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  • Trauma and the Material Signifier
  • Linda Belau

Perhaps the most mysterious and the most devastating dimension of trauma is its apparent power to confound ordinary forms of understanding. Trauma seems to belong to another world, beyond the limits of our understanding. Indeed, this is precisely the point of interest for the deconstructive school of trauma theory, led by theorists such as Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth.1 But if trauma’s seeming incomprehensibility has been the paradoxical starting point for one of the most important avenues of its study, it has also invited a dangerous elevation of traumatic experience to the level of an ideal. That is, insofar as it remains beyond our understanding and comprehension, trauma can easily be seen as a sort of exceptional experience. And victims or survivors of trauma, consequently, may be seen as ambassadors of an exceptional realm, bearers of a higher (albeit more terrible) knowledge than is available to the rest of us.

But, as we shall see, traumatic experience is not in fact inaccessible in the way or to the degree that its major theorists have asserted. Because traumatic experience—and experience in general—is tied to a system of representation, to language, it is necessary to come to an understanding of the role that the signifier plays in trauma. And this is where psychoanalysis can make its major contribution to trauma studies. In an attempt, then, to move beyond the deconstructionist claim that trauma resides “beyond the limits of representation,” this essay is specifically concerned with the significance of the signifier for an understanding of traumatic experience and the unconscious repressed. Because traumatic experience is grounded in the repetition of an impossibility, it is indelibly tied to the real beyond the signifier. In this sense, trauma opens up an ethical space beyond the symbolic which is, nevertheless, intimately tied to the materiality of the signifier and, therefore, to our social and linguistic destiny. This ethic of the impossible, however, drives the subject beyond the social to an encounter with the inadequacy of the signifier as she moves beyond the particular event of her suffering to a failed encounter with the very possibility of knowing that suffering completely. The psychoanalytic intervention assures us, then, that we are responsible in the face of something that exceeds symbolic guarantee. This is the ethical dimension of trauma that gets left behind when we attempt to place traumatic experience beyond language and representation, beyond the traumatic materiality that is the signifier.

Repetition is the Materiality of the Signifier

The signifier is nothing if not inadequate: this is the meaning of the materiality of the signifier. This is what psychoanalysis, first and foremost, teaches us. And it is precisely around the question of this inadequacy (as materiality) that psychoanalysis seems always to be misunderstood and even criticized. Much of this misunderstanding, it seems, circles around the question of where this inadequacy finds itself. Is this inadequacy characterized by a certain content that is prohibited—beyond the scope of language and discourse as a social bond—or is this inadequacy itself nothing other than the most significant dimension of the signifier? This latter suggestion, at least, would support the notion of a correlation between the inadequacy and the materiality of the signifier. This inadequacy has everything to do with the way the signifier comes into “being” as creatio ex nihilo (Lacan, Book VII 115-27). Because of this “creation out of nothing,” the inadequacy that marks the signifier—what, in a sense, is excluded in it or “beyond” the signifier—does not precede its loss. The signifier comes into being only insofar as it marks the subject with a certain lack; something of an originary or primal plenitude is lost. This, according to psychoanalysis, is always imagined as the symbiotic relationship between the child and the mother. The traumatic loss of this primal experience of satisfaction, this original homeostasis, is the price the subject must pay for entry into the symbolic and the differential relations of desire. The signifier is thus characterized by an inadequacy which is registered through the subject in two ways: First, the signifier cuts the subject, leaving a gap or lack. This lack splits the...

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