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May 21st, 2009
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Traumatized social Theory

In The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Patricia Clough continues the tradition of out-of-body thinking that reached its high-water mark in the post-war thinkers of Paris, France such as Derrida and Deleuze. Today in America we don’t find much of it in sociology proper. Its home is more in literary criticism and cultural studies. Clough is very candid about her disembodiment. She wants us to “disprivilege the organic body”.

Her idea of affect is "pre-individual bodily forces, linked to autonomic responses, which augment or diminish a body’s capacity to act or engage with others." This definition in turn is part an intellectual trend that "seeks an engagement with information" and departs from "a privileging of the organic body to an exploration of non-organic life; and from the presumption of equilibrium-seeking closed systems to an engagement with the complexity of open systems under far-from-equilibrium conditions." And it takes the position that such a movement and departure "is necessary to theorizing the social."

I, on the other hand, forthrightly privilege the organic body and take the position that not to do so is insane. Here I mean "insane" in its etymological sense, i.e., unhealthy, and therefore doomed to a fantasmatic dreaminess in addressing social reality.

Regarding "affect":

1. What is "pre-individual"? What does that mean? Does it mean pre-existing the actual individual psyche, with its individual ideas and dispositions? If that is so, then the body itself is "pre-individual". All human beings have the same general equipment, organs, limbs, cells, etc. So, the "organic body" itself is pre-individual, and to label "affect" as that does not do anything to take it out of the realm of the organic body. Furthermore, all the forces of social interaction that socialize the self are "pre-individual". This is like, not news.

2. We are told that "affect" is composed of "bodily forces linked to autonomic processes". I heartily agree with this, but how is this not a privileging of the organic body? Rudimentary socialization theory teaches us that unless the collective dispositions of the social group are brought to reside in the organic body of a particular individual, the individual is not moved by them.

3. The term "non-organic life" is a confused projection. Just as there is no such thing as artificial intelligence (with its capacity for originality and creativity), but only extremely fast mechanical processes that mimic certain features of intelligence, so there is no such thing as non-organic life. This is why movies such as The Matrix, and TV shows such as The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which I love) are merely adolescent fantasies, not any kind of science. The term "life" implies an autonomous self-generating capacity, a trait that no non-organic substance possesses.

4. Privileging the organic body does not presume "an equilibrium-seeking closed system". Rather it presumes an equilibrium-seeking open system, which is indeed engaged with the whole material world in a far-from-equilibrium situation. This dynamic tension between equilibrium-seeking and the openness of our material condition has been of the essence of human experience since the dawn of consciousness. Hey! Human beings die. The inorganic has always had the capacity to massively affect the organic body. Consider the manifestly inorganic guillotine or electric chair (or fence, or therapeutic probe).

5. So "affect" is correctly understood as a completely individual set of predispositions to action and feeling, installed in the organic body by the familiar processes of social interaction.

So, it is insane not to privilege the organic body. And this is a very specific form of insanity. Clinically it is called "dissociation”.

Dissociation in Derrida

Clough is a devoted disciple of Jacques Derrida. She made this clear in her twice-published The Ends of Ethnography (indicating that the ranks of out-of-body thinkers are considerable).

I have discussed Derrida’s epistemology at length in my article "Dealing With Derrida", which you can find on the Radical Academy web site. http://radicalacademy.com/studentrefphilmhd1.htm. Those who want to wade through the whole transition from Husserl to Derrida might find it helpful. But for our purposes here the crux of the matter can be stated briefly.

The cornerstone of Derrida's whole philosophical system is his claim that iterability (repetition) is an a priori condition of knowing, and therefore it destroys the unity and purity of the primordial act of knowing. This claim anchors all of his early work. And if this is true, then his system holds. If it is not true, then his system falls apart completely.

So we must note that iterability is not an a priori condition of knowing, it is in fact an a posteriori result of knowing, and every embodied knower knows this. An original presence-to-being (insight) occurs in time. Consequently it is repeatable. So, iterability is not "inside" phenomenological presence, it is extrinsic to it. This mistake is made all the more easy since both relationships are necessary. Once you get this, then all of Derrida's objections to realist epistemology collapse, and his whole philosophical system is reduced to imaginary mumblings.

So, repetition and re-presentation are necessary attributes of the self-same simple act, due to the fact that it is performed in time by an embodied entity. Thus they are not "inside" presence; they are outside it. The only way they could possibly be construed to be "inside" presence is by looking at the idea of presence and the idea of repetition rather than re-enacting their actual occurrence. This is a classic map vs. territory error. The map is completely lacking in the sensory details of the territory. The map does not show the underbrush, the pot holes, the heat and dust and wind on the journey.

In order to include the materiality of phenomenological presence when studying it, one has to be in one's body. One has to have intimate access to all one's sensory apparatus. And, if one does not have that access, then one is dissociated. One retreats into one's head, and mistakes the map for the territory.

Dissociation and the body.

Dissociation refers to the coordination of mind and body in consciousness. The clinical literature identifies three "states of arousal" of mind-body:

1. Being awake (the social engagement state)
2. Hyper-arousal (emergency response state)
3. Hypo-arousal (shut-down)

[See Trauma and the Body, by Pat Ogden et al. (W.W.Norton, 2006), pp. 26-40.)]

A common expression to indicate dissociation is the phrase, “out-of-body experience” or “leaving the body". Such phrases refer to leaving the social engagement state and going into either emergency response or shut-down.

Ogden cites this description of the social engagement state:

The social engagement system has a control component in the cortex (i.e., upper motor neurons) that regulates brainstem nuclei (i.e., lower motor neurons) to control eyelid opening (e.g., looking), facial muscles (e.g., emotional expression), middle ear muscles (e.g., extracting human voice from background noise), muscle of mastication (e.g., ingestion), laryngeal and pharyngeal muscles (e.g., prosody) and head tilting and turning muscles (e.g., social gesture and orientation). (Porges, 2003b, p. 35)
And then adds, “Collectively, these components of the social engagement system enable rapid engagement and disengagement with the environment and in social relationships by regulating heart rate without mobilizing the sympathetic nervous system.” (p. 30)

This is the key point. Only in this state do we have access to all our tools. We go into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal either voluntarily or involuntarily to process special stimuli, and one criterion of emotional health is how much control we have over our shifts of arousal state. Hyper-arousal is governed by the sympathetic nervous system and in terms of biology is referred to as “fight-flight”, and in more common parlance is often referred to as “losing it”. Hypo-arousal is a relative decrease in heart rate and respiration and a decrease in exterior sensory awareness. A daydreaming poet is out of her body, i.e., voluntarily in hypo-arousal, and a completely freaked-out survivor of an automobile accident can also be out of their body, involuntarily, in dangerously deep hypo-arousal.

The Problem with Out-of-body Thinking.

The problem with out-of-body thinking is that it cannot engage the material world realistically. Ideas rule. Bodies do not matter. Out-of-body thinking invariably loses all material reference points, and proceeds to handle the real (i.e., material) world without regard for material implications or consequences. Where out-of-body thinking is the work of pathological angry activists, it leads to the atrocities of the Nazis and Pol Pot. Where it is the work of the victimized and powerless, it leads to self-destructive and irrelevant behavior. When it turns to analytical endeavors, it falls into somatic illiteracy: the complete ignorance of the mechanisms by which our bodies function as a vehicle of communication and a platform for emotions, and tends to become dreamspeak: metaphorical, mysterious, spooky.

A key example from The Affective Turn will illustrate this. In her introduction Clough notes that “Grace M. Cho’s essay, “Voices from the Teum: Synesthetic Trauma and the Ghosts of Korean Diaspora” is a performed movement from a psychoanalytic understanding of trauma to Deleuze’s notion of ‘machinic assemblage.’ Cho’s essay focuses on the traumatic history of Korean women from Japanese colonization to the U.S. diaspora. She treats the diasporic body as an effect of a transgenerational haunting and as a composed machinic assemblage. Diasporic bodies, she proposes, carry a vision, a machinic vision, of what they did not see and what an earlier generation saw but could not say they saw. Cho shows the diasporic body as it acts out being haunted, repetitively and melancholically, in a constant movement toward the traumatic experience of an earlier generation, her mother’s.”

In other words, now that the collective amnesia about the Korean War has been lifted, the diasporic body manifests all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. This manifestation is a possible beginning of healing, but it is far from the completion of healing. That only happens when the self recovers its access to the social engagement state of arousal, and has control of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal.

The implicit presumption that “saying” is the only method of intergenerational communication is an example of “somatic illiteracy”. The earlier generation cannot perhaps “say” what they saw, but they can communicate the effects of what they saw by pervasive parent-child communications signals. If you have disprivileged the body, you do not notice this.

There is another view of trauma that distinctly privileges the organic body, and studies the somatic foundations of trauma transmission and healing. It is shared by several schools of clinical trauma treatment, such as Gendlin’s Focusing, Levine’s Somatic Experiencing and Kurtz and Ogden’s Hakomi. One practitioner who is working with tsunami survivors in India, makes this observation: “It doesn’t matter what the treatment is as long as people are paying attention to the body and working with the nervous system directly to help bring back self-regulation. And the most self-regulating of all systems are the lower brain structures that govern life in the body.” [Raja Selvam, Santa Barbara Graduate Institute]

So, for the organic body privilegers, trauma is a biological event, namely, an overwhelm of certain information-processing channels in the organic body. This is true for intergenerational trauma as well as the other forms. These clinicians access trauma imprints by a sensory process called “inner body sensing”. When healing occurs, the self-regulation of the social engagement state of consciousness is restored.

Compare this with Clough’s identification of trauma as “ghosted bodily matter”. This is “bodily matter” that is actually disconnected from all bodily matter. Out-of-body thinkers’ frequent use of expressions such as “ghost” and “haunt” is simply a tribute to their somatic illiteracy. Since they cannot detect the actual source of the symptoms they observe, they declare them to be a big mystery.

Clough does us the service of cataloguing the whole roster of out-of-body thinkers. They are all there in her footnotes. So, there it is. Out-body-thinking inhabits academia. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that all of this out-of-body thinking is a symptom of the authors’ post traumatic stress disorder. I say ‘reluctantly” because the conclusion, on the face of it, might seem a bit far-fetched. Can there be so much PTSD in the world?

Upon reflection, the conclusion gains credibility. Think of the wars and turmoil throughout Europe from the sixteenth century on, culminating in the two world wars of the twentieth century and the Nazi regime and the holocaust. My three primary movers of traumatized philosophy – Deleuze, Derrida and Lacan – were all inheritors of that experience. As for the traumatized social theorists of the twentieth century in the USA – Clough’s referents in The Ends of Ethnography – verification is certainly needed, but the quest for such verification is prompted by the observation: how can one lose one’s body? The one sure method we know of is the dissociation caused by the somatic storage of trauma imprints.

My own, “realist” epistemology has its roots back in Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, which I learned through my exposure to the work of the Canadian Jesuit, Bernard J. F. Lonergan. Lonergan appears to have a scattered but durable following, and the University of Toronto currently makes all his works available. I also seem to find that in The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty agrees with Aquinas and Lonergan. Lastly, there is very little epistemology in contemporary social science, so this talk about traumatized social theorizing is bound to come as something of a surprise.

But, I respectfully suggest, there it is.

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