The call to witness

Through prayer, dialogue, art, and analysis, we therefore must seek “the great infinitesimal emancipation: restarting ourselves unceasingly.”
—Francis L. Restuccia (2009), paraphrasing Julia Kristeva (1997/2002)

The turn of the century has marked a turning point in the Western conception of the self. Nowhere is this more evident than in psychology. The conception of the self as singular and as insular that dominated so much of psychology during the last century has given way to a self that is increasingly regarded as multidimensional, relational, and inextricably bound up in the interconnected spheres of social, political, and cultural life. A look at the recent work of some major theorists in psychology drives this point home. In interpersonal cognition, the self is enmeshed in social scripts and schemas (Baldwin 2005). In psychoanalysis, it is a decentralized multiplicity (Bromberg 2004). And in narrative psychology, the self emerges from the narrative act (Bruner 2004b). As Sarbin (2005) sees it, “The old notion of an encapsulated self … is being abandoned and replaced with the notion that the self-narrative arises in relationships with others … Whether engaged in formal conventional roles or in informal spontaneous encounters, the primary medium for the creation and development of relationships is dialogical” (p. 208).

Storytelling is at the heart of this dialogic relationship. Every day, couples, friends, and children exchange stories about the happenings in their daily lives. In telling their stories, people seek advice, appreciation, and comfort from each other and perhaps more than anything else a receptive and responsive audience. Recounting experiences helps people understand themselves and shape possible futures by drawing from the rich stores of their pasts. The ability to narrate personal experiences, weaving them together in the complexity of intentions, purposes, goals, feelings, and desires, is thought to be foundational both to the development of empathy, the capacity to see the world from the eyes of others, and to the articulation of new meanings from out of those perspectives that reflect back upon the self and inform its narrative (Angus and McLeod 2004). For Bruner (2004a) and many others (McAdams 2004; Neimeyer 2004), the self emerges from these embodied, everyday acts of telling stories.

The object of narration, according to McAdams (2004), is to integrate disparate aspects of the self as it unfolds in time. For him, identity is an inner story replete with all the trappings of narrative form: settings, scenes, character, plot, and themes. These inner stories, or self-narratives, go beyond biographical facts. They provide “an overarching cognitive-affective-behavioral structure … that consolidates our self-understanding, establishes our characteristic range of emotions and goals, and guides our performance on the stage of the social world” (2004, pp. 53–54). In many ways, the extent of a person’s narrative competence is a measure of a person’s ability to become a self. The ability to integrate William James’s “one-in-many-selves paradox” (Knowles and Sibicky 1990) into a coherent tale, without forsaking complexity and diversity, is considered by many a sign of psychological health and well-being (Baeger and McAdams 1999; Dimaggio and Semerari 2004; Pennebaker 1993; Russel and Wandrei 1996).

For Spence (1983), these inner stories produce “a narrative thread that gives meaning to life, provided—and this is a big if—that it is never broken” (p. 458). Illness, tragic loss, trauma, and abuse profoundly challenge the intelligibility and cohesiveness of self-narratives, oftentimes overwhelming the narrative capacities of individuals (Gonçalves et al. 2000). A traumatic event is a physical or psychological assault upon a person, a group of people, or entire communities. It has been described variously as “an inescapable stressful event that overwhelms one’s existing coping mechanisms” (van der Kolk and Fisler 1995, p. 506) and as “a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively” (Erikson 1995, p. 187). Whether experienced directly or indirectly, trauma can topple the everyday world, turning what is familiar upside down. It can shatter the survivor’s[1] beliefs and worldview. It can shatter the self. In the aftermath of trauma, the pieces of the self and its world have to be picked up and put back together again.[2]

According to Janoff-Bulman (1985), most seriously affected by traumatic events are beliefs in personal invulnerability, in a world that is meaningful and comprehensible, and in a self that is positive. Loss of these beliefs results in cataclysmic shifts in assumptive worlds, defined by Parkes (1971) as including “everything we know or think we know” (p. 103). Hartman (2002) writes, “Nothing, of course, can fully immunize us to what life will bring. And should catastrophe or crisis supervene, earlier forms of containment are often sorely tested, if not shattered. So Jean-Francois Lyotard has said that the Holocaust is like an earthquake whose force destroyed the seismic instruments” (p. 4). World traumas, such as the Holocaust, become crises of meaning, straining the narrative capacities of entire generations (Hartman 2002; Laub 1992a).

When people’s life stories become too painful, too restrictive, or too chaotic to understand, they often seek out someone they can trust who can help them make sense of the world. It is well known in the traumatic stress literature that, in the immediate aftermath of trauma, many survivors have a compelling need to talk about their experiences with people who are willing to listen (Joseph 1999; Neimeyer 2000; Howell 2005). Not everyone is capable of listening though. Some people have conflicting reactions to the traumatic experiences of their friends and loved ones. There are those who waver between feeling fear, aversion, and a forced cheerfulness and optimism (Dakof and Taylor 1990), and there are others who avoid the survivor, minimize his experiences,[3] or deflect discussions of the trauma, leading the survivor to feel increasingly isolated and demoralized. To complicate matters further, some survivors, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have difficulty consciously remembering the traumas they have endured. Yet, paradoxically, at other times, they may find themselves suddenly immersed in some unnamed memory, compelled to relive it in all its frightening detail (Neimeyer 2004; van der Hart et al. 2006).

As theorized by Janet (1859–1947) and discussed in Sect. 2, traumatized individuals are divided selves, their narrative memories containing gaps surrounding the traumatic events (van der Hart et al. 2006). In cases where the trauma can be recalled and reported, the memory is often vague and recounted as if originally the experience were devoid of emotional and physiological content or happened to someone else. The traumatic memory and the traumatized self that endured the trauma remain split off, or dissociated from the rest of the personality (van der Hart et al. 2006). When triggered, however, by some sensory reminder, for instance, the trauma is re-experienced in all its raw emotional and physiological intensity. According to Neimeyer (2004), traumatic memories seem almost “prenarrative” in the way they “fall outside of volitional memory processes, presenting the survivor with a set of tormenting and unmetabolized images and experiences that are radically inconsistent with the plot structure of his or her previous life narrative” (p. 55). In contrast to narrative memories that can be “placed in a symbolic, verbal form that is personal” (van der Hart et al. 2006, p. 38) and sharable with others, traumatic memories remain “mute, unsymbolized, and unintegrated” (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995, p. 167). They are reenacted rather than communicated (Freud 1926/1959; Janet 1919–1925/1984; van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995). The traumatized self, closed off behind a wall of silence, unable to speak of it, suffers in isolation, separated not only from others but also from other aspects of the self (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995; Howell 2005).

In this essay, I ask how it is possible for a person to cross the seemly insurmountable gap of the unspeakable to speak about his traumas. I begin my investigation in Sect. 3 by exploring Kristeva’s theory of signification and the genesis of the speaking subject. According to Kristeva (1974/1984), signification is composed of two modalities: the symbolic and the semiotic. Roughly speaking, the symbolic entails the more conscious elements of signification, such as the intended message, grammar, and syntax, whereas the semiotic encompasses the more unconscious, corporeal aspects, such as rhythms, affects, and tones. For signification to be meaningful, the semiotic must be joined with the symbolic: “flesh” must meet “word” (Kristeva 1985/1987).

In presenting her theory of the origin of the speaking subject, Kristeva draws upon the term chora, linked to the Greek verb choreo “to make room for.” The chora represents the mediating space/spacing that the infant experiences in relation to its mother before its entry into language (Margaroni 2005). The chora is situated neither in the mother’s nor in the infant’s body, but in between. It is a third, a transitional space that not only prepares the child for the symbolic but also forms an interior dwelling place, a darkroom or sensory cavern, within the subject’s psyche that must continuously be revisited if signification is to be renewed and the subject to grow. It is the reservoir of lived experience, out of which self-narratives arise revitalized (Kristeva 1994/1996).

The trauma survivor suffers because he is unable to connect “the unmetabolized images and experiences” to the symbolic. The semiotic and symbolic are “two dimensions of meaning and subjectivity that need to be connected if self-relation, the other, and world-relation are to be possible” (Beardsworth, p. 14). For traumatized individuals to speak about their traumas, it is necessary for them to find someone who can help them make room for a time of remembrance, someone who is a willing and capable listener, a person who is able to constrain her own potentially disruptive subjectivity, without losing touch with it, so that she can be fully present and attend to the survivor. I call this person, whether psychoanalyst, religious advisor, physician, or friend, a healing witness.

As I show in Sect. 4, through the mediating presence of the healing witness, it is possible for the unspeakable aspects of the traumatized self, with its haunting, dissociated memories, to reconnect with the symbolic and find a voice and a place in an individual’s self-narratives. “All of us depend on someone to mediate the world to us,” Ulanov (2001, p. 153), a Jungian analyst, writes and elsewhere says, “We need to be witnessed to feel real … another’s beholding and attesting grants value to what we experience. Even prayer cries out with this ‘yearning for witnessed significance’, as the Psalms show”[4] (p. 16).

Laub (1992a), a child survivor of the Holocaust who has written extensively about survivor testimony and bearing witness from the perspective of both a psychoanalytic psychiatrist and an interviewer for the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, stresses that for survivors to find a voice to give testimony, “there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of the other—in the position of the one who hears [italics added]” (p. 70). Laub explains what this entails:
The task of the listener is to be unobtrusively present, throughout the testimony; even when and if at moments the narrator becomes absent, reaches an almost detached state. The listener has to respond very subtly to clues the narrator is giving that s/he wants to come back, to resume contact, or that s/he wishes to remain alone … survivors beginning to remember often desire to be alone, although very much in someone’s presence … there is so much destruction recounted, so much death, so much loss, so much hopelessness, that there has to be an abundance of holding [italics added] and of emotional investment in the encounter … Paradoxically enough, the interviewer has to be, thus, both unobtrusive, nondirective, yet imminently present, active, in the lead. Because trauma returns in disjointed fragments in the memory of the survivor, the listener has to let these trauma fragments make their impact both on him and on the witness (p. 71).

The holding Laub speaks of is the psychoanalytic construct that describes the psychotherapist’s struggle to control her affective responses for the sake of the client: “The holding function frequently is represented by the [psychotherapist’s] ability to create a sense of emotional space with firm edges—a room large enough to allow for wide and intense affective expression, yet simultaneously bounded enough always to feel containing to the [client]” (Slochower 1996, p. 23). Levine (2010) explains the importance of holding from a slightly different perspective when he writes:
Therapists working with traumatized individuals frequently “pick up” and mirror the postures of their clients and hence their emotions of fear, terror, anger, rage and helplessness. The way we respond to these signifiers will be pivotal in helping traumatized individuals deal with those difficult sensations and emotions. If we recoil because we cannot contain and accept them, then we abandon our clients … if we are overwhelmed, then we are both lost. If we embody some small portion of a Dalai Lama-like equanimity and “composure,” we are able to share and help contain our client’s terrors in a “blanket of compassion” (p. 46).

Unfortunately, opportunities for witnessing are vanishing in our society. According to Kristeva, the contemporary subject prefers to shove aside “the reality of suffering and the necessity to confront such suffering with a full knowledge of the facts” in favor of illusions, false hopes, drugs, and the media’s “fleeting narcissistic images” (Guberman 1996, p. 173). This leaves the contemporary subject with little support and even fewer avenues for symbolizing his unbearable traumas (Beardsworth 2004; Edwin 2002; Kristeva 1993/1995; Oliver 2002). As Beardsworth (2004) observes, “… modern institutions and discourses have failed to provide everyday social and symbolic sites or practices for the adequate connection of the semiotic and symbolic” (p. 14). The failure, according to Kristeva (1993/1995), renders healing impossible and spells disaster for psychic life:
… if drugs do not take over your life, your wounds are “healed” with images, and before you can speak about your states of soul, you drown them in the world of mass media. The image has an extraordinary power to harness your anxieties and desires, to take on their intensity and to suspend their meaning. It works by itself. As a result, the psychic life of modern individuals wavers between somatic symptoms (getting sick and going to the hospital) and the visual depiction of their desires (daydreaming in front of the TV). In such a situation, psychic life is blocked, inhibited, and destroyed (p. 8).

In the last section of this essay, I examine mediation, including a look at mass media and computer-mediated communication, as it relates to our ability to witness one another and to connect the semiotic with the symbolic. I begin my analysis by reading Shannon’s theory of communication against Kristeva’s theory of signification. In Language the Unknown, Kristeva (1981/1989) expresses a skepticism towards communication theories because they reduce the complexity of the speaking subject and of communicated signification to “nonanalyzable constants” (p. 7). Yet, within the circuit of communication and the inherent ambiguity of addresser and addressee, Kristeva finds traces of “the complex realm of the subject” (p. 8). In my elaboration of this ambiguity in the healing witness/survivor dyad, I discover that the positions of addresser and addressee are reversed. In holding, the healing witness becomes a provocation for the unspeakable to speak: the will to hear precedes and forms the desire to speak. It is by relinquishing the “desire to say” that the healing witness creates a place and a time for anamnesis, the search for lost time (traumatic memory), and the possibility for a time regained “through narrative enunciation” (Kristeva 1996/2000, p. 29).

Kristeva, a practicing psychoanalyst as well as author of numerous philosophical texts and detective novels, stresses that what transpires between analyst and analysand, that is, the remembrance of things past through the fusion of word and sensation, takes place as well within the literary imagination of reading and writing.[5] Kristeva’s work, modelled after that of Freud’s, epitomizes the threefold practices of listening, reading, and writing as they illuminate and expand psychic life and facilitate its healing. According to Smith (1998), these practices, along with the originary “maternal ethic, the mother’s socialisation of the infant through language,” have for Kristeva “an important transitional status in that they inscribe the realm of the imaginary within a socio-cultural, symbolic process” (p. 50), thereby opening society up to what normally is avoided and silenced.

Alongside Kristeva, I read Charon (2006), a physician credited with having created the discipline of narrative medicine, as she too has much to say about what it means to bear witness. Charon has learned to open herself up to the voices of suffering by combining close readings of literary texts with writing full narrative accounts of patients in her clinical work. As elaborated in Sects. 4 and 5, Charon has discovered that these same practices expand her capacity to attend to the medical needs of her patients while fulfilling what she believes is the physician’s ethical duty “to bear witness to patients’ suffering and to honor their experiences of illness” (Charon and Montello 2002, p. x), a duty that all too often modern medicine would rather avoid, in part, Charon (2006) says, because it is too painful to bear. For Charon, as well as Kristeva, listening, reading, and writing, to echo the words of Virginia Woolf, in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” (1932/1984), are vital because they open the “mind as widely as possible” to the “signs and hints of [an] almost imperceptible fineness … the presence of a human being unlike any other” (p. 235).

In contrast to the practices of reading and writing, as exemplified by Kristeva and Charon, I go on to show how modern forms of mediation rarely open us to the imaginary or offer us the opportunity to dwell in another’s presence. Photography, film, television, and computer-mediated communication close us off. They perturb the semiotic, muting much of it in computer-mediated communication. Moreover, modern communication technologies disorder memory and time in ways that mirror trauma. Of particular significance is the replacement today of the human face by the screen as the site of social interaction. The result, as Smith (1998) observes, has been a loss of the imaginary:
In the world dominated by the screen, the small screen, the big screen, the cyberspace, there is no time and place for the slow processing of the dark room. We are all submitted to the facile absorption of images and information but those images bear no relation to the subjective work of the imagination, and that information does not bear the mark of experience. In the virtual time and space of global networks and information systems there are few limits, there is no time and space for subjectivity to define itself, that is, to seek expression, encounter obstacles, imagine ways round them, to resign itself to the inevitable and revolt against the impossible (p. 56).

Turkle (2011) paints a remarkably similar picture of contemporary society. In her recent sociological study of people’s uses of computer technology, she has uncovered a disturbing tendency for people to hide behind their screens, avoiding the time-consuming challenge of listening to another’s voice with its often perplexing range of emotional expressiveness. She worries about the consequences of this avoidance, especially for our youth:
Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn emphatic skills, to think about their values and identity, and to manage and express their feelings. They need time to discover themselves, time to think. But technology, put in the service of always-on communication and telegraphic speed and brevity, has changed the rules of engagement with all of this. When is downtime, when is stillness? The text-driven world of rapid response does not make self-reflection impossible but does little to cultivate it. When interchanges are reformatted for the small screen and reduced to the emotional shorthand of emoticons, there are necessarily simplifications (p. 172).

Although this essay questions technology, there is no intention to denigrate it. In medicine, for example, thanks to computers and electronic medical records, we are rapidly stockpiling valuable information that state-of-the-art data mining technologies are exploring with the goal of creating better cancer detection systems, pharmaceuticals, and treatment outcomes. As a computer scientist, my life’s work is dedicated to exploring medical technologies that enhance human lives. Technology, as even Kristeva admits, has its place (Lechte and Margaroni 2004). However, I agree with Kristeva when she says, “Faced with technology, we should not abdicate from thought; we should not submit to technology … one can develop it also to prevent us from being suffocated by it” (Lechte and Margaroni 2004, p. 153). Along with Turkle, I believe that the current trajectory that communications technology is taking should give us pause for concern. I worry whether the technology of the future will be able to bear (“hold,” “carry,” “transport,” “give birth to,” “take care of,” “sustain the burden of”) the act of witnessing. As I hope to show in this essay, it is by listening and talking to one another, as well as by reading and writing, that we fashion the narratives that give meaning to our lives. We need to remember and appreciate that “another’s beholding and attesting grants value to what we experience” (Ulanov 2001, p. 153) so that we are careful to develop technologies that expand rather than limit our imaginative and empathetic capacities.

In her latest book, Turkle (2011) writes about the many youth in our society today who are afraid to admit, despite their massive texting, that they are lonely and longing for someone to listen to them: “I see a vulnerability in this generation,” she says, “so quick to say, ‘Please don’t call.’ They keep themselves at a distance from their feelings. They keep themselves from people who could help” (p. 206). What people like Charon, Kristeva, and Turkle are discovering is that we are growing deaf to life narratives. If we are not careful, the time may even come when it will no longer be possible to hear another’s call to witness. Turkle claims that “we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs [of our misuses of technology] and start to take action” (p. 296). We must decide now to listen.

Note 1: In general, the term survivor will be used in this paper to refer to anyone dealing with any type of trauma, including illness, even in some cases where another word, such as patient, might be more appropriate. The word survivor draws attention to the strength and courage exhibited by those who struggle with the challenges posed by traumatization.
Note 2: Although people vary in their capacities to handle life crises and repair and rebuild self-narratives, the rebuilding that follows trauma, as demonstrated, for instance, in the life and work of Frankl (1959), can be constructive and empowering.
Note 3: Moreover, some traumas, such as the death of a same-sex partner or of a developmentally delayed child, are "disenfranchised" (Daka 2002), reminding us that narratives are not always accepted but are often contested (Nadeau 1997).
Note 4: Ulanov is referencing Jackson’s (1992) observation that many of the Psalms express a "yearning for a listener who cares" and that "their place over many centuries make it clear that listening has been viewed by many as having the potential to ease a person's distress and suffering" (p. 1624).
Note 5: The difference is that in the holding presence of the healing witness the amplification of the semiotic is safeguarded. Kristeva (1986) tells us that whereas in poetry the semiotic is discharged (catharsis), in analysis it is also named. Writing about trauma can be especially hazardous if not contained, as attested by the number of authors (Améry, Bettelheim, Borowski, Celan, Kofman, Levi, etc.), who, having survived the Holocaust, whether in the camps or in hiding, and having found the courage to write about their ordeals, nonetheless, have committed suicide. "If one talks about trauma without being truly heard or truly listened to," Laub (1992a) warns, "the telling itself might be lived as a return of the trauma—a re-experiencing of the event itself" (p. 67). For a sensitive discussion of this topic from a Kristevian perspective in the life and work of Hofman, see Edwin (2002).