Trauma, Conflict, and Contradiction

Article by Glen Skahill, Pomona ‘22

    Foregrounding “The Guru” episode of Avatar the Last Airbender, this essay examines how the show’s representation of trauma extends to how it handles conflict. “The Guru” offers a pre-modern representation of the therapeutic clinic, offering firm ground for psychoanalytic theory to intervene. In the midst of its renaissance, Avatar the Last Airbender (ATLA)’s representations of trauma reverberate over a decade past its air.1 The representation of trauma in “The Guru” serves as a synecdoche for the series as a whole in how it connects trauma to conflict. Fusing the psychoanalysis of Jaques Lacan and the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “The Guru” examines the contradiction of subjectivity or our split in being through the representation of trauma.  This paper illustrates the contradiction through Todd McGowan’s emancipatory framework and Ryan Engley’s work on the serial cut.2 I argue that representing trauma requires embracing the contradiction of subjectivity. Through this embrace, Avatar the Last Airbender shapes its emancipatory politics.

    What constitutes the contradiction of subjectivity? Psychoanalytic theory answers with the split between the conscious and the unconscious.3 This split in subjectivity extends to how we relate to objects. For example, conscious wishes as children—such as for a doll to come to life—may return later in life in the form of the uncanny—such as seeing a doll that’s too lifelike or thinking it moved.4 Despite the external status of the object, the subject experiences the object’s uncanniness in a deeply internal manner. In this split, between the external object and internal experience, psychoanalytic theory does its work. Thus, the split in ourselves, between the conscious and unconscious, splits objects as well. Freud notes how our repressed desires—left in the unconscious—return to us in our view of the uncanny object extending our split in subjectivity to the objects of the world. Hegel determines that the split within the object constitutes the object.5 Instead of the experienced world and the objective world as distinct and separate, Hegel defines the object through the friction of the two. For this reason, Hegel becomes a philosopher of subjectivity, useful for our analysis here, as we fail to distinguish the world from our experience of it. Distinct from opposition, which imagines a complete self-identity without the unconscious, contradiction recognizes the divide in the subject.6 Opposition constitutes a whole identity through opposition against an Other, whereas contradiction recognizes the divide in the subject. From this contradiction, truth prevails.

    Art attempts to express our subjectivity yet itself lacks subjectivity as a material object. Hegel begins with architecture as the most obvious example of this contradiction and moves through various forms of art. Architecture, as a material object, exists outside of us yet attempts to express our very subjectivity. This contradiction—between art’s expression of our subjectivity and art’s externality—constitutes architecture. While Hegel uses this contradiction to define most of the artforms he explores, materiality cannot explain the contradiction within poetry.7 The contradiction of poetry arises due to our separation from language. Language exists outside of us. When we put poetics out there for others, we lose control of the meaning that may arise. While poetics might appear as a pure form of expression, contradiction necessarily arises through the minimal distance of our separation from language. I contend that televisual media maintains this minimal distance of separation—and thus contradiction—through its visual poetics.

    We must identify a visual poetics of the unconscious which extends to trauma for trauma’s location in the unconscious. Just as trauma brings us back to a moment of pain, flashback sequences in media offer the representational equivalent. These moments of slippage of the past from the unconscious—repressed memories—to the conscious show the faltering of the unconscious’ protection against trauma, as the unconscious may only ever offer partial protection from traumatic experiences via the repression of them. Flashback sequences rely on the cut between shots. Engley, a psychoanalytic theorist of seriality, identifies this cut—called the serial gap—with the unconscious.8

    In “The Guru,” we see Aang, the last of the airbenders and powerful avatar who can stop the fire lord, experience a series of flashbacks to repressed feelings and memories. Aang repressed these memories due to fear, guilt, shame, grief, and lies. For example, when guru Pathik, another character, asks Aang to meditate on shame, the episode flashes back to Aang losing control of his fire and burning his romantic interest, Katara. Akin to a panic attack surfacing a traumatic memory, the cut interjects another shot, and therefore memory, into the moment. In the same manner that flashbacks of traumatic events confront us, the flashback in the episode confronts Aang. To understand repression, the media object must take on its own unconscious through the cut.

    After the initial flashback, the consequent shot serves as what psychoanalysis might consider the point of enunciation. The next scene brings the point of repression to consciousness akin to verbalizing mental processes in the clinic as a point of enunciation. In the clinic, the point of enunciation verbalizes repressed mental processes, bringing them to consciousness. As mentioned, when guru Pathik asks Aang to think about shame, his repressed memory of hurting Katara while firebending comes up. Just as guru Pathik brings this memory to consciousness for Aang to enunciate his avoidance to firebending, the show represents this enunciation through the Kuleshov effect, looking at a character’s face then flashing to another scene to get a sense of their internal world. In this enunciation, the contradiction of subjectivity comes to fore in the contrast between the conscious view of the character and the enunciation of their repression.

    We may then read this enunciation back into the clinic, as guru Pathik and Aang meditate in what may have been a pre-modern clinical setup. Just as Aang finds release against all the points of repression that become enunciated in the episode, Lacan—a founder of his own school of psychoanalysis—identifies this point of enunciation as a point of release.9 Without it, the subject remains in tension under the protection of the unconscious’ repression. This enunciation marks the beginning of the release of psychic tension. In similar terms, Aang—albeit at a pace fantastically rapid—begins to find release from the psychic turmoils that trouble him. Herein, this episode reveals how ATLA takes on the contradiction of subjectivity as it relates to trauma.

    The episode spans the seven chakras, covering Aang’s various repressions. While the final two verge on religious instead of related to the psyche, the first five ideas serve as triggers that bring Aang’s repressions to enunciation. Guru Pathik goes through the seven chakras with Aang and explains what blocks each of them. Each time Pathik mentions what blocks the chakra, such as fear or guilt, it triggers a memory in Aang that he had been avoiding or repressing. These triggers serve as a springboard for analysis in the same manner that psychoanalysts use dreams to get patients talking and eventually confronting their traumas.10 Aang begins with fear, envisioning the firelord Ozai who everyone says he must kill to save the world. We come to understand his fear, as the show enunciates his fear through metaphors of Ozai after a flashback. The next chakra follows with guilt, as Aang remembers running away from his home which inadvertently saved him from the genocide of his people. After shame, the two meditate on grief during which Aang feels the grief of having lost his people, the air nomads, and home. Guru Pathik offers love as the cover against grief but asks Aang to let go of his earthly attachments on the final chakra release. In this final meditation, Aang senses the danger that confronts Katara. Herein, Aang faces conflicting desires as a traumatic encounter with the contradiction of subjectivity.

    Having gone through all but the last chakras, Aang then must choose between love and the cosmic energy that may give him the power to defeat the firelord. He chooses love. Aang’s choice extends ATLA’s commitment to the contradiction of subjectivity. It brings the relation of the internal and external into question once again, bringing considerations for the representation of trauma into the external world within the show.

    Furthermore, Aang’s choice of love embraces the contradiction of subjectivity. As McGowan, a Hegelian psychoanalytic theorist, notes, “Love forces the subject to recognize that it is not a self-identical being but a being whose identity is out there in the other.”11 Aang embraces his own split in being with part of his identity in the external world in his lover. In the scene before, Aang opens the sixth chakra, blocked by illusion, through understanding the connection between things. However, Aang’s choice of love illustrates this in actuality, as love “creates a disturbance in the subject’s identity that transforms that identity, revealing that identity is never isolated.”12 Love integrates another into one’s own identity, despite both being external and having difference from the self, furthering ATLA’s logic of contradiction.

    While we began with observations about flashbacks in shows, love extends the logic of representation in relation to trauma. Whereas other shows may represent trauma well, that representation configures into the show’s logic. The show’s relation to contradiction—as an inherent part of subjectivity—configures into the representation of trauma. Thus, any attempt to isolate a narrative arc of healing from an overarching narrative of opposition—overcoming one’s enemies to establish oneself or one’s identity—does disservice to the contradiction of subjectivity. Herein, every show takes up a position relative to contradiction due to the necessity of conflict in narrative that shapes the diegetic world’s relation to trauma.

    Trauma’s relational nature forces the narrative to contend with it as long as there appears some representation of subjectivity. This appears both in how the show structures conflict, around opposition or contradiction, as well as the constitution of characters. Of course, love must not always be the answer, albeit it embodies a good answer. Love must embrace its contradictory nature for a show to take on such a logic. Continuing this logic of contradiction allows the representation of trauma in the show multiple points of enunciation.

    While “The Guru” offers Aang the enunciation of his repressed traumas into consciousness, the finale of ATLA enunciates a new horizon of meaning, as Aang determines his relation to the grief of the fire nation destroying his culture. This enunciation comes in Aang’s choice to not kill the firelord and instead take his bending away. Taking the bending away thus preserves the culture that he lost, as he holds on to his culture’s nonviolence. However, taking away the firelord’s bending avoids a traumatic encounter within the contradiction of nonviolence. Aang spends the end of the final season dealing with the anxiety around this contradiction. Firelord Ozai threatens to kill him and friends and conquer the world. Without the ability to take away his bending, Ozai may have forced Aang to sacrifice his nonviolence or face annihilation. Instead, Aang maintains his cultural heritage with the ability to take his bending away, recognizing “universality over particularity.”13

    Aang’s exemplification of Hegelian universality cultivates the emancipation that McGowan speaks of, as “...emancipation involves making explicit and embracing contradiction, whereas conservatism aims at repressing or eliminating it.”14 McGowan makes clear that contradiction constitutes universality, manifesting differently in all of us. Firelord Ozai asserts his particularity, denying the shared universality of contradiction. Only through the universal, understood within contradiction, of which the contradiction of subjectivity lies, may emancipation prevail. Ozai defines the fire nation against the avatar and rest of the world. Instead of reconciling the contradiction within the fire nation and thus between the other nations, Ozai asserts a self-unified identity for the fire nation in this opposition. Albeit a fantasy of power, Aang reconciles Ozai’s opposition by denying his means to consolidate his particularity. In taking away his bending, Aang forces Ozai to confront the universal.

    Aang—part of the oppressed group due to the genocide of his people—becomes the universal that the fire nation defines itself against in its particularity. The identity of the fire nation rests on Aang, as the limit against their world domination. Aang, as the avatar, becomes the barrier for the fire nation to overcome contradiction and achieve unity in self.

    However the fire nation raises a difficult question: how can we uphold the universal if someone maintains oppositional identity to us? With the example of the scentific racist who defines themself opposition against the racial Other, denying the Other’s contradiction, Hegel, quoted in McGowan, states to “smash the skull of a person who makes a statement like that,” whereas McGowan brings Hegel’s passion back to his philosophy to “reject it without any debate because the racist attempt to bypass universality in identifying the subject cannot be countered by a convincing argument, which would take place within the universality of language.”15 Thus, part of the reconciliation of contradiction may involve the violent rejection of opposition.

    This requires distinction between Hegel’s universality and the Enlightenment universality of the white European male, as Hegel’s universality saves us from the particularism of historical universality that predominates today. The fire nation takes on the logic of particularity for self unity and opposes themselves to Aang and the rest of the world. To do so requires the denial of the universality and thus the contradiction of subjectivity, such as the many racist stereotypes that fixate a characteristic to a group of people. We all exhibit both hard work and laziness. To ascribe only one to a people denies their contradictory being. While others attempt to find recourse against the particularism that oppressors propagate in the assertion of their own particularity, the recognition of the universal contradiction that riddles us opens the door for emancipation. The particulars we have affect our relation to universality. Aang’s particularity as the last airbender does not immediately constitute his universality. Rather, Aang’s confrontation with his own contradiction—being the avatar that must save the world but also a young boy who wants to live a regular life with his friends—posits him as a “determinate universality.”16 Just as Aang’s determinate universality comes from confronting his contradiction, we may each find our own determinate universalities through the contradictions that define us.

    Within the representations of trauma that “The Guru” guides us through, it also offers the explosion of radicality simmering in the show. Guru Pathik describes the fifth chakra as truth, blocked by lies. Prompted by the trigger of the description, Aang thinks about how he began the show by running away from his role as the avatar. Scenes flash of Aang desiring to play with his other airbending friends, but his skill as the avatar far surpasses them. The fifth chakra reveals why Aang ran away from home: due to his split in being as both a young boy but also the ever powerful avatar. When Aang opens his fifth chakra and accepts his role as the avatar alongside the contradiction of his desire to be a regular young boy, Aang finds his determinate universality.

    Even more so, ATLA expands the logic of reconciliation that McGowan offers through Aang’s anxiety around upholding his philosophy of nonviolence. When seeking the other avatars for advice on how to defeat the firelord without killing him, all of the past avatars tell Aang that killing him, albeit against his principles as a monk, is necessary for protecting the world against the fire nation’s conquest. Only the lion-turtle that Aang finds gives him the knowledge to defeat Ozai without having to kill him.17 In a similar vein, we may extrapolate that reconciliation may require violence and force against those who determine their identity in opposition, such as the Nazis, but if we may find a manner of disarming the opposition that the assertion of particularity founds itself on, then we may find a more peaceful reconciliation of contradiction. However, this extra necessary wisdom must not be taken as lightly as ATLA portrays. Aang takes great risk in preferring the nonviolent route, even with his immense power as an avatar. Such an ability to disarm the force of opposition in our world would require cunning and guile.

    Lastly, the radicality of the events in “The Guru” allow for the subsequent arc of the previous villain, Zuko. Throughout the show, Aang maintains his belief in friendship with Zuko and thus the contradiction in Zuko’s being, regardless of Zuko’s attempts to capture Aang. Despite previous statements about the potential need for violence in the face of opposition, contradiction opens the door for redemption in the path of the universal. “As Hegel sees it, movement in being and thought occur through contradiction.”18 Through this movement of contradiction, Aang moves through his own contradiction to embrace his determinate universality. In a similar manner, this redemptive quality opens the door for Zuko.

    Zuko openly wears the trauma that splits his being. Half of his face bears the scar that his father gave him; the other half bears his occasional smile. His connection to his uncle Iroh pulls him in the direction of care and love, whereas the pain of his scar pulls him towards the honor and glory of the fire nation and the desperation of his father’s approval. Only in the traumatic freedom that Zuko finds in his banishment—not to mention the immense care from his uncle—does Zuko move past his own particularity with the fire nation, towards reconciling his split as banished prince. Instead of taking on some sort of internal opposition or synthesis, Zuko embraces and lives within his contradiction. In doing so, Zuko finds his own idea of honor, after continuous confrontations with those hurt by the conquest of the fire nation.19

    Aang and Zuko take on the reconciliation of contradiction and its connection to trauma. While Zuko defines himself as whole in opposition to Aang, a villain who wishes to capture the hero and get back the family he lost, their relationship overcomes the contradictions that exist within their friendship. Their shared recourse to the universal in their determinate universalities emancipates Zuko and Aang to see the new consequences of the history they inherent.20 While each of them suffer in being lost at the beginning of the show, their respective traumas guide them to the universal that Hegel offers. In this manner, the emancipation that Aang and Zuko find coincides with the points of their enunciation. To reconcile their split beings, they must sit and face the trauma that confronts them.“The Guru” asks us to read the point of enunciation back into the clinic. The conclusion then offers a return to the clinic in Aang and Zuko’s reconciliation with the universal as part of their reconciliation with their trauma.

    “The Guru” shows contradiction in its intersection as both the point of finding a relation to your trauma—for the similarities to the clinic—and as the point of emancipation. Aang’s choice of love over cosmic energy and power expands contradiction from the clinic to conflict. For this expansion of the logic of contradiction, “The Guru” serves as a synecdoche for ATLA. Aang and Zuko spend the next and final season working out their distinct traumas to find their determinate universalities. In their determinate universalities, they take on the task of defeating firelord Ozai who defines himself in opposition to Aang and the world as justification for world conquest. Aang and Zuko must perform the work that guru Pathik outlines in “The Guru”: reconcile their contradiction to find their relation to the universal, then defend it against the opposition of firelord Ozai.

    ATLA bridges the political emancipation that Hegel outlines and the enunciation of trauma that Lacan outlines. The Hegelian roots of psychoanalysis proffer an emancipatory logic when put in tandem. With the rise of serial narrative media, the potential for narratives of universality and logics of contradiction grows. We may measure the political axis of the narratives we consume based on their relation to trauma and consequently the contradiction of subjectivity. We may both determine the emancipation that a show might offer from psychic repression—in the enunciation of trauma—and political repression—in its commitment to or betrayal of the contradiction of subjectivity.


1. Butaney, Kaavya. “'Avatar''s Netflix Renaissance: The Gaang Returns.” The Talon, August 17, 2020.  
2. McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. S.l.: Columbia University Press, 2021. & Engley, Ryan. Henderson, Jess. “To Be Continued... An Interview on Seriality (Part I).” To Be Continued... An Interview on Seriality (Part I) |, August 6, 2020.
3. Fink, Bruce. “The Unconscious Is the Exact Opposite of the Conscious: How the Unconscious Manifests Itself in Speech and Symptoms.” Essay. In A Clinical Introduction to Freud: Techniques for Everyday Practice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
4. Freud, Sigmund, James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson. “The 'Uncanny'.” Essay. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 217–52. London: Vintage, 2001.
5. Engley, Ryan, and Todd McGowan. “Hegel's Consciousness.” Why Theory. Lecture. Accessed April 30, 2021.
6. McGowan, 27.
7. Ibid, 37.
8. Engley, Ryan. Henderson, Jess. “To Be Continued... An Interview on Seriality (Part I).” To Be Continued... An Interview on Seriality (Part I) |, August 6, 2020.
9. Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.
10. Fink, Bruce. “Dreams: The Royal Road to the Unconscious.” Essay. In A Clinical Introduction to Freud: Techniques for Everyday Practice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
11. McGowan, 156.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid, 250.
14. Ibid, 286.
15. Ibid, 257.
16. Ibid, 253. For more, read McGowan’s argument on how Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. DuBois relate to the universal.
17. Ehasz, Aaron. “Sozin's Comet, Part 2: The Old Master.” Episode. Avatar the Last Airbender Book of Fire, no. 21. Nickelodeon, July 19, 2008.
18. McGowan, 25.
19. Ehasz, Elizabeth. “Zuko Alone.” Episode. Avatar the Last Airbender Book of Earth, no. 7. Nickelodeon, May 16, 2006. In this episode, Zuko hides his identity, and despite saving the people of a village from greedy soldiers, the villagers still hate him for his identity as the prince of the fire nation.
20. For more on this, the comics expand well on the consequences of fire nation colonies needing to pull out of colonized land and the fracture between Aang and Zuko in the legacies of their people as oppressed & oppressors, respectively.