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  • Writer's pictureAlex Houseknecht

Conceptualizing Trauma as a Force

As I reflect on the phenomenon of trauma, I am continually struck by its appearance as a force, a dis-integrating movement through identity and relationships. Much like a shockwave, it is released and explodes outward, reverberating through individual lives and communities. In terms of semiotics, I wonder whether trauma is itself the signifier or the signified. In other words, if trauma is the concept, perhaps the outcome of the perpetration of violence, some harm or remnants, or if it is that instrument which is perpetrating. There seems to be a more common, dualistic representation of perpetrator and victim, of which I am not necessarily disagreeing with, but I think continues to fall short of what I experience as the unrelenting “force” of trauma.


For instance, there are particular symptoms that subvert an individual’s pursuit of self-actualization. I am speaking of the body’s inability to hold time. Trauma keeps the self trapped in an atemporal state where the past cannot be distinguished from the present. Here, a person is not able to fully participate in the here-and-now, in “being” itself in terms of how it relates to a location in time and place. The result is often self-harming behaviors, addiction or self-mutilation, that mimic our natural propulsion toward wholeness, seemingly holding us together by keeping anguish at bay, while simultaneously resulting in further dis-integration. The mind attempts to keep the body together but through activities that ultimately keep the self isolated from others. These activities subvert the pursuit of relationship and replace it with the pursuit of a representation of wholeness, from which there will always be a gap between the pursuit and the grasp.


Returning now to the unrelenting force of trauma, I have come to believe that violence is the servant of trauma. It is only the most foolish (and consequently dangerous) who believe that violence can be used as a tool or as a means to an end. The mistake that is made here is the belief that one has any kind of control over the remnants of violence, which is trauma. Violence serves trauma as a kind of anti-creation, in that what was once whole is fractured into disparate pieces, strung together only by that force which is good, which is creation. Trauma may be waiting in the way that theologian John D. Caputo imagines God as a weak force, dependent on human partnership in order to be unleashed into the world. A force, in and of itself, that is either the result or cause of something whose purpose is to dis-integrate mind from body, and body from body in our communities at large.


The event of violence serves trauma in that it unleashes chaos, and therefore cannot be employed, but rather explodes through existence fracturing all that it touches, including those who have given themselves to violence. If we think of our bodies as being hardwired to be in relationship with each other, consciousness as something that is in need of interpenetration by the other, it would make sense that the malignant force of trauma propels life toward chaos, intent on subverting attachment for the purposes of disconnection and isolation. A user of violence has no sense of what the remnants of violence might be, beyond a fractured moment out of the ruins of which power may be consolidated, due to a limited or long-term rupture in an individual or community’s capacity to organize some kind of self-will or resistance, either psychologically or materially.


To believe that one has control over the remnants of violence is to say that one can predict the exact qualities of a landscape after a bomb has gone off. To believe that it is possible to utilize trauma is to further remove oneself from the reality of chaos, to look upon it as a containable event that is used in a way that one desires. Paulo Friere points toward this idea when he argues that an individual cannot exact violence without similarly violating the self. If we are built to be in connection with others, then we are dependent on others to be complete. To rip away connection, to dis-integrate, is to strip away that very thing that makes us human, which is to be in relationship with others. As such, trauma, as a force, is for the sake of dis-integration, and will propel a person to use whatever tools available to make this possible. Like creativity, there is a kind of letting go that is necessary in order to allow these forces to work through us.

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