Art, Trauma & the Beyond of Being

Art, Trauma & the Beyond of Being

In a lecture titled “Rethinking Subject through Theology, Psychoanlysis and Levinas”, Bracha Ettinger opens with a biblical story of Rachel giving birth to a son. During the birth, Rachel dies, but before her soul departs from her body, she names the child Benoni, which in ancient Hebrew means “son of my sorrow, son of my mourning”. Rachel dies and the father renames the child Benjamin, which means “son of my strength”.

Traditionally, it is the mother’s right to name the child, in naming the child the mother describes the experience that was shared in pregnancy and birth, and makes her contribution to the future. Rachel is expressing her sorrow in having to die. Ettinger refers to a “transubjectivity” that is shared between mother and child during pregnancy, a physical unity that occurs in the protective hollow of the womb.

In Rachel’s story we see the negation of feminine, and the severing of the transubjective bond between the child and the mother, both in the physical and the psychic. There is an authoritarian capture of the child in his renaming and a negation of both his previous experience, and the proposed future of the mother. The child enters a new subjectivity imposed by the father.

In one of Levina’s later text’s on the feminine, Levinas talks about the constant possibility of the death of the mother in giving life to a child. His point of emphasis is not that the mother should die, or that the mother’s death is acceptable – the death of the mother is unacceptable. Rather, his focus is that in the feminine we see the possibility of conceiving that there is meaning without “me”.

What is of importance is that there is a continuity to life without “me” – there is a future without “me” – a world without “me”. This is not to say that there is no sadness in passing – Rachel’s naming of the child is an expression of her sorrow at having to die – but it draws our attention to an awareness of both subjective mortality, and our responsibility to an external world that will outlast us. The idea of sacrifice becomes associated with the feminine. The feminine is a way of describing a certain sense or way of thought that is not limited to females, or female subjectivities, but can be embodied by any human being or collectivity.

It is worth contemplating the idea of sacrifice. We should not think that it is death that allows for, or creates life; Life creates life, life creates death. There is a constancy to life, without continuity to all subjects. The creation of something is always the destruction of other possibilities.

Perhaps, there is always a necessary ability to sacrifice or conceive of life-without-me in order to create something new, or to maintain a certain balance of life. Perhaps we can understand sacrifice as a giving-over of the self to something external. We can conceive of this sacrifice or this giving-over both on the subjective level, the familial level, and even further, on the national, or global level.

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In a late piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, he creates a distinction between safety and freedom, he poses the question: “are some things worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing?”

In this short essay titled Just Asking, Wallace sketches out a realigned perspective of our national response to the shock of 9/11. He asks if we are capable of regarding the 2,973 innocents that were killed in the 9/11 attacks as heroes and martyrs to the cause of freedom and democracy that America was founded on. He asks whether a certain baseline vulnerability to suicidal terrorist attacks is part of living in a democratic republic. Wallace attempts to lead a thought process that demonstrates how we are sacrificing our ideas of freedom in an effort to gain a sense of safety.

“What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone’s best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”

The point is that sacrifice is necessary to preserve a way of life. In this case, the sacrifice of some personal safety and comfort for the American idea of freedom. What we’ve seen occurring in the U.S. is a trade-off of liberty for safety, or at least the illusion or feeling of safety and comfort.

We are willing to accept 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths each year because we believe the mobility and autonomy of the car are worth the price. Do we not believe the same for the democratic ideas the country was founded on?

Is it possible to realign our perception of sacrifice, or at least have a conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice to either a) safety or b) our rights and liberties?

“Q: In the absence of such a conversation, do we trust our current leaders to revere and safeguard the American idea as they seek to “secure the homeland”? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc. etc.? Assume for the moment that some of these really have helped make our persons and property safer – are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we become so selfish and frightened that we don’t even want to think about whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

This ability to conceive of a life-without-me is connected to the idea of sacrifice. If we accept that it is the feminine sense to conceive of life-without-me, future-without-me, then our national consciousness in the U.S. lacks the feminine instinct. We are dominated by the masculine, driven to be authority through aggression, consumed with self-preservation, willing an ignorance or apathy toward our sliding ideas of national identity. The idea idea of giving ourselves to something external has been transformed or submerged by a materialist mind-set, we give ourselves over to the pursuit of pleasure, entertainment, and personal success. The shock that occurred during 9/11 was used to rationalize aggression both domestic and abroad.

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Ettinger points our attention to the phenomenons of shock and trauma that occur in both individuals and collectivities. She highlights the cycle of shock/trauma/shock. One way the masculine attempts to negate the feminine is by creating a cultural taboo around the womb and labeling the act of pregnancy and birth a cycle of shock/trauma/shock – the feminine is repressed and made inactive.

To create a distinction between shock and trauma: shock is the impact or flash of intensity before comprehension, trauma is the process of creating new channels of thought in reaction to the shock, and the second shock is the response to a new reality after trauma.

This cycle can be understood to concern not only mothers, or female subjectivities, but humans, groups, and cultures as a whole. There is a way in which a cultural shock can occur, two big examples are World War II and 9/11. After such devastating occurrences a culture responds and carves channels of trauma. However, the dominant response is often a masculine response: the U.S. responded to 9/11 with aggression, Germans responded to WWII with active repression.

“Anguish of devastation prospers if its traces continue to circulate ignored, denied, foreclosed and therefore untransformed. As event-things in the real, they perpetuate similar affects. Understanding historical and critical knowledge alone cannot counter-balance these affects. The psychic knowledge is in and for another kind of knowledge here. I don’t mean at the level of science which cycles it, and I don’t mean in terms of either appropriative logic or sacrificial relations. Here, Art, in my view, can bring forth something, as the art aesthetics also addresses the beyond of being. Art as both a transport station of trauma and as potential pregnancy time-space for transformation is relevant to ethics as it meets it in the least expected sphere. The feeling/knowing of beauty in art, not decided in advance according to any visual or perceptual or representational parameter, not commodified, is related to infinite attentive wondering, (which is a kind of tenderness, which is not included in the least of how we can love) which is not to be confused with the spontaneous creativity of reflective attention, and which carries artistic resistance and freedom-rifts in terms of self-withdraw from webs of affiliations.” {Ettinger at 24:38}

I think what Ettinger says here is profound. There is a transference of trauma that circulates invisibly through generations of a culture even if the trauma is not talked about, or addressed directly. There are traumatic affects that exist beyond what is captured by history and knowledge, but that still that propagate through people. The trace of any event can be circulated between human beings, these traces become inscribed when we are born, but remain always beyond us.

This invisible sort of circulation is linked to the idea of the transubjective bond between mother and child – but this transubjective bond reaches beyond just mother and child relations, and can be understood to be a transconnection between any number of human beings extending outward to the national sphere, or global sphere.

Ettinger uses the word “borderlinking” to describe the ability to conceive of the exterior other as always in some way connected to “me”. The “otherness” of the other is never total, but the other never quite becomes the same as “me” either. Rather, one must accept a certain continuity or transconnection between an idea of the interior self, and the external other. Instead of conceiving of human relations and intimacy as forms of connection, Ettinger sees human intimacy or libidinal relations as a withdrawal from this transconnectivity of human life.

Art is a way to address these invisible traumatic affects, because art is a way to engage with the beyond of knowledge, history, and ethics. Art becomes an external space we can enter and engage with past trauma in a way that is transubjective, a shared experience. Art becomes an external, abstract womb or sphere that we can enter and work through devastation, go through a cultural healing, or receive guidance in a way that is not manipulated or commodified.

“Maybe while the Angel of History cannot function anymore with so many debris of catastrophe, we can call forth an Angel of Art that is languishing for a humane, non-dominating, non-paranoid, non-abandoning, non-devouring kind of trust to allow inspirational transmissivity in a respect which is not a surrendering.” (29:00 Ettinger)

Art is a way to engage with our transconnectivity and promote a working-through of trauma without feeling dominated or abandoned. Art is a way to reach beyond – beyond ethics, beyond memory – into a mode of traumatic transference where subjectivities can enter without paranoia, a space to conjure what is repressed and work through it actively, without a necessary reaction or surrendered sense of self. Art is a sphere where we can move backward through trauma, both individually and collectively. Art is a space of tenderness and spiritual guidance where beauty is put in the service of future.

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There are two paintings I’d like to reference here:

The first is a painting by Gerhard Richter from 2005 titled “September”


Here we see a depiction of the twin towers after being struck by a plane. This is Richter carrying out a recollection of history, as if it were being seen in a dream. We see the event through what seems like a dirty window or pane of glass. We cannot see the event clearly, and yet, we can identify the towers, the smoke. The window we look through seems to have been wiped or smeared, there seems to be a visible attempt made to see better, or more clearly, and yet we still cannot. Perhaps this is rather an attempt to obscure what was a clear window, a mark made by some one who did not want to see. In either case, the view we have is not clear. There is a distance between us and direct knowledge of the event.

There is a simultaneous embracing of the event, and an avoidance of the events of horror. The painting articulates a certain truth about our ability to perceive any event of history. It is impossible to see a past event for what it is, because time and new events separate one from the original occurrence. The original occurrence has now been colored and obscured by what has happened since the event, what the event has come to signify, and what reactions the event has caused. Some of these reactions Wallace mentions in his essay: “Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc. etc.” These events obscure our backward glance, and change the way we have access to seeing or remembering the attack on the twin towers.

The original event now carries a retrospective analysis and knowledge about the event that wasn’t available during the initial shock. The horror of the event has been actively repressed by both individual and collective consciousness, and can now be approached only indirectly, or with obstacles.

The next is a painting by Anselm Kiefer from 2001, titled “Die Ungeborenen”, or “The Unborn”






In Kiefer’s work we are drawn toward an engagement with history, but in a far more elusive fashion. The images remain enigmatic, but have great powers of suggestion. Kiefer, a German artist, born at the end of WWII, has been unfolding a program of work that attempts to make new connections between humanity and its past, unearth the horrors that are repressed in the German national consciousness, and provide images that create insights into relations between nations, the U.S. and Europe in particular.

There is not a clear narrative to this painting, but there is a layout of objects and images that call for an engagement with the viewer to make connections. The painting is 10 feet wide and made of two lead sheets, in the center there is a plant that was pulled up while still in leaf, encased in plaster and wired to the surface – its seeds now dormant, incapable of growing.

The painting takes place in what appears to be a cosmos, with stars both light and dark. Scattered around the tree are children’s clothes, made of metal. Next to the clothing are labels with numbers and letters on them. Labels appear elsewhere in the painting, some of them with recognizable words like Orion, which is a pre-existing constellation formation.

Bits of white branch are sticking out of the clothing, disconnected from the center-piece tree, but of the same material. Kiefer says that the titles are the starting points of his work, the images should expand the meaning of the words. “By The Unborn Ones, Kiefer seems to mean children that are still to be born, or perhaps, will never be born. Spirits, in other words, who may come and wear these garments, or who will never come, because their parents did not live to conceive them.” (14:00 John Walsh, Yale)

The garments suggest souls without bodies, or spirits before entering the early realm – turned away and excluded by unnatural forces in the world. While looking at the numbered labels, it is difficult not to think of the concentration camp numbers that were tattooed on the arms of Jews. But the numbers could reference other forms of cold sterilizations or abortions as well. We are put in the position to make direct connections or not. The art remains open and far-reaching.

Kiefer seems to be addressing the beyond of being that Ettinger talks about, the potential “pregnancy time-space for transformation”. Without directly addressing a historical event, Kiefer manages to put us in touch with a sorrow, a deep sadness and despair at the effects and outcomes of our actions. There is an unknowable future that has been destroyed, a group that remains unborn. We are able to visualize one of the invisible traumatic affects that circulate through generations.

Kiefer’s art is the external abstract womb, the universe sphere, that the unborn remain in. His art is the place where we can enter to engage with this strange plane of existence – the beyond of being – the forever unknown trace of trauma that circulates invisibly. Kiefer becomes a sort of melancholic mystic, or spirit guide into a realm that is outside the field of knowledge.

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Ettinger creates a distinction between Death and Non-Life that I think is important, and attaches well to Kiefer’s work with “The Unborn Ones”.

Rather than seeing the death of the mother in the birth of the child, we are seeing the decimation of the potential womb entirely. A Black womb, the womb of man’s leather boot.The Unborn have not died, and yet an unnatural destruction of life has committed them to a Non-Life. Kiefer turns our attention to aggression, savagery, denial, and the repetitions of this through history and in our own time.

Ettinger’s question becomes, once we know the destruction of the child, how do we enter the concept of love without paranoia? For Ettinger, the denial of transubjectivity and transconnectedness is already an accumulated shock/trauma. Death cannot bring life, only life can create life. Art is a way to engage with tenderness and learn about love beyond libidinal relations.

Ettinger ends her lecture with an interpretation of God’s name in Hebrew: EHYE. In Hebrew the name means I will be that I will be, but when the Hebrew is translated into French, it translates I am that I am.

The God that says “I am” is an forever present, the god that says “I will be” takes us in to a different dimension. In the God that says “I will be” we see a connection to the future, and therefore to the feminine. The God that is of the future is always escaping, always just beyond.

In a conversation between Ettinger and Levinas, Levinas gives a further interpretation of the Hebrew, he reads it as “I will be something else than what I will be” – and here we see a paradox of a future that proposes more than what it can contain. There is a meaning that transgresses the meaning of what is, a constant escaping. Here we reach a threshold of language in our ability to conceive of the paradox and fugue of transgressive futures. Perhaps it is in the silent images of art that we must turn to raise our awareness of this elusive, always escaping, plane of beyond.

Sources & Videos:

Wallace, David Foster. Both Flesh and Not: Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Print.

About Michael Johnson

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