Feb 23

“What is Trauma?” in Oxford Public Philosophy

What Is Trauma?

Sketch of a phenomenological description (and the philosophy that comes with it)

Published in Oxford Public Philosophy’s Turn ThreeRead it here.


This is what Trauma feels like: entering the now as if it were hell, wishing for the world to be real again (1). What is this hell? It is ‘living-missingly’ or ‘being livingly-troubled.’      This experience is about not being tuned correctly – harmoniously – with the real as much as with ourselves, and thinking (believing? No–     knowing)  what is going on is not right. Everything  changed. It has all changed somehow. The frames are not right, chairs are more crooked than before, floors seem to be leaning–     all of this despite all the science and rationality available (2). The now is not experienced as it had to be (3). Everything is unforgiving: our mind, other people, time, and the rawness of life’s appearance in general. What is      more unforgiving is forgiveness itself: it has lost its initial meaning, which is an ability to turn back on events  and cancel their non-factual consequences. Forgiving oneself for what happened does not reset every clock in the world no matter what. It happened: The bomb detonated     –     she died     –     he was in the crowd when bodies fell on the ground (4). Trauma is permanent and the only thing for which empathy from others becomes a Sisyphus who sightlessly generates a movement of social back-and-forth. It is a mental tattoo. No amount of emotional distance will make us go back in time and prevent the unforgiving. Though we may find comfort over time and attempt to re-serialize our memories (5) to tune ourselves harmoniously back with time and space – this now, this space, of the right now, – the off-putting feeling evinced by what is real remains continuously. The French have the word “fatalité” to beautifully describe the unforgiving characteristic of time, but Trauma knows no language. Trauma is  mental assault. It knows nothing but to assault our intellectual and physical capabilities     –     the tandem juxtaposition of the experience and the phenomenon that precedes Trauma goes above and beyond the agency of our self-consciousness (6). Oftentimes it shatters this agency by subduing it with a cognitive experience that our self-consciousness would never experience on its own, as well as by making it seem as though these experiences were the product of consciousness itself.

Far from happening in the now, as it becomes a then before we know it, it strips us of all we have and makes us naked in the face of it all. I become as naked in front of anyone as I am when placed in the midst of my fright     –     as I am when I sense a presence in my back and the fear of torture, physical or intellectual, gives itself to my perception before it has even been me(an)t by my senses. It can be everywhere and inside everything, and for this reason it does not even know itself. I am not a hero of my own self for staying a-live (7) and resisting against my struggles (8). I am an observing participant astonished by the powerful upholding force of facticity. What is  more is that I can be astonished by my consciousness creating its own facticity     –     dividing itself up into powerful cycles of toxicity and social disfunction, creating this me-who-wasn’t-as-such even though I am whole in flesh and bones. I suddenly become afraid of somebody’s touch I experienced for years, I push them away and adopt behaviors of fear – through violence or detachment – that are not me but remain acted out by me. My consciousness creates new facts by exploring the traumatic event as well as the triggers and treating them as the genesis of a new lifestyle. But to say that consciousness engenders its own facticity is to misunderstand its intersubjective nature     –     we then forget about the dynamics within the infamous structure we call being-in-the-world (9). Either with or without reciprocity, Trauma is a free interplay between both sides of the same coin, between environment and “consciousness.” The relationship between “this place is traumatic” and “I am traumatized in this place” becomes blurry. You are your trauma just as much as external factors are co-constitutive of it. But this is not frozen in time. Trauma can shift back and forth between both sides. It pervades the chiasmic, embedded, constitution of us. And my embodied consciousness that I can touch     –     this body I can feel     –     I feel it as something changed and losing its vividness. We all lose at staying a-live because we will die no matter what. We stay a-life because we are a-life that has been thrown at us. We are endowed with life and this endowment implies a possibility of loss. Similarly, to be traumatized is to be endowed with experienced loss, with a further contribution to what it means to be a-live. (9). However, because of the suffering and atrocity of the experience, it seems from the get-go that those traumatized seem to lose faster than others. It seems impossible to be endowed further with elements of life when trauma causes a loss that triggers a sinking feeling and determinate acknowledgement that “it won’t be as before     –     it won’t be as before     –     it won’t be as before     –     it won’t be as before     –     it won’t be” and repeat ad infinitum. Thisthatheretherenow and then will be different     –     as words; as phenomena     –     : A new sunset, a new face, a new voice with new thoughts     –     and the thoughts correlating with a new corporeal habituation into the lifeworld. Another house and perhaps another weapon. Perhaps this is a new car – perhaps this is a new mother (and her helplessness might be sans précédent). Perhaps there is a new love (10).

Singular objects from before rise to attention in a different way and we apprehend this difference on the top of an experiential edge of imm/a/i/nence. What is this immanence? We don’t know     –     we cannot know a thing whose limits are defined by limitlessness. But that thing that could be creeps and plays with our affectivity that is imm/a/inent itself in the aftermath of Trauma. This apprehension of imm/a/i/nence emerges in the form of another birth: the illegitimate mental birth resulting from this assault. The coping mechanism in its entirety is in the question “How will you do?” The action of asking is itself the coping mechanism. This is not about solving the existential issues created by Trauma with Heidegger and traditional metaphysics. It is further past coffee table existentialism and straitjacket-inducing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As a matter of fact,  CBT is the most forceful attempt to attach personhood to one’s most existential limit, the fear of death and the encounter of that which we cannot      accept, in the hope that the situation becomes akin to inverted magnets     –     that perceived exposure turns this transcendental, existential, limitation into a mere contingent fact of Being. You are born in a fearful world now. You enter hell, as you leave what you now think was heaven, and the remaining  truth is that only you can grant your wish to make the real real again (11).


We generally believe that trauma begins through an event. But psychotherapy reveals to us that this traumatic event is no more important than life-long momentums we had set up for ourselves so Trauma could explode at this ‘now’ – The ‘now’ that we might use to distinguish a before and after Trauma. For psychology, this ‘now’ had a few hints and the clues were what we’ve been all along. “He did this because of his physique”     –     “she was bound to end up in this mess”     –     “you sacrificed yourself because you’re worthless to your parents.” As such, there is      a slant that the end is always near but the beginning is farther than we thought (12). Like the night sky is as much a window on time, Trauma breaks our conceptual boundaries of time. They call it flashbacks for a reason. It appears and reappears, sometimes it also modifies your past so that you endlessly live backward – unable to witness time “kicking the door a thousand times.” (13) Your death becomes actual birth.And sometimes you live sideways when your trauma is your whole life in a flashback with your death on the receiving end and your birth subduing you from it. In this way, the intruder, literally and figuratively, is a reminder that you are at home wherever it feels uncozy in the various layers of life – perceptual, existential, interpersonal (14). So there’s no time to have trauma because it’s trauma that has it all: Your future prospects become as valuable as your greatest fears     –     the slightest newer ‘now’ takes the same imminence as your own death     –     . It remains unclear how it makes you lose your ability to receive meaning from outside. Things may no longer tell you the way to go and how to dispose of them. This keeps you on your toes because you never know what this traumatic time–overarching what you have  lived and what you might–has for you. And it is painful, tiresome, so excruciating that you create your own end with an existential suicide. Trauma kills each measure of space and time that is ever given to you–your plane of existence becomes a cliff and l’appel du vide is such an easy game to play. We mistakenly think that suicide is a form of distancing oneself from our life-worms when, in fact, it is a sacrificial gift to honor what is unfair. I have met this patient for whom swallowing her medical pills was the transcendental condition to create her own beginning. She understood that her freedom was so hinged on the forceful guilt she had suffered and that she could not live like Antigone at Thebes if she did not claim her five senses on her own terms while honoring the overkill facticity of her fears (15). Once her suicide was over she began again again again and again to perceive at her own pace. “Commencing” and “finishing” are not the correct ways to shape out traumas. Intervals can be labeled everywhere just like breathing can begin whichever way you want. But when the light reaches your eye and when the weight of the air gives you a glimpse of how cold a corpse can be, your wish for “real” is wished for good because Trauma and the sensation of realness take off when your body perceives. As such, trauma ultimately depends on the experience of perception and this perception turns out to be the last window freeing us from it. (16)

(1) In proper phenomenological terms, time is an atmosphere envahissante – intrusive and pervasive – in which we continually get immersed into. Our body’s mechanistic activity with the physical world generates a temporality, the now, the present moment, that provides an access to this atmospheric temporality. We constantly enter the now, but this entrance is always one now too late, as Bergson tells us (see Matière et mémoire, p.), since the present is always perceived as a past – and the use of “atmosphere” is only pedagogical here, because spatial terminology doesn’t accurately reflect what time is.

(2)Thus, by living-missingly and being-livingly-troubled we try to get to an understanding of everyday experiences of life where the phenomenological presuppositions of these experiences are damaged by Trauma. In the experience of misunderstanding something there is a sensation (mental or physical) that accompanies our awareness that we don’t understand that thing. This feeling gets replicated on a larger scale throughout our apprehension of life in general in the aftermaths of traumas.

(3) Notice how we cannot even say “as it should be” or “as it should have been.” All understanding of objectivity gets lost in Trauma. Real justice becomes subjective, which is why the now had to be experienced this way – but it did not.

(4) Reference to the Paris Terrorist Attack at the Bataclan on November 13th, 2015.

(5) In Husserl’s way: See his Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (Lectures on Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness) and The Time of Trauma: Husserl’s Phenomenology and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Mary Jeanne Larrabee.

(6) A conceptual understanding of Trauma doesn’t do justice to the reality of this experience. Offering a mere intellectual outlook on what Trauma is would make this text irrelevant. Trauma is a tantalizing experience, and my phenomenological method is to fight against the misequivation between concepts and experiences. The only way we can put on paper what the experience of Trauma is is by confronting it to a similar, tantalizing and overwhelmingly disturbing experience. Assault, violence,  is one of these, and by mentioning mental assault I also intend to allude to the intricate and close relationship between sexuality and the mind. Our sexuality is embodied in the mind-body compound, which makes assault, sexual or otherwise, t a mental reality as much as it is a physical one (see also Sara Heinämaa’s Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference as well as Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception). This also accounts for those whose non-sexual traumas have undermined their sexuality – and those whose sexuality has been a coping mechanism for their non-sexual traumas as well. The goal is also not to just create analogies for the sake of it, as that would also be useless. The goal is to expose an experience to another to get to a phenomenological dialectic, a dynamic and temporal description of what is going on. The belief I hold is that experience can be ‘bracketed’ by being exposed–not compared–to another in such a way that the resulting transcendental features we find in it do not become as much static, systematic, and subject to a lebenswelt-attitude in the aftermath of the phenomenological analysis.

(7) Here we use the hyphen to highlight the directional and funnelling character of being endowed with life (as the etymology of the word shows as well), the same character that participates in the traumatic experience.

(8) What does it mean to be the hero of one’s mental disorder? To be a hero is to act outwardly what we wished to be internally, as Merleau-Ponty tells us (See “La guerre a eu lieu” in Sens et non sens, p.258). To experience the repetitive cycles of everyday life contrasted against the absence of life-narratives. It’s not to be posed against an enemy inside of us – to be placed against the “enemy-disorder.” We are the disorder – just as we embody the world that takes a grip on our skin to rub it against the walls of its horizons. This would be dividing up the being that we are, when in fact there is nothing heroic in doing what we have to do. There is no heroism in me when I respect a person’s dead body on the scene or when I disrespect my desire to be dead instead of them – when in fact Trauma never gives a choice. We simply read the writings on the wall because, the traumatic event, as it happens, ultimately tells us what to do before we can even understand the meaning of it all. Heroes, instead, are meant to be always a step ahead and they are known for their sacrificial decisions that they make deliberately. But the victims of Trauma never have the chance to deliberate.

(9) Being-in-the-world refers to this fundamental condition required for existing at all. It is the ground for the possibility of having something appear in front of us. This is not to be confused with the idea of a relationship between a subject stuck within a totality of things. Rather, being-in-the-world points out to the fact that we have a relationship to the world, that we are given and receptive to it in such a way that the existence of a world or a realm of things is necessary for us to exist.

(9) In a way a-live refers to “having life” which allows us to put it in conjunction with losing and loss in general. This links back to the idea that to be traumatized is to be endowed with experienced loss.

(10) Our phenomenological attitude in life organically channels itself in this difference that creates this sensation of ‘     perhaps’     . In the aftermath of Trauma, our perception of those differences is closely tied to an awareness of the horizon of possibilities we face. Most people experience the anticipation and widening of this horizon when they are on the brink of a ‘     breakthrough’      in therapy.

(11) The first sentence of this essay refers to wishing for a comeback to reality, as it disappears in the moment of Trauma. In our perception of reality we attribute a belief that it is as such, and this belief gets confronted with the state of the world in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. In this way the duel between modern psychology and life’s facticity is to resolve that confrontation     –     which most of the time is done by altering that belief and attuning the traumatized to their phenomenological experience of that belief.

(12) See Marycatherine Macdonald’s Merleau-Ponty and a Phenomenology of PTSD

(13) Phénoménologie de la perception p.498

(14) Heidegger’s Hölderlins Hymne »Der Ister«, Dasein is at home in the unhomely.

(15) Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes, §437, §457

(16) This is demonstrated, for instance, through grounding techniques that are taught in psychotherapy in order to free somebody from an anxiety attack. This concept of perception as a gateway to freedom is also further explained in the “Freedom” chapter in Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception.

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