Sunday, May 06, 2007

"Unpredictable Predictability"

Dany Nobus
Not Paul McCartney
(Image from School of Social Sciences, Brunel University)

Some people really know how to catch an audience's attention. At yesterday's conference, Dany Nobus, of Brunel University (in West London), gave a talk titled "Unpredictable Predictability: On the Causes and Consequences of Trauma," which began immediately with these words:
It has been a rollercoaster. I don't remember hearing any noise or blast. But I could see a strange nasty yellow light and then it all went black. I was on the floor and I felt my face was wet with blood. I did not know what had happened and I thought it was just me. I couldn't see very well without my glasses -- they had been blown off -- and I rolled over to ask someone to help me. Then I saw people lying covered in blood and I knew it was a major event that had affected the whole train.
Nobus was quoting from the words of John Tulloch, whose experience in the Islamist train blast on the subway at Edgeware Road Station in London on July 7th, 2005 was reported in The Daily Mail: "A survivor's story: 'So good to be alive'" (July 14, 2005).

Nobus was using these words for a number of reasons having to do with his talk on trauma but also because he knows Tulloch personally. Nobus and Tulloch are both professors Brunel University's School of Social Sciences and Law.

I suppose that if we believe the current cliché about there being merely 6 degrees of separation an individual and anyone else in the world, then we shouldn't be surprised to discover that we know somebody -- or somebody who knows somebody -- whose life has been personally touched or even snuffed out by a terrorist bomb. My own wife, Sun-Ae, had a close shave during a terrorist attack on a Jerusalem market in November 1998, and my brother knew Sara Low, one of the flight attendants who perished on the first plane flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

So when Nobus observed that "As a survivor of a terrorist attack, John Tulloch is the face of our new era," I understood quite personally what he meant. And I agree with him that:

The young history of the 21st century has already taught us that violence, death and destruction can appear at any moment, in any given place, the likelihood of its occurrence no longer being a matter of "if"' but quite simply a question of "when".
Not that we can predict when, for that is simply our bad luck if we happen to set off on the next train to blow up. As Nobus points out, if we assume that "bad luck" is "pure chance," then this fact of our precarious existence calls into question a Lacanian assumption, drawn from Freud, that such a thing as "pure chance" does not exist. Nobus cites Lacan:

[W]e always point out that we must not be taken in when the subject tells us that something happened to him that day that prevented him from realizing his wish to come to the session.
As Nobus observes, this assumption made by psychoanalysis is rather controversial, for it "refuses to acknowledge that a subject to whom something happens has nothing to do with it and is therefore 'innocent'." As an example of how ridiculous the principle can become, Nobus gave the following illustration:

[L]et us imagine, for a moment, that my colleague John Tulloch was on his way to see his analyst on the morning of 7 July 2005, and let us also imagine that after having been admitted to hospital he called his analyst to explain the circumstances which had prevented him from coming to the session. If we follow the Freudian principle that nothing ever happens by chance but only ever "as if by chance", the upshot is that my poor colleague would have to start exploring the vicissitudes of his death drive, and the unconscious reasons for his symptomatic self-destructive compulsion to expose himself to dangerous, potentially lethal situations. "After all", the Freudian analyst would no doubt say, "let us not forget that for many years you have been transferring yourself to some of the most unstable regions of the planet. You better start thinking why you are so keen to seek out risk situations."
Nobus then observed that upon "hearing this type of comment, few people will disagree that it is not only ludicrous, but also cruel and inhumane."

I would agree, but surprisingly, Nobus partly disagrees:

And yet ... something about the principle, which prompts subjects not to regard themselves purely as innocent victims of circumstance but to assess and recognize their subjective implication in the circumstances, may be beneficial for overcoming the pathogenic effects of a traumatic event.
Well, Nobus is a psychoanalyst, so I suppose that he would say that -- it expresses a sort of defense mechanism whereby psychoanalysis maintains its view of the world -- but I can see his point about using the principle to help us become more active subjects.

Yet, how? What is one supposed to do? The principle might help the traumatized victim regain a sense of power, but the principle doesn't seem to do much, practically speaking, to help me avoid the "violence, death and destruction [that] can appear at any moment, in any given place."

And knowing that, I wonder how much the principle would help if I were one day to find myself the unexpected survivor of a terrorist attack.



At 2:06 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Very interesting. There is an example of this in HD's "Tribute to Freud." A distinguished theosophist comes to Freud with his trauma. This terror within him has its roots in a desire to over-reach. Freud sees the over-reaching as an impulse to death: chance, the things that happen to the man, is simply a primitive drive. Unfortunately, Freud did not see that the over-reaching would link to the man's desire to fly and the death-drive would become literal in a plane crash. In HD's book. Freud regrets that he did not foresee how subconscious trauma would become future reality...that the man's pre-disposition would put him in the plane crash! Like you, I don't know whether "pure chance" exists. I am not sure that I would want to believe that victims are not innocent because some drive inside them put them there and opened their life to subsequent tragedy.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for the comment. I'm really not sure what to think of psychoanalysis when it seems to begin to move beyond its naturalistic framework.

Freud's great strength was always his imaginative ways of remaining consistently naturalistic even while dealing with the weirdest psychological phenomena -- stuff that in earlier times would have been attributed to demons.

But this principle, if taken to an extreme, seems to escape naturalism. In purely naturalistic terms, how, for instance, could one possibly foresee a plane crash and plan to be aboard?

But perhaps I misunderstand psychoanalysts...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the point isn't really whether or not chance exists within a psychoanalytic framework--it does, but on a continuum. This is merely one of many contributions psychoanalysis makes for us, or opens, ie, the possibility that there is always something more than chance at work. What's interesting in regards to Lacan and trauma is the formulation that the trauma, whatever it may be, is unimportant (imagine, true though it may be, telling this to a rape or holocaust survivor). What's important is how this trauma is inscribed in the unconscious, or in other words how it signifies, which 'explains' peoples various responses to what is essentially the 'same' trauma. I have never stopped seeing this as revelatory.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I think that there's something to what you say, for individuals from different cultures suffers different sorts of traumas. In an honor culture, shame will be experienced as a trauma, whereas in a guilt culture, the shame might be easily shed.

Jeffery Hodges

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