Trauma, Embodied Practices and Emancipation

Trauma theory from the moment of its inception in the 1990s has become popular.[1] Our fidelity to events particularly to disruptive events is shown by the event analysis of Alain Badiou.  These efforts do open us to the unspeakable side of the traumatic past.  Christian Van Boheemen-Saaf names  it as  affective demand of ‘witnessing’ to such a history.[2]  Trauma theory has brought in much needed empathy in theorization of a painful past and has enabled us to understand how it affects our present as an unfinished business that is seeking to be heard. It takes up the form of a stolen birth right and missionizes those victims to mimic the loss.[3]  To respond to this cry, we need double empathy that first attempts to understand the pain in the cry and its mimetic recovery of the loss and then try to address the performatives of the mimetic recovery of the loss in the present that is afflicting us.  This means we have the challenge to understand the traumatised discussivity as it tries to speak through embodied practices and seek   therapeutic dialogue that might heal the pain and produce peace, harmony and wellbeing to all.

Jean Francios Lyotard has demonstrated that traumatic events like the holocaust bring about a discursive deadlock in which language and representation are no longer able to express the horror of that experience.[4] There remains the unsaid and the unsayable in our attempt to speak about these horrific events. We may call it: discursive trauma.  We have several such discursive deadlocks affecting us today in our country. The chief among them seems to the disruptive events of colonization and partition of India and Pakistan. These events have left a wound that has not healed till this date. We try to study the trauma of the event of Partition in this study. Somehow Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis complexly live fidelity to these emotive and explosive events.  We may see the wound as a crack following the inspiration of  Slavoj Zizek.[5]  It is  a crack that is refusing to be filled. Whatever we have made of it is afflicted by discursive trauma. This means our words, narratives, rituals, symbols etc., cannot fully capture it.  What we have placed into the crack is what Lyotard calls differend[6] which always leaves something unsaid. This unfinished business attempts to speak through embodied practices in our country like the hate politics, riots and disenfranchisement of the innocent. We shall attempt to understand embodied practices in the first part of this study. In the second part, we shall try to understand the language of trauma expressed in embodied practices, the third part will deal with the affective histories of the disruptive event of Partition of India   and in the part fourth, we shall and seek emancipative therapy to our condition. We will try to convert the working of this paper as a practice of empathy.

Embodied Practices

Michel Foucault has pioneered the analysis of practices. Following him several scholars have taken practices as the raw material of their research. In the context of this study, we make a humble attempt to open our mind to the hermeneutics of embodied practices. Here we shall try to travel into the geographies and choreographies of embedded practices.

Being Bodies-in-the-World

Our being-in-the-world is through being in the body.  It is through our body that we become a self that belongs to the world and our society. It both enables and restricts what a self can be in-the-world. Today there is a growing interest in body studies. Scholars have overcome the body-bias that was afflicting their studies for a long time. Philosophers are steadily giving up their habit of privileging the mind over body and the theologians are abandoning their assumption that body is an enemy of the soul. Sociologists have shown how a society lives a body regime that puts the body under its control and discipline. Anthropologists are also turning to the body to take an integral view of humanity. Cartesian dualism is fast becoming passé and body is brought back in thought and analysis. Michel Foucault’s position that bodies are primary sight of power has ignited the feminists’ interest in body studies.[7]  This means we have now began to take seriously our embodied experience and the practices of power that subject our bodies. Our embodied experience teaches us that we cannot be-in-the-world without our bodies.  It also reveals that we live out a male/ female embodied difference.[8] Unfortunately, our corporeality and visible body differences have underpinned evils like  patriarchy, racism and casteism. Embodied or visible corporeal difference has become a mark of otherness that is being politicized to privilege some and exclude others. It has also created fit and healthy body discourse of the world of glamour as well as digitized selfie bodies of the social media networks. We steadily understand that our faith/religious practices are fundamentally embodied.[9]  Body theory has also manifested how bodies on the margins have become sites of social exclusion.  We are slowly realizing that we are primarily our bodies and not just our minds and souls.

Choreography of Embodied Practices

The embodied subject is subjected to the regulatory regimes of culture, tradition and laws of governance that allow and disallow different regimes of choreographies of our bodies. Body and bodily practises are differently encoded and evaluated across time and space. Bodies therefore become markers of good and evil, pollution and purity as well normality and abnormality. We have unfortunately written patriarchy, racism, casteism, normality, abnormality, criminality and otherness into the bodies.  The flesh and the skin has become the physical, cultural and political boundary of inclusion and exclusion. Pierre Bourdieu has exposed how body is invested with social capital in which the body becomes a living expression of hierarchies of social power within the habitus of class.[10] We can clearly see how a body that is vegetarian is put on higher pedestal than the body   that feeds on non-veg food in India. Bodies are thus cultivated by socio-political as well as cultural-religious regimes and constitute our lived experience. We experience our world though our bodies that are subjected to regimes that control our embodied practices.  Our embodied practices are culturally produced. These culturally conditioned practices along with our biological life produce our lived-experience.  Our embodied experience is both biological as well as cultural. Nature and nurture come together to produce our lived embodied experience. This does not condemn us to regimes that animate and choreograph our embodied practices. We still have the freedom to refuse to dance to the tunes of these regimes. We can also cultivate other bodily practices that contest the reigning body regimes and work our way to replace the reigning regimes that produce our life. We can make the body as a site of transgression and boundary crossing.


Trauma and Embodied Practices

Just as a body keeps the scars of our physical wounds so do the body keeps the score of trauma and psychic wounds.[11] It bears the burden of the pain of trauma. Trauma expresses through embodied practices.

Body, Affect and Trauma

Spinoza called intensities that produce modifications in our body as affections (affectus/ affectio).[12] He teaches that affections either increases or decreases the body’s power of acting.  He further teaches that we become aware of the body the way it changes.  The affects to him constitute our body-mind link. Passive affects decrease our capacity to act and active affects increase our capacity to act.  This means Spinoza seem to teach that affects produce body-mind connection and links it to the capacity to act.[13] Deleuze takes Spinoza’s thinking of affect forward and thinks that an affect increases or decreases our capacity to act in a given assemblage (a body-object network).[14] Affect takes the body from one experiential state to another. Affects help us  to understand how as embodied subjects we immerse ourselves in the world. Affect in a nutshell is our body’s capacity to affect and be affected. We can take a cue from epigenetic research that teaches us how gene expression is triggered by the environment. Tomkins nine primary affects: (i) interest-excitement, (ii) enjoyment-joy, (iii) surprise-startle, (iv) distress-anguish, (v) fear-terror, (vi)anger–rage , (vii) shame-humiliation, (viii) disgust and (xi) dissmell.[15] Tomkins gives a neuro-scientific explanation of affect. He says that affects are triggered by increasing and decreasing or persistent intensity of neural firing associated with internal and external stimuli.[16]  Body being a site of embodied life and affect being an important bridge to our social world; we can clearly see how trauma is experienced through the painful economies of affects. This means trauma is an embodied experience.  Trauma is archived by the body and produces repetition with a difference in search of healing. The body archives trauma in the memory.  This memory is incorporated memory which becomes a body memory or cellular memory.[17] This means in some way trauma converts our body into a ghostly memorial carrying the pain which haunts the body-subject to work out its healing through repetition.


Embodied Practices and Expression of Trauma

In his book, Body Keeps the Score, traumatologist, Bessel ven der Kolk states, ‘we now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive’.[18] What is at stake when a person undergoes trauma is the aspects of embodiment that informs our sense of agency: subjectivity, ownership and linear temporality.[19]  Trauma brings in a death-in-life condition in its victim. May be we can link it to the presence of what Freud calls ‘death instinct’.  The haunting presence of trauma triggers a cycle of repetition with a difference.  These enactments are embodied practices. In several ways the traumatised persons experience a dislocation from life before the rupture and mourns the gap that denies him/her of the possibility of self-presence and interiority that might have been had history was different. Healing that is sought through progressive dialect of repetition with a difference becomes an attempt to give materiality to the haunting presence of an absence or loss.  It tries to express the disturbing presence of the  inexpressed and inexpressible  through embodied practices.  This haunting presence of absence sets in loss-recovery dynamism. The loss-recovery dynamism is actually a mimesis of loss. One ends up inflicting similar pain that haunts him/ her on others.  The ‘castrating’ experience of trauma re-enacts by inflicting a similar ‘castrating’ experience on others.  Such a hallowing of life is sought to be filled through embodied practices that mimic the loss.  This means a victim of trauma lives and acts from an originary presence of an absence which has its roots in a disruptive past. The specters of the past afflict the present of the victim of trauma by transforming the past as an anteriority that introduces alterity/ otherness into his/her present. It is only through the work of mourning undergone through wakeful awareness that one can set oneself free from the enslaving entanglements of trauma.


The Divides and Closures of Partition

The language of the body marked with violence mediates between individual and society when discursive language is struck dumb by a condition trauma. This has become particularly true of India as nation that was born of a loss. While independence was definitely positive, there was a calculus of loss like the partition of India and Pakistan that is afflicting the Hindus and the Muslims of India as well as India and Pakistan relations.  It haunts like a loss of a birth right that becomes a sense of loss of futures and cripples the peace of the present. Trauma is living in the everyday life of our people and marks the Hindu/Muslim and India/ Pakistan dyad that have gripped our emotional, cultural and political lives.

 Affect and Partition Trauma

Affects marks our body’s belonging to the world of encounters.  This responsiveness of our body allows us to understand materiality of trauma and examine the way it is lived in embodied practices. This means an attention to affect theory can open us to the sensorium of partition of India.[20] Analysis of affect can prove to be an important tool to understand how trauma is experienced, expressed and negotiated.  Partition has inflicted collective trauma on our people. Hence, affect theory can assist to explore the ‘affect-worlds’[21] that produce our socio-political life led by a hindutvadi state from the front.   These ongoing partitions are re-enactment of partition trauma. Our coming to be as the citizens of our country is haunted by the trauma of partition and post-partition violence. Partition is a foundational wound of our nation. The quest for a homogeneous Hindu Rastra is imagined through the loss-recovery dynamism that is triggered by the loss that afflicts the birth of our nation. The felt shared loss at the birth of our nation constitutes our social, political and aesthetic relations. The detritus of partition continues to shape the imaginaries of communalization and hindutva nationalism. Our society seems to have lost it system of reference. Everything is viewed from the reference point of Pakistan and the Muslim brethren. The anamorphic shadow of the event of partition is shaping our identity politics and the fantasy of the Hindu Rashtra. Such an imaginary has narrowed our national boundaries to a religious faith of the majority and we seem to be fast becoming a Hindu Pakistan. The Partition memories haunt our psychic life and form the field where violence is practiced against the demonized innocent other. We have lost all interconnected pre-partition harmonious histories between the Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and are travelling through the dark tunnel of trauma of the event of partition that continues to haunt us all the time and censor our memories and produce our socio-political life.

Other Genealogies of Affects

Immediately after the partition, we can spot affects inflected by cross-fertilized Sufi, Vaishnavite and Sikh lineages that seem to locate the intransient post-Partition subject. One can trace these layers in the poetry of Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam.[22] Her work has resonances of pre-Partition communities as well as Indo-Islamic embodied performative and listening practices of Punjab. We can trace in these poems semiotic and rhythmic depths, pain and longing as well as sensory dimension that allows us to grapple with the Partition memory field that is buried by the policing of memories into a singular narrative that supports the Hindu/ Muslim binary today. This work can assist our search for healing and reparation of Partition trauma-scapes.[23] Kukum Sangari has examined the repertoires love (viraha) emanating from medieval sacral and secular contexts that were reconfigured in cinematic and pefromative spaces in the 1950s to negotiate the pain and suffering of Partition. [24]  These alternate perfromatives are unfortunately fore-closed by the singular nationalist of Hindutva  narrative that imposes itself on the painful event of partition.  These peformatives that are embodied, lyrical and affective can be therapeutic. There is an uneven sense of belonging to India that is homogenised by the monolithic narrative of majoritarain politics. It is only shows that it is triggered by an anxiety of dealing with a dissonant and fractures Post-partition landscape. Qurrantulain Hyder’s novel, Sita Betrayed, attempts to open the space for the voice of the marginalized affective histories that are of the Partition’s dispossessed which are obscured by the celebratory narratives of the nation such as Nehru’s, Discovery of India as well as the triumphant arrival of Pakistan distanced from its past.[25]  Silencing/ abandoning of the plural mourning processes particularly in the vernaculars  that were inhabiting the memorial terrain of post-partition has kept the wounds of partition still alive and bleeding. This scenario is mirrored by the demolition of the Bari Majid and communal riots in India, razing of the Hindu temples in Lahore or mob attacks on Hindu in Dhaka.[26]




Healing through Embodied Practices

The event of partition has unhomed us all. In several ways, we express our fidelity to this disrupting event.  The unhoming character of the tragic event is clear in our country and can be deciphered from our desire to become a mimicked image of Pakistan that some name as the desire to become a Hindu Pakistan. Several scholars have advocated mourning of trauma that mimics Western   models. Having taken a turn to embodied practices to understand the workings of trauma, here we shall try to discern therapeutic practices that are closer to our Eastern orientations and are attune to our embodied life.  Embodied therapeutic Practices enable us to deal with trauma and embrace the truth of our interdependent and interwoven nature of life.

Adopting Embodied Contemplative and Somatic Practices

Meditations, yoga and contemplation build our mindfulness.  These awareness techniques begin with a non-judgemental observation of both the somatic as well as metal states. These observations with a marked distantiation enable us to lower our stress and build resilience.  These methods assist us to arrive at an embodied awakening. Body oriented psychotherapy can be therapeutic and powerful. Trauma disables the person’s ability to remain in the present. This is why practices of mindfulness have become important ways of dealing with trauma. Embodied practices are mostly unconscious to us. Mindful awareness subjects them to our critical and careful attention. While body oriented therapies are becoming popular, they are mainly those that offer therapy to individuals and not communities. There are those therapists that put their traumatised client into a supportive community that enables the person to re-integrate his/ her life through embodied practices.  Collective performatives and rituals have always worked as generative somatics that become what Aristotle calls catharsis. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa[27] was one such collective performatives that healed tens and thousands of traumatised people.  This is why we may need public asking and granting of forgiveness to heal the wounds of partition.  This suggests that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh may have to undergo public pefromatives that would reclaim the past and forgive everyone and situations that have inflicted pain on us.

Reclaiming Mediating Embodied Practices

The shifting geographies of computing and the mobile technology have attacked human memory. We have learnt to outsource it to a machine. The saving of our information in a computer and the coming of all information on finger tips due to the internet has weaken human remembering and forgetting seems to have become need of new multitasking humans. The weakening of human remembering has weakened the memorial terrain of trauma and we have become vulnerable as we negotiate the gulf between the virtual and real built on the wings of digital revolution. The overload of information has attacked our cognition and we are easily manipulated by the excitation of aesthetic orientations. Story and narrativization have played a great role in construction of conditions for the mourning of trauma. Unfortunately with increasing digitization, we are facing a displacement of our place and de-physicalization of our body. We seem to be fast becoming placeless. It has disrupted our embodied practices that heal our traumatic memories and pain of the past.[28] This is why it is important to reclaim our therapeutic embodied practices that mediated us with our communities localised in places and bring healing and harmony to us. We are in real danger of becoming placeless and story-less. Such a tragic condition will certainly degrade humans.  In the contest of the trauma of Partition, we may have to engage with the embodying and enacting of the trauma in alternate narratives, stories, theatre, song, dance, etc., other than the monolithic Hindutva narrative that homogenizes the plural semiotics of the tragic event in India. Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis will have to also open themselves to alternate modes that are being used to embody the trauma in search of its healing by ordinary people.


Our study has shown that trauma is expressed through embodied practices. In light of this study, we have come to understand that we Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are haunted by the disruptive event of Partition. We seem to have a strange sense of loss of birthright at the birth of our nations. This trauma of separation and the violence thereof that is felt as a loss has set in loss recovery dynamism that mimics the loss through embodied practices of hate, division and revenge between the Hindus and Muslims. We have proposed that this trauma being expressed in embodied practices will require embodied practices to heal it-self.  These practices have the power to heal our hurt memories and enable us to live a life that practices mindfulness.

[1] Stefs Craps, Post-colonial Witnessing: Trauma out of Bounds (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1.

[2] Christene Van Boheemen-Saaf, Joyce, Derrida, Lacan and the Trauma of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 10

[3] to seek healing by repeating with a difference.

[4] Christene Van Boheemen-Saaf, Joyce, Derrida, Lacan and the Trauma of History, 2.

[5] Adrain Johnston, Zizek’s Ontology : a Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity ( Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 165,

[6] See Dylan Sawyer, Lyotard , Literature and the Trauma of the Differend (London: Palgrave Macmillan,2014).

[7]  Victoria Pitts, In the Flesh: the Cultural Politics of Body Modification ( New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 36

[8] There also a truth that Simone de Beauvoir in her book, the second sex makes those women is a social construct.   But there is a lived experience of embodied difference between man and women which has its links with the constructive dimension of gender and sex. She has opened a larger issue of social production of difference centred on the body.

[9] Anna Hickey-Moody, “fait”, Philosophy Today: International Journal of Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 63:4, fall 2019, 927-941.

[10]  Tomari Kitossa, “ Habitus and  Rethinking  the Discourse of Youth Gangs, Crime, Violence and Ghetto Communities” , in Chris Richardson and Hans A. Skot-Myhre, (Ed.),Habitus of the Hood (Chicago: Intellect, 2012), 126.

[11] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, Body in the Transformation of Trauma ( New York : Penguin Publishing, 2014).

[12] Gillian Howie, Deleuze and Spinoza: Aura of Expressionism (London: Palgrave, 2002), 115 .

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] accessed on 23/10/2020.

[16] Ibid.

[17] accessed on 23/10/2020.

[18] accessed on24/10/2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  A good place to understand the production of Sensorium is look at Cinema.  See  Asma Abbas , Another Love: The Politics of Unrequited (London: Lexington Books, 2018), 153

[21] Jeronimo Arellano , Magical Realism and the History of Emotions in Latin America (Maryland: Buckwell University Press, 2015), 16.

[22] accessed 28/10/2020.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] accessed on 28/10/2020.

[28] accessed on 28/10/2020.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao