Archives for : Ruth Leys

Literary theory is not trauma theory

Literary theory is not trauma theory.

It may come as a surprise to some, but trauma theory has become a leading analytic framework through which to analyze literary texts.  Of course, literary theorists can and should use any framework they find useful.  The problem is the confusion that has developed between literary trauma and psychic trauma.  Theories of psychic trauma derived from literature have been applied to real trauma in an attempt to make sense of the suffering of real people. The result is confusion and misunderstanding about how real trauma might be healed.  Trauma is healed through care and love, values that have no place in literary trauma theory.

My account of this phenomenon draws heavily on a book edited by Roger Kurtz, Trauma and Literature, a reader that Amazon markets as a textbook.  Offering few new ideas, the book represents the state of the discipline and its players.

Cathy Caruth, a major player, is a literary critic who, drawing on the work of the litterateur Paul de Man, has influenced many who have sought to understand trauma in real life.   Often overlooked is that Caruth’s claims are not just literary, but empirical.  They can be tested against real trauma.  I conclude with an example drawn from the testimony of Holocaust survivors.  Some of this testimony was given in 1946, some twenty-five years later.  The testimony given shortly after the liberation of the concentration camps was as narratively competent as that given a quarter-century later.  Knowing this makes a difference in how we use literary theory to understand psychic trauma.

What Caruth claims

Caruth argues that traumatic events are unavailable to the conscious memory of the traumatized in the normal form in which memory operates, as narratives about events.  Instead, trauma is experienced in terms of flashbacks, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, nightmares, physical tension, and physical illness.  Trauma is experienced in symptoms rather than stories.  These symptoms repeat themselves, as though the original trauma can never be put into the past. 

Trauma is experienced as symptoms because it is too intense, and generally too sudden, to be understood as though it were an ordinary experience.  Absent understanding, it can only be experienced and re-experienced, time after time. In this regard, trauma is like language, which according to poststructuralists, as they are called, claim that the signifier (the word) is always unable to properly designate the signified, that is the world.

For poststructuralists, there is a break between word and world; for trauma theorists, there is a break between word and wound . . . . For Caruth, the nonreferential quality of words and wounds renders the former appropriate for communicating the latter: “On this view, language succeeds in testifying to the traumatic horror only when the referential function of words begins to break down.” (Kurtz, p 100; internal quote from Leys, p 268)

Words can’t capture an overwhelming experience that lies beyond or beneath words.  The words that come closest are the tropes of literary fiction, representing absence, indirection, and repetition.  In both traumatized memory and narrative, lacunae serve as markers of traumatic experience (Kurtz, p 101). 

More recent criticism of Caruth et al.

What if literary critics spent less time on modernist and postmodern texts, such as Caruth’s writing on Resnais and Dorfman, or Shoshana Felman’s on Celan? (p 106).  Consider instead, says Stef Craps, Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, a realist trauma narrative.*

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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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Affect Theory and Trauma Theory

railway-station-1363771_1920Affect theory is coming to trauma theory.  In fact it’s already here.  The best account I’ve read is Ruth Leys “Trauma and the Turn to Affect.”  A historian of science, Leys is the author of the highly regarded Trauma: A Genealogy.  This post is indebted to her work. 

The main thing to understand about affect theory is that it has nothing to do with affect–that is, feeling and emotion.  According to affect theorists, affect is a

pre-subjective force that operates independently of consciousness or the phenomenological concept of subjectivity. (Leys, 2012) 

Affect is a mental state, separate from belief and desire, the affect program system as it is called.  Affect is the body acting on itself, free of cognition and emotion on the one hand, the quality of the stimulus, or stressor, on the other.  If this sounds weird, stick with me. 

As Patricia Clough puts it,

Trauma is the engulfment of the ego in memory. But memory might be better understood not as unconscious memory so much as memory without consciousness and therefore, incorporated, body memory, or cellular memory. (p. 6)


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Trauma narratives without the narrator: a trauma marker

DSC00212slimThere is an influential school of thought about trauma which argues that psychic trauma is the direct intrusion upon the mind of an unmediated experience. Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman are associated with this view.

As it is generally understood today, post-traumatic stress disorder reflects the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control. (Caruth, p. 58)

Elaborated, this view holds that people do not have traumatic “experiences.” Traumatic events happen when people are unable to possess their own experiences in narrative form. The traumatized are deeply affected by these experiences, but unable to know them, for narrative is the language of experience.

In my experience, narrative competence is a poor measure of trauma.

This doesn’t fit my research

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