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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Letter to a Young American Friend in the Occupy Movement

The Traumatic Remainder—Trauma as an Impediment to the Political Event

Date: Fri, 13 Jan 2012 17:31:31 -0500
Subject: Advice!
From: Christopher C___@___
To: Vincenzo Di Nicola@___

Hi Vincenzo,

How are you? It’s been a little while, eh? What have you been up to?

I write to you with a request for advice, but also from intellectual curiosity. I’ll cut to the chase: I have gotten fairly involved with Occupy Wall Street, which has been a fascinating and transformative experience. It has given me incredible food for thought, as they say. One of the most interesting aspects of the movement has been its insistence on working groups for carrying out projects. Needless to say, gathering so many passionate people into small groups (and sometimes large groups) has led to much conflict and interpersonal frustration. To be fair, it has also led to incredibly productive and reflective conversations, initiatives, dynamics, etc.

The question of group dynamics has come into center stage in the movement, in many ways. While managing a crisis situation within one of my groups, I thought of you. I suppose I actually have two requests related to all of this:

1) Would you be able to recommend a reading list for getting familiar with the field of group dynamics? So far I have read Freud’s Group Analysis and Bion’s Experience in Groups. Any and all suggestions are most welcome, from the most clinical to the most theoretical or philosophical.

2) Would you be able to recommend someone in New York who is in the field of group therapy, family therapy or in other ways working with groups or studying group dynamics? Ideally, they would be left/progressive and sympathetic to the movement. And, further ideally, they would be willing to “donate” their time to the movement   :)

Thanks for taking the time. I send you kind and warm wishes, remembering my EGS days fondly!



From: Vincenzo Di Nicola@___
To: Christopher C___@___
Matthew Giobbi@___
Subject: RE: Advice!
Date: Fri, 13 Jan 2012 22:04:33 -0500

Dear Chris,
I am delighted to receive your message.

You are obviously well, as the old joke goes about two behaviourists meeting on the street. After reading my letter, please let me know how I’m doing.

Anything I can do to support and vicariously participate in the movement is very welcome. I visited our local movement while they occupied a small park in downtown Montreal. To the best of my knowledge, only one Canadian city still has an active movement occupying a city park – St. John’s, Newfoundland. After many promises from the Mayor of Montreal not to interfere with the movement here, Tremblay did a volte-face, an “about face” (aversio in Latin) in late fall and suddenly by-laws about safety and concerns for health led to the eviction of the movement from Victoria Square in the heart of the financial district of Montreal. Exploring the roots of these words in different languages, we perceive that his “turn” certainly led to adversity for the movement here. While it is true that we have harsh winters here (today, it’s almost thirty degrees below zero, centigrade), we are a hardy people. My conversations with movement members in the park revealed that they knew what they needed to withstand the cold and snow and were well prepared. In any case, there are countless homeless people in Montreal (the French terms are instructive—either itinérants, suggesting “wanderers,” or sans abris, “without shelter”) who do not receive so much official attention.

I am spending the next six months writing my doctoral dissertation, “Trauma and Event,” which knits together three key thinkers – Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault. Both Agamben and Badiou have been very generous with their time and I am fortunate to have Thomas Zummer, our mutual friend and professor at EGS on Foucault, as an interlocutor. In an early e-mail to him, I unwittingly rechristened him, Michael Zummer, which he took with his usual good humour; we agreed that I had a telling lapsus in fusing Michel (Foucault/Thomas) Zummer. In any case, Thomas would undoubtedly be a great source of support and understanding if you contact him and has the advantage of being based in Brooklyn, despite his teaching commitments abroad.
Your question intrigues me enormously and is at the heart of my concerns about revolutionary change. I had a lively exchange with Drucilla Cornell in London at the Birkbeck College Critical Theory School last year. It comes down to this: even after all the conditions for revolutionary change are met (Cornell was referring to Étienne Balibar’s three conditions in her seminar on constituting a revolutionary government), I argued there would still be impediments to the Event (in Badiou’s terms, meaning new possibilities) because of the interpersonal and intergenerational transmission of trauma. My doctoral dissertation, “Trauma and Event,” examines how rupture, a precondition for any kind of change, may lead either to trauma (the foreclosing of possibilities) or to the Event (the opening of them). Rupture, which occurs in an evental site in Badiou’s terms—although this doesn’t cover the situations where rupture gives rise to pseudo-events (which he calls simulacra)may also lead to trauma. That is why in my work, I have called the evental site a “predicament” which has roots in Aristotle’s work on categories.

In your context, this means that the remainder of the traumatic past (the ongoing cultural hegemony of capitalism, in Gramsci’s terms) may cast a shadow on the movement’s activities, foreclosing the event (which is both in principle and practice impossible to predict). This thesis also predicts that these impediments include rivalries and struggles for control arising out of a passion to guide the movement. Badiou says that naming the Event and fidelity to it are what maintains the truth of the Event and creates the subject in a way that is reciprocally constitutive. Your transformative experience with the Occupy movement seems to corroborate his notion that fidelity maintains the Event and creates its subjects. Nonetheless, the traumatic remainder sneaks through in the form of group conflicts. Speaking only for my worries (and not my hopes), this is what concerns me—trauma as an impediment to the political Event.
For my doctoral research, I have been revisiting Sartre’s thoughts on violence and came across this quote from the French revue, Le Magazine Littéraire: 1
On se revolte par haine, on devient révolutionnaire par raison. Les deux en même temps. 
—Jean-Paul Sartre

We rebel out of hate, we become revolutionary through reason. Both at once.                          
—Jean-Paul Sartre (my translation)


Chris, tell me more about how the frustrations and conflicts arose.
I hesitate over the last sentence. Are these the best words? Sartre suggests that we rebel out of hate and militate for rational change simultaneously (which is close to Freud’s thinking, by the way). As Sartre would argue, isn’t conflict inevitable, even necessary for a dialectical exchange? In this take, yes, and it is a question of understanding the critical terms and the rules of contradiction. I agree with Badiou on Mao to this extent: Badiou clarified that Mao understood that all sides of a debate are ideological, it is inherent in the nature of politics and the nature of contradiction. This is against the notion of a scientific Marxism, which asserts its historical truths.
Another take on this is from Richard Rorty, the anti-foundational American philosopher who outlined an edifying philosophy based not on “final vocubalaries” beyond which we cannot negotiate and which oblige us to take a stand but on the notion of a conversation.  To enter a conversation, according to Rorty, is not to assert, affirm or establish a vocabulary but to offer fresh descriptions of our experiences as a way to refresh and re-invigorate our commitment to what we hold dear, as a choice and not as an evident truth. This started with his major work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and was expressed with greater clarity in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. I was moved by a statement Rorty made in that work, which I quote from memory:
Solidarity has to be constructed, not found already waiting

For now, I would suggest a close reading of Badiou’s Second Manifesto for Philosophy which is for me a manual for real and ongoing change. What it may lack for you in terms of specific proposals is more than compensated by the startling clarity and coherence of his program. Again, this from memory:
Philosophy is either reckless or it is nothing (Badiou’s emphasis)
and more to the point:
An event is a perturbation of the world’s order

The work of René Girard on mimetic desire—the scapegoat theory and the origins of violence—is also extremely relevant and useful. You don’t have to accept his Christian orientation to see the importance of imitation (of an originary trauma, in my reading) for group behaviour and how trauma can distort even the best intentions into violent eruptions. I am tracing two ideas that I see as important in understanding this: pharmakon (a bivalent term referring to the philter as both a poison and a remedy) and skandalon (another bivalent term meaning both stumbling block and foundation stone). Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus in “Plato’s Pharmacy” inspired René Girard to investigate the pharmakon and led to his penetrating analysis of the skandalon leading to his elaboration of the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational mechanism in human cultures.
Let us not forget the bitter irony of Socrates’ use of the word pharmakos—when public opinion turned against him and he was put on trial, he chose the hemlock over exile. This is what I call coherence (from a systems theory perspective), this is what Badiou means by fidelity, and this is the price of what Wolfgang Schirmacher calls bold thought. We are faced in the stories of our Italian forefathers with Giordano Bruno versus Galileo. One was faithful and was burnt; the other recanted and was saved. Yet we hear Galileo’s regretful sotto voce murmur still—Eppur si muove. And yet, it moves. And yet, and yet …
I will put out the call for a progressive person who is experienced with groups to assist in your movement in New York. Do you know Matthew Giobbi who did his doctorate at EGS? He is closer to you and is exceptionally well informed about psychology, committed to change and a trustworthy leader. He is writing his book on Erich Fromm who tried—as you are trying to do—to make a synthesis of psychology and politics, so I know he is thinking about these issues very attentively. I am taking the liberty of copying our exchange to him.
I cannot imagine two more sincere and knowledgeable scholars than Thomas and Matthew to join you in building the solidarity your movement needs within in order to reach out to the rest of us. Through my deep knowledge of both of them, I can attest to the fact that they are among the least likely to transmit trauma or be a scandal for your movement.

A final thought. The slogan of your movement is an inspired one:
The one percent and the rest of us, the ninety-nine percent.
And what about the role of the intellectuals, critical thinkers and those faithful subjects, as Badiou calls you, who are open to all that is new with enthusiasm, willing to wager everything on transformative change and to be faithful to it? Are you the positive mirror image of the one percent? The faithful vanguard leading the others looking for change?

With warmest best wishes,


PS Footnote:

1 Le Magazine Littéraire, avril 2011, no. 507, p. 44. The book reviewed is the French version of John Gerussi’s conversations with Sartre: Entretiens avec Sartre, John Gerassi trad. de l’anglais par Adrienne Boutang et Baptiste Touveray. Éd. Grasset. 2011. English original: Gerassi, John, ed. Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates. Ed and trans by John Gerassi. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2009.

Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 01:34:56 -0500
Subject: Advice!
From: Christopher C___@___
To: Vincenzo Di Nicola@___


Of course not! Go ahead and post my letter!

I would write more but I'm frickin’ exhausted from two days of non-stop meetings. Will write soon.

Be well, or you know, just ... be,



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