Did literary trauma theory encourage the Iraq War?

B0000955Contemporary American Trauma Narratives, by Alan Gibbs (2014) is a fascinating book. Most provocative is Gibbs’ claim that a trauma theory perspective on 9/11 actually supported the Bush administration’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But I’ll get to that later.

The idea of analyzing literature from the perspective of trauma theory is still a little strange to me, even if I have analyzed narratives of the traumatized countless times. See my last post on Alice Sebold’s Lucky, an account of her rape. If I have been misled by Gibbs, or my own ignorance, I hope readers will correct me. *

Second hand trauma

A particularly troubling tendency in literary trauma theory is its claim that “authentic trauma fiction” enlists its

readers to become witnesses to these kinds of stories through the unconventional narrative translations of traumatic experience and memory that give them a different kind of access to the past than conventional frameworks . . . . when readers absorb these stories [like Beloved] through the division of voice . . . they experience something analogous to splitting. (Vickroy, 20, 27-28)

This makes no sense at all. There is no such thing as “something analogous to splitting.” With this claim we have entered the realm of “second-hand trauma.” (Gibbs, 29)

“It is axiomatic”

The biggest problem with literary trauma theory is its checklist approach.

Within trauma studies, it has become all but axiomatic that traumatic experiences can only be adequately represented through the use of experimental, (post) modernist textual strategies. (Craps and Buelens, 5, quoted in Gibbs, 25)

Among these textual strategies are:

  • Inscription, where the narrating act is interpolated, in whole or part, into the text itself.
  • Fragmentation, disruption, lack of closure and even coherence. The narrative does not follow the normal conventions of time or place.
  • Circling repetition, in which the traumatic event is returned to again and again until it is finally filled in at the end. Or not.
  • Multiple voices. Several narrators, with different perspectives on event, and none is privileged. The primary narrator, who may share the name of the author, is undercut.
  • Sudden time shifts. Frequent use of present tense, coupled with tense shifting.

Follow these techniques and a few more, and you too can write critically acclaimed trauma fiction.

Literary trauma theory provides a template for literary trauma writing, which is then judged by how well it adheres to the theory, how many voices it contains, how much time displacement, fragmentation, etc. In fact, this checklist criticism unwittingly mimics the checklist approach to PTSD, the PCL-5, developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/assessment/adult-sr/ptsd-checklist.asp).

To feel or to understand?

Incestuous relationships between critics and authors are nothing new. The question Gibbs raises is why should techniques of writing be aimed at causing the reader to feel what the traumatized person feels? It’s impossible, and it’s insulting to trauma’s victims, resembling trauma tourism.

One might respond that the goal is to communicate the experience of trauma, not to imitate it, and that these techniques help communicate the experience better than writing about trauma in a more straightforward manner. This seems like a reasonable position, but the distinction between communication and imitation remains important, and often forgotten.

Did trauma theory encourage the Iraq War?

Gibbs (1-18) believes that Cathy Caruth’s view of literary trauma theory remains enormously influential. From Caruth’s perspective, the traumatized are unable to know their own experience. Trauma is originally suffered as an unmediated intrusion of direct experience that cannot be symbolized. Hence it cannot be known. Only another person, one who is willingly to be traumatized by the direct transmission of trauma through the broken voice of the victim, can speak the trauma that another has experienced. Unfortunately, after 9/11 it was the mass media that most often spoke for the traumatized, who were legion.

From this perspective, a trauma theoretical account of an historical event such as 9/11 is bound to decontextualize the experience. Rather than seeing the attacks as part of a larger historical narrative, trauma theory encourages a view that lifts the attacks out of history, transforming them into an event without a known or knowable context, one in which we were the passive victims of an experience of terror we felt but hardly understand.

One could argue that trauma theory is indirectly complicit with US actions following 9/11. Once history is elided and the events of 9/11 are popularly accepted as arriving “out of the blue,” agency is diminished, since “our narrative memory must then inevitably proceed from the perspective of victimhood.” (121, internal quotes from Saal, 467)

Gibbs concludes that a “ready to wear” trauma theory not only depoliticized 9/11, but actively aided the political right (121). In my view, the decontextualization of 9/11 was enabled by an uncritical mass media that didn’t require much help from trauma theory.

What to conclude from all this?

While Gibbs overestimates the importance of trauma theory in American politics, he’s right to point out its tendency to render us all victims. And from the pure victim position, it is possible to justify terrible things.

More generally, it is not clear how much trauma theory adds to the critiques of Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, first-generation Frankfurt School theorists. What we should value are good books that offer no uplift or reconciliation when none is possible, books that convey the content of traumatic experience, and don’t just imitate its form. Marcuse would claim more for the aesthetic experience, but that’s another story.

Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, her novel about the legacy of secrets and lies left by the ten year long civil war in Sierra Leone fits that description of a good book. Employing multiple narrators, including collaborators, victims, and an English psychologist escaping a bad marriage (ok, so the psychologist is a literary cliché, but he’s a good one), it is written in the style of conventional realism. The trauma of its protagonists is made real, but only as part of an account of what it is like to live in Sierra Leone in the wake of a history no one wants to talk about.

Contrast Forna’s book with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book about a little boy’s search for the memory of his father after 9/11. Foer employs all the techniques of post modern trauma fiction, while indulging in what Gibbs calls “the most inappropriately sentimental representations of trauma in contemporary literature.” (152)

In the end, novels are about people in history. To the degree that a trauma theoretical perspective substitutes technique for history, that’s bad. But as Forna exemplifies, it’s possible to portray trauma in a realistic fashion while respecting its historical context. In general, non-western writers are more likely to portray trauma realistically.

As my second example, I cite Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, now almost two decades old. Though one might argue that its employment of ghosts is “unrealistic,” in my estimation that is exactly how many North Vietnamese soldiers experienced the war, as taking place in a world filled with ghosts of the dead. I think many American soldiers did too, but our culture makes is harder to talk about.

Perhaps literary technique triumphs when all the ghosts have departed, including the ghosts we need to remind us of who we are, spirits of the living among spirits of the dead. Max Weber would have understood.

Added, 1/5/16.

I’ve just reread The Sorrow of War, and must qualify my remarks. The book is filled with the textual strategies of trauma writing listed above, designed to convey the experience of trauma. I think these techniques detract from the experience of reading in some cases, and that in every case it is the content of the book, not the form, that conveys the narrator’s experience of trauma. More on this point in the next post, it’s the content not the form.

* A previous post on literary trauma theory reviews Wulf Kansteiner’s “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor.”


Stef Craps and Gert Buelens (2008), Introduction: Post-Colonial trauma novels, in Studies in the Novel, 40 (1&2), 1-12.

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love. New York: Grove Press, 2011.

Alan Gibbs, Contemporary American Trauma Narratives. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

Jane Robinett (2007), The literary shape of traumatic experience. Literature and Medicine, 26 (2), 290-311.

Ilka Saal (2011), Regarding the pain of self and other: Trauma transfer and narrative framing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Modern Fiction Studies, 57 (3), 453-476.

Laurie Vickroy, Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.


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