Trauma and Transfiguration (2): The Ineffectiveness of Trauma

This is the second in a series of four posts under the general title “Trauma and Transfiguration.”

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What is peculiar here is that the work in no way affects previous beings through connections of causal efficacy. The working of the work does not consist in an effecting.

                        —Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935)


Trauma is utterly ineffective. It is not there to be used. It is not “for” anything.

Because trauma is “an intransigently incident accident,” which is to say “an event or occurrence that befalls someone by chance and that brooks no compromise to allow the one to whom it happens to pass through and beyond it,”* the work of trauma, like the work of art by Heidegger’s account above, “does not consist in an effecting.” Indeed, trauma is in that sense radically lacking in effectiveness. It is altogether without effect in that it will allow nothing to be “worked out or accomplished,” the meaning of the Latin term efficere, the past participle of which is effectus, from which our English word effect directly comes.

In its intransigence, its uncompromising refusal to yield or grant passage through it, trauma will brook no implementation, as it were.  That means, first of all, that trauma will not allow itself to be turned into any mere “implement,” reduced to the status of a tool or device for bringing about some result. Trauma is not a means to effecting some end.

That includes—as one should immediately add, to guard against oneself yielding to the temptation of idolatry—any means in the hands of God, any tool or device God uses to effect some mysterious divine intention, no matter how noble. To think any such thing is at best no more than a way to avoid confronting trauma, a way of pretending that some traumatic event never e-vented, never came forth (the etymological meaning of event, from ex-, “forth from, out of,” plus venire, “to come”), in the first place.

None of that means that trauma cannot be made use of by those who choose to use it in order to realize their own desires and intentions, whether mysterious or blatant. Such use is always abuse, precisely because trauma, the same as chipmunks or people, are not “for” anything—are not tools, means, or implements designed and made in order to be put to use. Typically, the abusers of trauma, that is, those who do make the choice to use trauma as a means for pursuing their own pursuits, are not themselves those on whom the trauma, that intransigent accidental incident, has fallen. Rather, such abusers are typically bystanders, who are quick to see in a mischance that befalls others a good chance to profit themselves.

Thus, for example, after the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was happy to use that event as a good excuse to declare more than one war.** For another example, as Peter Moskowitz has recently writtten in How To Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood (New York: Nation Books, 2017, “Introduction”), after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the government of the city of New Orleans “used the opportunity presented by the storm’s destruction of poor and African American neighborhoods to attract white people and investments,” furthering a process of intentional “gentrification” designed to put “the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.” Similarly, in the financial collapse of 2008 many financial giants, including many of those most responsible for bringing on the collapse in the first place, were quick to see great opportunities for enriching themselves even further.

However, as I have already said, such use is always an abuse—from Latin abusis, “a using up.” Putting things to uses not proper to them uses them up. Hence, the word abuse entered English in the mid-15th century with the sense of “improper practice.” That means literally a practice—ultimately from Greek praktos, “to be done”—that is not proper, so that an abuse is a use that is not to be made, a practice that is not to be practiced, a doing that is not to be done. To treat trauma as a way of pursue ones own ends is to do with trauma what is not to be done, what is absolutely wrong. It is against the law, even if no written laws declare it so.

Kant’s second formulation of what he rightly says is the one and only categorical imperative by which every good will is absolutely bound, is that one should never treat a human being, whether in the person of oneself or in the person of another, as no more than a means, rather than an end in itself. By that very formulation, to treat trauma, whether one’s own or another’s, as no more than a means to profit oneself, is to do something that is strictly proscribed.

To turn trauma, which is never there to make any effect, never meant to be “of use,” into something useful for effecting one’s own purposes, is to do with trauma what is not to be done, what is strictly prohibited. In that sense, to use trauma at all, rather than just to undergo it, to “suffer” it, is always to abuse it.

Depriving trauma of its essential ineffectiveness is always abusive.

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To be continued.


* As I wrote in my immediately preceding post, the first in this series of four.

** Though none of those wars was ever a declared war in the sense that the Constitution of the United States permits, of course: A war declared by Congress, which is the only place where the Constitution vests the power of such declaration.