Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma
An initial question: What is represented when we represent trauma?
To think about this would be to think about some of the intricacies of the relations between representations and the event itself. How, in other words, is trauma given meaning? Might meaning, in fact, be essentially empty: empty of the thing itself—becoming unspeakable? Today we are asking why we need to talk about trauma and what might happen if we don’t. I want to ask, a second, alternative question: How is trauma represented? And what if trauma was, in many ways, unrepresentable? What can be said when the event, or experience is liable to “escape”, in Maurice Blanchot’s words, “the very possibility of experience” (1980: 7)? What might be said about trauma if nothing can be said about trauma?
In chapter seven of his paper, ‘The Unconscious’, published in 1915 at a key period in the development of his metapsychology, Freud suggests that the presentation of memory-traces—the way memories are processed and represented consciously—occurs as a result of two elements coming together. This is a confluence between the presentation of “the thing”—which is always inaccessible and remote from the direct memory image—“plus a presentation of the word belonging to it” (see Freud, 1915: 201). Freud maintains that in consciousness memory traces cannot be processed directly, they can only be re-presented, can only be a derivation of this source memory. Memory traces are made manifest through language, but words only represent something that is always already a representation, always at a distance from its origin. In the unconscious, perhaps in a dream, or in some psychotic states, the abstract might take the place of the concrete, Freud implies, but at the level of representation, memory traces are inadequately rendered through a language that can only make a stab at its referents. It is this gap—between representation and the thing itself—that I want to think about in relation to the traumatic event.
If, as analysts, we’re entrusted in our work to be alive to the most opaque of traces, we do so because they are always a derivation of something else, of somewhere else, of another time. Something is pointed to, or approached, but remains unreachable. But traces that point to nothing, might still say something about that absence. The trace, then, might be thought of in terms of a kind of evidence; evidence of something absent, in that which was left behind. A representation that has a form, but whose content is always elsewhere.