Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Trauma and the Turn to Affect

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Trauma and the Turn to Affect

Article excerpt

IT IS NOW ALMOST FIFTEEN YEARS since Cathy Caruth, trained at Yale University in comparative literature, published her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996), in which she put forward views on trauma that have been so persuasive to many that they have pretty much come to stand for trauma theory as such. It is more than ten years since I published my book Trauma: A Genealogy (2000), in which I criticized Caruth' s views. Since that time, trauma theory has proven to be very resilient, remarkably so in the eyes of those, like myself, who think that Caruth' s ideas are mistaken. But in the last few years trauma theory has also undergone something of a mutation, by which I mean that it has been revised in order to emerge as 'affect theory'. As many readers will be aware, one of the liveliest topics in the humanities and social sciences these days is 'affect' (or even more straightforwardly 'emotion' or 'feeling'), and trauma theory has been influenced by this turn of events. In my essay I plan to sketch this development. I also plan to explain what I think are the stakes involved in the rise of affect theory and to say why I believe that, like the trauma theory that it is in the process of absorbing and superseding, it is fundamentally erroneous. In the course of my discussion I will comment on the aesthetic implications of these developments.

Let me start by briefly reviewing what I consider the most essential aspects of Caruth' s trauma theory.1 Like Shoshana Felman and others responsible for the rise of trauma theory in the USA, Caruth proposes a deconstructive account of trauma. But unlike most theorists, who regularly invoke themes of trauma, forgetting, and identity without reference to the large contemporary psychiatric literature on trauma, she incorporates the neurobiology of trauma into her work. In accordance with the views of the American Psychiatric Association and its definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder , Caruth holds that massive trauma precludes all representation because the ordinary mechanisms of consciousness and memory are temporarily destroyed. Instead, she suggests, there occurs an undistorted, and - her key term - 'literal' registration of the traumatic event that, dissociated from normal mental processes of cognition, cannot be known or represented but, engraved in brain and body, manifests itself belatedly in the form of traumatic nightmares and other repetitive phenomena. In Caruth' s deconstructive version of neurobiological accounts of trauma, the gap in consciousness and representation that is held to characterize the individual traumatic experience comes to stand for the materiality of the signifier in the sense given the concept by the critic Paul de Man, who theorized a "moment" of materiality that, on the one hand, belongs to language but, on the other, is aporetically severed from the (speech) act of signification or meaning. At the heart of Caruth' s approach to psychic trauma is thus a 'performative' theory of language according to which a 'death-like' break in or resistance to meaning inheres in language itself. For Caruth, an analogous 'death-like' break lies at the heart of trauma: the victim of trauma who cannot symbolize or represent the traumatic accident or event that caused her condition nevertheless obsessively 'performs' or re-experiences it in the form of flashbacks, dreams, and related symptoms. Literary theory and empiricism, in the form of an appeal to the findings of science, are thus strangely but, in my view, coherently linked in Caruth' s work. The psychiatric notion of the 'flashback', defined as "an interruption [...] that [...] cannot be thought simply as a representation," is regarded by her as the equivalent of the "interruption of a representational mode" that she associates with de Man's deconstruction of language.2

An important aspect of Caruth' s approach to trauma is her suggestion that if language nevertheless succeeds in testifying to the traumatic horror, it does so only when the referential function of words begins to break down, with the result that, as Walter Benn Michaels has put it, what is transmitted is "not the normalizing knowledge of the horror but the horror itself. …

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