Migrations of Trauma


/1/ – The Uncanny road to trauma…

The translation of the word unheimlich, literally ‘unhomeness’, is uncanny – a philosophical and psychological category all too familiar thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud. Yet, the original German term has a primarily spatial orientation – it is a feeling of not being where one feels like they are. The English definition takes the word in a very different direction, or maybe we should say to a very different place. Canny means knowing and therefore uncanniness becomes a state of unknowing – of not knowing what one knows.

It is important to establish here the difference between not knowing and not knowing what one knows, the latter being the state of the uncanny whereas the former simply has to do with negativity. Where not knowing would be negative, the un at the start of the uncanny signals indefinite judgment. The most well known example of this would be undead – anyone who frequents the cinema knows that being undead does not mean alive but it certainly does not mean dead either – it is somewhere in between.

Having established the uncanny as indefinite judgement, what exactly does it mean to not know what one knows? In his text Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek quotes a wonderfully obscene statement from the former head of the Department of Defense:

“In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.”

The nature of the unknown knowns brings us to the strangeness of cognitive dissonance.

/2/ – Cognitive dissonance

On every season of American Idol the same painful yet funny process of weeding out the awful singers invariably causes two events: either the amateur singer breaks down in tears thereby realizing the comments of the judges, or they complete reject the judgment and storm off in indignation. The two roads represent exactly the split of cognitive dissonance: where the mind, faced with an uncomfortable situation, must either confirm, and therefore change, or deny and remain psychically intact.

In both cases the audience experiences schadenfreude – a pleasure in the the displeasure of others, as they fail before ever being lifted off the ground. Therein lies the difference between human mortality and immortality, between tragedy and comedy proper. It has been stated that the tragic occurs when someone of great stature falls into the mud – this is true if they stay in the mud – comedy occurs when they keep going.

There is an odd reverse version of the experience of watching this split occurring in NBC’s popular To Catch a Predator. When a bewildered man is caught with materials that could suggest nothing other than an intended sexual encounter with an under-aged girl, the suspects follow two routes – they either play stupid or apologize profusely, eventually ending up in tears. Essentially they admit their mistake and throw themselves at the mercy of the television/law, which is fairly rare, or they attempt to somehow undo their situation – they attempt to prove that they were just there to warn the girl, to have a talk with her et cetera.

In the first example the subject seeks validation for their belief; in the second their behavior is attributed to a kind of unacceptable subjectivity (pedophile). In both cases there is a disconnect between being as a subject and being as a set of actions. Or, put another way, it points out the difference between the classical transcendental subject and the more Althusserian subject in process.

/3/ – Losses and Controls

While sticking our noses in the realm of pop singing sensations, it would be incredibly impossible not to discuss a certain Miss Spears. It would be interesting, albeit no doubt impossible, to pinpoint the moment where she passed from a signifier of sexed-up deceptively sweet stardom to transmogrifying into a master signifier for the traumatized citizen par excellence. If there is something more desirable to the general public then a small crystallized moment of the American dream (take any rags to riches story) it is the complete shattering of that graven image.

The most sensational reports of Spears’ recent demise, regardless of their factual content, say more about our vested interests in celebrity collapse then the suffering of a less than functional adult. The details of ‘crazed Britney’s drug cocktail’ were particularly appalling:

“TWO bottles of Nyquil
TWENTY diet pills, including her favourite brand Clenbuterol.
EIGHTEEN herbal uppers specially ordered over the internet.
EIGHTEEN Piriton antihistamine tablets
TWELVE Vicodin painkillers
TEN sleeping pills
UP TO eight antacid reflux tabs
ONE bottle of stomach upset mixture Pepto Bismol
TEN Zantac tablets, an anti-hangover and indigestion drug.
SIX Ritalin, for her attention deficit disorder issues.
TWO empty bottles of painkiller Oxycontin, known as hillbilly heroin, were also found at her home.”

In picturing bald Britney one can peer into the texts of Lauren Berlant, which I discussed here paying particular attention to her notion of fetal citizenship. Spears as the shaved headed threat to her own children, doubly invokes Berlant’s fetal citizenship as well as Lee Edelman’s heteronormative reproductive futurity. Simultaneously Spears embodies a fetal-like victim of the paparazzi-toothed pop culture machine and the threat to helpless creatures (children) as the drug abusing, irresponsible threat which puts a certain politicized reproductivity into jeopardy, it threatens the symbolic American child as such.

This knot is more than likely responsible for the kinds of questions that Jodi Dean, for example, asks at the end of her post here. Dean takes issue with ‘care’: what does it mean to care about something. More specifically this can be thought of in terms of attention – when we pay attention to Britney or Paris Hilton it doesn’t seem that attention means care. At what point is investment empathetic – can the two necessarily be divided?

/4/ – Mimetic Grief

Every few years it seems that some national event grabs the whole of the heart strings and tugs just strong enough to demand a feeling of vapid connectivity. The shootings at Virginia Tech seem to be the most recent example of this, though smaller events are happening all the time that demand a strange kind of empathy; but beyond empathy there is a kind of trauma porn. As I discussed in an earlier entry, the full kind of trauma, often in the form of a national trauma, is taken and spread as far as possible so that its boundlessness is preserved.

Much was made of the involvement of Facebook in the after math of the massacre; the involvement of students in the groups was actually a talking point during my undergraduate graduation. The strange attempt to ‘be a Hokie’ in the wake of the shooting seems to fuel the theories of Berlant, Cvetkovich and Wendy Brown. In the first case, Berlant’s theories of the fetal citizen (as discussed above in relation to Spears) fall nicely in line with experiencing the pain of disasters. Or put in another way, the concept of a privatized public, where issues such as abortion and gay marriage become significantly political, is a reversal of Ranciere’s progression of politics in his text Disagreement. In the text, Ranciere shows how common people were rejected from political discourse because they were marked as being incapable of communication beyond an animalistic way – now we have the so called personal or animalistic cries of being transformed into political impetuses.

/5/ – ‘I’m just documenting’

The feverishly angry responses to Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield are somewhat surprising and yet also somewhat expected. Several reviewers have cried that the film too heavily invokes 9/11 and that it is tasteless and exploitative. While there is one shot of smoke billowing down the street that is very reminiscent of the attack, the direct comparison stops there. The word terrorism is muttered once by a bystander and no antagonistic turns of phrase by the military or anyone else lean towards such a comparison. The reviewers who claim such comparisons seem to think that any devastation in midtown Manhattan is automatically a reference to 9/11, that any destruction in the contemporary era is instantly a reference or a slap in the face. The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis’ review is particularly weak in that she makes where the director and producer are from a stinging point – only people from Los Angles could so callously exploit our city.

Several reviewers also dub it a cross between Godzilla and The Blair Witch, though, while the Blair Witch comparison describes the look of the film, it does not quite grasp the movie’s comments on the archive, on documentation. The characters, as Lisa Schwarzbaum puts it are appropriately unmemorable; they are average 20 something New Yorkers caught in a disaster. This is done most likely to highlight the monster, as well as the very act of documenting. It cannot be a coincidence that the character who controls the camera is called by his last name Hud (which the video game players out there know as an acronym for heads up display – something that shows information without obstructing the users view).

The entire film is set up as a found document, as something that has come into possession of the Department of Defense. The fact that the movie is encapsulated as a found object, a tape buried in rubble, seems to invite comparisons as it appears as a archived object bearing trauma. At the same time the film seems to suggest the threat of documentation superseding the event itself and, furthermore, what the tape struggles to capture is affect. As Cvetkovich notes in An Archive of Feelings, affect, particularly as it relates to living individuals, tends to get lost in the discussion of national trauma. Beyond the films love story functioning to appease certain demographics (and to get the protagonists moving towards instead of away from the monster) it tries to insert some amount of smallness in the immensity of national trauma.

Here we can return to the linguistic confusions surrounding the uncanny – trauma is both an ‘unhomeness’ as well as an unknowing. The found document illustrates the literal (read spatial) divide between us and the subjects of trauma, as well as presenting itself as a document where we can safely search for the unknown known, the deeper meaning behind the event.


One Response to “Migrations of Trauma”

  1. i have not seen cloverfield, but it seemed like the shaky camera movements were well synchronized with the timing of the film, so that in deleuzian fashion the body of the film is its message – this was only a possibility in the blairwitch project.

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