From lived experience to history

The word is the murder of the thing

If the word is indeed the murder of the thing, as Lacan argues in Seminar One, then history is surely death on an industrial scale.[1] By this I mean that history, as narrative, takes lived experience and turns it into a set of accounts, stories, chronologies and other forms of symbolic representation. But in the process, this historicisation of lived experience eradicates, ‘murders’, its ‘livedness’.

This is somewhat ironic bearing in mind that most historians like to think that, through their narratives, they are giving an account of ‘as it really was’. Clearly, though, things are not that simple, which then raises the question: what exactly is it that historians are aiming at through their stories? Perhaps their real aim is not so much to ‘capture’ the lived experiences of those who live in that other country called the ‘past’, but rather to create a sense of the ‘past’ in the first place.

And the reason for wanting to create a sense of the ‘past’ is in order to give a temporal structure to what might otherwise appear random events. In other words, creating a sense of ‘past’ also creates meaning. Furthermore, perhaps it might not be stretching things too far to argue that one of the critical questions to which the idea (meaning) of the ‘past’ responds is: what happened to all those lived experiences in the first place?

In other words, the idea of the ‘past’ is a response to loss. Loss not just of loved ones, friends, key figures in one’s life, but also one’s own childhood (innocent or otherwise), one’s adolescence, one’s youth. Beyond this, of course, is the loss of communities, environments, workplaces, study places, and so on. And beyond this horizon, there is the wider loss of key ‘historical’ events such as loss of Empire, loss of national identity, and so on (although, of course, to label them ‘historical’ is already part of the process of historicisation itself).

But behind this sense of loss, to which meaning (history as narrative) can provide some sense of comfort, lies something even more fundamental and disturbing; or, to be more precise, some Thing, which for Lacan is the Real itself. And perhaps this question of the Real is an even more critical one to which history must respond; not simply to make the ‘past’ meaningful, but ensuring it stays in its proper place, that is, somewhere else. One the real problems of the ‘past’, or rather, ‘past’ events (both on an individual and social level), is that they refuse to go away, to occupy their ‘proper’ place in the ‘past’. Instead they keep erupting into the present in the form of trauma.

From history to hystory

In his paper The Space of a Hallucination[2] Jacques-Alain Miller makes reference to a very brief comment in Lacan’s Preface to the English Edition of Seminar XI:

Now, somewhat belatedly, I add my two cents’ worth: a fact of hystory, let’s just say hysteria—that of my colleagues, as it happens, a case of minor importance, but one in which I happened to find myself implicated for having taken an interest in someone—the Aimée of my thesis—who led me to drift over to them through having foisted Freud on myself. [3]

The wider context of Miller’s argument in his paper is that there is shift in Lacan’s thinking regarding the nature of the unconscious, which is elaborated more in another paper, The Real Unconscious.[4] In the ‘early’ Lacan, the unconscious is equated with the subject’s (repressed) history, and is thus a function of the Symbolic order. Miller cites Lacan’s ‘Rome Report’, in which he states that the analyst teaches the subject to recognise that his or her unconscious is his or her history. It is also important to note that the Other is a construction of the Symbolic order itself (S1 → S2), which in his Real Unconscious paper Miller notes is the relationship of transference (the analysand to the subject-supposed-to-know). Consequently, the subject’s history is formed in relation to the Other:

The analytic situation, which stages (met en scène) the one and the Other, the one who addresses the Other who is the support of the function of exegesis, emerges as an analogue of what I would call the primary situation, that is to say, that the subject’s history is conveyed in and organized through his relationship to the Other.[5]

The idea of the subject’s history being organised through his or her relationship with Other would also seem to be a way of defining the structure of the hysteric, so at this point the idea of history as hystory starts to take shape. In this sense, an hystericised subject is also a historicised one. But as Miller notes:

For an element to be historicized, and it is in this respect that Lacan goes further than his “Rome Report,” it has to have been symbolized. There can only be a primary historicization if there is a primary symbolization.[6]

This comes back to the idea of the ‘word as the death of the thing’, which I referred to earlier, and which highlights a paradox: in order to situate an individual subject’s experience within a social framework, and for it to make sense, it has to be symbolised, i.e. historicised. However, in the process, the lived experienced is eradicated (‘murdered’). On the other hand, without symbolisation, such a lived experience remains forever ‘mute’, trapped in the Real. Of course, there are individuals who are in this situation, that is, psychotic subjects, who do attempt to communicate their experiences to others, but all too often such experiences are incomprehensible to the listener, especially to the untrained (and impatient) ear.

The tragedy of the Renaissance humanists

The point I want to emphasise here is that history is not ‘out there’, as some empirical reality; rather, it has to be written, constructed. And in the process of such writing, something is lost, namely the very experience that history was supposed to ‘capture’ in the first place. As Zachary Schiffman points out, the irony (and in many ways the tragedy) of the Renaissance humanists was that the more they tried to ‘recover’ the wisdom of the Classical world, the more remote it became. And one of the reasons for this was the increasingly sophisticated process of scholarship that they applied to the process of ‘historicising’ the past. Just to give one relatively simple example, Schiffman discusses the development of the humanist notebook, the largest and most important being the liber locorum rerum:

The development of humanist notebook techniques is, at least in part, a response to this growing press of entities. The liber locorum rerum, in particular, served its compiler as a personal storehouse of classical learning, one specifically geared to the requirements of rhetorical composition. Over time, though, the humanists had to adapt this notebook to the task of organizing an ever-increasing body of knowledge. The habit of arranging commonplace topics in antithetical pairs eventually became unwieldy, calling forth more innovative means of controlling this information, especially as commonplace books found their way into print. The simplest expedient was to append an alphabetical index of topics to such antithetical collections, enabling one to cross-reference diverse information (this innovation necessarily awaited the invention of printing, which made possible the accurate reproduction of long lists of page references).[7]

This example is a good demonstration that ‘writing the past’ is literally just that: a process of writing and constructing an ‘entity’ called the ‘past’. In the process of such ‘writing’, the lived experience (the ‘living past’ as Schiffman calls it) becomes erased, ‘murdered’. So it would seem that history is doomed to fail, at least as an attempt to ‘capture’ the experiences of the ‘past’.

History without end

Samuel Hynes begins his book A War Imagined by arguing that the Great War represented a radical discontinuity in British, and especially English, history.[8] But the key point here is that this discontinuity is essentially a discursive one, one of representation and imagination:

This sense of radical discontinuity of present from past is an essential element in what eventually took form as the Myth of the War. I use that phrase in this book to mean not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story of the war that has evolved, and has come to be accepted as true. The construction of that story began during the war, and grew in the years that followed, assimilating along the way what was compatible with its judgements, and rejecting what was not. The Myth is not the War entire: it is a tale that confirms a set of attitudes, an idea of what the war was and what it meant.[9]

I will come back to the idea of the War as Myth shortly, but for the time being I simply want to emphasise that ‘the Great War’ is as much (and perhaps even more so) a discursive construction as it is a real event. Although one might say this about all history, there seems to be something special about the Great War; something especially awful, something that seems to defy meaning, which might make it difficult to see it as a ‘narrative’. And yet, as I will argue, this sense of awfulness and meaningless has itself to be constructed. In fact, for many of those who ‘wrote’ the Great War, and for their ‘readers’, it was critical that such a construction took place in order to make sense of a seemingly senseless and terrible experience. It is also quite striking that this process of ‘sense making’ and ‘narrativising’ the War has continued for the last hundred years, and shows no real sign of abating.

In his book Remembering War, Jay Winter refers to the two ‘memory booms’ of the twentieth century.[10] The first actually began around 1890 and lasted until the 1920s, and was essentially a European phenomenon. The primary focus here was on the formation of national identities and, in the process, national myths. This was important for ‘new’ nation states such as Germany and Italy, those living in the shadow of defeat and national humiliation, for example, the French Third Republic, and for those nations such as Britain who were teetering on the edge of decline. In all these cases the work of collective memory was especially important:

…in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, new political regimes had to invent or unearth an illustrious past to justify and stabilize their nascent political forms. Collective narratives of state formation, performed in public and understood as an artifact, a construct, a kind of Potemkin village of the mind, constituted a significant part of that unifying force. It was expressed in many ways, from the celebration of days on the calendar, to what Maurice Agulhon calls ‘‘statue-mania,’’ to the highly visible veneration of newly found ancient traditions, to the constructions of historical narratives (some well-documented, some mythical) written, published, and recited in schools and other public venues.[11]

In the case of Britain, Winter gives the example of the decline of the aristocratic ‘great families’, and their great lands and houses, which led to the ‘cultural nostalgia’ for the ‘lost’ rural idyll of the British countryside, greatly facilitated by the establishment of the National Trust.

It was also this first ‘generation of memory’ that led to the development of the culture of remembrance in the wake of the First World War; for example in the construction of war memorials in virtually every English village, the Cenotaph in London, and the observance of the two minute silence on November 11th every year.

The second ‘generation of memory’, which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s but whose origin was in the Second World War and the Holocaust, was very different in a number of ways. Firstly, the time lag of three decades is notable in itself. Winter argues that a major factor in this delay was the need for many countries, and especially those who had borne the brunt of conflict and occupation (he cites the example of France) to attempt to re-establish some level of self-respect, national identity and stability. Winter refers to this as an ‘idealising remembrance’. In France this revolved around heroic accounts of the Resistance, which occluded the more problematic questions of, for example, collaboration and the Jewish deportations. By the late 1960s, however, a new generation were starting to ask difficult questions about what actually happened in the war years.

The 1970s also marked the point when Holocaust survivors started to come forward in large numbers of give their testimonies. This was the ‘age of the witness’, and, one might also argue, the ‘age of victim-survivor’, whose testimonies were started to be given more weight than those of more ‘conventional’ history. This is something Winter picks up on his paper Historical Remembrance in the Twenty-First Century, where he refers to the potential conflict between the ‘sacredness’ of individual and collective memories and the work of the historians, who may potentially challenge such memories.[12]

Winter also notes that the experience of the Second World War, and especially that of the Holocaust, caused a major disjuncture between the first and second generations of memory, because these events destroyed all the old certainties (which were, of course, largely mythical to start with). Instead, the second ‘memory boom’ is characterised by fracture, disparate forms of identity.


  1. J. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  2. Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘The Space of a Hallucination’, The Lacanian Review 6  (Epub Version), 2018.
  3. Jacques Lacan, ‘Preface to the English Edition of Seminar XI’, The Lacanian Review 6 (Epub Version), 2018, 9%.
  4. Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘The Real Unconscious’, The Lacanian Review 6 (Epub Version), 2018.
  5. ‘The Space of a Hallucination’, 35%.
  6. ‘The Space of a Hallucination’, 37%.
  7. Zachary S. Schiffman, The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), pp.183-84.
  8. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990).
  9. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined, p.ix.
  10. Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
  11. Remembering War, p.23.
  12. Jay Winter, ‘Historical Remembrance in the Twenty-First Century’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617.1 (2008), 6–13.