Art and Literature: Guiding Journalists in Trauma's Portrayal

Nieman Reports, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Art and Literature: Guiding Journalists in Trauma's Portrayal


E. Ann Kaplan is a distinguished professor of English and comparative literary and cultural studies at Stony Brook University. A literary and film scholar, she has written several books and papers about how trauma is portrayed in various media, including "Trauma Culture: The Polities of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature." In this presentation her focus was on "art that addresses the ethical and aesthetic challenges of representing trauma." In opening her remarks, she asked, "If trauma is not cognitively accessible or available in memory, how can we make art about it?" She observed that the artistic process of representing trauma is about 'finding ways to preserve its horror while organizing," the aesthetic experience so that spectators can take it in and grow from what is shown."

The difficulty lies in finding aesthetic strategies appropriate to constructing a position for the viewer--and this is very important--that enables the viewer to take responsibility, and secondly, for creating a witness where there was none before. Yet in some representations of trauma there is a danger of what I call "empty empathy." On the other hand, there is the danger of sensationalizing trauma so that audiences are vicariously traumatized--that is, they experience secondary trauma--and turn away in shock. So if the danger is what one critic calls "unwanted beauty" in works dealing with catastrophes, then trivializing through a too-easy aesthetic access is another.

In some works of art one finds an element of trauma's elusiveness and subversion of reality. These works arguably position the viewer as a witness to trauma in an elusive, disturbing, perhaps haunting way, but nevertheless provoke in the viewer a need to take responsibility. These pieces, each in its own way, explore the structure of an injustice and its accompanying rage. [See box on next page.]

A main characteristic of the witnessing position is the deliberate refusal of identification only with the specificity of the individuals involved. I'm arguing that for true witnessing to take place, a certain distancing from the subject is necessary to enable the interviewer or the viewer to take in and respond to the traumatic situation. When art constructs that sort of position for the spectator, it enables attention to be drawn to the situation, rather than merely to the subject's individual suffering. This opens out to embrace larger social and political meanings.

Rose Moss is a writer, poet and teacher who, in her fiction and nonfiction writing, tells stories about exile, disruption, faith, reconciliation and justice. Moss began her "Aftermath "remarks by talking about the process of koshering by "exposing raw meat to salt, and the salt draws out the blood and then the meat is, relatively speaking, bloodless and suitable for Jews to eat.... Koshering struck me as one example of how people in almost every culture I know curb raw experience by making it something in the culture, by marking it."

One of the characteristics of trauma as I have heard about it--and, to a tiny extent, experienced it--is that that civilizing separation of withdrawing of blood doesn't happen, can't happen, when people are traumatized. It's just one raw thing after another; one is overwhelmed by the experience and that is followed by this feeling of "I can't explain it. No one has experienced anything like this." Of course, most of us know that if you're not going to give up on the traumatized person, or if the traumatized person is not to give up on himself, there has to be work to make this experience relatively communicable and communicated because that's the nature of being human: we speak, we are understood, we understand one another, and we come together. And without that, we lose our humanity. People intuitively know that this re-humanizing can be accomplished through the arts.

Several years ago a number of Nieman Fellows came here after working in the Balkans, where they had been exposed to all sorts of traumas. …

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