To hear--to say: The mediating presence of the healing witness


Illness and trauma challenge self-narratives. Traumatized individuals, unable to speak about their experiences, suffer in isolation. In this paper, I explore Kristeva's theories of the speaking subject and signification, with its symbolic and semiotic modalities, to understand how a person comes to speak the unspeakable. In discussing the origin of the speaking subject, Kristeva employs Plato's chora, (related to choreo, "to make room for"). The chora reflects the mother's preparation of the child's entry into language and forms an interior darkroom, the reservoir of lived experience, from which self-narratives issue. Unable to speak of their suffering, traumatized individuals need someone to help them make room for a time of remembrance, someone who is a willing and capable listener. I call such a person a healing witness. Through the mediating presence of the healing witness, fragmented memories of trauma are recreated and incorporated into self-narratives that are sharable with others. Unfortunately, opportunities for witnessing are vanishing. In the last section, I examine the failure of modern media and communication technologies to bear ("hold," "carry," "transport") acts of witnessing. I argue that these technologies perturb the semiotic. According to Kristeva, meaning arises from the dialectical tension between the semiotic (drives and affects) and the symbolic (logic and rules) and is threatened by arid discourse, psychosomatic illnesses, and outbreaks of violence when the semiotic is not represented. Unless we open technology to the imaginary, we risk losing the capacity to bear witness to one another and to create narratives and connections that are meaningful.

Keywords. trauma studies; semiotic and symbolic; chora; narrative medicine; psychoanalysis; narrative competence; media; computer mediation; communication theory.

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