Trauma, Memory, History, or: Postmodernism as Mourning Work?


Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) – Obsessive Reconstruction of the Holocaust, or trivialisation?

Trauma and the Holocaust

The events we now collectively refer to as The Holocaust happened in the years between June 1941 and April 1945, that is, more than 60 years ago. The eyewitnesses and survivors are dying out, whether they were victims, bystanders, perpetrators or ‘willing executioners’. One would imagine that with the passing of lived experience into history, the traumas suffered by the survivors would also be mitigated, and laid to rest, so that instead, other forms of collective memory and commemoration could take over.

Yet almost the exact opposite is the case. The past twenty years have seen an increasing preoccupation with the Jewish Holocaust in the United States, in Germany as well as in the other countries of Europe. The longer we look at it, it seems, the more overwhelming and incomprehensible its legacy becomes. Almost every aspect of its history is still contested territory: its uniqueness, its causes, the motives of the perpetrators, the collusive silence of the Allied powers at the time, the collaboration with the German authorities among the population in the occupied countries, as well as the truthfulness or reliability of the victims’ memories. Polemics rage around the use and over-use of the Holocaust as a cultural metaphor, its status as the paradigmatic ‘modernist’ event or as the epitome of the ‘postmodern condition’, not to mention its musealisation, its medial trivialisation, or the controversies over other forms of instrumentalisation from commercial and tourist exploitation to moral and ideological appropriation.

How is this obsessive interest to be explained? How can one get a perspective on so much discursive activity around so monstrous an event? What to make of the general debates around history, memory and subjectivity that have arisen in its wake? Is the moment of transition from lived personal testimony to history really so unique in the case of the Holocaust that it has itself become the traumatic event for contemporary culture, challenging above all the role played by the media in the construction of a collective memory?


One place to look for an answer to some of these questions is trauma-theory. This, as Susannah Radstone has convincingly argued, is the response, mainly in the academic community, to a number of deadlocks and aporias in the humanities. Most notably in post-feminism, trauma-theory both redefines and challenges the use of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic tool for the interpretation of texts, and as a critical interventionist strategy for a politics of the body. Against the emphasis on fantasy in orthodox Freudian theory (as well as in Screen theory), trauma-theorists want to stress memory and history. They want to articulate a theory of the subject not around desire and its constitutive lack (the Freud-Lacanian route), but around memory and its – (power-) politically enforced, patriarchally inflicted – gaps, absences and traceless traces. In its most vulgar sense, this trauma-theory is a theory of victimhood and a politics of blame, in which various ethnic, gender or sexual preference groups vie (sometimes with each other) for a place in the sun of virtuous indignation (or lucrative litigation).

Radstone analyses why there has been this resurgence of victim-culture, relating it to ungraspable authority and the inability to tolerate internal conflict or cognitive disson­ance (the so-called cognitive dissonance reduction tendency, i.e. a tendency to see every­thing black and white). Victim culture in this perspective is a simplification of a previous theorisation of trauma by Freud and psychoana­lysis; it is a revisionist account. It ‘fosters false selves and unacknowledged fantasies of omnipotence and control (of which the victim feels herself to be deprived by someone)’. Feminism may thus have helped to create the social acceptability of ‘victim memory’, as the reverse of a previous overvaluation – i.e. personali­sation – of (male) power and control, but the phenomenon clearly has roots in the culture that extend in many direction, however ‘shallow’ or temporary they may turn out to be. As a version of trauma-theory, victim memory shows all the signs of abandoning Freud, only in order to return to an ego-psychology that antedates Freud.

Thinking more charitably about it, one could say that the ‘politics of memory’ are located in the more recent past, and that the reasons for its (res)urgency lie outside academia. They point to deadlocks in the emancipation and liberation struggles of the 1970s and 1980s more generally, expressing fears about the future of representative democracy, documenting the crisis of the single-parent family with its added demands of on women, and the possible demise of the (post-war) welfare state- where they do not express the inability to picture the future at all.

On both accounts, the scope of trauma-theory extends well beyond grappling with the Holocaust and its aftermath. In fact, it is possible to argue –somewhat polemically – that the two have very little in common. Or conversely, that both the persistence of the Holocaust debates and the emer­gence of trauma-theory are symptoms for which the causes have to be sought else­where. Nonetheless, the notion of victim-hood, the emphasis on history and power(less­ness), the anxiety about memory: its ambiguous relation to an inner psychic reality and to an outer, public (or cinematic) representa­tion, all tend to align trauma-theory and the Holocaust legacy. Several distinct issues can be identified that trauma-theory ad­dresses in this conjuncture. They can give a sense why trauma has become such an abid­ing concern in the humanities as to necessitate the development of a body of theory. I shall pick three: latency and deferral, narrative and agency, performance and representation.


Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) – Personal testimonies of the Holocaust

Latency and Temporality

The first issue bears most directly on the Holocaust, in that it suggests that traumatic events – traumatic both for specific individuals as well as for a culture’s understanding of itself – involve a so-called ‘latency’ period, where the shock has been so severe that its impact has left no trace. What we would have been experiencing over the past decade was the end of the latency period as it affected the Holocaust from roughly 1945 to 1990. Among the reasons for this latency was the Cold War: Only after the fall of communism, the end of a bi-polar world-power struggle, and the final abandon­ment of socialist ideals could the Holocaust emerge as the prime cultural and historical fact of the West since the end of WWII. Another reason for the latency would be generational. If the Holocaust has undergone such a delay in its cultural impact of roughly two generations, then latency would have also been a matter of how fathers and sons, mothers and daughters communicate with each other across guilt and disavowal or shame and self-reproach. The Holocaust’s importance as discourse and touchstone of the West’s historical identity could thus indeed be expected to increase in direct proportion to its paling as ‘lived experience’, since it was above all Holocaust survivors whose experience obliged them to insist on its uniqueness, its literalness, which is to say, its necessary and sole embodiment in personal testimony. But since this personal testimony was itself marked by trauma, covering an experience so extreme as to remain speech- and image-less, it enjoined a kind of double-bind on the very attempt to represent the Holocaust or make it enter the realm of dialogue, discourse and narrative: ‘I dare you to speak about the Holocaust, and I dare you not to speak about the Holocaust’.

Thus, accepting the latency hypothesis around the Holocaust almost necessitates a theory of trauma, in order to understand the nature of the delays (the displacements of an event and its representation) and the manner of its overcoming. What needs to be grasped is trauma’s non-representability as both subjective (trauma makes failure of memory significant) and objective (trauma makes of representation a significant failure), confirming that the Holocaust as a traumatic event for contemporary culture turns around the question of how to represent the unrepresentable, how – in Samuel Beckett’s words – to name the unnamable. This has been the traditional `literary’ response (‘poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’) and to some extent, has also underpinned the ‘Bilderverbot’ (also see here) with respect to films, especially narrative fiction films. But here, trauma-theory wants to open up a new space, and especially Cathy Caruth’s work wants to take a different direction, arguing (in her chapter on Hiroshima mon Amour) in post-Paul de Man deconstructive fashion that if trauma is the name of an event that doesn’t leave traces, these non-traces are nonetheless recoverable by a new kind of hermeneutics.

Narrative, Testimony and Agency

But Caruth (among others) also reminds us that in Freud, for instance, latency is above all connected to infantile sexuality and involves two scenes: the first is ‘sexual in content’ but is not given ‘sexual meaning’, the second is ‘non-sexual in content’ but has sexual meaning. Especially the debates around ‘recovered memory syndrome’ have extended (and challenged) Freudian theories of infantile sexuality and the seduction fantasy, in order to press feminist concerns about child-abuse, as well as cultural acquiescence in rape and domestic violence. But apart from raising questions of power and the collusive or latent violence of the family bond, trauma-theory in this area also tries to address a shift of perception and meaning, a non-alignment of ‘content’ and ‘meaning’, which makes trauma something not assimilated, an experience not integrated into the psychic economy of a subject. There, it continues to disrupt, arrest or otherwise debilitate the relation of consciousness to memory, of identity to self-presence. Caruth can therefore also argue that the overcoming or mastery of trauma must involve processes of integration and assimilation.

Foremost among these processes of integration would be narrative and the ability to tell a (one’s) story, where the narrator is fully present to him- or herself in the act of telling, and where there is also a narratee able to perform effectively as a listener or reader. This gives to trauma-theory a double set of objectives, but also of historical tasks: on the one hand, it opens up trauma-theory to the experience and memory of events other than the Holocaust (and their representation), as in personal memoirs, autobiography, testimony or family history, but also in the more public realm of wars and armed conflict (the First World War, the Vietnam War, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans). On the other hand, it defines the Holocaust and the reality of its aftermath as an issue of narrative and representation, within the terms of which its relation to subjectivity, history and memory can best be addressed.

It is here that the media, and in particular television, have played an especially outstanding but also controversial role. In the format of the talk show, television has shaped an entire culture of confession and witnessing, of exposure and self-exposure, which in many ways – good and bad – seems to have taken over from both religion and the welfare state. It has made trauma-theory and therapeutic television (also disparagingly called trash-tv) something of the recto and verso of democracy’s failure to represent its citizens’ personal concern in the public sphere, and of organised relig­ion to sustain as ‘healing’ its rituals of mediation (mass, confession, communal prayer) which used to insert the private into the symbolic order.

At the same time, a similar failure of mediation between subjectivity and history has also given birth to an entirely different film-culture, which especially in Europe (but not only there) has transformed the way history is represented in the cinema. Films – some mainstream, some produced with and for television – have proved to be a most extraordinary instrument for giving shape, texture and voice to a ‘history from below’ or ‘everyday history’, at once authenticating ‘lived experience’ through the power of immediacy inherent in the moving image, and demonstrating the cinema’s capacity to ‘fake’ such authenticity through the stylistic-narrational techniques of editing sounds and images. This double role has ‘traumatised’ both documentary and feature filmmaking – well before the advent of the digital image gave it a further twist, confirming the now definitively ‘traumatic’ status of the moving image in our culture as the symptom without a cause, as the event without a trace.

Temporality and Belatedness

Linking trauma to latency extends its scope beyond the sexual, to include as one of its key features temporality, or rather the difference between psychic temporality and linear chronological time. Trauma-theory would here be concerned with the rivalling claims of memory time and historical time, and their respective relation to perception, to self-awareness and the subjectivity of media-experience. ‘Trauma’ thus not only names the delay between an event and its (persistent, obsessive) return, but also a reversal of affect and meaning across this gap in time. The thrill or irresolution comes when it is not at all clear whether the recurrent, repetitive aspect of the media’s treatment of (historic, public, shocking) events relates to the obsessive time of (subjective) trauma-memory, or whether obsessive repetition is in fact the media’s (and popular culture’s) most ‘authentic’ temporality and time-regime, creating in the spectator not just ‘prosthetic memory’ but prosthetic trauma, deliberately or inadvertently setting up a gap between the (visual, somatic) impact of an event or image and the (culture’s, the media’s) ability to make sense of it, to make it enter into the order of the comprehensible. In a sense, and perhaps most intriguingly for the literary or film scholar, trauma-theory puts at issue the temporality of the traumatic event as being not only a matter of repetition and iteration. The traumatic event intimately links several temporalities, makes them coexist within the same perceptual or somatic field, so much so that the very distinction between psychic time and chronological time seems suspended.

Hence a concept, having to do with shifts in temporality and space, has often been associated with trauma, namely Freud’s Nachträglich­keit, usually translated as belatedness, or deferred action. As Caruth writes: ‘Trauma is fully evident only in connection with another place and another time. Belated­ness: neither inside nor outside, neither one place nor one time’. Yet Nachträglichkeit is itself an aspect of a wider epistemological issue, the subject’s need to invoke – or invent – an origin or absent cause in order to explain how one know what one knows, in relation to an event or a course of action, but also in relation to the subject’s self-awareness of his or her identity. It is in this sense that Lacan speaks of the après-coup as the act of the subject filling a void or a gap in his/her identity, by providing a causal-chronological sequence or a chain of signifiers, to assure him/herself of a spatio-temporal consistency and locate a place in the symbolic order.

More generally trauma-theory revives debates around the definition of subjectivity and history once theorized (and disqualified) as psycho-history, but now across specific acts of narration, in which witnessing and personal testimony are in some sense both crucial and highly problematic. My (act of) testimony is my truth, my bearing of witness is my claim to both truth and to the terms of my experience. Such a truth is specific and local, but it may lack narratives. Or it may lack witnesses that corroborate my truth; there may be no confessors or narratees, no-one to listen. In this sense, the dilemma of the Holocaust witness becomes paradigmatic but also historically unique, i.e. it would be the limit case of more recent (and some would argue, more banal) phenomena. But television talk shows and media confessions (with their implied invocation of an – absent – third party) insist, be it in the idiom of popular culture and commerce, on the changing dynamics of social subjectivity and citizenship in the media-age. To relate this kind of witnessing to trauma is to establish a link between public event and private impact, across body and voice as instruments of an (incomplete) inscription of this subjectivity.

The body as media instrument: technological changes in our recording media and communi­ca­tion systems have helped forms of cultural memory and intersubjectivity to emerge, for which chronological time-frames and even geogra­phical co-ordinates are probably inappropriate.[i] But to the degree that the culture is generating and circulating new forms of media memory, the subject is obliged to invent or to invoke above all spatial markers (e.g. the shifters ‘now’ and ‘me’) for his/her own memory, body based and somatic, which is to say, he/she fantasises history in the form of trauma. Or to put it slightly differently, the contemporary subject will have a necessarily traumatic (because lacunary, incomplete, narratively no longer sanctioned) relation to history and memory: in the first instance to his/her own history, but more generally, to all history. Trauma may here be (merely) the name of a particular contemporary subject-effect, as individuals (or groups) try to re-inscribe themselves into the different kinds of media-memory.


Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) – Re-(de-)construction of the past through traumatic memory

Between Narrative and Event

Thus trauma-theory can also be seen to reflect a crisis of narrative, as well as a crisis in the theories of narration, as they have been propounded in literary (and cinema-) studies over the past half-century. But narrative, as indicated, relates contemporary trauma-theories once more to the Holocaust, and to the question of witnessing, since it touches on the dilemma of not telling a story, because of fear of betraying it by telling it, or of betraying someone by telling it (ex: Hiroshima mon amour), but also of betraying oneself by not telling it, of being overwhelmed by a memory that cannot speak because it is afraid of not being heard.

It is partly because of these latter anxieties that trauma-theory has captured the attention of literary scholars such as Caruth, or of film-theorists and media-scholars. For what makes trauma different from more traditional issues of representation (for instance, of how ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ an image or a narrative is in relation to the reality it is purporting to depict – and which in the past have bedevilled just about every discussion of documentary or historical fiction, and not just the debate about how events such as the persecution of the Jews or the ‘reality’ of Nazism can be or should be represented) is the idea that trauma also suspends the categories of true and false, being in some sense performative. This is important in that it allows the discussion to go beyond the usual therapeutic categories, whether they are poetological (Aristotle’s ‘catharsis’ and ‘anagnorisis’) or Freudian (‘acting out’ and ‘working through’). In fact, it might help overcome a possible confusion of the symptomatology of trauma with ‘the return of the repressed’ or any other aspect of Freud’s repression theory. On the other hand, insofar as trauma belongs to the category of the performative, it is a special case: one would have to talk about a ‘negative performative’, because trauma affects the texture of experience by its very absence of traces. Also, its limit status in the realm of human life means that there is no ‘reality’ to which representation might be compared. Trauma involves an ‘event that precludes registration’ (Dori Laub) and even the category of witnessing collapses in the face of its inaccessibility. If trauma is experienced through its forgetting, its repeated forgetting, then, paradoxically, one of the signs of the presence of trauma is the absence of all signs of it. This can present an especially agonising and self-doubting task for the subject having to come to terms with it, but it is also a daunting (and, dare one say, irresistible) challenge for the interpretant and analyst – in short, a much more ‘aporetic’ phenomenon for both sides of the dialogical or narrational contract.

Trauma therefore potentially suspends the normal categories of story-telling, making it necessary that we revise our traditional accounts of narrative and narration. Sensing this, Caruth expands on Freud’s definition by arguing that to suffer from trauma is to be possessed or inhabited by an event, which can also be an image. In which case, crucial to both contexts are questions of agency and authority, but also of embodiment and spatial orientation, such as active and passive or inside and out.[ii] Furthermore, trauma-theory raises questions such as the separation of body and voice, of representation and its material supports. 

The Traceless Text, but not Hors-Texte

What makes this account of what I would like to call the ‘negative performative’ an alternative to the ‘repression model’ is not only that trauma would no longer be a (version of the) return of the repressed. It would give the traumatic event the status of a (suspended) origin in the production of a representation, a discourse or a text, bracketed or suspended because marked by the absence of traces. The consequence of such a theory of trauma is that it is not the event itself nor its distortion but its structure that is of chief interest. Belated, possessing but non-possessed, somatic but without visible signs, marked by deferral, unpredictability and incomplete knowledge, it is at once `real’ and ‘spectral’, ‘historical’ and ‘virtual’. Hence also the affinity between trauma and fetish (‘nothing there’), which in turn implies a disjuncture between seeing and knowing. As such, it turns on a crisis of perception – though one no longer explained solely within the Freudian-Lacanian model of disavowal (and film theory’s gaze), because it would take in also Benjamin’s reflections on perception and shock, with allegory as the preferred hermeneutics of the shock experience.

This line of thought connects trauma-theory once more to the Holocaust, or rather to its supposed ‘invisibility’ in the years between 1945 and 1989, and its astonishing ubiquity since. For perhaps it is the paradoxical conjunction of a devastating impact without traces, of effects which overwhelm any possible account of causes, that allows the Holocaust to function now no longer as the index of unspeakable horrors done to human beings or even of ‘the banality of evil’, but as the cultural metaphor of crises which at first glance seem to have little to do with it: the fate of storytelling after the death of the story-teller and the end of grand narratives; the ethical turn, after power and discourse; the return of history and referentiality after deconstruction.


The Eichmann trial – Where Hannah Arendt saw the ‘banality of evil’

Trauma-theory is thus also related to postmodernism, or rather, it replies to the fact that postmodernism has proved to be untheorisable. It is as if trauma-theory appears ‘behind’ post­modernism, charting its political blockages (both critically and negatively), implicitly acknowledging but no longer having to regret, for instance, the fact that the grand narratives have been exhausted, including the grand narrative of the Holocaust, which has been seen as both the last of the grand narratives (Baudrillard) and the very epitome of the impossibility of grand narratives (Lyotard). A citation from Caruth seems to hint at this connection: ‘history occurs in the form of a symptom. Trauma is the name for an impossible history, or the name for the impossibility of history as narrative, as an order sequence of events, of agents as subjects, as chronology, as cause and effect, as rationality or purposiveness of actions’.

If this is so, then the connection between trauma-theory and the Holocaust acts itself like a screen memory for another philosophical debate, even though, as a symptom of this debate, it is part of it. I am referring to deconstruction and its relation to history and referentiality. The question (again, partly since the Fall of the Wall) has become how to place history discursively, but without ‘falling’ into any crudely nominalist and realist positions or merely analysing it across narrative and rhetorical tropes. Hence the emphasis on temporality and spatiality, but ‘displaced’ in relation to the event: ‘trauma’ would then be the name for a referentiality that can no longer be placed (that need no longer be placed) in a particular time or place, but whose time-space-place-referentiality is nonetheless posited, in fact, doubled and displaced in relation to an ‘event’. Trauma becomes the term for resolving the aporias of a previous theoretical configuration, and in particular in the humanities, it may be thought to overcome the deadlocks of deconstruction in relation to extra-textuality and interpretation, while also rethinking the hermeneutics of psychoanalysis. In this sense, trauma-theory is called upon to rescue interpretation and hermeneutics from the relativism of deconstruction, from the fundamentalism of ‘experience’ but also from the tyranny of the ‘performative’, since trauma poses the enigma of interpretation as a negative performative, while referring to a historicity and a temporality that acknowledges (deconstruction’s) deferral and (psychoanalysis’) double time of Nachträglichkeit. Trauma-theory in fact is not so much a theory of recovered memory as it is one of recovered referentiality. As a form of referentiality, however, it can only be recovered through interpretation, because first and last, there is nothing there, yet if we can contemplate the idea that postmodernism was the mourning work that the second half of the 20th century did for the first half, then the hermeneutic historian most certainly hopes that ‘where nothing is, there shall trauma be’.

[i]. Cf. the old French phrase: ‘up to 1919 it’s history, from 1919 to 1945 it’s geography, and since 1945 it’s politics’.

[ii]. According to Caruth, trauma means being inhabited or occupied by an event, where event may also be an image.

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