Zizek on the Traumatic Formation of the Human Being

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek responds to the claims that decoding of the genome enables us to reduce the human to the operation of chemical processes:

Here, however, one should be attentive to the formulation which repeatedly occurs in most of the reactions to the identification of the genome: “The old adage that every disease with the exception of trauma has a genetic component is really going to be true.” Although this statement is meant as the assertion of a triumph, one should nonetheless focus on the exception that it concedes, the impact of a trauma. How serious and extensive is this limitation? The first thing to bear in mind here is that “trauma” is NOT simply a shorthand term for the unpredictable chaotic wealth of environment influences, so that we are lead to the standard proposition according to which the identity of a human being results from the interaction between his/her genetic inheritance and the influence of his/her environment (“nature versus nurture”). It is also not sufficient to replace this standard proposition with the more refined notion of the “embodied mind” developed by Francisco Varela: a human being is not just the outcome of the interaction between genes and environment as the two opposed entities; s/he is rather the engaged embodied agent who, instead of “relating” to his/her environs, mediates-creates his/her life-world – a bird lives in a different environment than a fish or a man… However, “trauma” designates a shocking encounter which, precisely, DISTURBS this immersion into one’s life-world, a violent intrusion of something which doesn’t fit it. Of course, animals can also experience traumatic ruptures: say, is the ants’ universe not thrown off the rails when a human intervention totally subverts their environs? However, the difference between animals and men is crucial here: for animals, such traumatic ruptures are the exception, they are experienced as a catastrophe which ruins their way of life; for humans, on the contrary, the traumatic encounter is a universal condition, the intrusion which sets in motion the process of “becoming human.” Man is not simply overwhelmed by the impact of the traumatic encounter – as Hegel put it, s/he is able to “tarry with the negative,” to counteract its destabilizing impact by spinning out intricate symbolic cobwebs. This is the lesson of both psychoanalysis and the Jewish-Christian tradition: the specific human vocation does not rely on the development of man’s inherent potentials (on the awakening of the dormant spiritual forces OR of some genetic program); it is triggered by an external traumatic encounter, by the encounter of the Other’s desire in its impenetrability. In other words (and pace Steve Pinker), there is no inborn “language instinct”: there are, of course, genetic conditions that have to be met if a living being is to be able to speak; however, one actually starts to speak, one enters the symbolic universe, only in reacting to a traumatic jolt – and the mode of this reacting, i.e. the fact that, in order to cope with a trauma, we symbolize, is NOT “in our genes.”

From ‘No Sex, Please, We’re Post-Human!’

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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1 Response to Zizek on the Traumatic Formation of the Human Being

  1. John says:

    Hi, Its John from Melbourne.
    For an Illuminated Understanding of what human beings are in Truth & Reality please check out:

    1. http://www.dabase.org/dualsens.htm
    2. http://www.dabase.org/unique.htm
    3. http://www.dabase.org/2armP1.htm#ch1
    4. http://www.dabase.org/tfrbkgil.htm

    Plus 2 related references on Freedom.

    1. http://www.dabase.org/freedom.htm
    2. http://www.dabase.org/oltawwfm.htm

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