Trauma, and the Internet Oracle

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Evan Malater
Independent Psychoanalyst.

Abstract

In this paper, the writer confronts the uncanny confluence of new media and trauma while using the Internet to answer questions about a family trauma. The Internet is seen as an oracle before which the author asks unanswerable questions about a disturbed and violent family member, searching databases, making freedom of information requests, finally piecing together a coherent narrative of what had been shrouded in silence. If there is magic here, it is the magic of Freud’s Uncanny. Freud connected the experience of the uncanny with an encounter with one’s double. Through the internet, we construct doubles, profiles and narratives, often leading to the creation of the façade, a false self – but there is another possibility: the magic found in encountering lost fragments of a shattered past, the magic that allows the unspeakable to be spoken.

Note: This article is an extract from a larger piece in which I connect theoretical considerations about new media and trauma with my personal search for answers to hidden information about my own history.  This extract contains the theoretical core of the full paper.  For the full paper, please contact the author at emalater@gmail.com.

As a psychoanalyst in the early days of the Internet, I became fascinated when patients began to bring me printed out transcripts of email disputes between themselves and somebody else. They handed me these papers with a trepidation that suggested that, beyond an account of an argument, they were giving me the thing itself, that which would negate any need to interpret or understand. It would be wrong to imply that I was a critical observer. In fact, I was as fascinated and entranced as my patients, and I gladly took the bait. In this example, the fantasy that time is frozen, stored, presented and held is one aspect of media magic. The magic of captured time suggests its opposite: the hard reality of limited and fleeting time, of conflict, rupture and loss, the realm of trauma.

Erik Davis writes “magic is technology’s unconscious… the more intensely we probe its mutant edge of mind and matter, the more our disenchanted productions will find themselves wrestling with the rhetoric of the supernatural.” [1] In his interpretation, the core of the techno-magical is connected to a Gnostic impulse towards immortality, the wish for disembodied knowledge and distaste for the limits of the body.

Derrida shows how the impulse to preserve memory in the face of death and loss lies at the root of the problem of the archive, the social place where memory is held.   The guardians of the archive are magicians who derive their power from the ability to determine what information is remembered and how it is categorized. They are those who determine the basic boundaries and limits of memory, “the institution of limits declared to be insurmountable,  “the relations between the secret and the nonsecret” or  “between the private and the public.” [2] Derrida states that through its power to determine basic categories of thinking, “the archivization produces as much as it records the event.” [3]

The Internet, as virtual archive, shelters from loss and preserves memory.  At the same time, as Derrida says, the archive shelters itself from what it shelters. At the limit of knowledge there is the question of boundaries and a certain kind of violence.  There is a conflict between a wish to preserve and a wish to be protected from the traumatic knowledge that cannot be safely absorbed without doing damage to the structure of the categories on which the archive is based.

To say that there are questions about categories and decisions, about what remains secret and what becomes public, about boundaries and borders, brings us directly into the realm of trauma. The traumatic is that which overflows boundaries, which disrupts every attempt at containment and classification, which is both secret and the very air one breathes. If magic is the unconscious of technology, then technology expresses the unconscious conflicts of those who control technology, those who define the categories. Media today offers the seductive promise that every type of limit and every type of loss can be erased, that the limits of time and space, limits of access to information can all be surpassed. The seductive promise of a world without limit collides with trauma, limit and loss, a manic oscillation between the abundance of a disembodied world at one’s fingertips and the impoverishment of environmental destruction and diminishing resources.

To say that trauma is that which cannot be represented is not to say that there are no representations of trauma – rather it is to say that the efforts to represent it are bound to be wrong, either too much or not enough. The classic example is September 11, how what Mina Cheon [4] calls media mourning took the form of an endless repetition of horrifying images which were then suddenly halted, a terrible abundance and then suppression, a traumatic tic where inability to mourn is played out in a manner that parallels the terrifying flashbacks of the PTSD victim.

Cathy Caruth [5] writes that history can be said to be the history of trauma.  Similarly, on the individual level, the search for one’s own history revolves around a traumatic core. Cultural trauma passed down through the generations manifests as small-scale individual scandals and personal breakdowns. The effect of trauma is to break the links, to sever the narrative. Therefore, I am interested in practices which do the reverse, making connections between personal and collective, crossing genres – speaking as an observer scientist who is driven inevitably into deep poetic declamations and who is finally driven to enact the most suspect rituals at the scene of the trauma.

The Internet is the ghostly body of psychoanalysis, leading us from association to association, a dream of a life constructed, from link to link. Everything that can be asked will be asked, even and especially the heretofore unspeakable. Every record that can be obtained will be obtained.  I searched the archives for what could be found about my own traumatic family history.

There is a kind of magic in this search.  What do I mean by magic? There is the pleasure principle magic of Disneyworld and then there is another kind of magic: the death drive magic of the shaman who suffers and through suffering goes to the other side, beyond.   Here I am also speaking about magic as the uncanny, connected by Freud to the appearance of the doppelganger, the double in literature. The uncanny and the double mark the return of the repressed, something both intimately familiar and deeply hidden.  Although Freud connects the uncanny to the emergence of repressed castration anxieties, psychoanalysts Rand and Torok [6] point out that the description of something both intimately familiar and deeply hidden more closely approximates the description of a traumatic family secret. The traumatic is that which is deeply familiar, a scar that forms the unconscious substrate of my being.

I am interested in how magic is connected to trauma and how the Internet creates uncanny doubles, worlds of endless pleasure and masks but also worlds in which we search for our selves, our real selves with all our shattered histories. There was magic for me in searching for missing fragments of my history in Google, in finding a part of my lost past.  In wanting to find all, to know all, and finally in writing and offering it back to the archive, as writing, as speech.

You can say this is just an ordinary story and has nothing special to tell us about media or magic today. At any time, I could have researched my past, written away for records, pieced it all together. And at the end, I found I had to go to a place, to stand something anyone could do at any time. What has changed today is the experience of address. Sent or not sent, to write a letter in the time of the Internet is to write in a time where our unconscious is always addressing an immediately present other.  Where the other breaks down, through madness or death or any possible calamity, we continue to address any being or any thing.

I collected fragments of history, pieces of one big explosion, waiting for what was missing, entering my text into an online cut-up engine, using the device of another famous murderer, William Burroughs, to create poetry based on the logic of coincidence, one textual fragment exploding into another, revealing an underlying truth hidden by linear scientific narratives.  In such a state, the search for records, for information, for meaning, approximates the state of trauma. One struggles to make sense of fragments, to make disparate elements cohere into a meaningful whole but the search itself threatens to repeat the trauma either through inability to find what is lost and forgotten or alternately, by creating an overwhelming surplus of details and meanings.

At the limit of what could be known, I found that I had to leave the search engine and go to that place, the place of trauma, where it happened.  The logic of the Internet is the logic of trauma.  There was no theory to account for my need to go to that place.  From link to link, I was led. After the fact, I can posit a theory.

Anthropologist Marc Auge [7] writes of two types of places: the place and the non-place.  The place is a place to live, a place of home, where the world unfolds and creates itself, organically through living community. The non-place is a space of transience, generic and soothing, like an airport or a Starbucks. The Internet, before which I sit, asking questions, typing names of the dead, looking for answers, can also be seen as a non-place.  Non-places develop and proliferate over the invisible grounds of another type of place, a third place that Auge does not theorize: the place of trauma.  The gaping monstrosity of the place of murder is covered over, soothed and tranquilized by the non-place. How does the non-place bring us to the place of trauma?  How does the Internet feed both an aim to maintain the false self alter ego and a wish to find the truth, to say what really happened?

A year after the essay “The Uncanny,” Freud associated the uncanny with repetition compulsion in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. [8] When he arrived at the concept of the death drive, he realized he was bumping against a trauma that would not go away.  The dead and the living dead haunted the Pleasure Principle.  Freud asked himself, why, if we live in a world ruled by pleasure, do we go back again and again in our dreams and in our lives to what terrifies us?  He wanted to believe we live in a world ruled by pleasure but he bumped against a darker truth. He went beyond.

Freud writes, “So-called educated people have ceased to believe, officially at any rate, the dead can become visible as spirits, such appearances being linked to remote conditions that are seldom realized.”[9] He is haunted by the dead, haunted as one of the “so-called educated,” who knows better than to believe in the haunting of the dead.   His denial of the haunting of the dead was to take the form of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he said we are haunted by a wish to be in no place, the place before trauma, the place before being, death as sanctuary, haunting, calling.  If the dead call us and we attend to their calls, is it because we long to be where they are?

I, too, longed  to address the dead. The records told me everything I needed, but I needed more. I went to the real place of trauma.  But I did not go alone.  I brought a tape recorder. At the “mutant edge of mind and matter,” Erik Davis says we will find the magic that is technology’s unconscious. At this mutant edge, we also find the dubious science of Experimental Voice Phenomenon or EVP. Experts in the art of EVP tell us that we can record the voices of the dead.  All that is needed is a tape recorder. You go to a spot and address the dead. You open a channel. A website called “Recording your own EVP’s offers the following, “Introduce yourself and explain what you are going to do.  Ask any spirits that might be present to try to communicate with you.” [10]

You cannot hear the voices of the dead in real time. You sit with your recorder, opening a channel, addressing the dead. You press the record button. You should be serious, respectful and polite. The dead may not know about tape recorders – be prepared to explain your technology.  If the dead speak, you will only hear it later, when you play back the recording.  In the moment there is only silence.   The website “Recording Your own EVPs” further explains that you should not expect to hear full sentences.  “For reasons which we don’t yet understand, spirits seem to have difficulty getting out more than two or three words before that mysterious window between this world and the next closes.  Perhaps time exists at a different speed where they are.”

In disembodied instant communication, we demand ever an ever-diminishing gap between every address and every response to every disembodied living spirit.  The disembodied dead spirits do not respond to such demands. Messages from the dead are not instant; you will have to wait.

What kind of magic is this?  From link to link, from letter to Internet, from place to non-place and back to a place, there is a kind of magic in being there, in saying that this is a place where something happened here. Such confrontations with the limits of the magical seductions of media may lead to new forms of ritual in which the magic of disembodied instant communication yields to the magic of a body in a place, no longer transcendentally observing but embedded in a certain place, in a certain time.  It is not my intention to make a case against the magic of the disembodied Internet but rather to show how, paradoxically, the technological unconscious contains dual wishes, to be in a body and to be free of a body and how, through circuitous means, engagement with the technological unconscious finally may take us, through the route of the traumatic, back to the place, back to the body.  Only there is no return – as to return to a body, to come back to a place, in ritual space and time, is not and cannot be what it was.

References

1. Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Harmony Books, 1998), 38.
2. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 4.
3. Ibid., 17.
4. Mina Cheon, Shamanism and Cyberspace (New York, Dresden: Atropos, 2009).
5. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
6. Evan Malater, Father, hello. Unpublished manuscript.
7. Nicholas Rand and Maria Torok, “The Sandman looks at “The Uncanny” in Speculations after Freud, ed. Shanu Shamdasani and Michael Munchau, (London: Routlege, 1994).
8. Michael J. Neufield, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: AA Knopf, 2007), 208.
9. Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. (London, New York: Verso, 1995).
10. Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, and Gregory Zilboorg, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Norton, 1975).
11. Sigmund Freud, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton, The Uncanny (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 149.
12. Author Unknown, Recording Your Own EVP’s website: http://www.mcmsys.com/~brammer/evpfilepage2.htm (accessed March 13, 2012).
13. Malater, ibid.

Bio

Evan Malater is a writer and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.  He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Binghamton University in 1984 and his Master’s Degree from Hunter College in1992. He is a member of the National Psychological Association of Psychoanalysis. He is on the Editorial Board of the Psychoanalytic Review and is the head of that journal’s Book Review Committee.  He has published articles on technology, trauma, film and the Internet. He co-edited a special issue on the Internet and Psychoanalysis for The Psychoanalytic Review with Michael Eigen. His published articles include “Caught in the Web: Patient, Therapist, Email, Internet” and “David Cronenberg’s Benevolent Pathology: Technology, Trauma and the Perverse Social Link in Crash.” His paper, “Trauma and the Internet Oracle” is based on a cross-genre book-in-progress which combines psychoanalysis, memoir, trauma studies and experimental writing.