The Trauma of the Real: Or, Unspeakable Acts


In addition to blurring the categories of the usual politics of identification, the Code Pink interruption of McCain’s speech illustrates another capacity of subjects of desire: to generate events. Unlike many of the other direct actions at the Republican Convention, which were quickly dismissed, the Code Pink disruption cause a specific type of rupture that explains why McCain was compelled to continue addressing what he declared to be a non-event – these disruptions caused trauma. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis write, psychoanalytic trauma is “an event in the subject’s life defined by its intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization.”97 Therefore, it is McCain’s simultaneous dismissal of and inability to move beyond the interruption that constitutes trauma, and it is this trauma that transformed the protests from mere actions into true events. Consider an example that carries considerable historical weigh – Mario Savio’s stirring speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement urging others to use their bodies in direct action:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.98

Against the more traditional interpretation of Savio’s prescription, that bodies should be used to physically clog spaces of power, perhaps we should perform a more psychoanalytic reading – that the suasive power of politics can be interrupted by jamming its symbolic machine with bodies that mutter, which frustrate rhetorical attempts to contain the desiring force of bodies through the politics of identification. Moreover, jamming the symbolic machine is not painless, it produces trauma, but it is not the pain of an individual subject but a shared blockage with potentially enormous effects.

Such an incitement to anti-rhetorical protest calls for a redefinition of activism as trauma, or more specifically, of activism as generating and sharing trauma. Douglas Crimp, Ann Cvetkovich, and others have described queer activism during the AIDS crisis this way, yet it is rarely applied to other activism, in large part because of the historical specificity of that moment and attempts to limit queerness to queer identity or ‘the queer community.’99 To be clear, this is not clinical trauma but its psychoanalytic version; one that emphasizes the jouissance of trauma as an intense mixture of pleasure and pain that are felt in excessive experiences that evade categorization.100 Such activism furthermore calls for a distinction between traumatic testimony or the inevitable trauma of being an activist, and actually putting oneself in traumatizing situations in order to cause an upheaval. In contrast to the suasive power of Cindy Sheehan, who gave voice to the trauma of losing a son to the Iraq War, the trauma generated and shared by a body that mutters comes from “the incommensurability between the body and subject.”101 The queer power of bodies comes from the failure of language to connect their inside and outside; the effect of which is subjective alienation, which is spread by bodies that mutter. “All other sounds and substances emitted by the body’s orifices or at its borders” thus provide the material for interventions that disrupt the false mastery of power through unspeakable acts that draw on resources unique to every body, which upset the official story and make it skip a beat.102

Ultimately, this redefinition of protest highlights the failures of the anti-war movement. Although the movement held some of the largest protests ever recorded, their size alone was not enough to end the war. While many feel that the anti-war movement needed more of the same – more people, more demonstrations, more people at demonstrations – protest as sharing in bodily trauma offers a change of course.103 Rather than looking for more convincing arguments or better ways to cut through the noise, bodies that mutter produce ‘ground noise and static’ to undermine the official story. And even though this form of protest was not the primary focus of the anti-war movement, its limited use still resulted in memorable actions. Furthermore, if disruptions of this kind were to become more common, the fragile pretense may have been harder to maintain. But this redefinition of protest has profound and dangerous consequences. On the one hand, it is profound because it promises to redirect desire from private pleasure and suffering – the joy of intimacy or the sadness of losing a son – and transform these private emotions into shared political experiences. Yet there are significant financial, social, and bodily costs that come with this form of activism, with some immediately visible (being beaten by the police) while others are less so (legal fees, loss of wages, the stigma of criminality, familial disapproval, mental trauma, stress and burnout). But forms of life that seem impossible for some may be necessary for others, for as Sara Ahmed notes, queerness highlights how we are not all free, but more importantly, how we are not all free in the same way. So on the other hand, using trauma as a lever for political change threatens to unleash uncontrollable forces that could possibly open a utopian queer horizon but may also grievously upset the modest lives people have built for themselves. The anxious reality of this proposition is its potential, for bodies that mutter are more powerful and meaningful than the pleasurable politics of identification, but its power is often the result of pain. 

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