. It is not justice which here sits in judgment;
it is even less mercy which pronounces the verdict: it is life alone, that
dark, driving power that insatiably thirsts for itself.20

If resistance to reconciliation is to be other than pathological or guilt

ridden, perhaps it lies here, as a form of judgment, which rejects the telos
of reconciliation on behalf of life. What kind of life might be affirmed
outside reconciliation remains to be seen. My way of listening to these
forms of resistancereal and virtualwill be to open reconciliation out
towards a more ambivalent reading than wholesale support would wish to
allow; to critically assess its trajectory, its terms, its idealizations, and to
investigate its limits, delusions, denials and exclusions. In that sense, my
reading of reconciliation will resemble Derridas reading of Platos
pharmakon as both remedy and poisonleading to a view of
reconciliation as pharmakon rather than panacea. 21 This is not about
being for or against reconciliation. It is about making space for
ambivalence, understood here as more than one valence or value.
I will argue that projects of national reconciliation are inherently
ambivalent as far as victims of violence are concerned, because there is an
irrevocable tension between the social and the singular. Derrida expresses
this tension in terms of the difference between calculable forms of justice
and the incalculable domain of forgiveness, where the unforgivable may
nevertheless be forgiven.22 I will draw upon Klossowskis work on
Nietzsche to draw out this tension, through his characterization of a
gregarious social register which can never adequately represent the
effervescent dynamics of human existence. To that extent, I wish to honor
these expressions of resistance to reconciliation as something other than
pathological; suggesting that they enact a critical stance towards the
sociality of reconciliation on behalf of the singularity of corporeal life.23

Nietzsche, On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life, 75-6.

Derrida, Dissemination, 95-117.
Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness.
These expressions of resistance were not made alone. The Pathways to
Reconciliation and Global Human Rights conference was made free to Bosnian
and Sarajevans in order to foster local participation, whilst plenary sessions were
translated into English and Bosnian. This meant that many people spoke. One
person who spoke at length was described by a psychologist working with


Chapter Seven

The critical attitude thereby affirms as it condemns, making room for

survivors of atrocity beyond the confines of reconciliation. I will conclude
by recontextualizing this discussion in the not yet of Bosnian
reconciliation, where the victim of atrocity must find a place within the
ongoing segregation of a country divided and traumatized.

Robert Meister and the Psycho-Social Politics

of Reunification
In what follows, I will tease out the sense in which reconciliation
interpellates the parties to past conflictas perpetrator, victim,
beneficiary, and survivorin order to produce the reconciled subject,
citizen of what will become posttraumatic society. I will do so through the
writings of Robert Meister on the psycho-social dynamics of transitional
justice.24 Meisters work combines moral psychology, political theory and
psychoanalysis in order to evoke the dynamics of reconciliation. His work
addresses a nation divided, whether through color, ethnicity, religion or
simply civil war. Conflict also creates new divisions between perpetrator
and victim. Put simply, the task of reunification is to find a way to create
political unity. In reality, however, the victims of embodied violence are
not easily merged into the social whole. Their grief is etched on their
faces, their lives scarred by trauma, violence and loss.
Meister draws upon Kleinian psychoanalysis as a means to understand
the ways in which a nation might recover from its traumatic past. He asks
the question: how does a nation deal with historical trauma so as to set
itself upon a pathway of recovery? A key aspect of his work is to analyze
the ways in which social trauma is made historical; a thing of the past
whose recurrence is collectively resisted. This is what he means by the
post-traumaticthe production of collective social attitudes towards a

survivors of torture in Australia as thought disordered. I wish to include such

disorders of thought alongside the rebellious expressions cited earlier as
something to be honored in the development of reconciliation practice and theory.
In reconciliation parlance, bearing witness to anothers suffering represents the
attempt to ethically honor individual testimony. This essays attempt to theorize
ambivalence is a manner of bearing witness in philosophical terms to these many
expressions of suffering.
I refer to Meister, Forgiving and Forgetting, Lincoln and the Politics of
National Recovery, 135-175; and Meister, Ways of Winning, The Costs of Moral
Victory in Transitional Regimes, 81-111.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


traumatic past.25 Meister looks at the construction of a single national

identity out of antagonistic forms of difference, according to which, reidentification and reunification are the means by which a country can
move towards postwar reconstruction. Re-identification stands for the
mobility of group-subject positions and their social implication with
respect to agendas of nation building. It is able to occur through
imaginary shifts in identification, fantasies of collective guilt, attitudes of
(mock) reparation, and defense against the return to prior forms of
identification. It functions in contrast to retributive forms of psychological
splitting in which aggression towards former enemies is split off and
projected onto threatening others who are consequently feared as
impending persecutors.

Reunification Through Survivorship

The transition from conflict to national rebirth, from past trauma to the
post-traumatic, is an historically specific process dependent upon the
terms of transition, ceasefire, settlement or victory/defeat. In the case of
the American Civil War, Meister writes, the passage from conflict ridden
factions towards a universal standpoint effected post-traumatic
reconciliation. According to Meister, the movement beyond trauma was
galvanized by Abraham Lincoln via the unifying theme of survivorship.
Lincoln is credited with addressing the whole nation as survivors, through
constructing national trauma as a binding experience:
Rather than compelling all Americans to acknowledge the pain that slavery
inflicted on those whom our nation previously treated as others, the figure
of Lincoln invites all Americans to identify themselves as victims who
survived the experience of slavery and Civil War.26

The production of the citizen-survivor took hold through a mixture of

interpellationfor example, via the Gettysburg Addressand reidentification in which all are identified as victims of the war.27 In order

Wilhelm Verwoerds description of South Africas Truth and Reconciliation

Commission conforms to Meisters notion of the posttraumatic. Verwoerd writes
that the TRC represents the deeply meaningful process of official, public,
inclusive remembrance and recognition of key past injustices, Verwoerd,
Towards the Recognition of Our Past Injustices, 165.
Meister, Forgiving and Forgetting, 136.
In Meisters analysis, Lincolns story of survivorship drew upon the 14th
Amendment, his Gettysburg Address as well as his 2nd inaugural speech. Even
though it enabled the production of a national, that is, joint subject position with


Chapter Seven

for a people to collectively identify as survivors, they need to abandon

their old subject positions. Victims and perpetrators of past abuse must
not see themselves as differentboth must become survivors of slavery
and of the war that put an end to it.28 Mutual identification undermines the
dichotomy of victim and perpetrator, creating the homogeneity of
survivorship necessary for national rebirth.
Survivorship operates in contrast to the continuation of conflict.29 If
perpetrators are unable to identify with victims, they can only fear and
hate them, and may consequently dread retaliation. Meister gives the
example of General Robert E. Lee who urged the South to keep fighting in
order to defend against the annihilation that the North was supposed to
desire or threaten: [A] cruel enemy seeks to reduce our fathers and our
mothers, our wives and our children to abject slavery, to strip them from
their homes.30
Belief in retribution fuels ongoing aggression. It signifies the
projection of fear and hatred which is then felt as persecution. The
problem with ongoing divisions of this sort is that the war can never be
over, for retaliation is always around the corner. Through fears of
retaliation, antagonistic difference is vulnerable to the slippage between
ceasefire, surrender and annihilation. It is in the national interest then that
perpetrators identify with victims, and vice versa, to share in mutual
identification, so as to jointly acknowledge that victims did suffer abuse or
An implication of mutual identification is that the burden of guilt is
shared through what Meister calls a fantasy of collective guiltwe could
have been perpetrators, just as we Americans are now survivors of slavery
and the war. In terms of moral psychology, the survivor story puts the
beneficiary on an equal moral footing as the victim: for we are all deemed
survivors. Furthermore, such collective identity authorizes us to stop
respect to the war, there were nevertheless controversies around questions of
amnesty and accountability. These were made manifest through competing
judicial interpretations of the 14th Amendment. Meisters reading of Lincolns
interpretation focuses on its ability to unite whilst acknowledging that there are
other interpretations of the 14th Amendment which emphasise difference and
require the persistent identification of victims. These latter interpretations suggest
that there are ineliminable differences within American society, offering for
example, a basis for critical race theory which proposes to deal with difference on
the basis of victim accounts and perspectives. Ibid., 145.
Ibid., 142.
General Lee, cited in Ibid., 142.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


listening to the voice of the victim insofar as this is what it takes to

recover from a traumatic history and reunite.31 Survivorship, according
to this account, is a psychological form of identification, socially staged,
and a step towards integrating a country formerly divided by war. It is a
political means by which a society can reunite in order to move onto
postwar reconstruction. In that sense, it is an element of what many social
theorists call the social imaginary of a nation; a term of unification.

The Nation in Recovery

Reunification is the way in which trauma can be given a past inflexion.
This is not a once and for all burial of the past but a dynamic whose
requirements are ongoing.
Post-traumatic reunification has to be
maintained. It will always be haunted by a traumatic past. To that extent,
it must defend itself against recurrence, against the return of an historical
repressed. Meister uses the metaphor of a recovering alcoholicthe
nation in recoverywho can never drink again for fear of reversion to
the old (dis)order. Nations in recovery are liable to experience subsequent
transgressions as the return of past trauma. The identification with past
victims creates a present in which, for example, racist offences are
accorded added significance as reenactments of past abuse against our
other [prior] selvesthat is, against the historical victims with whom
everyone identifies.32 Meister posits recovery as requiring ongoing
defense against such repetition. Hence post-traumatic justice ought to be
particularly sensitive to what is felt as repetition of the same. In this
sense, a history of slavery augments the harm of racially discriminatory
conduct.33 The point is that post-traumatic justice has an historical
element that ahistorical forms of liberalism miss. It enables all citizens to:
entertain fantasies of guilt for the crimes that they do not commit
fantasies that result from an act of mutual identification between victim
and perpetrator that first internalized the wish to commit such crimes then
censors it. The result is a political culture of national recovery based on
hyper-vigilance against the surfacing of the guilty wish to sin and hypersensitivity about any claim for remedial justice that implies the
appropriateness of any selective punishment for a guilt we all share.34


Ibid., 145.
Ibid., 153
Ibid., 155.


Chapter Seven

This is what distinguishes historical liberalism from non-historical forms

of liberal democracy.35 In post-traumatic societies, the rule of law ensues
from a traumatic past which needs to be acknowledged and kept at a
Such a view offers another way of viewing the Austrian prosecution of
David Irving for denying the Holocaust. Seen from the perspective of an
ahistorical political liberalism, Irvings conviction seems to be a denial of
free speech. Seen, however, from the perspective of a nation in recovery,
one can discern in the legal judgment an attempt to avoid repetition of the
harm of Nazi vilification in the form of Holocaust denial. To deny the
Holocaust is to refuse the collective acknowledgement of past wrongs
structured into the subject position of Austrian post-war identity. The
denial of such wrongs is augmented via the historical existence of Nazi
genocide, a trauma the modern republic of Austria wishes to recover from
and thereby keep in the past.36

Transitions of Victimhood
Mutual identification and collective survivorship requires the victim to
relinquish his/her individual identity. The voice of the victim cannot be
heard to the extent that it returns us to the identities of the past. The
victim, then, is an historical figure who threatens to return, whilst being
repressed (that is, transformed) through the mechanism of reidentification. Victims must settle for whatever benefits peace, progress
and reconstruction may bring, for tomorrow rather than yesterday. It is
not that rebirth represses historical memory but that historical subject
positions are transformed so that the group can now remember the past
together. For example, African National Congress (ANC) member of
parliament, Johnny de Lange, writes that the TRC was a means to enable


This is not to say that the argument cannot be made that all liberal democratic
societies are grounded in violence, on a traumatic past (for example, Derrida, On
Forgiveness). The point is rather that not all liberal democracies see themselves
in this way, for example, Australia. The focus of this paper is therefore on the
transitional processes by which a nation state self-consciously establishes itself as
a liberal democracy via historical forms of acknowledgement.
See also Der Spiegel interview with German historian, Professor Hans UlrichWehler on the introduction of the legislation and its application to Irving. UlrichWehler, Pity for this Man is Out of Place. Ulrich-Wehler makes quite clear the
historical weight of Nazi genocide in framing the legislation outlawing Holocaust
denial within Germany and Austria.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


us to address moral issues of our past and, in particular, various forms of

physical violence we unleashed on each other.37
Inasmuch as truth commissions aim to produce a single historical
narrative which can be owned by the nation as a whole, they also lay claim
to ownership of the past by the collectivity. This is the sense in which the
victim fades away, that is, becomes historical in the production of
consensual narrative.
Meister acknowledges that the survivor story is a better way of coping
with the guilt of perpetrators than of doing justice to victims.38 This is all
the more poignant with respect to South Africa, where amnesty was
offered to perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure. But an offer of
reparation has never been made good because material redistribution was
never put on the table and the spoils of Apartheid remain with its
beneficiaries.39 There is a lot of writing and activism that gives voice to
South Africas particularity, and it has given rise to a different kind of
posttraumatic reconciliation, one whose articulation sets it apart from the
logic of survivorship.40
Like many truth commissions, one of the tasks of South Africas TRC
was to generate a collective acknowledgment that apartheid was evil. In
order to establish a human rights culture for the future, the nation as a
whole needed to recognize apartheids appalling history of human rights
The TRC progressed towards the creation of this
acknowledgement through producing a single narrative of apartheids
illsbuilt upon the testimony of victims, witnesses and the evidence of
perpetratorsthereby brokering a national attitude towards the past.
Victims and perpetrators of apartheid were identified through the work of
a number of legislatively created committees, culminating in public
hearings where victims testified to their suffering under apartheid.41


de Lange, The Historical Context, Legal Origins and Philosophical Foundation

of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (my italics), 30.
Meister, loc cit., 144.
Although the TRCs report recommended a one-off wealth tax to fund victim
reparation, this was never levied.
See Jonker, Reconciliation with the dead and other unfamiliar pathways;
Mamdani, A diminished truth in James and van de Vijver (eds.), After the TRC,
Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa; Bell and Buhle Ntsebeza
(eds.), Unfinished Business, South Africa, Apartheid and Truth; Hamilton,
Refiguring the Archive.
More than 20,000 victim statements were made to the TRC, a limited number of
which were shown to the nation in nightly broadcasts.


Chapter Seven

Perpetrators made full disclosure of their crimes (in return for amnesty
from prosecution).42
According to Meister, there are key differences between South Africa
and the US Civil War, the main being that South Africas reconciliation
produced a remainderan outsidercalled the unreconciled victim rather
than the all inclusive survivor. In Meisters view, the reason for this was
two-fold. Firstly, victims needed to achieve a sense of winning, of
defeating apartheid; and secondly, its beneficiaries needed to be reassured
that the revolutionary struggle is actually over, that South Africa will not
become another Zimbabwe. Since apartheid was not overthrown in socioeconomic terms, apartheids victim needed to feel a sense of victory
beyond material gain. This is where the notion of winning arises, for it
provides a form of victory outside the domain of economic redistribution,
occurring in a moral rather than material register. The moral victory
accorded to victims through reconciliation legitimates their experience
with respect to a past evil under which they suffered.43
Winning is an alternative to revolutionary notions of success:
On the threshold of power, the ANC understood that in revolutionary
justice the victim is to become victor; the problem with this concept is that
nothing counts as winning except continuing the fight.44

If the TRC were to claim victory for the reconciled victim alongside
the defeat of Apartheid, revolutionary struggle needed to be made
redundant; a thing of the past. For Meister, it marked that end through
identifying an outside to its deliberations. The unreconciled victim
signifies what was relinquished in the peaceful transition to liberalism, an
outside now represented in terms of moral damage: that is, committed to
an ongoing cycle of violence.45 This is the cost of being located outside
reconciliation. Unlike survivorship, this trajectory of reconciliation
produces a stubborn remainder, that is, an obstinate outsider who refuses

More than 7000 perpetrators applied to the Amnesty Committee of the TRC. 849
were granted amnesty in exchange for their giving full disclosure of their human
rights violations under apartheid.
The reconciled victim is represented as morally undamaged (did no wrong), able
to take public office and receive reparations.
Meister, Ways of Winning, 84.
Meister writes of the unreconciled victim, the victim-as-revolutionary as a key
actor in twentieth century political theory: ...the unreconciled victim of
revolutionary theory is not depressed, because the war is never over. His initial
victory against the active perpetrators of oppression is just the beginning of the
struggle against the passive beneficiary of oppression., Ibid., 83-4.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


the terms of moral victoryhere represented in the person of Winnie

Mandela. Meister writes:
Time and time again, Archbishop Tutu pleaded with her [Winnie Mandela]
to admit her moral damage The overall effect was to construct her as
the very figure that the TRC meant to marginalize. She now represented
the implicit antitype of Nelson Mandela, the reconciled and morally
undamaged victim who was fit to rule.46

The reconciled victim is crucial to the project of transitional liberalism.

In becoming reconciled, Apartheids victim relinquishes the desire for
further struggle. This is the price of peaceful transition, and the condition
under which the victim and beneficiary can come together to form what
Meister calls a pact. According to this pact, said victim and former
beneficiaries together put Apartheid in the past, keeping the beneficiaries
safe from reprisal, on the one hand, and placing the newly reconciled
victim on the winning side, on the other. By giving the reconciled victim
a notion of winning, the TRC is able to portray itself as a form of justice
not merely a compromise with injustice.47
The second reason for the production and identification of the
unreconciled victim in this process concerns the beneficiary, not the victim
of apartheid. According to Meister, there is widespread agreement that if a
new human rights culture is to take hold, non-victims are the

Ibid., 86. See also TRC Commissioner, Alex Boraines account of Mandelas
evidence in A Country Unmasked, Inside South Africas TRC, Chapter 7.
Meister, loc cit., 90. This controversial point is important for many of those
involved in the politics of reconciliation. Johnny de Lange writes of the need for
the TRC to achieve both justice and reconciliation, de Lange, The historical
context, legal origins and philosophical foundation of the South African Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, Ibid., 23. He writes of a forward looking justice
rather than retribution or vengeance, detailing the balance between justice and
reconciliation as twin aims of the TRC: its investigation of human rights violations
on the one hand (doing justice to victims) and the amnesty process on the other
(allowing perpetrators to confess and move on/reintegrate). According to de
Lange, this latter issue was a delicate matter that needed to occur in a morally
acceptable manner. By way of context, it is worth acknowledging here that many
transitional societies inaugurated truth commissions on the basis of a blanket
amnesty given to all past perpetrators. In requiring full disclosure, South African
amnesty demanded something more from perpetrators who needed to apply for
amnesty, and had to satisfy a number of conditions, including the requirement to
make a full and public disclosure of all offences. De Lange calls this process a
restorative form of justice on the basis of the distinction between qualified and
blanket forms of amnesty. de Lange, Ibid., 24-5.


Chapter Seven

constituency who must be persuaded that the past was evil.48 These two
factorsconcerning victims and beneficiaries coalesced in the production
of the reconciled victim and its resistant other, the unreconciled victim. If
the reconciled victim has a sense of winning, of defeating Apartheid, he or
she can identify with its passive beneficiary, moving toward a national
future, on the basis of a human rights culture and the rule of law.
Acknowledging that human rights violations occurred in the past
reassures non-victims that the rule of law will hold in the future. This is a
crucial feature of the transition to liberalism, for the rule of law
individualizes responsibility, thereby obstructing the logic of collective
responsibility (and reprisal). If beneficiaries believe victims are morally
damaged, they will fear revenge. If, however, the reconciled victim with
whom they identify relinquishes revenge (for moral victory), then all is
well. For Meister then, the establishment of a human rights culture is not
based on past suffering so much as the transcendence of suffering.49
Indeed, Charles Villa-Vicencio claims the TRCs enabling legislation
asked the nation as a whole to transcend resentment, retribution, fear
and indifference.50
What can transcendence possibly mean here? Villa-Vicencio is very
clear that the TRC had political aims, which asked the victim to give
priority to his or her obligations as a citizen rather than a violated person
in the creation of a new and different society.51 The deal is to privilege a
new social identity over that of victimhood on behalf of the nation.
Priscilla Hayner is not alone in distinguishing between individual and
social forms of reconciliation.52 Yet there is nevertheless a tendency on
the part of many authors to insert stories of individual reconciliation whilst
maintaining that the process is primarily political.53 This is all too likely
because the very stuff of national reconciliation is victim testimony. Truth
commissions could not operate but for victim testimony. It is easier to
justify that process if giving testimony is believed to be therapeutic,
cathartic, liberating and empowering for victims.54 Unfortunately, for

Meister, Ways of Winning, 91.

Ibid., 94.
Villa-Vicencio, Restorative Justice, Dealing with the Past Differently, 201.
Ibid, (emphasis in original).
Hayner, Same Species, Different Animal, How South Africa Compares to Truth
Commissions Worldwide, 39-40.
This isnt all that surprising considering the 21,000 victim statements made to
the TRC in the course of its work.
Michael Humphrey critically details a range of positions in this regard. See
Humphrey, The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation, From Terror to Trauma.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


Michael Humphrey, this may be more an article of faith than a matter of

fact.55 Quite apart from therapeutic closure, giving testimony may in itself
be a form of trauma, a repetition or even aggravation.56 Part of the
difficulty for theorists such as Elaine Scarry is that testimony occurs in
mediated narrative settings which may be inimical to the expression of
victims pain.57
Veena Das refers to one such setting, the emergence of Indian
nationhood out of the violence of the Partition in which more than 100,000
women were abducted and raped:
When asking women to narrate their experiences of the Partition, I found a
zone of silence around the event.58

Das cites a number of metaphors produced by the women; of imbibing a

secret poison which could not be expressed. What could find expression
was a masculine position concerning the exchange of women and the
restoration or preservation of honor. Drawing on Nadia Serematakis
work on Greek mourning rituals, Das writes of the zone between two
kinds of deathone which can be spoken of and therefore mourned, the
other which can neither be spoken nor heard. Das concludes that the
womens experiences cannot be told, nor can mourning occur without
addressing issues around the relation between pain, language and the
There is a tension here between the social and the singular, between
what Klossowski calls the leveling power of gregarious thought and the
erectile power of particular cases.60 Gregarious thought, for Klossowski,
is the means by which bodily states come to be communicated between
subjects. Although we as individuals need gregarious thought in order to
communicate, there is another dimension to life represented by the
dynamic heterogeneity of the singular. Whilst individuals may gain social
recognition through giving testimony, Klossowskis work suggests that the
intensity of feelings engendered through violence may never find adequate
expression in socially mediated settings. What finally finds expression is
something else, something legitimated by the authenticity of suffering but

Ibid., 107.
Scarry, The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World.
Das, Language and the Body, Transactions in the Construction of Pain,
Mourning Rituals Conducted by women in India, 67 (25).
Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, 5.

Chapter Seven


which at the same time, turns that suffering to its own (social) ends.
Klossowski writes:
How can the attributes of power, health and sovereignty be restored
to the singular, to the unexchangeable, to muteness since language,
communication and exchange have attributed what is healthy,
powerful and sovereign to gregarious conformity? For it is
gregariousness that presupposes exchange, the communicable,
language; being equivalent to something else, namely, to anything
that contributes to the conservation of the species, to the endurance of
the herd, but also to the endurance of the signs of the species in the

Klossowskis distinction between the gregarious and the singular

suggests that national trajectories of reconciliation will inevitably privilege
the herd in contrast to the singular, incommensurable, unexchangeable
(that is, everything that is excluded from what we call the normal.62
Hence the (re)traumatized, the unsatisfied, unreconciled victim is a
potential side effect of the testimonial cure. Klossowskis work suggests
that gregarious agendas of reconciliation inevitably diverge from that
which is singular and incommensurable. Das gives cultural expression to
a gendered singularity of suffering which cannot find expression in postPartition India. Is there an inherent tension between the singular and
collective interest? To return to Villa-Vicencios turn of phrase, does
giving priority to ones identity as a citizen mean turning ones back on
victimhood? Does his creation of a new and different society require
sacrificing the victim again?

According to Meisters account, the unreconciled, revolutionary victim of
South Africas TRC was constructed as morally damaged and a thorn in
the side of the nations rebirth. If Munira Subai refuses to participate in
some future Bosnian truth and reconciliation commission will she be
criticized for thwarting reunification? If Milanovi-Blank spurns the
group affiliation necessary for reconciliation, will he too damage Bosnian
prospects for peace? I have two responses here, corresponding roughly to
the tension between social and singular need. On the one hand, public
acknowledgement of the traumatic past is important, whether achieved

Ibid., 59-60.
Ibid., 60.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


through criminal prosecution, war crimes tribunals or truth commissions.

This was evident in Haiti, where successive shifts in governmental power
failed to address past atrocities, setting the conditions for further
corruption and sporadic outbursts of mob revenge.63 It is evident in
Australia, where government refusal to acknowledge its violent imposition
of sovereignty, genocide and child abduction fosters its legacy of suffering
and damage. On the other hand, I am reluctant to pathologize resistance to
social trajectories that expect conformity to such public prcesses of
Inasmuch as (re)building requires consensusthe
production of collective attitudes towards a traumatic pastthere will be a
tendency to pathologize outsiders, not only those avoiding (criminal)
responsibility but those whose intensity of feeling stops short at the
threshold of compliance. In such cases, resistance to reconciliation may
carry with it a critical, and not merely delinquent stance, whose critique
bears upon the sociality of national reconciliation from the point of view
of unruly, traumatized life. Derrida tells the story of the old Jew who
rejected an invitation to visit a repentant German, a member of the next
generation.64 Part of me was sorry to read thisdont we always want a
happy ending?but part of me quails in the face of massive suffering,
suspicious of any mechanism that normalizes healing, whilst compelling
the victim of atrocity to reconcile or else.
Jean Amry began At the Minds Limits, Contemplations by a Survivor
on Auschwitz and its Realities with an account of the sheer redundancy of
intellectual thought in the midst of Auschwitz. Some years later, his
searing account of torture and internment gave way to a refusal to
rehabilitate Nazism and the Third Reich.65 He approached this matter
initially through explicating resentments, writing later that:
What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily
accepted. I rebel: against my past, against history, and against a present
that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus
falsifies it in a revolting way. Nothing has healed, and what perhaps was
on the point of healing in 1964 is bursting open again as an infected

See Cohen, Human Rights in the Haitian Transition to Democracy. Thus, the
establishment the War Crimes Chamber in Bosnia referred to earlier was
considered important, both to try war criminals still at large but also to stage such
trials in Bosnia, for this involves establishing a transparent, fair process of
indictment, witness support and protection, proper defense, conduct of trials and
the like that can support the development of an equitable legal infrastructure.
Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness.
See Amry, The Time of Rehabilitation, The Third Reich and Historical
Objectivity, 63-70.


Chapter Seven
wound. Emotions? For all I care, yes.
enlightenment must be free of emotion?66

Where is it declared that

Although he intended to write his account of Nazism in an objective,

distant manner, Amry found that he could not avoid usage of the
subjective, I.67 Indeed, he subsequently claims certain rights on the basis
of his own experience, for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not
only more than the culprit but also more than society.68 Amry
acknowledges that society needs to ensure its own safeguards, at best
looking forward so as to avoid repeating past evils. But, like Klossowski,
he critically distinguishes between gregarious interest and his own register
of suffering, determined to take a stance against rehabilitation:
I am burdened with collective guilt, I say; not they. The world, which
forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed
the murder to occur. I and others like me are the Shylocks, not only
morally condemnable in the eyes of the nations, but already cheated of the
pound of flesh too.69

Whilst advocates of reconciliation can enjoin participation, they should

not compel victims of atrocity such as Amry. Nor need they do so.
Nation building through reconciliation does not require universal
compliance. Its legitimacy is built on the incalculable generosity of
witnesses, who may want to set the historical record for future generations,
to compel perpetrators to give evidence, or simply to speak.70 Amrys
work stands as a stark rejection of rehabilitation.71 His determined

Amry, Preface to the Reissue, 1977, in At the Minds Limits, xi.

Amry, Preface to the First Edition, 1966, in At the Minds Limits, xiii.
Amry, At the Minds Limits, 70.
Ibid, p.75.
On 23rd November 2005, the Centre for Refugee Research held a day for
refugees to speak about their experiences, entitled, The Refugee Court of
Testimonies, at the University of N.S.W. One person after another spoke about
their gruelling experiences in camps, in childrens armies, during and after the
commission of mass atrocities. The event was held at the request of the
participants themselves, who wanted to speak out to an audience of sympathetic
listeners, acknowledge those who were no longer alive and enjoin political action
of the part of others.
Although radically alone, Amry is not unique in thinking that forgiveness has
no place in the holocaust. See for example, Patterson and Roth (eds.), After-words,
Post-Holocaust Struggles with Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Justice. See also
Oliver, Witnessing, Beyond Recognition, chapter 4; and Lawrence Langer, The
Alarmed Vision, Social Suffering and Holocaust Atrocity, 25 (21).

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


singularity recalls Milanovi-Blanks rejection of reconciliation on behalf

of individuals. Although Milanovi-Blank does not assume the position of
victim, he articulates the entitlements of singularity through creative
action. In War and Architecture, Thaddeus Woods argues the case against
restoration, on the grounds that it tends to produce parodies of the past for
the consumption of tourists.72 If not for spectacle then, creation must
come from below, from people who begin to build directly, without the
sanction of any institutionalized authority.73 If this involves the
formation of scabs and scars, the tattoos of war, then so be it.74
For Woods, there exists within this degraded layer of urban fabric
another, more intimate scale of complexity that can serve as the point of
origin for a new urban fabric.75 FAMA, an independent group of artists,
writers and intellectuals produced a survival guide during the siege of
Sarajevo. Clearly ironicHow to survive, but also how to die in the
city?Survival Guide Sarajevo chronicles the inventive ways and means
of living under modern day siege, of creatively engaging destruction with
a guide for survival, a part of the future archive which shows the city of
Sarajevo not as a victim, but as a place of experiment where wit can still
archive victory over terror76

Survival Guide Sarajevo embodies what Woods calls new tissuea fluid
architecture that emerges from the flux, seeking persistence in a world of
the eternally perishing.77 Mobile, strategic and inventive, new tissue
works with the scab and the scar, the inevitable registers of war.
Whilst reconciliation embodies laudable even necessary goals of nation
building, national consensus regarding past atrocity, and the end to cycles
of conflict, there will exist scabs and scars that refuse to gel with its norms
of therapeutic closure. Thus, lest we forget in our teleological zeal, the
likes of Amry attest to the indelible character of suffering amidst the
creation of new territories, of history in the making.78 Although a key to
reunification, Meister acknowledges that the survivor story is one
interpretive approach towards post-war reconstruction. Like South

Woods, War and Architecture, Pamphlet Architecture 15, 10.

Ibid., 24.
Ibid., 19.
Prstojevi, Survival Guide Sarajevo, 1.
Woods, loc cit., 36.
cf. Amry, In the Waiting Room of Death.


Chapter Seven

Africas distinction between the reconciled and unreconciled victim,

survivorship engages victimhood in the national interest. Institutional
forms of reconciliation work for the greater social good, towards peace,
historical truth-telling, and the widespread acknowledgement of gross
human rights violations. They need to identify participants in relation to
the past, to clarify individual relations to mass wrongdoing, and engage
with questions of responsibility and justice so as to set the framework for
future social relations. Insofar as they find themselves interpolated and
transformed through psycho-social modes of identification, projection and
introjection, the parties to reconciliation enter a larger narrative, with its
teleology of future regeneration. Such processes lay down pathways,
hopeful trajectories of healing, closure and acceptance, encouraging
individuals to come to terms with their losses, and their suffering, to
move on via participatory modes of testimony, witnessing and
recognition. These pathways call upon the complexity of forces that make
up individual lives and, to some extent, urge those forces to comply, to
contribute, to configure themselves according to large scale social
This paper began with a number of resistant and unruly individuals,
those who, for myriad reasons, do not wish to follow these pathways.
Holocaust survivor Jean Amry asserted his right to judge these matters.
If that right is to be respected, then advocates of reconciliation need to
understand that reconciliation can never represent a wholesale good; that
spaces need to be made for those who do not have the stomach for it:
Without a doubt, I will be reproached for this, and I must reply, since I am
aware from the start that the overwhelming majority of the worlds nonvictims will hardly accept my justification. But it doesnt matter. In two
decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have
recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is

There are also those who will not assume the moniker, victim, but who
nevertheless critique reconciliation, preferring to engage destruction in
untold ways, through the generation of new tissue. It is not a question of
either/or, but rather, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, of either.or.or.80
They prefer to talk of a productive series, whose accumulation does not
seek commensurability but which instead rise from and sink back into
fluidity, into the turbulence of a continually changing matrix of

Amry, At the Minds Limits, 71-2.

Deleuze and Guattari, 12.

Resistance and Reconciliation, Antinomies of Post-Traumatic Justice


conditions.81 Even Amry resists finality, for although nothing is

resolved, his writings bristle with a spontaneity and vitality that flies in
the face of Auschwitz omnipresence of death.82


Woods, loc cit., 36.

Amry, loc cit., xi & 15.


Is it impossible for truth to become the product of know-how (savoirfaire)? No, its not. But then it will only be half-said (mis-dire) ... It is a
question of Eve who has ever been undeniably possessed, and this for
having eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree, the tree of knowledge Eve
is therefore not mortal, no more than Socrates. Woman, who is in question,
is another name for God, and it is in this respect that she does not exist
You can see here the cunning of Aristotle, who is unwilling to admit the
singular into his logic. Now, contrary to what is admitted into [Aristotles]
logic, it has to be said that Socrates is not a man, since he is willing to die
so the city can live. He is ready to. Its a fact. It must be said, moreover,
that on this occasion, he does not want to hear his wife
Jacques Lacan, Seminar XXIII, 18/11/1975 (trans. Russell Grigg)

Introduction: Kojeves valet

Supposing truth to be a womanwhat then? With this famous question,
Nietzsche begins the remarkably titled Beyond Good and Evil, the work
which Leo Strauss later described as Nietzsches most beautiful.1 The
subtitle of Nietzsches book, A Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
already selects the audience it hopes to help bring into being: a new breed
of philosophers of the future. Modern scholars, Beyond Good and Evil
argues2, have come to outdo even the older philosophers adolescent
fumblings around truth and the fairer sex.3 Far worse than this, in the

Strauss, Note on the Plan of Nietzsches Beyond Good and Evil, 174, no. 1.
See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part VI, We Scholars, pp. 129-146.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Preface, pp. 31-32.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


name of an objectivity whose excesses Nietzsche had critiqued over a

decade before in his second Untimely Meditation, modern scholars have
themselves come to take on the self-effacing timidity Nietzsche still
traditionally idealizes in la femme:
He waits until something comes along and then gently spreads himself out,
so that not even the slightest footsteps and the fluttering of ghostly beings
shall be lost on his surface and skin. Whatever still remains to him of his
own person seems to him accidental, often capricious, more often
disturbing: so completely has he become a passage and reflection of forms
and events not his own 4

It would be interesting to try to think of two twentieth century thinkers

who more closely answer to Nietzsches anticipation of philosophers of
the future than Alexandre Kojeve and Leo Strauss. Strauss and Kojeves
debate surrounding the formers short book On Tyranny, and continued
over decades in letters, certainly has all the trappings of a Nietzschean or
Platonic gigantomachy (gigantic struggle) of opposing masters. As we
shall consider, what begun in 1948 with Strauss giving a typically dense
and penetrating analysis of a little-read classical dialogue had by 1954
grown into an impassioned dialogue concerningif not exactly life, the
universe, and everything, then the clash between ancients and moderns5,
the classical-aristocratic versus Judeo-Christian ways of life6, the
possibility of philosophy or Sagesse (wisdom) and, ultimately, whether
there is an eternal and immutable order within which history takes place,
and which is entirely unaffected by history.7
One particular reason underlying the programmatic stridency with
which these issues are taken up by Strauss and Kojeve in On Tyranny is
surely the trauma of the times in which these philosophers lived and
thought. The emergence of the total states of left and right and the advent
of total war had made the questions raised by classical political philosophy
concerning political tyranny all-too-contemporary. For Strauss as for many
of his generation, the emergence of modern tyrannical regimes which
surpassed the most powerful imagination of the boldest thinkers of the
past8 stood as irrefutable testimony to the wholesale crisis of the modern

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #207, p. 134.

Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 22-25; Restatement on Xenphons Hiero, pp. 177186.
See Strauss, Restatement on Xenephons Hiero, pp. 191-192.
Ibid., p. 212; see Pippin, Being, Time, and Politics, p. 235.
Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 23.


Chapter Eight

age.9 Modern philosophy and modern political thought more generally,

Strauss maintained, had faced its severest challenge with the emergence of
the Nazi tyranny and the Eastern despotism of Stalinist Russia. But it had
failed to recognize it, orwith Heideggerworse.10 And, as Strauss
charged in the opening salutary salvo of his 1954 Restatement :
A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence
with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand
social phenomena as what they are.11

The continuing pertinence of the Kojeve-Strauss debate on tyranny for

our times, today, could have hardly have been more sharply underlined
than by the recent appearance of Francis Fukuyamas mea culpa, After the
Neocons. Fukuyama was literally a student of Kojeve, and a student of
students of Strauss. He is, moreover, most famous for his 1992 book The
End of History and the Last Man, a work whose very title evokes both
Hegel and Nietzsche, the third dialogic couplealongside Hiero and
Simonides, and Kojeve and Strausswhich we will see is invoked in its
own way in On Tyranny. In After the Neocons, Fukuyama does not deny
Strauss influence on many of the leading neoconservative intellectuals
and agents within the current Bush II administration. Rightly in my
opinion, Fukuyama defends Strauss against the charge that Strauss
thought is somehow behind the idealistic foreign policy adventurism of
the current regime in the middle East. Yet what interests me is that
Fukuyama simply has much less to say, and that much less convincing, on
the domestic policies of the Bush administration, and its increasing
suspension or violation of the rule of law in the name of the executives
duty to ensure homeland security in a time of multiplying wars.12 For it
is surely these features, rather than the neo-Wilsonian rhetoric or policy of
spreading democracy to the Islamic world, which would situate this

In the back of Strauss mind, moreover, as literally the last words of his
Restatement on Xenephons Hiero to Kojeve bear witness (Strauss,
Restatement, p. 212), was lasting dismay that Heidegger, whom he considered
the unquestionably greatest philosopher of the last century, had early in 1933:
submitted to, or rather welcomed as a dispensation from fate, the
verdict of the least wise and least moderate part of the nation while it was
in the its least wise and least moderate mood, [while] at the same time,
speaking of wisdom and moderation (Strauss, What is Political
Philosophy?, pp. 23-24)
Strauss, Restatement, p. 177.
Fukuyama, After the Neocons, pp. 21-31.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


regime much closer to what the classics understood by tyrannis and so, we
might expect, to Strauss if not Kojeves political philosophy.
The following, necessarily brief meditations upon history, philosophy
and their tyrannical uses and abuses, then, have an avowedly timely
intention. As a meditation on these topics as they are debated by Kojeve
and Leo Strauss, the paper will necessarily have as its ultimate object the
nature of desire or eros, and its relation to ta politika. As a reflection on
eros, in turn, the essay will be in its own way a reflection on sexual
difference, and philosophers continuing inability to get right this
apparently most natural of all human things. Hegel once famously
remarked (in The Phenomenology of Geist) that Woman represents the
eternal irony of political community.13 Taking this comment as an
inspiration, my paper will highlight two commonalities that might not
strike us at first glance from On Tyranny between Strauss, the
representatives of classical natural right, and Kojeve, the proponent of
modernist historicism. The two commonalities are these: on the one hand,
there is the acceptance of the possibility that history and/or human eros
could find a complete and determinate end in what Kojeve called a
universal and homogenous world state.14 On the other hand, there is the
philosophical legitimation of extra-legal forms of political action to
actively promote or prevent this end of history from coming into being.15
The timely nature of the paper comes from the following contention,
which I proffer to readers here at our beginning: these two poles form the
invariant parameters of the theoretical impasse we still find ourselves in
today, and which accordingly bring together post-structuralism with neoconservatism in brawling love or loving hate. Todays emerging
postmodern conservatisms are principally distinguished from their
predecessors at the level of political ideas, that is, insofar as they oppose
philosophical and political modernity not only because it supposes,
prudently, that modern secularism must fail, given the unchanging nature
of human things. For todays ironically more radical conservatives
mirroring their postmodernist enemiesthe more basic fear is that
modernism is all-too-inevitable, but deeply undesirable.
So, to be clear: for those who would like a denunciation of Strauss as a
contemporary Machiavel, I will offer about as much as I will offer those
who would see in him the prophetic founder of new sects or orders.
Paraphrasing Strauss What is Political Philosophy?, I would maintain
that Strauss is probably about as much responsible for todays neocons as

Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph 475, p. 288.

Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 162.
See Pippin, Being, Time, and History, n. 16 at p. 248.


Chapter Eight

Nietzsche was for the National Socialists, which also means that he is as
little responsible for them too. Happily for both sides, as I will argue both
with and despite Strauss in his Restatement, the difference between
philosophy and politics remains. For disciples of Kojeveif there ever
were anylet us only recall that, when Kojeve would tell his secretary
that, despite appearances, he really was a God, and hencewe can
probably add beyond good and evil, she had the profound,
Aristophanic wisdom to see the irony of this ignoble hubris. It is not just
because of what Hegel had to say concerning heroes and their secretaries
or valets, that is, that we should insist that Kojeve really should have
known better.

1 On Kojeve and Tyranny, or Supposing Fortuna

Were a Woman
Strauss opening gambits in both On Tyranny and his Restatement frame
his position in terms of a radical critique of our modern sciences,16. It has
to be said that although such remarks are the principal justification for
[Strauss commentary] they are not much explored certainly in
Strauss 1948 text.17 Modern political theorists have invoked new
categories like Stalinism, fascism or totalitarianism to comprehend
the twentieth century total states.18 Their turnings away from the classical
notion of tyranny, in turn, were typically animated by the post-Weberian
anxiety that tyranny carries an irremovably moral component of
rejection or resentment of these forms of government that might cloud
the objectivity of the analyses19. As Strauss discussion of Voegelins
categories of post-constitutional or Caesarist regimes in his
Restatement underscores, by contrast, it is precisely the moral
opprobrium carried in tyranny that Strauss argues we should preserve, at
least politically, if we are to appreciate tyranny for what it is at all.20
It is perhaps for this reason that we can note the following peculiarity
of Strauss analysis here., Platos account of tyranny in Republic VIII
proceeds by way of parallel analyses of both the institutional forms of
tyranny and the individual or psychical characteristics of tyrants.

Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 23.

Pippin, Being, Time, and History, p. 234.
See ibid. or, for example, Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
See for example Neumann, What is Dictatorship?, p. 235.
Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 23-24, Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 52;
Pippin, Being, Time and History, p. 234.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


Aristotles ethical account of tyranny in Nichomachean Ethics VIII is

doubled by the more scientific account in Politics V. Yet Strauss On
Tyranny, which presents itself as an account of the classical teaching
concerning tyranny, directs our attention specifically to Xenephons Hiero
or Tyrannicus. Xenephons dialogue proceeds solely in terms of a
discussion on the Socratic question of what is the best way of life for
individual human beings. 21 The dialogue occurs between the traveling
poet-stranger Simonides and the tyrant Hiero.22 Moreover, Strauss
reading of the Hiero, for its part, involves almost wholly intra-textual
analyses. Strauss pieces together the dialogues teaching by means of what
he calls elsewhere reading between the lines:.23 He patiently and
insightfully considers Hieros title, setting, its problem, and the differing
desires of the two protagonists, as evinced in their speech. But for this
reason, as Pippin puts it, Strauss commentary says little or nothing
concerning economic conditions, nationalist histories the politics of
cultural despair. Nor does it speak to other such political datum we might
take to be at least necessary to any adequate account of absolute rule
beyond laws.24
Ironically, then, it is possible to argue that it is only Kojeves 1954
response to Strauss reading of Xenephon that allows us to fully
comprehend Strauss animating critique of modern political sciences in On
Tyranny. Kojeves responsewhich is characterized by an almost divine
boldness25far from denies the proximity between philosophers and
tyranny that Hieros very setting suggests, and which troubles or doubles
Strauss commentary. (see II below) Given that philosophy is love of
wisdom, and since such an extra-political pursuit takes time, Kojeve
reasons, we should not be surprised at the ages-long proximity between
philosophers and tyrants, from Socrates and Alcibiades to Heidegger and
Hitler, via Spinoza and de Witt and other such couples.26 Tyranny is the

Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 3 ff.

As Strauss close reading of the problem, title, form and setting of the dialogue
between the two characters direct us, the reasons for this are surely partly
contextual. We could not expect the wise man, Simonides, addressing the tyrant
Hiero within the dialogue to provide any such analysis to his face, any more than
Simonides could have furnished a wholesale denunciation of the life and actions of
the tyrant per se. (32-35, see 47-8, 66-69).
Paradigmatically, see Persecution and the Art of Writing, being Chapter 1 in
Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing.
Pippin, Being, Time and Politics, p. 234.
See ibid., p. 247.
Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 163.


Chapter Eight

only political regime unbound by either traditional-patrimonial privilege

or modern forms of proceduralism. As such, it is the only type of regime
untethered enough by law or custom to be able to receive and expedite the
wise advice of the philosopher. 27
Yet at the heart of Kojeves response to Strauss on Xenephon is the
question raised but not answered by the very end of Xenephons
dialogue.28 For, as Strauss also emphasizes, Kojeve notes that the end of
the Hiero leaves us with no indication at all as to whether Hiero will
actually take on board the counsel Simonides has given him on how to rule
more beneficently or well.29 Hieros (and Xenephons) silence indeed
leaves it open whether it could ever be even possible for a tyrant as such to
take on any such wise advice, or whetheras Strauss Platonism would
suggestthis advice must always remain utopian since the tension
between philosophy and the city is eternal or irresolvable. Kojeves
contrasting gambit, in answer to these questions, is to introduce the entire
dimension of historical verification30 which he professes surprise that
Strauss had bracketed or bypassed.31 For Kojeve, that is, the first chapters
of Xenephons dialogue wherein Hieroalmost like a spoilt starletad
libs on how the unchecked ability to fulfill ones desires is not all it is
cracked up to be, describes the tragedy of the [aristocratic] Master
analyzed by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind (ch. IV, section A).32

Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, pp. 163-165. The dichotomy of patrimony and
procedural forms of bureaucracy of course is Weberian. To cite Kojeves writing
directly: On the one hand, the philosopher-advisor is, by definition, in a great
hurry [and] if he wants to succeed quickly, he has to address himself to the tyrant
rather than to the democratic leader. Whenever there has been a powerful and
effective tyrant contemporary with the philosopher, it is [hence] precisely on him
that the philosopher lavished his advice, even if the tyrant lived in a foreign
country. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a philosopher himself (per
impossible) becoming a statesman, except as some sort of tyrant. how could
he implement his reform programs, which are necessarily radical and opposed to
the commonly received ideas rapidly without resorting to political procedures that
have always been taxed with being tyrannical? At ibid., pp. 164-165.
Pippin, Being, Time, and History, pp. 247-248.
Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 64.
Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 167.
Ibid., p. 139.
Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 142. Victorious in battle against the others,
whom he has bested by his heroic willingness to stake his life in the desire to be
recognized, the tyrant or master can only be recognized by slaves who are in his
eyes not truly human beings. Hiero above all desires that his subjects should
willingly give way in the streets to his authority, Kojeve observes .As we

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


Yet the thing is, as Lacan once put it, for Kojeves way of seeing things,
the idle classical master is the great cuckold of human history. Political
men like Hiero, Kojeve asserts, can only be fully satisfied if they are
recognized universally, by all people worthy of the recognition.33 We will
return to this in III below. Yet, in order for such non-slavish subjects to
come into being, the entire work of history must be undertaken and
completed. And the heroes of this tale are less men like Hiero than Hieros
slaves. For it is they who, by arduously transforming nature in service of
their masters, eventually transform themselves from slaves into the type
of self-conscious bourgeois who ideally could people a universal and
homogenous State, in which eachs eros for recognition would be
reciprocated by all.34 Now: if a modern tyrant should then act in the name
of achieving this, the end of history, Kojeves thought is:
Then personally I do not accept Strauss position in this matter, because in
my opinion the Simonides-Xenephon utopia has been actualized by
modern tyrannies (by Salazar, for example).35

As Smith has remarked, Strauss Restatement on Kojeves reply is a

masterpiece of philosophical rhetoric. In its light, the exchange almost
takes on the character of a Platonic dialogue with Strauss taking the part
of Socrates to Kojeves tough-talking Thrasymachus, orwe might
add the city of Athens, if not Jerusalem.36 Strauss Restatement on
Xenephons Hiero turns around two poles. The first is a defense of
classical philosophy against Kojeves accusations of its inevitable
fascination with tyranny.37 The second is a trenchant critique of both the
possibility and desirability of Kojeves end of history, to which we will
be returning in III. What unites these two thoughts is Strauss classical
assertion that the humanitas of human beings comes from the desire for

shall see below, at the heart of his malaise is indeed Hieros complaint that, as
things stand, even the natural act of love is colored for him by his suspicion that
his partners are only giving themselves to him out of fear. At Kojeve, Tyranny
and Wisdom, pp. 143-144).
ibid., p. 145.
Ibid., p. 168.
To cite: It may be that what was utopian in Xenephons time could be
actualized because the time needed to conclude the [necessary] current business
has [now] elapsed, and the measures needed to actualize the ideal advocated
by Simonides could be taken.; Kojeve, Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 139.
Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, p. 143.
Strauss, Restatement, p. 182, pp. 198-199, pp. 201-202.


Chapter Eight

wisdom.38 If this assertion holds, Strauss observes, since the desire for
wisdom is an eros which wholly transcends the strictly mundane desire
for recognition, the Kojevan dialectic is tripped no less effectively than
others have argued it is by Antigone.39 As such, Strauss contends,
Kojeves attempt to miraculously synthesize the aristocratic morality of
the classical Greeks with the Judeao-Christian morality of the working
slaves only effects the miracle of producing an amazingly lax morality
out of two moralities both of which made very strict demands on selfrestraint. 40 More than this, says Strauss, this modern synthesis loses sight
of the highest human ends altogether since, as he agrees with Kojeve,
there could be no real need and scant political prospect for philosophic
eros after universal human satisfaction has been achieved.
Now: when Strauss describes Kojeves position in Tyranny and
Wisdom as more than Machiavellian41, my point would be, we need to
hear this as more than simply a statement of moralistic outrage. The
connection between the modern inability to call tyranny by its name and
Machiavellis work has already been announced to us in Strauss opening
statements in On Tyranny.42 Machiavelli marks the point of closest contact
between pre-modern and modern political science, Strauss argues.43 Not
only is The Prince modeled on Xenephons Education of Cyrus.
Xenephons Hiero itself is the only earlier work on tyranny to which
Machiavelli emphatically refers in all of his oeuvre.44 Yet this proximity
with Xenephon should not blind us to how Machiavelli both aimed to, and
succeeded, in putting political science on a new, post-Xenophontic or
post-Socratic footing, Strauss argues. And this is a new grounding given
which, as in Hobbes, the very distinction between tyranny and legitimate
rule was bound to progressively disappear.45
Long before Kojeve, as Strauss argues most systematically in his
Thoughts on Machiavelli, it was Machiavelli who first turned his back on
all the utopian schemes of all the earlier Simonides of Western history
and philosophy. Long before either Kojeve or Hegel, it was Machiavelli
who prioritized merely political honor (or Kojeve will say recognition)
as the highest human good. In this way, he lowered his sights on the

Ibid., p. 209.
For example, Derrida. See ibid. p. 191.
Ibid., p. 185.
Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 24-26.
Ibid. p. 25.
Ibid., p. 24.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


whole within the limits set by the city qua closed to philosophy.46 For
Strauss in Thoughts on Machiavelli, that is, Machiavelli is nothing short of
the prophetic bringer of a new code which disastrously inverts almost all
the terms of the classics teaching.47 At the heart of the new code, to
emphasize, is the supposition that, although God is not dead, he is a
womanto be precise, the dame fortuna invoked in the closing
exhortation in Il Princip.48 Once this supposition was posed, so Strauss
contention runs, the political slope that leads from unselfish patriotism to
criminal tyranny49 is slippery indeed, if it is not a veritable fall. For once
the highest human ends are conceived as the result neither of grace nor of
a coincidence between philosophy and politics for which one can [only]
wish or hope50, but as a common good humans can bring about through
their will or art alone51, virtue tends irrevocably to gravitate towards the
most efficient means to such an end.52 As Kojeve only avows in extremis,
history itself in its turn must come in this new mode or order to take on
all the unprecedented importance it has duly done after the eighteenth
century, becoming the only remaining court to measure the worth or virtu
of human actions or art. Finally, once Machiavellian princes have turned
their backs on the religious and classical moorings of the ancient regimes
of their times, Strauss argues that they can only have recourse to the
tyrannical means Machiavelli describes so shockingly in The Prince:
namely, the terror of the lion and the deceitful ruses of the fox. The reason
is that it is only by winning over the multitude53 that the new princes can
hope to create their new modes or orders. And yet, argues Strauss, the
multitude can at best provide sound judgment on particular issues. For
the rest, they must be treated to a propaganda that proceeds by way of
appearances alone, with a tyrannical disregard for wisdom or truth.54
We will return to these matters in our third meditation below.


Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, pp. 296-297.

Caranta, Machiavelli Rethought: A Critique of Strauss Machiavelli, p. 9.
Machiavellu, The Prince, chapter 26.
Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli., p. 278.
Ibid., p. 291.
Ibid., p. 296.
Ibid., p. 196.
Ibid., p. 129.
Ibid., p. 291.


Chapter Eight

II On Irony and Tyranny; Or Supposing

that Philosophy Was a Woman
Readers of Strauss will know that Strauss position concerning modernity
and Machiavelli is more complex than we have of course had time to
address here. If Strauss argues that Kojeves and the social sciences
inability to name and oppose the twentieth century tyrannies is itself the
more or less inevitable product of the modern enlightenment or
obfuscation initiated by Machiavelli, this is only one side of the story.
For one thing, as the opening programmatic statement in On Tyranny
makes clear, the famous methodological corollary of Strauss antihistoricism is a very specific way of reading philosophical texts. This way
of reading starts from the supposition that the thoughts of philosophers
qua seekers after truth are always minimally untimely meditations. Their
zetetic quest for truth, far from merely reflecting the historical times in
which they lived, put them at odds with these times, and exposed them to
the threat of persecution suffered in fact by Socrates. Given the tension
between philosophy and historical cities, Strauss reasons, we should not be
too quick to assume that what their texts say openly reflect their true
opinions. Especially if writers like Maimonides or Plato explicitly discuss
either the perils of writing philosophy or esoteric techniques for doing so,
we should in principle remain open to the need to read between the lines.
Philosophys speech in the polis, as Strauss says in City and Man, must
always involve a dimension of irony, if not perhaps exactly of the kind
Hegel assigned to womankind in general in the Phenomenology of Geist,
certainly one whose privileged addressee is the youth or puppies of
the race.55
As Rosen points out, the truly abyssal irony of Strauss own project
comes from how he openly tells us this in Persecution and the Art of
Writing, in the language of the enlightened modern scholarship.56 If we
read Strauss as he directs us to read others, then, we should always remain
alert to the possibility that his texts too are as ironic or esoteric as those
they patiently decipher. In this vein, as Stephen Smith has recently
commented, my central concern here will be that, when we attend to the
text of On Tyranny as Strauss might direct us, we are surprised to find
an entire book intended to lay bare the roots of modern tyranny
appears to conclude with a praise of beneficent tyranny. This hardly seems

Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 36.

Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


like condemnation, much less like identifying a political cancer for what it
is 57

So please allow me, for a moment, to indulge myself.

In texts other than those we have so far cited, Strauss elaborates that
the modern path from Machiavelli to Kojeves more than
Machiavellian legitimation of Salazar and Stalin is not a wholly straight
or level one. It passes by way of three waves, of which Machiavelli
initiates only the first. The final wave comes only with Nietzsche. Not
least in What is Political Philosophy?, a speech Strauss delivered in
Jerusalem in 1954, Strauss thus seems to mount a ferocious denunciation
of Nietzsche.58, Strauss does not stop short of linking Nietzsche with the
Nazi tyranny:
He [Nietzsche] used much of his unsurpassable and inexhaustible power of
passionate and fascinating speech for making his readers loathe, not only
socialism and communism, but conservatism, nationalism and democracy
as well. After having taken upon himself this great political responsibility,
he could not show his readers a way to political responsibility. He left them
no choice between irresponsible indifference to politics and irresponsible
political options 59

Nevertheless, readers of Plato will have recognized Strauss image of

three waves as having, much earlier, framed Socrates central proposals
for his city in speech in the central book V of the Politeia. Yet Socrates
third and greatest wave there (after equality of the sexes and
communism) is that wave which alone can secureif not exactly a
saving poweranything like true justice for worldly cities:
Unless either philosophers become Kings or those who are now called
Kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for
wisdom; unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet
together there can be no rest from troubles, my dear Glaucon 60

In this light, as Lawrence Lampert in particular has stressed, it is

interesting that Strauss chose to place Note on the Plan of Nietzsches
Beyond Good and Evil as the eighth out of fifteen chapters of his final


Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, p. 137.

Lampert, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, p. 9.
Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, p. 98.
Plato, Republic, 473d-e.


Chapter Eight

Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy61 For Strauss truly incredible late

reading of Beyond Good and Evil contains little of the savage political
indictments of elsewhere. And a Straussian reading of it makes enticing
work indeed. Notes on the Plan of Nietzsches Beyond Good and Evil
argues the remarkable thesis that the apparently desultory surface of
Beyond Good and Evil conceals a precise, if not a Platonic, plan.62
Strauss himself gives us 38 Notes on this plan. The central 18th and 19th
paragraphs, far from declaiming Nietzsches perspectivist relativism,
direct us to Nietzsches imputed rediscovery of a conception of nature.63
Strauss immediately preceding paragraphs (the 16th and 17th), meanwhile,
address what is surely the most apparent counter-argument against any
such way of reading Beyond Good and Evil: namely that surely there is
no rhyme or reason at least to the Sayings and Interludes that centrally
puncture or punctuate the first three books on religion and the last five
books on ta politika.64 It is possible but not likely these fragments were
thrown together, Strauss understates ijudiciously in his sixteenth
paragraph.65 If there are nine central fragments and interludes on both
God and on sexual difference, Strauss enumerates, there is only one
fragment on nature, which is nearly exactly central. But that fragment,
126, remarkably, reads that:
A people is a detour of nature to six or seven great menyes, and to get
round them.66

Suppose only that Strauss writes in as ironic a manner as the

philosophers he reads. Everything begins to look as though for Strauss no
less than for the Socrates of Platos Republic, the third Nietzschean wave
of modernity, might point towards the possibility of a rediscovery of
nature qua truth of truths andas Nietzsches very subtitle in Beyond
Good and Evil would suggesta new hope for philosophy in something
like its classical sense. The closing fragment of the central chapter of
Beyond Good and Evil after all does begin as follows:

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss asserts that the esoteric writers
always concealed their most important thoughts for the very centre of their
writings, as far as possible from shallow readers. At Strauss, Persecution and the rt
of Writing, p. 32, p. 36.
Strauss, Note on the Plan of Beyond Good and Evil, paragraphs 3, 4, and 7; p.
175, p. 176.
Ibid., p. 182.
Ibid., pp. 181-182; see the 6th paragraph, at p. 176.
Ibid., p. 181.
Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil, p. 99.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


We, who have a different faithwe, to whom the democratic movement is

not merely a form assumed by political organization in decay but a form
assumed by man in decay whither must we direct our hopes?Towards
new philosophers 67

More than this, however lastingly Aristophanic this might seem for us last
men, the Platonic echoes that haunt Nietzsches entire distinction between
philosophers and scholars that structures Book VI are very present, unless
we allow the text wholly to disappear beneath our interpretations68:
Actual philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers; they say
thus it shall be, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of
mankind they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything
that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer.
Their knowing is creating, their creating is law-giving - are there such
philosophers today? Must there be such philosophers? 69

Now Lampert is surely right to stress the differences between Strauss

and Nietzsche, not least in their estimations of what Strauss would never
have publicly called the religious instinct70. Nevertheless, Strauss late
reading of Beyond Good and Evil does cast a remarkable light or shadow
back on the dialogue with Kojeve On Tyranny. Strauss important tenth
paragraph in his reading of Beyond Good and Evil, which emphasizes the
non-atheism of the philosopher of the future ends by directing us to
Beyond Good and Evil #7. But this fragment itself returns us directly to
the topic of the debate with Kojeve:
How malicious philosophers can be! I know of nothing more venomous
than the joke Epicurus allowed himself to make against Plato and the
Platonists: he called them Dionysiokolakes. The foreground meaning is
flatterers of Dionysius, that is to say, tyrants hangers-on and lickspittles;
in addition [there is the sense] they are all actors, there is nothing genuine
about them (for Dionysiokalax was a popular term for an actor ) 71

Of course, we need to be careful to not simply reproduce what Strauss

calls the vulgar view of philosophy that Hiero himself initially shares or
suspects of Simonides.72 Nevertheless, as we have seen Stephen Smith

Ibid., #203, p. 126.

See ibid., #38 and #39, pp. 67-69.
Ibid., #211, pp. 142-143.
Eg at ibid., #53, p. 80.
Ibid., #7, p. 38.
Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 40.


Chapter Eight

(who is a very moderate commentator) observing, given the salutary

statements with which Strauss begins On Tyranny, the central fourth
chapter of his commentary is not what we might expect at all. In the earlier
chapters, Strauss has several times raised but left open the question
whether Simonides attempt merely to improve rather than to indict
tyranny is determined wholly by Simonides understandable caution in the
face of a tyrant, or whether it gives voice to Xenephons deeper teaching
concerning tyranny.73 In chapter 4, however, Strauss argues explicitly
that, however paradoxical this might sound, the thesis that tyranny can
live up to the highest political standard is defensible on the basis of
Xenephons, or Socrates, political philosophy.74 And indeed, as Strauss
commentaries on the Statesman and Nichomachean Ethics V elsewhere
recur, the central arguments here are borrowed from classical reflections
on the well-known problem of the ignorance or blindness of the dead
letters of any historically posited body of law in the face of the exceptional
singularity of human experience.75 Says Strauss, recounting Xenephon:
Absolute rule of a man who knows how to rule, who is a born ruler, is
actually superior to the rule of laws, in so far as the good ruler is a seeing
law and laws do not see, or legal justice is blind 76

The entire modern liberal heritage in philosophy of law recognizes

precisely this blindness of lady justice as a minimal condition of the
privacy and freedom of citizens. By contrast, as Simonides complete
silence in Hiero concerning either law or freedom would imply77,
Strauss comments that the ancient liberalism of a Xenephon instead
instates only knowledge, not force or fraud or election, or, we would
add, inheritance as what makes a man a king or ruler.78
So it is in this way, as you can see, that Strauss classical natural right
is much closer to Kojeves absolute historicism than we first supposed.
Putting things formally: Strauss replaces Kojeves end of history as the
trans-moral philosophical legitimation of tyranny with the claims of
philosophy as the trans-moral philosophical legitimation of tyranny. As
Strauss observes: If Simonides can be said to recommend virtue at all, he

See Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 43, p. 45, p. 47.

Ibid., p. 73.
See for example Strauss, Natural Right and History, pp. 148-164; Strauss,
Plato, pp. 74-76.
Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 74.
Ibid., p. 69.
Ibid., p. 74.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


recommends it, not as an end, but as a means, no less than the Eleatic
stranger recommends it to young Socrates in the Statesman..79 It is true
that Strauss classicism does insist that the rule of the wise is merely a
theoretical paradeigma whose improbable realization will always
depend on chance. Nevertheless, Pippins riposte is certainly more noble,
and in what follows I will argue also more true:
[this] is a position that, however theoretical, has many practical
implications, some of them notorious. It might lead the young to look
down with contempt on the political order established in Athens; it might
be embarassing for its supporters in almost every city and might have
had something to do with the real difficulties experienced by Socrates and
Xenephon (76).80

III On the End of History. That It Does Not Exist

There is surely irony involved when Catherine Zuckert devotes the central
three chapters of her Postmodern Platos to Leo Strauss.81 Yet there is truth
to her irony. The truth is that many of the structuring parameters of
Strauss position we have described are not structuring parameters in
Strauss position alone: from his desire to trip the Kojevan dialectic, to
his opposition to the modern syntheses, and as such the desire to defend
the differends between philosophy and the city, and the classical and
monotheistic heritages. Here as elsewhere, that is, theoretical enemies in
many ways approximate unwitting doubles. Arguably the most troubling
commonality between many contemporary Straussians and such nominally
leftist thinkers as Agamben, Badiou, Zizek or the later Derrida is their
co-acceptance of the wisdom of the relativistic decisionism of Carl
Schmitt, a figure much more deeply influential in the Nazi tyranny, and
much closer to its vulgar anti-semitism than Martin Heidegger ever was.
Our second meditation gives us at least one reason why Straussians
like Heinrich Meier might be attracted to Carl Schmitt, along the lines of
Strauss classical teaching concerning the possibility of beneficent
absolute rule. Yet the very closing pages of Strauss response to Kojeve, I
want now to agree with Meier, provide us with a further rationale for this
unlikely theoretical coupling. This rationale concerns Kojeves postulation
of the possibility or achieved actuality of the so-called end of history in a
universal and homogenous state. Strauss, I would argue rightly, sets out

Ibid., p. 93.
Pippin, Being, Time, and Politics, p. 241.
Zuckert, Postmoedrn Platos, pp. 104-200.


Chapter Eight

directly to contest either the possibility or the desirabilty of this Kojevan

ideal or phantasm. With characteristic acuity, Strauss points out the
inconsistencies that Kojeves very formulation of the universal and
homogenous state conceals. For a start, it is difficult to see how this
regime could still be a statei.e. with rulers and ruled, and the rule of law
supported by a coercive police apparatusand promise the universal and
homogenous recognition of all human beings. Given that Kojeve still
speaks of a state, Strauss reasons, we must suppose the satisfaction of
these Kojevean last men or will at least vary in degrees:
The satisfaction of the humble citizen, whose human dignity is universally
recognized and who enjoys all opportunities that correspond to his humble
capacities and achievements is not comparable to the satisfaction of the
Chief of State. He alone is truly free [Kojeve in fact admits this (at
Tyranny and Wisdom, p. 146)] [Yet] did not Hegel say something to the
effect that the state which one man is free is the Oriental despotic state? Is
the universal and homogenous state [not] then merely a planetary Oriental
despotic state?82

It is at this point, to invoke Beyond Good and Evil one last time, that I
want to wheel out the golden ass of my contention.83 As in Nietzsche,
and as will become evident, what it concerns is ultimately the issue of
woman as such Nietzsche raises at fragment 231 of Beyond Good and
Evil.84 For it seems to me that Strauss critique of Kojeves end of history
might well or even should have been taken him in a quite different
direction than he does finally move in On Tyranny. People might
remember Raymond Chandler writing of a femme fatale, one twentieth
century figuring of the woman as such: from thirty feet away, she
looked real class. From up close, she looked like someone who was
supposed to be seen from thirty feet away. Well might Nietzsche say, in
this vein, that his views concerning the eternal womanly85 are above all
others (with his italics) my truths.86 What Nietzsche surely means, and
what we should surely take him to be expressing, is exactly that woman
as such is a figure in whom eros as such, and not least his own, is in play.
This is one reason why Nietzsches ensuing remarks about the
democratic enlightenment of women87 are so famously ascerbic. But

Strauss, Restatement, pp. 207-208.

See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #8, p. 38.
Ibid., pp. 162-163.
Ibid., #236, p. 163.
Ibid., p. 163.
Ibid., #238-239, pp. 166-169.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


they are scarcely consistent for all that: Nietzsches woman condenses
coquettecharm, play, the banishing of care88; motherstupidity in the
kitchen, woman as cook89; with whore or worse:
So much reason for shame so much pedanticism, superficiality,
schoolmarmishness, petty unbridleness and petty immodesty but she
does not want truth: what is truth to a woman! From the first nothing has
been more inimical to woman than truthher great art is the lie, her
supreme concern is appearance and beauty 90

Is it not clearhere is my suppositionthat the Kojevian end of

history is another such philosophers woman as such? And is this not
indeed what Strauss analysis of it, and Kojeves own later reflections,
shows: namely, that its enchantment91 dissolves as soon as we approach
it too close? It is after all not only that the homogenous satisfaction turns
out fairly quickly to admit of degrees, as we have said. In Pippins
The characteristics of life within the end state, the universal and
homogenous state, seem, admittedly, hopelessly vague and terrifyingly
banal 92

Kojeves end-state is a state of warrior-workers without any wars left to

fight or much work to do at all.93 As Kojeve laments in Introduction to the
Reading of Hegel, in a way that begins to sound uncannily like Hiero in
Xenephons text on the fearful tyrant There is no longer fight nor work.
History has come to its end. There is nothing more to do.94
For this reason, however, I would propose that we would do very well
to approach Kojeves universal and homogenous state very carefully
indeed. One model we might adopt here in order to do so is what Strauss
has to say earlier in On Tyranny when he dissects Hieros lamentation on
what it is actually like to live outside of law, if not of history:
There is some specific evidence to suggest that Hieros indictment of
tyranny is, in Xenephons view, exaggerated. Hiero asserts that the cities
magnificently honor the tyrannicide; Xenephon, however, tells us that

Ibid., #232, p. 163.

Ibid., #234, p. 165.
Ibid., #232, p. 163.
See ibid., #239, p. 169.
Pippin, Being, Time, and Politics, p. 252.
Strauss, Restatement, p. 208.
Kojeve, cited at ibid, (italics Kojeves).


Chapter Eight
those murderers of Jason who survived were honored in most of the Greek
cities Hiero asserts that the tyrants know well that all their subjects are
their enemies; Xenephon, however, tells us that the subjects of the tyrant
Euphron considered him their benefactor 95

The question Strauss bids us to ask here is, hence: what is it that draws
Hiero to slip here so subtly from the range of more qualified and true
appraisals of political things to the telltale, exaggerated and untrue
insistence on the universal quantifiers here (all the cities , all subjects
)? Strauss in response is clear. There is a politics in play here, Strauss
argues. And, as Hiero himself frankly tells us, it is a politics, specifically,
of fear.96 Hiero does not know what the wise want. So he is anxious that
Simonides might contrive something against him, unless Hiero can
convince Simonides that tyranny is much worse than the many usually
In the same way, since Strauss has ably demonstrated the impossibility
of Kojeves end state ask, my proposal is that we should ask in the same
way Strauss asks of Hiero: what is in play when Strauss nevertheless finds
himself at the end On Tyranny speculating at length upon the possibility of
the end of history? Despite his earlier philosophical arguments, Strauss by
the end of his reply to Kojeve finds himself declaring it is perhaps
possible to say that the universal and homogenous state is fated to come98,
a thought which leads Strauss into absurdly enjoining the warriors and
workers of all countries, [to] unite, while there is still time, to prevent the
coming of the realm of freedom [and to] defend, if it needs to be
defended, the realm of necessity?99
With these remarks, I would agree with Meier, there is ironically a
proximity between Strauss and Schmitts thoughts in the notorious text
Concept of the Political. For it is in this text, above all, that Schmitt
presents the contention that liberalism does not necessarily fail to deliver
the more peaceable world it promises. Rather, he proposes that liberalism
ought to be opposed because it may succeed in delivering such a world. In
this way, it would eliminate what Schmitt calls the political, and in this
way the humanitas of human beings, by pacifying any friend-enemy
distinctions, predicated on the real possibility of physical killing. The
irony here is that, in his brilliant 1932 Comments on Schmitts text,

Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 45-46.

Xenephon, Hiero or Tyrannicus, paragraph 4 (5), p. 11, paragraph 5 (1-2), p. 12.
Ibid., paragraph 5 (2), p. 12.
Strauss, Restatement, p. 208.
Ibid., p. 209.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


young Strauss had pointed out how Schmitt, animated by his own fears,
oscillated between naming the political as the inescapable humanitas of
human beings and as something under threat by liberal neutralization or
in need of active affirmation.100 Invoking young Strauss, then, I would
argue that in the end of On Tyranny Strauss clearly gives way to the same
species of cultural malaise which not only informed Schmitts Weimar
project of leaving the horizon of liberalism.101 Hannah Arendt in Origins
of Totalitarianism identifies such an aspiration, common among interwar
intellectuals, as a decisive precondition for the rise of fascism in central
Europe.102 If Kojeve mostly argued that the end of history occurred some
time in 1806, it is also worth commenting that the only contemporaries of
Hegel who seem to have been struck, with him, by this epochal event were
throne and altar conservatives like de Bonald, who perceived ths fate in
apocalyptic fear and trembling. De Bonald for example wrote to de
Maistre in 1817:
There are for me absolutely inexplicable things, whose outcome does not
seem to me to be within the grasp of the powers of men, insofar as they are
guided by their own light and under the sole influence of their will: in
truth, what I most clearly see in all of this is the Apocalypse 103

My timely contention here is this. It may well be that such a

despairing counter-revolutionary sensethat while it is salutary to defend
the sovereignty of philosophy, virtue, or a closed regime, this centre
ultimately cannot hold and must be actively (re)constructedthat
distinguishes todays postmodern conservatism from the more Burkean
positions of figures such as Oakeshott or Kirk. However that may be,
certain it is that Strauss closing remarks culminate in the following,
distinctly post-modernist prognosis:
Yet there is no reason to despair as long as human nature has not been
conquered completely There will always be [real] men (andres) who
will revolt [although] they may be forced into mere negation of the
universal and homogenous state, into a negation not enlightened by any
positive goal ... While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution


Strauss, Comments on Carls Schmitts Begriff der Politischen.

Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
At Taguieff, The Traditionalist ParadigmHorror of Modernity and
Antiliberalism, in Why We Are Not Nietzscheans, p. 160.


Chapter Eight
may be the only action that is possible once the universal and
homogenous state has become inevitable 104

We are surely then not so far with this prescription of nihilistic

revolution, my point would be, from Hieros bizarre-sounding,
culminating plea to Simonides that so bad is the life of tyranny which the
many so strive for, that really the only profitable thing he could do is
suicide. 105 The most timely question of all that Strauss Restatement
hence poses for us is this. If the courses of both his and Kojeves thoughts
both tend towards this tyrannical dead end, where can we intervene as it
were upstream in order to avert the hideous prospect?106

Conclusion: Xanthippe, Or On Eros and the City

If, as Strauss would direct us, when we read the Hiero, we attend to what
is abstracted from the dialogues setting, two things come to mind.107
First, just as we saw Strauss in our first meditation stressing that the
Machiavellian prince must by-pass the representatives of established civic
virtue in order to win the multitudes, Xenephons dialogue on
Tyrannicus does not feature any representative of such public virtue.
Second, Simonides is not Socrates. For the same good reasons that the
major spokesperson for absolute rule beyond law in Platos Politikus is the
Eleatic stranger, philosophy is abstracted from in Hiero. It is true, as
Strauss observes, that Hieros own speech, given Simonides skillful
Odyssean rhetoric enacts a kind of ascent from base or bodily eros,
through the eros for wealth, towards the philosophical way of life. The
political mans desire for honor, Strauss suggests, might be a decisive rung
on the ladder towards philosophical eros, if at least this virtuous desire
points the political man towards what is honorable as such, and so towards
the philosophical ideas.108 Yet Hiero does not reach these trans-political
heights, any more than the Alcibiades depicted in Platos Symnposum.
Strauss own account of Xenephons teaching concerning tyranny
introduced in the second meditation frankly asserts that the virtue of
concern to Xenephon presupposes neither law nor freedom (70), no


Strauss, Restatement, p. 209; cf. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last
Man, pp. 330-336.
Xenephon, Hiero, paragraph 7 [12], p. 15.
Strauss, Restatement, p. 209.
Strauss, City and Man, p. 69.
Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 93-102.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


more than the commutative justice governing what is called free trade
(72), and so is in no way inconsistent with beneficent tyranny. (70)
The shocking nature of these assertions comes when we consider how,
as Aristotle argues in Nichomachean Ethics VIII, one defining mark of
political tyranny is its complete eradication of things which would be
common between subjects, and as such might found civic-spiritedness. Yet
certain it is that the account of eros Strauss develops in this text finally,
very contestably, reduces all love except philosophical love to selfinterestedness.109 It is in this way that the political desire for admiration
can be privileged over love, Strauss argues:
Each man loves what is somehow his own, his private possession;
admiration or praise is concerned with the excellent regardless of whether
it is ones own or not To express this somewhat differently, love has no
criterion of its relevance outside itself, but admiration has. 110

The problem is that this admiration, like the proverbial ladder kicked
away once it is climbed, in fact stands in Strauss account as something of
a vanishing mediator between the city and the philosophical man as such
. In Kojeves Hegelian theory of eros, we recall, woman is aligned with
love of the particular being of individuals. In this way, she and love per se
stand tangentially vis--vis, or threaten to halt, what we might term the
universalizing momentum of the desire for mutual recognition. Strauss, as
we have seen in our third meditation, does not contest this Kojevean sense
that the political desire tends with the inevitability of a fate towards a
universal and homogenous state. The difference between a private and a
political man, Strauss says in his Restatement, is that:
The political man is consumed by the erotic desire, not for this or that
human being, but for the large multitude, for the demos. (Plato Gorgias
401d1, 513d7; Republic 573e6-7, 574c2, 575a1-2)111

Strauss rupture with Kojeve on the question of non-philosophic eros

instead comes with his explicit collapse of love into honor or
admiration, when both are viewed from the trans-political perspective of
the possibility of philosophy:
Kojeve will have no difficulty in granting that the family man can be
characterized by love and the ruler by honor. But if the philosopher

Ibid., pp. 88-89.

Ibid., p. 89.
Strauss, Restatement, p. 198.

Chapter Eight


is related to the ruler in a way comparable to that in which the ruler is

related to the family man, there can be no difficulty in characterizing the
ruler, in contradistinction to the philosopher, by love, and the philosopher
by honor. 112

And what are the intra-political implications of this philosophical

operation? When Kojeve speaks paradigmatically concerning love, and
raises the example of the mother who loves her son because he is and
independently of what he does, Strauss says, he has it wrong.113 It is true
that a mother will love her son despite his faults. Yetas we commented
abovethis for Strauss is not because he is, but because he is her own,
or because he has the quality of being her own (compare Republic 330a36). If the eros of the political man is then the desire to be loved by the
demos, Strauss draws the conclusion:
Until the coming of the universal state, the ruler is concerned with and
cares for his own subjects as distinguished from the subjects of other rulers
just as the mother is concerned with, and cares for, her own children as
distinguished from the children of other mothers, and the concern with, or
care for, what is ones own is what is frequently meant by love 114

For our part, we can only conclude that to conceive society, even
analogically, as one big happy family is a profoundly problematic, not to
say tyrannical, way of seeing ta politika. Indeed, this is what Strauss
commentary on the Politeaia in City and Man, amongst many other texts
and political things, might surely have warned us against. What then
becomes in this account of the entire relation of sexual eros to the nomoi,
as that daimonic force which creates new families, and which lures young
men away from the love of their mothers? It threatens to disappear here
under the philosophical gaze. Or this at least seems equally evident in the
preceding passages from Strauss. It is not for nothing that Aristotle,
despite the tyrannical strains of the closing chapters of Book X of the
Ethics, tells us in the opening book of Politics that humans are by nature
political beings, and that:
there is one rule exercised over subjects who are by nature free, another
over subjects who are by nature slaves. The rule of a household is a


Ibid., p. 199.

Some Timely Meditations on Tyranny


monarchy, for every house is under one head: whereas the rule of a
statesman is the government of freemen and equals.115

Yet Strauss in On Tyranny maintains an opposed position to Aristotles

here. More than this, he associates this position with the name of Socrates:
For if Socrates is the representative par excellence of the philosophic life,
the philosopher cannot possibly be satisfied with a group of philosophic
friends [or sect] but has to go out to the market place where, as everyone
knows, Socrates spent much or most of his time. However, the same
Socrates suggested that there is no essential difference between the city
and the family, and the thesis of Friedrich Mentz, Socrates nec officiosus
maritus nec laudandus paterfamilias (Leipzig 1716) is essentially correct:
Xenephon goes so far as not to count the husband of Xanthippe among the
married men (Symposium, in fine).116

So perhaps, in this light, with and against Strauss, we must after all agree
concerning the need to reconsider the relationship between philosophy,
eros, and tyranny. But more broadly than this, we should attend to the
difference between politics and the philosophical way of seeing.


Aristotle, Politics, 1255 b

Strauss, Restatement, 196 (our italics). See Strauss, City and Man, p. 57.


Traumaa term originally of medico-chirurgical discoursesentered the

vocabulary of psychology and psychiatry only in late 19th century. From
that time on it made the most astonishing carrier. Its notion has been
formidably expanded, became transferredas social or cultural trauma
from the realm of the psychology of the individual to widespread
phenomena in the life of collectives (a transformation initiated already by
Freud), and thus entered the discourses of sociology and legal theory.
More importantly it became absorbed into our everyday language and
thought. Trauma is one of the most striking examples, illustrating the fact
that in late modernity everyday life undergoes not onlyas many have
indicatedprocesses of aesthetization, but simultaneously also those of
scientization as well, whose character and consequences are in some sense
opposed to the former.
The great, pre-Freudian tradition of philosophy not only did not use
this term. Philosophy did not possess any articulate conception of trauma.
It could not, since it lacked that radical notion of the unconscious that has
been introduced only by Freud and with which the psychoanalytic
conception of trauma is directly connected. And this seems to imply a
harsh reproach against and verdict upon philosophy and its relevance for
us. For if traumas indeed play such a great role, pregnant with far-reaching
consequences, in the life of the individuals and collectives as we today are
inclined to assume, then this lack points to a grave inadequacy. All the
more so since this tradition with different degrees of emphasis and in
various understandings, always claimed the capacity to contribute to the
rationalisation of human life.

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


This failure appears in a particularly sharp light from a comparative

perspective. In retrospect it is clear that trauma, its consequences and the
ways of dealing with them have been a major topic of representation for
some other cultural formsin particular drama and religionfrom the
very beginning of our tradition. It is sufficient simply to refer here to the
two Oedipus-dramas of Sophocles, on the one hand, and to the Book of
Job in the Old Testament, on the other. In this context it may appear that
what philosophy usually referred to as the ground of its claimed cognitive
supremacy over other cultural forms: the conceptual character of its
discourse, is at least in this case the cause of a serious inadequacy. For its
overall analytic approach to the lived continuity of subjective experience
and the ensuing neglect of the ways it is embedded in the life-history of a
concrete individual, made it miss one of the important aspects of human
This is, I think, not an unjust, but certainly one-sided assessment. For
traditional philosophy, at least some of its significant schools and
representatives, has dealtand in a non-accidental waywith problems
we associate today with trauma, even in the absence of a clear concept of
this latter. Sometimes it subsumed them under a much broader range of
experiences regarded as irrational, sometimes it concerned itself only
with a definite subclass of such phenomena. Whatever the undoubtable
draw-backs of this lack of conceptual clarity, though, philosophy did offer
some insights that as a largely unacknowledged cultural background
contributed to the formulation of this modern concept of trauma. More
importantly, it offered an approach to such phenomena that in a significant
way differed from our own. Psychoanalytic and post-psychoanalytic
discourses offer a theoretical ground for the practical end of a therapy of
traumas that has already occurred in the life of an individual or
community. Traditional philosophy approached some related phenomena
also with a practical end in sight. This end was, however, different.
Explicitly or implicitly it aimed at preventing. or at least preparing for the
occurrence of psychological reactions thatlike our traumacan have a
humanly destructive effect, evading rational control. During its history
philosophy offered a number of distinct strategies allegedly capable to
serve such an end.
I can deal here only with two such attempts, furthermore two that are
separated in time by some two millennia. They are, however, not
unrelated. One of them is in a very obvious way related to our problem,
while bringing the second into such a connection may be quite
unexpected. So they perhaps to a degree illustrate the differences and


Feature Essay

complexities of looking at our philosophical tradition from such an

externalto itpoint of view.
It is rather obvious to look around first for some possibly relevant
discussions at those trends of thought which defined the very end of
philosophy in providing theoretical foundation and general orientation for
a practice of mental healing and the preservation of mental health. Such an
understanding of philosophy as the higher form of medical art, not that of
the body, but of the soul, was rather common to several philosophical
schools in late Greek and Roman culture. The most radical among them
was Stoicism.
Among the standard examples to which the Stoics as a rule referred as
usually evoking wrong and sick mental reactions a large place is occupied
by events we would regard as particularly traumatogenic: the loss of a
beloved person or disastrous and sudden changes in someones fortune or
social standing. The pathological mental impact that such changes usually
evoke, the Stoics identified with the emotive states of awareness produced,
in particular the passions (in the given cases despair, grief or fear). Stoic
psychotherapy aims at the radical extirpation of all passions as excessive
and irrational mental disturbances. Reason should provide an anaesthetics,
or rather it ought to immunise the soul against all such influences that
external things and events, never under our full control, can exercise over
the mind.
This of course presumes that such reactions are not intrinsic to the
soul, but implanted by wrong upbringing and false social influences, and
that they can be completely cured by right reason under the guidance of
philosophy. The most consistent justification of such a view was provided
by the Chrysippean tradition in Stoicism. It conceived passions not as
something radically irrational but as false judgments, acts of a misguided
or perverted reason that ascribes an intrinsic value to external things. This
certainly seems to be an implausible solution, missing the precisely
impulsive nature of such emotions, passively suffered, but uncontrollably
driving, motivating us to action. The Stoics, however, conceived reason
itself primarily as a practical faculty of deliberation, evaluation, choice
and commitment on grounds valid for all humans. Reason, the mark of our
humanity, through which we all equally participate in the divine Logos, is
a faculty of command, regulatingin right or wrong waysthe use of all
other faculties. Intellectual and moral education conceived as
psychotherapy can direct the individual, through his/her own selfreflections, towards the correct use of reason, which is always fully in our
own power. In this way we can in principle radically eliminate all such
false beliefs that drive us towards and attach to what is not in our control,

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


be they other persons or external things. This liquidation of passions,

demanded and made possible by reason, is the precondition and guarantee
of happy and virtuous life, that of the sage. This is a life of full autonomy,
of complete mental independence from anything external to the rational
soul as the sole true valuea life of tranquillity, constancy and moral
But just because reason for the Stoics is inherently practical, such a life
of wisdom is not that of passive withdrawal and inactivity. Stoic apatheia
is not our apathy. Reason demands actualisation in action and the sage is,
and knows himself to be, a social being whose wisdom is manifested in his
conduct benevolent and beneficent for fellow human beings. He manifests
his wisdom not only by the invariable truth of his judgment, but equally by
the unerring justness of all his actions.
This, however, encounters a difficulty. Actions take place in the
external world, all the constituents of which are for the sage indifferent,
without intrinsic value. In what sense can then the choices and changes
effected by actions among these things and beings be excellent and just,
what is the criterion for their moral evaluation? The Stoics answered this
question by pointing out that we are living rational beings. And all living
beings necessarily strive towards self-preservation. The constituents of the
external world as such are neither good nor bad for the wise individual.
But these same elements of the world differ in respect of their usefulness
or harmfulness for his survival. In this respect they acquire a pragmaticinstrumental worth, become in various degree preferable or not, a
distinction which human reason in a general sense must underwrite,
though never confuse with what is morally good or bad.
Reason, however, does not simply affirm such distinctions dictated by
the animal instinctit supervenes upon them, making them a matter of
rational choice. It usually endorses actions serving the well-being of the
concerned individual. But it also demands that such actions should never
harm other human beings, having an equal dignity as potential subjects of
autonomy. And positively it orients the agent toward actions that aim not
at benefiting him or herself, but doing some good for the narrower or
broader community (from the family to mankind) to which he/she belongs.
In this way actions themselves acquire a moral quality, can be evaluated as
right or wrong, and of course this latter standpointas the Stoics
conditional vindication of suicide illustratesalways takes precedence
over the impulse of self-preservation.
This moral theory of action introduces, however, some strains into the
idea of the sage, central to the Stoic program of moral education as
psychotherapy. This emerges if one inquires: what aspect of the action is


Feature Essay

the actual object of moral evaluation? Since actions take place in the
external world, their direct consequences are outside the agents control,
subject to a strict, all-embracing determinism as the mechanism of divine
Providence. This would suggest an intentionalist moral theory. The Stoics,
however, did not have our, post-Kantian concept of intentions: they lacked
a clear concept of the will and possessed a theory of virtues, but not of
universal moral norms.
Without getting into the intricate details, this difficulty resulted in the
course of the development of the doctrine in two different conceptualisations
(often both present in the same writing) of the desired state of wisdom. On
the one hand, the sage was seen as always acting with a mental
reservation, distancing his autonomous self from his own actions that are
in a sense always external to him. This is expressed in the frequent simile
likening the agent to an actor in a play. Wise is the one who plays
excellently, without any mistake the role assigned to him by Providence
(which seems rather to undermine the idea of autonomy). But even more
frequently the sage is characterised as the person who in his wisdom can
apprehend the working of the Providence, and thus act with full success
also in the realisation of his own ends. It is therefore not merely a
rhetorical excess if he is told to be like God in all, save his mortality.
Partly under the impact of this strain in later Stoicism the idea of the
sage essentially acquired the character of a transcendent moral ideal. Its
realisation is in principle not beyond our powers, but if it ever were
achieved, then it was by some semi-legendary figures of the past. This is
not a practicable end for us today and later teachers of Stoicism usually
made clear that they themselves raise no such claim. What remains then
from the very idea of psychotherapy as moral education, if its very end is
just made unachievable?
Facing this difficulty in the evolution of Stoicism a practical division
occurred between the expositions of the normative content of the doctrine
(the dogmata) together with its strict philosophical justification, on the one
hand, and, a whole array of writings assuming this background, but
operating with it in a conceptually less strict and morally less demanding,
popular form, aiming at distinct therapeutic effect, on the other hand.
From the dogmatic standpoint there can be no intermediary stages
between the morally good and bad, between being a sage or a fool.
Writings that either exemplify or aim at the general guidance of
therapeutic practice deal however with specific, particularly destructive
forms of foolishness, not to immunise against, but to mitigate the power
of passions, offering remedies, advises and mental exercises to make us
less foolish.

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


It is among these writings that one finds some of the most attractive
examples of a Stoic practice of moral education. What is particularly
striking is the way they present the therapeutic relation itself. It is a deeply
personal connection between the therapist-philosopher and his (or her)
patient or disciple, based on trust and at the same time a functional
relationship aiming at its own dissolution. It consists not of some
authoritative exposition of rules, but always addresses itself to the personal
situation and particular concerns and problems of the disciple. It leads
him/her to self-reflection, the results of which are then consolidated by a
set of well-designed spiritual exercises. It is an unequal, but at the same
time mutual relation of self-enlightenment.
For this more restricted and at the same time more relaxed form of
psychotherapy the problem of trauma (in our sense) emerges anewnot in
terms of how to prevent its occurrence, but how to heal its most
pathological symptoms. And there has been a particular sub-genre of this
literature that from our standpoint addressed itself just to this task: the
consolations. They generally dealt with the deeply traumatogenic event of
the loss of the closest and dearest person to the addressee (or a disastrous
misfortune suffered by such a person), resulting in a seemingly
interminable, compulsive and all-consuming grief. The best known
examples of such writings available to us are the three Consolations of
In Senecas description of this particularly pathological form of the
passion of grief, there are observations pointing towards the
symptomatology of trauma. Seneca not only describes the obsessive return
of the memory-image of the beloved at quite different occasions, but also
emphasises the resistance of this grief against all verbal articulation and
communication. I have been told by some contemporary psychotherapeutic
practitioners that reading Seneca is very useful for anyone engaged today
in grief-counselling. Be this as it may, I personally think that these
eloquent works are from a theoretical standpoint rather disappointing.
They are disappointing from a philosophical point of view: for these
writings are eclectic in the worst sense of conceptual incoherence.
Although their overall Stoic background is unmistakable, the concretely
presented consolatory arguments are rather of an Epicurean character,
interspersed with some clearly Platonist considerations, irreconcilable
either with the doctrine of Epicurus or with the Stoa.
They are, however, disappointing also from a therapeutic viewpoint,
since they lack what I just referred to: the deeply individualised character
of this practice, as it emerges from the best Stoic writings (not the least
from the long cycle of Senecas letters to Lucilius). What Seneca offers


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beyond a list of exemplary figures who met such a loss in a rational (and
socially appropriate!) wayare generalities: the irresistible power of
unforeseeable fate over all of us, equally unable to defend ourself against
mental pain and suffering. This is, however, not the authors fault. To deal
concretely with the personal situation of the addressee would demand to
help this person to comprehend the irreplaceable place the lost beloved
occupied in his/her life and to lead him/her toward understanding the
necessity of its deep reorganisation. This is, however, just what a Stoic
cannot accept in principle: nothing external and outside our power can be
truly irreplaceable: so find somebody else or just go on with your normal
Thus we can say that at least as psychotherapy Stoicism fails, both in
the radical enterprise to immunise us against all forms of harmful and
humanly destructive experiences, and in the more moderate end to
mitigate their most irrational effects. We should not, however, forget how
much it has contributed not only to our general moral culture, but also to
our own conception of psychotherapy. This concerns partly the alreadycharacterised comprehension of the end and character of a genuinely
therapeutic relationship. It offered, however, also basic theoretical
insights. First of all it emphasised that no event as such is (in our parlance)
traumaticwhether it has such effects this always depends on the mental
state and concrete situation of the individual, but also (and the Stoics made
this completely clear) on expectations determined by its social-cultural
environment. And the revival of Stoicism in early modernity provided new
ideas of great importance for the emergence of psychoanalysis itself. At
this point one should speak in detail first of all about the moral psychology
of Spinoza. Instead I shall try, even in a more sketchy way, to indicate
another philosophical counter-strategy: not the Stoic anaesthetisation, but
the aesthetisation of what may threaten us in such a way.
That literaturesome works of great literaturemay have such
benevolent effect has been recognised from very early on, amongst others
by some Stoics. This is an idea that was accepted and elaborated in respect
of art in general also by Freud. Artistic creativity and to some degree also
aesthetic experience are for him the most important forms of sublimation,
the only spontaneous form of defence reactions against trauma to which he
ascribes a both psychologically and socially productive or positive effect.
This sublimating function of works of art was usually connected with their
inner, constructive harmony, with their beauty. I would like to speak here,
however, about the aesthetic counter-concept of beauty, not about art as
sublimation, but about the idea of the sublime. More concretely I would
like to evoke here, in a very sketchy way, the Kantian theory of the

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


dynamically sublime, which incidentally is rather neglected in the

contemporary revival of interest in the idea of sublimity, though it almost
always proceeds in a dialogue with Kant.
The Kantian discussion of this topic in the Third Critique (The
Critique of Judgment) is prima facie addressed to a question which from
Addison on has occupied the British theorist of the sublime: Why do and
how can people find attractive some spectacles (or representations) of
occurrences which in themselves are terrifying or horrifying? Kant
addresses himself seemingly to a limited subclass of such phenomena: to
the pleasurable feeling evoked by encounters with the overpowering,
irresistible powers of untameable naturelike the stormy sea, volcanos,
earthquakeswhen they are merely viewed from a safe place. This isas
in Burkea negative pleasure, a pleasure preceded by or intermixed
with a painful feeling. This complex mental agitationand the particular
intersubjective validity of judgments expressing itis explained by Kant
in terms of the interaction between the highest faculty of our sensibility,
imagination, on the one hand, and our highest intellectual faculty, reason,
on the other hand. It brings to consciousness aestheticallythat is, without
conceptualisation, but merely through feelingsthe supremacy of reason
as a super-sensuous power in us, over against our imagination and our
sensuous nature in general.
To relate these ideas of Kant to the philosophical counterstrategies or
rational defences against trauma which concern us may well demand to
read Kants text against the grain. It may, however, be well argued that
such an interpretation is not only a forced one, but simply nonsensical,
directly contradicted by the text, on two grounds. First, it is arguably
forced since we can apprehend such natural phenomena as sublime only
when we are in complete safety, exposed only to their sight, to their
harmless visual representation from afar that is when we are, and know
ourselves to be ab ovo exempt from any potential traumatic impact.
Second, it is arguably forced because what Kant offers is the explication of
the transcendental conditions of possibility of such commonly occurring
experiences as grounding the validity of appropriate aesthetical judgments,
and not some kind of recommendation that we may and perhaps should
voluntarily accept or neglect to our disadvantage.
The first objection Kant himself raises and answers it in terms of the
analysis offered by him. It is, however, perhaps worthwhile to consider it
from our own viewpoint, from the perspective of our own experiences
with such natural (or, as a matter of fact, collective social) catastrophes, be
it the tsunami or 9/11. As we know trauma is experienced by those who
survived, for whom the catastrophe itself became a mere representation,


Feature Essay

a conscious or repressed but ineradicable unconscious memory image.

And more importantly, trauma can also befall to those who never lived
through such terrifying occurrences, and know them only from
representations through the TV or the newspaperusually because they
imaginatively identify themselves with the victims, for they conceive that
the catastrophe could well have happened also to them.
In regard to the second objection we have to take into account that
Kants analysis of the dynamical sublime ascribes to its experience a
particular, even if not commanding, practical-normative significance. It is
just this which distinguishes it from the mathematically sublime. This
later, concerned with the experience of the aesthetically unlimited as
infinite, at least directly relates imagination to the theoretical employment
of reason. The dynamically sublime is, however, connected to the practical
use of reason: it has a two-fold intrinsic relation to morality. On the one
hand, the ability to experience aesthetically the irresistible might of some
natural phenomenon as sublime that is with liking depends on the
presence of moral feeling in the subject, something which of course we
presuppose in the case of every human being. Moreover, while the
predisposition to such experience has its basis in human nature itself, its
actualisation and exercise demands a relatively high degree of theoretical
and practical cultivation, the historical development of culture. For the
uncultivated man even the mere spectacle of such natural occurrences is
just deeply frightening, repellent, to be avoided1, while for a person of
culture the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful
it is.2
On the other hand the experience of sublimity not only depends on the
moral cultivation of the individual, it also contributes to it. For this feeling
is, to quote Kant again, purposive in relation to moral feeling,
serviceable for the purposes of practical reason3 . Kant consistently
underlines the affinity of the dynamically sublime with the moral feeling,
this affinity is first of all expressed by the way he characterises the specific
nature of the pleasure provided by such experiences: it is a kind of
respect. Now respect is the moral feeling par excellence. And at this point
one ought to remember: it is not in his aesthetic theory that Kant
undertook in the first time the analysis of the sublime from the viewpoint
of critical philosophy. He first introduced its concept in his moral theory
proper, beginning from the Grundlegung. (Groundwork for the
Metaphysic of Moral) is the self-legislated moral law in us as object of

See Kant, Critique of Judgment,, 505.

Ibid., 506.

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


respect that alone is sublime in the full and adequate sense of this term.
Everything else, be they persons or natural events, can evoke the feeling of
sublimity only in so far as they are connected with this supreme supersensible law in us, are related to its actualisation. In what way can the
experience of the dynamically sublime, an experience that is aesthetical,
that is subjective-emotive, play such a role, this is the question to be
elucidated, if we want to understand its practical significance in Kant and
its possible relevance to the problem that interests us - trauma in the
classical tradition of philosophy. This demands, however, a more detailed
reconstruction of the Kantian analysis of this experience as a complex
emotion, a double, antithetical mental movement.
When we are directly involved in, physically subjected to an actual
manifestation of an irresistible power of nature, our natural reaction to
such a situation is all-consuming fear. However, when we are confronted
with such phenomena merely as spectacles, knowing that they cannot
harm us, we are not afraid of them. Their mere sight still invokes a painful
feeling; they first appear to us as frightening. This is the necessary
consequence of the way how such phenomena can be apprehended
aesthetically, that is without the explicit involvement of concepts. For we
can conceive the power of any object solely by imagining the kind and
magnitude of a resistance able to check it. But faced with manifestations
of an irresistible power imagination fails in this task. Such a power is in a
direct sense unimaginable, it can merely be felt in and due to the very
collapse of our power of imagination which in facing an abyss, is thrown
back upon itself. It is this, only emotively registrable impotence of our
highest faculty of sensibility, its blockage, felt limitationwhich
corresponds to the limitation of our powers as sensuous-bodily beings
that makes even the spectacle of such natural catastrophes painfully
But in a person of moral cultivation ,this experience of the limits of our
sensibility in general, depraving our imagination of its freedom
immediately evokes the idea of another power and another freedom in us,
that of our super-sensible practical reason. It is not the case that reason
with its supreme law becomes directly involved in such a virtual situation.
As a power commanding our free will to the morally appropriate way of
action, it cannot directly intervene, since there is no way to act rationally
in face of a power that cannot be resisted. But the ideas of reason disclose
in and for us the possibility of a resistance of a quite different kind4, not
through actions that always take place in the sensuous world, but through a

Kant, Critique of Judgment,, 503.


Feature Essay

mental attitude which matches in its strength the seeming omnipotence of

nature. Facing such a frightening spectacle, reason exercises its superior
power not over the will, but in a derivative andas Kant at one point
directly statesimproper way over imagination. The feeling of this power
and superiority is the true source of that elevated pleasure that
immediately follows upon the painfully repulsive, negative feeling evoked
by objects of the dynamically sublime.
In this way Kant fundamentally challenges all the traditional theories
of sublimity, from Longinus to Burke. It is not the overwhelming grandeur
and power of some object (in Kants case: an object of nature) that is in
the proper sense sublime. The sublime is actually our mental resistance to
any such power that discloses our super-sensible moral vocation and
superiority over nature. A perceived or imaginatively apprehended natural
object is merely the causative agent that can prompt us to such a mental
attitude by evoking the ideas of reason that alone are truly sublime. When
we attribute (as it is usually the case) sublimity to some external thing or
occurrence, it is a case of subreption, extrojection, in general of the
improper transference of a feeling from its proper object to a substitute or
surrogate with which it is regularly associated or causally related.
(Needless to say that this is a psychological mechanismthat of
displacementthat will play an exceptionally important role in
The very fact, however, that such an improper subreption occurs, as it
were, naturally, in an unconscious way that only philosophical analysis
can bring to awareness, already implies that the evoked mental attitude is
in some sense itself inadequate. It is necessarily so, because in this case
practical reason exerts its commanding power over imagination that never
can exhibit its ideas in an adequate way. In fact Kant describes the mental
attitude in question as the exercise of a violence by reason over
imagination, forcing upon this latter a law other than that of its empirical
employment, thereby, however, augmenting its power, extending it
beyond its own proper domain.
This is why the elevated feeling
immediately following upon the felt repulsion is itself a pleasure
intermixed with pain, an oscillation between the two.
What does Kant mean by all this? The proper domain of the empirical
employment of imagination is the sensuous presentation, or roughly
speaking the mental visualisation of virtual states of affairs and our
possible place in reaction to them, along the lines of habitual associations.
When faced with the spectacle of irresistible powers of nature, imagination
fails, however, in its enterprise of in this way comprehensively visualizing
their might. The supreme power of reason that is evoked by this felt

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


impotence of sensibility then arrests the free play of imagination to make

it into its own instrument, by setting it a purposive task beyond its normal
domain of sensuous objectivization. This task is the presentation of an
imaginative representation entering into some purely subjective emotive
attitude, which in its affinity/similarity to moral feeling is capable to serve
(even if inadequately), as it were, as a schema for the ideas of reason.
What is this mental attitude and in what sense is it purposive in view of
the ends of practical reason? Kants explicit answer to this question
primarily indicates its general function: that of mental resistance. The
resistance here of course is not resistance against the unimaginable
physical power of nature, but against our natural reaction to it and the allconsuming fear its might produces. Such fear, the panic of horror, is by
itself not only a painful-negative but also a destructive affect. It destroys
our dignity and moral integrity, depersonalises, reduces us to a merely
natural being completely dominated by the thoughtless instinct of physical
self-preservation. It degrades the humanity in our person, because in such
a state we unresistingly submit ourselves to the domination of nature over
us and become a plaything of chance that alone determines whether we
shall perish or survive.
To be in the state of such fear is, in our terms, a deeply traumatic
experience. It is the experience of an overwhelming power whose true
might we cannot even register consciously and which completely
overpowers the rational capacities and resources of our consciousness,
delivering us to instinctual impulses. It is, at the same time, also a
traumatising experience. For the memory of such a state of degradation, of
the shattering of our personal-moral integrity cannot ever be fully
eradicated, even if we are able by the power of reason to regain and renew
the lost dignity anew.
The experience of the dynamically sublime is that of the imaginative
presentation of a mental resistance in principle capable to defend us from
such a fear. At the end of his concluding discussion of sublimity Kant,
however, offers also a more concrete presentation of such a mental
attunement. He presents in fact a number of mental states that are
generally and legitimately regarded as sublime, since they are capable to
fulfil effectively such a function, and which actually are the true objects of
such a feeling. He broadly indicates a kind of hierarchy between these
mental states, but his exposition does not claim to be exhaustive and is
also fractured in a sense. And it is certainly surprising. For Kant, who is
usually blamed for his extreme moral rigorism, is in this case strikingly
liberal in ascribing to these mental states even if a merely derivative and
substitutive, based on a mere affinity moral significance.


Feature Essay

At the head of this hierarchy stands a cast of mind which is vigorous in

the consistent pursuance of its firm principles, while being free of all
affects. Kant explicitly identifies it with the Stoic apatheia. It is a mental
disposition that is deservedly called noble, one which reason can fully
approve, the rightful object of admiring respect. But already earlier Kant
called sublime the frame of mind of the ideal warriortrue, a strange
one, even as an ideal. This frame of mind is characterised not only by
vigorous courage in all situations of danger, but also by gentleness,
sympathy, even respect for human rights, soldiering not only for victory
but for a just and lasting peace. Now, in the conclusion, however, Kant
goes further. He points out that even enthusiasm, the feverish affect (or
perhaps rather passion) for the good is aesthetically sublime, although it is
blind in its impetuousness, obstructing free and rational deliberation about
the principles of our action, and thus never can be approved by reason. It
is sublime because it is a straining of our forces by ideas irrespective of
the personal costs and dangers involved in this endeavour. And lastly he
calls every vigorous strong affect, be it positive or negative, sublime, since
it fortifies us, bringing to consciousness our ability to resist all external
impediments and resistances. Such affects are sublime, however, only
under one condition. This is if they, even indirectly, actually serve to
influence our way of thinking or our mental resolve of internal resistance.
Otherwise they may be, at least in some cases, conducive to our health,
stimulating and invigorating our bodily processes, but are without any
kind of moral relevance.
At this point it is then perhaps worthwhile to look at the relation of
these Kantian views to the relevant ideas of Stoicism. At first sight this
seems to be rather baffling. On the one hand Kant strongly, explicitly
underlines (and not only here) the particular moral relevance and
excellence, the nobility of the Stoic apatheia as the ideal state of
wisdom, though he seems to interpret it not so much as the crowning result
of the labour of philosophical enlightenment, but having its basis in a
particular, ultimately inborn phlegmatic temperament. There are also
several passages in this short text-fragment which, even by their rhetoric,
would well fit into a Stoic manual. On the other hand, however, Kant
unambiguously if not without qualification endorses in the imaginatively
envisaged situation also casts of mind dominated by some particularly
vigorous emotionjust what the whole Stoic program of moral education
is directed against. In fact, the few concrete examples of such vigorous
affects that he mentions are actuallyperhaps quite deliberatelyjust
those passions (in the Stoic sense of this term) that were the standard

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


objects of the most resolute criticism in the writings of this school: anger,
despair and grief.
There is of course no inconsistency here in Kant. While he regards the
Stoic ideal as admirable and noble (not a strictly moral predicate in Kant),
Kant definitely refuses the identification of what is morally right with such
noble conduct, or with what in the Second Critique he calls the supermeritorious (berverdienstliche) actions.5 Rigorous or not, Kants moral
theory does not demand some exceptional wisdom or heroism even in its
ideal. It is the morality of common human decency, demanding the
observance of common and everyday obligations out of duty as it is
determined and known in the habitual use of common human reason.
This disagreement between the Stoics and Kant is based in their
fundamental theoretical premises. Kant rejects the Stoic identification of
the mind with reason. His dualism is not reducible to the relation between
the body and the mind. It extends to this latter as well, to the relation
between the empirical and noumenal self, between the sensible and the
intelligible, between the prudential and the pure practical reason. It is a
theory of radical human finitude. Kant knowsas he reminds us in the
discussion of the sublimethat human nature does not of itself
harmonise with the moral good.6 For we are beings with feelings and
sensuous inclinations that we cannot (even should not) radically extirpate.
We necessarily strive towards happiness as the maximum satisfaction of
present and future needs based upon our inclinations to which passions,
in the Kantian sense of this word, belong. And no person, be he or she the
wisest and the most noble, can be happy on the rack.
These fundamental theoretical differences cannot but radically
influence what philosophy can at all claim to offer in counteracting those
mental suffering, emotive conflicts that can paralyse the exercise of our
reason. Stoicism promised psychotherapy through philosophical
enlightenment, bolstered by particular techniques of mental exercises,
capable of preventing their very occurrence. Nothing could be farther from
Transcendental philosophy can only point out that it is in general
within the resources of our rational nature to prepare us imaginatively to
resist the most disastrous mental consequences of the occurrence even of
the most disastrous physical events. The analysis of the dynamically
sublime in no way offers any kind of prescription or at least counsel, it
merely discloses a human possibility. The actual experience of sublimity

Kant, Critique of Practical Reason.327.

Kant, Critique of Judgment, 508.


Feature Essay

in no way guarantees that facing not the spectacle of such a catastrophe,

but being really involved in it, we shall be able to meet it with an
appropriate mental resistancefor the exercise of such an ability is always
up to us, that is it depends on the concerned individual.
The great distance between the two standpoints invoked here in respect
of what philosophy can at all promise to us is, however, not
idiosyncraticit broadly indicates the trajectory of its development. In its
evolution philosophy increasingly resigned or dissociated itself from the
task of offering a direct instruction on how the individual should rationally
organise his/her life, or how philosophy might and should solve those
mental conflicts in cases wherein untutored reason seems to be impotent.
This development certainly was connected with what Hadot and Foucault
called the theoreticising of philosophy, related to transformations in its
cultural institutionalisation At the same time it also expressed basic
changes in the understanding of the capacities and task of reason.
A strictly universal and impersonal reason, which finds its great
embodiment in the objectivity of the new sciences, has its fundamental
task in directing humanity on a path towards freedom and justice. This
also means: it is not primarily an instrument to lead the individual towards
happinessespecially not in view of the ever more emphatically and
radically comprehended finitude of our being. Though rarely remarked,
the Enlightenment itself played a significant role in this process of
unburdening, as it were, reason (and with it philosophy) from this latter
task. One needs only to think about Voltaires Candide or Diderots
Fatalist. It finds again a particularly clear articulation with Kant, in the
way the ancient concept of wisdom becomes actually split into two in his
philosophy. Wisdom in its strict sense is the Weltbegriff of philosophy,
incarnated in the life of the ideal philosopher as the harmonious model of
accomplished practical rationality, who nowhere exists and never existed.
What concerns the function of directing others, with helping them in the
so-frequent adiaphoric conflicts and conundrums of their livesthis is a
prudential task, where only unreliable counsels can be offered, and not by
philosophy, but by a pragmatically oriented, empirical anthropology.
Nevertheless, the classical philosophical tradition, if we consider it
essentially terminated with Hegel, never did and never could completely
absolve reason (and itself) from such a task. For one cannot completely
dissociate the rational development of humanity from that of the human
individuals. If there are not uncommon and recurring situations in which
the rational faculties of human beings by necessity irrevocably collapse,
then the project of any kind of consistent rationalisation is condemned to a
failure. So post-Cartesian philosophy still had to deal with some

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


particularly destructive cases of the trauma. Kants discussion of the

dynamically sublime well illustrates the character of this need. If the only
possible mental reaction to the manifestations of the irresistible physical
power of nature is the trauma of all-consuming fear, then the whole
enterprise of the critique of the power of judgmentas offering a bridge
over the immense gulf dividing the conceptual domain of sensible nature
from that of supersensible freedomis in tatters. Then one no longer
could justify the never demonstrable, but legitimate assumption according
to which nature with the strict determinism of its mechanical laws is still
amenable to our moral ends. In spite of the rather marginal textual position
of this discussion in the Third Critique, it does occupy in it a truly
strategic role.
From the viewpoint of a Freudian orthodoxy all these unwitting
attempts in the classical philosophical tradition to deal with the problem of
the trauma are rather rationalisations in the psychoanalytic sense of this
term. They are mental defences concealing the unconscious origin of such
experience. Leaving aside the much-disputed question of Freuds relation
to the great philosophical critic of this tradition, Friedrich Nietzsche,
philosophy from his perspective is rather the unknowing witness to the
truth of psychoanalysis and an appropriate object of its investigations. For
in so far as traditional philosophical discourses dealt with issues we now
connect with traumatic experiences, they invariably related them to
physically or mentally destructive external events that are consciously
registered, and in this way represent a threat to the rational-moral integrity
of the subject. Freud certainly did not deny that traumas can be the result
of violent external occurrences (eg. war neuroses). But the reduction of
traumatic situations to such cases actually conceals or rationalises away
the internal-endogenous origin of trauma or traumas in infancy from the
conflict of our most fundamental instinctual drives. It is this type of
experience, predating the full formation of ego and its rational capacities
that fundamentally determine the character of the emerging personality,
primarily in dependence on the unconscious defence mechanism that the
concrete situation actually evoked. In respect of this original experience
external events derive their effectiveness only from the instinctual
excitation they provoke, and ultimately all human motivation derives its
power, energy from that of such, largely unconscious drives. Therefore the
belief of philosophy that reason can actually prevent or at least in an
appropriate way prepare for the occurrence of the trauma is the fostering
of a dangerous illusion. Freud himself, of course, was an unwavering
champion of scientific rationalitypsychoanalysis was offered as a new
science, the science of the unconscious psychical processes as underlying


Feature Essay

mental reality. Only as such can it provide a basis for a therapeutic

practice. This clinical practice of psychoanalysis can heal, however, only
the most destructive, pathological-neurotic effects of the original trauma,
not this very ground of them (with the proviso that the dividing line
between the pathological and the normal is not only blurred, but to a large
extent conventional). For unconscious processes never can be fully
brought to manifest awareness, no more than they can be fully controlled.
Late in his life Freud indeed took a painful farewell from the great promise
of philosophical Enlightenmentthat of a civilizatory progress of
humanity based on the advance of scientific rationality.
It is difficult to overestimate the broad cultural impact of these
Freudian ideas and their subsequent development in the theory of
psychoanalysis. They did change our intellectual landscape, darkened the
horizon of our self-understanding. It seems to me that contemporary
Continental philosophy, even when it does not directly address itself to a
critical evaluation of the Freudian legacy, still to a significant degree is
occupied with working through its basic theoretical consequences, the
revisions it may prompt or necessitates in some of the fundamental
concepts inherited from the tradition of early modern philosophies, from
that of the subject to that of culture and history.
In the meantime, however, some important changes have occurred in
our understanding of the very phenomenon of trauma itself. These changes
are quite independent from the evaluation, the acceptance or rejection of
its psychoanalytic interpretation(s). They basically amount to a shift of
attention and interest. In the last few decades theoretical and practical
interest to a large extent became directed to phenomena of cultural and/or
collective traumas as quite distinct in their origin and character from the
original traumas experienced by individuals in their infancythe central
focus of attention in psychoanalysis. No doubt, Freud himself, in his
writings about the origins of religious beliefs and civilizatory development
dealt with traumas in the history of larger collectives. His ideas, however,
were determined by the assumption of a strong parallelism between the
individual and the collective-historical development, and quite
independently of how one regards his speculative reconstructions they are
not really relevant to a present-day problematic of collective trauma.
This latter refers to the traumatic effect exercised by specific, welldefined external events, social or natural catastrophes of varying
duration, from the Holocaust to the tsunami. They mostly exercise such an
impact upon mature individuals with developed rational capacities who as
a rule consciously register, even if they do not adequately understand
them. It may be argued that contemporary society, for a variety of

Trauma and the Counterstrategies of Philosophy


reasonsecological, social or politicalis particularly prone to such

occurrences and that the modern means of communication render their
traumatic influence much broader than the circle of those who actually
lived through and survived them.
This vague description maynot incidentallyremind you of the way
the classical philosophical tradition actually conceived and addressed
some phenomena connected with traumas, even though it lacked this very
concept. My aim here, however, is not to rehabilitate this tradition, to
argue for its particular actuality. For as far as traumas in the above sense
are concerned, it hardly has a direct relevance to us beyond that great
cognitive, cultural and moral impact which belongs to its whole. For it
missed; it failed to thematize one of the most decisive features of such
traumas, their collective character. This concerns not simply the range and
the number of affected individuals, but the nature of this effect as well.
Such traumas, beyond their well-known individual symptoms, often
challenge or injure the collectivitys sense of its own identity. And in
response to such a threat they may give rise to collective reactions of
irrational character, expressed in social or political actions that on the
longer term are unjustifiable and irrational, since destructive for the given
or (more usually) some other collectives. Predispositions to such reactions
can also be exploited and manipulated by particular social or political
forces in their own interests. In view of this I want to close by merely
addressing a question to readers, today: Is there perhaps some task and
role for philosophy again, not to prevent the occurrence of such traumas,
but to prepare intellectually for them, to diminish, in so far as it is in its
very limited cultural power, the danger of irrational collective defences
in response to them? This question itself may well be based only on a
vague analogy, but perhaps it is not quite idle to think about what such a
task would mean and would demand of us.



Introduction: Technique, Politics, Terrorism

Politics is the name we give to the fact that for human beings living
together is always a matter of technique. This thought may be well
understood by pursuing the analogy between politics and dance. Dance,
today, refers essentially to two distinct phenomena: the work of the
professional dancer, and the play of someone who goes out dancing on a
Saturday night. But these two kinds of dancing are equally a matter of
technique, which reflects the fact that technique is older than the
distinction between work and play; whats more, it is older than the
distinction between technology and creativity. According to our analogy,
then, politics, if it is a technique, must not be merely the work of living
together, but neither can it be a matter of play, precisely because it names
something older than the distinction between them.
Leaning to one side or other of these distinctions will prejudice an
understanding of the analogy between dance and politics. If we think of
dance as the ordering and synchronizing of my movements with those with
whom I am choreographed, then it sounds like a mechanical politics
destructive of individuality. If we think of dance as a form of personal
expression on the dance floor, then we may tend to see it as an
aestheticized individualism denying or demoting my community with
others. But of course dance is nothing other than the name for all those
techniques, both rehearsed and improvised, by which I and we articulate
the individuality and the collectivity of our moving bodies. Dance is the
articulation between my individuality and a collective, whether the
collective is my dance partner, my troupe, my fellow clubbers, or my
audience. And, furthermore, the individual and the collective are such
only through each other: the individual only exists as such if he or she

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


exists through others, and the collective is merely a herd if it is not

constituted by different individuals. Politics, like dance, depends on this
transductive relation between individual and collective, thus on the
means of articulating them. And the means of politics are all those
techniquesof conversation, argumentation, negotiation, regulation, and
demonstrationarticulating individuals and collectives, even if these are
always also more than simply a means.
Terrorism is a contemporary form of political action grounded in
certain technical conditions. The most important condition enabling
terrorism is not the technology of bombs and explosives. Nor is it
knowledge of the physics of the collision between airliner and skyscraper.
This is demonstrated by the fact that terrorists are equally well disposed to
the sword or the knife: the most ancient if not primordial tools with which
to strike the flesh, or remove a head from a torso. The most important
technical condition enabling the contemporary practice of terrorism is the
capacity to disseminate widely and without delay the images of violence
perpetrated by a determined few. Terrorism is a form of political action
grounded in the belief that modern audiovisual technologies offer a means
by which the apparently weak may become the strong, and specifically in
the belief that by exposing audiences to traumatic images, their behaviour
can be significantly influenced in a calculable direction.
This definition of terrorism, which we will examine in detail, shows
why it is a singularly modern political techniqueit is nothing other than
a variation upon the central thought of contemporary capitalism, which is
this: the behaviour of audiences can be significantly influenced by
marketing techniques, especially those deploying audiovisual
technologies, and this influence is both calculable and performative.
Calculable and performative: this means that the effect of these techniques
is predictable, and that this effect amounts to the influencing of desire,
causing the adoption of new desires, and thus the invention of new
individuals and new collectives. With such means a new and unknown
product quickly gains the potential of appealing to a mass market,
enabling the possibility of mass production in advance of the desire of the
consumer for whom it is produced. A campaign of terrorism is in this
sense a species of political marketing.
Politics is today almost entirely submitted to the technical systems
devoted to the calculated and performative influencing of desire. If
terrorism is the means by which the weak attempts to become or to appear
to become the strong, then we must understand that this weakness does
not refer solely or even primarily to an inferiority of military means. It
refers specifically to the fact that terrorists are limited to using audiovisual


Chapter Nine

techniques more or less as amateurs, in comparison to the professionalism

of the highly managed and orchestrated media strategies of modern
democracies and their political parties. Terrorism is the attempt to
compensate for this weakness by exploiting a capacity and a willingness to
fabricate images of traumatic power generally unavailable to the
professional politician. Thus assessing terrorism as a contemporary
political technique means understanding this connection to marketing, and
asking about the specific potential for traumatic images to influence the
(political) desires of audiences exposed to them.

Trauma and Temporality

Trauma is a word referring to two distinct phenomena: physical trauma,
affecting the body, and psychic trauma, affecting the mind. The latter is
frequently understood by analogy with the former as a spatial
phenomenon, that is, as penetrative. Thus Sigmund Freud, in Beyond the
Pleasure Principle, describes psychic trauma in the following terms:
We describe as traumatic any excitations from outside which are
powerful enough to break through the protective shield. It seems to me that
the concept of trauma necessarily implies a connection of this kind with a
breach in an otherwise efficacious barrier against stimuli. [] There is no
longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being
flooded with large amounts of stimulus, and another problem arises
insteadthe problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have
broken in and of binding them, in the psychical sense, so that they can then
be disposed of.1

This account of psychic trauma is modelled on physical trauma, and

Freud clearly thinks that the individual nervous system functions in much
the same way as the corporeal system generally. Just as our physical
bodies are constructed so as to present their surface as a form of defence
against a potentially hostile outside world, so too the nervous system, itself
a form of relation to an exteriority, contains a shield against stimuli so
powerful as to be potentially damaging. But the stimuli in question here
are, essentially, sights and sounds. And if these stimuli are powerful, this
does not especially mean that what is seen or heard is blindingly bright or
deafeningly loud. On the contrary, it is not the physical intensity of
sensory perception that holds this power, but rather its content, that is, its

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle,, 2930.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


significance.2 And this obvious fact presents Freud with a serious problem
when it comes to understanding the origin of psychic trauma: how are we
to understand the concept of psychic intensity without presupposing some
innate, pre-existing sense of normal experience, the difference and
distance from which would constitute the possibility of psychic trauma?
Freud was utterly aware of this problem, which surfaced and resurfaced in
his work as his perpetual ambivalence about whether psychic life includes
a phylogenetic component.
Freud is of course not unaware of the temporality of the phenomenon
of psychic trauma, indicated already in the above quotation by his
description of trauma as unleashing an attempt at mastering the stimulus
in order to dispose of it. What makes this account temporal is that it
describes a process, reflecting Freuds general understanding of
psychology in terms of psychic and biological processes and tendencies.
And the complexity of this temporal description is indicated by the role he
attributes to anxiety, as a form of preparation for trauma:
It will be seen, then, that preparedness for anxiety and the hypercathexis of
the receptive systems constitute the last line of defence of the shield
against stimuli. In the case of quite a number of traumas, the difference
between systems that are unprepared and systems that are well prepared
through being hyper-cathected may be a decisive factor in determining the
outcome; though where the strength of a trauma exceeds a certain limit this
factor will no doubt cease to carry weight.3

Anxiety is thus a mechanism for anticipating trauma, thereby lessening

its effect. But, failing such preparation, the work of mastery unleashed
by trauma is nothing other than the retroactive production of the absent
These dreams [induced by trauma] are endeavouring to master the stimulus
retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause
of the traumatic neurosis.4

On the one hand, Freud acknowledges the temporality of the process to

the extent that, if anxiety lessens the impact of trauma, this can only occur
by working through the significance of the potentially traumatic future
event. On the other hand, by continuing to think in terms of the strength
of a trauma, Freud evades the question of how significance arises in the

Cf. Stiegler, Persephone, Oedipus, Epimetheus, Tekhnema 3 (1996), 1048.

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 312.
Ibid., p. 32.


Chapter Nine

first place, of how anxiety is able to process in advance what it has not yet
experienced, unless it is on the basis of prior experience (hence the
deferral of the question of origin). In the end, the theoretical discomfort
engendered by the resort to an originary significance (phylogenetic
imagery, inherited memory-traces or, as Laplanche and Pontalis call it,
originary fantasy5) is covered by Freuds continuing to think of psychic
trauma, in spite of himself, as an intensity of psychic reception, as though
the self-evidence of the effect of intense experience makes his account of
psychic trauma indubitable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Traumatypical Experience
The way beyond this theoretical cul-de-sac is shown by Bernard Stiegler,
who recognizes that psychic trauma can only be explained through an
account of the temporality of human sensibility. Whenever we undergo a
fresh piece of experience, it is added to the sum of the experiences we
have had. Each of these prior experiences, in their turn, have contributed
to the fund of experiences constituting our finite, fallible memories.
Equally, this new experience is destined to become a part of that fund,
insofar as it is remembered. Thus the processing of experience is that work
of the brain by which present experience ceases to be present and becomes
memory. And what will determine the form of that processing can be
nothing other than the sum of the experiences we have had, a sum adding
up to who we are at the time of the experience.
There are two ways in which this process may operate. The first of
these occurs when an experience tends to conform to the expectations we
have, expectations themselves the result of accumulated experience
processed into memory. Such experiences are stereotypical, and thus tend
to reinforce existing expectations, and to add to the sense of the
individuals synchrony, that is, to their stability. The second form of the
processing of new experiences occurs when the new experiences defy
established expectations, and thus cannot be incorporated into the stock of
memory without work, that is, without transforming the individuals
psychic economy. These experiences are traumatypical, rather than
stereotypical. Traumatypical experiences are diachronic rather than
synchronic, inaugurating an individuating movement rather than
reinforcing apparent stability, and amount to the possibility of the
experience of significance. The difference between the stereotypical and

Laplanche & Pontalis, Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality, in Burgin, Donald
& Kaplan (eds.), Formations of Fantasy ,167.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


the traumatypical is the difference between experience of the same and

experience of the other.6
Such a picture is complicated, however, by the fact that Stiegler was
able to describe the temporality of psychic trauma in this way only by
drawing on Husserlian phenomenology. If Stiegler is able to avoid the
spatial metaphors afflicting the Freudian account, it is only because he has
available to him what Freud did not: a description of the way in which the
continuing experience of the present moment is already a temporal
phenomenon, which opens the way to an account of the process by which
present experience becomes past experience. Lacking an account of the
temporality of the present, that is, of the fact that present experience is
already and immediately an interaction with the past and the future, Freud
could not think through the phenomenological character of expectation,
that is, of the way the constitution of present experience, as intentional,
involves selection, as we shall see.
Husserl approaches the temporality of consciousness by thinking
through a particular kind of object found in the worldwhat he calls a
temporal object.7 If experience is nothing but a flux of consciousness,
appearing and lasting until its passing away into disappearance, then a
temporal object is also itself a flux, existing only along the span of time
from its beginning until the moment of its passing away. Husserls
paradigmatic case of a temporal object is a melody, the encounter with
which consists in nothing but the coincidence of my flux with the flux that
the melody is.
The problem Husserl sought to solve by reflecting on temporal objects
was to account for the experience of duration, given that we seem
condemned to dwell in an eternal present. What he learned from the
melody, which we experience as a continuous duration, is that our
experience of the present carries with it the immediate past as a kind of
comets tail. It also includes expectations of the immediate future, which
together with the retentions of the immediate past constitute a temporal
fringe around the now-point of consciousness.8 Hearing a sustained note
already implies this retentional and protentional process involved in
present experience. Husserl called this carrying along of the just past into
the present primary retention, to distinguish it from secondary retention,

Stiegler, Dsir et connaissance: le mort saisi par le vif: Elments pour une
organologie de la libido, Revue d'intelligence artificielle 19 (2005), 13-29.
Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893
1917), 24.
Ibid., p. 37.


Chapter Nine

which is what we normally think of as memory as, for instance, when we

run through a melody in our heads which we heard yesterday.

Historicity and/of Trauma

It was, for Husserl, crucial to argue that other ways of retaining the past in
the presentsuch as writing, painting, photography and in general all
forms of recordingdo not constitute a third form of retention but rather
merely reproduction. For him, they can thus be treated as derivative and
unimportant to a properly formulated phenomenology.9 A crucial point for
Stiegler, by contrast, is that the very possibility of phenomenology, of
discovering the intentionality of experience, arises historically. Only with
the invention of sound recording was it possible to hear precisely the same
sequence of sounds more than once. And only when people began to
undergo this experience of the repetition of recorded sound did it become
possible to reflect on the fact that the experience was not identical, even
though the recording was. Listening to a symphony, for example, we may
attend or fail to attend to different aspects of the recordingthe string or
the woodwind instruments, sayand this attentiveness or inattentiveness
determines the character of the perception itself. What this amounts to is
that any experience in the present is already a selection, a selection
informed by the primary retentions carried into that present experience.
Yet if this was the technical condition enabling phenomenological
thought, Husserls insistence on absolutely distinguishing retention from
reproduction meant that he failed to think the phenomenon through to its
conclusion. In fact, what determines this selection governing our particular
experiences, what decides the way in which the immediate past influences
the experience of the present, can be nothing other than secondary
retentions, that is, the sum of my experience until that moment. It is only
because this sum is not quite the same between the first and the second
times I listen to a recording that my experience of the recording is not
identical each time.
So it is now possible to see how the phenomenological account of
retention complicates the description of stereotypical and traumatypical
experience. It is not the event itself which befalls me which is
stereotypical or traumatypical. If present experience always involves a

An important exception to this statement is Husserls account of the origin of

geometry, which does tend to recognize the critical role of all the techniques by
which the geometrician adopts the work of the protogeometer and the history of
geometry. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of this exception, which is
nevertheless crucial for Stieglers reading of Husserl, as it is for Derridas.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


retentional selection determining the character of present experience, then

this cannot be simply a question of the strength of sensory perception
breaking through consciousness and flooding my psychic interior. If all
experience involves memory and expectation, then whether a particular
experience is apprehended as traumatic or stereotypical is constituted by
the process whereby my memories and expectations meet up with what is
encountered, so to speak. It is not that what is encountered is essentially
stereotypical or traumatypical, but that my prior experience has
contributed to the existence, for myself, in my psychic interior, of
stereotypes and traumatypes, that is, secondary retentions converted into
one or other of these forms, themselves then informing the selections
involved in any present experience. The outside, whether traumatic or
not, is constituted by the inside.10
But this means that traumatypical experience cannot be simply the
experience of the unexpected. Experience is a form of being-affected, and
primary retention, informed by secondary retention, amounts to the
conditions determining the possibility of being-affected in the present. An
event completely defying all expectation will not lead to an experience of
significance, will not be a traumatypical experience, but rather, as
something leaving us utterly untouched, will constitute no experience
whatsoeverjust as neutrinos pass continually through our bodies yet
leave us utterly untouched (if they exist for the physicist, they nevertheless
belong to a milieu with which we cannot interact sensorily or even
physically, and thus for us they are absolutely insignificant).
Stereotypical and traumatypical are thus not so much the character
of the experience we are having, than they are descriptions of the character
of the retentions and protentions informing present experience.
Stereotypical retentions and protentions, as the basis of my synchrony,
amount to the retentional and protentional apparatus supporting my
supposed identity. Traumatypical retentions and protentions, constituting
my potential for registering significance and thus for inaugurating a
movement of diachronic individuation, amount not to the unexpected, but
rather to my repressed memories and expectations (that is, wishes). An
experience which is traumatic is one that unleashes a certain amount of
this potential, that is, an experience that to a certain degree initiates a
change in my organization of the stereotypical and the traumatypical, that
is, inaugurates a transformation of who I am.
Now, what is peculiar to human beings is that there is a third kind of
retention, which informs and indeed over-determines the relation of

Stiegler, Dsir et connaissance.


Chapter Nine

secondary to primary retention, and which cannot be excluded from any

genuine understanding of the process of experiencing the present. This
third memory consists in all the artefacts and traces constituting a material
stratum supporting the fallible system of secondary retentionthat is,
individual memory is supported by technical memory.11 This does not
only include those devices specifically devoted to the retention of
information, but in fact every human artefact insofar as it inscribes and
retains (for example) the gesture of the hand that worked on it. Thus, for
instance, the possibility of phenomenology arises at the moment that
newly invented recording techniques permit new and precise ways of
reflecting on ones own experience. A recorded melody differs from the
tune I carry in my head because, as an exterior and potentially infinite
form of retention, I can return to it repeatedly or at a great distance in time,
and thereby shore up finite individual memory. Plato did not fail to note
this characteristic in the case of writing, but then he concealed the
essential productivity of this retentional technique by relegating it to a
derivative and parasitic status.
A melody, as we said, is a flux. And when I experience a temporal
object, the flux of my experience and the flux which the object is coincide,
and move along the axis of time together, so to speak. But the recording of
a melody, while still constituting a flux, is also a manufactured object
containing the possibility of repeating the experience of that flux. Thus
Stiegler refers to a class of objects which he calls industrial temporal
objects, including compact discs, movies, television programs, etc. Even
a novel, or a written poem, might be considered an industrial temporal
object, insofar as when I allow my eyes to pass along the line of words, I
am engaging in an essentially temporal process that has a beginning and
which culminates in the final word of the novel or the poem. But whereas
literature works through my capacity to read, that is, to engage a learned
technique of interpreting inscribed marks at whatever pace I set, a movie
or television program works by engaging my ability to see and hear in a
manner more intimately related to the temporality of worldly experience as
such. In that sense, we can say that experience is essentially cinematic:
life (animaon the side of the mental image) is always already cinema
(animationimage-object).12 It might be objected that a movie contains
all manner of cuts and dissolves, whereas conscious, living experience is
a continuous flux, but this objection is essentially pre-phenomenological

Stiegler, Technics of Decision: An Interview, trans. Sean Gaston, Angelaki 8

(2003), 155.
Stiegler, The Discrete Image, in Stiegler & Jacques Derrida, Echographies of
Television: Filmed Interviews, 162.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


(not to mention pre-deconstructive): the fact that secondary retentions

condition primary retention (through influencing selection) means that
even living experience involves, essentially, editing and post-production.
The peculiar power of cinema and television to captivate audiences lies in
the degree of such resemblances to the temporal process of sensibility as

Desire, Mass Media, and the Market

Recognizing this power of cinematic and televisual experience,
manufacturers also realized that the captivation of consciousness is a way
of determining the character of secondary retention. It is thus a powerful
means of determining the selections involved in primary retention, and
thereby a way of influencing behaviour. The possibility of mass
production, enabling the realization of economies of scale and thus
potentially increasing profit, depends on being able to anticipate that the
product will be purchased en masse, that is, it depends on being able to
influence behaviour toward consumption. The twentieth century was the
period in which audiovisual techniques deploying industrial temporal
objects were developed and perfected, directed toward inducing consumer
behaviour. Eventually human consciousness, conceived as audiences,
became a form of merchandise, sold by broadcasters and purchased by
producers working through advertisers. The point became the calculable
degree to which this merchandise could be successfully used, that is, the
degree to which consciousness could be manipulated in order to
performatively exploit it toward the end of inducing consumption.13 This
calculable and performative exploitation of the market of human
consciousness is now the basis of our technical system, that is, cognitive
or cultural capitalism, in a way Karl Marx could never have known, even
if it is foreshadowed in his concept of commodity fetishism.14
Even though these techniques depend on the existence of a market of
human consciousness, they do not operate solely at a conscious level, but
specifically target the unconscious, that is, the seat of desire. This word,
unconscious, has become exceedingly familiar, even obvious, yet
obviousness is not the same thing as clarity. What is clear is that the
unconscious can be neither consciousness nor the body. Making clear

Cf., Stiegler, Aimer, saimer, nous aimer: du 11 septembre au 21 avril (Paris:

Galile, 2003).
Cf., Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access: How the Shift from Ownership to Access
is Transforming Modern Life, 7; Stiegler, Mcrance et discrdit: Tome 1, La
dcadence des dmocraties industrielles


Chapter Nine

what the unconscious is, then, means understanding that which is older
than the distinction between consciousness and the body. Or, in other
words, it means understanding that consciousness has a history, consisting
in the evolution of the nervous system and the development of increasing
perceptual and retentional capacity. Human beings invent systems
enabling an increasing potential to learn from accumulated experience, an
increasing capacity for anticipation, which amounts to an increasing
liberation of behaviour from predetermined responses. The chimpanzee
displays greater freedom in its behaviour than the frog, which displays
greater freedom than the protozoa. Such freedom is to an extent
measurable as the degree to which a dog or a chimp is capable of being
trained, that is, capable of being induced through various techniques to
behave contrary to its natural inclinations (compared, say, to an ant). In
the case of human evolution, this process of liberation consists not only in
the increasing size and efficiency of the memory processes of the nervous
system, but also in all the supplementary forms of retention, that is, the
technical evolution of all the forms of tertiary retention. In other words,
the taking up of tools sets off a new technico-biological dynamic,
contributing to the further evolution of the nervous system itself, as it
undergoes the process of corticalization.15
The Freudian account of the human unconscious has conventionally
been derived by artificially (if not metaphysically) separating the
psychosexual drives, however broadly these are understood, from those
rhythms and processes more directly related to maintaining bodily
consistency. Respiration and digestion, for instance, do not often enter into
consideration as biological processes when the unconscious is under
interrogation, even though they are no less under the command of the
nervous system (but here we could, on the other hand, cite Friedrich
Nietzsches prototypical account of the subterranean aspects of human
being, in which digestion was something more than a metaphor).16 But if
we do not permit ourselves these artificial distinctions, then the
Andr Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger;
Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, part 1, ch. 3. According
to Stieglers account, this technological maieutic between cortex and equipment is
nothing less than the process of the invention of the human as such.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Second essay: Guilt, bad
conscience and related matters, 1. This reflects the degree to which the
Nietzschean account of the genealogy of the human psychic economy is a matter
of processes, and of struggles between tendencies and countertendencies. Such also
is the degree to which Stieglers thought can be considered Nietzschean.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


unconscious can be nothing other than what, between the body and
consciousness, composes and regulates the relation between them.17
In the case of human beings, this separation of body and consciousness
has reached a point whereby it is clear that what motivates behaviour is far
enough from bodily drives that we can speak of desire as essentially
adoptive. This does not mean that there is no relation between desire and
the drives. Rather, it means precisely that it is a relation, and that human
desire, in its difference from and deferral of the drives, is an adoptive
process which is not only psychological, but psychosocial, and technical.
If the audiovisual techniques employed by capitalism to influence
behaviour are able to work, it is only because of the adoptive character of
human desire. Only on this basis are advertisers able to invent campaign
strategies based on the belief that sex sells beer, sex sells cars, and sex
sells detergent. In other words, by conditioning primary and secondary
retention through the (repetitive) techniques of tertiary retention, desire
can be influenced to adopt certain ends. Thus the body can be motivated to
behave in certain ways, that is, to purchase and consume.
As Stiegler points out, however, if these techniques operate by
presupposing and improving the calculability of the way in which they
performatively affect desire, in the end this system, while certainly
currently effective, will be forced to confront two facts. Firstly, it will
confront the fact that desire is not quantifiable, and therefore that these
techniques are devised on a flimsy understanding of the human
behavioural process. Secondly, it will encounter the fact that the
unconscious, if susceptible, is nevertheless the definition of that in us
which cannot finally be controlled. There are, therefore, unintended
consequences of the global attempt to reduce all human behaviour to a
calculable product purchasable in a mass market of desire.

Values and politics stretched to the limit

What are these consequences? The price paid for reducing all behaviour to
calculable desire is the destruction of value. What does value mean?
Value cannot be the opposite of desire: something is valuable only insofar
as it is desired, that is, only insofar as it fits into a libidinal economy or
circuit of desire. What is not desired is not valuable. And yet, value only
means something insofar as it is not something simply exchangeable, that

Stiegler, Nanomutations, hypomnemata and grammatisation, address delivered

at the University of California, Irvine (4 May, 2006), p. 1, available online at:


Chapter Nine

is, insofar as it is not completely calculable.18 What I value most highly is

not something that can be quantifiably priced, but is, precisely, priceless.
This irreducibility of value to quantifiability explains why desire cannot
finally be calculated. The contemporary technical system based on the
reduction of all experience to calculably performative desire, which is thus
premised on the endless sustainability and profitability of ever-increasing
mass consumption, denies any place for value as irreducible and
incalculable. The consequence of this is the short-circuit of desire, leading
consumption to become hyperconsumption, lacking sense or satisfaction,
becoming instead a form of dissatisfaction, and an insatiability amounting
to a dependencethat is, consumption becomes a system of addiction.
Thus behaviour, even if it continues to be consumer behaviour,
nonetheless becomes de-motivatedsenselessas desire tends to
Is this not the very situation to which much of contemporary terrorism
and fundamentalism respond? I have argued elsewhere that what the
fundamentalist opposes in the contemporary world is the reduction of
value to calculable desire, and that this is a religious objection to the
present world precisely because the denial of the irreducibility of value at
the same time destroys responsibility.19 Responsibility means nothing
other than the decision to conduct oneself on the basis that existence is not
completely reducible to calculation. The fundamentalist understands the
refusal of this decision as the denial of God in favour of sinful temptation,
that is, in favour of the constant and ceaseless inducement to give in to the
temptations to which one is endlessly being invited by a world that has lost
all sense of responsibility.
The truth of the fundamentalist objection lies in the fact that, reducing
value to calculable desire, value is destroyed, behaviour is de-motivated,
and misery reigns. But this objection remains false to the extent that
fundamentalism denies that value is related to desire, that is, to the extent
that it mistakes irreducibility for transcendence. The fundamentalist
believes that God, the highest value, utterly transcends the world of
material desires, and thus is not only irreducible to desire but is a value
beyond desire as such. On the basis of this mistake it becomes possible
to adopt desires and behaviour apparently contradictory to all the desires
of life. It may in fact become imperative to do so, that is, responsibility is


Stiegler, Mcrance et Discrdit: Tome 2. Les socits incontrolables

d'individus dsaffects (Paris: Galile, 2006), ch. 3.
Daniel Ross, Violent Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2004), p. 172; Ross, Traumas of the Image, theory@buffalo 10 (2005), 97.

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


determined precisely as this requirement to contradict life.20 This is the

ground of the possibility of adopting thanatological desires, characteristic
of the behaviour of the terrorist and particularly the suicide bomber. The
suicide bomber adopts death-driven desires as the fundamental
incommensurable value precisely through renouncing terrestrial life as
irrecoverably corrupt, fatally captivated by calculable, that is, sinful,
desire.But what this also shows is that the suicide bomber, however false
his picture of the world may be, is nothing but a symptom of that world.
Specifically, he is a convulsive, reactive phenomenon caused by the
disgust in which the exhaustion of desire and de-motivation of behaviour
may inevitably result. As Farhad Khosrokhavar has argued, todays
volunteers for martyrdom, who are frequently Westerners (as though we
could today distinguish the West from its others), differ from the
resistance martyrs of the past in that their motives and goals seem vague,
fantasized, and globalbut this only reflects, however, that they, like their
target victims, constitute themselves and their world as audience members
of globalized television programming such as that of CNN.21 The suicide
bomber is simply someone who, for one reason or another (and these
reasons matter, but are not sufficient to differentiate the suicide bomber
utterly from ourselves), feels the exhaustion and de-motivationthat is,
the non-existenceengendered by the consumerist world as a singular and
pathological trauma. He experiences this trauma as an upheaval of his
synchrony, thus as a desynchronization of his existence. But it is also a
perpetual trauma which therefore does not permit the re-organization of
his libidinal economy. For the suicide bomber (but not only for him) the
world is a traumatypical experience, in fact a destruction of experience,
culminating in a hyper-diachronizing imperative to find an exit from the
world as such.22
But if all this is the case, it is extremely interesting that the terrorist is
also, as was stated in the beginning, committed to the belief that his
behaviour affects the world, and specifically that what causes the effect is
That this is a religious mistake is one message of the film Breaking the Waves
(Lars Von Trier, 1996): the claim of the congregation that our church needs no
bells is contradicted by the final appearance of heavenly bells, symbol of the
conjunction of value and desire (symbolized as well by the life and death of the
protagonist, Bess).
Farhad Khosrokhavar, Suicide Bombers: Allahs New Martyrs, trans. David
Macey (London & Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2005); cf., Ross, Haunting the World:
Review of Farhad Khosrokhavar, Suicide Bombers, Arena Magazine 80
(2005/2006), 501.
Cf., Stiegler, Aimer, saimer, nous aimer, 334 & 8990.


Chapter Nine

the fact that his suicidal or homicidal behaviour will be broadcast. The
suicide bomber and the hostage-taker-decapitator share the thought not
only that the mortiferous images resulting from their behaviour will have
consequences, but that these consequences are somehow calculable. Only
to the degree that they share this thought does such behaviour amount to a
strategy. To this extent these enemies of the contemporary technical
system share with the advocates of that system the faith that industrial
technical objects and audiovisual techniques targeting the unconscious
influence desire and have calculable consequences for the behaviour of
individuals and audiences. These calculations may be fanciful, but this is
more or less beside the point, given that the strategic options of the
terrorist are that much more limited than those of advertising and political
campaigners, and given that the most expensive and calculated advertising
campaigns are still based on the false notions that desire is quantifiable
and the unconscious finally controllable. What it is more important to
understand is that the particular method preferred by terrorists amounts to
an appeal not to stereotypes but to traumatypes. The thought is that by
providing the world with what it consciously represses but unconsciously
expects, a transformation of desire resulting in a change of behaviour will
result. Specifically, the terroristic auteur triesby presenting a sequence,
stretching from a period before the inflicting of physical trauma to the
moment of that trauma and its aftermathto place the audience within the
situation, to involve and affect them temporally, hence to induce a feeling
of responsibility for the situation.23 And when he decides to wield a sword
rather than a gun, he intends this as a deliberate contrast to the tendency
[in recent centuries] towards the concealment and anonymity of the person
doing the killing, and towards dishonour.24 What this auteur creates are

Cf. Michael Ignatieff, The Terrorist as Auteur, New York Times Magazine
(14 November, 2004), 50. I criticize Ignatieffs reading of these traumatypical
industrial temporal objects in Traumas of the Image, 96.
Javier Maras, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume Two: Dance and Dream, trans.
Margaret Jull Costa (New York: New Directions, 2006), p. 331. Near the end of
this novel, Maras offers something like a phenomenology of the sword in
contemporary life, one which relates in a precise way to the distinction between the
stereotypical and the traumatypical. Beginning with the fact that if I draw a gun or
a knife on someone, theyre bound to be scared, but only in a conventional way,
and taking note that what makes this fear conventional is that the situation is
predictable, and has therefore been anticipated (say, in fantasy: such thoughts are
pure fantasy; but at least youre one step ahead, and, more importantly, youre not
quite so terrified or so surprised [3289]), the argument he constructs goes on to
point out that the sword, on the contrary, is probably the weapon that instils the
most fear in people, precisely because it seems so out of place in a day and age

Politics, Terror, and Traumatypical Imagery


traumatic industrial temporal objects. And that this cinematic

responsibility is conveyed depends on the fact that the traumatypical is
unconsciously expected, which is confirmed by the feeling, and not only
of those watching television, that the experience is reminiscent of
But such a strategy depends, more than anything, and in the end, on the
continuing possibility for such imagery to be traumatypical. In other
words, once even this imagery becomes stereotypical, once we are
affectively saturated by images of bombing and decapitation, then it will
be for the terrorist a case of diminishing returns, a tendency threatening
mass marketing generally, the techniques of which are already
approaching such affective saturation. And at this point, whether the
images are of consumption or destruction, the consequence will only be
the intensification of de-motivation. And this will be experienced as
traumatic, as suffering, but a suffering from which there will be no escape
other than by finding a means of escaping all those systems perpetuating
the mass market of consciousness and contributing to the exhaustion of
The question today, the political question today, is what consequences
would follow from a collective exit from this system, and whether such an
exit implies or avoids a final collapse of the technical system. Humankind
is presently confronted with problems of unprecedented significance,
including the possibility not only that human life but biological life in
general and the planetary climate may have been thrown into a state of
when hand-to-hand fighting barely exists (330). And thus the following
disquisition on this particular piece of equipment: Where did that come from, a
primitive blade, a medieval grip, a Homeric hilt, an archaic tip, the most
unnecessary of weapons or the most out-of-keeping with these times, more even
than an arrow and more than a spear, anachronistic, arbitrary, eccentric, so
incongruous that the mere sight of it provokes panic, not just intense fear, but an
atavistic fear, as if one suddenly recalled that it is the sword that has caused the
most deaths throughout most centuries; that it has killed at close quarters and face
to face (331).
I expanded considerably on this point in a keynote address delivered at RMIT
University on 1 July, 2005, entitled Passages to Immortality: Arakawa and Gins,
Stiegler, and September 11. There is no clearer case of this effect than
September 11: even though no terrorist held the camera or controlled the editing,
nevertheless the action was directed with the faith that it would hopefully result in
traumatic imagery. In order to illustrate the essentially cinematic aspect of the
event, I preceded the address at RMIT with a section of the film 9/11 (Jules &
Gedeon Naudet, 2002), including the reaction of a bystander on the scene, who
proclaimed that its like something out of The Towering Inferno, like a movie!


Chapter Nine

profound disequilibrium, and that resources, both human and natural,

threaten to reach a catastrophic point of exhaustion. But given the fact that
the entire technical system is premised on using the audiovisual technical
system to divert desire, from infancy, away from identification with other
human beings and toward the desire for consumption, thereby destroying
individual and collective existence and decomposing the social bond, our
sense of responsibility insists that we ask the following question: does not
our present and future capacity to address these grave planetary problems
depend on the possibility of finding just such an exit from an
unsustainable and self-destructive system (and equally on the capacity to
imagine and invent the conditions for something else, conditions
permitting a belief and a faith in a future for desire, that is, a belief and a
faith in the future as such)? If we fail to respond to the feeling that
somethingprecisely our capacity to feel and thinkis not right, then our
wild, wild West, which today knows no frontiers but is losing heart, may
well end up dancing at the end of a rope, without music.


A cage went in search of a bird.

Franz Kafka.

In his short story, In the Penal Colony, written in 1919, Kafka describes
a machine, the apparatus, in which a condemned man is to be executed.
This apparatusas lovingly described by the officer who supervises it
works in the following way: firstly, the condemned man is laid naked on a
bed, stomach down; next he is strapped in by his hands, his feet and his
throat, while a piece of felt is stuffed into his mouth to keep him from
screaming and biting his tongue.1 Above the bed is that part of the
apparatus known as the inscriber, and attached to that, the harrowa
word that signals not only to the sharp teeth of the ploughing instrument it
resembles, but also to the distress and torment it produces. Once the
condemned man is firmly strapped to the machine, the work of sentencing
begins. While the idea that a sentence would be produced by the same
machine that is to carry out the punishment seems unusual, this blurring of
sentence and punishment, of judgement and execution is precisely what is
at stake in Kafkas story. When the machine kills a man, it does so by
inscribing a sentencein this case the sentence is Honour Your
Superiorsonto his body, writing deeper and deeper into the flesh, until,
after approximately twelve hours, the man is killed.
In Idea of Prose, Agamben discusses Kafkas story in a way that seeks
to illuminate the ambiguity whereby the linguistic sentence blurs into the
penal sentence. What Kafka reveals to us, Agamben suggests, is that the
machine of torture in the penal colony is language itself. The apparatus,
Agamben tells us, is primarily a machine of justice and punishment. This

Kafka, In the Penal Settlement, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, 172.


Chapter Ten

means that on earth and for men, language is also such an instrument.2
Agamben discusses the horrific ending to Kafkas story, in which the
officer, who had previously supervised the machine, straps himself into it
and attempts to have the machine inscribe the sentence Be Just into his
own flesh. The attempt to have the machine inscribe this particular
sentence, however, produces a result quite unlike the calculated penal
procedure the officer himself had described in such detail: once the officer
is strapped into the machine, it begins to malfunction; cogs and wheels spit
out at random, the harrow doesnt write but merely jabs violently into the
officers body again and again. [T]he machine was obviously going to
pieces; the explorer realises its silent working was a delusion.3 While the
officer had desired a form of redemption that would come from
understanding the meaning of the sentence as it was inscribed into his
body, what is produced is not redemption nor justice but, in the words of
the explorer, plain murder.4 In Agambens view, the redemption that the
machine produced was a product of its revelation of the meaning of
language, which is contained in language only as punishment. Here
Agamben establishes an essential relation between logos and law: logic, he
suggests, has its exclusive realm in judgement: logical judgement is, in
truth, immediately penal judgement.5 In this vein, Agamben offers an
interpretation of the destruction of the machine in which the officer inserts
the injunction Be Just into the machine with the precise intent of
destroying it. In this way, Agamben suggests, the tale presents the ultimate
meaning of language as precisely this injunction, Be Just. And yet, it is
precisely this injunction that language cannot make us understand. Or,
rather, Agamben writes, it can do it only be ceasing to perform its penal
function, only by shattering into pieces and turning from punisher to
The relation between language and law signalled here is one that
occurs throughout Agambens works, and is essential to an understanding
of his more recent, and more overtly political, Homo Sacer series. What
does it mean then to suggest that language is a penal machine? And what
is the implicationfor a philosophy of law and a politics that desires
justiceof Agambens account of the shattering of this penal machine?
Another of Agambens essays, which also bears the title The Idea of
Language, can provide us with some signposts here. In this essay,

Agamben, The Idea of Language II, in Idea of Prose, 115.

Kafka, In the Penal Settlement, 196.
Kafka, In the Penal Settlement, 197.
Agamben, The Idea of Language II, in Idea of Prose, 116.
Agamben, The Idea of Language II, in Idea of Prose, 117.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


Agamben defines the idea of language as that sayability or

communicability that language must presuppose in order to signify. What
is presupposed is not a proposition but the very event of language prior to
significationthat there is language, that language takes place. By
presupposing this event of language however, language captures it within
itself: because language cannot say sayability, because it cannot name the
event of language, it presupposes it and thus renders it inaccessible.
Sayability is that which, in language, we always presuppose and
forget7 Language presupposes its own ability to signify. And yet today,
Agamben argues, all transcendental veils have been stripped away and this
presuppositional structure of language has come into view. The question,
then, is how should we respond to this situation? In a thinly veiled critique
of deconstruction, Agamben recounts Wittgensteins image of a fly
trapped in a glass. Contemporary thought, he suggests, has now
recognized the glass, recognised that we are trapped within the limits of
the presuppositional structure of language. And yet, he argues, what is
left aside is precisely the original project assigned to this image: the
possibility that the fly might leave the glass.8
This presuppositional structure in which we are all trapped on account
of being thrown into language, is also the structure of law. Like language,
law relies on a presupposed negative foundation that lies in an unreachable
past. In the absence of any transcendental source of authority, law
presupposes itself, retrospectively legitimating its own, non-legal,
foundation and thus establishing a circle in which laws authority stems
from law itself and the foundation, the before the law, is obscured. This
scenario leads directly to what Adam Thurschwell has referred to as the
fundamental political-philosophical dilemma of our time: the inability to
articulate an emphatic conception of justice in any terms beyond those of
positive law.9 In contrast to those who would respond to this dilemma by
revealing laws lack of ground only to leave this groundless law in place
a strategy Agamben refers to as imperfect nihilism and attributes to
thinkers as diverse as Gershom Scholem and Jacques DerridaAgamben
believes that it is necessary to depose or deactivate law itself. Today,
Agamben argues, this task is utterly necessary, as the crisis produced by
the unveiling of the presuppositional structure of law has lead to the

Agamben, The Thing Itself, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, 35.

Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Language, Potentialities, 46.
Adam Thurschwell, Specters of Nietzsche: Potential Futures for the Concept of
the Political in Agamben and Derrida,, 47.
Accessed 02 September 2006.


Chapter Ten

blurring of law and life and to the generalisation of a juridical model with
all the hallmarks of Kafkas penal settlement.
In Kafkas story, we see a perfect illustration of the blurring of law and
life. In The Penal Colony we witness the collapse of the distinctions
between judgement, sentence and punishment, and between law and fact.
In the world of the colony, it is no longer possible to distinguish where life
ends and law begins, as the body itself becomes a parchment on which a
sentence is violently inscribed. Similarly, it is no longer possible to
distinguish between the factual situation to which a particular law would
apply, and law itself. Those are the facts, the Officer tells the explorer
after outlining the allegations against the man he is about to have
executed: The captain came to me an hour ago, I wrote down his
statement and appended the sentence to it. Then I had the man put in
chains. That was all quite simple. If I had first called the man before me
and interrogated him, things would have got into a confused tangle. He
would have told lies, and had I exposed these lies he would have backed
them up with new lies, and so on and so forth. As it is, Ive got him and I
wont let him go.10 The violence of this indistinction of law and life is
clearly illustrated in Kafka, in the startling image of an unconstrained,
arbitrary power, which can kill without appeal. The apparatus does not
merely execute the condemned man howeverit tortures him for six
hours, until he has no more energy for screaming, then tortures him for
six more hours until his death. This death by torture appears, in Kafka, as
the ultimate result of the eradication of the boundary between law and life.

The State of Exception

In Giorgio Agambens work, the blurring of law and life is the key
characteristic of the state of exception, in which law is suspended and the
word of the sovereign takes on the force of law. Life in this zone,
Agamben argues, is bare life, orafter the Ancient Roman category that
marked the one who could be killed with impunity but not sacrificed
Homo Sacer. Bare life, in Agamben, is neither bios, a qualified form of
lifebios politikos, or bios theoretikos for instancenor zoe, natural life.
Rather, bare life is a creation of sovereign power, a threshold of
indistinction that enables an articulation between zoe and bios, natural and
political life. It is naked life to the extent that it has been stripped of its
political status, but simultaneously, no life is more political than bare life
as this life enters into the calculations of politics and of state power

Franz Kafka, In the Penal Settlement, 174.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


through its absolute exposure to death at the hands of the sovereign. Bare
life is the politicization of natural life and the state of exception is the
place in which biopolitics and sovereign power come together with deadly
Central to Agambens theorization of the exception is the notion that
the violence of the state of nature or anomie is the excluded presupposition
of law. While law presupposes the juridical reference, this reference must
in fact be created through an articulation, which is simultaneously a
discontinuity, between law and life. Thus, in Agambens view, there can
be no absolute demarcation between law and a non-juridical outside, as
anomie, or life itself, is always presupposed by law as a constitutive
outside, which must be captured within law in the form of the state of
exception. The exception, in Agamben, is an individual case that is
excluded from the rule. However, what properly characterizes an
exception is that what is excluded in it is not, for this reason, simply
without relation to the rule. The rule applies to the exception in no longer
applying, in withdrawing from it.11 The exception then, is a limit relation
between law and anomie. The state of exception is the presupposition of
the juridical reference in the form of its suspension12: that is, it is not the
state of nature as outside to law, but is both a presupposition of law and a
product of its suspension. What this demonstrates, in Agamben, is nothing
but the intimate and irrevocable connection between law and the state of
exception. In the exception we see the reappearance of what was assumed
to lie outsideanomieon the inside, thus Agambens assertion that
there is nothing outside the law.
In Agamben, the point of indistinction between law and violence,
juridical and factual order, is marked by the sovereign, whofollowing
Carl Schmitts theory of sovereigntyexists in an undecidable position
with relation to the juridical order and enables the internalisation, within
this order of anomic violence. The sovereign decision, Agamben writes,
represents the inscription within the body of the nomos of the exteriority
that animates it and gives it meaning.13 Following Schmitt, Agamben too
understands sovereignty as a borderline concept: The sovereign, Schmitt
argued, stands outside the normally valid legal order and nevertheless
belongs to it, for he decides whether the constitution is to be suspended in
its entirety.14 This status by which the sovereign is legally outside the law,
Agamben, The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter
Benjamin, in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, 162.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life,, 21.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 26.
Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty,, 14.

Chapter Ten


is, in Agambens view, the fundamental paradox of sovereignty. The

sovereign power is revealed, in the exception, in violently producing the
normal situation that is the presupposition of the application of law.
Sovereignty then, is the point of indistinction between law and violence,
between inside (law) and outside (anomie/life) and, as such, it testifies to
the impossibility of rigidly distinguishing these terms. The sovereign
decision, Agamben argues, traces and from time to time renews this
threshold of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and
inclusion, nomos and physis, in which life is originally excepted in law. 15

Presupposition, and the problem of application

The problem of the sovereign decision on the state of exception is
ultimately that of laws reference to life, of how it is possible for an
abstract body of rules to apply to a concrete segment of reality. What is
crucial, for Agamben, is that there is no internal nexus between law and
life, no logical passage from norm to reality. The application of a rule is
not a logical question but a practical one. Law can only apply to life
through an act of application, which is in no way contained within the law.
What the state of exception reveals then, is precisely the separation of
norm and application. In the exception, the norm is suspended in order to
enable the possibility of its own application. This suturing of life to law
occurs firstly through the capture of anomie in the juridical, a capture
which nullifies anomie by inscribing it within law. No longer pure life, but
not yet law, the state of exception is that mechanism of articulation that
creates the conditions to which law could apply. From a technical
perspective, Agamben writes, the specific contribution of the state of
exception is the separation of the force of law from law itself. What this
separation produces is not simply an absence of law, which can be
opposed to law, but a state of the law in which, on the one hand, the
norm is in force but is not applied (it has no force [forza] and, on the
other, acts that do not have the value [valore] of law acquire its force.16
This force of law without law, which Agamben names force of law, is
the pure potentiality of law, separated from any particular content and
severed from laws application, in order to enable this application. This
force of law, in Agamben, is not simply an absence of law, but is rather,

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 27.

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 38.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


the pure form of law, the transcendence of form itself. This pure form of
law in which law remains in force without being applied, is a law that has
become indistinct from life, but that maintains itself despite its very lack
of content. Force of law, writes Agamben, in which potentiality and act
are radically separated, is certainly something like a mystical element, or
rather a fictio, in which law seeks to annexe anomie itself.17
The reliance of the law on the exception and on the possibility of its
own suspension was a central preoccupation of Schmitts: In Political
Theology, Schmitt grounds his theorisation of the state of exception in the
conviction that there is no norm that is applicable to chaos, and thus the
factual existence of a normal situation is not a mere superficial
presupposition that a jurist can ignore but a properly juridical question.18
In State of Exception, Agamben glosses Schmitt in the following way: In
the decision on the state of exception, the norm is suspended or even
annulled; but what is at issue in this suspension is, once again, the creation
of a situation that makes the application of the norm possible.19 In
Schmitts view, jurisprudence responds to the lack of internal nexus
between law and life, by presupposing this reference. As Dyzenhaus puts
it, the fundamental presupposition of liberalism and positive law is that
the problem of how social order is in the first place possible has largely
been solved.20 By presupposing laws reference to life, liberalism
obscures the necessity for this reference to be violently created through the
suspension of law, that is, it obscures laws non-legal conditions of
possibility. In contrast, Schmitt asserts that this reference cannot be
presupposed but must be created through the suspension of law and the
non-legal production of a normal situation. The sovereign is the figure
who ensures an articulation between this anomic production of a factually
normal situation and the law by deciding on both the exception and the
norm itself. This decision enables an articulation between law and life,
precisely by creating a zone in which they can no longer be distinguished.
In Agambens words:
Sovereign violence opens a zone of indistinction between law and nature,
outside and inside, violence and law. And yet the sovereign is precisely the


Agamben, State of Exception, 39.

Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 13.
Agamben, State of Exception, 36.
Dyzenhaus, Why Carl Schmitt? in Dyzenhaus [ed] Law as Politics: Carl
Schmitts Critique of Liberalism, 13


Chapter Ten
one who maintains the possibility of deciding of the two to the very degree
that he renders them indistinguishable from each other.21

In the absence of a transcendental foundation, law is left with nothing on

which to ground its legitimacy but law itself. By thus presupposing itself
however, law renders its foundation inaccessible, and obscures its reliance
on its own suspension and on the violent and non-legal production of
order. And yet, as Agamben points out, today this presuppositional
structure itself has been exposed. That the presupposition is now both in
full view and under attack, David Dyzenhaus argues, is due to a new
crisis which throws into crisis the legitimacy of the political and legal
orders of the West.22 Dyzenhaus sees this crisis as a crisis of legal theory,
brought about a radical questioning of the legitimacy of law and the nature
of the legal order, and a crisis of practice, in which challenges by
oppressed groups to their status under the law, and the prevalence of civil
war have undermined attempts to treat laws foundation as a neutral
presupposition. In Agambens view, the current crisis is precisely a crisis
in the ability of the state of exception to play the role that Schmitt ascribed
to it of bringing about the resurrection of the norm. The presuppositional
structure which inscribed life in the juridical order has broken down, and
like in Kafkas penal settlement, we are now witnessing the systems
inability to function without being turned into a lethal machine.23

To understand laws application requires us to understand how it is that
sovereign power is first able to refer to life, that is, to understand how the
political sphere is first constituted. From Aristotle onwards, Agamben
points out, the political realm has been predicated on a caesura in the
human, manifested in the division between zoe, or natural life, and bios, a
qualified form of life. For the Greeks, it was the exclusion of zoe from the
polis that enabled a political life: zoe, Agamben argues has the peculiar
privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.24 The
possibility of an articulation between natural and political life is predicated
on the creation of a zone in which human and animal, zoe and bios can no
longer be distinguished. In attempting to understand this zone, Agamben
points to the ancient Roman category of homo sacer, and finds in it the

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 64.

Dyzenhaus, Why Carl Schmitt?13.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 114.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 7.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


originary figure in which law refers to life precisely by excluding it. Homo
Sacer, as Agamben points out, was a figure who could be killed with
impunity but not sacrificed, and was thus defined by a double exclusion:
while the unpunishability of his killing removed homo sacer from the
sphere of human law, the ban on sacrifices excludes him from the realm of
divine law. In this paradoxical status, Agamben identifies a limit concept
of the Roman juridical order, an originary political structure that is
located in a zone prior to the distinction between sacred and profane,
religious and juridical.25 In the homo sacer, the fathers right over the life
of his son, the vitae necisque potestas, is extended to all free male citizens,
revealing the original sinister meaning of the term father of the people.26
This power over life is situated at the limit of the home and the city: thus,
if classical politics is born of the separation of these two spheres, life that
may be killed but not sacrificed is the hinge on which each sphere is
articulated, and the threshold at which the two spheres are joined in
becoming indeterminate.27
Agamben uses the term ban, borrowed from Jean-Luc Nancy, to
signify the exposure through which life is at once excluded from the
political community and captured in the realm of sovereign power. In his
essay Abandoned Being, Nancy highlights the double meaning of the term
banthe one who is banned is both abandoned and held in a ban. The
destitution of abandoned being, he writes, is measured by the limitless
severity of the law to which it finds itself exposed. The law to which one
is abandoned is not to be subpoenaed to present oneself before a court, or
to be held within the jurisdiction of a particular law. Rather, it is a
compulsion to appear absolutely under the law as such. To be abandoned
is to be held in a ban, and also to be banished. Turned over to the absolute
of the law, writes Nancy, the banished one is thereby abandoned
completely outside its jurisdiction. The law of abandonment requires that
the law be applied through its withdrawal. The law of abandonment is the
other side of the law, which constitutes the law.28
It is not difficult to see the step from Nancys theorisation of the ban,
to Agambens conception of the exception, in which bare lifethe figure
in which the status of the homo sacer is both modernised and
generalisedis irrevocably exposed before a law that has become
indistinguishable from life. We see the force of this abandonment to the
law clearly in Kafkas story in which the condemned man exists purely as

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 74.

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 89.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 90.
Nancy, Abandoned Being in The Birth to Presence, 44.


Chapter Ten

naked life, absolutely deprived of rights or legal statusto the extent that
it is deemed unnecessary either to inform him of his sentence or to allow
him to prepare a defenceand yet is nonetheless utterly exposed to the
violence of an indeterminate law. Kafkas condemned man, or [h]e who
has been banned, to use Agambens words, is not, in fact, simply set
outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that
is exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside
and inside become indistinguishable.29 This ability to hold life in a ban by
abandoning it is, in Agamben, the originary force of law. The ban is the
fundamental structure of the law, which expresses its sovereign character,
its power to include by excluding.30
Here Agamben undertakes a fundamental reversal of liberal political
theory. It is not the social contract, but the ban, not an identity or a
belonging but an originary exclusion, not the rule of law but the state of
exception that founds sovereign power, and constitutes a political
community. The ban, in which inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion
blur into each other, is the originary political relation. The ban is the
structure in which exteriority is inscribed within law, in order to constitute
the law. Law is made of nothing, Agamben argues, with reference to
Savigny, but what it manages to capture inside itself through the
inclusive exclusion of the exceptio: it nourishes itself on this exception and
is a dead letter without it. In this sense, law truly has no existence in
itself, but rather has its being in the very life of men31 It is here that
Agambens analysis of the presuppositional structure of law coincides
with his analysis of bare life and where law and ontology become
indistinct: that which is exterior to law is nothing but human life itself, and
the ban is the original structure in which law refers to life by capturing it
(just as language captures being by presupposing its own sayability).
Agamben uses the term inclusive exclusion to define this limit relation,
in which people are included in the political community purely by virtue
of their exclusionan exclusion which leaves them utterly exposed to
sovereign violence. The sovereign ban is the limit form of relation, but at
this limit it remains a relation between the sovereign and that bare life that
it includes only by excluding.32

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 29.

Agamben, The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter
Benjamin, 163.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 27.
If this notion seems difficult to grasp, we need only look at Australias
immigration detention camps, and at the position of those within themboth
excluded from Australia and held in camps in the very interior of the nation, both

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


What this means is that while zoe is a presupposition of bios, zoe is

presupposed as removed, as that which must be excluded to enable a
political life. The possibility of this articulation, like that of the articulation
between law and life, is predicated on the creation of a zone in which
human and animal, zoe and bios can no longer be distinguished. In this
bare life, in zoe, upon whose exclusion political life is founded, is
captured within the city walls in the form of a biopolitical subject in whom
life and politics can no longer be distinguished. This threshold alone,
which is neither simple natural life, nor social life, but rather bare life, is
the always present and always operative presupposition of sovereignty.33
Sovereign power presupposes inclusive exclusion and is firstly the power
to create bare life by holding life in a ban, utterly exposed to the threat of

This account of law and sovereign power, Agamben suggests, finds its
model in language. Just as there is no logical passage from law to
application, neither is there a logical passage between language and world.
Meaning is not contained in words themselves: like law, language secures
its reference to the world through the possibility of its own suspension,
through its ability to subsist as an abstract body of rules independently of
any act of discourse. It is this split between langue and parole, in
Saussures terminology, which, Agambens suggests, exclusively and
fundamentally characterizes human language.34Roman Jakobson has
suggested langue and parole stand in opposition to each other as potential

abandoned and utterly subjected to the violence of Australian sovereignty, both

external to the political community, and constitutive of the nature of this political
community and of its ability to continue to regulate the composition of its
population The constitutive nature of exclusion was in fact recognised in the High
Court Case that gave legal sanction to Australias mandatory detention regime, the
Lim Case. Here Justice Gaudron pointed out that citizenship is not enshrined in
Australias Constitution, and hence cannot be seen as fundamental or immutable,
whereas the category alien is so enshrined. Hence Gaudron argued that the
category of the alien could not necessarily be assumed to be synonymous with
non-citizen, as alien was the more fundamental category. Hence it can be argued
that the decision to declare some people aliens, and hence exclude them, is the
decision that enables others to be considered citizens. A citizen in Australia can
therefore be considered a non-alien. Exclusion precedes belonging.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 106.
Agamben, Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience, 51.


Chapter Ten

values and realised values.35 If parole is the functioning of langue

however, there is nonetheless nothing contained in langue itself which
would ensure its actualisation. What is at stake for language, just as for
law, is thus the passage from a generic proposition endowed with a
merely virtual reference, to a concrete reference to a segment of reality.36
In the case of language, this passage, or shift, occurs through the linguistic
category of deixis, and through those indicators of the utterance
(Benveniste) or shifters (Jakobson) through which language indicates its
own taking place. What is indicated by the shifterswhich include the
pronouns, and those demonstratives (this, here, now etc.) that always
refer to a unique instant of discourseis the fundamental presupposition
of language, the taking place of language, that sayability itself which, in
Agambens work, constitutes the ontological dimension. Through the
shifters, language shows its own taking place. Shifters are empty signs,
which attain meaning only when they are consubstantial with an act of
discourse. At the very limit of language, the shifters indicate pure being
in itself, before and beyond any qualitative determination.37 This nature of
the shifters can possibly best be understood through the personal pronoun
I. To what does I then refer? asks Benveniste. To something very
singular which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of linguistic
discourse in which it is uttered and it designates its speakerThe reality
which it invokes is the reality of discourse.38 The shifters are thus
immanent to an act of discourse, from which they cannot be separated.
Thus they cannot exist in a suspended form. The indicators, writes
Benveniste, cannot exist as potentialities; they exist only insofar as they
are actualised in the instance of discourse39 It is through the shifters,
which anchor language in a determinate event of discourse and thus
indicate the taking place of language, that langue is translated into parole,
that potentiality is actualised.
This articulation enabled by the shifters however, presupposes
sayability and thus captures the ineffable, the thing itself, the sayability of
things, in language. Sayability, the dimension of the meaning of being,
remains ineffableit is that which the machine cannot sayas it cannot
be signified but only indicated. Sayability remains unsaid in what is said,

Jakobson, Langue and Parole, Code and Message, in Jakobson, On Language,

Agamben, State of Exception, 39.
Agamben, Language and Death, 20.
Quoted in Agamben Infancy and History, 46.
Benveniste, The Nature of Pronouns, in Problems in General Linguistics, 220.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


and about which something is said.40 Like law, language has also
responded to the evacuation of foundations by presupposing itself, and its
own reference to the world. This self-presuppositional structure of
language is clearly elaborated by Roland Barthes in his discussion of The
Death of the Author. The position of the author, Barthes suggests, was an
essentially theological one: the author provided the past, the foundation
and the meaning of the text (just as, in the theory of divine right, God is
the past, the foundation and the meaning of sovereign power.) The death
of the author then, in Barthes, reveals the self-presuppositional structure of
language: in place of the buried author, is the modern scriptor, for whom
the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription
(and not of expression) traces a field without originor at least, which has
no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into
question all origins.41 In Agambens view however, it is precisely the
presupposition of the origin that maintains its obscurity. In describing
langue as the social side of language, Saussure writes that langue exists
only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of the
community.42 And yet despite this contractualist languagewhich finds
its model in that social contract on which liberalism sought to ground
laws authority, in the wake of the death of God and the evacuation of
transcendental foundationslangue lacks any internal reference to the
world, and thus relies on the possibility of its own suspension and on a
practical act of application, or enunciation, to secure this reference. In
order to apply a norm, Agamben writes, it is ultimately necessary to
suspend its application, to produce an exception.43
This practical act of enunciation of course, ultimately presupposes a
voice, which could anchor language in instance of discourse. The problem
of deixis is therefore the problem of the relation of language and voice:
only the voice enables the shifters to anchor language in an instant of
discourse, an instant that is only identifiable as such through the voice.
And yet here, once more, just as we believe we have identified the figure
through which an articulation becomes possible, we find, instead, a hiatus,
a zone of indistinction. While there is a necessary presupposition of
voice in every instance of discourse, the voice that is presupposed is, like
zoe, presupposed as removed.44 Agamben makes this connection quite
explicit: The living being has logos, he writes in Homo Sacer, by taking

Agamben, The Thing Itself, in Potentialities, 33.

Barthes, The Death of the Author, Image, Music, Text, 146.
de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 14.
Agamben, State of Exception, 40.
Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, 33.


Chapter Ten

away and conserving its own voice in it, even as it dwells in the polis by
letting its own bare life be excluded, as an exception, in it.45 No longer
animal phone, which must be excluded to enable human language, and not
yet language itself, that which indicates the taking place of language is a
removed voice, or as Agamben terms it, a Voice. This Voice is the taking
place of language itself, a taking place that occurs in a no mans land
between sound and signification.46This Voice, which Agamben identifies
as the supreme shifter as it enables language to indicate its own taking
place, is the ontological dimension, the dimension of pure being. By
presupposing its own sayability, language captures being within itself,
holding it in a ban.
We should by now be in a position to identify the common structural
features in Agambens accounts of law, life and language. In each case, we
see that Agamben: 1) begins with the problem of reference, of how an
abstract body of rules, whether langue or law can refer to life; 2) traces
this problem to a separation, in which the immanence of praxis has been
separated from itself: (not only language and law but all social
institutions have been formed through a process of desemanticization and
suspension of concrete practice in its immediate reference to the real47);
3) identifies a figurethe state of exception, homo sacer, Voicein
which an articulation of these separated terms occurs; demonstrates that
this articulation in fact relies on its own presupposition and thus the
mechanism of articulation is obscured; 5) reveals that the possibility of
reference is in fact predicated on the creation of an zone of indistinction,
in which the separated terms constitute each other precisely to the extent
that they blur into each other and become indistinguishable.
This structure, Agamben would suggest, has been illuminated by a
number of thinkers, amongst them Schmitt, Nancy and Derrida. Where
Agamben differs from these thinkers however, is in his belief that this
structure, the structure of the sovereign ban, can be overturned, and that
the unveiling of this presuppositional structure creates the possibility of
the eradication of all presuppositions and separations. While Agambens
theory of the ban owes much to Nancy then, Agamben ultimately goes
much further in proposing the possibility that life could be freed from the
ban. In Nancy, abandonment does not have the brutal characterisation of
Agambens sovereign ban, but opens on a profusion of possibilities.48 As
Benjamin S. Pryor points out, in Nancy, there is no being freed from the

Agamben, Homo Sacer, 8.

Agamben, Language and Death, 33.
Agamben, State of Exception, 37.
Jean Luc Nancy, Abandoned Being, 37.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


ban. Pryor articulates clearly the thought Agamben is attempting to

surpass when he argues, the freedom we seek through legal theory and
criticism, then, ought to be founded not on freedom from the ban of
abandonment, freedom from the grasp of law, but in the thought of
abandonment.49 Such a thought characterizes much of the criticism of
Agambens theorisation of law (in particular) in which, as we shall see, a
willingness to accept his account of the presuppositional structure of law
is combined with an unwillingness to countenance a world without law. In
Agambens view, such a position amounts to little more than recognising
the jar in which the fly is trapped. What is necessary is not simply to
recognize abandonment, but to overcome it by pushing it to the limit.

The machine begins to stall

In his account of the functioning of the exception, Agamben writes that the
sovereign decision is the medium that enables an articulation between the
violence that founds law and the violence that preserves it as long as the
state of exception is distinguishable from the normal case.50 Today
however, according to Agamben, it is precisely this possibility of
distinguishing norm and exception that has collapsed, and even the
sovereign is no longer capable of deciding between them. This collapse,
Agamben argues, is the product of a crisis in the nation-state, which has
decomposed the unity of birth, nation and territorya unity that represents
the central myth of the nation-state. In this context, the fundamental
conditions of a normal legal order no longer exist, and the biopolitical
state, which is no longer capable of restoring a legal order, has taken on
the management of life without mediation:
In its extreme form the biopolitical body of the West (this last incarnation
of homo sacer) appears as a threshold of absolute indistinction between
law and fact, juridical rule and biological lifeToday a law that seeks to
transform itself wholly into life is more and more confronted with a life
that has been deadened and mortified into juridical rule.51

What this means is that no longer are we faced with two categories, norm
and exception, which blur into each other, but are nonetheless
distinguished via the sovereign decision. When the exception becomes the

Pryor, Law in Abandon: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Critical Study of Law, Law
and Critique 15 (2004), 284.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 64.
Agamben, Homo Sacer, 187.


Chapter Ten

norm, we are instead faced with the absolute indistinguishability of law

and life. Agamben depicts this shift through a series of drawings: the first,
which coincides with a constitutionalist model of emergency powers,
depicts the norm and the exception as two distinct circles, placed beside
each other. In the second drawing, representative of the presuppositional
nature of law, the circles are revealed to be inside each other. In the final
drawing, which represents the contemporary normalisation of the
exception, the circles overlap to such an extent that it is no longer possible
to tell them apart.52
What this means is that any political strategy that seeks to respond to
the normalisation of the exception through a renewed separation of law
and life is doomed to failure. This is so not merely because, as we have
seen, law presupposes the capture of life in the ban, but also because today
the increasing visibility of the presuppositional structure of law has lead to
the absolute indistinction of law and life such that it is no longer possible
to conceive of the continued co-existence of law and of life in any form
other than the contemporary form of indistinction. And yet, Agamben
arguesin perhaps his clearest formulation of the political futility of any
attempt to return to an earlier form of separationit is by starting from
this uncertain terrain, from this opaque zone of indistinction that today we
must once again find the path of another politics, of another body, of
another world.53 The importance of this cannot be overstated for a correct
understanding of Agambens thought: it is only if we start from this
indistinction, only if we recognize the simultaneous impossibility and
undesirability of a return to that which preceded the indistinction of norm
and exceptionthose separations between oikos and polis, law and

Nowhere do we see the functioning of the juridical machine that attempts to

inscribe anomie into the law through the state of exception so clearly as in
contemporary Iraq. It is certainly significant that, upon the handover of
sovereignty in 2004, Prime Minister Allawis first two acts were the
reintroduction of the death penalty and the declaration of a state of emergency.
Here we see not only the intimate connection between sovereign power and the
power to kill, but also the role of the state of exception in legitimising state
violence by inscribing it within the juridical order. In declaring a state of
emergency, Allawi performed the suspension of a non-existent legal order, in order
to bolster the myth of this legal order and thus give juridical sanction to what was,
in fact, the continuation of war. Simultaneously, the continuing violence of the
occupation and the continuing insurgency provide the clearest examples of a
phenomenon that is no means confined to Iraqthe contemporary crisis of the
juridical machine, which is no longer capable of recreating that normal factual
situation (a situation of social order) that is the presupposition of any legal order.
Agamben, Means Without Ends, 139.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


anomie, public and private, which, as we have seen were always

predicated on an exclusion that was also a capture, that is, on the structure
of the banonly if we conclusively renounce such a project, that we can
construct a politics adequate to the task of freeing us from the sovereign
ban and overcoming the contemporary condition of nihilism. I would not
feel up to forgoing this indistinction of public and private, of biological
body and political body, of zoe and bios, for any reason, Agamben writes.
It is here that I must find my space once againhere or nowhere else.
Only a politics that starts from such an awareness can interest me.54 To
understand this, is to enter an oft-neglected territory and to recognize
beyond the violence and death that imbues so much of his workthe
positive, hopeful, and indeed revolutionary, aspect of Agambens analysis
of the ban structure of modernity. So what is this politics that starts from
the uncertain terrain of the indistinction of law and life?

Shattering the machine

As we have seen, in Kafkas Penal Colony the attempt to make the
apparatus inscribe the sentence Be Just into the body of the condemned
shatters the machine. If this machine is language, which is,
simultaneously, the juridical machine, what is this injunction such that the
attempt to inscribe it would shatter the machine? Justice, beyond
judgement, is simply the sayability of things, the thing itself in its taking
place, which has been captured in language, as its own negative
foundation, and thus made inaccessible to us. Justice is that sayability that
language cannot say without ceasing to be a penal machine which captures
the ineffable within itself by presupposing its own foundation. When
language says this presupposition then, this shatters the machine which
captures being within language: At this point, the presuppositional power
of language touches its limit and its end; language says presuppositions as
presuppositions and, in this way, reaches the unpresupposable and
unpresupposed principle (arkhe anypothetos) that, as such, constitutes
authentic human community and communication.55 In Kafkas Penal
Colony, redemption comes to the condemned when, on the sixth hour, he
begins to understand the inscription. You have seen how difficult it is to
decipher the script with ones own eyes, the officer tells the explorer, but
our man deciphers it with his wounds.56 While this redemption, the

Agamben, Means Without Ends, 139.

Agamben, The Thing Itself, Potentialities, 35.
Kafka, In the Penal Settlement, 181.


Chapter Ten

officer tells the explorer, may tempt one to get under the harrow oneself,
when the officer is finally strapped into the apparatus there is no
redemption but only the destruction of the machine, which murders the
officer as it shatters. Precisely by asking the machine to inscribe that idea
of language, which is presupposed in language, the idea itself was freed
from language. That the officer does not find in the machine what others
have found is now perfectly understandable, writes Agamben: at this
point there is nothing left in language for him to understand.57
This pure sayability that is presupposed and captured in languageand
which Agamben reads as being freed with the destruction of the apparatus
in Kafkais the model for those whatever beings, which would
constitute Agambens coming communitya community that presupposes
nothing, that is without substance, belonging or identity, and thus without
exclusions and separations. This coming community is a community
beyond the operation of the sovereign ban. If there is a positive side to
Agambens assessment of the era of accomplished nihilism it is that, by
evacuating all substantive categories of relation, leaving in place only the
empty form of relation of the sovereign ban, this era makes possible a
common being without substancewhatever being, a being together in
shared communicability without presupposition. The expropriation of
every substance and identity, the evacuation of content and signification,
for the first time makes our linguistic being accessible to us as such and
provides us with the possibility for a community which presupposes
nothing, a community without the divisions of particular languages or
specific peoples: Now at last we can understand each other, Agamben
writes, because you too have gone bankrupt..58
So if the task with which we are faced is that of formulating a politics
capable of overcoming the sovereign ban, how should such a politics
respond to the normalisation of the exception if we have ruled out the
possibility of a return to purified form of law? In his Theses on the
Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin writes, with a clear reference to
Schmitt, the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception
but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping
with this insight. At this point we can see that much of Agambens work
constitutes an attempt to develop a theory of history that takes seriously
Benjamins prescription. What then, does Benjamin propose as the correct
response to such a realisation? Then, he writes, we will clearly see that
it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency59 This real state of

Agamben, The Idea of Language II, The Idea of Prose, 117.

Agamben, Means Without Ends, 141.
Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations.

Starting from this Uncertain Terrain


emergency constitutes, in Benjamin, a revolutionary response to a social

democracy that refused to let the rise of fascism interfere with its faith in
progress and thus found itself impotent in the face of Nazism. In
Benjamin, what was necessary was not progress, but precisely its
interruptionthe interruption of history itself. The real catastrophe,
Benjamin suggested, is that things continue as they are. And yet, he
argues, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its
revolutionary chance60 What is necessary then is to press the fire alarm,
slam on the emergency break, and interrupt history before it carries us
onward to catastrophe
This necessity for an interruption, which meets an exception that has
become the rule with a real state of exception that shatters the juridical
machine,also characterises Agambens thought. As Alex Duttman
writes, in his introduction to Agambens Idea of Prose:
The thought that tries to institute the integral actuality of the idea (of prose)
[the sayability of things / the coming community] justifies the necessity of
a radical interruption by the impossibility, for any progressive logic of
presupposition, of operating differently than by reproducing the historical,
political, and practical conditions from which it would like to liberate
itself. It belongs to the logic of presupposition (to the reification of the idea
and of language) to enclose itself inescapably within the continuity of what

Despite his debts to Nancy, Scholem, Derrida, and Schmitt, Agamben

offers us something far more radical and more important than any of these
thinkers. While each of these thinkers has helped to bring to light the
presuppositional structure in which we are currently caught, Agamben is
concerned not simply with revealing this structure, but, more importantly,
with interrupting the disastrous continuity of what is. Contrary to those
secondary texts which paint him as a negative thinker of violence, death,
exclusion and despair and seek their refuge in the arms of the law, in
This is from a fragment only recently, thanks to Agamben himself, understood to
belong in the Theses on the Philosophy of History. In his recent book on Benjamin,
Fire Alarm, Michael Lowy writes: This thesis already appeared in the preparatory
notes published in the Gesammelte Schriften as number XVIIa. The Handexemplar
found by Agamben shows that Benjamin intended to include it in the final version
of the document. It is, indeed, an autonomous text of the greatest importance, and
not a variant. Lowy suggests naming this thesis XVIIa, to avoid changing the
familiar numbering of the final theses. Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter
Benjamins On the Concept of History, 22.
Duttmann, Integral Actuality, Introduction to Agamben, Idea of Prose.


Chapter Ten

Agambens work we see the possibility of something newthe possibility

of breaking free of the era of accomplished nihilism in which we live.
What awaits us if we are able to seize the revolutionary chance in an
instant of history and bring about that real state of emergency that would
shatter the juridical machine? There is, in fact, one more place where
Agamben discusses Kafkas Penal Colony. In The Coming Community,
Agamben suggests that an understanding of whatever singularities can be
furthered by an examination of the status of those inhabitants of limbo,
whose sole punishment consists in the lack of a vision of God. This
punishment however, is in fact their greatest joy: as they have always
already forgotten God, his judgement cannot touch them, He is impotent in
the fact of their neutrality with respect to salvation.62 These beings, these
whatever beings, are beyond judgement and thus beyond law. Like the
freed convict in Kafkas Penal Colony, who has survived the destruction
of the machine that was to have executed him, these beings have left the
world of guilt and justice behind them. The light that rains down on them
is that irreparable light of the dawn following the novissima dies of justice.
But the life that begins of earth after the last day is simply human life.63
Simply human life: human life without presuppositions and without
separations; a community without law and without a state. This is what
awaits us, beyond the sovereign ban


Agamben, Limbo, The Coming Community, 6.

Agamben, Limbo, The Coming Community, 7.


The traumatic events on and following 11 September 2001 have generated

philosophical interest, on both the Right and the Left, with the state of
exception and with theological politics. These converge today on the
uncritical embrace of Carl Schmitts notion of political theology: a neoHobbesian doctrine of political sovereignty nourished from the
wellsprings of the reactionary rejection of the legitimacy of modernity. On
the Right, neoconservative thinkers have advanced a doctrine of political
theology as a rationalisation for imperialist policy and the neoauthoritarian state, in the name of the war on terror. What is truly
disturbing is that this political theology is endorsed on the Left by figures
such as Giorgio Agamben, Paul Piccone and, more recently, Chantal
Mouffe and Slavoj iek, for whom the decisionist emphasis on the
friend-enemy distinction is a welcome return to theories of political
conflict and an antidote to liberal political philosophy.1 But the embrace of
political theology by supporters of democracy is disastrously mistaken.
In the context of the authoritarian drift of neoconservative
governments today, there is currently a fascination with concepts such as
the state of exception, civilisational conflict, political antagonism and
theological politics, as popularised by, for instance, Samuel Huntington
and Francis Fukuyama.2 The content of these ideas has now been disclosed
in contemporary politics: extra-judicial torture, political assassination,
wars on terrorism and demonisation of Islam through its conflation with
military Jihad, special powers and police ministries, suspension of civil
liberties and constant witch-hunts for a supposed enemy within as a

Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox; Zizek et al, The Neighbour: Three

Investigations in Political Theology.
Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man; Huntington, The Clash of


Chapter Eleven

distraction from increasing state authoritarianism. I agree with Sheldon

Wolins demolition of the leftwing romance with authoritarian theory:3
surely it is time to critique the theoretical justifications for emergency
powers that pretend to stand above both civil and moral laws, not to
endorse them.
My paper critiques the logic of Schmitts position to reveal the way in
which his supposed political theology (a doctrine of the arbitrary, or
miraculous character of state authority) turns inevitably into a
theological politics (a doctrine that the state must have a sectarian
religious character to protect its authority and guarantee social cohesion).
Schmitt writes in the assertoric vein, rather than through advancing
rational arguments to justify validity claim. Yet insofar as he has a
reasoned position at all, as opposed to an ensemble of reactionary tropes
rhetorically linked through hatred of liberal democracy, it is entirely
dependent upon an existential twist on Hobbesian political philosophy.
Accordingly, it is to the contradictions of the Hobbesian position that I
will turn in this chapter. My aim is to show not only that the theocratic
element of that philosophy cannot be so readily suppressed as
progressive Schmittians suppose, but also that Schmitts own position is
internally inconsistent. As a result, any uncritical embrace of Schmitt by
proponents of radical democracy means that their positions secrete a
hidden endorsement of authoritarian politics.

Why Schmitt? On the Supposed Attractions

of Carl Schmitt
According to Schmitt, the authority of the sovereign reflects a Hobbesian
pact between self-preserving atomic individuals who surrender natural
rights in return for military protection and legal order.4 Emphasising the
unconditional obedience of the citizen towards the dictatorial sovereign,
Schmitt too stresses that the state lies on the frontier between the state of
nature and civil society. Remaining beyond the law, the state has the
prerogative to decide when a state of war exists. Or, as Schmitt frames the
question, the sovereign decides on the friend-enemy distinction. Schmitt
claims that to the state as an essentially political entity belongs the jus
belli, i.e. the real possibility of deciding in concrete situations upon the

Wolin, The Frankfurt School Revisited And Other Essays on Politics and
Schmitt, The Concept of the Political; see also Political Theology: Four Chapters
on the Concept of Sovereignty..

Against Political Theology


enemy and the ability to fight him 5 This reflects an existentialist

concept of the state of nature as the political, but one that we shall see is
supported by a theological justification.6
For Schmitt the sovereign must be unitary and unconditioned. Its
citizens, or rather subjects, have no rights claims on the sovereign and no
procedural norms (to adjudicate the correctness of the sovereigns decision
that an exceptional condition exists) can be applied. Conversely, the
people must be homogeneous: Schmitt complements an anti-liberal state
doctrine with an anti-pluralist social doctrine. According to this doctrine,
real democracy is identical with military dictatorship, where the unity of
the people is expressed through the unitary and absolute character of the
executive power.7 Intriguingly, Schmitt claims that this concept of
sovereignty is a secularised theological concept. The implication of
making the claim in this way is that the state has authority through its
decisionist powers.8 Therefore, Schmitt maintains that the political
decision is analogous to the theological miracle, in that both are rationally
ungrounded. But then Schmitt maintains that the sovereign not only
decides on the content (the policy implications) of a miracle/exception, but
also on what counts as a miracle/exception. This way of making the claim
implies that modern sovereignty is not a secularised theological concept at
all, but a secular representation of a theological power. The states
legitimacy springs from regarding it as a representation of God on earth.9
This interpretation squares with Schmitts antagonism toward the secular
state, expressed in Roman Catholicism and Political Form. Accordingly,
as I shall demonstrate, to regard Schmitt as an inspiration is dangerous,
because this authoritarian concept of sovereignty trails theological
resonances that exclude a defence of the secular state and preclude any
extension of citizens liberties.
Yet Schmitt is widely admired amongst Francophile circles on the
Left, due to the idea, first popularised by the journal Telos, that the Right
gets it right on liberalism. The rightwing critique of liberal democracy
criticises state neutrality and public debate under the rubric of politics as
technology.10 There is a necessary connection between this critique of
liberal democracy as founded on the chattering classes (i.e., expressing a

Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 45, 29-30.

Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form.
Schmitt, Political Theology, ch. 1.
Ibid., ch. 3.
See McCormick, Carl Schmitts Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as


Chapter Eleven

deep distrust of popular sovereignty and discursive will formation) and its
rejection of political pluralism (through the advocacy of cultural
homogeneity). That Schmitt (if not Strauss) are now regarded by the Left
as important and challenging springs from a renewal of antiEnlightenment hostility to liberalism amongst the postmodern Left. Here,
postmodern Left and neo-conservative Right converge. For instance,
according to Tracey B. Strong, an editor for Telos, Schmitt is the
rightwing Lenin, a figure who proposes that politics is antagonism (a
remnant of the doctrine of class struggle).11. Additionally, the postmodern
Left tends to reject universal legislation and cosmopolitan
internationalism. This combines with the postmodern Lefts embrace of
the notion that every society has an arbitrary foundation generated through
violent revolution, a conception of social transformation that readily
accommodates Schmitts decisionist voluntarism.
Before moving on to examine the Hobbesian roots of Schmitts
doctrine, it is worth scrutinising the view that Schmitt is the rightwing
Lenin, and redeemable on these terms. Notice the balance sheet of gains
and losses here. What has been gained is a doctrine of the authority of
the sovereign that licenses military dictatorship and a connection between
the cohesiveness of a form of life and perpetual conflict with internal and
external enemies. This is vaguely reminiscent of Lenins trenchant
insistence that liberal democracy is merely the best form of capitalist rule,
because it most effectively conceals the class dictatorship of the
bourgeoisie; and that forms of life are in actuality founded on class
conflict. Hence, a link exists between bourgeois morality and the
prosecution of the class struggle against the proletariat (and conversely).
The gain of figuring Schmitt as a rightwing Lenin then is that this
doctrine has apparently been restated in terms that avoid the now-widelydiscredited dialectics of class struggle, since the structure of antagonism is
now arbitrary. But what has been lost is the other side of the Marxist
doctrine of class struggle. This is the dialectical view that under certain
historical conditions, bourgeois morality enjoys ethical legitimacy as an
instrument of human emancipation. It sits with the conviction that politics
is not simply the management of the state or administration of things, but
popular mobilisation against illegitimate (in Marxian terms) state forms
and class rule. In other words, the existential doctrine of the political
erases the connection between popular sovereignty and ethical legitimacy
at the heart of Marxism. And it does so in terms that are, from the Marxist
standpoint, resolutely bourgeois: Schmitt, like his teacher Weber, insists

Schmitt, Political Theology, Introduction.

Against Political Theology


on the arbitrary character of values (ends) and the plebiscitary character of

presidential authority. Yet Schmitt, unlike Weber, takes this further, to an
identification of authority with legitimacy (as/or order). Those of us who
defend liberty and seek to extend democracy should be appalled at this
open authoritarianism and regard the contemporary fascination with
Schmitt as a symptom of the decay of liberalism, rather than a way to
move beyond its impasses. It is also a disturbing indication of the
intellectual convergence of neoconservative Right and postmodern Left.

The Centrality of Hobbes to Schmitts Doctrine

of Sovereignty
The theoretical content of Schmitts doctrine is a Roman Catholic
interpretation of the Hobbesian Leviathan. Although intellectually
indebted to Weberian political sociology (as a dialogical adversary), and
maintaining a proud connection to the darkest reactionaries of the antiEnlightenment counter-revolution (De Bonald, De Maistre, Cortes,
Tocqueville), Hobbess work remains central to Schmitt. This centrality
runs like a red thread forwards from Roman Catholicism and Political
Form, through Political Theology and The Concept of the Political, to The
Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes and his revealing
interwar debate with Strauss.12 From the Catholic reactionaries, Schmitt
inherited a project and an existential attitude. From Hobbes, however, he
inherited a systematic political doctrine with a pretence to scientificity. It
is this latter which is most crucial.
Hobbes is ambiguous as a founder of modern liberalism. According to
C. B. Macphersons classic Marxist study of Hobbes, the state of nature is
a logical abstraction from contemporary existence, that is, it represents a
market society without contract enforcement, whose exemplars would be
civil society after atomisation or bourgeois society in civil war.13 Despite
its foundation on natural right, the Hobbesian social covenant is not a
rights-based liberalism based on social contract. It is a bourgeois order
internally connected to possessive individualism and pro-capitalist
authoritarianism that emphasises the renunciation (alienation) of precisely
those rights that found the state. What this implies is that the world
economy after neoliberal globalisation is relevant to the Hobbesian state
of nature: a fact that, together with political crises driven by social

Schmitt, The Concept of the Political; Political Theology; Roman Catholicism

and Political Form; The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes.
Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.


Chapter Eleven

atomisation, helps explain the return today of Hobbesian doctrines of the

state of exception. Contemporary terrorism, driven by anti-American
forms of anti-capitalism (Jihad as the new socialism of fools, the current
replacement for the old socialism of fools, fascism in the 1930s) is a
reaction to neoliberal forms of globalisation. Neo-Hobbesian forms of
authoritarianism inspired by Schmitt, meanwhile, are symptoms in
democratic states of this same constellation, ones that are ironically almost
symmetrical with the terrorism they oppose.
The distinction between Webers liberalism and Schmitts
conservatism is not ones commitment to endless debate (rational
routine) and the others embrace of the need for a resolute decision.
Instead, it is the question of the moral legitimacy of the state, which, like
the return of the repressedand despite Schmitts efforts to substitute
the existential fact of social order for universal or moral legitimacy
haunts his efforts to extirpate it. I contend that Schmitt is correct to
identify a theological politics in Hobbes. But he is incorrect that this is
because the sovereign exists in a state of permanent, virtual war. This
thesis will bring no comfort for advocates of a leftwing Schmitt who is
supposedly produced through a political inversion of the rightwing
Lenin. In what follows, I will argue three things: (1) that there is no
justification for Schmittian forms of decisionism in Hobbes; (2) instead,
Hobbes requires extra-political theological legitimation for the state; (3)
and, this justification excludes a full account of the exit from the state of
nature and is therefore defective. In short, although Schmitt thinks that all
political concepts are secularisedthat is, sublimated, repressed
theological concepts, it is in fact only his doctrine of sovereignty secretes a
desublimated theological kernel. In other words: it is not that the secular
state per se is secretly theological, as Schmitt charges. It is that a
Schmittian state, if one could exist, would necessarily be a theocracy.

Contradictions of Hobbes
The central assumption of Hobbesian logical rationalism is that the human
being is characterised by a drive towards individual self-preservation,
linked to a calculating rationality. Following Gregory Kavka, I take
Hobbes to be arguing for a form of a psychological egoism, which is
supported by postulates of mechanical materialism.14 According to
Hobbes, given this conception of human nature it can be demonstrated that
the state of naturehuman beings lacking social order and legal

See Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory.

Against Political Theology


protectiondegenerates necessarily into a condition of warfare. There are

three causes of the emergence of a condition of war from the state of
nature: competition, diffidence and glory, and for Hobbes, examples of the
state of nature are civil war and international relations. The logical exit
from this violent state of nature flows from Hobbess three highest laws of
nature: being to preserve life; to lay down rights; and to keep covenants.
Unlike Kavka, however, I take Hobbess rationale for leaving a sole
inalienable natural rightthe right to self-defenceto be that that right
springs from a drive and not merely a calculation of costs and benefits. It
is a meta-cost, or condition sine qua non, because without life, all
calculation ceases. Right then is also inalienable, because human beings
would not alienate that right anyway; and nor should they. Accordingly,
self-preservation has a quasi-ethical status for Hobbes. Because of its
transcendental status, it is not merely a counsel of reason (i.e. prudent).
But, and here is the issue, it is less than a command of God (i.e.
obligatory) for Hobbes, because it requires a specific Biblical injunction
against self-sacrifice.
Now the core contradictions of Hobbesian political philosophy are well
(1) Hobbes psychological egoism leads to a prudential theory lacking
binding moral obligation, which is therefore laden with free-rider
problems, especially when concerning war and unrest. Although
applications of games theory to the prisoners dilemma can
demonstrate that psychological egoists will on balance obey laws and
pay taxes, etc., it cannot show that these same agents will not desert
armies and refrain from treason when they are faced with the real
possibility of physical killing or being killed. The moment that a
sufficiently strong motivation for breaking the social covenant
appearsone that engages the drive to self-preservationthese
agents indeed must abandon their prudential calculation to follow laws
and act independently. Armed conflict might appear to be just another
dilemma to which games theoretical reasoning can be applied. It
would demonstrate that other things being equal, any individual
maximises their chances for survival through cooperation (i.e., doing
their military duty). But the point is that the situations that concern
Hobbesthe situations where the state of nature threatens to reappear
in the midst of civil society, such as civil war and international
conflictare precisely those where these other things are not equal.
The slightest hint of military or civil weakness from the sovereign,
and the reasoning of the prisoners dilemma is disengaged in favour of


Chapter Eleven

a calculus of self-preservation that proposes that every individual

maximises their chances of surviving probable defeat by desertion
and/or treason. Hobbes own life, or Schmitts own occasional
decisionism, might provide ironic illustrations. One might propose,
in a Brechtian vein, that when the state needs good generals and loyal
soldiers, thats the moment to change sides: if you need me, dont
call; Ill be shopping around for a new master.
(2) Hobbess laws of nature appear as mere counsels of reason and so
bind only selfishly rational agents. They are a conditional should
and not a binding ought. Accordingly, the state lacks moral
legitimacy. Hobbes proposes that the sovereign is a representation of
the popular will, and so criticism of the actions of the sovereign by
citizens is contradictory. On his assumptions, this is correct. But it
does not follow that these unimpeachable actions have moral
legitimacy, for they are only an extension of the citizens self-interest.
Once again, the amorality of the state is unproblematic for all
situations except those where the individual faces a potentially lethal
justice (and, as Lockeans have complained, since the sovereign is
under no restrictions, all situations of law and order involve the
possibility of lethal sanction), or where the state faces a potentially
lethal threat. Quite simply, Hobbesian agents are so opportunistic that
even the authoritarian state he envisages will fail to control them
when it also is endangered.
It is for exactly this reason that Hobbes notes that promises (i.e.,
covenants) unsupported by terror are empty, and that the sovereign might
conceivably have great difficulty securing loyalty when confronted by
insurgency and unrest. The Hobbesian unilateral social contract is
modelled on Biblical Covenants where the sovereign-making formula,
protego ergo obligo, implies a non-reciprocal duty to obey without
oneself having enforceable rights, since the sovereign is beyond the law.
Hobbes however builds into this grim assessment of political life a
paradoxical right to resist the law without a right of revolution For
Hobbes, the protections of a legal order imply no universality in the legal
code (since law per se is command, for him). Accordingly, Hobbes
concept of natural right, after the social contract has been struck and the
Leviathan erected, is limited to merely prudential controls on arbitrary
authority. It is needless to say that this is completely insufficient for a
modern constitutional state, let alone a liberal democratic regime. Schmitt
recognised this. There is a logic of increasing authoritarianism to the

Against Political Theology


Hobbesian state because of the contradiction between the absolute

atomism of his postulated human nature and the absolute authority of his
proposed sovereign state. Hobbesian states, we might predict, would be
nasty, brutish and short, no less than individual life in the state of nature.
It is to solve this raft of intractable problems that Hobbes complements
his logical-rationalist treatment of the social covenant with an
authoritarian Christian doctrine of absolute sovereignty. Hobbes proposes
a dual perspective theory on the laws of nature.15 From the perspective of
Hobbes scientific materialism, these laws have a conditional status as
counsels of reason. But from the perspective of Christian theology, they
have a categorical force as commandments of God. (since God commands
the natural laws, according to Hobbes.) In line with natural law theories,
this is crucial for the generation of a moral obligation to the terrestrial
sovereign, as Gods lieutenant. Thus state authority is supported by
theological legitimacy, and the keeping of promises is guaranteed by an
omniscient witness to all these covenants. Hence the Hobbesian social
covenant is also a covenant in the theological sense, and not merely a
commercial contract, as the materialist aspect of the theory might lead us
to suppose.
At this point it is worth replying to a possible objection. The objection
goes something like this. From the materialist perspective, the main
importance of religion to a political philosophy is that it is extremely
useful for controlling (or duping) the masses. Hobbes in this vein seems to
advocate a merely cynical or materialist theory of religion, according to
which the sovereign arbitrarily determines that certain events are miracles,
in order to authorise certain prophets for a state doctrine of public faith.
Surely, this objection goes, Hobbes concern with a state religion should
be interpreted as anxiety regarding the medieval rival to secular princes,
namely, the Catholic Church, rather than any genuine belief in, or
endorsement of, the metaphysical and faith contents of religion? In reply,
we should consider that Hobbes seeks to be rationally consistent. But if
there are logically evident problems with his materialist perspective on the
state that are solved from the theological perspective, then Hobbes
embrace of this perspective emerges as what we might term a necessary
supplement of Hobbesian political philosophy. Notably, such a view is
consistent also with the known facts about Hobbes himself. Consider the
following: (1) Hobbes, convinced that the ontological argument for the
existence of God was correct, was also a lifelong Calvinist of strict
observance; (2) theoretically ad politically, Hobbes needs God for his

Hobbes, Leviathan, section 25.4.


Chapter Eleven

theory to secure the states stability and for the possibility of perpetual
peace; (3) and, Hobbes can be interpreted as unsuccessfully attempting to
square materialist science with religious belief through a split between
knowledge and faith.
Recent Hobbes scholarship by S. A. Lloyd and Aloysius Martinich
vindicates the 1950s thesis of Howard Warrender16 which I am drawing on
here, and that proposes that Hobbes indeed proposed a dual perspective
theory on both human nature and political community, so that sovereign
authority can be grounded on both natural right and natural law.17 This is
not confusion. Hobbes is proposing that the different perspectives respond
to distinct theoretical problems: Gods command lends the laws of nature
normative force; but, the desire for self-preservation motivates a person to
obey these laws of nature. According to Warrender, there exists a
considerable gulf between these laws [of nature] and the principles upon
which Hobbess natural man is motivated.18 Indeed, Hobbes has two,
complementary systems: a system of motives and the system of
obligations. The system of motives ends with the supreme principle of
self-preservation the system of obligations ends with the obligation to
obey natural law regarded as the will of God.19 Accordingly, there is in
Hobbess system an initial discrepancy between the duty and the interest
of the individual, and again, between public and private interest. This
discrepancy is overcome only if divine rewards and punishments are
posited, and without the sanction of salvation (or ultimate destruction)
Hobbess theory is incomplete.20 Consequently, and with perfect
consistency, Hobbes proposed to expel atheists from the political
community, for the reason that they cannot be trusted to keep their

Political Theology
Doesnt all of this mean that Schmitt, and his political theology, is right
about Hobbes? Certainly, Hobbes has a theological politics. But to see
why Hobbess dual perspective theory of sovereignty is the opposite of
Schmitts notion of political theology qua sectarian politics, we need to

See Lloyd, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes Leviathan; Martinich, Hobbes.

See Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes.
Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 274-275.
Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 213.
Ibid., 274}
See Tuck, The Christian Atheism of Thomas Hobbes. Atheism from
the Reformation to the Enlightenment.

Against Political Theology


consider the critique of Schmitt by his most famous critic, Leo Strauss.
The argument revolves upon the significance of Hobbes for modern
liberalism and the authoritarianism of the sovereign as the
repressed/forgotten support of the rights-bearing individual. Where
Schmitt regards Hobbes as the modern representative of political theology,
Strauss considers him an atheist liberal. For Schmitt and Strauss, God is
central to the problem of modern politics. This is to say, theology is the
repressed internal connection between the impasses of liberal democracy
and the resort to the authority of force. Both Schmitt and Strauss see
liberalism as leading to relativism, historicism and nihilism. Therefore
both consider that liberal democratic regimes organically tend to issue into
forms of dictatorship. But the dialectical relation between liberalism and
dictatorship is seen by Strauss as evidence of the instability of a secular
regime. For Schmitt, by contrast, it reveals the return of the repressed
foundational premise of modern statehood. Strauss denounces the death of
God, whereas Schmitt thinks that dictatorship represents his political
Schmitts notion of the persistence of political theology in modern
sovereignty is totally different to Hobbess reliance on God, before any
civil contract, to guarantee covenants. For Hobbes, the sovereign is
literally and openly the lieutenant of God on earth: the Hobbesian state is a
theocracy. For Schmitt, by contrast, sovereign decisionism is conditioned
by the states hidden theological role. The state is both genetically and
structurally a proxy for the divinity. Schmitts genetic or genealogical
argument is that theological concepts have historically been sublimated
into secular equivalents: Hobbes Leviathan, based on the formidable
monster in Job is incidentally the most clear and distinct case. Structurally,
Schmitts contention is that these apparently secular categories perform
identical social functions to those formerly played by theological
concepts. According to Schmitt, modern liberalism depends on a
secularisation of Christian theology. Schmitt thinks that the neutrality of
the state and a system of rights designed to preserve life depend upon a
secularised faith (in human mastery of nature) with cultic features (around
worship of technology) and a providential doctrine (the notion of
progress). Secularisation therefore means a transcription of categories
and practices based in religious faith and divine providence into the
categories of a secular society without any substantive alteration. This
argument by analogy is apparently designed to prove that the categories
of modern politics have hidden theological referents, rather than being
openly grounded in a system of faith. Because the theological provenance
of liberal legitimacy is repressed, Schmitt contends, the society suffers


Chapter Eleven

from moral decline and political collapse. Accordingly, Schmitt advocates

a return to his equivalent of Hobbes state of nature, the political. In the
state of nature, the human being is confronted with absolute moral
alternatives between good and evil that form the basis for the distinction
between friend and foe. Such a state would return the human being to an
existential confrontation with moral and mortal absolutesstimulating the
re-emergence of faith.
But Schmitts state of nature is over-determined as a condition of
specifically religious warfare. Schmitts understanding of state neutrality
is based in a reading of the liberal regime as emerging from the religious
conflicts of the 30 Years War. This means that Schmitt grasps the state of
nature not as a self-interested war of each individual against all, but a holy
war about the right faith. Schmitts secularisation hypothesis actually
implies that the return of the political depends on the emergence of a
specifically religious enemyindeed, a providential foefor this is the
essential condition for the emergence of social order from the state of
nature. Furthermore, this condition being satisfied, for Schmitt the role of
the sovereign is not to regulate the state of exception to normative
claims, but to govern a permanent state of emergency. The authority of
the sovereign ultimately rests on the decision for war. Religious wars
generate returns of faith which fortify social order on condition that the
society remains under mobilisation. Schmitt objects to the obliteration of
the condition of original sin in Hobbes state of nature because this
represses the theological presuppositions of the emergence of social order.
On Schmitts reading, the sole remaining place-marker for the theological
origins and referent of modern politics is Hobbess notion that Jesus is the
Christ is the sole requirement for a Christian sovereign. In other words,
the Hobbesian sovereign is neutral because non-sectarianbut this nonsectarian character depends on a repression of the doctrine of original sin.
In other words, for Schmitt, the reintroduction of the doctrine of original
sin amounts to a negation of the neutrality of the state: the modern state in
Schmitts view should be aggressively sectarian.
Famously, Strauss disagrees, claiming that the theological role of the
sovereign is expelled by scientific politics in modernity.22 According to
Strauss, Schmitt is incorrect to suppose that sovereign authority rests upon
a decisionistic ability to differentiate friend and foe. The exit from the
state of nature is for the purpose of preserving life. The interests of the
citizens in obedience are conditional upon securing this protection.

Strauss, Comments on Begriff Der Politischen, in Schmitt, The Concept of the


Against Political Theology


Therefore, Schmitt cannot legitimately appropriate the Hobbesian

covenant for his political theology. Schmittian sovereignty turns upon a
return to the state of war and is therefore the opposite of the Hobbesian
social pact inaugurating civil society.
In the light of the political theology of Hobbes, how forceful is
Strausss objection to Schmitt? Strauss is right that the purpose of the
inauguration of civil society is social peace and not permanent warfare.
Both natural law and self-interest dictate that human beings seek the peace
and lay down their rights, as Hobbes specifies. Indeed, the purpose of
Hobbess dual perspective theory is to exit from civil warespecially
wars of religionby combining prudential considerations from selfinterest with moral obligations based in religious faith. Yet Strauss it
seems to me is wrong to conclude from this that Hobbes is a secular
materialist with no political theologyit is only that Hobbesian political
theology, which strives towards a civil peace based in multi-faith religious
tolerance, is the opposite of Schmittian sectarian aggression.

Hobbesian Theology: The Arbiter of Glory

The Hobbesian divinity is a presupposition of the civil pact, for it is
required as a guarantor of covenants. This implies a defective exit from the
state of nature, for signatories to the social covenant must first be screened
for faith; yet the social covenant purports to establish just such an
authority. This is not just a mistake, because Hobbes needs God for
another reason as well, namely, to patch up a quietly understated flaw in
his philosophical anthropology.
The necessity for religion in Hobbes is both theological and
prudential(1) God is the guarantor for state authority and (2) religion is
the social cement for civil society. The key is the question of keeping
covenants. Sometimes, Hobbes proposes that words are empty without a
public force capable of intimidating subjectssubjects keep their
promises because they reverence God and fear state punishment. At other
times, however, he admits that challenges to state authoritywar and
insurrectionare problematic, for the citizen will not feel compelled to
die in defence of the state. As stated earlier, just when the state needs
loyalty, it is then that its subjects are most likely to cut and run. The moral
duty of the citizen is not supported by the psychological motivation of
self-interest, and so the complementary perspectives of natural law and
prudential interest fall apart.
Is there some other motivation, one that might reinforce the moral duty
of the citizen? Something worth dying for, after all? If there were, then


Chapter Eleven

Hobbes could claim that the problems with his prudential model of social
peace are fixed through recourse to a theological politics. I maintain that
this is exactly what Hobbes canand mustclaim. Hobbess discussion
of private conscience and public faith is instructive. Most of the time,
Hobbes proposes that religion is a question of private conviction and that
public profession has no impact on salvation.23 Accordingly, Christian
citizens must obey a Muslim sovereign (for instance). Yet he admits the
existence of situations where public rituals violate fundamental tenets of
private conscience. The telling example he gives is where a Christian
teacher is required to do external honour to an idol for fear. In these
situations, he proposes that subjects must not rebel but must cheerfully
resign themselves to martyrdom. He must expect his reward in heaven
and not complain of his lawful sovereign; for he that is not glad of any
just occasion of martyrdom, has not the faith that he professeth.24
So sometimes, Hobbes subjects can desire death rather than wanting
to preserve life. And these times are connected to the impossibility of
doing honour to that which does not deserve honour, in the eyes of the
ultimate arbiter of such questions. This strongly suggests that the
motivation in question is connected to esteem. And indeed, Hobbes does
propose that a cause of the state of nature is glory, which drives men to
go beyond what is necessary for survival. In other words, for glory men
risk death, and they risk it not in self-defence, for the sake of selfpreservation, but because they desire something else (say, honour). But
Hobbes does not really account for glory in the transition from the state
of nature to civil society. For that transition is motivated by fear of death,
not by a psychological drive that might cause persons to risk, or even to
desire, death.
For Hobbes, glory and honour are quantitative rewards for the value
of a person that can be measured by peers and the sovereign in the
marketplace of merit. But they are actually qualitative too. Hobbes also
endorses private conscienceconsistent with Calvinist doctrine
concerning salvationbeyond public displays of loyalty to the state
religion; and he rejects self-incrimination under duresswhich implies
that glory is worth dying for. The problem with self-esteem is that every
subject evaluates themselves differently to the evaluation of their peers.
Satisfactory evaluation is only possible in the light of an absolute judge.
Indeed, it is pernicious for the state to let men judge themselves. It follows
that the problem of glory, leading to the state of nature, cannot be solved

Hobbes, Leviathan, section 37.13.

{Hobbes, 1968 #3@37.13}

Against Political Theology


by a rational calculus of self-interest between mutually envious subjects,

for none would elevate the other to the position of sovereign. Glory can
thus only be resolved if there exists a judge in the state of natureGod.
Schmitts political theology therefore undermines the very social
covenant on which it purports to rest. Instead of an exit from the state of
nature, the state as theorised by Schmitt (and slavishly followed by
postmodern thinkers) represents a return to sectarian violence. But
couldnt a postmodern thinker appropriate Hobbesrather than Schmitt
to continue to reach decisionist conclusions about the authority of the
state? In this chapter, I certainly have argued that the theological elements
of Hobbesian doctrine cannot be swept aside so easily, for they are
fundamentally necessary to the coherence of the Hobbesian position. So if
postmodern thinkers have really arrived at the conclusion that a
theological politics is the condition for social coherence, let them say so


The relationship between critical theory and psychoanalysis has a long and
interesting history. The first generation of Frankfurt School philosophers,
particularly figures such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse,
embraced psychoanalysis in order to explain why, given seemingly
propitious historical circumstances (the Russian revolution, the socialist
struggles of the 1920s, and the stock market crash of 1929), the masses
opted for fascism rather than communism during the 1930s.1 Following
the rise of Nazism and the horrors of Auschwitz, Freudian psychoanalytic
theory once again proved important, as evinced in Adornos account of the
authoritarian personality and Adorno and Horkheimers earlier analysis
of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Marcuses
famous critique of the domination effects of repressive desublimation is
another example of the productive appropriation of psychoanalytic theory
as a key element of the critical theory of modernity.2
The next generation of critical theorists, however, with the exception
of Jrgen Habermas hermeneutic reading of Freud, tended to avoid
psychoanalysis in favour of other forms of social and developmental
psychology.3 Habermas use of Kohlberg and Piaget in the Theory of
Communicative Action is a case in point (1984). Axel Honneths bestknown work, The Struggle for Recognition (1995), provides another

See Wiggerhaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political
See Marcuse, One Dimensional Man; Eros and Civilization.
See Habermas discussion (1971) of Freudian psychoanalysis as a form of depth

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


relevant example. For Honneth, it is the object relations theory of D.W.

Winnicott and the social psychology of G. H. Mead that provide the
appropriate theoretical perspectives to supplement Hegels account of the
role of mutual recognition in the constitution of autonomous subjectivity.4
We should also acknowledge Jessica Benjamins important
contribution5particularly for Honnethin emphasizing the interplay of
self-assertion and mutual recognition between infant and primary caregiver as providing the psychological basis for the development of
individual agency.6 More recently, Honneth (2006) has proposed a
psychoanalytical revisioning of recognition theory, emphasizing the
suitability of object-relations theoryrather than Freudian or Lacanian
psychoanalysis or even Meads social psychologyfor such a
supplementation of recognition theory.
Honneths acknowledgment of psychoanalysis suggests that
recognition theory would benefit from an account of those aspects of
experience that escape conscious reflection or precede our self-conscious
experience. In this respect, psychoanalysis still remains pertinent for
theorizing those dimensions of unconscious desire and fantasy formation
that recognition theory has tended to ignore. This is especially the case
when we consider the experiences of trauma and suffering involved in
experiences of failed or thwarted recognition, what Honneth has called the
moral injury constituted by experiences of misrecognition. Indeed, the
concept of misrecognition plays a decisive role in Honneths theory of
recognition, not only in his theorization of the conditions enabling the
development of autonomous subjectivity, but also in his normative
account of the pathologies of modernity and the normative core of relevant
social struggles.
As Adorno famously remarked, the true medium of justice is the
experience of injustice. Honneth adopts this insight, arguing that the
experience of misrecognition provides the impetus for claims to equal
recognition motivating many contemporary social movements. Inspired by
Honneth, J. M. Bernstein has recently claimed that the theory of
recognition, with its central concept of misrecognition or social disrespect
[Miachtung], provides a comprehensive account of all forms of moral
injury. For Bernstein, it represents a universalist foundation for
legitimating various forms of social and political struggle. But what

Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, 71-91.

Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of
For a comparison of Honneth and Benjamin see Jurist (2000: 200-209).


Chapter Twelve

precisely is meant here by misrecognition? What is the nature of the

moral injury that the experience of misrecognition is said to constitute?
In what follows, I explore these questions by considering Honneths
account of misrecognition and comparing this with J. M. Bernsteins
adaptation of it, as presented in his essay Suffering Injustice:
Misrecognition as Moral Injury in Critical Theory (2005). Honneth
emphasises the way misrecognition disrupts the subjects basic forms of
self-relation, hindering the development of social self-identity and of
moral-practical autonomy. Bernstein, by contrast, points to the violation of
bodily integrity as the corporeal basis of misrecognition, a violation that is
paralleled by the disruption of psychic integrity brought about through
social disrespect. Such violations of bodily and psychic integrity can
precipitate forms of psychological regression in misrecognised subjects,
disrupting the possibility of establishing a sense of social identity and
hence of autonomous agency. While both approaches show how concepts
of recognition and misrecognition can help us to articulate demands for
justicebased upon the experience, and desired elimination of, of suffered
injusticethey also raise certain critical questions: what is the normative
force of the feeling of misrecognition? Does the feeling of misrecognition
provide a sufficient basis for political as well as moral claims? Can
misrecognition as the disruption of bodily and psychic integrity be entirely
overcome? Does misrecognition provide a universalist basis for claims to
In exploring these questions, we will consider whether recognition
theory, be it Honneths or Bernsteins versions, should be supplemented
by psychoanalytical perspectives. The aim of such a psychoanalytical
supplementation, for Honneth, is to correct the overly rationalistic
assumptions about human agency made by communicative and recognitive
theories. Honneth also hopes thereby to acknowledge the dimension of
negativityof unconscious desires and destructive motivationsthat is
inherent to the constitution of social subjectivity (2005). The question is
whether, as Honneth himself remarks, we risk losing the negativity of the
subject, what Freud called the sting of psychoanalysis, in the process of
integrating certain psychoanalytic insights with the theory of recognition,
while neglecting others, notably Freuds conception of aggressive
impulses and his later concept of the death drive. It is precisely the loss of
this dimension of negativity that I want to consider in Bernsteins Adornoinspired adaptation of Honneths concept of misrecognition.
As we shall see, Bernstein elaborates Honneths suggestion that
misrecognition, understood as different forms of social disrespect,
ultimately has a bodily basis. This basis is the possibility of bodily injury,

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


of violation to the vulnerable human body; and such bodily vulnerability

presents an image of the correlated possibility of injury or violation to the
integrity of the vulnerable human psyche. The moral injury that
misrecognition constitutes concerns the possibility of a violation of ones
bodily and psychic integrity, a violation that harms essential forms of
practical self-relation and that can result in various forms of psychic
regression. I shall suggest in conclusion that Bernsteins very interesting
Adorno-inspired account of misrecognition nonetheless faces two
1) that it generalizes from particular cases of misrecognition involving
the possibility of psychological regression to claim that this is the
mechanism of misrecognition in general;
2) that Bernstein underplays the possibility of a constitutive
dimension of misrecognition that is part of becoming a socialized
subject, and consequently, it does not adequately explain the
motivation for attempts to dominate or subordinate others through
forms of social disrespect.

Honneths Theory of Recognition

One of the motivations behind Axel Honneths turn towards a neoHegelian, post-metaphysical theory of recognition was to develop a
critique of the idealistic assumptions of Jrgen Habermas theory of
communicative action. As Bernstein points out, Honneth was concerned
from the start to displace Habermas communicative-theoretic approach
with a renewed theory of recognition; this is because Habermas attempted
to sublimate recognitive demands and relations into a conception of
communicative relations.7 For Habermas, the core of forms of social
injustice is constituted primarily by distorted forms of communicative
interaction. Above all, social injustice issues from the colonization of the
communicative lifeworld through instrumental reason (the functionalist
social steering media of the economy and state bureaucracy). For Honneth,
by contrast, the experience of social harm, as Bernstein puts it, is not a
punctual or systematic violation of the norms governing linguistic
interaction.8 Rather, social agents:

Bernstein, Suffering Injustice: Misrecognition as Moral Injury in Critical

Theory, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol. 13(3): 305.
Ibid., 309.


Chapter Twelve
experience an impairment of what we can call their moral expectations
not as a restriction of intuitively mastered rules of language, but as a
violation of identity claims acquired in socialization.9

Indeed, Bernstein remarks that the striking achievement of Honneths

theory is to provide an account of all moral injuries in terms of
misrecognition.10 Misrecognition, then, is clearly an important concept
for Honneths theoretical project, if not for social and political philosophy
more generally. So what is meant by misrecognition?
At the simplest level, misrecognition refers to failed or deficient forms
of recognition, that is, to the various ways in which one can refuse to
recognise an other subject. These are clearly not the same thing, since one
can distinguish inadequate from absent forms of recognition, a
stereotypical or demeaning social identity from none at all. Be that as it
may, to make sense of misrecognition, as a distorted or withdrawn form
of recognition, requires at least a rudimentary clarification of the concept
of recognition at issue in Honneths and Bernsteins respective approaches
to this question.
In his ground-breaking 1992 work, The Struggle for Recognition,
Honneth develops a post-metaphysical version of the Hegelian theory of
recognition. Honneth argues that his interpretation of Hegels famous
theory, concentrating on Hegels Jena manuscripts (prior to the 1807
Phenomenology of Spirit), provides the basis for a formal account of social
Hegelian ethical life; moreover, it supplies a theoretical framework for
conceptualizing the moral grammar of social conflicts in light of the
experiences of misrecognition and the emergence of various social
struggles for recognition.11 Drawing further on the social psychology of
George Herbert Mead, Honneth argues that the young Hegel, in his Jena
period, correctly identified the three crucial forms of self-relation that are
constituted through intersubjective relations of mutual recognition. Within
the sphere of familial relations, it is love that enables a basic sense of selffamiliarity, trust or self-confidence to flourish. Within the sphere of rights
and law, recognition as a fully-fledged participant in social and political
institutions endows individual subjects and groups with a sense of social
self-esteem. Within the sphere of work and social interaction, the

Honneth, The Social Dynamics of Disrespect. On the Location of Critical

Theory Today. In Dews (ed.) Habermas: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell,
1999), 328.
Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 305.
Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social
Conflicts, 7-63.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


recognition of an individuals worth and value to the community

contributes to the development of a sense of social solidarity, of belonging
within and being valued by a community of peers.12 Taken together, these
basic forms of interpersonal and social recognition create the conditions
necessary for the development of positive forms of self-relation.
Accordingly, they make it possible for social agents to exercise their
autonomous freedom within a social and political community.
These three spheres of mutual recognition (love, rights, and solidarity)
with their corresponding forms of affective disposition (basic selfconfidence, moral self-respect, and social self-esteem) provide a matrix in
which one can account for the way in which failures of recognition in any
of these spheres can generate disturbances in the subjects practical forms
of self-relation. In this way, Honneth argues that failures within any of
these three spheres of recognitionmisrecognition as social disrespect in
the spheres of familial relations, legal rights, and social contribution
constitute a form of moral injury motivating various kinds of social
struggle. Drawing on empirical studies of social movements (particularly
the work of E. P. Thompson and Barrington Moore), Honneth points out
that these struggles are generally defined by a core of moral normativity.13
They are not primarily about the allocation of resources or the defence of
moral principles. Rather they are motivated rather by a sense of moral
indignation; the sense that one has been denied what is ones due, whether
that is respect, honor, dignity, or justice. That this indignation is primarily
experienced as an inchoate, affective, sense of disrespect does not
diminish its moral-normative force. Rather, this sense of indignation or
disrespect is precisely what constitutes the normative core, and primary
motivation, for the development of social movements, which typically
arise in situations that are experienced as intolerable by subjects who are
socially excluded, subordinated, marginalized, or stigmatized. Such
struggles, Honneth argues, are originarily generated by intolerable feelings
of being disrespected; they are born of forms of misrecognition affecting
different spheres of recognition, and which thereby disrupt different forms
of affective self-relation.
Misrecognition within the sphere of the family the lack of affective
bonding and loving contact with a primary carer, for example can
profoundly disrupt a persons sense of bodily and affective selfconfidence, or the expectation that ones basic needs and desires are valid
and will be met by an other. Misrecognition in the sphere of moral and

Ibid., 92-130.
Ibid., 160-170.


Chapter Twelve

legal rights (we might cite here the struggles of African-Americans,

Australian aborigines, women, gays and lesbians, and so forth) can disrupt
the sense that one is acknowledged as an autonomous moral subject and
social agent, and hence undermine ones (or ones communitys) capacity
to participate in public deliberation or political decision-making processes.
Misrecognition in the sphere of social community for example the
devaluation of ones culture, way of life, sexuality, work, and so on can
undermine the form of self-relation that Honneth describes as social selfesteem (which is not the same as personal self-esteem!). This experience
of misrecognition corrodes a subjects or groups sense of self-identity and
social agency by devaluing their individual or collective contribution to
the social, cultural, and political community.
The crucial concept here is that of misrecognition as social disrespect
[Miachtung]: the experience of social suffering that brings out the
implicit normative expectations of social interaction and hence that
motivates demands to eliminate injustice. As Honneth points out, here
ordinary language provides us with a clue: moral concepts like insult and
humiliation refer primarily to forms of disrespect. They signify a denial
of recognition, where the insulting or humiliating act does not simply
harm or restrict a subjects freedom to act, but injures him or her in respect
of his/her inter-subjectively acquired positive self-understanding. In this
sense, the concept of disrespect [Miachtung], for Honneth, refers to the
specific bodily and psychic vulnerability of human beings that derives
from the internal independence of processes of individualization and
recognition.14 Since the normative self-image of an individual depends
upon the confirmation or disconfirmation provided by others, Honneth
continues, the experience of being disrespected carries with it the danger
of an injury that can bring the identity of the person as a whole to the point
of collapse.15
To be sure, the term disrespect can cover a wide range of
psychological injury to a subject. This range spans the devastating effects
of physical abuse, rape, or torture through to more subtle forms of
humiliation, ostracism, or provocation that are all too common in everyday
social interaction. Arguably, this might well indicate a conceptual
limitation, since it is not clear how much is gained in describing with the
same concept social phenomena as disparate as the effects of torture and
the humiliation of a co-worker. Be that as it may, according to Honneth,
the different spheres of recognition and corresponding forms of disrespect

Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, 132.


Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


would provide a way of distinguishing varying degrees of disruption to a

subjects practical self-relation and hence the degree of threat to the
integrity and viability of that subjects social identity.
The inspiration for Bernsteins revision of misrecognition as moral
injury comes from Honneths own discussion of the primary form of
disrespect that can affect subjects at the level of their physical or bodily
integrity.16 It is clear that physical abuse or maltreatment, in which a
person loses the ability to dispose over his or her own body, constitutes the
most profound sort of personal degradation.17 Torture and rape are among
the most violent ways in which a persons body and control over his or her
body can be violated. Such experiences of bodily and psychic trauma,
Honneth argues, can destroy the individuals basic sense of bodily and
affective self-confidence.18 The experience of physical pain in these
violations is also accompanied by feelings of humiliation that one is
defenseless against the will of another subject. This is the devastating
sense, so vividly described by Elaine Scarry, that ones world has been
deprived of reality19, a description that resonates with psychoanalytic
accounts of psychosis in which the distinction between I and world breaks
Disrespect of ones bodily autonomy destroys the taken-for-granted
self-confidence in ones own physical being that is acquired through the
emotional support and bonding experiences of early childhood and
successful socialization.20 This basic sense of self-confidence in ones own
body and in the world, Honneth contends, is historically and culturally
invariant. Far from implying relativism, Honneths account of the bodily
basis of misrecognition points to an anthropological universal that makes
clear the normative dimension of the moral injury involved in acts of
torture and rape, regardless of social and cultural context. The suffering of
torture and rape, as Honneth points out, is always accompanied by a
dramatic breakdown in ones trust in the reliability of the social world and
hence by a collapse in ones own basic self-confidence.21 It is in this
sense that Honneth can speak of misrecognition or disrespect as a moral
injury: a violation of the experience of bodily and psychological integrity
that comprise the preconditions for development of social self-identity and
moral autonomy.

Ibid., 133.
Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.
Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, 133.


Chapter Twelve

Bernsteins Revision of the Concept of Misrecognition

Adopting Honneths original insight, J. M. Bernstein has recently argued
that the theory of recognition provides a basis for explicating all forms of
moral injury. His central contention is that we need to consider the bodily
basis of the processes of recognition and misrecognition if we want to
understand what is meant by a moral injury. In this respect, Bernstein
provides a revision, inspired by Adorno and by Habermas, of Honneths
concept of misrecognition as social disrespect. Taking up Honneths
suggestion that concepts of disrespect refer metaphorically to states of
injury or deterioration of the human body, Bernstein elaborates the idea
that moral injury is grounded in the violation of bodily integrity and, in a
parallel way, the violation of psychic integrity belonging to the subject.
Bodily integrity refers to the ineliminable sense that my body is mine, a
sense of self-familiarity or basic trust [Selbstvertrauen] that develops in
tandem with the infants becoming a socialized self. Ones body is always
a social body just as ones subjectivity is always an embodied subjectivity.
As Bernstein avers, the social subject is, minimally, a body in symbolic
form.22 To be a social subject is to have sufficient bodily integrity to be
capable of independence and self-direction; this integrity and capacity for
independent movement are socially elaborated mediations of
embodiment.23 From this perspective, personal identity, for both
Habermas and Honneth, is the social inscription of bodily integrity, whilst
intact bodily integrity is achieved by becoming a self-conscious agent.24
Bernstein elaborates this thought by drawing a parallel between bodily
and psychic integrity. The fragmented, inchoate body of the infant
becomes an intact body through forms of interpersonal recognition.25 At
the same time, the physical integrity of the infants body and its capacity
for self-movement are simultaneously experienced as a moral whole.
They come to be experienced by the subject as what is essentially mine.26
Bodily integrity is coupled with the moral sense of owning ones own

Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 313.

We should note the parallel with Lacans famous account (1980) of the
misrecognition that characterizes the mirror stage: the point at which the
inchoate, disorganized body of the infant is confronted by an image of ideal unity
obtained via recognitive reflection (not just the literal mirror image but the
mirroring involved in being recognised by another), which is also always an
imaginary misrecognition that can never be entirely overcome.
Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 313.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


body in a normative sense. The moral dignity of the person, Bernstein

claims, is thus rooted in this basic sense of bodily integrity coupled with
emerging autonomy as a social subject. What demands moral respect,
Bernstein concludes, is a re-imaging of the intact and integral body at the
reflective level inscribing the self or subject which has a body in the image
of the body it is and has.27 We might gloss this as follows. The moral
dignity of the person is rooted in the experience of bodily integrity in the
primitive sense of owning ones own body and bodily movements. This
sense develops in tandem with the infants socialization as a self through
forms of interpersonal recognition as loving care. Bodily integrity thus
provides the basis for the emerging autonomy of the socialized subject.
The dignity of the self, as Bernstein concludes, is the reflective
articulation of the moral integrity of the body.28
This parallel between bodily integrity and the integrity of the person
means that the self can be injured or violated just as much as the body can.
We can thus define Bernsteins concept of moral injury and its relation
to misrecognition more precisely. Moral norms, Bernstein suggests, aim to
regulate social interactions so as to secure the minimum necessary
conditions for physical integrity and individual autonomy.29 The
intertwining of physical independence and social recognition, Bernstein
continues, the way the infants transition to intact body and socialized self
passes through relations of recognition, means that failures of recognition
can return individuals to a state of organic incompleteness.30
Misrecognition can effectively dis-integrate or indeed dis-incorporate the
self, ruining physical and moral integrity at once.31 Bernstein thus draws
the psychoanalytically suggestive conclusion that misrecognition entails
regression. The experience of misrecognition, for Bernstein, can
precipitate a regression to one or other dimension of brutal and radical
incompleteness that the infant experiences, in its organic and social prematurity, in the process of separating from the mother.32 In Bernsteins
Misrecognition returns the adult individual to the injury that all human
beings suffer in their detachment from the maternal whole, the very


Ibid., 315.
Ibid., 315-316.
Here the Lacanian resonance noted above (fn. 3) is particularly striking.


Chapter Twelve
moment in which prematurity is suffered and the recognitive process of
coming to have the body it always already is begins.33

The moral injury of misrecognition involves the violation of those basic

forms of physical and/or psychic integrity that throw the individual into a
state of psychological regression. The misrecognised social subject,
Bernstein argues, is morally injured, that is, cast into a state of
fragmentariness and incompleteness corresponding to an earlier moment
of its developmental path.34 More precisely, the violation of norms
ensuring bodily and psychic integrity constitute a moral injury when
committed by one individual against another individual. When such
violations are embedded in the life of a community, systematically
preventing individuals or groups from achieving the independence enjoyed
by others, Bernstein argues that then we can speak of a case of social
injustice in the emphatic sense.35
In constructing this position, however, Bernstein parts company in
significant ways with Honneths account of misrecognition as disrespect.
Indeed, he takes issue with Honneths account of misrecognition as being
predicated on the pre-theoretical experience of the suffering of selfconscious agents.36 To develop this criticism, Bernstein makes two
decisive moves:
1) he argues, following Honneth, that misrecognition is grounded in
experience of violation of bodily and psychic integrity (with bodily
integrity taken as primary);
2) he then adds that such violation can generate various forms of
infantile regression that can destroy the subjects social self-identity
and capacity for becoming an autonomous individual.
In Honneths defence, we should note that Bernsteins claims are
consonant with Honneths recent work, which engages with psychoanalytical
object-relations theory as one way of accounting for the fact that
disturbances in the developmental process of forming primary relations
with others can precipitate psychic and affective disorders in later life.37 In

Ibid., 316.
Ibid., 316.
Ibid., 318.
See Honneth, The Work of Negativity. A Psychoanalytical Revisioning of the
Theory of Recognition, trans. Robert Sinnerbrink. Critical Horizons, vol. 7: 101111.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


this respect, Bernstein is elaborating, rather than challenging, Honneths

own position on misrecognition as moral injury.
At this point in his discussion, however, Bernstein changes tack,
arguing in favour of Adorno that misrecognition is not so much a question
of social suffering as it is a question of the domination of the universal
over the particular. As I shall discuss presently with reference to Adorno,
misrecognition as moral injury, from Bernsteins Adornoian perspective,
is now less a matter of the suffering caused by the disruption of bodily and
psychic integrity as it is an injury done to the particular through its being
misidentified, misrecognised.38 Indeed, Bernsteins Adornoian criticism
of Honneth prompts him to hold what appear to be two competing, even
conflicting, accounts of moral injury. On one hand, he adopts the
Honnethian model of misrecognition as disrespect, where there is a
violation of bodily and psychic integrity that disturbs forms of practical
self-relation essential for social self-identity. On the other hand, Bernstein
develops an Adornoian account of misrecognition as a case of the more
general thesis that instrumental reason subordinates the particular to the
(abstract) universal. On this view, according to Bernstein, misrecognition
is less a case of the violation of a subjects integrity than a case of
idealizing identification, the recognizing of an object or person as being
nothing more than what is stored in the concept through which it is
The critical question that imposes itself here is a simple one: how do
these two conceptions hang together? On the one hand, it is abundantly
clear that Honneth, like Habermas, is committed to a theory of intersubjectivity, as against the superseded subject-object model of
consciousness. It is of course precisely in opposition to the latter that
Honneth (and Habermas) persuasively argue for the inter-subjectivist turn,
whether towards communicative reason or a theory of mutual recognition.
The inter-subjectivist thrust of Honneths model of misrecognition,
however, seems at odds with Adornos residual commitment to a subjectobject model of consciousness. Misrecognition as disrespect is a
fundamentally inter-subjectivist concept. By contrast, Bernsteins account
of misrecognition as the (conceptual) domination of the particular reverts
from this primary inter-subjectivity to a position that is incompletely
detached from the subject-object framework of the philosophy of
consciousnessor indeed which appears to straightforwardly embrace it.


Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 318. Italics mine.

Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 318.


Chapter Twelve

As is well known, Adornos general thesisderived from Lukcs and

Weberis that modern reason is essentially instrumental rationality, the
domination over nature in the service of human self-preservation; it is a
form of mastery of nature and domination over the singular through
identity thinking that turns out to dialectically enslave the sensuous,
embodied nature of the human being in his or her unique singularity or
non-identity.40 Honneths criticism of this thesis is that it lacks any
meaningful account of social inter-subjectivity, along with the dimension
of communicative action identified by Habermas, precisely because
Adorno remains within the subject-object model of consciousness; hence
Adorno can only conclude that modern reason, via the dialectic of
enlightenment, culminates in the utter reification of the subject, now
revealed as a reified object. Bernstein needs to account, then, for how this
Adornoian account of misrecognition as the conceptual domination of the
particular can be reconciled with Honneths inter-subjectivist concept of
misrecognition as expressing those forms of social disrespect that are
capable of disrupting a subjects bodily and psychic integrity. The
domination of the particular is not equivalent to the disruption of selfidentity, at least not without further conceptual elaboration.

Two Objections to Bernstein

Bernstein elaborates in a genuinely enlightening and thought-provoking
way Honneths important suggestion that misrecognition, understood as
social disrespect, ultimately has a bodily basis. The possibility of injury, of
violation to the human body presents an image of the correlated possibility
of injury or violation to the integrity of the human psyche. The moral
injury of misrecognition concerns the possibility of a violation of ones
bodily and psychic integrity. This is a violation that harms essential forms
of practical self-relation and that can result in various forms of
psychological regression.
At the same time, this Honnethian inter-subjectivist account seems to
conflict with Bernsteins alternative, Adornian account of misrecognition
as the (conceptual) domination over the particular. In a straightforward
sense, one could argue that this conflates the inter-subjectivist sense of
recognition between subjects with the cognitivist sense of recognition as
identification of a particular object or event. This is in keeping with the
tension identified above between Honneths inter-subjectivist concept of
Adorno, Negative Dialectics; Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


misrecognition as disrespect, and the Adornian account of misrecognition

as domination of the particular that still remains tethered to the obsolete
subject-object model of consciousness.
Putting this tension to one side, I want to suggest that, for all its
strengths, Bernsteins Adornian revision of misrecognition as moral injury
faces two further objections:
1) that it generalizes from particular cases of misrecognition involving
the possibility of psychological regression to claim that this is the
mechanism of misrecognition in general; and
2) that it underplays the possibility of a constitutive dimension of
misrecognition that is part of becoming a socialized subject.
Consequently, it does not adequately explain the motivation for
attempts to dominate or subordinate others through forms of social
(1) The first question to consider here concerns the generalisability of
misrecognition as a basis for all forms of moral injury. Is it true that the
concept of misrecognition can account for all forms of moral injury? Or
does Bernsteins account generalize implausibly from particular cases of
misrecognition? Bernstein claims that in cases where there is no suffering,
there is no injury, and hence no wrong.41 Misrecognition implies a feeling
of being disrespected and in this sense is a moral injury. But there are
certainly cases where one might speak of misrecognition, even of moral
injury, without the corresponding feeling of being disrespected. Indeed,
the feeling of being disrespected may not be a reliable guide as to whether
or not we are talking of a genuine, morally significant case of
misrecognition. As I shall argue further below, it is unclear whether the
mere feeling of being disrespected can have the sort of universalist moral
and political significance that is often claimed for it by theorists of
recognition, though its importance, under appropriate conditions, in
motivating what can become explicitly articulated moral and political
claims for justice is undeniable.42
A few examples might make the point clearer. The colonised subject
may have internalized a negative self-image, foisted upon him or her by

Bernstein, Suffering Injustice, 311.

A similar criticism along these lines has recently been made by Nikolas
Kompridis (2007), who argues for a position that steers a course between sheer
inarticulable suffering on the one hand, and on the other, the restriction of
normative claims only to what can be articulated in universalist or theoretical


Chapter Twelve

the colonial master, to such an extent that he or she does not consciously
experience this demeaning self-image as a form of suffering. Indeed, as
Fanon has argued43, the subjugated Negro may seek the approval or
recognition of the White colonial master in order to overcome the
unconscious sense of shame precipitated by the negative self-image he has
interiorized. Indeed, the traumatized subject may well repress or
rationalize the violence or oppression he or she is made to suffer. The
battered wife may not perceive that she is being treated unjustly,
claiming that her beatings are deserved and that her husband really loves
her. Such phenomena are common in cases of childhood abuse, sexual
trauma, and so on. By contrast, the violent racist might justify his beatings
of foreigners (indeed will typically tend to so) on the grounds that he feels
misrecognised. He perceives the presence of foreigners as a threat to his
bodily and psychic integrity, and hence reacts with violence against this
threat to his social (and racial) self-identity.
In Fanons case of black skins, white masks (oppressed Negroes who
internalize the way they are seen by their oppressors) as with the battered
wife syndrome, we have particular cases of misrecognition, with or
without attendant feelings of suffering. In such cases, we might want to
say that misrecognition can occur even if subjects do not experience
themselves as misrecognised or as disrespected. Conversely, if we take the
case of the individual who justifies his racism on grounds of perceived
suffering, an injurious threat to individual and group self-identity, we
might well argue that this subjective sense of misrecognition does not
warrant the title misrecognition in the normative sense. Though the racist
might feel that he is experiencing social disrespect or even an injury to his
sense of psychic integrity, we would probably not want to call this a
genuine case of misrecognition as a moral injury, let alone one that
motivates a justifiable form of social struggle. As is clear, however, racist
political movements both past and present (Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, the
National Front, and so on) have often been motivated by such perceived
forms of injury or threat, and have indeed frequently availed themselves
of such rationalisations in order to justify their existence. It thus remains
an important question to ask how the theory of recognition accounts for
the motivation behind these distorted forms of misrecognition, which are
not normatively significant in Honneths or Bernsteins sense of
constituting a moral injury. I shall return to this question presently.
(2) For all its brilliance, Bernsteins account does not fully address the
possibility of there being a constitutive dimension of misrecognition that

In Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


remains an unavoidable part of becoming a finite human subjectnot in

the Sartrean sense that human existence thus remains locked within a
perpetual cycle of domination and submission, but in the more critical
sense that there are therefore irreducible limits to what the striving for
mutual recognition can normatively achieve. This tendency in Bernstein to
underplay the possibility of constitutive misrecognition, which would
mark certain limits to the normative reach of misrecognition as moral
injury, occurs despite relying heavily upon psychoanalytical insights
concerning the organic insufficiency of the human infant, the traumatic
dimensions of proper ego-formation, and the decentring effects of
unconscious drives. As already mentioned, for some psychoanalytic
theorists, notably in Lacans famous mirror stage, misrecognition is a
constitutive aspect of the process of subject-formation, beginning with the
disparity between the infants inchoate, disorganised body, and the ideally
unified image of the nascent body-self. The entry into language, the
inherent gap between demand and its articulation, and uncertainty as to the
response of the Other, all contribute, according to Lacanians, to the
traumatic dimension of inter-subjective communication and inherent
possibility of misrecognition between subjects.44 Interestingly, a similar
line of critique is also discernible from within the critical theory tradition.
From this perspective, as Nikolas Kompridis remarks, it might behoove us
to ask what it is we expect from recognition: for it may be that we have
normativized and normalized recognition to such an extent that we have
overburdened it with too many social and political demands.45 It might
be time, Kompridis continues, to ponder the limits of recognition, for all
forms of recognition are partial, in the sense of being incomplete and onesided, and thus delimited by the inherent possibility of misrecognition:
Because we dont know fully what we are doing when we are doing it,
and because our motivations and our actions can never by fully transparent
to us or fully forseeable by us, the possibility of misrecognition is built
into each and every act of recognition.46
In Bernsteins account, however, while human subjects are inherently
vulnerable to bodily and psychic injury through misrecognition, such
misrecognition should be surmountable through proper socialization and
the achievement of a just social order in which mutual recognition holds

Not only for Lacanians, however; as Jessica Benjamin has argued (1988),
drawing on relational psychoanalytic theory focused on the infant-carer
relationship, intrapsychic phenomena such as aggression cannot be entirely
eliminated from human life.
Konpridis, 2007: 287.


Chapter Twelve

sway. But can one maintain the view that misrecognition entails psychic
regression, as an ever present possibility of the vulnerable subject, while at
the same time arguing that it can, in principle, be overcome? Moral norms
may well serve to protect vulnerable human subjects precisely because
such subjects always remain vulnerable to violations of their bodily and
psychic integrity, a point that Bernstein makes plain. But this does not
mean that all disruptions or bodily and psychic integrity are therefore
normatively significant forms of misrecognition. Nor does it mean that
every instance of misrecognition that might befall an individual constitutes
a moral injury requiring some form of social, legal, or political redress.
Some kinds of misrecognition are regrettable, even tragic, without being
normatively significant in the sense that Honneth and Bernstein intend
(growing up in an unhappy family, being in a loveless marriage, being at
odds with prevailing ideological or political views).47 And we have even
not touched upon the traumatic dimensions of sexuality, whether infantile
or adult, which is the psychoanalytic locus par excellence of disruption to
our physical and psychic integrity. If psychoanalysis teaches anything, it is
that human beings must contend with constitutive forms of negativity,
with the inherent possibility of misrecognition, of aggression and the will
to domination, of the irreducible limits to the integrity and transparency of
autonomous subjectivityin short, that the human subject, as Freud
famously quipped, is not master in his or her own house.
This raises again the question I mentioned earlier: what motivates the
attempts to dominate or subordinate others through misrecognition? Here
we might return to Hegels fascinating account of crime in his early Jena
lectures.48 Hegel argues there that the socially excluded subjects
provocation of the other through a violent or criminal act is a desperate
attempt to force the other to recognize him or her, or to force recognition
of the inadequacy of formal law or of social normativity as such. We can
elaborate Hegels point by saying that it provides a way of revivifying the
despised or excluded subject, who is condemned to social death, through a
Elaborating upon a point that Robert B. Pippin made in response to an earlier
version of this paper presented at the Australasian Society for Continental
Philosophy conference, Deakin University, Geelong Waterfront campus, July
2006. We must of course distinguish between these cases of regrettable but not
morally injurious misrecognition and the more obvious cases of normatively
significant misrecognition that would constitute cases of moral injury in the proper
sense (abusive family situations or interpersonal relationships, discrimination and
persecution based upon religious, moral or political views, and so on).
See Honneths illuminating account of Hegels conception of crime (in Honneth,
The Struggle for Recognition, 52-56.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


violent passage la acte that brutally forces his existence upon the other.
In this case, the desire to misrecognise others, to subordinate others
through social disrespect, is motivated by the sense of incompletion
inherent to being a social subject. It is a distorted attempt to force the other
to recognize ones sense of (injured or inadequate) self-identity, whether
in the petty form of humiliation or in the brutal form of crime or deliberate
This reactive assertion of a distorted will to recognition, can also, on
the other hand, become a genuinely political act in the sense of
precipitating a social movement or a political revolt: a form of struggle
that aims to confront the dominant other or unjust social order with an
impossible claim to justice, universality, recognition of singularity, and
so on. Thus the will to recognition, driven by our constitutive
incompletion as human subjects, can serve either the destructive ends of
deliberate and harmful misrecognition, or else it can be harnessed towards
the affirmative ends of engendering social, cultural, and political
Indeed, misrecognition can have positive and negative dimensions
depending upon the context of social interaction and the historical forms
of normativity and sociality at issue. It is worth reminding ourselves that
not all cultures and societies obviously valorize Western concepts of
individual freedom as autonomy in the ways sometimes presupposed by
theorists of recognition (including Honneth). Social recognition might also
take the form of conforming to social role or cultural tradition, eschewing
individual self-expression in favor of collective belonging or obedience to
moral or religious code, or even sacrificing ones bodily and psychic
integrity for religious or political reasons.49 This is not to deny the force of
claims that misrecognition can imply, in different contexts, certain kinds
of injustice demanding moral, social, and political redress. Rather, it is a
matter of underlining that the circumstances in which recognition and
misrecognition occurs can be decisive in determining whether we are
dealing with a reactive form of injustice or an active demand for justice.
Only then can we begin to determine whether particular cases of
misrecognition warrant redress through social struggle, legal reform, or
political transformation.
I conclude with the observation that Bernstein overstates the case for
construing misrecognition as a way of capturing all forms of moral injury.

For different criticisms of theories of recognition that question the universality

and desirability of claims to recognition of ones or ones communitys identity see
Garcia-Dttman, Between Cultures. Tensions in the Struggle for Recognition;
Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition; and Markell, Bound by Recognition.


Chapter Twelve

Indeed, bodily and psychic integrity do not necessarily provide universal

criteria for establishing the nature of moral injury or social injustice. There
are cases of disrupted integrity that are not obviously morally wrong,
while there are also forms of injustice that can be identified without
reference to the experience of violated integrity. Turning to
phenomenological and psychoanalytic perspectives might provide a
corrective to some of these difficulties.50 Phenomenological analysis could
show the complexity of bodily and affective states in those experiences
that are, rather imprecisely, labeled as experiences of moral injury in
general. It could also show that differently embodied subjects will
experience these states of vulnerability quite differently (for example,
gendered differences in the experiences of social space, threats to bodily
integrity, and so on).51 The question of a constitutive negativity or inherent
misrecognition within human subjectivity must also be examined more
carefully.52 The theory of recognition, I suggest, would thus benefit from
acknowledging the inherent incompletion and precariousness of human
self-identity, the opacity and intractability of unconscious dimensions of
our psychic and affective life, and the ambivalence of the will to
misrecognition in embodied social subjects.53 Recognising these
constitutive dimensions of misrecognition in the precarious achievement


Jean-Philippe Deranty has argued (in Deranty, The Loss of Nature in Axel
Honneths Theory of Recognition. Re-reading Mead with Merleau-Ponty) for the
importance of Merleau-Pontys phenomenology to supplement Honneths theory
of recognition. Jessica Benjamins psychoanalytical reading of recognition, as
mentioned, is exemplary, while Joel Whitebrooks Perversion and Utopia still
provides one of the best accounts of the intersection between critical theory and
Iris Marion Youngs famous study (Throwing Like a Girl. A Phenomenology
of Feminine Comportment, Motility, & Spatiality, 141-179) of the
phenomenological differences in gendered embodiment would be interesting to
examine from the perspective of Honneths theory of recognition, modified in the
manner that Bernstein suggests and further supplemented by psychoanalytical
Joel Whitebrook makes a good start in this direction in his essay on Lacan and
Adorno. See Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and
Critical Theory.
Judith Butlers work makes an important contribution in this regard, drawing
upon Hegelian accounts of recognition and Lacanian psychoanalysis. See Butler,
The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection; and Precarious Life: The
Powers of Mourning and Violence.

Misrecognition and Moral Injury: Reflections on Honneth and Bernstein


of physical and psychic integrity would be a salutary supplement to

Bernsteins enlightening elaboration of misrecognition as moral injury.54


I would like to thank J. M. Bernstein, Jean-Philippe Deranty, Colin Hearfield,

Robert B. Pippin, Daniel Ross, and Matthew Sharpe, who through their incisive
comments, questions, and criticisms all greatly contributed to the development of
this chapter.


Psychoanalysis draws its inspiration from many sources. 1 Not the least of
these is the theatre and poetry of ancient Athens. During one period in its
history, the festival of Dionysus consisted of a three-part tragedy and a
fourth part comicor satyrplay. The leader of the chorus was awarded
a special privilege of ancient origin, in which he was required to deliver a
course of invective. He did so with immunity. A serious purpose is
indicated behind this seemingly absurd practice. We need only think of the
role of the medieval fool or jester and of satirical verse, which both derive
from this ancient institution.
And so, on this festive occasion, the 150th birthday of Freud, after
nearly one hundred years of seriousand sometimes tragicanalysis of
Freuds legacy, I herein want to claim the ancient privilege of chorus
leader to deliver a course of invective against the Freud bashers. I trust
the reader will receive my polemic, granting me the ancient immunity.
In speaking of the Freud bashers, I mean primarily those who have a
particularly heavy axe to grind. This distinguishes them from the
dissenters and from the genuine critical and comparative commentators.
One might call them Freud haters. Perhaps party-poopers might be most
appropriate at an affair celebrating Freuds birthday. But I really ought to
call them the beyond the party poopers in deference to the compulsive
repetitiveness of much of their criticism. Every fashion in thought invents
its own way of telling us Freud is Dead. Every fashion is ignorant of the
This paper was given as a talk in celebration of Freuds 150th birthday at the 2006
conference of the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy. The present text
was first published in Psychotherapy In Australia, vol. 13 (2), February 2007.


Appendix One

immortality bestowed upon a thinker by the recurring insistence upon his

death. Why do they talk about Freud if he was so irrelevant; if he was so
wrong? Why not ignore him? Psychoanalysis can tell us why. Ideas are
often represented by their opposite, thus, love becomes hate. The Freud
haters really love himseriously. And this capacity of Freud to diagnose
his critics makes them hate him even more.
Freud had a circle of Freud haters from near the inception of
psychoanalysis. By 1914 he had learned that, psychoanalysis always
brings to the surface the worst that is in man.2 In the same paper he
described his opponents derisively as a few paltry creatures, swindlers
and adventurers, and added that it therefore never occurred to him to pour
contempt upon them.
Freud generally made good this statement. His writings on the
psychological innovations of dissenting analysts, such as Adler, Jung,
Melanie Klein and Otto Rank are compelling. They are usually expressed
with the reservation that history might yet prove the dissenter right. More
often than not, Freud returned to the ideas of his dissenters in a relevant
context and incorporated what was of value, giving credit where credit was
due. The dissenters were not Freud haters, they were trail-blazers
impatient with Freuds unwavering policy of the steady accretion of
scientific truth. Inevitably, all the dissenters played down the importance
of the Oedipus and castration complexes. Even today, when notions such
as the unconscious, repression, fixation and anal character traits are
everyday jargon, the mention of castration fear and penis-envy is greeted
with incredulity and/or outright hostility. The essence of Freud eludes the
attempt at its comfortable normalisation.
So I am going to ignore Freuds advice and freely express my
contempt for the Freud haters. I will present you my top ten reasons for
hating a Freud hater. I justify my cavalier approach on the ground that
reasoned argument is ineffective against the beyond the party poopers.
Whilst I greatly admire the dedication to truth evidenced by analysts such
as Kurt Eissler, who produced a 395-page psychoanalytic reply to a
defamation of Freud.3, I have no intention of devoting this paper to
refuting disingenuous argument.
So, without further delay, here are my top ten reasons for hating a
Freud hater:

Freud, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, 324.

In Eissler, Talent and Genius: The Fictitious Case of Tausk Contra Freud.

Freuds 150th: Beyond the Party Poopers


10. At reason number ten I have placed the, All he is interested in is sex
argument. This was in part Jungs rationalisation for leaving Freud. It is
mindlessly recited by university undergraduates, typically with an
expression of disgustonly a psychoanalyst could explain that!
9. Reason number nine for hating a Freud hater is the three bears
argument or the, Freud was too much of this or not enough of that
argument. This position usually allows for a Janus-faced orientation, such
as: He was too scientific or He was not scientific enough; He was too
cultural; He was not cultural enough; too biological, not
biological enoughI think you get the picture.
So here we have the, Freud was not scientific, and I know what
science is argumentchampioned by the doyens of positivist psychology.
This reason has lead to other reasons why we should hate the Freud haters,
such as the, if Freud had have known what we know now argument, with
its case for the relentless march of progress. This position is even
advocated by some self-proclaimed Freudian analysts. Adherents to this
ideology compromise the analytic approach to accommodate
psychoanalysis to the dictates of academic psychology. A Faustian
A variation on this theme, sometimes thought mistakenly to represent
an opposite trend, is the Never mind all that complicated theory, we know
what works argument. Like the previous argument it lauds ignorance as
virtue. Never mind the ethical consequences of not knowing what you are
doingit works! Well, not according to Adolph Grunbaum, who has
checked the numbers. However, some analysts are very interested in the
theory of what they are doing. So interested are they in fact that, not long
ago, someone in the analytic establishment, troubled by the many different
clinical approaches, proposed a treatment manual. This, he argued, would
ensure practitioners keep up with best practice and, incidentally, it would
allow classification and statistical analysis of the best practice. This way
we could prove that psychoanalysis works. If only we knew what it was!
8. At reason number eight to oppose the Freud bashers, we have the
colloquial form of the There is no evidence argument, usually put as the,
Freud had some great ideas, but we now know he was wrong argument.
This might also be put in the form of the, Freud was right, but...
argument. I even saw it put recently as the Freud was a genius, but...
argument. Why dont they talk about Hegel like this, or Shakespeare?
Maybe they do. A genius is only a genius after all.

Appendix One


I also draw your attention here to the, Freud had his own problems
argument, which sometimes manifests as the, Freud was addicted to
cocaine argument. The inference here is that a.) Freud is morally evil;
and, b.) we should therefore ignore anything he thought or wrote. The
claim, of course, is a parody of the reality; and even if true, would have no
bearing on the truth of Freuds teachings.
7. At number seven I propose the, magic bullet argument. It is a
sophisticated case and a favourite of the academically inclined, in which a
convoluted argument proves the end of Freudianism by disproving a single
element of the entire system.
6. Number six in the top ten reasons to oppose the Freud bashers is an
argument distilled from the halls of the cultural elite. It is the science is
politics argument which informs us that penis-envy is discriminatory and
one simply shouldnt say such things. This is more typically a problem in
the United States.
The psychoanalysts themselves are not immune from intellectual
fashions. They bring us the, it was libidinal-cathexis last decade;
separation-individuation this decade; and, infant-attachment next decade
argument. We hate these haters because they proliferate terms and
meaningless jargon which explain in a less precise manner what Freud had
articulated previously, more clearly.
From the world of high academe, note that we also we have the,
Freud was wrong, I am right Dont let on its the same idea argument;
and the, I can quote Freud too argument, in which a citation taken out of
context is used to prove that Freud believed the opposite of what he said.
5. At number five I present the, Freud tried to explain everything
argument. Newsweek provided me a sample of this reductio ad adsurdum:
Freud concluded that Napoleons rivalry with his brother Joseph was the
driving force of his life, accounting for his infatuation with a woman
named Josephine and his decision to invade Egypt.4

4. At number four is an argument I really hate. This is the, I can prove

anything by statistics argument, often put in the form of the,
Psychoanalysis remains clinically unproven argument. The Australian
Mental Health Body, Beyond Blue has funded a Centre for Excellence in
Depression [(my emphasis) I the State of Victoriaa Freudian slip no

Newsweek, 28 March 2006, 46.

Freuds 150th: Beyond the Party Poopers


doubt...though I cant prove it. They tell us that one in six Australian
males and one in four females experience depression. What does this
Returning to the analytic establishment, I can report the, I already
know what Freud has to say argument, usually put by those afraid of
Freuds writings. Often recited by psychoanalytically orientated
psychotherapists, this argument is often put in a form such as, Freud
helps us find deep meanings. It has the effect of downplaying the radical
nature of Freuds teaching.
In the modern cultural landscape we often hear the, Freud really had
something to say, but only for the study of literature argument. Peter
Craven, art critic for the Melbourne Age Newspaper, pronounced this
recently. He was parroting earlier remarks by the usually erudite Harold
Blooma much more convincing writer when addressing other thinkers
than Freud.
2. At number two I give you the, Freud seduced me with his literary
writing style argument, which is sort of an admission of mindlessness, or
could it be psycho-neurosis?
Perhaps its a variation of the, Freud seduced his patients argument,
which Freud definitely did not do.
In contradistinction, Jeffrey Masson (1984)perhaps the greatest of
the Freud hatersproposed, in an emotionally charged thesis, the Freud
did not seduce his patients, but they were seduced argument. This is an
argument that entangled Freud unwarrantably in the debates over
recovered memory syndrome during the 1980s and 1990s.
1. Finally, at number oneit was a hard choice but the times in which we
live decided itI give you the social-constructivist argument, Freud was
a product of his times. It is usually followed by some gormless comment
on Victorian-Era morality and the observation that Thankfully, we dont
think like that anymore.
Enough said. Happy birthday Sigmund.

May there be many more to


without the pursuit of I worship you

which is a French boxer
maritime values as irregular as the depression of Dada in the blood
of a bicephalous animal
Tristan Tzara, Manifesto of Monsieur AA the Antiphilosopher1

Psychoanalysis is an anti-philosophy. This name, this concept, of antiphilosophy is quite precise. Emerging in Tristan Tzaras Dadaist rantings
as kind of heteronym, then taken up by Jacques Lacan in the course of a
polemic against the imaginary captivations of philosophers, it has recently
been given its definitive conceptual freighting by a philosopher, Alain
Badiou. For Badiou, anti-philosophy is, in general, defined by the
following features:
1) a subordination of philosophical categories to language, and the
concomitant destitution of philosophys pretensions to truth and
2) the diagnosis of such pretensions as evidence of a philosophical
will to power;

Tzara, Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, trans. B. Wright, illustrations F.

Picabia (London: John Calder, n.d.), 19. This paper derives from work on a course
I have been teaching for several years at Deakin University, entitled
Psychoanalysis, Culture and Art.

To Rupture the Matheme with a Poem: A Remark on Psychoanalysis

as Anti-Philosophy


3) the affirmation of an extra-philosophical ethics that escapes such

Anti-philosophy doesnt mean a simple repudiation of or a having
nothing to do with philosophy. On the contrary, anti-philosophy tends to
confront the claims of philosophy and philosophers sometimes more,
sometimes less directly. If Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are the modern
anti-philosophers par excellence, there is something special about
psychoanalysis as a kind of anti-philosophy. For the Freudian intervention
does not emerge as a countervailing tendency from within philosophy
itself, unlike the Nietzschean and Wittgensteinian programs. Rather,
psychoanalysis proper emerges when Freud crosses two very different
discourses, the discourses of science and the literary. To be still more
precise: psychoanalysis emerges at the point where a rigorous
contemporary scientific program (neurology and psychology) can only be
sustained by being interrupted by the literary (Freuds famous
The fact is that local diagnosis and electrical reactions lead nowhere in the
study of hysteria, whereas a detailed description of mental processes such
as we are accustomed to find in the works of poets enables me, with the
use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind of insight
into the course of that affection.3

Freud, who begins as a scientist trained in the best institutions of his day,
can only continue to practice if he radically forces the volatile linguistic
inventiveness of literature into the world of science. This is precisely so
that he is able to adequately listen to the complaints of suffering women,
to their accounts of pain that are at once physiologically inexplicable yet
absolutely real. Suffering is at the heart of the psychoanalytic experience,
where trauma is constitutive of existence. But this suffering cannot be
heard and the trauma cannot be captured by any existing means. Not by
science, not by philosophy, not by literature. But by something genuinely
new, by a discourse that interrupts science with literature.
Science cannot do it alone: local diagnosis and electrical reactions are
incapable of unlocking the secrets of hysteria, precisely because of the
See Badiou, Silence, solipsisme, saintet: Lantiphilosophie de Wittgenstein,
Barca! No. 3 (1994), 13-53; Who is Nietzsche?, Pli, No. 11 (2001), 1-11;
Lantiphilosophie: Lacan et Platon, Conditions, ed. F. Wahl (Paris: Seuil, 1992),
Breuer and Freud, Studies in Hysteria, 160-161.


Appendix Two

delocalised mutability of the symptom and its metastatic affects.

Whenever you think you have itit shifts on you. Philosophy cannot do it
at all, precisely because it functions by excluding madness from its
purview. Madness must be considered irrational, insofar as it is refractory
to the operations of philosophical pedagogy (logic, argument, evidence) or
because it taps into an experience that exceeds the philosophical domain
without ever ceasing to be a genuine work of thought. That there may be
an unconscious is such a scandal for philosophy that many professed
philosophers today still cannot abide the notion. Literature could do it, but
at the cost of losing the referential value of its descriptions through an
over-emphasis on formal questions, and through its hostility to being
normed according to procedures of the sciences.
So, from the very beginning, the relationship between science and
literature is of crucial importance to psychoanalysis. This is true at every
level. For Freud himself, literature was an extraordinarily important part of
his quotidian life, andas Freud himself recognisedto the theory and
practice he invented. His work is peppered with such musings as: I
invented psychoanalysis because it had no literature, and Everywhere I
go, I find the poet has been there before me. Freud constantly cites
literary writers in support of his theses; but, notably, never as providing
counter-evidence to his theories. As Jacques Lacan declares, in a
formulation to which we will return:
How could we forget that Freud constantly, and right until the end,
maintained that such a [literary] background was the prime requisite in the
training of analysts, and that he designated the age-old universitas
litterarum as the ideal place for its institution.4

Indeed, although the history of its scholarship is littered with such

formulations as Psychoanalysis and Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and
Religion, Psychoanalysis and X, etc., Psychoanalysis and Literature
enjoys what we might call a special relationship. Lay analysis means
nothing else. It is not the dutifully-authorised agents of state health who
are adequate to the psychoanalytic challenge, but the students of the
peculiar knowledge delivered by language at its most inventive.
It is this special relationship with literature that renders psychoanalysis
the most thoroughgoing form of anti-philosophy. According to Badiou,
Plato is properly the origin of philosophy insofar as he interrupted the
claims of poetry (qua paradigm of mystery) by the claims of the matheme

Lacan, The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud, in
Ecrits (2006), 413.

To Rupture the Matheme with a Poem: A Remark on Psychoanalysis

as Anti-Philosophy


(qua paradigm of knowledge).5 Rational knowledge (exemplified for Plato

by geometry) supplants and curbs the irrational inspirations of literary
effusion.6 For Freud, however, the situation is precisely the reverse. If
philosophy interrupts the poem with the matheme, psychoanalysis
interrupts the matheme with the poem. Psychoanalysis is therefore literally
the inversion and other side of philosophy.7 As it happens, both discourses
are centrally concerned with science and literaturewhich is why they do
indeed tend to share certain featuresbut they go in opposed directions.
Philosophy injects science into literature, psychoanalysis literature into
science. This situation has another very important consequence. If both
philosophy and psychoanalysis consider man to be the speaking being par
excellence, the conclusions they draw from this are radically different.
Philosophy can present itself as the science of happiness insofar as it curbs
the suffering of poesis with the good news of logos. Psychoanalysis, on the
contrary, tries to tear the mask from logos, and unveil the suffering of the
animal subjected to language. As Freud puts it, psychoanalysis turns
neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. As Lacan puts it, if the phallus
can be happy, humans can never be. As I have put it elsewhere, only
psychoanalysis can make you really unhappy.8 Psychoanalysis is thus an
anti-philosophy in the strongest possible sense of the word.
In my opinion, this formula not only captures something essential
about the emergence of these discourses. It also says something nontrivial
about their definition (they both require science and literature), and their
antagonistic complicity (they require science and literature in different
ways). This may explain why so many philosophers have found
themselves so fundamentally hostile to psychoanalysis. As Badiou has
noted, twentieth century French philosophers were consistently hostile to
psychoanalysis. As Jonathan Lear has noted from an entirely different
perspective, analytic philosophers have gone a long way to ignore the

One doesnt need to agree with Badious polemical characterisation of philosophy

(or anti-philosophy) to appreciate the heuristic value of his definition here.
On this point, see Badiou, Being and Event, and Badiou, Conditions, passim.
This claim is consonant with the account given in Jacques Lacans Seminar
XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. For Lacan, philosophy is a support for the
masters discourse, of which psychoanalysis, the analysts discourse, is the envers,
the other side. It is therefore no surprise that, despite his unprecedented attention
to the history of the philosophical corpus, Lacan, in the end, has very little nice to
say about philosophy. For an interesting recent take on the matter, see Badiou,
Lacan and the Pre-Socratics.
Clemens, Only Psychoanalysis Can Make You Really Unhappy, Cosmos and
History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2005), 367-372.

Appendix Two


import of psychoanalysis for their discipline.9 This also says something

about the fragility of both psychoanalysis and philosophy. Precisely
because both discourses live at the crossroads of incommensurables, they
run the constant risk of collapsing into one or the other, one into the other,
of missing or confusing their own essence. Much of the history of the
psychoanalytic movement has been marked by its ceaseless lapse into
scientism, on the one hand, or aestheticism, on the other. Such lapses are
unavoidable, if deleterious. Yet they also enable one to see why the really
strong, the still operative forms of psychoanalysis that havent given way
on the scandal that is the unconsciousabove all, the various forms of
object-relations theory and the Lacaniansinsist on sustaining a
relationship to both science and literature at once (if they do this in very
different ways).
Psychoanalysis is always a radically unstable enterprise, and its
crossing of science with the literary is what must keep it so. As Tzara puts
it, in the aforecited Monsieur AA, a litterateur addressing the savants:
Ill eat your fingers a bit
Im renewing your subscription to the celluloid love that creaks like
metal gates
and you are idiots

Full stop.

See, for example, A. Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy, New Left
Review, No. 35 (2005), 67-77; J. Lear, Freud.


Freuds formalisation of the discovery of psychoanalysis introduced into

Western culture a radical new answer to the question of what human being
is. Psychoanalysis took an ideathat of the unconscious mindwhich
before Freud had at most been intimated in literature and some vitalist
philosophers. It made of this idea the basis for both a comprehensive
metapsychological theory of the subject, and a clinical procedure for
treating the mentally ill. Philosophers including Lyotard, Derrida and
Deleuze have each centrally drawn on Freuds challenge to inherited
Western ideas to mount their own criticisms of previous occidental
philosophy, while also differently registering their own hesitations about
Freudian theory. Yet these post-structuralists were far from the only 20th
century philosophers who responded to the challenge posed to existing
philosophical reflection by psychoanalysis. Reflecting the analytic
(angloamerican)-continental difference in contemporary philosophy, other
twentieth century philosophers responded differently, and a lot more
sceptically, to the bold new movement of thought. Philosophers like Karl
Popper and Jurgen Habermas, and social theorists like Michel Foucault
and Philip Rieff, were much less quick to take up Freuds metapsychology
on its own terms. Instead, they asked of Freuds ideas variants of the first
two of Kants philosophical questions in The Critique of Pure Reason.
Epistemologically, how can psychoanalysis verify (demonstrate the truth
[veritas] of) the remarkable things it claims about individuals fates, and
the human psyche, society, art and religion? Secondly, thinking about
what makes for good human conduct and societies, shouldnt the
unprecedented practices and ideas of psychoanalysis be seen themselves as
a kind of the symptom of wider modern malaiseseither the individual
and social malaises caused by the breakdown of traditional religion (for
conservative critics like Rieff or John Carroll) or, for more left-leaning or


Appendix Three

libertarian critics, by the continuing, restrictive hold of such traditional

conceits (and their secularisations) upon us?
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud puts into the mouth of an
exasperated interlocutor a response which bespeaks well the anxieties
Freuds attempt to bring reason to the most seemingly a-rational parts of
the human condition continues to provoke in citizens, philosophers,
On the one hand, you admit that men cannot be guided by their
intelligence, they are ruled by their passions and their instinctual demands.
But on the other hand, you propose to replace the effective basis of their
obedience to civilisation with a rational one. Let he who can understand
this. To me, it seems that it must be either the one thing or the other 1

One thing Freuds thinking indicated, in Lacans formulation, is that

anxiety is the one affect that does not deceive.2 In this context, we can
understand part of Lacans meaning by saying that the anxiety Freud
provoked in his contemporaries, and ours, indicates that psychoanalysis
truly touches a nerve or two in modern Western culture. It threatens to
upset many of the sanctified either-ors (to me, it must be either the
one thing or the other ) which our civilization had set up to explain the
world. In different ways, both of the previous two Appendices have
addressed this strange fact. Perhaps it is one, noble reason for the
peculiarly vulgar acrimony that has characterised many of Freuds more
recent bashers or detractors, as they heap often mutually contradictory
criticisms at psychoanalysis founder and his work.3
In any event, it is widely recognisedas Douglas Kirsners chapter in
Trauma, Historicity, Philosophy has addressed4that for the last three
decades psychoanalysis has been in decline. Less than one hundred years
after Freuds Interpretation of Dreams, the number of analysts and
analysands declined in the last decades of the 20th century around the
English-speaking world. The 1990s saw the host of widely publicised
attacks on Freud, and considerations of whether Freud might finally be
dead, as Jason Freddi has colourfully documented in Appendix One. A
2003 Time Magazine article reported that there are now only around 5000
analysands in the US, roughly two per analyst, and that the mean age of
the analysts was 62 (in the UK, 66). Psychoanalysis has continued to

Freud, Future of an Illusion, 46.

See, centrally, Lacan, Seminar X: On Anxiety.
See Appendix One above.
See Chapter Three Above.

Neuropsychoanalysis and the Future of Psychoanalysis


flourish only in France (where there are approximately 5000 analysts) and
South America (particularly Argentina), whereprincipally Lacanian
psychoanalysis has continued to play an active role in public institutions
like schools and hospitals, and to contribute to public culture and debates.5
Eli Zaretsy, in his recent work Secrets of the Soul, has presented an
intriguing hypothesis to explain the rise and decline of institutional
psychoanalysis in the century since the Traumdeutung. Psychoanalysis
golden age, he argued, lasted until the 1960s. It corresponded to what
Zaretsy calls the second industrial revolution. This revolution, associated
with the advent of mass, Fordist production and consumer culture, led to
a decisive separation of peoples work from their home and family lives.
In this context, Zaretsky contends that Freuds discovery of a personal
(versus collective) unconscious spoke to a widespread lived sense of
disjuncture between the public and the private, the outer and the inner, the
socio-cultural and the personal.6 Psychoanalysis more recent decline, by
contrast, reflects a third industrial revolution that has swept the world.
This revolution dates from the 1960s. It involves the emergence of the
new, counter-cultural social movements, like second wave feminism, and
civil rights movements. These movements politicizations of the private
sphere reflected a debt to psychoanalysiswhich is perhaps one reason
why Freud bashing is such a part of todays culture wars, particularly
in the USA. Yet these new social movements also challenged the
psychoanalytic focus on the personal unconscious. They shifted the focus
of public debate and intellectual inquiry onto groups, culture, and
institutions. From around the same period, meanwhile, breakthroughs in
neuroscience, cognitive behavioural psychology (or CBT), and psychiatric
drugs have seen the advent of shorter and cheaper treatments for mental
illness. The psychiatric treatments associated with these changes have
been much more successful than psychoanalysis in retaining public
funding, despite the worldwide rolling back of the welfare states of the
middle of last century. As psychoanalysis was to Fordism, as we might
speculate, so the faster, one-stop drug treatments might be for todays
post-Fordist, flexibilised culture.
In this context, the emergence in the last decade of the
neuropsychoanalytic movement presents arguably the most exciting
development in psychoanalytic thought since the emergence of the
continental, Lacanian school in the 1950s and 1960s. The
neuropsychoanalytic movement is led by a group of recognised

I owe this historical data to Douglas Kirsners Psychoanalysis and Its

Discontents, Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol 21 (3), 2004, 339-340.
Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul 6.


Appendix Three

neuroscientists including Antonio Damasio, Mark Solms, and Nobel

Laureate Eric Kandel. It is based in the International Neuropsychoanalytic
Society (INPS). The neuropsychoanalysts argue something bold
concerning the much-touted unfalsifiability of Freuds hypotheses about
the psyche. The neuropsychoanalysts argue that our continuing inability
today to scientifically test all of Freuds metapsychological hypotheses do
not forever discredit these hypotheses. On the contrary, they reflect how
far ahead of his own times Freuds theoretical hypotheses were. Freud
always granted his metapsychological ideas a provisional status, the
neuropsychoanalysts note: as ideas which, in the words of On
Narcissism, will presumably one day be based on an organic
substructure.7 Perhaps, the INPSs website proposes, with the advent of
new brain scanning and related neuroscientific technologies, that day has
now arrived:
Freud, in his 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, attempted to join
the emerging discipline of neuroscience of his time. But that was a hundred
years ago, when the neuron had only just been described ... We have had to
wait many decades before the sort of data Freud needed finally became
available. Now, these many years later, contemporary neuroscience allows
for the resumption of the search for correlation between the two disciples. 8

The starting position of the advocates of the recent

neuropsychoanalytic turn is a rejection of all attempts, like Paul Ricoeurs,
to reground psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic (interpretive not explanatory)
human science. They accept in full Freuds own conception of
psychoanalysis, as a natural scientific theory, and one component of the
wider natural-scientific Weltanschauung. Eric Kandel, for one, asserts that
the move of many friends to psychoanalysts over the last decadesto
refigure it as an adjunct to cultural studies or handmaiden to film theory
has hindered psychoanalysis from continuing to grow intellectually.9 For
Mark Solms, concurring, this hermeneutic drift has insulated
psychoanalysis from scientific progress.10 Kandel accepts the view of
earlier scientistic critics of psychoanalysis like Nagel or Popper, that
although psychoanalysis has historically been scientific in its aims, it has

Freud, On Narcissism, 79.

Arnold Pfeffer, cited at Accessed June 2007.
Kandel, Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis: A New Intellectual
Framework for Psychiatry Revisited, American Journal of Psychiatry 156 (1999),
Solms, What is Consciousness? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic
Association, 45 (1996), 701.

Neuropsychoanalysis and the Future of Psychoanalysis


rarely been so in its methods: it has failed over the years to submit its
assumptions to testable experimentation.11 Unlike both Nagel and
Popper, however, Kandel and other neuropsychoanalysts believe
psychoanalytic hypotheses both can and should be submitted to scientific
testing, if its institutional decline is to be arrested. The failure of
psychoanalysis to provide objective evidence that it is effective as a
therapy can no longer be accepted, Kandel writes.12 What then do Kandel
and the other neuropsychoanalysts propose for psychoanalysis to move it
beyond its present unbehagen?
Well: the proponents of neuropsychoanalysis might well direct
psychoanalysis friends to recall again how both Kleins and Lacans
developments of psychoanalytic theory after Freud were based on the
latest scientific observations of infants behaviour, ethology, linguistics,
and the other social sciences.
Kandel et als position is that
psychoanalysis, in this vein, should shed its pretences to disciplinary
autonomycertainly if the discipline of choice is one in the interpretive
humanities. In Kandels telling formulation in A New Intellectual
Foundation for Psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis must recognise that if it
is to have a future, it lies in the context of empirical psychology, abetted
by imaging techniques, neuroanatomical methods, and human genetics.13
As Kandel sees things, this will involve psychoanalysis in a two-way
exchange with empirical biology and psychology. On one hand, the
psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious, psychical causality,
psychopathology, etc. should each be tested, and where necessary revised,
against the most advanced data furnished by the experimental sciences.14
As the neuropsychoanalyst and philosopher Jim Hopkins concurs:
if psychoanalytic claims about motivation are correct we should be able
to relate them to those of other disciplines, such as social psychology,
developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.15


Kandel, Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis, 507; Kandel, A New

Intellectual Framework of Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry 155
(1998), 468-469.
Kandel, Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis, 523.
Kandel, A New Intellectual Framework for Psychoanalysis, 468.
Kandel, Biology and a New Intellectual framework for Psychoanalysis, 505506.
Hopkins, Conscience and Conflict: Darwin, Freud and the Origins of Human
Aggression, 1. at www-site:
Accessed August 2007.


Appendix Three

The neuropsychoanalysts are aware that, for all the recent advances in
psychopharmacology, these practical advances have run far ahead of the
current theoretical bases of neuroscience. While we know that many of
the most recent anti-psychotics work, we do not yet have a comprehensive
logos as to why, a fact reflected in the side effects these medications
invariably produce. Psychoanalysis, Kandel argues, still provides by far
the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.16 At the
very least, its scope as a theory of the mindreaching from an account of
the structure of the mind, to theories of psychopathology and symptom
formationfar exceeds other materialist philosophies of mind. At the
most, its contents provide a remarkably prescient account of what we are
only now coming to learn about the brains functioning. For this reason,
Kandel suggests, psychoanalysis can play an important role in the future of
neuroscientific research, if not one equivalent to the one played by
Darwins theory of evolution in relation to molecular genetics, as Solms
claimsas a [theoretical] template on which emerging [neuroscientific]
details can be coherently arranged.17
Alongside Kandels, Mark Solms work is at the vanguard of the
neuropsychoanalytic movement. In his Neuropsychology of Dreams,
Solms has scientifically corroborated Freuds hypothesis concerning
dreams function to preserve sleep. The Neuropsychology of Dreams
shows that patients with brain lesions which prevent their dreaming also
typically suffer from abnormally disturbed sleeping patterns.18 Perhaps
more significantly, alongside Karen Kaplan-Solms, Solms has used
neurological mapping to broadly corroborate what Freud could only
promise or anticipate: namely, a material or neurological bases for the
metapsychological agencies (ego, superego, id) his later metapsychology
identified. To quote Solms 2004 article, Freud Returns in Scientific
Recent neurological mapping generally correlates to Freuds conception.
The core brain-stem and limbic systemresponsible for instincts and
drivesroughly correspond to Freuds id. The central frontal region,
which controls selective inhibition, the dorsal frontal region, which
controls self-conscious thought, and the posterior cortex, which represents
the outside world, amount to the ego and the superego.19


Kandel, Biology, 505.

Solms, Freud Returns, in Scientific American, May 2004, 85.
Solms, The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study.

Neuropsychoanalysis and the Future of Psychoanalysis


Not least because of the circumstance in which psychoanalysis finds

itself, the advantages for its friends and practitioners of a more or less
wholesale embrace of neuropsychoanalysisor even a neuroscientific
re-grounding of psychoanalysisare evident.
neuropsychoanalysis advent, at the vanguard of contemporary scientific
discourse, promises to arrest or reverse arguably the most damaging
theoretical critiques of psychoanalyses over the last decades: namely,
those critiques (like Nagels, Poppers, or Grunbaums) that treat
psychoanalysis as a failed natural science or pseudo-science. To take
another example, Mark Solms has shown in a remarkable article in the
American Journal of the Psychoanalytic Association how the embrace of
the fundamental proposition of psychoanalysisthat mental processes
are in themselves unconscious and only reach the ego through
incomplete and untrustworthy perceptions (Freud)allows us to by-pass
several crippling problems facing materialist philosophies of mind in
accounting for the qualitative, subjective component of conscious
experience.20 Second: if psychoanalytic metapsychology could be given
the neuroscientific foundation, neuropsychoanalysis proposes, its clinical
practice might be more closely calibrated with contemporary forms of
medical psychiatry. The gains in its prestige and, politically, for the
possibility of analysands receiving public subsidisation for attending
sessions, might be significant.
Nevertheless, I want to introduce a note of caution into this win-win
tale for the future of psychoanalysis, one hundred and fifty years after its
founders birth. At issue is neither a wholesale rejection of
neuropsychoanalysis, nor a wholesale defence of the psychoanalysis-as-ahermeneutics line Kandel and Solms suggest has saved psychoanalysis
in the Greek sense of a pharmakon21, insulating it from natural-scientific
scrutiny at the price of losing the kudos science still commands in the first
world today. My previous remarks have indicated my sense that it would
be both prudentially unwise, and I would add epistemically wrong-headed,
for contemporary psychoanalysts to turn their backs on this exciting new
development in the field.
The point I want to make instead concerns what is missed by either any
wholly objectivist or scientific figuring of psychoanalysis, or any
hermeneuticist understanding of psychoanalysis. For what is the
elementary epistemological impulse of both approaches, confronted with
the traumaticchance, say Freud and Breuerorigins of psychoanalysis

Solms, What is Consciousness?, in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic

Association, 45 (1996), 681-703.
i.e. both a cure and a poison.


Appendix Three

in the talking cure? The impulse, put simply, is to quickly repress

psychoanalysis novelty. One instead sets about safely embosoming
psychoanalysis on one of the two sides of the pre-existing, modern divide:
as either a natural science or a hermeneutic-interpretive human science.
As Freuds interlocutor puts it in Future of an Illusion, to me, it seems
that it must be one thing or the other.22 Omitted then for both approaches
is the possibility that the subjective difficulties people have continually
had in epistemologically situating psychoanalysis might reflect how,
objectively, psychoanalysis as the talking cure would resist description
as either a natural or interpretive science. In particular, it would resist
being assigned to either side of this division because of the paradoxes that
attend its elementary, clinical datapsychosomatic symptoms and their
resolution. To wit, if the Freudian field is anything, it is a field of objects,
like Anna Os symptoms, subjects knowledge of which changes these
very subjects, and performatively dissolves the very object that we
initially set out to objectively understand.
At the beginning of the scientific age, recall that Descartes argued that
for a thing to exist, it must be capable of being known, ideally with clarity
and distinctness. What Breuer and Freud, by contrast, stumbled upon in
the symptoms of female hysterics in the 1890s was that there are more
things existing in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in modern,
Cartesian philosophy. To recall: Anna Os symptoms, and the symptoms
of the cast of female hysterics Freud would treat in the ensuing y