Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Joanne Waugh, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Stephen Turner, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Alex Levine, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Elizabeth Hersh, Ph.D.


Knowledge, Embodiment, Plasticity, Poetic Language, Abjection, Accident


In writing/trauma, I address the association of trauma with knowledge, language, and writing. My discussion first works to establish the relationship between trauma and knowledge. I argue that trauma does not fit into the traditional Enlightenment model of scientific knowledge or the ontological model of what Michele Foucault calls the ‘truth-event.’ Rather, I contend that trauma is unique embodied knowledge, different from that of praxis and normal memory. In general, embodied knowledge is a matter of prenoetic and intentional operations. The body schema and body image maintain a power of plasticity and adjust to new motilities in order to re-establish an equilibrium when disrupted or threatened. In line with this, embodiment involves a sense of temporality, agency, and subjectivity. But in the case of extreme disruption, such as trauma, these fundamental aspects of embodiment are compromised to the point that there is a corruption of the “embodied feeling of being alive.” Physical pain, to some extent, produces this phenomenon. However, the distinctive function of the repetition compulsion within trauma distinguishes it as an exceptional embodied experience unlike physical pain or analogous phenomena. In the case of trauma, an equilibrium is not maintained, similar to the ontology of the accident. Instead, at best, we can say that what takes place is a destructive plasticity, in which the individual is transformed to the point of being a whole new ontological subject.

This phenomenon of destructive plasticity is significant in establishing the relationship of language to trauma-knowledge as trauma is the precise point at which language is ruptured. That is to say, purported within psychanalytic discourse, traumatic experience is observed in a break within the symbolic order. As opposed to physical pain, then, trauma is more akin to the abject, sharing the same resistance to narrative language. Traumatic experience is expressed through semiotic compulsions in the body as a revolt of being. In light of this, I argue that trauma, rather than being treated as a pathology, is a specific embodied knowledge which can be captured in semiotic, poetic language. Moreover, fragmentary writing, the interface of fragmented knowledge and language, captures the disruptive force of traumatic experience. In conclusion, I assert that writing-trauma is valuable, not because it allows for a ‘working through’ of the traumatic experience, but because it is an expression of a distinctly human experience.

My work canvases nineteenth century to contemporary literature on trauma such as Bessel van der Kolk in the neurobiological discipline, literary critics including Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, Dominick LaCapra, et al, and the psychoanalytic theorists Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. I draw from such literature to analyze the ambiguous impossible-possibility of witnessing and giving testimony of traumatic experience in history and writing, as well as the concern with trauma and language specific to the repetition compulsion and the unconscious. Yet, my primary focus is on the contribution of philosophy to the ongoing discourse of trauma. I look to philosophical thinkers such as Michele Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche to depict the types of epistemological models traditionally addressed within the history of philosophy. My analysis of phenomenology and embodiment is mainly informed by the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Shaun Gallagher. Additionally, Catharine Malabou’s work on destructive plasticity provides an understanding of the ontology of the accident, one of the most critical pieces to my work. Additionally, the works of Elaine Scarry and Julia Kristeva help to disclose the intimate relationship between language and trauma. I also incorporate the work of Gloria Anzalúa along with Julia Kristeva to describe the multi-dimensionality of poetic language and how this is what allows for an articulation of embodied trauma-knowledge. Finally, Maurice Blanchot’s depiction of the disaster and fragmentary writing best captures writing-trauma as it is, like trauma, a process of fragmenting language and meaning.

My purpose is to make clear the value of poetic language and fragmentary writing in regard to knowing and writing trauma. The significance to philosophy is that my discussion bridges the phenomenological and epistemological perspectives with that of the literary in order to engage in philosophical discussion on the implications and value of traumatic experience for understanding the human condition. It is my observation that the more we experience trauma, the more valuable artistic expression becomes, and the more we are pressed within the philosophical tradition to account for an experience so many individuals suffer.

Included in

Philosophy Commons