Lingua Trauma

This is the post where I get nailed to a tree: if I’ve learned nothing else it’s that Lacanians will be certain to correct your reading of Lacan and they will be adamant in announcing the insufficiency of one’s poor reading. But I gotta start some where and what’s below is from the floor of the editing room of a piece I’ve recently submitted at another blog. That said, I apologize for the [egregiously] disjointed nature of what follows and also apologize for the glaring inaccuracies and superficial understandings that likely will be found below.

In his essay “Obscene Abject Traumatic.” October 78, Fall 1996, Hal Foster seeks to present an understanding of postmodernist art of the 1990s. He sees the tendency within contemporary art practices to unite both the imaginary and symbolic against reality. Foster sees this conflict as possible because of the wide-reception of Jacques Lacan’s work.

Lacan, another early psychoanalyst and perhaps the first incarnation of the philosopher-as-rockstar (he was something of a national treasure in France before 1968 where he was even on TV). In Lacanian psychoanalysis the human psyche is vulnerable to impingement from the world (as we have read in Melanie Klein elsewhere), but for Lacan reality itself is a special kinda terrifying all its own. Somewhat similar to Freud’s suggestion in his essay “The Uncanny” that which is most terrifying is what is most familiar but never quite seen.

As illustration to Freud’s point: that moment in the film The Grudge when the woman, being pursued by the angry demon, runs into her apartment, locks the door, runs to her bedroom (SAFE!) and hides under her sheets. Is there nowhere more safe than your own bed? The real horror comes when the demon slithers its way up the bed, just under the sheets making that awful croaking sound.

It is a horrifying scene because the bedroom has ceased to be that familiar place of rest and now is revealed as a place that contains more than we thought it did. The bed prior to the demon had been only so big, and now the demon has revealed to us that it is much more than just what we thought.

But for Lacan this is not impressive – literally child’s play – an attempt by children to mask the horror of the Real by covering reality with signs and symbols. The symbolic order, “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work” signs, the size of notebook paper, all that culture stuff – all of this is to mitigate the ever-present danger of the psyche being left vulnerable to the Real. If Lacan is correct, we never experience the Real because of the terror that the Real reality provokes in us.

Again, if Lacan is correct in explaining the symbolic order, then the artist is clearly implicated and perhaps has a unique responsibility to consider the question, “what is the nature of the Real and how might we come into contact with it?” This is the base assumption in Hal Foster’s essay and he finds an excellent example in the photographs of Cindy Sherman. (Untitled Film Still no. 21. 1978. above right)

Foster finds effective illustration of the terrifying gaze of the Real and the subsequent investigations into the nature of the Real through abject imagery in the work of Cindy Sherman:

[Sherman’s] subjects see, of course, but they are much more seen, captured by the gaze. Often, in the film stills and the centerfolds, this gaze seems to come from another subject, with whom the viewer may be implicated [….] Sherman shows her female subjects as self surveyed, not in phenomenological reflexivity (I see myself seeing myself) but in psychological estrangement (I am not what I imagined myself to be). (110)

As Foster points out in his exploration of themes in ’90s art practices, “Today there is a general tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma: a lingua trauma is spoken in popular culture, academic discourse, and art and literary worlds.” (123)

(Left: Untitled Film Still no. 92. 1982)
Perhaps the best representation of this lingua trauma can be found in Atom Egoyan’s 2009 film Adoration. Egoyan’s film explores this phenomenon, perhaps to point-out that trauma has become the new authenticity: one cannot be trusted without having publicly discussed and exposing one’s traumatic experiences.

This is well presented with Simon watching as the passengers of a flight that had, not unlike the “underwear bomber” incident of December 25, 2009, been the target of a potential bombing. Those, now middle aged, passengers argue over the possibility that one can be traumatized by an event that did not occur, after all, no one was even aware of the potential attack until they had landed. Can we call this a new trauma? Is trauma not an impingement in this moment that we must then learn to contain? Or is the traumatic something that happens in our minds alone and expresses itself corporally as we recall and meditate upon the event now remembered as traumatizing.

(Right: Untitled 1531. 1981.)

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