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Number 9: Winter 2013

Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma

Robert Weiss

The question that remains is my very first one: what is represented when we represent trauma? And if this representation would be of an unregistered encounter between something happening and knowledge of something happening, between the trace and the thing itself, what could be said? Maurice Blanchot explores this epistemological/phenomenological space in relation to the disaster—interrogating both knowledge and the event—in his book, The Writing of the Disaster, a meditation on trauma, memory, loss, and their representations. Between knowledge and event, between trauma and dream, Blanchot’s fragments address the spaces between the registered and imagined; always alive to the notion that “the disaster always takes place after having taken place, there cannot possibly be any experience of it” (1980: 28). So there isn’t anything in this representation that we could assign to experience. For Blanchot, trauma seems to be represented by something missed, an erasure that can’t be written, something that can’t be adequately re-presented. Silence.

In her translator’s remarks in Blanchot’s book, Ann Smock alerts us to the author’s stresses on the reversibility of expressions and reminds us that this is never a random word-play. ‘The writing of the disaster’ is not only referring to the ways in which the disaster is written, in other words, communicated, expressed, etc., but also, and crucially, it means the writing done by the disaster, by the traumatic event itself, by the self-same event that destroys, incapacitates and renders silent, by the trauma that erases and destroys language. ‘The writing of the disaster’ is the writing that the disaster is—writing as disaster. The disaster, the traumatic event is spoken in a language that is a semblance of language, nothing is said. That is not to say that nothing is spoken; silence itself is spoken, “silence speaks,” Smock explains, “nothing is said.” (1986: xii). Blanchot asserts that the disaster is at the limit of writing, it “de-scribes” (1980: 7) in that it escapes the possibility of experience in its retelling. At the same time, however, Blanchot is at pains to point out that silence is impossible, that “to be silent is still to speak”. (1980: 11) The silence of the disaster, for Blanchot is not ordinary silence, it “replaces” it in the space where speech lacks, with a silence that is separate, set apart, a silence where, in a nod to Levinas, the other “announces himself”. (1980: 13).