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Totes Me!
So, as it turns out, most people in class didn't even understand the article, and as a result, only three people and the professor even engaged with my questions at all.

But here is the script if people were interested.



Caruth developed this use of trauma theory within historical contexts to deal with criticism of relativism. In her article, Caruth offers a framework for understanding history that is not based on linear empiricism, but on observation of delayed responses and "other intrusive phenomena". Through this observation, we can begin to fill in the gaps left behind in the wake of trauma, to better understand the trauma's place and its implications, and to orient the history around it, the same way we understand the nature of a trauma by observing the manifestations of the effects of the trauma on the victim, what triggers it, what hallucinations are suffered by victims. If the victim cannot cognitively grasp at the traumatic event hirself, the event can still be understood peripherally.

At risk of sciencifying this theory, I would like to provide some definitions for certain key concepts that are the components for understanding this theory.

Firstly, I would like to present an anatomy of trauma. Trauma as discussed in Caruth's article is an experience or event so painful that the mind is unable to cognitively grasp it. Directly accessing this memory is also impossible without causing great distress. While the memory can be triggered, it is rarely done consciously. In Freud's model, the experience is immediately followed by a period of latency, where the victim appears to be okay, because the brain has not yet grasp how horrible the experience has been. It’s only much later that the full effects of the experience begin to set in, and by that time, any manifestations of that trauma don’t appear to be related to what’s actually going on. And because the trauma is a memory that cannot be directly accessed because it causes such distress, resisting cognitive understanding and thus rational reaction, and demanding that survivors calmly, rationally and logically relate in a linear fashion of what happened, is kind of an asshole move.

Nonetheless, it's still something we do, particularly in asking for testimonies of traumatic events: we ask victims to access, to the best of their ability, memories of or surrounding a traumatic event, in order to construct a history of the event. Michael Bernard-Donals writes in the case traumatic memories, that "testimony marks the absence of events, since they did not register on, let alone become integrated into, the victims' consciousness." So testimony is not about the history of the event, so much as it is about the effect of the event on the victim. Setting this within the framework Caruth has laid out, testimony is about the act of departure, of walking away, and what happens when one manages to walk away, what one can recover after walking away. Furthermore, testimony is an act of asking recognition for the fact that the testifier has managed to walk away, and acknowledgement of what it is they walked away from.

But this is an individual case I am speaking of here; Caruth's text discusses Freud's theory of trauma which involves whole groups. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud is concerned with the formation of the Jewish identity, and in particular answering the question, "why do the Jews suffer so much persecution?"

I’m suspicious of the choice of using Freud's text, because his theory requires speculation on an unverifiable history long past, with no more witnesses with memory of this history. I don't see a purpose in almost inventing wholesale a secret murder that is forgotten by two generations for which an entire group continues to pay for, when there are more immediate reasons one could pin the persecution onto, such as the displacement of the Canaanites after the Exodus, or the Golden Age of the Jewish kingdom. Since I'm not interested in the historical archaeology of this kind, I would like to bypass it by positing that what Freud's work attempts to do is place Jewish history within (by intersecting it with) the history of others: the people whose god they assimilate; the Canaanites whose lands they appropriate. We can adapt this understanding to how a single person or group's history implicates and affects others, and is also implicated and affected by other people's suffering.

How Freud does this is, I think, of greater importance: what Caruth is looking at is his act of speaking, his testimony, so to speak, and as Caruth suggests, this Moses text is his way of dealing with the trauma of his own past with the German invasion. Since part of what Caruth is suggesting is that we can use literature to trace trauma, she suggests that we see Freud's book as a site of trauma. Here is where the ethical and political questions come into play -- the act of speaking is also an act which asks for recognition, which demands that the reader or listener implicate him or herself through this newly acquired knowledge. There are also issues of language and discourse which I will touch on later.

Thus, through this recognition, we become aware of our own role in the societal trauma that we are uncovering. Not being able to reach back to make immediate reparations, we attempt reparation now, but as Sara Ahmed points out, our acts of attempting reparation themselves work within frameworks that inflict injustice (such as white Australians benefitting from white privilege even as they demand Australia acknowledge and say sorry for injustice to indigenous people, or as Khushwant and Pratab in Sidhwa's story inflict further suffering on Ammajii by their act of asking forgiveness). As such, our acts of reparation implicate us further, making us more, not less, responsible.

There are two threads I would like to pick up from here: the concept of events being historical "to the extent that they implicate others," and the concept that involves acts of reparation, guilt and justice.
I would like to call to mind the erasure of colonized people's narratives within a colonial narrative, the idea that before the colonizers arrived, these people have no history, and in effect, have no civilization. I'd like to quote a friend who recently took her students on a fieldtrip to the Museum of Mumbai:

"If I were to re-trace ‘that history’, I’d have to look at the gaps and spaces between these narratives and presentations of history, as ‘my’ past is infinitely linked with ‘theirs’. If I were to imagine ‘Indian history’ has a voice, then for the better part of last two centuries it is silenced² judging solely by the artifacts present in the museum, you’d think there were no Indians who lived in India for the time British people hung out here. Had I gone alone to the museum, this would have been the time for me to leave and give in to the crying fit, but my students were around and still wanted to know if those weapons were ever used on us. I must have nodded ‘yes’ as suddenly everyone was quiet for a while. Finally, standing around the creepy, stuffed animals of the Natural History section, one student tells me that his abbujan’s father — great-grandfather that is — used to be a footman to a British naval officer; we don’t look at each other as he wonders out loud if the weapons we saw upstairs were ever used on his abbujan’s father. At that moment — and even today — my first instinct is to cut away all my ties with such a history or a collective past."


In this, Caruth's statement stands, that history can arise where immediate understanding cannot be experienced, partly because of the temporal delay in the understanding: the children have to use their own personal troves of memories transmitted to them from family and relatives, and the official histories they can access in an institutionalized space as a museum, to fill in the gaps.

But what does it mean, then, that "events are only historical to the extent that they implicate others"? If events are historical only if they implicate others, what about the histories that do not implicate or involve large players, but which are lost anyway? Caruth’s text implies that a story that does not deal suffering or trauma to another is not a history worth recording. Is there even such a thing? Who gets to decide what stories are recorded, whose suffering must be acknowledged, how to reconcile them?

And even if we did have a responsibility to recover these collective pasts that have been erased, we then must consider the effects of this recovery. Recalling the Angela Failler article on memory, this recovery calls for a revisiting to a traumatic past that is still cognitively painful to recall, whether as an individual or as a collective. Even as we claim the possibility of history, this also bears the implication that even piecing together the gaps, while not directly confronting nor experiencing it, can be a painful exercise, and we should think about what our responsibilities are in doing so, to ourselves as individuals in a collective, to ourselves as a collective interacting with other groups, to other groups as collectives, back down to other people as individuals in a collective.

The other thread to pick up is the one of reparation and justice. Freud's text was written to pinpoint the origins of Jewish persecution, and Greg Forter points out that this utilizes a theory that firstly elides Freud's earlier theory of trauma; to paraphrase, Freud was uncomfortable with the implications of the first trauma theory, that he himself was part of the structures of domination and violence that he uncovered, that he moved on to develop the next theory of trauma, which "absolved him of historical guilt by tracing all human misery to a non-historical, or structural, cause". Forter further asserts that this second theory, which involves repetition compulsion, the death drive, and latency which I described earlier, should not be universalized, which I agree with. But even specifically to the example Freud works with, this is still problematic: it implies that if the persecution of the Jews is the delayed manifestation of the mystery murder, they are paying for what they have done.

This in no way absolves their persecutors of their fault, yet Freud's hypothesis allows for this absolving of guilt, in a manner of 'the Jews deserve it for not dealing properly with the murder, because they forgot about it instead of recognized it and did it justice earlier on when it first happened,' even as he posits it as a moment of trauma for the Jewish nation. At best, it's a sneaky get-out-of-jail-free card; at worst, it's blaming the victim. What we are left is a vicious cycle of continuously repeating violence, continuously manifested psychic traumas with endless political ramifications, that conceivably have an origin, if we use enough psychoanalysis. Here is where the limits of psychoanalysis are revealed: even as it tries to get to the origins, it doesn't offer us a solution for the now. What are the measures to take in dealing with these manifestations? Can we, in effect, perform a kind of damage control?

I would like to finish by circling back to the beginning of my presentation, on testimony and memory, of using literature to trace trauma: if understanding a traumatic event is to look at the histories and memories surrounding that event, this is a history that inevitably is always filtered through half-memories and other people's perspectives. Does this do justice to the originating trauma? Does this further implication of others enable a witnessing of the traumatic memory, and to what end? Does a traumatic memory need witnessing in order to have justice done? In other words, is there no move towards justice, unless the memory is acknowledged? Must a victim testify that "this happened" with certainty before redress is given? What does it say about our systems of justice that ignores acts of inflicting trauma if a victim does not step up to say, 'this was done to me,' especially knowing the limits of linguistic expression? In other words, can we imagine a method of addressing injustice and trauma without the discursive barriers we currently operate within? Even as Caruth uses literature to trace trauma, are there perhaps other ways of identifying trauma that does not rely on the act of speaking?


Thanks a bunch to Jaded16 for letting me quote her post!

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