When the pandemic began I happened to be reading Zizek’s The Ticklish Subject. There was an aspect of his argument which vividly captured the sense of unravelling I was experiencing, describing the narcissistic subject “who perceives everything as a potential threat to his precarious imaginary balance”. This “narcissistic self-enclosure” made it impossible for him to “float freely in his undisturbed balance”. This phrase resonated with me at the time because it conveyed exactly what I felt was lost: a sense of individual sufficiency which meant I could relax into the parameters of my existence, like the mundane joy of being the only swimmer in a pool. In reality I infrequently felt that way, but the sense that I could and might again for longer periods was enormously powerful, keeping a fantasy alive which was predicated on keeping potential threats at a distance.
It occurred to me that is akin to how Laurent Berlant describes trauma in Cruel Optimism:
But in critical theory and mass society generally, “trauma” has become the primary genre of the last eighty years for describing the historical present as the scene of an exception that has just shattered some ongoing, uneventful ordinary life that was supposed just to keep going on and with respect to which people felt solid and confident.Pg 9
Obviously I can see in retrospect that the capacity to imagine you might float freely in your undisturbed balance reflects a privilege that creates the material conditions in which this occasionally happens, as well as the confidence this might become a sustainable condition. But what does it mean for the genre of trauma, in the sense Berlant describes, if the sense the solidity of ordinary life becomes something in which few, if any, can have confidence?
This is another route into what Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou explores in Speculative Communities and I’m curious to read this alongside Cruel Optimism. What might non-cruel attachments look like in a world where the fantasy of equilibrium has been forcibly discarded?
One response to “Trauma as a genre for understanding the present”
Very precisely put.