Knowledge, ’afterwardsness’ and the future of trauma theory
History and culture
’We are singing like little angels, our voices providing an accompaniment to the processions of the people in black who are slowly swallowed up into the crematoria’ (Kulka 27). When he was a boy of eleven, Otto Dov Kulka, now a very eminent Holocaust historian, a survivor of Auschwitz and the son of a survivor from Auschwitz, sang the ’Ode to Joy’ in a children’s choir at Birkenau. All through his life since then, he has asked himself what drove the conductor to choose that famous declaration of human dignity: was it a protest, ’as long as man breathes he breathes freedom, something like that’ (27)? Or was it ’an act of extreme sarcasm … of self amusement, of a person in control of naïve beings and implanting in them naïve values, sublime and wonderful values, all the while knowing that there is no point or purpose and no meaning to those values’ (27)? Kulka can find no answer to this profound, historical and existential question. He chooses first one possibility and then the other. The first, somehow more hopeful, shapes what he is ’occupied with and believes in’ (28) during his working life. However, when he considers the rise of the Nazis, the second haunts him and seems, ’I will not say realistic — but more authentic’ (28). Each choice, like any truly existential choice, ’is in fact the whole unfolding of my existence or of my confrontation both with the past and with the present from then until today’ (29). There are enough Holocaust survivor testimonies by historians to make a fascinating little canon (see Popkin). When Memory Comes by Saul Friedlander is a classic of this small genre and Kulka’s Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death deserves a place on a par with that volume.
I begin with this moment in Kulka’s astonishing testimony because, in our attempts to understand it, it draws attention to a number of crucial points about trauma. These seem central to me for the future of trauma theory, for the thinking about what questions and insights might be generated by this responsive and responsible conceptual apparatus — if it is anything so organized as an ’apparatus’ and not, rather, conceptual threads turned into a pattern by observers keen to convert critical thought into a programme or a doctrine. I am going to focus on three interrelated aspects, each drawn from Kulka’s work. The first is the sense that trauma is both the origin and disruption not only of memorial work or fiction but of discipline-specific knowledge in other fields too: the impact of trauma and the theory that studies it respects no academic boundaries and shapes not only affective ’feelings’ but also more formally recognized knowledge. Second, and again central to the form of Kulka’s testimony, I am going to draw attention to the way that trauma has an impact on our experience of time, our temporality, and its structure as ’afterwardsness’. Freud’s idea of ’Nachträglichkeit’ is theoretically complex but — oddly — experientially easy, as each of us lives it, often unnoticed, each day. It is not in itself traumatic but roughly corresponds to Kirkegaard’s observation, so often misquoted that it is now an old saw, that while life is lived forwards, it ’can only be understood backwards’. Third, stemming from this moment in Kulka’s work and from the understanding of ’afterwardsness’, is the idea that the questions posed by trauma (and investigated by trauma theory) are existential questions which are to do with the time of a whole life and so with its relation to ethics. In this way, much that underlies trauma theory is tied into not only post-deconstructive thought but wider currents of contemporary intellectual life.
Yet trauma theory does have its origins in post-deconstructive work. The story of the origins of trauma theory is fairly well-established: developing from the Yale school of deconstruction and part of the ’ethical turn’ in literary theory and European philosophy, it grew — centrally through the work of Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman — to become a critical-theoretical way of attending to and addressing the representation of human suffering and ’wounding’, both literal and metaphorical, both personal and communal. Of course, there are other strands of ’trauma theory’, too, woven into this tapestry: some stem from the work of Judith Herman, for example, or come out of memory studies and critical historiography. The concept of ’trauma’ itself has a much longer life as, for example, Roger Luckhurst has shown, but it is this recognizably post-deconstructive strand that I take to be central in trauma theory. Indeed, this strand of critical thought represents one answer to the question — asked repeatedly in the 1990s — about the ’ethics of deconstruction’. And, in its many sinuous appearances, trauma theory attempts to unite what we might call (perhaps too quickly) a formalist concern for text and problems of interpretation (what Paul de Man called the ’internal laws’ of literature) with a historicist concern for application and response to the world (the ’external relations’ of literature).
Any current in the seas of scholarship can sometimes flow too fast and, on a quick tide, in the fast surge of novelty, barks are launched when their hulls have not been checked carefully enough for ill-fitting planks and outright holes. Many scholars, such as Michael Rothberg, Jane Kilby and Susannah Radstone, have pointed to flaws, omissions and areas in which trauma theory needs to develop and expand. Stef Craps correctly points out that trauma theory has tended to focus too much on the Holocaust as the paradigm of individual and communal trauma, and so has marginalized other atrocious events. He suggests that it has been too Eurocentric in its development and risks appropriating other, non-Western events into a Western model of traumatic suffering: his work and the work of others seeks to address this. Some, such as Wulf Kansteiner in a series of articles (see Kansteiner 2004; 2008), have found the whole project (if it is a project) misbegotten, an ’interdisciplinary research trajectory that has gone astray’ (Kansteiner 2004: 195). In a parallel to Craps, but with less sympathy, Kansteiner finds it obliterates ’historical precision and moral specificity’ (194) (I am uncertain what ’moral specificity’ is, but lacking it is clearly a bad thing). ’Trauma theory’, he argues, conflates the traumatic and non-traumatic (194) and provides instead an ’aestheticised, morally and politically imprecise concept of cultural trauma, which provides little insight into the social and cultural repercussions of historical traumata’ (194).
His substantive issue — from which all the others stem — is what he sees as the ’misleading symbolic equivalency’ (194) between the ’allegedly traumatic component of all human conversation’ (194) and the ’concrete suffering of victims of physical and mental trauma’ (194). Kansteiner suggests that the core reason that this happens is because Cathy Caruth
focuses on the question of trauma because the phenomenon appears to her as a perfect, particularly vivid illustration of her understanding of the workings of language, which she adopts from Paul de Man.
That is, Kansteiner argues that Caruth, and those who come after her, are less interested in the particular histories of a traumatic event, and more interested in using that event to demonstrate their view of language itself. Kansteiner fails to offer his view of ’the workings of language’ but it seems fairly clear that he thinks of language in an unproblematic, positivistic kind of way, as a vehicle to carry (presumably extra-linguistic) concepts between people. One does not have to be an eighties-style deconstructor to find this ’folk psychology’ concept of language limited: indeed, the whole ’linguistic turn’ across the humanities in the twentieth century throws this concept of language into doubt. Moreover, Kansteiner also implicitly begs a question: if Caruth gets her understanding from de Man, what are his ideas about the working of language and where does he get them from? This question is too large to answer here, so I will focus on one aspect. De Man’s thought was influenced by Derrida’s work, and while Derrida does not, I think, offer a theory of how language works, he offers approaches to understanding why, at least, Kansteiner’s version doesn’t. (There is also a strong argument — too extensive to be made here — to say that Derrida’s work itself is an ethical response to trauma; see Eaglestone.) Kansteiner’s view of language fails to work because any moment of language works only in differentiation to a huge backdrop of language that is not there, is absent: absent in space and also absent in time. Kansteiner, very decently, says that moral ’honesty and conceptual and historical precision demand that trauma be first and foremost read from the perspective of the victim’ (214): however, these same scholarly virtues point out that this ’reading’ is just not possible in a straightforward way. It is not that Caruth (or de Man or Derrida) does not appreciate pain, suffering and so on, but their concern is with the understanding, and the limits of understanding, of these things. Trauma is not the chance example that exposes, from a deconstructive position, how language and reference works: instead, a deconstructive approach to language and reference is that which allows us better to understand trauma. This is obviously not to say, pace the critique of Kilby, Craps and others, that this approach is a final and complete form of understanding, but it is to say that the bland positivism of other approaches is not able to engage with the profound questions that a serious consideration of trauma asks. The future of trauma theory is most usefully to be found by exploring it through its deconstructive past.
The reason that these post-deconstructive insights are most effect is because, as Caruth argued, the pathology of trauma is not the event itself, or the distortion of the event in memory, but ’consists, rather, solely, in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it’ (Caruth 4). While other scholars rightly broaden out and reflect on the nature of trauma in the wider, non-western world, this chapter aims to explore the future of trauma by thinking through these deconstructive terms, to explore what impact the idea of the ’structure of experience’ can offer for the future of trauma theory. As I have suggested, I want to suggest that it is still illuminating in three areas: in the range of applicability across a number of forms of representation (including, for example, the writing of history); in terms of the idea of ’afterwardsness’ and in relation to the widest and most demanding existential questions. And I want to suggest that all these consequences are shown in a most striking form in Kulka’s extraordinary work.
Trauma as history
Raul Hilberg, reflecting on Adorno’s famous remark, wonders if footnotes ’after the Holocaust’ are ’less barbaric?’ (138). Similarly, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub ask if ’contemporary narrative’ can bear witness to how the ’impact of history as Holocaust has modified, affected, shifted the very modes of relationship between narrative and history?’(94—5). This is a more detailed version of the question asked, occasionally too dramatically perhaps, about ’how can we live after the Holocaust?’ If we do think that the Holocaust has had a profound impact on what it is to be a human being, how has it shifted the very frames by which narrative and language work? In disagreement with thinkers like Pascal Bruckner, who find the West too laden with guilt, I am more tempted to broaden this out to consider the huge array of atrocity and genocide of which we are now more excruciatingly and often shamefully aware, of that Europe ’where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them … in all corners of the globe’ (Fanon 251). Even these questions — and to them we can add the arguments about hearing the voices of the victims that helped motivate the style of Saul Friedlander’s monumental final historical work — begin to show how historians, for example, are aware of the impact of the nature of trauma not simply as a ’wound’ to individuals but to disciplines of thought (see also Ball).
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death shows this ’from the inside’. It is hard to know what to call Kulka’s book — perhaps it is a work of ’traumatic meta-history’. It is a sort of modernist precipitate of a historical work, something strange and powerful formed from, but separate to, the solution of history. It is not ’against’ history but ’beyond’ or ’below’ history, striving to illuminate what Kulka calls the ’tremendous “meta-dimensional” baggage and tensions’ (82), philosophical and personal, which underlie his historical work. It is an account, in fractured, modernist prose, mixed with photographs and clearly influenced by the work of W. G. Sebald, of his thoughts, dreams, diaries, visits, moments of epiphany and memory, of his unconscious and rarely spoken ’mythology’ of the ’Metropolis of Death’, of Auschwitz. He names the ’Great Death’ (the gas chambers) but also the ’Small Death’ (the electrified fence) and the ’Life beyond Death’, recalling the occasion where he was electrified on the fence, hanging a moment ’after death’ — ’I am dead, and the world as I see it has not changed! Is this what the world looks like after death?’ (34) — he was saved by being pushed off by a pole, ’or maybe it was a shovel’ (35), held by a Soviet POW. Most of all, perhaps, it is about his attempts to face his own history. There is a narrative, a map, but it is told not as a chronicle but as a series of moments, flashes, impressions, ideas, illuminations, poems, even dreams and recalled daydreams. The style is terse, often simply descriptive.
Crucially of interest here is Kulka’s relationship to himself as a historian. Kulka describes how he went out of his way to separate himself from his research. So successful was he in this that, for example, in 1978, on hearing he planned to visit Auschwitz, a well-meaning colleague suggested that he ignore the main camp and ’go to Birkenau — that is the real Auschwitz’ (3). He writes of his ’paradoxical duality’ (82) in which he was both historian of that period and at the same time managed totally to avoid ’integrating any detail of biographical involvement’ (82). This is discussed in the book and then illustrated by an appended meta-text, his scholarly article ’Ghetto in an Annihilation Camp: Jewish Social History in the Holocaust Period and its Ultimate Limits’. As a historian, he both poses and answers the question of why the inmates of the ’family camp’ — the sub-camp in Auschwitz in which he was held — were treated so differently. The ’family camp’ was planned as a ’show camp’ for the Red Cross and was suddenly ’liquidated’ when the Nazis found it was no longer necessary. Identifying himself as a survivor, in the book but not the article, he discusses his intense memories and associations. This doubleness and the use of meta-texts are, of course, recognized tropes of texts that deal with trauma.
Kulka writes that he hoped that his highly regarded historical research would be ’infused’ with a consciousness of the intensity of those events he witnessed, or that the ’scientific historical research’ (82) would somehow help him break into the ’metropolis of death’. However, he finds that
the truth, as it seems to me now, is that I only tried to bypass here the barrier of that gate, to enter it with the whole force of my being, in the guise of, or in the metamorphosis of, perhaps, a Trojan horse, intended, finally, to smash the gate and shatter the invisible wall of the city forbidden to me, outside whose domain I had decreed that I would remain.
Disguised or hidden as a historian he sought to come to terms with, to work at, if not ’work through’ perhaps, the childhood experiences from which he had, in some profound way, exiled himself. But quite the opposite happened: the ’safe and well-paved way of scientific discipline’ (82) led him to skirt precisely the violence, the murder and torture he had seen, ’as perhaps I skirted the piles of skeletons in Auschwitz on my way to the youth hut’ (83). The ’safe passage’ (83) of the discipline of history led him, he thinks, both not to be able to convey ’the message’ (83) that was ’burned into’ (83) his being but at the same time to cope with precisely that inability to tell it. And yet, in these passages over these few pages, he writes that the message that he could not tell, indeed, that made him ’cower at the vague awareness that I had no way, and would never attempt, to embark on the path of an attempt to disclose’ (83—4) is that ’the world, with the Metropolis and the immutable law of the Great Death having been, can no longer, and will never again be able to free itself of their being part of its existence’ (84).
Kulka’s work shows up something crucial for trauma theory. E. H. Carr famously wrote, in his jolly English way, that one should study ’the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse … When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog’ (18). Listening for the ’buzzing’ is not to depreciate the work, clearly, but to better understand it. Among historians of the Holocaust and of other atrocities, there is of course a great deal of ’buzzing’: much of this is, quite rightly, ’metahistorical’ in the Hayden White sense. But some ’buzzing’ is more personal and harder to quantify or qualify: Browning’s work, for example, as he admits, is in part shaped by his early response to Vietnam, and Saul Friedlander’s ’turn’ from a more traditional, empiricist historian to later work can be seen to occur around the time of his self-exposing memoir. However, in relation to historical work and in relation, perhaps, to other work in the human and social sciences (see Simon), trauma theory alerts us to more than just buzzing. It alerts us vividly to the other forces — fears, hopes, experiences — at play in a historical work, other forces which are quite as revealing in bearing witness to the Holocaust, or to any traumata, as ’the facts’.
A recurring trope in Kulka’s work is the coming together of two different times, as the past reappears in the present. He has, for example, a sudden and absolute feeling, on his first visit to the Temple Mount (in the 1960s), that he had been there before, because the desolation there, and at a ’ruined’ Auschwitz in 1946 (he was there to give evidence at a trial), was so ’charged with historic meaning’ (74). He discusses the blueness of the sky over Israel, and, with a child’s eye, he describes how he admired the beauty of the blue skies of summer over Auschwitz while imprisoned there, and how he was almost immune to the frightful disorientation of the camps, a disorientation which itself killed adults, since he knew no other order. Indeed, both these examples invoke three different times: the past at Auschwitz, the represented present (at the Temple Mount, for example) and the present of the narration (the time of writing of the book). It is not just the disciplinary limits that shape Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death but also those of time and the representation of time, centrally that of ’afterwardsness’. Trauma is not only a disruption of how we experience time, but of how we represent it, too.
Trauma theory asks questions about the ’structure of experience’, and so, inevitably, about the complexities of ’afterwardsness’. As I have suggested, ’afterwardsness’ — often thought of in terms of Freud’s idea of ’Nachträglichkeit’ — is very close to us: indeed, it is part of our daily experience (everyone is first a historian of themselves, after all). However, the common forms of narrative and representation, especially those of the human sciences and even more especially those which use narrative most and assume a ’god’s-eye view point’, run counter to and confuse our sense of ’afterwardsness’. In 1989, David Wood suggested that the ’century-long linguistic turn’ would be followed by a ’spiralling return to time as the focus and horizon of all our thought and experience’ (xi). He continued: for ’this to happen time has to be freed from the shackles of its traditional moral and metaphysical understanding’ (xi). One place where this change has been more obvious has been in contemporary fiction and in contemporary film which both show a heightened interest in ’playing’ with the representation of time (see Currie). One might go further, and (as I’ll suggest below) trauma theory picks up on a shift of interest in trauma which goes hand in hand with this shifting sense of how time is, and how it is represented. How this ’afterwardsness’ is to be understood is both complex and huge: indeed, if it represents a shift as huge as that of the ’linguistic turn’ as Wood suggests, then its impact is almost too huge to easily comprehend. But, contra Kansteiner, I want to suggest that the explicit study of ’afterwardsness’ in trauma studies can be re-imported into the wider humanities. If the expansion of the thinking through of this concept is encouraged, rather than delimited, it may illuminate a number of complex matters. For example, it may be that the same structure inhabits a whole range of non-traumatic discourses that seem to have some similar characteristics to those analyzed in trauma studies. People often say, to those with young children, that ’the time flies by’ and that the quotidian events of childrearing must be savoured. The implication is that the event of early child parenting is, as Caruth suggests of traumatic events, not ’assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly’ (Caruth 4). Similarly, experiences of great joy are not experienced fully at the time (’the day went like a flash’ people say, ’it was all over too quickly’). Yet these are in no way historically or structurally traumatic events. In Anna Karenina, for example, we see Anna and Vronsky flirting, in anticipatory love, and then falling from love, into dejection and despair. But we never see — indeed, the narrative purposely jumps over — a moment of happiness. Here, the representation of their happiness — clearly not traumatic — has some of the hallmarks of trauma. One of the futures of trauma theory, then, is perhaps to look closely and more carefully not simply at the trauma, but at the structure of experience within which trauma is made manifest.
Ethics, ’afterwardsness’ and trauma
This rethinking of ’afterwardsness’ and the structure of experience and time is inextricably tied to language not only through the sinews of tense, but also through the deeper existential questions that it asks. In his memoir, Kulka writes that he avoids artistic and memorial representations of the Holocaust because ’I cannot find in them what they seek to convey’ (80). However, he turns to Kafka’s ’Before the Law’ as a way of coming to understand how he can arrive at the ’gate’ of comprehension but not, as it were, pass through it. Kulka suggests that his mythology exists, perhaps, only for himself, and no other ’gate’ will open for him. However, he recalls that, in Kafka’s story, the man sees, faintly, a light glowing from behind the gate of the law. The questions posed by ’afterwardsness’ are also, and immediately, ethical questions. This is because questions of ethics are woven inescapably into questions of narrative and of time.
In the Aristotelian tradition, the ’good life’ of the virtues can only be seen rightly in relation to our death and finitude. Aristotle writes that the man who has achieved happiness is
’one who realises in action a goodness that is complete and that is adequately furnished with external goods, and that not for some limited period but throughout a well-rounded life spent in that way’. And perhaps we must add to our definition ’one who shall live in this way and whose death shall be consistent with his life’. For the future is dark to us, and happiness we maintain to be an ’end’ and in every way final and complete. If this be so, then those who have or shall have the blessings we have enumerated shall be pronounced by us entirely happy in terms of human happiness.
This thought — glossed as ’call no man happy until he is dead’ — reveals that there is a profound link between the stories we tell and our sense, however vague, of the ethical. And nonetheless we are aware, as Kulka shows, that the relationship between ethics and trauma makes this complicated.
When we tell the stories of others, we are keen to make them unified and give their lives a theme (and it may be that some people have lives to which this fits). It is this unification that so often plays a role in our ethical thinking. However, reading Kulka through the eyes of trauma theory reveals that this ’unification’ is clearly externally imposed: his own life feels, to him, disjointed, fragmented, doubled, disunified. One crucial symptom of this is the way in which Kulka explores how he both feels he has a ’message’ (83), one to do in some way with ethics, with how we live, and is also aware that the trauma, from which this message comes and about which it is concerned, is almost impossible to express. If we are to respond to traumatic events, it must be to analyse not only the ways that these atrocities outrage the principles and virtues by which we live, but also the ways that they disrupt even how these principles and virtues come to be understood. Thus, it seems to me that the insights of trauma theory need to spread more widely across the humanities, not simply to awaken guilt but to assist in the rethinking of how we tell and think about ourselves.
Conclusion: hyperbolic suggestion
But — and here I offer only a hyperbolic suggestion — perhaps this is happening already. My suggestion throughout this chapter has been that ’trauma theory’ is not really a new disciplinary paradigm, but that it forms a network of ideas that offers a new way of paying attention to forms of texts. Then again, forms of interpretive responsiveness stem from the texts and the world to which they are called to respond. That is to say that the wave of books with titles like Trauma, Trauma Culture, Culture Trauma, Texts of Trauma, Traumatic Texts, Traumatic Realism, Worlds of Hurt, Post-traumatic Culture and the misery memoirs, verbatim theatre of terrible atrocities, narratives of suffering and so on are both a symptom of, and a response to, some wider change. Perhaps — and this is just hyperbole — there has been some shift in the language (at least) of the West, perhaps the world. A shift in what the later Foucault would call the ’discourse’ in relation to ’afterwardsness’, ethics and trauma. And this change would be, and be visible, first, and most, in and by language.
We know, of course, that language meaning changes over time: we can see this easily within our own lifetimes. We also know that what we might call ’language sensibility’ changes over time. For example, think of how in the UK, after the First World War, the Edwardian discourse of ’Play up, play up and play the game’ was undercut with such terrible irony by its speakers that it could not be used again: or of the change, in the West, from a formal public discourse to a much more informal one during and after the 1960s. These things are charted in the writings before and after these changes and are easily observed by all. The hyperbolic suggestion, then, is that the change in language and acts of culture is itself a response to trauma and that what’s called ’trauma theory’ is the place where this change has been responded to most clearly. This is not a unique idea. Something similar is at the core of Foucault’s argument in The Order of Things. To simplify the argument of that complex book, Foucault suggests that there was, in the early modern period, an ’immense reorganisation of culture’ (43) around the nature of the sign and its relation to (what we now call) its referent. Prior to this, Foucault argues, the ’value of language lay in the fact it was the sign of things’ (33) and that there was
no difference between the visible marks that God stamped upon the surface of the earth, so that we may know its inner secrets, and the legible word of the Scriptures, or the sages of Antiquity … in both cases there are signs to be discovered.
To choose a crude example, in medieval medicine, plants that echo the shape of the head or liver were taken to be beneficial to illnesses of the head or liver and were read as such in ’the book of nature’. Similarly, written words were assumed to be ’coeval with the institution of God’ (34). (The shadow of this idea remains in the present world in various guises, some serious, some not. For example, one less serious, but illuminating example is the representation of magic in stories: in the Harry Potter series of children’s books, uttering a pseudo-Latin noun or verb for something in a spell gives one power over an object or person: the archaism of the word points to the old idea, preserved as an ’idea fossil’, that a word has power directly over a thing because a word is intertwined, not simply arbitrarily associated, with that thing.) The change that occurred with the early modern period happened at the level of reference: that is, how language itself worked changed. Language, ’instead of existing as the material writing of things, was to find its area of being restricted to the general organisation of representative signs’ (42). ’Discourse’, Foucault writes, was ’still to have the task of speaking that which is, but it was no longer to be anything more than what it said’ (43). My hyperbolic thought-experiment suggests that such a change has occurred now. The impact of the Holocaust, of our increasing knowledge of the world-wide impacts of global genocides and atrocity, of our general ability to cause immense suffering to each other, of what Judith Butler calls ’precarious life’ has changed how language works. It is the post-deconstructive understanding of language that, perhaps clumsily, gestures towards this most clearly.
Perhaps even this hyperbolic idea is too totalizing and hegemonic. Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor of language like an ancient city, with streets, new quarters and old districts, suburbs and so on, is useful here. He means to suggest that the ’shape’ of language varies in each suburb: different levels of, say, accuracy and meaning, or of quality of reference. The language of chemistry or the notations of calculus are quite different from, say, the language of art criticism, the discourse of love or, here, accounts of suffering and testimony. If the claim that the whole of language has been altered by atrocity is too hyperbolic after all, then, perhaps, one could argue that one suburb is growing rapidly and in this suburb, different rules apply: we have to feel our way around, find out the shape of things. In this way, the future of trauma theory is to continue to reflect on and to attempt to understand the damages that we do to each other, and in so doing draw our attention to both our terrible strength and our utter weakness.
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