Brexit as Trauma (part 2)

In my previous article on this topic I introduced the idea of Brexit as a manifestation of a cultural trauma, and discussed Jeffery Alexander’s theory relating to this subject. However, I then argued that there were problems with Alexander’s approach, and particularly with regards to his ‘equation’ of ‘culture’ and ‘social’ with ‘collectivity’. I now want to explore these problems in more detail, but within the context of developing a more psychoanalytically orientated approach to cultural trauma.

The first point I would like to make regarding Alexander’s approach to trauma is that he does acknowledge psychoanalysis as providing a powerful and legitimate perspective on the subject. However, he claims that psychoanalysis is one version of ‘lay trauma theory’ and commits the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. According to Alexander, there are two types of ‘lay trauma theory’: the Enlightenment version and the psychoanalytic. The former is based on the idea that trauma is something that occurs when human beings encounter traumatic events. In other words, trauma is something which ‘happens’ to people, and essentially has an objective reality.

The psychoanalytic approach is far more nuanced, in the sense that it recognises that the experience and memory of such (objective) events may be repressed, projected and otherwise negated by the subject or subjects encountering the event. It is only through a process of working-through and elaboration of unconscious memories, thoughts and feelings that the subject can finally come to acknowledge their experience of trauma. However, as with Enlightenment thinking, the problem that Alexander has with psychoanalytic thinking is that it is based on the naturalistic fallacy, which argues that trauma has an objective existence, and is essentially a function of an objective, traumatic event. Alexander, on the other hand, is arguing that trauma has to be constructed, though a process that I discussed in the previous post. In other words, trauma events do not exist prior to such a (social) construction.

However, Alexander is wrong to suggest that psychoanalysis takes trauma as something ‘objective’ and that traumatic events somehow exist apart from their construction. As I will discuss below, Freud recognised early on in his work that trauma is not something simply ‘given’, but is a retroactive construction. However, before going on to look at this in more detail I would like to briefly discuss another aspect of Alexander’s theory which I think is problematic, and this is his concept of ‘culture’ and the ‘social’.

As I pointed out earlier, Alexander equates both ‘culture’ and the ‘social’ with the idea of ‘collectivity’. In other words, ‘the social’ becomes reduced to a form of group psychology. Behind this lurks the unresolved question of how ‘the individual’ relates to ‘the social’, and the answer to which continues to evade social scientists to this day. One of the problems with this problem, that is, the relation between the individual and the social, is not so much the concept of the ‘social’, but that of the ‘individual’. This is often implicitly taken to mean some notion of the ‘self’ or the ‘ego’. In this argument, ‘the social’ is simply a collection of ‘selves’ or ‘egos’. The difficulty here, however, is that the concept of the ‘self’ or the ‘ego’ is itself problematic. From a Lacanian perspective, the ‘ego’ is the product of a set of Imaginary identifications, an idea originally formulated in Lacan’s paper on the Mirror Stage.1 Furthermore, and as Lacan noted in his paper, this process of identification takes places within the Symbolic order.
This means that the ego is not something ‘fixed’ or ‘essential’ (in the philosophical sense), but constructed within a matrix of signifiers (the Symbolic). Therefore it cannot be the case that the ‘social’ can be defined as a ‘collectivity’ of egos; rather, the ego is an effect of the Symbolic order itself.

From this perspective, it might be argued that the structuralists were right all along, in that that it’s the social (structure) that defines the individual. And in one sense those who argue this are right. However, it has to be remembered that, according to Lacan, there are three registers of human subjectivity, not two. This means it is misleading to try and construct a ‘model’ of the subject by using the Symbolic and Imaginary orders alone. In this model, the signified is an effect of the signifier, and therefore the Imaginary is a function of the Symbolic. However, once the Real is introduced into the equation, so to speak, things change radically. And the introduction of the Real brings us to the question of trauma.

In Seminar XI Lacan states clearly that trauma is a manifestation of the Real. For example, in lesson 5 Lacan argues:

The function of the tuché, of the real as encounter—the encounter in so far as it may be missed, in so far as it is essentially the missed encounter—first presented itself in the history of psycho-analysis in a form that was in itself already enough to arouse our attention, that of the trauma.2

This resonates with the idea that trauma is something outside of representation, that it doesn’t make any sense, because this is how the Real is usually conceptualised. However, things are not quite that simple if we consider the idea that the Real may actually be a function of language, as opposed to being ‘outside’ of it. To understand how this might be so, we need to start with Tom Eyers’ useful formulation of the Real as the signifier-in-isolation, in contrast to the Symbolic as the signifier-in-relation.3 Now, at first reading it might appear that the Real (as signifier-in-isolation) is constituent of language; in other words, it’s the basic ‘building block’ of language. However, things are never that straightforward when it comes to the Real. Strictly speaking, it is impossible to encounter an isolated signifier in reality, so to speak, because ‘reality’ is always already structured as a network or matrix of signifiers. If it wasn’t there would be no reality and no-one there to experience it in the first place. So in this sense the Real is a strictly theoretical entity, on a par with the theoretical particles of physics. Such particles, which are essentially mathematical entities, are necessary for the theory to ‘work’, to function; and so, it could be argued, is the Real. The key point about the Real as theoretical entity is that it has real (traumatic) effects. As Žižek points out in his paper The Lacanian Real:

… the point is just that it (the traumatic event) produces a series of structural effects (displacements, repetitions, etc.). The real is an entity which should be constructed afterwards so that we can account for the distortions of the symbolic structure. The most famous Freudian example of such a real entity is of course the primal parricide: it would be senseless to search for its traces in prehistoric reality, but it must nonetheless be presupposed if we want to account for the present state of things.4

In this sense, I would argue, the Real serves the function of ‘elementary particle’; it is necessary to explain what is actually happening in ‘reality’ (the network of signifiers), and especially when that reality appears to be breaking down, as in the event of trauma. And this is why the Real is a function of language, even though at the same time it would seem to be constituent of it: it is a theoretical construction of language, within language, designed to explain the limits of language, of representation. Of course, this is a paradox: how can a product of language, that is, a theoretical construct, represent that which is ‘beyond’ language? However, the key point here is that it is a necessary paradox, a necessary impossibility even, in order to explain human subjectivity.

If the Real is a function of language, then so is trauma, insofar as it is a manifestation of the Real. And this brings us to one of the rather peculiar aspects of trauma: it only appears retroactively and within a signifying network. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, in the sense that trauma is usually seen as something that doesn’t make sense, as something beyond or outside of representation. Furthermore, language is often a way to help ‘detraumatise’ the subject by bringing them back into the realm of meaning, of language. In fact, many psychotherapeutic treatments of trauma are based on this approach, and in the process they help the individual construct their own trauma narrative.

The problem here is that there appears to be something within the trauma narrative that undermines it. In other words, the trauma narrative itself is traumatised along with the subject. As I have discussed in some detail elsewhere, this rather peculiar characteristic of trauma is linked to Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, often mistranslated as ‘deferred action’. However, contrary to many interpretations of Nachträglichkeit as some form of ‘delayed triggering’ of an ‘original’ trauma (usually but not always in early childhood) that is caused by another traumatic experience in later life, there is, strictly speaking, no ‘original’ trauma. Rather, there is a gap, a void, in the subject’s history, which can only be articulated retroactively. And such a retroactive articulation occurs when a particular experience in the subject’s later life creates a symbolic ‘looping back’ to the earlier, unarticulated experience. It is this process of ‘looping back’ that constructs the trauma – both as narrative and as the undermining of such a narrative.

Of course, such trauma narratives can take time to develop, and this may take many months, or even years, of elaboration, often within a therapeutic relationship. So perhaps it might be more accurate to say that at the moment of the initial ‘looping-back’ from the present experience to the original one, a ‘proto-narrative’ is constructed, which can then be worked on and elaborated over time. However, the key point here is that without some form of symbolic construction, some knotting together of signifiers, albeit quite elementary, there can be no trauma.

The key question, though, is how can a symbolic structure, that is, language, be traumatic? In other words, and if we are to take the concept of Nachträglichkeit seriously, why would the construction, albeit quite elementary to start with, of a trauma narrative actually traumatise the subject? Is it simply that in the process of construction the subject suddenly realises what has happened to them? No, because if this were the case then Nachträglichkeit would indeed be some form of ‘delayed/deferred remembering’, whereas in fact the remembrance is constructed in the here and now. But even if this is the case, why is such a construction traumatising? I would venture to argue that this is because the construction is formulated around a traumatic core, a kernel of the Real. As such formulations become more elaborate, perhaps through many years of therapy, such a traumatic core can become almost ‘woven’ into the narrative itself – but never quite. Something of the Real always remains, even within the most complex and elaborate of narratives.

I would now like to apply this idea of there being a traumatic core within language to what might be best described as ‘the ideology of Brexit’. In my previous post on Brexit as trauma I started to explore the idea that there are two different types of trauma narrative; an ‘official version’, which I argued was encapsulated Samuel Hynes’ concept of ‘The Myth of the (Great) War’ when it came to looking at the post-Great War trauma narrative; and an ‘alternative’ or ‘unofficial version’, of which Brexit is but the latest manifestation. I also argued that such an ‘alternative version’ was structured around an enactment of trauma, as opposed to an articulation of it, which is what the ‘official version’ aimed at. In other words, whereas the ‘official’ trauma narrative was an attempt to make sense of the upheaval and devastation of the War, the ‘alternative’ trauma narrative was itself traumatised, which goes a long way to explaining the rather nihilistic position of many hard-line ‘Brexiteers’. In spite of all the rhetoric about ‘taking back control’, ‘free trade deals’, etc, the real aim of such hard-liners is the destruction of the existing system for its own sake. In this sense Brexit becomes some form of ‘cleansing operation’, similar to how many people viewed the prospect of war in the lead up to 1914.

If we look at Brexit as a form of narrative, or even as an ideology, then what strikes me most about it is its relative simplicity and lack of sophistication. Cas Mudde has referred to populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ which exhibits ‘a restricted core attached to a narrower range of political concepts.’5 In the case of populism, the core concept is a rather ill-defined notion of ‘ the people’, and this can be seen in play in the current Brexit debates and the idea of ‘respecting the will of the people’.

As I mentioned just now, these narratives are relatively unsophisticated – but this is precisely the secret of their power. More sophisticated narratives and ideologies, for example the ones that support the European project, tend to be rather abstract and make an appeal to such values as ‘universalism’, ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, ‘globalisation’ and so on. The assumption appears to be that everyone knows what these concepts mean, and that everyone shares them. However, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe, would suggest otherwise. On the other hand, appeals to ‘the people’, ‘taking back control’, and so on, resonate at a more fundamental level and are easier to get a handle on.

Going back to the idea of a traumatic core to language, and the fact that trauma narratives themselves are structured around such a core, then one way to look at the ‘Brexit narrative’ is to view it as a ‘proto-narrative’ or ideology, which I made reference to earlier. In such a narrative, the traumatic (Real) core is very much exposed, and has not been subjected to any real elaboration, working-over, secondary revision and so on. True, it is still a construction, but a relatively simple one. In other words, in this form such a narrative is still very ‘raw’ and under-developed; but this makes it extremely pliable and flexible, and allows itself to be attached to other, more established, narratives and ideologies; this is another characteristic of ‘thin-centred’ ideologies noted by Mudde. This might help explain why Brexit (as trauma narrative) can appeal to many different people and groups, who have completely different (and often opposing) political outlooks and interests.

  1. Lacan, J. 1949. The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience In: Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, pp.93–81. []
  2. Lacan, J. 1979. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin, p.55 []
  3. Eyers, T. (2012) Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. []
  4. Žižek, S. (2008). The Lacanian Real: Television. The Symptom, 9. (Online). (Accessed 3 July 2016). Available from: []
  5. Mudde, C. (2004) ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39 (4), pp. 541–563. []