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Number 9: Winter 2013

Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma

Robert Weiss

This lacuna between experience and representation, particularly in relation to infantile trauma was something that Freud, in an 1896 letter to Fleiss, might have thought of in terms of those untranslated infantile memory traces, which, rather than marking a failure of translation, as had been observed in repression, point to a translation that’s yet to be made, yet to be elaborated (see Freud, 1950 [1896]: 235). To attempt a translation (more accurately a re-translation, as Laplanche would say) of these traces, involves a representation that has always been subject to a deferral: from the untranslatable to an event, a representation, a symptom. This is an encounter with Freud’s Nachträglichkeit, to which I might want to add Derrida’s ideas on deferral and the supplement, and Laplanche’s understanding of Freud’s term as après-coup, afterwardsness. The encounter shows itself in traces of what Derrida thinks of as a ‘non-origin which is originary’, that is in an earlier trace—for Derrida, the “laborious trace”—itself never perceived, always missing the originary encounter (see Derrida, 1978: 203, 214). For Laplanche, too, the leaving of traces is an initial moment in childhood, and corresponds to a “two-phase trauma”, the actions of après coup (Laplanche, 1993: 96), that supplement, distort and rearrange memory. Language struggles to adequately describe these traces, there is no intrinsic connection between word and thing. This is something that Freud pointed to in his 1915 paper, and something Lacan notably elaborated on by connecting Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the sign with Freudian metapsychology. But rather than a Saussurian/Lacanian notion of the flow of signifiers, I want to think of a semiotics of trauma that engages with the idea of the indexical sign, as formulated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, which,  unlike speech, always carries with it an affective trace of that which was once inscribed, which always carries with it the mark of trauma.

It is striking to observe how many of Peirce’s observations about the indexical sign chime with some of  Freud’s ideas about the representation of memory traces. Peirce formulates his thoughts on semiotics between 1893 and 1910, publishing in fragments, a few years before Freud published his Papers on Metapsychology. For Peirce, the index is a type of sign that has a quality in common with the object, a quality which is also always the modification of it by the object (see Peirce, 1955 [1893–1910]: 102). A direct link to the object—which, of course, is never present—in the trace that describes it: a footprint is the index of a foot. Peirce understands that the qualities of the indexical sign work in a relationship between this dynamic relation to the object itself and the “senses” and memories for the person for whom it appears as a sign (1955 [1893–1910]: 107). The paradigm of the index, for Peirce, a bullet-hole in a piece of mould, refers to this relation. It is a sign of a shot: “without the shot”, he says, “there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anyone has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not” (1955 [1893–1910]: 104). The index brings absence to the fore as wound, as rupture, and as trauma. To describe the index is to define the wound of trauma.