To read from the beginning, click here for Parts 1 and 2.

Embodying the third:

Returning to the beginning of this essay, I have tried to suggest how we might view the embodied rather than dissociated self state as part of the reconstruction of the third in the wake of trauma. In her discussion of the Gugaleto Seven case Gobodo-Madikizela (2013) described the interactions between the perpetrator and the victims’ mothers as becoming very intimate. Thus the mother of the slain sons spoke of feeling the pain in her womb — the women and the perpetrator spoke of being parents and son. In expressing his remorse to them, the perpetrator addressed them as his mothers. Gobodo-Madikizela described the common use of the term Inimbe, the bodily connection of the umbilicus, to describe certain kinds of relations. Relating to my conceptualization, she suggested that this aspect of the rhythmic third founds the moral third, representing the empathic connection to others suffering through the language of the body.

The move from dissociated to embodied language and affect creates a third in which the binary of perpetrator and victim, invulnerable and vulnerable breaks down, as the suffering body itself is dignified through acceptance of pain. This dignity changes the psychic position in relation to the abject and the monstrous. Whereas, as Kristeva (1982) illustrated in her theory of abjection, the abject becomes the discarded, even fecal, part object that the controlling subject denies dignity, once pain is dignified and re-admitted to awareness it is the dissociated denier of bodily pain who is felt to be monstrous (see Grand, 2000). However, we all have a monstrous side, a side that wants to escape and deny pain, as well as a side that identifies with inflicting pain and transgression. Bragin (2003) discussing clinical work with torture victims, speaks of the importance of the witnessing analyst also “knowing terrible things” so that the patient does not left alone with what she knows not only of what others can do, but of her own violent identifications with the aggressor. The shame felt by war torture and rape victims, she contends, is not only associated with being victimized and degraded but also with their perverse identifications with the inflicting of bodily harm and degradation. This psychoanalytic perspective suggests another powerful reason for the feeling of guilt, even monstrousness, as bystanders; we have to continually rediscover not only the remorse of failing to witness, but the fact that denial is based on the unwillingness to know these terrible things about ourselves: we monstrous humans. To reclaim the position of witness and restore the lawful third ultimately requires a tension between “I could never imagine doing such a thing” and “I could imagine doing it.” Accepting badness is a part of the journey for those who actually expose themselves to human rights violations, collective trauma, and indeed horrors with the hope of witnessing or actively helping.

In the meeting between the Gugaleto 7 Mothers and the collaborator who turned them over to their murder at the hands of the police, the victim’s mother shows her grasp of this difficult truth when she prefaces her forgiveness by saying, “We all are sinners.” Her forgiveness comes from the position that it is human to harm, that everyone has to accept the potential within themselves to hurt another. We might notice that she is giving herself the moral authority to declare this universal dilemma in the very moment where she is called upon to forgive and thus surrender to the reality of What Is, what cannot be undone — a very compelling aspect of working with the third. To forgive constitutes the acceptance that vengeance cannot restore what has been lost. But this acceptance is not an individual feat, it is highly contingent on social recognition (see Mailer et al 2010) the presence of witnessing, acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the perpetrator, and solidarity of the group.

I observed the effect of integrating this aspect of witnessing when Eyad el Sarraj spoke to a meeting of the Israeli group in the Acknowledgment Project a few months after the Gaza war. It was clear that he was speaking both personally and also as a representative of victims to those who felt themselves to be representatives of the perpetrator group. The members of the group were paralyzed by guilt, their predominant experience was that of helplessness and despair of making a difference. Sarraj stated that of course he was very angry about the destruction, but recognizing the terrible position in which they found themselves he wanted to share his conviction that the only way to deal with their feeling of badness and helplessness was to accept that each of us has bad and good within us — in effect, not to be immobilized by the part of themselves that identifies with the fear and self-protectiveness that motivated their nation’s aggression. He said that knowing he also has this badness, fear, and potential for destructiveness it is his experience that when you truly accept both sides you will not be paralyzed, you will be able to act again in a positive way. His simple speech released the Israelis from their grim despair, because his modelling of self-forgiveness implicitly offered a form of forgiveness they could make use of for themselves. He modeled the relation to the moral third, including the capacity to see the subjectivity of the Other, that liberates the potential for agency.

His action came from a deep understanding that accepting both perpetrator and victim sides of self, goodness and badness, breaks down the fictitious line between those who deserve mercy and hence to live, those who do not, those who consign others to die and those who perish. I knew from previous discussion that Sarraj’s formulation of the Israeli problem was that they believe that if they are guilty of being in any way like those who harmed them, they do not deserve life (see Benjamin, 2009). Those who are bad, monstrous, deserve only to be punished. By contrast, the recognition of our victim and perpetrator identifications together, re-associated as it were, creates the equivalent of remorse in the perpetrators — a kind of recognition of the consequences of their own actions that overcomes the denial of the other’s human worthiness.[8]

I am proposing that unlike such remorse, the mental attitude of passive bystander guilt problematically continues to affirm what those who express hatred of the Other also believe: that there is only the choice between being safe, the observer who “others,” or the endangered one who is “othered.” The bystander fears switching side if he risks the transgressive act of crying out in the face of horror. Such guilt does not serve to deconstruct or break down this barrier between the One and the Other, or to expose the imaginary, phantasmatic nature of this distinction — imaginary, that is, from the perspective of the moral third (even if the pain this distinction serves to justify is quite real). Bystander guilt is not the guilt that can recognize the “badness” within the self, or acknowledge the commonality of destructive fantasies (fantasies of vengeance, of sibling triumph, from throwing the favored brother into a pit to holding a knife at the enemy’s throat) but rather projectively offloads it onto the other. Guilt, and at times moral outrage, too often constitute a reactive reversal against denial that fails to liberate our capacity to witness and empathize, or to act on behalf of dignifying suffering and protecting those who might be discarded. Psychologically, guilt often only serves to uphold the splitting between the discarded and the saved. By contrast, there is much to be learned from those who have accepted the loss and suffering wrought by violence, whose narratives and testimony lift our dissociation and provide a dis-location from conventional positions along the line of doer and done-to, dignified and discarded.

From the standpoint of psychoanalytic recognition theory, I would argue that efforts to think about repairing the world and restoring the third require not merely an abstract notion of equality or justice but an understanding of the effects of collective trauma and what it means to overcome splitting and dissociation in relation to harming and suffering, power and helplessness.

Such an understanding of social healing includes the realization that reconciliation processes do not substitute for material justice, political resolution of violence, economic reparation and social responsibility for the fate of victims. Yet, however imperfectly and unevenly efforts at social healing and reconciliation are realized, their aim is to create agency and conviction on behalf of a lawful world and oppose the insidious effects of denial. This is the purpose of many public commemorations, memorials and rituals that acknowledge violence or oppression and the efforts to undo them. While acknowledgment can certainly be offered from above, and social recognition provided by public apologies is very meaningful to victims, embodied experiences of testimony and acknowledgment also create a basis for action from below. Conversely, denial of wrongdoing is recognized as a form of harming because it erases the fact that the law has been violated. In social psychological terms we need to assert the reality of suffering, to dignify it with the recognition it deserves, to allow those who have suffered to move out of victimhood into agency, and those who have harmed or acted out of self-protection to move out of paralyzing guilt into reparation. In this way, recognition may help to own and ameliorate the suffering that comes from denial and its corruption of the social bonds that gives human life dignity beyond mean survival.

To read from the beginning, click here for Parts 1 and 2.

On October 23, 2014, as part of the NSSR Philosophy Workshop Series, Jessica Benjamin gave a talk based on this article.


[8] In the film “Moving Beyond Violence,” a former Israeli soldier and a former Palestinian prisoner who had been convicted of trying to use Molotov cocktails reflect on the complex emotional process whereby they came to renounce violence, recognize the humanity of their enemy as well as their own remorse at harming, and reject the victim status that has been part of the conventional narrative justifying violence. For a discussion of Israeli soldiers “Breaking the Silence,” see Botticelli, 2012.


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