CONFERENCE 2013: Barry Watt thinks about the politics of representation and the ethics of clinical disclosure

As underscored by many at our conference, one of the characteristics of trauma is the need by the traumatised to repeat their stories, apparently endlessly. There has, over the course of the twentieth-century and now into the twenty-first century, developed a lucrative trauma industry whereby the traumatised, whose voices historically have so often been neglected when not actively relegated to silence, can find a public hearing. However for every victim, for every survivor, there are probably twice as many morbidly curious ‘trauma tourists’, hungry for their next voyeuristic fix, eager to feed a fascination for the tragic and horrific. For those of us, then, who wish to reflect openly upon what it is that we do when we work with the traumatised, there is an urgent question that needs posing: are we to collude with the symptoms of trauma and the trauma industry by repeating our clients’ stories? Or is this to subject our clients to precisely the kind of repetition and exploitation they are so desirous to escape from, to enter into the game of the trauma industry and to expose them to the potentially questionable attentions of others? We are caught in a double bind. On the one hand, if we do not share our clients’ stories we might well be complicit in social sanitising by eliding them and denying them the audience they seek; on the other hand, if we do share, we might well be indulging dubious impulses in ourselves and our audience. Barabara Cawdron has offered a set of reflections on our conference that affords the opportunity to open a debate on just this matter and I would like to offer an initial response, by trying to describe something of the traumatic social reality for many of my clients, whilst simultaneously protecting individuals from being gawped at by prospective trauma tourists.

Trauma has been my bread and butter for six years, as a housing advocate and youth worker for young people caught up in gang violence and ‘post code wars’ in south London, mainly in the Peckham, Camberwell and Walworth areas of Southwark, although my work now branches north and east into parts of Camden, Haringey, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Most of the young people I engage and develop relationships with have already been exposed to more bloodshed than most in our capital might expect to experience over the course of many lifetimes: stabbings, gang rapes, shootings, immolation, sexual abuse, abductions, torture. All of my clients have lost family or friends to some form of violence or another. Such is the way life goes, ‘on the roads’. These specific traumas, however, have also to be cast against the backdrop of the generalised trauma engendered by the ‘structural violence’ of capitalism. The young people I work with are part of what the late economist J.K. Galbraith called the ‘functional underclass’ or as we might say in the sociological jargon of today, the ‘precariat’: those members of society who have been banished by capitalism to a life on the margins, to fight over an ever shrinking pool of painfully repetitive and/or socially degrading jobs that are necessary for the economy to function in the favour of the smug and comfortable classes, but remunerate so poorly that pay-day loans and the revolving doors of the pawnbrokers become the necessary supplement to putting a bag of chips between hunger and the bitter winter nights.

Because the functional underclass is comprised largely of those families who have, at some point, sought refuge and a better life in our capital from elsewhere in the world, it exhibits glaring racial disparities: structural violence is vested disproportionately upon those of colour, especially those whose family histories speak of displacement by civil unrest, war, political despotism and destitution. Furthermore, current economic policies at home and abroad aim at the ever greater re-appropriation of the bargaining powers of the poor: a miserly minimum wage leads ineluctably to the culture of debt that the poorest are subjected to. Debt culture is a most efficient way for our modern day usurers – the financiers and bankers, the servants of the economically contented – to capture the future of the poor and secure the ongoing transfer of what little wealth they have upwards, maintaining and entrenching a status quo ever more egregiously balanced in favour of the comfortable classes. Indeed, debt functions as a powerful instrument of social control, appropriating the now in the name of the not-yet: it buys the poor’s continuing obedience, through a lifetime of interest repayments, to the very system that despises and exploits them. I have often heard my clients speak of their refusal to play this perverse game of indebtedness, to refuse to be a ‘homo debitor’, an indentured man, in favour of the game on the streets that they have control over, that profits them rather than their would-be masters in the comfortable classes. They protest to me that it is the white man (and, let us be clear: it is always nominally a man, and under current capitalism, he is almost always still white) who continues to expect a steady stream of labour to do the jobs he regards as below him. So much for post-colonialism; many of the brighter young people I work with realise that Empire continues to ignore the fact that it’s supposed to be dead.

When I was at school, we learned about the age of the Restoration. This was the restoration of the monarchy. Perhaps in our time we are living through a different restoration: the restoration of the aristocracy, of the super wealthy, following the progressive dissolution of the post-war settlement that, for a time, had some impact on levelling economic and social disparities. Gang lifestyles offer many young people growing up in inner city areas a way to bear contemporary apartheid, to even protest against apartheid, by offering some self-validation within a situation of perpetual economic hopelessness and racial exclusion. Why, so many of my clients say to me, would I choose to leave my friends on the streets who give me respect and honour and a far better income through dealing and robbery, for the pathetic pay meted out in exchange for subordination to the petty cruelties of the managers in the local pound shop?

I have been and continue to be deeply disturbed by the stories I have to absorb daily and the extreme presentations of clients I have to manage, not to mention the physical risks of reprisals I expose myself to from the enemies of those I help. I remain outraged and repulsed at the contented classes and the despicable image of the poor they cultivate and circulate through their news and media organs which – woe of woes! – my clients identify with and accept as true. All of this, I suspect, is potentially scintillating for many: righteous indignation and a glimpse into the palpable danger of an ‘underworld’ many are aware of but will never know first hand. And it is, precisely, for this reason that I demurred from speaking explicitly of this work at our conference, electing instead to present a single ‘glamour-free’ case study through which I attempted to translate my wider experiences into the calm and sober theoretical language of psychoanalysis. This translation does not, as some might seem to believe, entail that the voices of my clients were absent. Indeed, there would have been no theoretical material without their voices.

I am personally of the view that it is to fall into the trap of the traumatised, to ape the symptoms of trauma and play the trauma tourist’s game, to seek to emote on one’s personal experiences in our work by sharing our clients’ horror stories and our reactions to them. Not only does it fail to further the project of psychoanalysis, but it expropriates the plight of the suffering in the service of what, surely, runs the risk of being a narcissistic enterprise to solicit the voyeuristic attentions of others. My view is that the social place of the analyst is one of humility and self-effacement; the analyst should not seek to draw attention to the work they do through the stories of their clients. I am deeply suspicious of those strains of psychoanalytic culture that privilege accounts of the analyst’s own trials and tribulations, whether that is tacitly through recounting the terrible or difficult cases they handle, or overtly by venting on the powerful and startling emotions the work conjures up. We must continually struggle to direct attention to where the real interest should be – not with the gossipy titillation inherent in the nitty-gritty of individual cases, but with what is generative of this suffering at either a social, economic or a psychological level. This is therefore as much an ethical as it is an intellectual commitment.

‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not’, is something of a refrain in the philosopher Gillian Rose’s memoir Love’s Work, written as she is dying of cancer. It is, amongst wider significations, part of her plea for critical engagement no matter what the terrors that bedevil us, so as to better traverse those very terrors. To renounce our critical engagement when faced with the terrible is, for Rose, one of the ways we might flee into despair. What impressed me most about many of the papers at our conference was how they evidenced their authors’ long gaze into some of our terrors, without despair, in an attempt to translate the untranslatable into a clinco-theoretical language that helps us to step beyond our bedevilments. If this is not what psychoanalysis is about then surely it remains at the level of anecdote, serviceable only for the cheap thrills of a good old yarn.