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Saturday, September 1, 2012

TRAUMA and EVENT - Doctoral dissertation abstract

A Philosophical Archaeology

Vincenzo Di Nicola
Doctoral Dissertation  
European Graduate School
 Defended 12 August 2012 and awarded Summa cum laude

This investigation examines the notion of psychic trauma as it has worked through professional discourses in psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry and entered broader public discourses in contemporary cultures to become the emblematic condition of our age, which we may discern as the age of trauma. Badiou’s philosophy of the event provides a stark contrast and precise counterweight for trauma theory. The basic premise of the investigation is that while the event opens possibilities, trauma closes them. As therapeutic discourses and scientific research have become polarized around shifting dichotomous discourses about trauma, cutting across all theories and cultures throughout the last century, we turn to philosophy, its methods and tools to redefine the aporias of trauma and event.

Three key philosophers are tasked by this investigation into trauma and event. Michel Foucault, philosopher of discourses and systems of thought, has documented how subjectivation occurs in society. Adapting Foucault’s work on the apparatus and the paradigm to create a new method of inquiry called philosophical archaeology, Giorgio Agamben is our philosopher of the threshold, carefully documenting desubjectivation in states of exception. Alain Badiou, our contemporary Platonist, philosopher of the exception called event, elaborates a typology of bodies-of-truth and subjectizable bodies. The work of this triumviri of philosophers is knit together to forge new answers to the aporias of trauma and event: the philosophical archaeology of the disruption of the discourse of being and the traumatic closing or evental opening of possibilities in the coming community.

This investigation is divided into three parts. Part I is a prolegomena to a philosophical archaeology of trauma. The aporias of trauma studies are defined by rewriting specific histories of the philosophical, political and professional discourses that have announced the age of trauma. A reading of the Akedah, the “binding” of Isaac by his father Abraham, frames the aporias of trauma and lends it name to an apparatus that allows the sacrifice of the sons in the name of the father, one generation in the interests of another: Isaac-Machine.

Part II conducts a philosophical archaeology of trauma’s estate in three sections,  examining first the rupture that creates discontinuity leading to trauma or event. Predicament (which parallels Badiou’s evental site) and porosity (which complements Badiou’s novation, which opens the possibility of change) are notions taken from psychiatry and philosophy. The dichotomous theories of trauma, organized around two ad hoc lists—aleph: trauma as a cultural trope, and beth: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a psychiatric disorder—allow us to understand and define trauma psychiatry contrasted to trauma as distributed phenomena. Trauma is defined as the destruction of experience which is investigated through a series of annotations and excursuses on its cultural origins, from the pharmakon, the skandalon and the scapegoat to a rhetorical reformulation of trauma as catachresis/apostrophe. A new model employing the truth tables of scientific research offers a new vocabulary for trauma and event and their simulacra. Second, the ruins of trauma’s estate are explored by reading three classic novels about trauma and children in wartime—Grass’ Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum, Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Morante’s La Storia/History—showing how Isaac-Machine is deployed as an apparatus, and concludes with excursuses on the text as a form-of-life and a theory of the machine in contemporary society. Third, philosophical excavations reveal and allow us to define nested hegemonies as complex apparatuses operating in society. This is applied to Agamben’s reading of the Muselmänner of Auschwitz as a new paradigm of desubjectivation. Two contrasting readings of the child Hurbinek, witnessed in Auschwitz by Primo Levi and read by Agamben, are polemically left unsutured.

Part III responds to a challenge from Badiou to abandon subjective phenomenology as a pillar of modern phenomenological psychiatry to announce a prospectus for an evental psychiatry which will embrace a new phenomenology for psychiatry. The rationale for an evental psychiatry is elaborated by identifying the orphan cases of trauma psychiatry: the threshold people whose suffering is silent and invisible, Badiou’s “uncounted” in Agamben’s “state of exception.” Badiou’s contribution to thought is enshrined in the announcement of Badiou’s Sickle as an instrument of discernment to separate philosophy or psychiatry from its conditions. A detailed case review of “Ellen West,” Binswanger’s foundational case of Daseinanalyse demonstrates the failures of subjective phenomenology in psychiatry. The wagers of phenomenological psychiatry and evental psychiatry are made clear along with an outline for a theory and practice of an evental psychiatry of the threshold. This investigation closes on a new definition of the subject and of the subject of psychiatry. Rejecting the descent into the spiral staircase of the self of classical psychoanalysis and of trauma psychiatry, an evental psychiatry allows subjects to come into view through others, where we are subject to truth. Where trauma psychiatry essentializes the atomized individual, a psychiatry of the event offers an opening outward, to bloom towards worlds and nature, towards community and others, where one becomes two, and more …


  1. This is an important contribution to the trauma literature, which is so often literal and one-dimensional. We need to have it available for wider distribution - when will it appear in book form?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Steve!

      Atropos Press has offered to publish it and Alain Badiou has promised to write a Foreword along with Slavoj Zizek who were on my defense committee. I need to think about it. I've already been offered to have it translated into Portuguese in Brazil and have it published by an academic publishing house that works with university theses. These are good signs.

      I will be applying for a fellowship at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Research Center and if accepted would like to use the time there to continue my investigations and prepare what I have done so far for publication. There are several parts I would like to develop a littel more and spin them off into articles or chapters separately, notably my work on apparatuses and paradigms following Foucault and Agamben (I am proposing a complex apparatus called "nested hegemonies," which Zizek liked in particular and already made jokes about) and my coining of the philosophical tool, "Badiou's Sickle," which Zizek immediately took up, offering himself as the hammer to complete the metaphor. Badiou's Sickle and Zizek's Hammer - not a bad introduction to "Trauma and Event." Martin Hielscher recommended that I do a compact distillation of my dissertation in a 30-40 page article for easier access and broader dissemination.



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  3. Thank you for sharing your abstract. It looks amazing!

    Broadly I feel; Husserl's entry points into the modern philosophical mission seems to have been by-passed in contemporary discourse. He strove to issue a phenomenological science that had not made the hard right turn "leaving" humanities to pseudo-science, sentimentality and culture war politics.

    I intuit re-reading and revivifying Husserl's turn, holds within it, the core solutions to the atomized and sentimental, hence violent, condition of the discourse.

    I am grateful to hear about Alain Badiou through your abstract. He seems very cool and heaven-sent even!

    Zizek seems a provocateur - applying Dialectical materialism to psychoanalytics which just amplify the symptomatology of the illness of the age than leads to the hard philosophical circumspectness needed for healing and remedy.

    Also the West does not recieve full treatment of its Isaac Machines - if the Hellenic perspectives and mythos of the complex is overlooked. (perhaps Medea and Electra(?) In my reading of the West - the archetypal mythos of the West is, in fact, Hellenic/Egyptian - and it is in the telling well of those myths a salvatoric "Tikkun" is effected.

    I only mention these merely other "approach-points" of variance as they may be of some minor amusement or interest, because of the main I am in utter agreement with the spirit and thrust of the thesis - and am happy to have found such good work being done.

  4. The thesis abstract really have the complete thought of the subject, Vincenzo. You really did a remarkable job with it, and it really deserved the Summa cum laude award even though I just read the abstract. Well, I bet the whole thesis paper is worth reading, especially for who study trauma literature, like you.

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