Academic journal article CLIO

The Seduction of History: Trauma, Re-Memory, and the Ethics of the real.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article CLIO

The Seduction of History: Trauma, Re-Memory, and the Ethics of the real.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

   To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize 
   it "the way it really was." It means to seize hold of a 
   memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. 
      --Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" 

Near the end of Lindsey Collen's The Rape of Sita, the narrator offers the following reflection upon the title character's inability to remember her traumatic experience of being raped during a short layover on Reunion:

   Did the rape from the time it was happening already start to 
   bury itself from Sita herself? Do terrible experiences always run 
   this risk? That there is a mistake in the recording process itself? 
   Not just the memory afterwards? Does a rape get stored into 
   limbo files, secret limbo files that are stored detached from the 
   conscious mind from the time of childhood, get stored there from 
   the very moment the rape is taking place? (1) 

Ever since "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD) officially entered the American psychiatric lexicon in 1980, researchers have increasingly described the disorder as one in which the encoding of memory rather than its retrieval is affected. (2) Unlike the earlier, vaguely Freudian understanding of traumatic neurosis as an affliction involving the repression of particularly shocking experiences or fantasies, the contemporary understanding of trauma posits that there are certain experiences so violent and terrifying that they are capable of destroying the normal mechanisms responsible for consciousness and memory. The victim, in other words, is unable to recall the traumatic experience not because she has repressed its memory but because the very neurobiological processes that are responsible for encoding experiences into consciousness are damaged by the event. (As the narrator of Collen's novel says, "there is a mistake in the recording process itself, not just the memory afterwards" [185]). The "neurosis" arises when the traumatic event, unable to follow the normal neurobiological routes that would allow a memory to be experienced as past, is converted into physical and bodily symptoms of a present dis-ease (flashbacks, nightmares, a heightened state of alertness, unwarranted anger and/or fear). In the words of Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading proponents of this view of trauma, when experiences are so overwhelming they "cannot be integrated into existing mental frameworks ... [they become] disassociated, later to return intrusively as fragmented sensory or motoric experiences"--flashbacks while awake, nightmares during sleep. (3)

In recent years, the impossibility of recovering the individual's memory of a traumatic event has been invoked by critics and theorists as a means of understanding the elusiveness of historical knowledge more generally. Increasingly, there has been a call to recognize that extreme limit cases (cases that highlight the limits of representation and history) that happened within history, such as slavery, the Holocaust, the Partition on the Subcontinent, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are traumatic for those who experienced them. Moreover, History itself is inherently traumatic. (4) For these theorists, "History is," as Fredric Jameson once declared in a slightly different context, "whatever hurts." (5) It is that which extends beyond personal or collective conceptualization and thus resists or defies our attempts at symbolization. While such an approach is sometimes condemned for foreclosing the possibility of historical knowledge, it is better understood as a means of reconciling the referential truth-claims of traditional historiography with the poststructuralist critique of representation. On the one hand, figuring History as inherently traumatic--both in its occurrence and our attempts to understand it--acknowledges the limits of representation. At the same time, however, the emphasis upon delayed, repetitive, and other intrusive phenomena as symptoms of trauma suggests that History as an underlying (but forever absent) cause is something other than a representation. …

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