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Number 9: Winter 2013

Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma

Robert Weiss

Here then, we have a spatial model of the representation of trauma as operating in a dialectic between presence and absence, emptiness and fullness, or interiority and exteriority. Breuer and Freud, attempting to conceptualise hysterical symptomology, understood trauma as a foreign body that is internalised, before reappearing as symptom (see Breuer & Freud, 1893–5:6). The traumatic comes from the other and becomes part of the self; what Laplanche and Pontalis in their well-known paper, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’ think of as an “internalised exteriority”. This uncanny amalgam of exterior and interior breaks out from within, before reappearing again  as representation, as memory: as symptom. But we note here that what is encysted, to use Laplanche and Pontalis’ term, is not in itself traumatic, but becomes so after a second event, when a glimpse of the first event, the inner foreign body, as they say, reveals itself (see Laplanche & Pontalis, 1964: 4). So the index of trauma is to be understood in a temporal as well as a spatial way, through the actions of Nachträglichkeit—afterwardsness and deferral. Peirce, too, is aware in his semiotic investigations that the index is that which startles us, marking the “junction of two portions of experience” (1955 [1893–1910]: 109): a knock on the door, a peal of thunder—a secondary, deferred event is always pointed to.  Peirce’s own nachträglich moment is, like Freud’s, intimately concerned with an unrepresented traumatic absence.