Introduction: “Trauma, Memory, Vulnerability”

Marianne Hirsch, describing her choice of theme for the 2014 MLA convention, wrote, “Vulnerable Times addresses vulnerabilities of life, the planet, and our professional disciplines, in our own time and throughout history. Its aim is to illuminate acts of imagination and forms of solidarity and resistance that promote social change.” Over the past century, studies and theorizations of trauma and memory—whether alone or paired with each other—have created flourishing academic subfields in the disciplines of history, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and neurobiology (to name only the most prominent). And of course trauma and memory have been treated in artistic works for more than two thousand years, from the Bible and Greek tragedy to contemporary fiction, theater, and visual arts. The joining of vulnerability to these established concepts is more recent; if I am not mistaken, vulnerability as a concept linked to trauma and memory entered into circulation after September 11, 2001. Another related and relatively recent concept is that of resilience, which is sometimes seen as the antithesis of vulnerability, though I think it is not exactly that, since one can be both vulnerable and resilient at the same time.

One thing that may appear significant to some readers of the four essays that follow, but that I believe is not significant in this instance, is a difference in gender: the two women on the panel, María José Contreras Lorenzini and Ananya Kabir, speak about specific works of art that involve or invoke the human body—whether actual or virtual—in performing acts of mourning and memorialization. The two men, Michael Rothberg and Andreas Huyssen, speak in more general and abstract terms—about implication and responsibility, about memory and its relation to human rights discourse. A stereotypical division, one could say—but one would be wrong, because these particular men have written eloquently and in great detail about specific artistic works in addition to theorizing, and these particular women have done important theoretical work in addition to thinking about the body and performance. So we can safely lower our feminist-critical antennae and consider instead the commonalities among the four essays.

What seems to me most striking is that all these reflections on trauma and memory are framed in collective and political terms rather than in terms of individual psychology. Historically, as we know, the concept of psychic trauma—which was from the very beginning linked to issues of remembering or forgetting—was elaborated by theorists who, even though they often discussed traumatic events that affected more than one person at a time, did not consider trauma in collective, let alone political, terms. Freud, in his most sustained discussion of trauma and memory (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920]), gave as his two examples of trauma the “war neurosis” suffered by soldiers in the First World War (what we now call PTSD) and a train accident, both of which involved groups rather than single persons (6–8). But his theorization in this essay remained exclusively on the individual level; right after those two examples, he moved on to his now famous discussion of the fort-da game, which involved a young child’s successful attempt to overcome the trauma of separation from his mother (8–11). Similarly, later theorists like Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott, as well as others who worked on traumas related to collective historical events (such as Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok or Robert Jay Lifton), spoke mainly about the effects of trauma and survival on individuals rather than on groups or nations.

This would seem to make obvious sense, since psychoanalysis is first of all concerned with the individual psyche. But a number of psychoanalysts, including Lifton in his work on Vietnam War veterans, have sought to place individual trauma within a larger historical and political context. Freud, as we know, was deeply interested in the possible application of psychoanalytic concepts to collective phenomena and devoted major works to it between the two world wars, from the 1921 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego to his last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939). In the latter, he proposed an extended “analogy” between individual and collective trauma with his speculations on the historical development of monotheistic Judaism (the “trauma” of the collective murder of Moses was, Freud speculated, followed by a period of “latency” and then the reemergence of Mosaic ideas).

Freud’s conceptual move to project individual psychology onto the collective level provided inspiration for a number of influential works in the decades after World War II, starting with Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich’s psychohistorical study of postwar Germany, The Inability to Mourn (published in German in 1967). The book’s subtitle indicated its broad theoretical aim: Principles of Collective Behavior. Twenty years later, the French historian Henry Rousso published his now classic study of the evolution of public memory of the Vichy regime in France, The Vichy Syndrome, in which he similarly applied the psychoanalytic categories of trauma and mourning to the level of the nation. This work went hand in hand with the so-called memory boom in historical studies, inaugurated in the 1980s by Pierre Nora’s collective project on “sites of memory” (lieux de mémoire), a concept that is firmly linked (certainly for Nora) to the nation. The historical memory boom also revived the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’s earlier work on collective memory, which has influenced the field of memory studies in literature and other disciplines.

Contemporary trauma studies, as suggested by these four very distinct but in many ways overlapping essays, carries the concepts of trauma and memory several steps further. It is no longer a question of finding analogies between individual and collective trauma, where the former acts as a template for the latter, but rather of constructing models that start with the collective. The concept of systemic trauma or slow trauma—produced by ongoing economic exploitation, political repression, or climate change—obviously affects individuals, but it does not start with them; furthermore, it is not based on the traditional definition of trauma as a single catastrophic event and thus constitutes an important innovation in trauma theory. Also important is the attempt to think through the relation of vulnerability and the body to political action, which Judith Butler has been working on for several years and to which all these essays refer in more or less direct ways. I believe that further work needs to be done in this area, to try to understand more clearly the interactions between the individual and the collective. The extension of trauma theory to areas of the world that have not traditionally been the subjects of such discussion is yet another new, and I think very promising, development suggested—indeed, confirmed—by these contributions.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961. Print.

———. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. “2014 Presidential Theme: Vulnerable Times.” MLA Commons. MLA, 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Margarete Mitscherlich. The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior. Trans. Beverley R. Placzek. Pref. Robert Jay Lifton. New York: Grove, 1975. Print.

Nora, Pierre, ed. Les lieux de mémoire. 3 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1984–92. Print.

Rousso, Henry. The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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