The following essay was prepared by Eytan Gafni as part of a larger study on the applicability of Unique Self Theory to therapy. This study was based on a combination of academic and field work undertaken in 2016 by Eytan Gafni assisted organizationally by Yair Gafni.
Karl Popper says that we may become the makers of our fate,
when we have ceased to pose as its prophets.
I say that we may transcend post-traumatic acting out and attain therapeutic liberation,
when we accept history as a complex, non-binary reality;
when we are able to accept doubt as an integral part of human existence.
In this article, prepared as part of our larger work for the Center for Integral Wisdom, I will examine whether socio-historical narrative and its features may offer a therapeutic tool for the process of constructing personal narrative, that is the unique life story of each and every individual.
In doing so I intend to extend and deepen the vision of identity put forth in Unique Self theory.
By socio-historical narrative I mean history as it is written and told within the collective, and by features I mean that which is behind and guides the writing of history. I use the term therapeutic tool not in a clinical sense, as I am neither a physician nor a psychologist, but in relation to the basic psychotherapeutic idea of liberation from the past and openness to the new possibilities offered by the present and, all the more so, by the future. I have therefore chosen to focus on the cognitive rather than the emotional aspects of the therapeutic process. The process of constructing personal narrative refers to the premise that the life story created by every individual is the result of daily efforts, conscious or unconscious, exerted to that end.
At the basis of this inquiry is the idea that history and psychoanalysis (a central method of psychotherapeutic treatment) share a common interest in the past and in the question of its influence on the present. Some might argue that the main difference between the two disciplines is that psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious past, while history deals with the past in general. It is precisely in this context, however, that I would like to explore whether history, as a discipline, also, naturally has an incomplete (unconscious) perspective of human reality, awareness (consciousness) of which would enable a renewed examination and reading not only of the past, but of the present and the future as well.
Further context for this paper can be found in Dominick LaCapra’s Writing History, Writing Trauma, which I believe offers fresh insight into the essence of historiography and the ways in which it is written. LaCapra seeks to provide a broad and profound perspective on the traumatic voice in historiographical space. According to LaCapra, the characteristics and symptoms of trauma pose a particular challenge for historical representation, due to the interpretive framework within which history is written and read. He therefore proposes the application of psychoanalytic concepts to the historical analysis of economic, social and political processes, thereby providing historiography with a new interpretive perspective. It is important to note that LaCapra does not refer to a psychoanalytic reading of historical events or figures, as in psycho-history, but to revealing the relation between the role of the historian and that of the critical intellectual; between deconstruction and psychoanalysis.
It is in the framework of these arguments that I will examine LaCapra’s stance, in order to determine whether it reinforces my thesis regarding historical perspective as a therapeutic tool in the process of constructing personal narrative. I will first provide a brief overview of LaCapra’s ideas as presented in the first chapter of Writing History, Writing Trauma, in which he lays the foundations for his position—in search of a connection, or the lack of one, between his views and the question I wish to examine here.
LaCapra first distinguishes between two historiographical approaches, as a backdrop for the exposition of his own view. He calls the first of these the documentary or self-sufficient model, which gathers evidence and makes referential statements in the form of truth claims. In this case, writing does not have a significant impact on content, but serves merely as medium by which to access the past. LaCapra then goes on to list various features of the documentary model, one of which strikes me as particularly pertinent to the “historical perspective” I would like to explore, and that is: “an exclusion or downplaying of a dialogic relation to the other recognized as having a voice or perspective that may question the observer or even place him or her in question by generating problems about his or her assumptions, affective investments, and values.”
The second approach, which LaCapra terms radical constructivism, refers to factors not necessarily connected to the event itself, factors that construct the historical story. In this case, the referential statements draw their meaning and significance from those narrative structures. In its extreme form, however, constructivism presents the infinite projective factors that influence historiography, to the point that historical knowledge becomes amorphous, offering insight only into the historian’s own subjectivity. Nevertheless, LaCapra shows that there are also less radical constructivist approaches. Thus, for example, it may be argued that fictional narratives may involve truth claims, as they provide insight into phenomena such as slavery or the Holocaust by giving a “plausible feel” for experiences or emotions, difficult to convey by means of restricted documentary methods. In brief, LaCapra argues that truth claims are a necessary but not sufficient condition for historiography and that we must understand the ways in which they interact with other factors and forces in historiography, including empathic and responsive understanding, as in the above example.
LaCapra presents both approaches—the self-sufficient documentary and the radical constructivist—as insufficient historiographical perspectives for a complete historical representation. Although each includes important and even essential components that must be taken into consideration in historical writing, each is lacking in some way. LaCapra then evokes the concept of the “middle voice”, as discussed by Hayden White and Roland Barthes, by means of which complete historical representation might be made. The middle voice, as LaCapra explains, is a voice that resists dichotomous binary opposites (such as active and passive, past and present, masculine and feminine) that repress an anxiety-ridden middle area of undecidability and absence of clear-cut positions.
LaCapra also notes, rightly in my opinion, that the deconstruction of binary opposites does not necessarily entail the blurring of all distinctions [in a post-modernist sense of casting doubt on everything], but in fact distinguishes between the significance of binary opposites in empirical reality and the articulation of non-binary distinctions in areas that do not easily lend themselves to empirical scrutiny and the attribution of relative strength and weakness. By way of explanation, LaCapra suggests a correlation between deconstructive and psychoanalytical concepts. He thus shows how the deconstructive blurring of distinctions prevails in post-traumatic acting out:
[I]n post-traumatic acting out … one is haunted or possessed by the past and performatively caught up in the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes—scenes in which the past returns and the future is blocked or fatalistically caught up in a melancholic feedback loop. In acting out, tenses implode, and it is as if one were back there in the past reliving the traumatic scene. Any duality (or double inscription) of time (past and present or future) is experientially collapsed or productive only of aporias and double binds.
What LaCapra appears to be saying here is that the deconstruction of binary frameworks and their non-binary reconstruction may bring about the working through of trauma, distinguishing between past and present, recognising the difference between what happened then and reality in the here and now, as well as the possibilities held by the future. It must be noted here that the idea of a non-binary articulation of historical reality is no simple matter—and certainly not in a situation of post-traumatic acting out. LaCapra writes:
Those traumatized by extreme events … may resist working through because of what might almost be termed a fidelity to trauma, a feeling that one must somehow keep faith with it. Part of this feeling may be the melancholic sentiment that, in working through the past in a manner that enables survival or a reengagement in life, one is betraying those who were overwhelmed and consumed by that traumatic past. … [T]here has been an important tendency in modern culture and thought to convert trauma into the occasion for sublimity. … In the sublime, the excess of trauma becomes an uncanny source of elation or ecstasy. Even extremely destructive and disorienting events, such as the Holocaust or the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may become occasions of negative sublimity or displaced sacralisation.
LaCapra thus goes on to discuss the practical application of the “middle voice”: the “sacrifice” offered through writing. According to LaCapra, writing history closely involves an objective reconstruction of the past, as well as dialogic exchanges with that past and with others who inquire into it—in the course of which, knowledge involves processing not only information, but also “affect, empathy, and questions of value”. This brings LaCapra to the dimension of actual and subjective experience as important components in the construction of historiography. In this context, he claims:
Especially open to question is a strategy of objectification and sustained ironic distance allowing only for unargued subjective asides…. Such an objectifying strategy may well posit or assume a radical divide between objectivity and subjectivity (as well as between research and dialogic exchange) and lead to an either/or conception of the relation between empathy and critical analysis.
LaCapra thus appears to combine the objective voice in historiography with the subjective voice or experience, which enables emotional respect for the other and recognition of the fact that the other’s experience is not mine. This attitude to the voice of the other brings me back to LaCapra’s initial discussion of the documentary, self-sufficient research model, and one of its most conspicuous shortcomings: the exclusion of a dialogic relation to the other as one who has a voice or perspective that may question the observer or even place him or her in question by generating problems about his or her assumptions, affective investments, and values. Now, however, the opposite is true. Recognising the fact that the experience of the other is not ours calls upon us to recognise the other’s perspective, as a perspective that expands our own historical perspective and allows us to reconstruct binary opposites, thereby affording a more complete understanding of history. If so, LaCapra proposes a new approach to historiographical writing, which aims to present historical complexity—reality that can be apprehended within the framework of what he terms the “middle voice”, combined with dialogic exchanges involving empathy for the experience and perspective of the other.
LaCapra’s approach appears to entail a kind of contingent perspective when writing history, that differs somewhat from prevailing historical contingency. Contingency refers to the study of alternative possibilities—of events that might have happened but ultimately did not. (Contingency does imply casual or random development of history, but contends that events did not have to happen as they did.) In the case of post-traumatic acting out, however, the events presented have actually occurred and continue to do so, but are not narrated, as they stem from trauma that has remained unspoken because it is not a part of dichotomous, binary historiographical discourse. In other words, both post-traumatic acting out and historical contingency present un-narrated realities. The difference between them lies in the fact that contingency does not exist but is merely represented, while post-traumatic acting out exists and may exert a significant influence, but is not narrated and is thus excluded from binary history.
To return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article, regarding the connection between psychoanalysis and history, and whether history too has an incomplete perspective, I would like to suggest that the incomplete perspective of human reality—awareness of which would enable a renewed examination and reading not only of the past, but of the present and the future as well—is the binary reality of writing history that excludes the full application of the perspective of the other. I believe the same approach may be applied to the idea of personal narrative, to which every individual contributes, consciously or unconsciously, on a daily basis, and which may also, at times, be incomplete. It has been suggested that an individual may afford meaning to her or his life and constitute his or her identity by means of a unique, personal story. Amos Goldberg, for example, writes:
The fundamental principle in life-story and autobiography studies is that only by means of language can people give meaning to the events of their lives and constitute their identities and subjectivity, that is by weaving those events into a narrative. In other words, there is a close affinity between the autobiographical text—as language, narrative, and narration—and the constitution and existence of a subject with a distinct identity.
The question remains, what is the connection between an individual’s ability to afford meaning to her or his life by telling her or his personal story and the above assertions regarding the reconstruction of historiographical binary opposites, in order to attain a more complete understanding of history? The idea of constructing a personal narrative is not as obvious as it might seem. One of the main difficulties that people encounter when attempting to tell their life stories is the binary perspective from which they look at the series of events that make up the whole of their lives. They are unable to see their stories from a contingent perspective. My central claim is thus that the process of extrospection in history can help the process of introspection in personal narrative. In the words of Yemima Ben-Menahem:
[O]ne of the roles of history is to demythologize our current perception of the world. This role is analogous to the role of one’s personal history in the psychotherapeutic process, and the connection between confronting history and changing our beliefs and behaviors is similar in both cases. The analogy applies to two different aspects of this confrontation: the reinterpretation of the past which it entails, and the cognitive possibilities and new directions for action which are opened up for us as a result.
According to Ben-Menahem, the way in which one may attain the liberating encounter with the past is by adopting a contingent rather than a necessary perspective. In other words, the past did not have to unfold in a particular direction; the events did not have to happen as they did; and the way in which they happened was only one possible outcome. So too, we choose the meaning that we give the event and thus, how we respond to it. Such meaning is only one of the many possible ways in which we could have responded. Individual personal stories are not binary, just as history is not binary. Understanding different perspectives of history and the ways in which it is written may offer individuals a broader perspective of the historical narrative structures that have influenced the development of their personal narratives, as well as a mirror image of the various perspectives from which they may look at their own life stories.
In conclusion, I began this article by asking whether socio-historical narrative and its features may offer a therapeutic tool for the process of constructing personal narrative. I sought to examine whether, like psychoanalysis, history as a discipline naturally has an incomplete perspective of human reality, and whether awareness of this fact might enable a renewed examination and reading not only of the past, but of the present and the future as well. To that end, I presented the claim of Dominick LaCapra, in Writing History, Writing Trauma, that the deconstruction of binary frameworks and subsequent reconstruction can lead to the working through of trauma in particular, and to a more complete view of history in general. In this context, I created a kind of circumstantial chain, showing how historical complexity, according to LaCapra, offers a tool for the re-examination of personal narrative and hence the means to a therapeutic process and liberation from dependence on the past. The accompanying change in consciousness offers the individual the ability to harmonise narration and narrative, in a single unit.
Ben-Menahem, Yemima. “Michel Foucault: History as Therapy”. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 19, no. 4 (1996): 579-610.
Goldberg, Amos. Traumah be-guf rishon: Ketivat yomanim bi-tkufat ha-Shoah [Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust]. Or Yehuda: Ben Gurion University press and Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2012.
LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
 By liberation from the past I do not mean forgetting it, but being able to look at the past without being dependent on it or a prisoner to it.
 Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, p. 5.
 LaCapra, p. 8.
 LaCapra, p. 20.
 LaCapra, p. 21.
 LaCapra, pp. 22-23.
 LaCapra, p. 39.
 Above, p.2.
 Amos Goldberg, Traumah be-guf rishon, p. 27.
 Ben-Menahem, p. 584.
 Ben-Menahem, pp. 585-586.