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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

an annotation on trauma: catachresis/apostrophe

This elaboration of trauma as a rhetorical configuration articulating the gestures ‘rupture/continuity’ emerged from conversations with Thomas Zummer, Scholar-in-Residence, European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, August 2009. 
Trauma, defined as a rupture, fissure, negativity or absentation may also be considered, from the point of view of a rhetorical configuration, as a form of catachresis, a trope which, in this case, means a “sealing over” or “covering” of a break, absence or aporia. However, it is also the case that catachresis is neither wholly stable nor is it pure, which is to say that it is not unaffected by other forms of figuration. In fact, a more appropriate description of trauma may be that it operates like a catachresis, which is at the same time also an apostrophe (a “turning away,” Latin: aversio, French: volte-face). The catechretic ‘scar’ or ‘cicatrice’ turns away from itself—i.e., from the wound—only to return again, as another form of address, possibly elsewhere.


Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd Ed., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Kennedy, George A. The Art of Persuasion in Greece (A History of Rhetoric, Volume 1), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kennedy, George A. The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World (A History of Rhetoric, Volume 2), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Kennedy, George A. Greek Rhetoric Under Christian Emperors (A History of Rhetoric, Volume 3) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Kennedy, George A. A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

The same schema is elucidated using Jacques Lacan's seminar on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" with further elaborations invoking key ideas from Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou:

Trauma is a letter that life sends to us (Edgar Allan Poe, Jacques Lacan). After the disaster (Maurice Blanchot). We wait for the letter to arrive. It will confirm the terrible news we dread (Soren Kierkegaard). Our anxieties are bound to that letter (Jacques Derrida). We now know that there is something to be known. 

Catachresis: A scar is formed, covering over the dreaded wound. We do not break the seal of the letter but rather seal the letter away in a drawer, in our hearts, into a pigeonhole of our souls (Fernando Pessoa). It is the Gorgon of our lives (Primo Levi).

Apostrophe: We do not face it. There is no encounter (Emmanuel Levinas). There is no opening and no event in our lives (Alain Badiou). Afraid of the scar, we do not look in the mirror (Lacan), we do not register the trauma (Freud). The letter that has been delivered remains unopened, a yawning absence in our consciousness, a lack waiting to be filled (Lacan again). It pushes through into our dreams, it impinges on our bodies and disturbs all our relations, reducing us to bare life (Giorgio Agamben). Have you read that letter yet? asks our neighbour (Simone Weil). The eternal return (Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche). The return of the repressed (again, Freud). For the story not to be incomplete, in order not to succumb to tragedy and nihilism, in order not to accrue a pile of unread letters and bills, warnings and consequences (Samuel Beckett), we open the drawer, break the seal, unfold the letter and recognize in our own immature and indeterminate handwriting (Agamben anew) the memorandum on the disaster we always knew and secretly dreaded. Trauma is the exception that becomes the norm, a form-of-life (Agamben yet again).

Potenza does not yield to event but merely to traumatic incident (Agamben/Badiou in a dialectic between Potenza/event and bare life/simulacrum—the latter Badiou’s term for a pseudo-event).

Finally, the letter is a shibboleth (Derrida) separating us from ourselves, a suicide note (Albert Camus, Claude Lanzmann).


Agamben, G. (2003/2005). State of Exception (Trans. by Kevin Attell). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Original published in Italian in 2003)

Badiou, A. (1988/2005). Being and Event (Transl. by Oliver Feltham). New York: Continuum. (Original published in French in 1988)
Blanchot, Maurice. Writing After the Disaster.

Camus, Albert. Le mythe de Sisyphe.

Derrida, Jacques.  Schibboleth: Pour Paul Celan.

Derrida, Jacques. “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan” in Attridge, D. (ed), Jacques Derrida: Acts of Literature (pp.  370-413). New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar on The Purloined Letter.

Lanzmann, Claude. Shoah.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre-Nous.

Levi, P. (1958/1959). Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (trans. by Stuart Woolf). New York: The Orion Press. (Original published in Italian in 1958)

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Purloined Letter.

Weil, Simone. Attente de Dieu.

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