The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008


Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone

Like waves breaking on the shore, every discipline, every field and sub-field, every theoretical movement tells and retells the story of its genesis, until a pattern is written on the sand, awkward points are eroded and the beach seems stable and calm: a seemingly inevitable result of natural processes. The shoreline then becomes a place from which to view the horizon, to survey the future in serenity or with wild surmise. However, in a collection that concerns the messy complexities of trauma, this paradoxically stabilizing flow seems to be a problem. It is clear that the names ’trauma’ or ’trauma theory’ mark a rising tide in the humanities and beyond, and that the concepts and approaches that make up this surge come from many currents and flow from many sources. These often run into each other, contradict, agitate, creating not a smooth, gently shelving beach but shifting, unpredictable sands and turbulent waters. Charting the future of trauma studies is not meant to channel these waters in one, reassuringly navigable direction, which would, after all, be a disavowal of the unexpected nature of trauma itself. Rather, this collection seeks to trace the contradictions within the field that might continue to render its turbulence productive.

As the work of Roger Luckhurst and others has shown, the modern concept of trauma developed, in the West, through the interlocking areas of ’law, psychiatry and industrialized warfare’ (Luckhurst 19). From around the time of the Second World War to the present, the concept has been increasingly medicalized but also and importantly linked into wider political frames: survivor narratives, responses to persecution and prejudice, and to the Holocaust and other acts of mass atrocity and genocide. In all of these discourses, as Luckhurst argues, the concept of trauma is neither fully material or somatic, nor simply psychic, nor fully cultural or easily located in its appropriative or disruptive relation to the symbolic order, nor simply historic or structural, but a point at which all these currents meet. It is precisely because it is a point of intersection, of turbulence, that ’trauma’ is such a powerful force.

It is certainly true that ’trauma theory’ is a response to the developing and changing impact of the Holocaust, at least in the West. Equally, there is something in Aimé Césaire’s declaration that before the Nazis’ ’supreme barbarism’, many in Europe

absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilisations in its reddening waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.

(Césaire 14)

Recognition of this, the world history of barbarity, also underlies ’trauma’. It is also true that there has been an increased medical attention to trauma, from the declaration by the American Psychiatric Association that post-traumatic stress disorder was a disease. However, these wider shifts are, in some way, beyond the remit of this book, which is concerned with the future of trauma theory in contemporary cultural and literary criticism and theory.

In terms of its growth within literary studies and cognate disciplines, trauma theory again comes from a range of sources. There was, in history, a turn to ’memory’, in part stimulated by the work of Pierre Nora in the 1980s and Yosef Yerushalmi’s influential book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) (see Klein). Michel Foucault, too, invoked a politics of memory and, tracing this out, Ian Hacking explored what he named ’memoro-politics’ (Hacking, 1994). This turn to memory often involved a rediscovery and translation of Maurice Halbwachs’s work on collective memory from the 1920s (Halbwachs was murdered at Buchenwald in 1945). This shift in historical discourse not only seemed to align much in that field with similar questions about representation, politics and ethics and historical understanding in literary and cultural studies but also seemed to beg questions about trauma. Ian Hacking (1994), for example, wrote that ’there are interconnections between group memory and personal memory. One obvious link is trauma’ (211).

But a strand in literary and cultural theory in general in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to turn towards trauma for other reasons. Research in the nascent medical humanities, sometimes inspired by Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (1992) or Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller (1995) focused on traumatic events and the ways that individuals might come to terms with them. The work of theorists inspired by Lacan, or by Slavoj Žižek’s Hegelian—Lacanian politicized psychoanalysis (or perhaps psychoanalytic politics) often use trauma as a core concept. The work of Judith Butler, too, turned to issues of trauma, grief and mourning in books like Precarious Life (2004) and Frames of War (2009). However, perhaps the most powerful stream came from the work of Carthy Caruth and Shoshana Felman in work developed from the impact of Derrida, Paul de Man and deconstruction.

Many have argued that there is something profoundly traumatic in the impulse that underlies deconstruction and Derrida’s work, and that this work both enacts and responds to trauma (see Critchley; Eaglestone; Ofrat). The recent Derrida biography suggests some traumatic political events from his life (see Peters). However, it is also the case that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Derrida and those inspired by his work were being widely criticized from the right and from the left because many found the work overly textual and far away from the ’real world’, unable to address political or ethical issues. (This was aggravated by the Paul de Man scandal, in which the influential Belgian-born critic was discovered to have published a handful of literary articles in a collaborationist newspaper in occupied Belgium during the War). Much of Derrida’s work in the 1990s and afterwards, and much scholarship on his work, aimed to correct this impression. It is in this context that Caruth’s and Felman’s work developed.

Caruth’s edited collection, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), drew on a wide interdisciplinary range of critics and theorists, film-makers and medical experts and practitioners. Her introduction to the volume serves almost as a ’mission statement’ for this form of ’trauma theory’ and is, perhaps, the most widely cited piece in this field. It is here that the claim is made that trauma consists ’in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it.’ (Caruth 1995: 4—5). While this statement has been explored and problematized—indeed, many of the chapters in this volume cite it and use it as the basis of their critique—it remains a crucial insight. But her 1996 book, too, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History made important interventions in the field, especially in relation to the relationship between experience and representation. Similarly, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony (1992) had a huge impact. Testimony has an explicit debt to psychoanalysis and to deconstruction and has at its core a sense of oddness and peculiarity which is connected to trauma: texts ’that testify do not simply report facts but, in a different way, encounter—and make us encounter—strangeness’ (Felman and Laub 7). Felman and Laub argue that the strangeness of trauma cannot be easily domesticated. While some of the claims of the book have been questioned, its impact remains powerful (see Trezise, and Laub’s response), not least in the academy itself, where so may have followed Felman’s lead in organizing their modules around questions of trauma, testimony and witnessing.

The work of the intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra, too, draws on these discussions of memory, historiography and trauma to make significant interventions in this growing field. These publications, and the others that made up the sources of this field, led to a huge burst of intellectual and critical creativity consisting of new readings of texts, critical disputes and revisions.

Despite the importance of Caruth and Felman, ’trauma theory’ is perhaps less a field or a methodology than a coming together of concerns and disciplines. The work done in it is usually profoundly interdisciplinary, drawing on literary and cultural studies, history, politics, sociology, psychology and philosophy. Some of the promise of Caruth’s collection — of an engagement with more strictly medical knowledge — has not yet been fulfilled, but emergent fields such as ’neuro-criticism’ may well have much to offer.

It is against this background, then, that this collection offers not a reflection on the past of trauma theory, but a consideration of its future. The chapters point to areas of change in the field, especially in relation to issues of globalization and postcolonialism. They also respond to the very nature of ’becoming a field’ itself it is very easy for a series of complex ideas to become a concrete ’method’, and so to lose both the capability of self-reflection and the original questioning, investigative (and in this case, ethical) impulse. Part of the point of this book is to prevent this from happening.

As we have suggested, issues of trauma theory are characterized by a ’knot’ tying together representation, the past, the self, the political and suffering. Reflecting this, each of these chapters is woven with these complex threads. However, we have divided them into two parts: the first part tends to deal more with the role of history and culture, the second more with the importance of politics and subjectivity. Each chapter explores how ’trauma theory’ might move beyond its current phase. Various strands bind them together. They all, in different ways, stress the importance of politics, yet none offer simplistic resolutions. Each, again in different ways, advocates a movement beyond the sort of modernist or postmodern narrative texts that are the usual focus of trauma criticism. Many are concerned with the body as a site of meaning and trauma. And each is, within the remit of the humanities, profoundly interdisciplinary, responding to the interweaving that trauma itself gestures towards.

The first part of the book, ’History and Culture’, begins with more traditional accounts of trauma theory in its post-deconstructive mode. Robert Eaglestone and Dominick LaCapra discuss the ways in which trauma theory engages with representations of the Holocaust and how this might still be productive for reflection and analysis. Following numerous critiques of the centrality of the Holocaust to the development of trauma studies, however, contributions from Stef Craps, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Nouri Gana and Sam Durrant relocate trauma theory in a postcolonial and globalized world, theoretically and materially.

In his chapter ’Knowledge, “afterwardsness” and the future of trauma theory’, Robert Eaglestone turns to Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the memoir of Otto Dov Kulka, which is a sort of modernist precipitate of a historical work, something strange and powerful formed from, but separate to, the solution of history. Eaglestone argues that in this memoir it is possible to see how trauma opens up a wider range of disciplines and texts, how trauma destabilizes our wider senses of temporality, and how trauma theory, in its classic Eurocentric and post-deconstructive mode, connects with a range of wider intellectual and existential currents of thought related to the ’structure of experience’. He suggests that the experience of trauma has shifted some profound part of western discourse.

Similarly, Dominick LaCapra’s ’Fascism and the sacred: sites of inquiry after (or along with) trauma’, uses the advances made through the study of trauma to explore how issues of religion underlie fascism. A discussion of Derrida’s essay ’Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the limits of Reason Alone’ introduces the themes of holiness and the sacred which in turn LaCapra uses to illuminate fascism. He suggests that much about the Holocaust and its traumatic effects is transformed by seeing it through this religious or ’postsecular’ prism.

In a productive counterpoint to these two chapters, Stef Craps, in ’Beyond Eurocentrism: trauma theory in the global age’, argues that many of the founding texts in the field seemed to promise a wider cultural engagement precisely through trauma — Caruth wrote that that ’trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures’ (1996: 11) — than has in fact taken place. Often, texts on trauma theory marginalise the traumatic experience of non-western cultures, assume the definitions of trauma and recovery that the West has developed are universal and often favour a distinctively modernist form in order to ’bear witness’ to trauma. Craps suggests that Caruth’s reading of Hiroshima mon amour — essentially a Western story in which the Japanese setting and character are foils for the French woman’s trauma — is an example of this. In order to open up trauma theory to become more inclusive and less Western-focused, Craps critiques the implicit Western construction of PTSD. He also reads Aminatta Forna’s novel, The Memory of Love (2010), set in Sierre Leone just after the civil war, in a way that both highlights the Westernized approach to trauma and its failings in a country where the ’Western standards of normality … are actually the exception rather than the rule’. The future of trauma studies must work with and through these critiques.

Along similar lines, Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s chapter ’Affect, body, place: trauma theory in the world’ begins with two lines from an anthology of poetry from the Taliban and suggests that there are limitations and blind spots in trauma theory which stem from the contexts from within which it has arisen. The chapter then seeks to explore these blind spots within a broader, more global framework. Her own work on the partition of India revealed that the ’Holocaust-centric’ forms of trauma theory, while useful, were not capacious enough, especially to deal with a global range of literary, musical and cinematic forms, the multiple, often contradictory messages therein and the complex role of affect. Kabir traces similar sites of complication and challenge to the (European) model of trauma in Phnom Penh, in Angola and in Iraq. While Kabir acknowledges Rothberg’s model of ’multi-directional memory’, she suggests that this model is still rooted in a Freudian vocabulary that occludes vernacular (and in particular non-narrative) modes of response to trauma and their origins in complexly differentiated ’affect-worlds’.

Nouri Gana, in ’Trauma ties: chiasmus and community in Lebanese civil war literature’, argues that devastation and war are so much part of today’s world that they threaten to institutionalize ’ungrievability, disposability and post-traumatic stress disorders as ineluctable contradictions of human existence’. Structural accounts of trauma need to be carefully distinguished from the historical, often colonial origins of suffering in regions such as Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, not least because such structural accounts threaten to obscure the possibility of justice, redress and forgiveness. ’Counter-narratives’ are needed that aim to make sense of war and engage with and process its traumatic effects. However, this process of making sense demands an intricate attention to the formal complexity of representing traumatic experience. Accordingly Gana turns to one of contemporary Arabic literature’s most experimental novels, Elias Khoury’s City Gates (2007; Abwāb al-mađina, 1981). Gana identifies in the novel a ’poetics of occlosure’ in which opposing stresses exist in a chiasmus: between the excess of the traumatic event and its unrepresentability; between closure and a resistance to closure; between event and its repetition; between wholeness and fragmentation. Chiasmus emerges as ’the figure of traumatic survival and vulnerability’ that binds the stranger to the ’community of the traumatized’.

Sam Durrant’s chapter, ’Undoing sovereignty: towards a theory of critical mourning’, serves as a hinge between the two parts of the collection, concerned as it with how postcolonial attempts to memorialize the traumatic histories of colonialism structurally reproduce state processes of subjection. Following Judith Butler’s lead, Durrant explores how trauma’s capacity to breach what Freud posited as the subject’s protective shield might be put to political use in producing a shared consciousness of corporeal vulnerability. Transposing her argument into the realm of aesthetics, he explores how the artwork can only give rise to such a consciousness by undoing its own protective shield, namely the self-legitimating ideology of its own form. He turns to a poetry cycle by Ingrid de Kok in order to show how the artwork maintains a mimetic solidarity with corporeal suffering by suspending not only the cathartic logic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also the transcendent logic of its own lyric form.

The second part of the book focuses even more clearly on issues of politics and subjectivity, on the state and the various states of subjection to which it gives rise. Stonebridge considers rights and refugees, Edkins the relation between personhood and the political, and Vermeulen, using similar intellectual resources, considers biopolitics and community. Finally Luckhurst speculates on trauma after subjectivity through a reflection on science fiction.

If, Lyndsey Stonebridge argues in ’“That which you are denying us”: refugees, rights and writing in Arendt’, trauma theory began with a contemplation of the Holocaust, the detention centres of the twenty-first century are where a part of that legacy endures and so the future of trauma theory must be tied up with the fate of today’s refugees. Identifying a ’critical lyricism’ in refugee writing, and drawing on Hannah Arendt, herself ’stateless’ for 17 years, Stonebridge argues that, for a refugee, ’to claim rights is first of all to criticize the linguistic and political mystifications on which they rest’. At the core of lyrical texts is the idea of the human, and (as de Man argued) a mourning for the human. Again, after Arendt, Stonebridge identifies the development of a ’new kind of human beings’ in Kafka and in other writers as a response to and broadening of trauma.

In her book Trauma and the Memory of Politics, Jenny Edkins developed the concept of ’trauma time’, a temporality that challenges sovereign power through the latter’s reliance on linear time. Her chapter in this book, ’Time, personhood, politics’, argues that, by producing a permanent state of exception, the state has attempted to take control of this trauma time. Following Agamben’s contrast between ’chronological time’ (in which we become ’spectators continually missing themselves’) and ’messianic time’ (the time we, in fact, are) she explores how time and personhood are related in the political. The ’missing person’, in a range of senses, is the focus of this analysis and forms, in the end, a locus from which a resistance to the state in the figure of the ’neighbour’ can be analysed.

Pieter Vermeulen’s ’The biopolitics of trauma’ analyses a concern that trauma studies, in its focusing on suffering and woundedness, may add to a politics of recrimination and vengeance. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben and others, he measures a shift in the analysis of power from the ’domain of culture to the problematic of life’ and to the policing of life: to, in short, biopolitics. In his chapter, he shows how trauma and discourses of trauma are resituated in the context of biopolitics. While biopolitics disguises itself as ’mere management or bureaucracy’ with the aim of ’preserving’ life, in fact it generates a constant ’insidious trauma’ (Vermeulen cites Laura Brown). These daily traumata shape and affect us, and — turning to Foucault and Esposito — Vermeulen argues that trauma theory can be seen as an ’immunitary technology’ involved with life and the care of life. Where Durrant transposes Butler’s politics of vulnerability into a critical aesthetics, Vermeulen reminds us that ’unprotected exposure to contagion and contamination is not a livable option’, repositioning trauma studies as working towards a condition of ’sustainable exposure’.

Both Edkins and Vermeulen imagine a roughly contemporary form of subjectivity; in the final chapter of the collection, ’Future shock: science fiction and the trauma paradigm’, Roger Luckhurst uses ’hard science fiction’ to challenge this. In 1970, Alvin T offler published a book called Future Shock. Luckhurst argues that many of the terms the book introduced (such as ’adaptational breakdown’) have now been replaced with a discourse of trauma. While trauma theory has, to date, largely turned to elitist modernist texts, it has been suspicious of popular genres such as science fiction; yet science fiction may well be, Luckhurst suggests, the best place to examine the future, the future here now, and the future of trauma. ’The most challenging contemporary science fiction’, he writes, leads us to rethink trauma itself. Ballard and Vonnegut, for example, are both seen to have transmuted wartime traumatic experiences into demanding science fiction. But Luckhurst suggests that in ’hard SF’, drawing on advances in hard sciences such as neurology, even more of a challenge is offered, as the imagining of ’post-human futures’ questions what a ’post-human’ trauma might be. John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975) and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) both challenge models of subjectivity, and so of the trauma that subjectivity might endure. Other, even ’harder’ works of science fiction work to question and reform trauma even further. Yet, as Luckhurst points out, they function as a correlate to the new, scientific understandings of trauma that are arising in the contemporary moment.

Trauma theory is perhaps, at root, an attempt to trace the inexhaustible shapes both of human suffering and of our responses to that suffering. By gathering these scholars together, and allowing a range of views and approaches to develop, we hope that we are contributing productively to the continuing debates around these most serious and painful of matters.

Works cited

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. London: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. 1955. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Critchley, Simon. Ethics—Politics—Subjectivity. London: Verso, 1999.

Eaglestone, Robert. The Holocaust and the Postmodern. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. London: Routledge, 1992.

Hacking, Ian. ’Memoro-Politics, Trauma and the Soul.’ History of the Human Sciences 7.2 (1994).

Hacking, Ian. Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Klein, Kerwin Lee. ’On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse.’ Representations 69 (2000): 127—150.

Laub, Dori. ’On Holocaust Testimony and Its “Reception” within Its Own Frame, as a Process in Its Own Right: A Response to “Between History and Psychoanalysis” by Thomas Trezise.’ History & Memory 21.1 (2009): 127—150.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London: Routledge, 2008. Ofrat, Gideon. The Jewish Derrida. Trans. Peretz Kidron. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

Peters, Benoît. Derrida. Trans. Andrew Brown. London: Polity, 2013.

Trezise, Thomas. ’Between History and Psychoanalysis: A Case Study in the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony.’ History & Memory 20.1 (2008): 7—47.