Quilting Points Versus Being Clothed in Christ

Maybe it is, as Adam Philips has noted, that the most important fact about us is that we are born helpless, totally dependent upon others.[1] As Freud noted, the child’s experience of hunger, separation, and excitation is overwhelming and the drive to gain control marks all of human life.[2] We begin as helpless, overwhelmed by the chaos of uncontrollable emotions and desires, and we would hold together by attaching ourselves to defenses against this condition. Identity (individual and corporate) serves this purpose, and it is out of the web of associations (means of cohering), large and small that we attempt to ward off fear. Total vulnerability gives rise to pursuit of total invulnerability or total mastery. Being subject gives rise to the drive to subject. What the world offers is various means of quilting together the fabric of our lives so as to resist the continual threat of unravelling.

Jacques Lacan captures this process in his notion of the quilting point, which attempts to explain how the historical and social reality one inhabits become subjectivized. Contained within his explanation there is a picture of a two-fold process explaining how the social world becomes comprehensible and how I become comprehensible to myself, having an identity or unity as one experiencing the world. It is not as if the social world offers meaning that coheres differently than the individual, but both come to bear the semblance of coherence through the same process.

As Slavoj Žižek explains it, the quilting point sutures the field of the signifier (the sign, language, etc.) and the signified (what the word indicates), but in the Lacanian frame, these are not really two realms apart, as “the signifier falls into the signified.” That is the word or name seems to suture together a realm of disparate things by being included or counted as a thing itself. Žižek captures this in a series of jokes: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from Antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name.” That is the name, in the old Polish anti-communist joke, stitches together things that should not be held together and do so only in sharing the name. So too with the anti-Semitic image of the Jew: “From the rich bankers, it took financial speculation, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupt journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards hygiene, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name.”[3] The point of the joke is precisely the quilting point – these things do not really hold together but are contradictory and disparate and are given the appearance of holding together through the name.

Maybe it can be stated even more sharply in that the contradiction inherent to the quilting point is not simply conveniently covered over but is necessary (the force) to the internal (il)logic of the system. From out of the chaos arises unity, not because there is any actual coherence but because the world threatens and this very threat or violence must be tamed. The entry into a coherent or unified understanding, the ability to name and control the chaos, depends upon the continual threat of the chaos. That is, the unity that we would impose on the world is a desperate fiction in which our own survival is at stake. Whether it is the child gazing in the mirror and arriving at the imagined I by means of which it will hold all of the appetites, desires, and urges at bay, or the Nazi who needs the Jew to give a focal point to threat and control by which his world holds together.  

The Germans, for example, after the defeat of WW I arrived at the singular explanation which would give new life to the nation: “following their ‘undeserved’ military defeat, the German people were disoriented, thrown into a situation of economic crisis, political inefficiency, and moral degeneration— and the Nazis offered a single agent which accounted for it all: the Jew, the Jewish plot.”[4] So too the world of the white racist is given coherence through the black other, the post 9/11 American nationalist requires the Muslim other, but so too every identity depends primarily on a quilting point. Nothing new is added by the name, but now this nothing (the meaningless signifier) unites disparate features and properties into a singular thing – the name. So ultimately the signifier is the signified. The sign is reified so that it functions as an actually existing object, when in reality it is a forced fictional unity. But beginning with the child’s earliest reflexive identity, isn’t this always the role assigned to language?

As in René Girard’s scapegoating theory, the scapegoat is perceived to contain both the disruptive element to the culture or tribe, but then upon being sacrificed, the group coheres around the sacralized scapegoat/victim who has warded off danger (the very danger he bore) and brought about unity. The scapegoat functions as a master signifier, simultaneously containing and holding at bay a perceived chaos. In post Christian society, in which the scapegoat mechanism is no longer effective, the chosen trauma and chosen glory, in the description of Vamik Volkan, does not fold into a singular person or group but the same process is at work.

In a real or perceived past event, in which a group suffered loss or experienced helplessness and humiliation at the hands of a neighboring group, this trauma may become the “trauma of choice” – the shared traumatic event marking a people and linking them together. In Lacanian terms, the chosen trauma is a quilting point, inseparable from group identity, and leaders may call upon the trauma, reactivating it during times of conflict or crisis. For example, “Czechs commemorate the battle of Bila Hora in 1620 which led to their subjugation under the Hapsburg Empire for nearly 300 years. Scots keep alive the story of the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore a Stuart to the throne. The Lakota Indians of the United States recall the anniversary of their decimation at Wounded Knee in 1890, and Crimean Tatars define themselves by the collective suffering of their deportation from Crimea in 1944.”[5]

The idea behind calling upon the trauma in times of conflict is to legitimate inflicting suffering on those (or their stand ins) who have caused the trauma. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry for slaughter of Mexicans. On the other hand, September 11th is justification for the slaughter of a people that had nothing to do with the event. The Jewish Holocaust is justification for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. The Serbs’ chosen trauma, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, was the rallying cry connected to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bombing of a military installation at Pearl Harbor, would result in the firebombing of Tokyo and the complete devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Likewise, the Nazi slaughter of civilians would result in the allies also targeting civilian populations. Through the twisted illogic of trauma as a node of identity, there is an intrinsic clinging to the perceived “necessity” of making the other suffer. In Girardian terms, a country takes on the look of its enemy in a large-scale mimesis.

By the same token, large groups have ritualistic recollections of shared success or triumph which function as chosen glories. According to Volkan, “Past victories in battle and great accomplishments of a technical or artistic nature frequently appear as chosen glories; virtually every large group (i.e., ethnic) has tales of grandeur associated with its creation.”[6] As with chosen trauma, chosen glory may be recent or ancient, real or mythological, but it also serves to bind groups together. Though chosen trauma and chosen glory cannot neatly fold into a singular scapegoat, nonetheless it is clear the two are tied together. The humiliation of Pearl Harbor and German aggression is integral to the notion of the “good war” and the “greatest generation”; “taxation without representation” is tied to the Boston Tea Party and George Washington triumphantly crossing the Delaware; the destruction of the Twin Towers and the killing of Osama bin Laden, are inextricably tied together. The chosen trauma gives substance and justification to the chosen glory.

This is not to suggest that character and personality are simply a by-product of this process, but the quilting point (a master signifier) or a shared trauma and shared glory provide the material (the quilt, or in Volkan’s terminology, the tent) from out of which we cover or clothe ourselves. We find ourselves as parts of large groups in which the nation, tribe, and extended family are determinate. Individually, we may think of career or artistic or athletic ability as unique to our identity, but what holds us together on a larger scale is incorporation into a shared core identity. While one might lose their job, their spouse, their talent or athletic ability, when one loses this core identity there is complete decomposition into what Volkan calls “psychological death.” The result may be schizophrenia, total anxiety and terror, or escape into a new core identity. One must be clothed with an identity, as to be unclothed is intolerable.

Genesis depicts this unclothed trauma, this shame, as an experience of death. The first couple deploy language (the knowledge of good and evil) as something like a quilting point (a new master signifier), deploying signs as if they could provide identity (God-likeness). So far as we know this is the condition of their offspring. Not that they bear some Augustinian Original Sin, but they pass on to their offspring the clothing problem and the language problem, as is evidenced in the psychopathic killers of the generation of Noah and the Babelites. This attempt to quilt a new cover gives rise, not only to their own experience of death, but to a series of murders and eventually to a chaos of signifiers.

The only resolution to this clothing problem and language problem, in Scripture, is the depiction of being clothed in the Word of Christ. In one of the final scenes of the Bible, the Messiah or rider on the white horse, comes with a new form of clothing.  “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Re 19:13). The language problem, the clothing problem, and the inherent violence involved are addressed by the Word who provides each of his followers new clothing: “And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (Re 19:14).

Could it be that the story of redemption is this: the recognition of the failed quilting point, the chosen traumas and chosen glories out of which we would fabricate a violent identity, and that in the recognition we are simultaneously provided an alternative Word and identity so as to clothe ourselves in the garments of peace?  


[1] Joan Acocella, “This Is Your Life: A psychoanalytic writer urges us to just deal with it.” The New Yorker (February 17, 2013), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

[2] See Simone Drichel, “Reframing Vulnerability: ‘so obviously the problem…’?” in SubStance, Volume 42, Number 3, 2013 (Issue 132), pp. 3-27. https://www.otago.ac.nz/english-linguistics/otago596051.pdf

[3] Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 13288-13300). Norton. Kindle Edition.

[4] Žižek, 13307-13311.

[5] Vamık D. Volkan “Transgenerational Transmissions and ‘Chosen Trauma’: An Element of Large-Group Identity” (Opening Address XIII International Congress International Association of Group Psychotherapy August, 1998),

[6] Volkan, Psychopolitical Concepts, Paper presented at the European Association of Transcultural Analysis Workshop, Budapest- May 25-28, 2006. https://www.academia.edu/24667252/PSYCHOPOLITICAL_CONCEPTS

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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