Trauma and Transfiguration (4): The Trauma of Transfiguration

NOTE: After today’s post, I will be taking two weeks off over the holidays, to resume weekly posting on Monday, January 8, 2018.


This is the fourth (and longest) post in a series of four under the general title “Trauma and Transfiguration”

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I’m old enough to remember myself before all this; a time when my self-esteem didn’t continually rise and fall based on an invisible army of relative strangers; when my worth wasn’t perpetually shifting data measured in shares and retweets and impressions and emojis.

—John Pavlovitz, “Stop Crowdsourcing Your Happiness”   (


At least at the global level today, the very transfiguration of trauma could itself be said to be undergoing a radical trauma. That is, at least at that global collective level, the possibility of the transfiguration of trauma itself—the final, sudden casting of trauma in a new light whereby what had up till then looked to be utter defeat suddenly opens up into the possibility of an unexpected, un-expectable victory and, with that, into undreamt of new ways of living together—seems to have ended. That possibility of trauma itself being allowed to proceed in its self-escalating fashion to the point where break-down can suddenly appear in a new light, as a point of break-through into new, abundant opportunity—the possibility of a sudden transfiguration of trauma from death into life, curse into blessing: what we might also call the blossoming of trauma—seems to have been definitively ended.  At least at that global level, the opening trauma requires in order to complete its own work of transfiguration appears to have been permanently closed, the hope such transfiguration hides to have been once and for all entombed.

Since the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the rise to unquestioned global dominance of a system of ever increasing commercial exchange and the ever more rapid circulation of capital has moved consistently and effectively to block all possibility of intervention from without. Whatever comes into the system is automatically rewritten in the algorithmic language of that system. As Italian media theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes in And: Phenomenology of the End—Semiotext(e) 2015, page 338—the radical “financial abstraction” basic to our contemporary global capitalist system “is based on the faceless operativity of automatisms embedded in soulless social dynamics. Nobody is really in charge; nobody is making conscious decisions. In economic operations, logical mathematical implications have replaced deciders, and the algorithm of capital has grown independent of the individual wills of its owners.”

As Berardi acknowledges, what is at issue in the development of such a faceless, decision-less system that runs of and off itself, ultimately turning everything with which it comes into contact into no more than another bit of binary code, is the completion of what Heidegger all the way back to the end of the 1940s called “the frame” (das Gestell). That is Heidegger’s name for the very essence of modern technology, which en-frames everything without exception within its frame-work and sets it to order as “standing reserve” (Bestand)—reducing nature itself to no more than the storehouse of reserves for the generation of ever yet more energy to fuel the never-slowing engine that is the modern technological global economy as such.

Within that all-en-framing frame, trauma itself becomes no more than a mechanism to keep the capital circulation going, to the ever-greater benefit of ever fewer. The system is nothing but  “the traffic in trauma,” as I called it in an earlier series of series of posts, a series of series to which, in fact, this current series on “Trauma and Transfiguration,” especially this post and the preceding one, thematically belong. It is a system that traffics in trauma no less—indeed, even more—than it does in pornography, pharmaceuticals, pollutants, or people (especially non-white and non-male ones, it should be noted). In fact, the traffic in trauma is the core of all trafficking within and by our global system. It is what keeps the whole thing running.

Left with no option any longer of confronting trauma, and experiencing the transfiguration that can befall us only in such confrontation, nothing is left us but to consume ever more of whatever our global market offers us to be consumed. The very possibility of the transfiguration of trauma is itself subjected to trauma and thereby blocked, denied all passage and sent into the two-sided reaction of numbing (the shock sending trauma itself “into shock,” we could say) coupled with compulsive repetition of the shocking situation itself. There certainly is no better way to keep capital circulating and profits rising, leaving the lower levels, where ever more of us who are “the people” live (if one can call it that), more and more parched.

We, the people, are thereby reduced to no more than what, following contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, can perhaps best be described as “bare life.” That is, we are reduced to what is no longer any truly human life at all, such life as can only be actively lived together with one another in what the Greeks called the polis—that is, the life that must be lived together “politically.”  Given no option but to be en-framed ourselves, as no more than further reserve available for circulation along with all the other “goods and services,” all the “property,” of our globally en-framed and en-framing circulatory system, we who are “the people” no longer know how to do anything more than merely survive.

We don’t any longer even know how to die: We just have to keep on merely surviving our own lives (survive: “to outlive, to live through and beyond,” derived from French sur, “over, beyond,” + vivre, “to live”). That is, we have no other option but simply to cling to bare life, as Agamben puts it. Rather than succumbing to what befalls us, we are forced just to keep on outliving ourselves, and not only others who have “passed on” before us. We are empowered to do no more than live-through our own lives, which have been reduced to no more than something to be endured, rather than actively lived.

Such pseudo-life in such a pseudo-world is in truth no more than life in the purely minimal sense that fits brain-dead patients kept “legally” alive on life-support systems and not even allowed the dignity to die. Or, to use Agamben’s own definitive example of “bare life,” it is all that is left of life and the living of it once we, human beings, are reduced to a level that is essentially, despite all appearances to the contrary—such appearances as Starbucks on every other corner, Facebook and Twitter on every smart-phone in the hands of anyone who counts for anything in our hyper-connected world, or new Teslas sitting in ever more of our garages—equivalent to the condition of the “Muslims,” the Muselmänner, in the Nazi death camps: those who have lost all ability to do anything but consume whatever is put before them, whether it be a morsel of garbage or a beating, as they just hang around waiting to be discarded.

With the defeat of the Axis forces in World War II, followed 45 years later my the end of the Cold War and the rise of George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order,” the Nazi death-camp system has now gone global, that’s all. The system had to get rid of Auschwitz as any distinctive place of unimaginable horror so that the whole world could at last become Auschwitz. As Agamben writes in his classic study Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen [New York: Zone Books, 1999], page 49), “Auschwitz is precisely the place in which the state of exception coincides perfectly with the rule and the extreme situation becomes the very paradigm of daily life.” Just such a place is the false world of our contemporary global society—so welcome to Auschwitz.

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Is there no hope, then? Perhaps there still is—a hope beyond hope, as it were.

 Agamben continues the passage that begins with the definition of Auschwitz just given by adding (on pages 49-50 of Remnants of Auschwitz) that

it is this paradoxical tendency of the limit situation to turn over into its opposite [that is, into “the very paradigm of daily life”] that makes it interesting. As long as the state of exception and the normal situation are kept separate in space and time, as is usually the case, both remain opaque, though they secretly institute each other. But as soon as they show their complicity, as happens more and more often today, they illuminate each other, so to speak, from the inside. And yet this implies that the extreme situation can no longer function as a distinguishing criterion [. . .]; it implies that the extreme situation’s lesson is rather that of absolute immanence, of “everything being in everything.”


As Agamben sees things, it is precisely the task of philosophy, “the love of wisdom,” in our own day to see what is there to be seen when, at the very end of the whole process of the globalization of Auschwitz, “the state of exception and the normal situation [. . .] show their complicity [. . .], as happens more and more often today”—and in fact is happening constantly everywhere globally now, two decades  after Agamben first wrote those lines. Accordingly he ends the paragraph from which I have been drawing by writing that philosophy today “can be defined as a world seen from an extreme situation that has become the rule,” to which he then adds in parentheses that “according to some philosophers, the name of this extreme situation is ‘God’.”

“Only a God can save us now!” Heidegger said in an interview he gave Der Spegel, the German news magazine, ten years before he died, on condition it not be published till after his death, which befell him on May 26, 1976. We are at just such an extreme of helplessness and hopelessness.

But as any addict or alcoholic who has ever “bottomed out” and in doing so found the way into “recovery” can tell you, it is only in such helplessness that help can be found, and only in such hopelessness that true hope can be born. It is only in such extreme situations that it may suddenly fall to us by chance to be given at last the eyes to see. Only when and where our global trauma reaches its most extreme limit will the trauma that itself is God have its way—as trauma in its intransigence always will.* 

At any rate, therein lies our only hope


* On this matter, interested readers might wish to consult my essay “The Trauma of God,” online in The Other Journal at