Trauma and the Saturated Phenomenon: Distinguishing Interruption from Rupture

I recently read Tamsin Jones’ article on the parallels between the disruption of the subject in “postmodern,” specifically phenomenological, approaches to religion and the disruption of the subject in trauma. She draws compelling parallels between the ways in which Immanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion talk about the self’s encounter with the invisible, unbearable, absolute, irregardable Other (which Marion calls the saturated phenomenon) and the ways in which trauma theory talks about the self’s encounter with the traumatic event. The parallel is particularly disturbing since thinkers like Marion associate the saturated phenomenon with the divine.

This caught my attention because I have noticed myself having to make a differentiation in my own work between something like what Jones identifies from a more positive kind of interruption. We both seem to share a conviction that the “ethics of alterity” is a good and necessary move in philosophy and religion as well as an awareness of the ways in which this can nevertheless slip into violence. I wish I’d had the language of trauma and Jones as conversation partner earlier, as I was writing my book but in lieu of that, this is my attempt to bring her work into the conversation. 

I am not so much interested in her interpretation of Marion – she is much more expert than I am – but in a question that her article raises for me: is it possible to distinguish between a traumatic event of revelation that does violence to the recipient, and one that is “unbidden and, more than that, impossible to integrate into ‘ordinary’ systems of meaning and identity…” (157) but is not violent or traumatic? Jones seems to think this is possible since she asks for “something beyond this ‘either/or’ alternative between a total subjection of the self before the givenness of the phenomena, and the reassertion of the self through an act of ‘contempt’ for the Other” (156). Without the unbidden and non-integrate-able we would be left prescribing a bounded system of meaning, shorn of surprise, time, encounter, wonder, over which we preside as unassailable sovereigns.

And yet Jones doesn’t give us any requirements for such a non-violent saturated phenomenon. It seems to me that it is precisely our capacity to distinguish between saturated phenomena that will prevent us from slipping to either the violence that Jones identifies or the self-delusion that it was intended to address. This is where I think rhythm might help us to distinguish what I call rupture (violent) from interruption (non-violent).

I take interruption to suggest something like a temporary suspension, while rupture is a threatening rending. These terms are simply formal place-holders. There are no doubt situations in which interruptions are an expression of violence (I’m thinking of the ubiquitous interruptions to women’s speech as an expression of domination in professional spheres, for example) and rupture is not. But in purely formal terms, in the context of a rhythm, pattern, or form, the two ideas suggest two different meanings and effects of what might at first appear to similar events. In the context of a rhythm, interruptions may sometimes be experienced as ruptures. But in retrospect, they are different in certain crucial ways. I suggest that it is these differences that make them non-traumatic and non-violent. Here are four of these distinctions:

  • Purpose: An interruption must be aimed at something beyond destruction. At the moment of experience, one might not know what that something is or whether or not it is present but it should be evident in retrospect, upon analysis. For example, a caesura may be felt in the moment as a destruction of the rhythm that the reader has set up. However, as the reader negotiates the caesura, he or she should eventually be able to see that the rhythm was in fact deepened and complexified through what in the moment felt like a mere rupture. Another way of saying this is that it may in fact be difficult to differentiate in formal terms a trauma from a miraculous transformation or revelation (think of Saul of Tarsus here), but it becomes fairly easy to distinguish them in retrospect, once we are able to see whether the event has diminished or liberated.


  • Integration: However, this raises the question of the relationship of the phenomenon to ordinary systems. One might object that if the interruption can be retrospectively understood to be more than destructive, it has been integrated into a system of meaning, conceptualized as meaningful. Only the violent rupture resists integration by destroying the system of meaning rather than accommodating to it. If I understand her correctly, this is part of what Jones is getting at. For Marion, an event must be violent if it is to be a saturated phenomenon because that is the only way it can escape the preconditions of meaning. But I think this is a misreading of the saturated phenomenon. After all, a “destruction” only makes sense in the context of a particular system of meaning. It only makes sense over-against that which is being destroyed. The problem with violence is therefore not that it is insufficiently integrated into a system of meaning; the problem is that it is too integrated. It does not suspend the oppositions between for/against, meaning/non-meaning, on which such systems are built, but is an outworking of their oppositional logic. The interruption, the non-violent saturated phenomenon is not in opposition to a system of meaning such that it falls prey to the structure of such systems. It should instead draw attention to those very systems by interrupting their functioning to reveal everything in a new light. In other words, it’s not simply that the saturated phenomenon can’t be integrated into the system of meaning. The way in which it can’t be integrated is significant.


  • Trauma: Part of the reason that the saturated phenomenon appears traumatic is that Marion often talks about it in the context of and in relation to genuinely traumatic events. This is where I would like to ask some questions about Jones’ interpretation of Marion. Admittedly I haven’t read Jones’ book on Marion and I could be way off here, but allow me to at least venture my understanding if only to be corrected. From what I understand, Marion does not consider instances of evil themselves to be saturated phenomena but, in fact, outworkings of the logic of the systems in which they occur (hence my point about destruction above). Jones quotes from Marion speaking about the extermination camps. The quote is as follows: “they immediately saw that the phenomenon that had saturated them in their flesh – evil and suffering – could not be said, understood, or therefore appear in our world, that our world could not do justice to theirs…” (Being Given, 317). She seems to imply that Marion himself is drawing a formal parallel between the experience of and encounter with horror and with revelation suggesting that both are saturated phenomena. However, I do not think that’s what this quote says. While evil and suffering here saturate the survivors, evil and suffering are not themselves saturated phenomena. The survivors themselves become the saturated phenomena, the revelation that cannot be enfolded into our world. Evil and suffering are the outworking of a tight logic, not surprising or interruptive at all. Trauma is simply the logic of evil taken to its extreme. But the survivors are surprising, incalculable. They cannot be absorbed, reduced, explained. I interpret the above quote thus based on Marion’s reading of the crucifixion, which he designates as the most extreme outworking of the logic of evil (Marion, Evil in Person, 10). It is only given the resurrection that this event also becomes the place from which the tight logic of revenge and retaliation is rendered inoperative and overcome. This rendering inoperative and overcoming – the resurrection in other words – is the revelation, the saturated phenomenon. The conditions of crucifixion under which it occurs are not. The crucifixion is a violent rupture, a trauma, but the resurrection is a non-violent interruption to its logic. It therefore seems possible to me that certain moments in Marion’s oeuvre may allow us to understand the relationship between trauma and revelation differently than how Jones reads it, namely. Perhaps: while we may often find revelation in the midst of trauma, it is not as a parallel but as a shuttle moving in the opposite direction, undoing the very logic that generated the trauma in the first place.


  • Cooperation: Finally, Jones says that the recipient receives the saturated phenomenon by resisting it. In other words, it cannot be refused. To refuse it, to fight it, is to be imprinted by it. Likewise, a rupture includes a kind of violent finality that does not allow for response, whereas an interruption makes space for consent. If someone interrupts your conversation by reading a poem, for example, you may allow yourself to be transported into the rhythm of the poem or you may persist in your conversation. However, I think it’s important that such consent also not negate the fact that the experience of something like shock or surprise is important for good interruptions, and not merely rupture. For example, the encounters with art that we remember, that affect us most profoundly, are those in which art stops us in our tracks. Even intentional engagements with art include an element of this experience of being suspended by something beyond one’s own will. This is part of the pleasure and beauty of art. Thus, while a true interruption, rather than rupture, will make itself contingent upon consent, it will nevertheless not be of the kind that reads the fine print and signs the form, but one that cooperates in stepping outside one’s own control. The trick will be to preserve both of these dimensions.

This is a provisional list. There may be other differences. But my point here is simply to begin the process of distinction without which we may be tempted to dismiss or withdraw in fear from anything that looks like a saturated phenomenon. The distinction between interruption and rupture is simply one way to do this. It gives us language to be able to identify what it is that we want, formally, to resist and what we want to preserve about the idea of a transformative encounter with revelation.


Categories: Philosophy, Rhythm, Theology

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