Archives for : July2016

Testimony creates the trauma it discovers

zen-178992_1920Testimony can create the trauma it discovers.

Trauma theory and testimony grew up together, beginning in about 1980.  By this I mean that trauma theory and Holocaust testimony emerged as socially and historically significant at about the same time.  It’s worthwhile thinking about their relationship.  If we take the limits of testimony seriously, then much of current trauma theory, especially Cathy Caruth’s account of the “missing moment,” is mistaken. 

It is, of course, not literally true that trauma theory emerged in 1980.  Freud built much of psychoanalysis on his reinterpretation of his patients’ trauma almost a hundred years earlier.  Shell shock, as PTSD was then known, emerged with the First World War.  What happened beginning in the early 1980’s was the inclusion of PTSD in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III) for the first time.  The introduction of PTSD coincided with the “narrative turn” in the humanities and social sciences.  At about the same time, the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimony was established at Yale University. 

I have come to believe that Holocaust testimony leads to a misunderstanding of trauma, especially if one does not understand testimony’s limits.  I have published three books on trauma that draw on Holocaust testimonies in the Fortunoff Archive.  I think I understand the limits of testimony better now.  My instructor, so to speak, is Henry Greenspan, author of On Listening to Holocaust Survivors.  I also draw on some more recent papers of his.  In place of testimony, Greenspan has engaged in extended conversations with survivors.  Some of these conversations have lasted decades.  Out of these conversations comes a different way of thinking about testimony and trauma. 

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Trauma escapes language, but so does life

human-1411499_1920Trauma escapes language, but so does life.

Trauma theory has a problem with language.  Leading trauma theorists such as Cathy Caruth hold that the mark of a traumatic experience is that it escapes language.  This is the primary reason that Caruth and others have been attracted to the work of Bessel van der Kolk, and neuroscience generally.  Van der Kolk holds that traumatic experience is so sudden and overwhelming that it cannot be put into words.  Ruth Leys addressed the problem in a 2010 interview.  I don’t believe the intellectual situation has changed much since then, other than the increasing influence of affect theory: the claim that there is an autonomous neurological system that experiences not just trauma, but life, in such a way that language is always playing catch-up. 

It is my claim that a major reason for the popularity among postmodern theorists of non-cognitive theories of trauma and affects is that there is a deep coherence between the views of cultural critics and those of the scientists to whose work they are attracted. . . . Van der Kolk [a psychiatrist and neuroscientist] believes that the literal nature of the traumatic flashback or memory means that it belongs to a system of traumatic memory different from that of ordinary memory and as such is cut off or dissociated from ordinary recollection, symbolization, and meaning.  In the case of Caruth the same argument takes the deconstructive form of claiming that the aporia or gap in consciousness and representation that van der Kolk and others believe characterizes the victim’s traumatic experience stands for the materiality of the signifier in de Man’s sense, that ‘moment’ of materiality that simultaneously belongs to language but is aporetically cut off from the speech act of signification or meaning. (p. 666)

An aspect of this argument that does not get a lot of attention is how language normally develops.  The answer seems to be that language is always cut off from experience, not just among the traumatized, but among us all.  If so, then traumatic experience is continuous with ordinary experience.  Trauma does not operate in a parallel neurological or linguistic universe.  The difficulties the traumatized experience putting words to their experiences are exaggerated versions of everybody’s experience with language.  Trauma is uniquely painful, but the way traumatization happens is not unique, but is shared by all who speak. 

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