What are the effects of counter-revolutions on the afterlives of activists? And how does trauma, or rather its strategic instrumentalization by authoritarian rulers, play into demobilization processes? These are some of the questions Breaking Intersubjectivity sets out to answer.

Vivienne Matthies-Boon succeeds in developing a critical theoretical account of trauma and goes on to apply it to the case of counter-revolutionary Egypt. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s critique of the philosophy of the subject and Martin Heidegger’s trauma theory of intersubjectivity, the book adds to the discussion of trauma studies by shifting its focus away from the subject toward intersubjective relations. With that, trauma is not something that is entirely inherent to the subject’s self but is rather embedded in the relation to one’s social surrounding. Moreover, Matthies-Boon convincingly integrates different strands of philosophy into her critical theory of trauma. Weaving in Nancy Fraser’s concept of status subordination and Rahel Jaeggi’s work on alienation, she builds up her argument that human-induced trauma always involves a power relation, or more specifically, that human-induced trauma can serve as a political tool of repression.

The theoretical richness of the book is complemented by a meticulous and empirically rich study of demobilization processes in postrevolutionary Egypt. Breaking Intersubjectivity thus caters not only to the field of political philosophy, but significantly adds to the discussion of (de)mobilization processes in political science and area studies too. It fills a notable disciplinary gap, especially regarding the case of Egypt, which has gone through an erratic transition since the days of the so-called Arab Spring. Social scientists and Middle East scholars have mostly focused on studying how the popular uprisings unfolded in early 2011, or varyingly studied the counter-revolutionary episode between 2012 and 2014 through the prism of the state. This body of research has often described the popular mobilization of 2011 as the beginning of a longue durée revolutionary process. At the same time, research on the longer-term effects of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary times on activists has remained severely limited thus far. With her new book, Matthies-Boon fills this gap by combining a critical theory of trauma with empirical research on the afterlives of Egyptian activists over three parts.

The first part is dedicated to developing a critical theoretical understanding of trauma which moves away from the focus on the subjective experience of trauma as an event and raises the possibility of trauma being impaired, structural, and continuous. Matthies-Boon introduces a new definition of trauma as ‘a fundamental betrayal of the counterfactual presupposition of being treated as an equal peer in intersubjective relation to others’ (p. 71). In the tradition of Habermas, the author views trauma as a form of injustice resulting from a broken lifeworld, i.e., the breaking of the subject’s interrelations with the socio-normative contexts one is embedded in. This results not only in the form of breaking one’s system of orienting and communicating in the own lifeworld, but further leads to a complete incapacity to act in said world.

Beyond the critical engagement with trauma studies, this redefinition also serves to study the strategic infliction of trauma; a tool employed especially, but not solely, by authoritarian regimes to suppress voices of dissent. Inspired by Heidegger’s critical trauma theory in which he argues that the experience of trauma ruptures the ability to make sense of the world, Matthies-Boon goes on to conceptualize human-induced trauma as a tool of repression which can be instrumentalized in the form of intersubjective alienation. According to her, this can be achieved on the one hand through status subordination. Matthies-Boon conceptualizes this in reference to Nancy Fraser, who argues that the subordination of human beings is achieved both through denying them the recognition as equals (misrecognition) and through the unequal distribution of resources of power (maldistribution). On the other hand, the infliction of trauma takes place through the alienation of the subject. As a consequence of this alienation, one fails to identify with the collective and remains in a state incapable of confronting the injustices inflicted upon them.

The theoretical density of the first part provides a strong foundation for the empirical analyses in the remainder of the book, where the reformulation of trauma and the political instrumentalization thereof are analyzed in the context of Egypt. Based on forty life story interviews with young Cairene activists between October 2013 and 2014, Breaking Intersubjectivity shows how demobilization processes were achieved in postrevolutionary Egypt through the multileveled infliction of trauma. Part Two draws an extensive picture of the increased repressive dynamics since the end of the British colonial rule and shows how these paved the way for the (counter-)revolutionary period and beyond. Matthies-Boon analyzes how the different political leaders of Egypt have managed to betray the intersubjective parity of activists through a triad of means, namely through the continued neoliberalization of the economy, they fostered immense maldistribution. By colonizing the public sphere, the space for public participation was minimized and almost erased. On top of that, the grave exertion of violence served the manifestation of their power as well as breaking activists’ capacity to self-manifest and any potential for creative becoming.

The third section of the book then centers on the breaking of this potential of creative becoming and the revolutionary lifeworld. It is dedicated to the subjective impacts of traumatic status subordination and how intersubjective imparity not only affects the political sphere but also Egyptian society at large. The last chapter recounts the experiences of activists being exposed to different forms of physical and structural violence and the devastating impacts this has had on the perception of their own existence. Exposure to violence effectively destroyed their horizon of possibility. Moreover, this chapter illustrates how the traumatic status subordination is multileveled: it exceeds the political, extends to the societal sphere, effectively pitting people against each other and enticing them to engage in cycles of revenge, torture, killing, and maiming. In the case of Egypt, the intersubjective parity inflicted by authorities as well as ordinary citizens reinforced the breakdown of communication, disrupted (or polarized) Egyptian society, and effected an absolute depoliticization and atomization that particularly affected activists.

Breaking Intersubjectivity carefully traces the intricacies of trauma infliction in Egypt, showing not only that this is taking place on different levels but also shedding light on historical continuities as well as the acceleration of misrecognition and maldistribution. The theoretical sophistication of the book is at times difficult for readers less acquainted with Heidegger’s and Habermas’s philosophies to follow. At the same time, the provided depth allows the critical engagement with trauma studies, as well as trace the author’s theory throughout the case study. Furthermore, the book’s analytical innovation in focusing on inter-relational aspects of trauma shifts the study of trauma to the societal sphere and convincingly shows how trauma can and indeed is actively induced as a political tool to silence, demobilize, and halt democratic processes. The book opens a new perspective on transitional and demobilization processes. The brilliance of reformulating a critical theoretical basis and its application to empirical accounts become especially evident in part Three where the book succeeds in showing the multileveled infliction of repression and violence which at some point was turned inwards and resulted in the breakdown of social cohesion. Having previously provided the reader with a strong theoretical foundation allows us to think Matthies-Boon’s argument beyond the case of Egypt. Her threefold analysis encompassing the political, economic, and social layers of the instrumentalization of trauma can be equally applied to the analysis of (de)mobilization processes in other authoritarian contexts, as well as serve research on counter-revolutions’ existential impact on the afterlives of activists and the dialectical dynamics of both the former and the latter.

Matthies-Boon’s exceptional work paints a dire picture of how human-induced trauma, if utilized as a repressive tool, can break not only resistance, but whole societies and human beings. Through the combination of outstanding theoretical depth and extremely rich engaged empirical research, Breaking Intersubjectivity: A Critical Theory of Counter-Revolutionary Trauma in Egypt uncovers the interrelations of repression as exerted by the state and met with the disruption of mobilization processes and offers much to think about regarding the strategic undermining of democratic transitions in authoritarian contexts.