Review of a really good article on “memory envy” and the limits of literary trauma theory

I want to tell you about a really good article about trauma theory. The article is organized around this statement. “With improved conceptual precision we can differentiate between trauma and the culture of trauma, or, put differently, between trauma and entertainment.” (p. 195).

cropped-IMG_0402-1-1-e1421442766650.jpgThe article is “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor,” by Wulf Kansteiner. It’s not new (2004), but it generates a provocative criticism of the application of trauma theory to literature. Nevertheless, Kansteiner’s conclusion is wrong, for he thinks that to take trauma seriously we must limit it to extreme events.

For literary or cultural trauma theory, the Holocaust is the ur-trauma, and the problem is that it soon becomes an abstraction. Though Kansteiner sees this tendency in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, it becomes a real problem only in Lyotard.

The parallels to Adorno’s thinking about Auschwitz are clearly recognizable even when Lyotard insists more emphatically than his predecessor that he does not want the term ‘the jews’ to be read literally. For him the expression ‘the jews’ designates all persecuted minorities in the history of the West. With that caveat in mind, which also establishes some distance from the historical event of the ‘ Final Solution’, we realize that Lyotard has elegantly constructed the free-floating metaphor of a severe, unrepresentable (and perhaps unverifiable) collective trauma, which is easily attached to all kinds of issues and agendas. (p. 202; Lyotard 2002)

Troping around trauma

With this we reach Kansteiner’s thesis. While problems of representation have a certain deep structure of circularity, in which it is impossible to move directly from the textual representation of reality to reality itself (I refuse to say “the real”). However, this doesn’t mean that trauma theory is a good way to talk about literary problems, for it disrespects the victims of trauma, making us all victims. (p. 204)

At first glance, trauma theory seems to be a good way to talk about certain literary texts, for texts, like trauma, seem to perpetually circle around their topic without ever being able to name it. Consider, for example, the novel Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, by Jonathan Safran Foer, already a paradigmatic trauma novel. The plot is about a nine year old boy’s loss of his father, whose death he can only approach by a series of investigations both marvelous and absurd if the goal is to come to terms with loss.

Or maybe not. Maybe Oscar’s investigations are a version of what Geoffrey Hartman characterized as the “perpetual troping” around an experience that can never be captured. Hartman is talking about romantic poetry, but he extended his analysis from Wordsworth to the study of Holocaust survivors. Hartman is a co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale.

I just want to throw up my hands and say stop. Too much is being assimilated to trauma theory, from the Holocaust to romantic poetry to a novel about a boy who lost his father to the attacks of 9/11. About this I can only say that Hartman (p. 111) was there before me, writing about “memory envy,” this strange desire of academics and others to somehow share the memories of the traumatized, particularly but not exclusively Holocaust survivors. For that is what I think is behind this mélange.

In an earlier blog post (, I’ve argued that “memory envy” characterizes the work of Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, and Robert Jay Lifton, among others, and I won’t elaborate here. For anyone who wants to address this issue in an intellectually serious manner, I recommend Dominick LaCapra’s Writing History, Writing Trauma.

Instead, I want to argue that not just traumatic experience, but all experience, or at least all emotionally significant experience, has the quality of being unknowable at the time of the experience. We are always troping around the events of our lives. Your wedding, your 21st birthday, the day you met your spouse. I could go on. The point is that the significance of these experiences is never grasped at the time, but only in retrospect. And not just once, but over and over again. Nachträglichkeit, sometimes translated as afterwardness, Freud’s thesis (1898, 1909) that we never remember the trauma, only the memory of the trauma, applies to all the significant events of our lives.

If this is so, then what is unique about trauma? That we can never remember the original experience? Not necessarily. Many victims of the Holocaust remember their experiences perfectly well, and this is precisely why they are tormented. Not the lack of memory, but the abundance of memory is the problem. Anyone who doubts that should read Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. One could also read Primo Levi, a man who understood his Holocaust experiences so well and so clearly that he killed himself.

The problem with trauma, what makes trauma unique, is not the special quality of traumatic memory, but the symptoms that accompany traumatic memory. It is the symptoms that need to be addressed. Here it seems to me that Bessel van der Kolk is absolutely right. The problem with trauma isn’t in the past, it’s in the present, in the inability to engage fully in life due to the overhang of the past (see post The traumatized person is constantly remembering the past; he or she is overwhelmed by the past.

This may sound similar to what trauma theorists have said, but it’s not. I’m not arguing that trauma victims remember their past in an episodic or nightmarish way, as epitomized in the flashback. I’m arguing, on the basis of listening to several hundred hours of survivor testimony in the Holocaust Video Archives, that the survivors of severe trauma can tell narratively sophisticated and complex stories and still be haunted. Life does not imitate art. The content of the narrative is horror; the form of recounting does not reflect that horror.

This goes double for the hundreds of published accounts by Holocaust survivors, in which the plot (what happened) and the story (the cause and chronology of events) are in sync. Conversely, it is the disjunction of plot and story that marks literary trauma narratives, such as Tori Morrison’s Beloved, to give but one example.

Kansteiner argues that trauma theory, when applied to literature, trivializes trauma. Trauma theory when applied to literature risks (but need not succumb to) the horror movie effect, as I call it, in which we enjoy participating in the trauma of others at a safe distance, much as we like to be horrified, but only at a distance. Usually this is through identification with the victim, but often (more often than we would like) through identification with the perpetrator. This is the origin of “survivor envy,” as Kansteiner calls it (p. 204), similar to Hartman’s “memory envy.”

Trauma is about life

Where Kansteiner goes wrong is to imagine that the answer is to limit trauma to really big things.

Academic and clinical psychologists are still concerned about defining and defending the border between the traumatic and the non-traumatic; in fact, negotiating and maintaining that border is one of the raisons d’être of the discipline. (p. 215)

In support of this claim, Kansteiner cites Richard McNally (2003), who is so worried about “bracket creep” that he would limit PTSD to events such as the Bataan Death March, his favorite example (p. 280).

I don’t think it’s important to defend the border between the traumatic and non-traumatic. The border that needs to be clarified, but not defended, is between the use of trauma theory to interpret literature and the use of trauma theory to interpret life. They are different things.

The danger is not that the neurotic and other unworthies will be classified as suffering from trauma or PTSD. The danger is that the application of trauma theory to literature will confuse the border between fantasy and reality, convincing its practitioners that they are approaching true, unmediated reality, undomesticated by theory, or even by narrative. That’s nonsense. One reason it’s nonsense is because such a reality doesn’t exist.

It’s not nonsense to realize, as Hartman and others do, that trauma theory, with its emphasis on Nachträglichkeit, is a good way to approach complex and powerful experience, whether literary or real. We just have to recognize the Sirens’ call of participating in a trauma that is not our own.


Sigmund Freud, Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses (1898). The Standard Edition, vol. 3, pp. 261-286.

Sigmund Freud, Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year Old Boy (1909). The Standard Edition, vol. 10, pp. 22-152.

Geoffrey Hartman, The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Wulf Kansteiner, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor.” Rethinking History, vol. 8, no. 2 (2004), pp. 193-221.

Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2001.

Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and ‘the Jews.’ Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Richard McNally, Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005


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