January 28, 2013

The Logic of Trauma: James K. A. Smith and Body Hysteria

The last couple months an interest in trauma studies has been slowly brewing in me. It all started to stir about when, this past summer, someone told me I had a trauma imprint in my brain. Huh, me?… Come to find out, this wasn't some unwanted wrinkle or strange brain blemish. It was a psychological scar from a moment in my past my brain associated with embarrassment and trepidation. Ever since, I've been somewhat intrigued with how, specifically, the body handles and reacts to situations that remind the brain of a past traumatic experience.

Going to sleep is usually the time my brain chooses to turn-on. And so, while laying on the ground in my sleeping bag at my friend's house, I had this thought.

What does trauma have to do with James K. A. Smith? For instance, could trauma count as an example for Smith's argument in Desiring the Kingdom? (Don't bounce 'cause you ain't familiar. Give me a second to explain.) Smith wants to prioritize the body in matters of education, and faith as well. He claims that education, and Christian education at that, should be less about filling the head with information than forming a kind of people, by the heart, through the body. Education shouldn't limit the body to passively sitting in a chair. The body then could be the key to "learning" (he's working with a broad definition of education), to being formed for a way of life, for the Kingdom and for love. He talks along these lines because, he argues, humans are fundamentally animals of desire. We are lovers at our core.

So, what does this have to do with trauma? Yes, good question. I'm not convinced it has anything to do with trauma. I'm only speculating, playing with my thoughts. I'm wondering: If Smith is right in critiquing modernity's emphasis on the head--"I think therefore I am"--and thus taking serious the body's role in faith and education (and life!), then I wonder if trauma could be a good conversation partner.

Traumatic experiences have a wide range. But it seems, no matter what the origin of a traumatic event is or how it came about, an "imprint" is made in the brain. When situations, afterward, arise that remind the brain of this prior traumatic event, the body reacts, usually hysterically: sweaty palms, stomach aches, twitching, trembling, fainting, etc. What is so interesting, to me, in the moment a traumatic imprint flares up and the body reacts is often the person is caught totally off guard by the "intrusion" of the body's hysteria. The body reacts without any regard for reasonableness, rationality, or logic. For instance, the person, in such a moment, can offer him/herself the following thoughts, "Hey, this is no big deal. Everything is fine. This is simple. Calm down." Alas, nothing. The body does not falter nor acquiesce to the rational. It overrides it, overwhelms it. All willpower is, at once, lost.

Though, it would seem, logic falls short in such a situation, is it possible that trauma and body hysteria have a "logic" all their own? What would it mean that the mind, though it offers rightfully corrective thinking (i.e. "It's ok, this is perfectly safe", etc.), is overridden, overruled, and overwhelmed by the pre-rational currents of the body?

If I believed we were fundamentally thinking things, or even believing things, I would be tempted to be optimistic of the mind's abilities to calm the body down. If humans ruled from the head, then, wouldn't trauma be a failure to correct the body's hysteria via willpower and/or cognitive reasoning? Now, I'm not suggesting the mind, corrective thinking, etc., have no part in the healing process, only they can't be the sole target/methodology/approach. This begs the question: What part does/should the body play in the counseling process/healing procedures of trauma patients?

So, does the body hysteria of trauma victims work well with Smith's thesis? It's hard to say since Smith is working this philosophical anthropology out for Christian educational purposes (see his Desiring the Kingdom, which I've mentioned before), and for a theology of culture (see his second book in the trilogy Imagining the Kingdom). I have my doubts. Regardless, if he's right, the implications are far-reaching, thus this connection to trauma. If anyone would like to dialogue about this or has/knows of corresponding resources I would love to be contacted. Thought-experiments need multiple pairs of ears!

By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons