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September 13th, 2019 5:33:19 am

Trauma, Embodiment, and Compromised Agency

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Traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk states, “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive” (Van der Kolk 2014, 3). Though research into trauma primarily lies within the disciplines of psychoanalysis, psychology, neurobiology, and literary theory, the question of how trauma compromises the embodied feeling of being alive is fundamentally a philosophical inquiry. In trauma, what is at stake for us as humans is the aspect of embodiment that informs our sense of agency, ownship, and temporality. In the following, I survey the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Shawn Gallagher, and Catharine Malabou and use the metaphor of the body as a work of art to describe what constitutes the embodied feeling of being alive, how it is compromised in traumatic experience, and how the destructive plasticity of trauma creates a new self. In doing so, I provide a phenomenology of trauma from the perspective of someone who has undergone such a metamorphosis of self to try and grasp why the metamorphosis of the self is such an abject, painful process. However, the metamorphosis of the self depicted in Malabou's destructive plasticity inadequately addresses the phenomenon of traumatic experience. I argue that trauma does more than just compromise aspects of embodiment such as ownership, subjectivity, and temporality, it heightens our awareness of embodiment. Thus, what is significant about trauma studies is that such inquiry discloses how embodiment informs agency. I first describe the aspects of embodiment that produces the sense of agency. Second, I articulate a general theory of plasticity and then explain Malabou’s account of destructive plasticity. I then summarize what we can learn from trauma regarding how embodiment informs agency. Last, I assert that no matter how overwhelming and painful the experience, there is an aspect of recovered agency that can be accomplished through writing-trauma.

I read the words: “A smashed up face is still a…”  I compulsively squint, shudder, shake my head, as if to get rid of the image of a face—his smashed-up face—shocking me.  There was no warning, even though I had just read the words, “No one thinks spontaneously about a plastic art of destruction” (Malabou 2009, 4).  But the moment my eyes touch the words, unfolding letter-by-letter, stacking on each other to create (no, conjure) the image, I am flooded with sensations and memories: my heartbeat quickens, I gasp for air, and continue to rattle my head.  In that moment, there is no “I”; there is only sheer terror and horror.

I believe my experience in this chance, traumatic encounter is what Catherine Malabou is referring to in The Ontology of the Accident (2009) when she states that in the accident, there is an “abandoning of subjectivity.”  In the moment of the flashback, the subject is wrested out of the present experience and hauled back to the traumatic encounter and experiences that encounter as though it is currently occurring.  The individual experiences the terror and horror as a happening-to.  However, there is no external force within the flashback; the body happens-to itself.  This is what produces the sensation of disassociation.  But, upon reflection, this also is what highlights the lived-experience of embodiment.  That is, the individual, though perhaps not cognitively, is very much aware of their body as they want desperately to flee from it and yet are tied to it, for it is the body which keeps the traumatic experience, stored as sensory-memory fragments.  

In The Body Keeps the Score, traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk states, “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive” (Van der Kolk 2014, 3).  In trauma, what is at stake for us as humans is the aspects of embodiment that inform our sense of agency: subjectivity, ownership, and linear temporality.  While we can never have complete global awareness of the body, we are aware of our bodies both as a phenomenal experience and object of study.  There is a plastic relationship between our body image and body schema, maintaining an equilibrium, which, for humans, produces a sense of ownership, temporality, and agency. 

Against this backdrop, trauma stands out as an extraordinary embodied experience, and the traditional notion of plasticity fails to capture the ontological metamorphosis of the individual who experiences trauma.  Catharine Malabou’s account of destructive plasticity illustrates such a metamorphosis in which, out of the accident, a new being emerges, what she calls “flight identity.”  The concept of “flight identity” portrays how subjectivity is compromised to the point of an “abandoning of subjectivity.”  Further, it is the accidental element, the traumatic memory fragment manifesting as the flashback, nightmare, or chance encounter, which further compromises our sense of agency. 

Thus, what is significant about trauma studies is that such inquiry discloses how embodiment informs agency.  In the following, I survey the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Shaun Gallagher, and Catharine Malabou and use the metaphor of the body as a work of art to describe the process of transformation of the self in trauma.  I first describe the aspects of embodiment that produces the sense of agency.  Second, I articulate a general theory of plasticity and then explain Malabou’s account of destructive plasticity and how it functions in traumatic experience.  I then summarize what we can learn from trauma regarding how embodiment informs agency.  Last, I assert that no matter how overwhelming and painful the experience, there is an aspect of recovered agency, for me, was accomplished through writing-trauma.

1. Embodiment and Agency

On the classical model, embodiment is to be tied to a certain world; to be intervolved in a definite environment; to identify oneself with certain projects; to be continuously committed to such projects; and to have a continuous narrative history, all of which contribute to a sense of ownership, temporality, and subjectivity.  We can think of embodiment as overlapping bodies: the world-body (the tangible, in which our bodies are also tangible), the lived-body (phenomenal body which senses the palpable experience of both world and body), and the I-body (subjective body conscious of the self, body, and world).  We dwell in a definitive world of sensible things in which the body is one such ‘object.’  We are aware of our own bodies by way of the world, enacting our bodies within a specific environment through intentional and non-intentional action.  We primarily operate without bodily awareness to accomplish intentional activity, though.  This is because the body has a world of its own, always operating in the background.  It is the very material and space for such intentional and non-intentional activity.  In this way, the body shapes consciousness though we are not directly aware of this.  

To articulate embodiment, Merleau-Ponty compares the body to a work of art.(1)  The meaning of a painting cannot be communicated other than by way of the painting itself.  One could give a description, but there is no equivalent in which the visual content can be known other than through a direct encounter with the painting.  Here, we can see a distinction between the painting and the image of the painting, a distinction between the object and how it is interpreted.  

We see this same distinction in regard to the body. We can have an image of our bodies but this is different than the body itself.  This distinction can be condensed into two concepts of ‘body image’ and ‘body schema.’  Generally, body image is understood to consist of a system of perceptions, attitudes, emotions, and beliefs pertaining to one’s own body.  According to Merleau-Ponty, it is the way one is conscious of the world through the medium of the body.  He writes: “Consciousness projects itself into a physical world and has a body, as it projects itself into a cultural world and has its habits…any form of lived experience tends towards a certain generality whether that of our habits or that of our ‘bodily functions’” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 158).  That is, our body image is often a reflection of, or embodies, normative cultural standards and a conception of how our bodies function in that context, whether we may be conscious or unaware of how cultural norms inform our body image.  Also, our body image is constituted by our intentional actions and our chance for success.  

In everyday experience, our sense of ownership is part of the structure of experience.  As Gallagher explains, it is non-observational self-awareness of our own body enacting our actions.  He states that, “the body image, as a reflexive intentional system, normally represents the body as my own body, as a personal body that belongs to me.  This sense of ownership contributes to a sense of an overall personal self” (Gallagher 2005, 28).  Yet, the action is not mediated by a judgment that we have ownership of our body.  In other words, we do not think ‘I own my body’ when accomplishing an intended task; instead, it is incorporated into our body image.   That is, as Merleau-Ponty says, it is not a matter of “I think” but of “I can.”  In the case of the body, ownership materializes as the individual grasps control: if I control the movement of my body, I own my body.

Gallagher notes that our sense of agency is built into the structure of thinking itself, that is, the very structure of consciousness.  To clarify, he offers Edmund Husserl’s description of phases of the conscious act, focusing on the retentional and protentional functions.  The function of retention is to retain previous consciousness and the intentional content of that consciousness.  The protentional function is to anticipate what is about to happen in terms of experience.  Protentional thought underlies a sense of agency in thinking, whereas, retention provides a sense of ownership of thought (Gallagher 2005, 193).  

If we are able to retain the thoughts we previously just had, then we get a sense that they are our thoughts.  Being able to anticipate what comes next in terms of thinking gives us a sense that we are the ones who are thinking it.  Thus, according to Gallagher, “the retentional-protentional structure of consciousness is constitutive of self-identity within the changing flow of consciousness; it generates the basic sense of auto-affection or ipseity…this being the feeling of identity, of being the perspectival origin of one’s own experience, which is a basic component of the experienced differentiation of self from non-self” (Gallagher 2005, 201).  In other words, through this structure, we have a sense that ‘I am the one experiencing…,’ which provides a sense of ownership and agency since the thought coincides with my experience.

The body schema is the spatio-temporal field of our body.  That is to say, it is a way of expressing how the body is in-and-of-the-world (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 115; 163-164).  In this way, the body is tacitly understood in the figure-background structure—“every figure stands out against the double horizon of external and bodily space” (163).  Knowledge of the body is not a matter of concentrating or directing attention to the lived-body; rather, embodied knowledge is instantaneous; it is peculiar to itself, and, moreover, it is complete in itself (100).  The body does not need cognitive consciousness to know; it does not need language or representation to know.  As Merleau-Ponty puts it, the body “has its world, or understands its world, without having to make use of any ‘symbolic’ or ‘objectifying function’ ” (173).

However, we can draw attention to our body image to affect our body schema.  This is something we do when training for some skilled activity, like running, playing soccer, singing, etc.  While at the same time, our body schema can inform our body image.  For instance, if you are successful with the intended act within a skilled activity.  Cognitive concentration is present but, in most cases, just temporarily; and moreover, it is not solely responsible for acquired embodied knowledge.

2. Plasticity

The ability to continually enrich and recast the body schema is evidence of the plasticity of embodiment.  The body image and body schema are malleable in the attempt to recreate equilibrium.  This may be temporal, like in the case of using crutches to assist after injury; extended over time, as in the case of a blind man; or essential, as in more disruptive conditions such as trauma.  In each situation, the body has to learn and understand its own embodiment.  

Plasticity is the ability to maintain a capacity for change and balance, with the aptitude of remaining the same.  Catharine Malabou describes plasticity as, “…an equilibrium between the receiving and giving of form.  It is understood as a sort of natural sculpting that forms our identity, an identity modeled by experience and that makes us subjects of history, a singular, recognizable, identifiable history, with all its events, gaps, and future” (Malabou 2009, 3).  Plasticity is a positive transformation, one that is developmental, modulational, and reparative.  Malabou adds that “Plasticity also refers to the possibility of being transformed without being destroyed; it characterizes the entire strategy of modification that seeks to avoid the threat of destruction” (Malabou 2009, 44-45).  For instance, Merleau-Ponty notes that in the case of danger, illness, or grief, new emotions and perceptions develop and replace old ones.  He adds that this process only affects the “content of our experience and not its structure” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 96).  This means that what structures our experience is not replaced—we still experience the world as embodied subjects with a sense of ownership, agency, linear temporality, and historical narrative.  So while the content of such experience influences how body schema and body image are shaped, this capacity for equilibrium remains an essential component of our being, despite disruptions to the schematic system.  

Thus, while there may be disruptive events to the body-image-schematic system, there is a creative plasticity.  An individual can go through several metamorphoses, several new combinations of body schema and body image to gain equilibrium.  But in any of these interpretations, the true nature of being is not “carried off” and self-identity, though always malleable, remains fairly stable (Malabou 2009, 11).  

3. Destructive Plasticity and the Metamorphosis of the Self

Malabou, though, proposes that if the identity were to change substantively then there would be no return to prior forms (Malabou 2009, 9).  Rather, the circle of metamorphosis would be broken and the capacity for equilibrium would be annihilated (5).  This is what Malabou labels as destructive plasticity.  Through the process of destructive plasticity, the subject is transformed to the point that it is unrecognizable, not “because of a change in appearance,” but, “on account of a change in nature…” (9).  

Destructive plasticity is an unprecedented metamorphosis: it is “a plasticity that does not repair, a plasticity without recompense or scar, one that cuts the thread of life in two or more segments that no longer meet” (Malabou 2009, 6).  Here lies the distinctive feature of destructive plasticity: the incapacity for reestablishing equilibrium.  Yet, the language of ‘plasticity’ is still appropriate because it is an underlying aspect of our being: we are plastic beings, and as Malabou notes, anyone of us has this plastic power of destruction within us and can undergo such a metamorphosis (2, 5).  

The process of destructive plasticity is one in which “one form annihilates the other” and results in “the formation of a new individual” (Malabou 2009, 5; 12).  Malabou equates the formation of a new individual with the explosion: “a molting of the inner sculpture” (9).  This means that both content and the structure of experience undergo metamorphoses.

Yet, in Malabou’s account of destructive plasticity, the being is not destroyed to the state of nonbeing.  Rather, Malabou contends,

Something shows itself when there is damage, a cut, something to which normal, creative plasticity gives neither access nor body: the deserting of subjectivity, the distancing of the individual who becomes a stranger to herself, who no longer recognizes anyone, who no longer recognizes herself, who no longer remembers her self.  These types of being impose a new form on their old form, without mediation or transition or glue or accountability, today verses yesterday, in a state of emergency, without foundation, bareback, sockless.  (Malabou 2009, 6)


 What shows itself is the absence of subjectivity, which means a loss of the individual’s sense of agency, autonomy, narrative history, and spatial-temporal world—the very ingredients of the embodied feeling of being alive.  Consequently, the phenomenological experience includes a disassociation of the self and numbness towards the world.  

Specifically, the new form imposed on the old form is what Malabou identifies as the form of flight.  When threatened by destruction, the individual wants nothing more than to flee, instantaneously, with every bit of strength and force.  In that moment, flight appears as “the only possible solution”—flee or be destroyed (Malabou 2009, 10).  Within traditional plasticity, as opposed to fleeing, the individual transforms to evade the danger, or to recover from destruction.  But, she argues that “metamorphosis by destruction is not the same of flight; it is rather the form of the impossibility of fleeing” (10).

That is to say, despite any desire, any attempt, we cannot transcend the present or the body of the past.  Malabou argues, it is an, “Identity abandoned, disassociated again, identity that does not reflect itself, does not live its own transformation, does not subjectivize its change” (Malabou 2009, 11).  This is because what forms the subject—the sense of embodied subjectivity, how we can determine an individual self distinguishable between worlds—is absent.  The individual attempts to flee from the very thing which constitutes being—the body.  In that case, the individual wants to flee an impossible present.  

The lack of a subject includes a lack of ownership.  For instance, one phenomenon of trauma is the sense that something is happening to the individual, in which the individual grapples with making it intelligible.  Malabou steers in a different direction by indicating that the sense of ‘happening to’ can only occur in a coherent, continuous, recognizable self.  In the instance of the accident, there is not a coherent sense of self that is carried on and through such that one can cognize the ‘happening-to’ as the previous identity.  Further, it is not an external force which is ‘happening to’ the individual.  The body ‘happens to’ itself.  Here is the seed of the disassociation of the self—there is no recognizable self and the dwelling of the missing self is experienced as foreign, external.

With this ontology of the accident in mind, trauma is experienced as incessant micro-accidents, and the past is experienced as present.  When one’s world is incessantly interrupted by traumatic sensations, the individual lives in a state of ambiguity—in the world yet flailing, disengaged, improvising, completely exposed to the world.  What shows itself is not just the loss of subjectivity, disassociation, and a broken history; simultaneously, the body exposes the trauma, though it may not be available to visual perception.  Thus, trauma discloses how the individual is exposed to the world as an embodied subject.  

4. Metamorphosis Through the Accident/Trauma

In order to grasp how the accident shows itself in the body, I return to the analogy of the body to a painting.  Through a series of interviews, painter Francis Bacon draws a connection between his paintings and the accident.  While there is always a manner of manipulation in painting, Bacon claims to work “by chance.”  Bacon often suggests that involuntary marks, which he describes as haphazard, non-rational, irrational, non-illustrational, and anti-illustrational, are much more deeply suggestive, unlocking areas of sensation other than a simple illustration of an image (Bacon in Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. 1999, 56).    

Bacon remarks that accident and chance in painting work to make the images “fresher, not interfered with,” “more organic,” “raw,” “immediate,” and not “tampered with by consciousness” (Bacon, Interviews 1999, 57; 92; 120; 177-178).  Bacon explains that, “It’s really a question in my case of being able to set a trap with which one would be able to catch the fact at its most living point” (54).  He believes that, “it’s the slight remove from fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently” (30).  Bacon has to destroy the image of the individual to capture their most “living quality.”

Likewise with trauma, when undergoing the metamorphosis of form and identity, the felt sensations are much more deeply suggestive of how we are embodied subjects.  We like to think that trauma is ‘in the mind,’ but the gutting experience shows how much the mind is body.  Bacon notes that the “human body is in a sense a filter, apart from its other attributes” (Bacon, Interviews 1999, 199).  All experience is filtered through the body.  The body is the medium of the accident, the material real of the accident, without which the accident does not exist.  Both painting and body are, as Merleau-Ponty intimates, “beings in which the expression is indistinguishable from the thing expressed, their meaning, accessible only through direct contact … the nexus of living meaning” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 174).  The way in which the meaning of the painting is stored in the painting, only known by direct display, is the way in which the meaning of the trauma is stored in the body.  The trauma forms a whole new, permanent filter—a whole new body—which modifies how one engages with the world.  

The annihilation of form, then, both unveils the screens by which we engage with the world, and exposes the raw, immediate, materiality of our existence.  The accident is absorbed into the body, as the accidental brush-mark is absorbed into the canvas, though the phenomenological experience is one of the impossibility of flight, not absorption.  

5. Conclusion: Recovering Agency Through Writing

Both human and nonhuman animals experience trauma.  However, for humans, what amalgamates and intensifies our experience is the way in which our sense of agency is compromised.  This highlights how much we are our bodies and not just minds, and our sense of self comes from having ownership over our bodies.  What makes trauma especially painful is that it is experienced as the horror of the other living within.  But if we can come to grasp that ‘other’ within as very much an aspect of our being, and trust that our bodies are seeking equilibrium in the repetition of the flashback, nightmare, or chance encounter, perhaps there is a way to reconfigure ownership and subjectivity.  

Experiencing prolonged trauma, I felt so confused with who I am that I ended up in a sort of paralysis, as though I was living in between worlds, and was unable to write.  At one point, I chose to write about how that experience felt and how it immediately affected my consciousness.  As I continued to process my experience through metaphorical, poetic language, I regained my ability to write in academia.  By embracing the trauma to the point of capturing it in ink and text, I learned to live-with it.  However, to do so, I have to be willing to take myself to that most living moment and experience whatever gut-wrenching, disruptive sensations and feelings I conjure in the moment of writing.  I have to let the trauma be, reside in me, and ‘speak’ through abject pain, knowing that I can become engulfed at any moment.

I now write the words “a smashed up face”—the few words that previously threw me into a traumatic episode.  What enables me to do so is yet another transformation after being fundamentally transformed: a recovered sense of agency.  I further explore this process and the phenomenology of writing/trauma in an upcoming article.  


Gallagher, Shaun. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

Malabou, Catherine. Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. (2009). Trans. Carolyn Shread. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. (1945). Trans. Colin Smith. New  York: Routledge, 1962. Print.

Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Print.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.


  1.  “A novel, poem, picture, or musical work are individuals, that is, beings in which the expression is indistinguishable from the thing expressed, their meaning, accessible only through direct contact, being radiated with no change of their temporal and spatial situation.  The idea of the body is incommunicable by means other than the display.  It is this sense that our body is comparable to a work of art.  It is the nexus of living meanings, not the law for a certain number of covariant terms” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 175).  




Natasha Liebig 2019

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