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Number 9: Winter 2013

Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma

Robert Weiss

And to speak of trauma? To approach something of what the traumatic text might provoke? Well, this would be to pronounce the unpronounceable in a language without referent, or rather in a language where the referent cannot be represented (see Blanchot, 1980: 72). The unrepresentable, however, for Blanchot, is present in the representation which it exceeds (1980, 111) and this, to return to the index, can be understood in Peirce’s paradigm of the bullet-hole. The unrepresented shot’s presence is beyond the indexical sign of the bullet-hole, beyond representation—but it’s a presence nevertheless. Narcissus, according to Blanchot’s re-imagining of Ovid’s tale, when encountering an image in the water fails to recognise himself, but sees, rather, an image that resembles nothing (see Blanchot, 1980: 125). Rather than a seductive mirroring, Narcissus encounters the traumatic “unknown of a representation without presence” (1980: 134), which can be thought of in relation to Derrida’s unerasable trace; the traumatic “full presence” of death. It is this that can’t be encountered in an unmediated way, can’t be spoken, or written—or heard in our consulting rooms.

The knowledge of trauma must remain as an “un-knowledge”, to be the “un-manifest”, to be uneventful. This is not, according to Blanchot: “a lack of knowledge; it is not even knowledge of the lack but that which is hidden by knowledge and ignorance alike: the neutral” (1980: 63). It is beyond the remit of this paper to trace the intricacies of Blanchot’s use of this term, but possible, for our purposes, to think of the neutral in relation to knowledge and experience. The neutral is what happens between the epistemological and the phenomenological, the representation and the event, and the neutral dictates how trauma is spoken about.  This is not to imply that the neutral defines language, it will forever remain, for Blanchot, as the ungraspable “trace of what has not occurred” (1980: 135). Uneventfullness is one of the translations of Blanchot’s expression, Le désoeuvrement and means the oeuvre, the work, as being defined via its own lack; not present or absent. The unevenfulness of the neutral refers to what’s between: the neutral space between activity and passivity; between speech and silence; between being and not being (see Blanchot, 1980: 14, n.4).