What makes trauma political? And how does it work?

Can a society or culture be traumatic? No, it doesn’t make sense. No matter how closely we are imbricated in each other’s lives, trauma remains an individual experience. Nevertheless, a society or culture can make it easier or more difficult for its members to bear trauma. It is in this way that trauma becomes a political issue. (My argument applies to societies of ordinary immorality, not to regimes like Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China.)

D. W. Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, concluded that a traumatic culture is one which its members can’t appropriate and make their own. Behind this way of thinking is the idea that a culture is itself a transitional experience. The first transitional experience is the child’s experience with a favorite toy or “blankie,” a soft object that represents me and not me, mother and not mother. Transitional objects are logical impossibilities: something that is and isn’t at the same time. It is through our relationship with transitional objects that people are able to take first a comforting object, and later the resources of an entire culture, such as its music, food, smells, art, movies, and so forth and make them their own.

An individual who lives in transitional space is able to take aspects of “the inherited tradition . . . the common pool of humanity,” and appropriate them by imaginatively transforming them. About an evening at the theater, Winnicott (1986) wrote,

The exciting thing about the curtain in a theater. When it goes up, each one of us will create the play that is going to be enacted, and afterwards we may even find that the overlap of what we have created . . . provides material for a discussion about the play that was enacted. (p. 133)

It is in this transitional space that adults continue to play. “I have used the term cultural experience as an extension of the idea of transitional phenomena and of play.” (1971, p. 99) In play, we are most ourselves, because we need not be aware of ourselves. We can just be. Some things adults do are play. Most aren’t.

Winnicott draws a distinction between what he calls “subjective objects,” and “objective objects.” Subjective objects are those things we believe exist for us, mirroring our needs and wishes, conforming perfectly to our view of the world. A good enough mother is a subjective object to a baby. Subjective objects confirm our sense of being alive.

Objective objects are things that exist external to us, without reference to us and our needs and view of reality. They exist in their own right, irrelevant to our subjectivity. They are “not-me-objects,” objectively real, but they don’t necessarily feel real and alive to us. “Our teddy bears, our Mozart arias, our religious rituals contain in themselves both the subjective and objective poles and hence function as true symbols.” (Ulanov, p. 16) We invest the tradition, the objective object, with something of the subjective object, and thus bring it to life, without reducing the objective to the subjective, which would be mad.

Put an individual, or a population, under enough stress, and its members lose the ability to invest the world with subjectivity. The result is psychological death, which is equivalent to chronic trauma: trauma that destroys an individual’s ability to invest and live in transitional space, that is to just be.

In A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters, Kai Erikson writes that

Chronic conditions as well as acute events can induce trauma, and this, too, belongs in our calculations. A chronic disaster is one that gathers force slowly and insidiously, creeping around one’s defenses rather than smashing through them. People are unable to mobilize their normal defenses against the threat, sometimes because they have elected consciously or unconsciously to ignore it . . . (p. 21)

As one reads through the traumatizing disasters to which Erikson refers, it becomes clear that every one of his examples refers not to the general population, but to the chronic traumatization of special populations, whose numbers add up. These include people living in persistent poverty, or institutionalized in asylums and prisons, or living on American Indian reservations. Migrant laborers and their children, and the socially marginal generally, such as the aged, the isolated, and unwelcome strangers in new lands, aliens and immigrants, are also included.

Among these groups, says Erikson, one can hardly avoid seeing the familiar symptoms of trauma: numbness of spirit, a susceptibility to anxiety, rage, and depression, a sense of helplessness, a heightened anxiety about threats from their social and physical environment, preoccupation with death, retreat into dependency, and a diminution of ego function.

The striking thing about this definition is that when one begins to look at the lives of the chronically traumatized, many (but not all) of these “symptoms” come to seem peculiarly rational, if by rational one means in accord with reality. To be chronically poor, not knowing how you are going to pay next week’s rent on your crummy motel room, not knowing where you children’s next meal is coming from, fear of the men you encounter on the streets—are these not enough to foster a sense of chronic anxiety about threats from the environment, a sense of helplessness, rage, and depression, in any of us? Would not many of us use numbness as a coping mechanism in this situation? Sometimes the symptoms of trauma are the reflections of a careless (or worse) society, inflicted on its weakest members.

We should almost always be most concerned with the wretched of the earth, those who live in physical and moral environments of such great insecurity that chronic trauma becomes a rational, or at least realistic, way of life. This dimension of trauma is not invisible. Most of us simply do not go to the trouble of looking, and much trauma theory is concerned with more arcane issues. Thinking about trauma in this way is one way of looking. And before we can act we have to look.


Trauma is not a political concept. However, when one considers the social and political conditions under which transitional objects and relationships flourish, it becomes possible to subject trauma to a political analysis. That is, it becomes possible to consider what types of social and political arrangements might make it almost impossible for some groups of people to participate in those cultural activities that protect us from trauma, and help heal us from the effects of trauma. Erikson’s list of the victims of chronic trauma points us in the right direction.


Kai Erikson (1994). A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. W. W. Norton

Ann B. Ulanov (2001). Finding Space: Winnicott, God, and Psychic Reality. Westminster John Knox Press.

D. W. Winnicott (1971). “The Location of Cultural Experience.” In Playing and Reality. Routledge.

D. W. Winnicott (1986). “The Child in the Family Group.” In Home is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst. W. W. Norton.


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