Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

10 June 2012

Reading in Trauma Studies

I've been reading Dominick LaCapra's book Writing History, Writing Trauma for the last couple of days and I am really loving it. It is a simple text that reminds me of something of a mix between Raymond Williams' Marxism and Literature in its obsession with definition and distinction and Jacques Rancière's The Names of History with its vision for how we might best approach historiographic projects.

LaCapra spends a lot of time carefully differentiating between loss and absence and also arguing why such a distinction is important both materially and politically. One of the interesting gestures that the book makes is to equate Freud's notion of melancholia with absence and his idea of mourning with loss. In this way, he notes that when something is absent we cannot properly mourn for it: the thing for which we might mourn – if we could mourn – was never present, and therefore practices of mourning for the absent are doomed to cause repetitive behaviors that never actually deal with absence as such. These repetitive, anomic behaviors Freud has termed melancholia. Mourning, on the other hand, is about dealing with loss and coping (slowly, perhaps, but coping nonetheless) with that loss, and possibly recognizing the lost object as irrecoverable.

So, LaCapra says:

One might further suggest that mourning be seen not simply as individual or quasi-transcendental grieving but as a homeopathic socialization or ritualization of the repetition compulsion that attempts to turn it against the death drive and to counteract compulsiveness – especially the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes of violence – by re-petitioning in ways that allow for a measure of critical distance, change, resumption of social life, ethical responsibility, and renewal.


Historical losses [LaCapra always means the word loss as historical loss] call for mourning – and possibly for critique and transformative sociopolitical practice. When absence, approximated to loss, becomes the object of mourning, the mourning may (perhaps must) become impossible and turn continually back into endless melancholy.

Let me depart for a moment from the notion of trauma that is LaCapra's true subject. I have been in Virginia for a month now and I have become reacquainted with a man here who pursued me romantically last year. I have been having no small amount of difficulty dealing with this – thinking about having been loved and then thinking about having lost that affection has been sad for me.

I have realized a couple of things, though (I will come back to LaCapra in a moment). First, the man that loved me or at any rate pursued me is not the same man who I see here. On the contrary, what I miss is a phantasy of a man who pursued me: I miss the feelings that he had for me. Those feelings are no longer present and so the man himself is only an approximation. He will always fail at being what I am/was wanting him to be.

The second thing is that I become sad about the idea of being single, and I find myself afraid of always being alone, of never having someone with whom I can share a life. Neither of these fears is related to trauma, to be sure, but what I am doing in my sadness about being single is confusing absence with loss. Experiencing the loss of this man is not the same thing as – and I ought not to take it as either representative or derivative of – the absence I feel at not having someone permanent in my life as a partner.

As LaCapra says – I will paraphrase – when we misrecognize absence for loss, we confound the processes for coping with the experience of absence. We assume that we can deal with what is in fact an existential or transcendental issue with tools more suited to lack or an experience of loss.

Instead, it is important to be clear that what we lose in life is tangentially but not essentially related to our experience of absence or feelings of loneliness. This means that I want to deal with the grief I feel over losing the men I lose in my life in a different way than the way I deal with my real – but impossible to pinpoint because they are originary or linked to subjectivity itself – fears about being truly alone.

As I say, this is not about trauma, and LaCapra's book is manifestly about trauma, but my experiences this summer and my reading of this book have collided in an interesting and, for me, productive way.