From the Past Imperfect: Towards a Critical Trauma Theory
By Maurice Stevens
“no one wishes to be plunged head first into the
My current manuscript project From the Past Imperfect: Towards a Critical Trauma Theory examines institutional and discursive practices that depend upon and reproduce concepts of trauma critically restricted by classifications based on race, class, gender, sexuality and religion. It contributes to both humanities and social sciences scholarship as it takes shape in the tension between trauma studies, medical anthropology, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, critical legal studies, critical race theory, and performance studies.
Why Critical Trauma Theory?
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the diagnostic category used to describe symptomatic responses to trauma in relation to mental health, and the clinical object that ascribed evidentiary value to the idea that an event actually took place, has itself existed as a distinct clinical disorder for more than 40 years and has seen the development of an extensive body of research and multiple clusters of investigation grow up around it. There are multiple professional societies and journals committed to the exploration and understanding of PTSD, for example. Literally thousands of scholarly and professional articles have been written on the topic and hundreds of symposia dedicated to discussing trauma and PTSD in disciplinary contexts from literature to social work and ethnic studies to psychiatry. I am interested in how this research has both provided frameworks that allow us to operate with very specific definitions of trauma, and has simultaneously
Like many ideas having their roots in psychology and medicine that have made their way into popular exchange, we find ourselves using the language of trauma easily; and often with a very powerful and felt sense that we know what we mean when we do so. The use of this nomenclature also performs cultural work by identifying those of us who use it as psychologically savvy, as empathetic and as modern sentimental subjects. Surrounded as we are by mediated uses of signifiers like “trauma,” “traumatic,” “traumatizing” and “PTSD,” we have come to learn that they relate to experiences that traverse the spectrum from simply anxiety-provoking to psychically overwhelming, or from merely physically trying to life-threatening. This is to say that while, in some ways, these terms appear to have become generally evacuated of their specific meanings, most of us believe, at base and instantly, that we know exactly what to look for when cued by these troubling signs. Neither indexical nor symbolic signifiers, trauma has taken on the logics of the icon. When we imagine we are “seeing” trauma or the signs of its passage, we know immediately that something spectacular and catastrophic has transpired and we fear, also with a sense of immediacy, that normal systems for understanding the event and any of its survivors will be overwhelmed and rendered incapable of adequately capturing its immensity or the subtlety of its sublime pervasiveness.
However, the simultaneous sense of “knowing” something has transpired, and the utter frustration of having our understanding overcome by trauma—of not being able to render that experience legible through representation—has made its clinical and theoretical application particularly vulnerable to the forces of social emplotment imbedded in the concept of “trauma” itself. Trauma, as a kind of situated knowledge that emerges from the specificities of the moment in which it is invoked as an appropriate or obvious label, bears, in rather remarkable ways, traces that reveal its cultural work. This level of vulnerability and its ramifications poses the central point of departure in From the Past Imperfect as it considers how racialization, sexualization and the tyranny of the visual shape what trauma can be, which subjects its signification hails, and which institutional practices it underwrites because they are understood as adequate to its amelioration. Indeed, my project does this by tracing how notions of trauma emerge as often very complex “sets of practice” in several cultural institutions: the clinic, academe, legal discourse, cyberspace and popular culture.
At stake in my concern that the concept of trauma developed around injury related to railway accidents, wartime wounding, or overwhelming natural catastrophe, is the centrality classifying systems have had in the formation of ideas about whose sensibilities can be disturbed by near-death experiences, whose civility can be upset by the horrific, and who can be overwhelmed by fear; who, in short, can be traumatized. Indeed, I concur with the increasing number of theorists growing critical of trauma, who have been arguing that many social actors are inadequately understood within its boundaries. For example, psychoanalysts might argue against the application of trauma theory in cultural study because of its misappropriation of Freud’s or Janet’s ideas about how traumatic memory works; or ethnic or cultural studies theorists may take trauma theory to task for its inability to recognize traumatogenic institutions like enslavement, genocidal cultural contact, or the simple ubiquity of non-spectacular racial violence and micro-aggressions; or transnational critics might decry the European and American impulse to force diverse peoples into the culturally specific rubric of trauma, casting aside the authority of local knowledges. These are all important and truly useful critiques, to which any serious consideration of trauma theory must respond. However, they stop short of interrogating the concept of trauma itself, from submitting it to the analysis we might apply to other cultural objects.
Trauma: From What it “Describes” to What it “Makes”
As a concept formed out of injury related to railway accidents, wartime wounding, or overwhelming natural catastrophe, notions of class, race, gender and sex have all been central to the formation of popular ideas about whose sensibilities can be disturbed by near-death experiences, whose civility can be upset by the horrific, and who can be overwhelmed by fear; who, in short, can be traumatized. And as an increasing number of theorists growing critical of trauma (as it is traditionally figured) have been arguing, not all social actors are adequately understood within its boundaries. Trauma and even PTSD do not simply describe subjects and/or their experiences, they also, and perhaps more accurately, create them.
At the same time that increasingly specific and rigidly defined parameters have defined its technical (and institutionally legible) boundaries, the idea that trauma is somehow universal seems ubiquitous. Daily we see it used to describe a very wide range of experiences. Trauma, it turns out, is quite flexible and adroit, and can pass from one context of expertise to another, slipping across borders to be readily recruited to new discourses and new contexts of explanation. On one hand, the ability to pinpoint the traumatic event or symptom with spatial and temporal coordinates (necessarily past and completed) makes it particularly powerful in the clinical or diagnostic setting. The traumatic event possesses specificity, there is an agent and victim of injury, a place and time of occurrence, and a blooming narrative of accountability or innocence. On the other hand, its unknowability, that is, the degree to which trauma exceeds signification or eludes description, makes it particularly susceptible to becoming something else as well. The event is also enigmatic.
This presents us with a kind of dilemma: trauma is both specific and enigmatic, both discursive and material. Similarly, the broad set of neurobiological responses to traumatic events (the psycho-physiological threat responses that seem, again, universally evident), and the multiple variations in the phenomenological or expressive response to trauma across groups defined in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, class and even sexuality, also obtain a tension. While we may all develop “startle” responses in the aftermath of trauma, for example, the intensity of those responses can be shown to vary dramatically in correspondence to differences in one’s cultural or social positioning. The fact that trauma has been a highly racialized and sexualized concept dependent on visual metaphors for its description and models of the spectacular for its rendering, strains claims on its universal applicability. As a result, various traumatic experiences are not adequately addressed in clinical settings working with a PTSD model.
The basically arbitrary and, in some ways, theoretically counterintuitive requirement that the traumatic event have specific spatial and temporal coordinates, has primarily to do with the fact that limits to its application typically emerge in relation to where or when the “trauma” actually emerged. For example, the location of trauma’s origin can make it inaccessible to the PTSD model. This is apparent in the case of acute traumatic episodes originating in sociocultural structures where the traumatogenic agent is not readily discernable. Critical race and critical legal theorists in the United States and Europe have usefully analyzed the specific damages produced in relation to the law, prison industry and immigration policy, for example. Likewise, the case of trauma that exceeds individual experience is also difficult to localize and thereby normalize. Categories like ongoing or repeated trauma, multigenerational institutional relations, or even the sense of impending trauma that can produce PTSD symptoms, are all types of trauma that fall outside temporal parameters of conventionally applied PTSD models.
Rather than thinking of trauma as an identifiable and discrete event that must have occurred at some specific point in time and place, it can be more usefully understood as a cultural object whose meanings far exceed the boundaries of any particular shock or disruption; rather than being restricted by the common sense ideas we possess that allow us to think of trauma as authentic evidence of something “having happened there,” a snapshot whose silver plate and photon are analogues to the psyche and impressions fixed in embodied symptoms, the real force of trauma flowers in disparate and unexpected places. And, like most cultural objects, trauma, too, circulates among various social contexts that give it differing meanings and co-produce its multiple social effects. Like most cultural objects, trauma’s component memes, those pivotal conceptualizations that tailor its function, have origins that can be traced to coordinates that vary in time, space and semiosis; coordinates whose ideological concerns come to refract or anchor trauma’s meanings simply by occupying the same temporo-spatio-semiotic location.
History & Memory: A Tale for Times of Trauma
The science of memory has shifted from conceiving of its object, memory, as an evolving entity open to processes of contestation, reframing, appropriation, diffraction or simple dissolution, and has moved, again, with seeming inexorability, toward a focus on history as the fraught and always problematic recording of what has “gone on,” as the recitation of actions and events contained within the past-perfect grammar of description. There and then was an event, it occurred in a place and at a time that are, by definition, distanced from here, from now; and the historian heroically does the work of salvage, approaching the event through documents, artifacts, and corroborating testimony believed to shed evidentiary light on the always-already past event, to link it through an ideal provenance of its traces to the present. The historian’s labor, and the measure of his agency or ability, lies in determining what should be memorialized in objects of historical inscription. Unlike history, as the story goes, memory exists continually, inscribed in the ongoing production of a narrativized self or community of practice or affiliation. The muscle remembers, the space is haunted, the landscape is scarred, always, with memory, a trace remains. A trace remains, defiantly, sometimes hinting, sometimes pressing, sometimes roaring, but always insisting in its ubiquitous return. History, which requires sifting through remnants instead of traces, speaks the past differently. Events captured in history are located in the mythos of temporal progressions, in the relative relation between moments and events; the distance imagined between here/now and there/then is history’s necessary condition. Indeed, history, as a trope with rhetorical force, is memory’s nemesis, pushing it ever flatter, out of the flesh of bodies, gestures, objects and spaces, and into the amber of dominant signs and symbols, or the architecture of archives, or the ash or bones carefully catalogued there; in history, the past becomes an imaginary occupant of the symbolic, and provenance its genomic real. And yet history is haunted by stories that have gone un-included in the realm of historiography, history grows gaunt and distracted in its confrontation with events that test its ability to represent, to inscribe with any accuracy at all. Hunched over and squinting, it worries at the frayed ends of incomplete narratives and hidden transcripts. Still, we see that when and where history struggles, when and where it collapses in the face of the absolute truth of having pain or being harmed, and the inexorable suspicion that accompanies documenting it, we see, in fact, the memory sciences providing support. The variously institutionalized science of memory smoothes over history’s lacunae, its impotencies, by abjecting the possibility that specifically racialized violence endured by racialized communities might also be understood within the rubric of trauma; or that
Just as the invisible genome vouches for the validity of phenotype, or the effaced technologies of the photo argue the “fact” of its real representation, the past and completed un-representable trauma supports claims about the coherent subject of history. It says, “You see, there once was a whole, seamless and modern subject. Our effort to repair it, by making legible its injury, is proof enough of its having been there at one time, whole (read: vulnerable), pure (read: violable) and mature. Trauma has rendered this particular example of proper subjectivity damaged, where once, in a moment of innocent possibility, it was not…” Of course, the wholeness, purity, and propriety of this subject have been built on the very particular ways it has always-already been gendered, sexed, and, of course, raced.
Race: The Repudiated Mote
Various theorists have traced how ideas about memory and its technologies changed dramatically from the mid–1800s through the early twentieth century, when memory shifted from being primarily an activity useful in oral and religious traditions, to an art to be cultivated through specific practices and training; from the archival location of culture, to the engine of its production. Once a notion standing in for the soul in an increasingly secular world described by science, memory has more recently evolved into a trope often invoked in the service of identity discourses. Whether read in relation to the supplanting of quasi-religious mythologies, or as the inadvertent byproduct of a technocratic focus on the future, the valuation of what was once called the “art of memory” has altered dramatically. The production of history (marked by selective forgetting through the erection of monuments and disciplined remembering inherent to archival practice or historical preservation) became the sign of civilized advancement and literacy. The privileging of memory, on the other hand, came to be constructed as inversely related to civilized culture and intelligence. The 1860s, 70s and 80s also saw the instantiation of the memory sciences in educational institutions. It was in Paris in 1870 that Ebbinghaus established the “memory laboratory” in 1879 and planted the roots of psychometric approaches to memory measurement that are today central in cognitive models of memory processing. Moreover, four years later, in 1883 Ribot wrote the first text on memory problems and soon became the first psychology professor at the College of Paris. In his Diseases of Memory: An Essay in the Positive Psychology Ribot posits his conception of the two features of self. Le moi has a loosely held together synchronic aspect that is formed by the constant process of memory and impressions at the center of consciousness being replaced by more fresh memories, with the older ones being pushed to the periphery and de-privileged. The center of attention and recent memory material becomes that ongoing piece of le moi that constitutes the diachronic ego formation of the self as the subject of its own history (Ribot, 108-112). There are resonances here with Freud’s notion of the psychic systems Conscious, Preconscious, and Unconscious. There is also the implication (reproduced in Freud as well) that forgetting is a necessary part of ego formation, which Freud considers a kind of adaptive amnesia.
This period also saw the emergence of a widespread acceptance of biologistic notions of race and difference buttressed in the United States and Europe with scientific theories and epistemologies informed, at base, by a notion of incommensurable difference. This incommensurability or failure of recognition derived from and reproduced racial logics that found easy expression through the visual technologies associated with eugenics, criminology and psychoanalysis. As a result, the convergence of Social Darwinism, emerging photographic technologies, and a fledgling psychoanalysis naturalized ideas of racialized peoples as lacking the psychic interiority that could make psychic trauma, or even basic suffering, a social possibility. This is particularly significant because, following Erichsen’s early work with railroad–related traumatic injury—what he called “railway spine”—theorists of non-physical “hysterical” trauma like Charcot, Janet, and Freud were building their paradigms on these epistemologies of difference. As a result, the taxonomies they developed, because informed by racialized notions of the other and the self, could only reproduce those formations in their work; intellectual formations along which the memory/history binary was also mapped. Ultimately, the convergence of these ideas conspired to exclude the experiences of racialized ethnic communities from the category of catastrophe that could be called traumatogenic, the typology of experience that could be called history, and from the practices of its collection and discipline necessary to narrating and archiving the nation.
Because the traumatized subject has been one constructed through medical, psychological, legal, academic and cultural institutions that are themselves based on racially unmarked subjects (that is, racialized as essentially and putatively white), it makes sense to understand both the subject of trauma and trauma itself to be similarly unmarked and essentially white. The question is, how does this marking mean in spatio-temporal-semiotic locations that produce constellations of practice like PTSD and its enabling agents (clinics, clinicians, psychotropics, therapies, institutional recognitions, etc.)? If we accept that PTSD is a bundle of social practices that reflect how trauma is invoked in the clinical/medical institution, and that that institutional formation produces legible subjects – that is, he or she who has been traumatized and is exhibiting symptoms which warrant the diagnostic categorization of PTSD and the disciplinary practices that spring into action in the application of the diagnosis – then the what and how of this marking’s meaning is reflected in the subjectivity produced by the diagnosis. The injured/traumatized subject is both the constitutive inside and outside by which all proper citizen-subjects can know themselves…whole, coherent, seamless, healed and modern. These are the ephemeral traces to which we must attend, these ideal
The enigmatic signifier, Laplanche tells us, wishes to be translated. That is, its signifiance is driven by the desire to be exposed, refashioned, and represented. Because its consideration of representability is constrained by culture, its signifying path always–already provoked by the classifying systems that order the differences through which its legibility emerges, because the systems of classification already possess a symbolic valence and are already related one to another; because of these factors the enigmatic signifier speaks in names that are familiar: gender, sexuality, race. While reconfiguring our understanding of trauma and the logics that inform memory cannot remove the repudiated mote from the eye of the memory sciences, that which remains its enigmatic yet powerful metaphorizor; a trauma differently understood, and a memory whose racial logics are acknowledged can certainly render its material effects transparent even if its signification remains opaque.
From the Past Imperfect to. . .
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Hurst and company, 1874.
Eng, David. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham:Duke University Press, 2001.
Erichsen, John Eric. On Concussion of the Spine: Nervous Shock and Other Obscure Injuries of the Nervous System. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1882.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,1989, c.1950.
Laplanche, Jean. Seduction, Translation, and the Drives. eds. John Fletcher & Martin Stanton. Psychoanalytic Forum London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1992.
Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Maurice Stevens is the 2008-2009 William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow and is an associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University.
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