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  • Trauma, Gender Identity and Sexuality: Discourses of Fragmentation*
  • Lynne Layton

In the past several years, a number of discourses—among them cultural criticism, psychoanalytic theories of the self, trauma research, and avant garde art—have arisen to discuss the fragmentation of the self, and these discourses can be quite contradictory. In literature departments, Lacan’s critique of the ego and his dictum that the self is essentially fragmented were taken over into culture criticism in the seventies. Early on, in work such as that of Screen theorists, this criticism focused primarily on the pain of fragmentation. A core assertion of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking Lacanian film criticism was that film and other apparatuses of culture conspire to allow a male subject to fantasize that he is not essentially fragmented, allow him to take an imaginary unified ego for the whole of his being. While maintaining this fantasy guarantees that he not have to face his pain, the price of his unity and sovereignty is paid by women and other Others, whose subjectivity goes unrecognized. The theory, which posits male narcissism as a societal norm, suggests that the only way to assure respect for difference and diversity is to acknowledge that we are fragmented beings, that no one has the Phallus (Rose 1985; Silverman 1992).

More recently, other strains of poststructuralist thought (such as Derrida’s and Barthes’ notions of the free play of signifiers) have crossed with Lacanian theory or with British Cultural Studies to produce cultural criticism that celebrates diversity, ambiguity, and fragmentation. Theorists as different as Judith Butler, Constance Penley, E. Ann Kaplan, and Ellen G. Friedman posit the fragmentation of the subject as a strategy of resistance and/or a guarantee of indeterminacy, [End Page 107] especially gender indeterminacy. Whereas Mulvey and Rose argue that the symbolic system violently fragments the female subject, in much recent cultural criticism the pain of this fragmented subject is forgotten or bracketed and she is rather figured as able to subvert the system by enjoying, rearranging, and playing with her fragments. 1

Much of contemporary Anglo-American psychoanalytic theory focuses on self disorders (see, for example, Kohut and Kernberg). So, in psychology departments, too, people are discussing fragmentation (although, to my knowledge, they are not discussing Lacan). Here, fragmentation is not posited as a feature of normal development. And the agent of fragmentation is neither metaphysical nor linguistic systems, but rather specific interactions with other people, primarily early caretakers.

In Kohut’s work, the self fragments when not properly mirrored or when traumatically disappointed by an idealized other. In Kernberg’s work, the self fragments when frustrated in its attempts to negotiate needs for independence and dependence, separateness and attachment. The mechanism central to fragmentation is splitting, an early defense that operates to keep separate good and bad affects, good and bad self-representations, and good and bad object representations. In an environment that is not too unpredictable or harsh, a child comes to integrate good and bad experiences, can tolerate ambivalent feelings, ambivalent cognitions, can experience the self and other as primarily good though at times disappointing. If the environment is harsh, particularly with regard to interactions around dependence and independence, the child continues splitting in order to preserve enough of a sense of a good object to keep developing. In this situation, the child’s inner and outer world fragment, become black and white in all arenas. There are rigidly good and rigidly bad self representations: the person oscillates between self-depreciation and grandiosity. There are rigidly good and rigidly bad object representations: the person alternately idealizes and devalues the other. Cognitions tend to be black and white. Good moods alternate with very dark bad moods, and each seems to come out of the blue. When in one state about the [End Page 108] self or other, the person can barely remember having ever felt differently.

High correlations have been found between diagnoses of self disorder and histories of abuse (Herman, Perry, and van der Kolk). The literature on those who have been repeatedly traumatized describes an internal world peopled by victims, abusers, and saviors, of expectations of the world that can only echo what exists in the internal...

Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 107-125
Launched on MUSE
1995-03-01
Open Access
No
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