Trauma and the Real

In my post on Lacan’s concept of the Real I highlighted the fact that the Real can be seen as an effect of the Symbolic order as opposed to being ‘outside’ of it, which still seems to be a commonly held notion amongst many Lacanians.1 But how does this relate to trauma, which would appear to be the manifestation of the Real par excellence?  Indeed, in Seminar XI Lacan makes precisely this point: that the Real presents itself in the form of trauma:

Is it not remarkable that, at the origin of the analytic experience, the real should have presented itself in the form of that which is unassimilable in it-in the form of the trauma, determining all that follows, and imposing on it an apparently accidental origin?2

I would argue that there are (at least) two different ways to think about trauma in relation to the Real.  The first is to essentially equate one with other; in other words, trauma is the Real.   Now, although Lacan appears to be arguing for this position in the above quotation, this is not necessarily the case.  He does not say that the Real is trauma (or vice versa); rather, he argues that the Real presents itself in the form of trauma, which is something quite different.

At the same time, of course, Lacan appears to be suggesting that the Real in the form of trauma cannot be assimilated into psychoanalysis, which seems at first sight a rather peculiar thing to say; after all, isn’t trauma, and especially childhood trauma, the raison d’etre for psychoanalysis in the first place?   On the other hand, perhaps Lacan is onto something here in the sense that there is something peculiar about trauma that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about in analysis.  However, this is not to say that trauma is therefore senseless, which is another commonly held view amongst many practitioners.  Rather, it is to say that we have yet to find the words, a language, through which to express trauma.

This brings me to the second way to think about trauma, which is that, in fact, it does have a ‘voice’, if only we could hear it.  But going even further, I would argue that this ‘voice’, this ‘language’, if you like, is the voice of the Real itself.   And this takes me back to the first point regarding the Real and trauma: trauma is not simply another word for the Real; rather, it is how the Real manifests itself, how it expresses itself.  In this sense the Real is an abstract concept that has (pardon the pun) real effects.   Or, to put it another way, the Real is a necessary concept in order to explain some rather peculiar characteristics of the Symbolic order, and in particular its inherent instability.

But what kind of ‘voice’ are we talking about here?  And is it possible to ‘listen’ to it directly, or do we need some form of interpretation in order to hear what trauma is telling us?  In other words, are we in fact looking at two different ‘layers’ of trauma language?  With regards to the first question, I would contend that the Real ‘speaks’ to us in the form of isolated signifiers, or what Tom Eyers (whose work I referred to in my previous post) calls signifiers-in-isolation.   This is the signifier-as-thing, and its ‘raw form’ is more akin to radioactive fallout than the ‘residual’ or ‘background radiation’ that always envelopes the symbolic order.  I introduce this metaphor because I think it’s a helpful way to think about trauma in relation to the Real, and how , in turn, the Real relates to the Symbolic.

If we think of trauma as a rupturing of the Symbolic order (quite a commonly used metaphor), then there are several ways to look at this.  The first is to think of the Symbolic as a ‘fabric’ or ‘matrix’ which, in traumatic situations,  becomes torn or ripped, and through this tear the Real emerges.  Essentially this is the idea of the Symbolic as a protective skin, and when this is ruptured all manner of toxic and noxious substances seep through.  The problem with this metaphor is that it falls back into the idea of the Real as an (imaginary) ‘outside’ of language, and also the idea of language as some form of ‘protective layer’.  Protection against what, though?

Rather than using the metaphor of the Real as ‘outside’ of the Symbolic, it might be more helpful to think in terms of what happens to all those signifiers-in-relation (to use Eyers’ terminology) when the Symbolic is ‘ruptured’.  Essentially they are set adrift, detached from the signifying chain,  often in the form of an ‘explosion’  (hence the ‘fallout’ metaphor).  It is not a case of the Real ‘emerging’ or ‘seeping’ through a hole in the Symbolic order; rather, the Real is a fragmentation of the Symbolic order itself.  This manifests itself in spectacular fashion in traumatic situations, i.e. when the Symbolic is ruptured; but even in ‘normal’ circumstances, when the Symbolic is relatively stable, there is always a residual ‘decay’ of signifiers.

But what exactly do these signifiers-in-isolation have to say for themselves?  From our point of view, very little, because we have no idea of their language.  Hence the need for an interpreter (as in the field of computing where an interpreter ‘translates’ machine code into a higher level language).  And what is this ‘higher level’ language?  It is what I call the trauma narrative.

The trauma narrative is simply an extension of the idea that trauma is a language (albeit a rather peculiar one), which tells its own story.  The narrative reworks this ‘primary language’ into something more comprehensible, akin the Freud’s dream work.  Furthermore, such a narrative gives the traumatised subject a place in the world, an identity, and above all, a history.    This notion of a trauma narrative which essentially historicises the Real, puts it (back) into a symbolic framework, links very closely to the concept of trauma as retroactive, which in turn is the basis of Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, which I have discussed at length elsewhere. 3 The key point I’m making here, however, is that it is possible for us to ‘hear’ the voice of the Real, to ‘hear’ trauma – but only when it has been subjected to revision.

This is not to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to the ‘unrevised’ version of trauma language, not to be able to ‘decipher’ (to return to the computer analogy) the ‘machine level code’ of trauma.  In fact there are a group of people who are very adept at listening to such a language, mainly because they have no choice.  I’m thinking here of people with a psychotic structure, who have a far more intensive relationship with the Real than neurotic individuals.   I’m not necessarily arguing that psychotic subjects are being perpetually traumatised, but I think there is a good argument to be made for this.

However, going back to the idea of a trauma narrative, a ‘secondary revision’ of the trauma, perhaps the best (and most controversial) example is that of the abuse narrative.  And to make it perfectly clear from the outset, I am not suggesting for one minute that abused individuals have not been subjected to horrific experiences at some point in their lives.  Rather, what I am arguing is that in order to make sense of such experiences they need to construct a narrative which places these events in a historical, i.e. symbolic, framework.  And at the same time, of course, it constructs the narrative of the abuser, the perpetrator.

This raises another difficulty issue, however.  One of the biggest problems facing survivors of abuse is that no-one will believe their story.   And even if they can find someone who will listen, who will believe them, for example a therapist, the process of telling their story can be so painful that they prefer to revert to silence.   But even if they are able to stick with it and tell their story there is still another difficulty, which is precisely that it is a story, a narrative.  By their very nature, such stories can never equate with the actual event(s); rather they are always subject to revision, distortion, contradiction, and other vicissitudes of memory and language.

Ironically, perhaps, it’s precisely the unrevised, unprocessed ‘version’ of the trauma that is closest to the truth – the one that no-one can understand.  Take, for example, people who have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), itself a product of trauma (meta)narrative.  The flashbacks, the recurring nightmares, the anxiety attacks, the somatic symptoms, are all telling the truth of the event.   The problem, of course, is that this ‘version’ of the story makes no sense to many people (including many therapists), so it has to be reworked into a narrative that does make sense – and that can be pulled apart.

This is not to say, of course, that such narratives have no value; this is patently untrue, and in fact the very process of telling one’s story and being listened to can have very powerful and therapeutic effects.   The problem, however, is that such narratives always somehow miss the mark, can never quite tell the truth of the subject.  This goes back to Lacan’s quote at the beginning of this article: the idea that trauma is unassimilable – at least in it’s ‘raw’, ‘original’ state.  The challenge for psychoanalysis is to be able to assimilate trauma, but without losing it’s truth.

As I have tried to show in many of my writings on this site the Real as trauma manifests itself in many different forms and in many different contexts.  One of these which is perhaps especially poignant in this centenary year of the end of the Great War is what might best be described as war trauma.  And by this I am not only referring to the traumas experienced by those directly involved in the fighting, but perhaps even more significantly, to the traumatic legacy of that conflict, which remains with us to this day.

I thought it might be of interest to readers of this site if I pulled together some of these ideas regarding war trauma into a short e-book which I have entitled Trauma Without End: The Great War and its Aftermath.  The title encapsulates the notion that in many ways the War never ended, but simply mutated into various other forms of horror and trauma, of which the Holocaust was perhaps the most horrific and most incomprehensible of all.  I have also written a short piece to introduce the book and its key concepts.




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  2. Lacan, J. (1979) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin, p.55, italics in original []
  3. See for example []