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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


VAN DEN BERG, Cllliers. Hysteria and Perversion (Part 1): Some theoretical observations on victimhood in trauma discourses. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2016, vol.56, n.2-2, pp.693-709. ISSN 2224-7912.

The first of this two-part study sets out to analyse victimhood as an identity marker within the context of trauma discourse. The human subject is described from a Lacanian and Žižekian perspective in order to demonstrate the dynamics of identity formation in terms of victimhood. According to this psychoanalytical approach the subject does not represent an essentialised and coherent unity but rather constitutes a "state of subjectivation" in relation to its signifier (as part of the Symbolic Order). Subject formation is the result of the subject's alienation and separation from his or her sensate self, through entry into the discourse of the Symbolic Order. The latter represents the attribution of meaning, i.e. a signifier, to the subject, which then becomes its means of orientation. The void opened up in the process of alienation and separation is displaced by the subject's performative affirmation of the meaning its signifier prescribes. The question then is to what extent the subject can choose its own signifier, i.e. meaning, within the Symbolic Order. Louis Althusser uses the term "interpellation" in order to describe the way in which the meaning of any subject is ("ideologically") configured in advance within the Symbolic Order. The only real "choice" the subject has, is to react to his or her pre-fixed meaning: this would either be the performative acceptance and confirmation of the interpellation, or the challenge of its validity. Hysteria and perversion represent two ways to react to interpellation. Neither hysteria nor perversion should here be seen as pathological states, but rather as ways to describe the structural relation of the subject to its interpellation. A hysterical reaction manifests when the subject challenges its symbolic investiture or place within the Symbolic Order. Subject formation always constitutes a process of hysterisation, but the conscious coming to terms with this knowledge represents the hysteric approach. The hysteric challenges and questions, but the irony is that the hysteric subject, for all its efforts to find the truth of its own meaning, does not really want to find and conform to its symbolic status. This is because of an innate realisation that the lack brought about by alienation and separation, can never be healed. The hysterical challenge to its own symbolic investiture also manifests in the general challenge to the grand narrative of the Symbolic Order. The hysterical subject does not settle down and merely accept the meaning generated within the ideology or knowledge paradigm of any given discourse, but in questioning it on the contrary enables new knowledge. This is the reason Lacan conflated the hysteric with the scientific discourse, in relation to the "discourse of the master". The hysterical challenge can be further facilitated when the discourse of the master itself loses its power. When the validity of the master signifier, as foundational to its ideology, is lost, hysterical reactions in the search for meaning are the result. Contrary to hysteria the perverse reaction to symbolic investiture does not challenge, but rather identifies fully with its pre-fixed meaning. This happens because the subject displaces its ontological lack (as a result of alienation and separation) and projects it onto something outside its own self. The subject's desire therefore does not focus on healing its own lack, but rather uses a fetish as stopgap to ignore it. The result is that the perverse subject becomes the mouthpiece of the Symbolic Order - the hysterical subject is "desubjectivised" in order to become the perverse and instrumental object of the Other. In order to demonstrate the hysterical challenge and perverse confirmation of interpellation, the identity marker of victimhood represents an interesting case in point. Victimhood is the core aspect of any trauma and as the trauma discourse has become one of the most prevalent in modern culture, so has victimhood become more and more universalised. One of the reasons for this is that the concept of trauma has taken on more of an ontological, rather than specific historical quality. Alienation and separation, as key moments in the establishment of subjective identity, are accordingly interpreted as original trauma. Dominick LaCapra has written extensively on the resulting two registers of trauma: trauma as a structural, ontological status and trauma as a historical status. If victimhood is seen as identity marker or interpellation, so too can the response of the subject to this be seen as hysterical or perverse: the hysterical subject would challenge the interpellation of victim whereas the perverse subject would own it as its core meaning. As everyone is subject to ontological or structural trauma, but only some are subject to any given historical trauma, hysteria and perversion with regards to victimhood can be demonstrated in terms of the relation between the two registers: a hysterical reaction to victimhood would suggest that the subject does not conflate its ontological with any historical trauma, but would rather remain conscious of the fact that there is a difference between the two that cannot be bridged. A perverse reaction on the other hand would precisely be the conflation of the two, so that any discernible lack in the own subject can be displaced and projected onto a historical trauma. The Holocaust narrative is the most universal trauma discourse of the past few decades. If the issue of victimhood is judged within this narrative, it seems as if it has become easier to view more and diversified subjects as victims of this historic incident than in the past. It seems as if the universalisation of victimhood has also facilitated a tendential movement from hysteria to perversion. The original hysterical challenge and problematisation of the subject as victim has developed into a perverse acceptance of the symbolic investiture it entails. This might be indicative of the effects time has on the evolution of trauma narratives in general.

Palabras clave : hysteria; perversion; victimhood; trauma; Lacan; Žižek; LaCapra; identity; subject; interpellation.

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