Over at So Many Books, Stefanie has a fascinating post on the proliferation of overly intimate memoirs, often detailing horrific and disturbing experiences as justification for the book’s publication. Why is it that we have become so trauma-obsessed in the 21st century? Partly it’s due to a confusion between celebrity and intimacy, and the breakdown of a sense of community in which we are fully known, but it’s also due to a particular fascination with the nature of trauma. Trauma studies has been an area I’ve researched in the past few years, and in fact yesterday I was cleaning up the copy of a chapter on the prevalence of child abuse narratives, arguing that many tread an uncertain line between an ethical desire to let people know the enormous damage caused by abuse, and an overly-voyeuristic, prurient interest in what actually occurs in traumatic sexual encounters. Wherever you look in the diverse media, we are being offered stories of both private and public catastrophe whose publication rests on the underlying belief that their huge popularity means they are commercially rewarding to the publisher. There’s big money to be had in people’s misery, it seems.
Yet one of the many paradoxes in this contemporary craze for trauma is the fact that real trauma is something that is not easily articulated. The experience of Holocaust survivors provided the origins of what we call trauma theory today. When those starved and tortured waifs were released from Buchenwald and Auschwitz they needed to tell people what had happened to them – it was historically, ethically, politically and personally essential that they should do so. And yet language proved recalcitrant to their horrific tales, and the listeners they encountered found it almost impossible to hear the experience they were recounting. No one knew how to deal with these poor, tormented souls, many of whom eventually committed suicide. The psychoanalysts Van der Kolk and and van der Hart subsequently proposed a distinction between ordinary ‘narrative’ memory, which is organised on a soap opera principle, whereby every daily event fits into an ongoing storyline and is therefore understood, digested and filed away, and ‘traumatic’ memory, whereby the event that occurs is so horrific, so abnormal, so terrifying, that no frame of reference exists into which it can be slotted and it therefore remains like a lump of undigested matter in the mind. ‘Narrative’ memory is fluid and flexible and often somewhat distant from the lived event; ‘traumatic’ memory is detailed and vivid and has lost none of the power of experienced reality. As such it keeps returning over and over to the victim, as if it were happening again. The key in this instance is to introduce flexibility into the traumatic memory, because until it can be processed and its deadly power neutralised, the event will be experienced as a gap or gaping wound in the victim’s life, and this is almost impossible to tolerate.
So trauma studies looks at narratives, films and also witness accounts that attempt to find ways to express events for which there are no given, satisfying formulations. It’s been a significant field of study because of the questions it poses to language and representation when pushed to their limits, and also because of the profound links with history, politics and psychoanalysis that are simultaneously forged.
Ok, so why should it be that this highly specific form of experience has become such a dominant part of our modern culture? One answer to this might lie in the work of cultural theorist Georgio Agamben (who is utterly fab, if you like this kind of thing). He proposes that the way we think about experience has altered significantly since the 18th century. It used to be that experience of the world carried great value, hence authority was placed in the older members of a community, and life was seen as a continual garnering of experience that would eventually culminate in the final plenitude of death. However, the great seachange in our culture has been from a humanist perspective on life to a scientific one. The structures of science now dominate our way of understanding the world, and so rather than value what people have experienced, we value what people know. There’s an immediate disadvantage here: valuing experience meant that it was possible to believe we could all have a full and complete life; whereas if we value knowledge it becomes impossible ever to reach an end point of complete integration. We can only ever add to the sum of our knowledge and die incomplete.
Now it strikes me that trauma has become an odd way of reassigning significance and importance to the fact of having had a life experience. Trauma is resolutely not about knowing things; it’s about having been through an event that was radically alien to knowledge and understanding. But turning it into a narrative gives it the look of having been mastered – there’s a powerful transformation at work in the victory of words over dangerous, untamed experience that we can all share and marvel at. Equally the experience of trauma is one of the few in our society that is given a special form of authority. No one can deny or argue with a trauma victim’s experiences, which is a pretty unique state of affairs in the modern world. And it’s fundamentally democratic; it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, or educated or not, so long as you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. So in our topsy-turvy, mixed up world, trauma becomes a real achievement, a short cut to a significant life, whose significance cannot be challenged. However, I imagine, given the blanket bombing of trauma stories by the media, that times will eventually change: not because we have found a way to value the richness and complexity of so-called ‘normal’ life experience, but because of that ugly quality in humankind – compassion fatigue.