Gender, Trauma, and Screen Memories

The entry from my philosophical journal posted below is the first of three engendered by reading An Archive of Feeling:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Duke University Press, 2003), by lesbian feminist scholar and English professor Ann Cvetkovich.  The issue her work raised for me in the following entry concerns what has come to be called “false memory syndrome,” a phrase that developed in a context of the battles fought in the 1990s in the public media, law courts, works of scholarship, and elsewhere, over a wave of what were claimed to be widespread “recovered” memories of theretofore “repressed” experiences of childhood sexual abuse. 

For me, however, what is involved belongs within a broader context, which concerns the complex work of memory in all trauma, and especially the notion of what, since Freud, has been called “screen memories.”   As Freud classically formulated the concept, a “screen memory” is something that looks like a memory, but is actually a device that the mind uses to keep a memory from surfacing, to “screen it off” from memory, as it were.  Accordingly, a “screen memory” would  serve to screen the remember-er from the truth.  It would be something that presents itself as a memory, but the real purpose of which would be to keep the person who has it from having to  remember–having to remember, that is, a deeply disturbing experience that threatens to be overwhelming if remembered.   

Reading Cvetkovich’s book helped me to begin to think about a different way of taking the notion of  “screen” memory, however.  As it affected me  in my reading, it suggested that so called screen memories might more fruitfully be taken, not as “screening off” something, in the sense of hiding it from view behind something else (screening it from view), but as providing the surface upon which what might be called “structural” memory could project itself in the first place.  That is, instead of taking the notion of screen in the sense of what blocks or screens something from view, the role of so called screen memories in trauma might be taken in the sense that we talk of a movie screen, for example:  a surface upon which images can be projected, and without which no “views” (“images”) could be forthcoming. 

If we begin to hear “screen” in that way, then a screen memory ceases to be a distorted and distorting misrepresentation of some supposedly actual past event, a misrepresentation that presents itself as a memory but that is actually designed to conceal the truth about the past.  Instead, a screen memory would be what first of all provided the very possibility for the truth of the past to show itself, to  become a phenomenon, to  project itself in and as an image. 

Ultimately, I would say that the “screen memories” involved in trauma “screen” in both senses at once:  They simultaneously conceal or mask the past, and reveal or disclose it, and they do the one only in and with the other.  Future postings will surely give me opportunities to explain and explore that idea more fully.   

What follows is the first of my three entries on Cvetkovich’s book:

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feeling–pp. 34-35: Her discussion suggested to me that the story of Freud’s espousing then abandoning the sexual abuse theory of the origin of hysteria can be taken as an instance of the ambiguity with which trauma itself traumatizes.  Eisenstein [in Traumatic Encounters], distinguishing [following LaCapra] “historical” and “structural” trauma, may not see that the very traumatizing that trauma is/accomplishes is by way of the engendering of the myth of itself as having an “historical” “origin” [despite the clear tendency of his own analysis in just that direction].  Just so, the sexing-gendering trauma of the production of woman as second class citizen/object of desire–what Eisenstein might see here as “structural” trauma–gives rise to  the myth of an origin an event or series of events of childhood sexual abuse.  The hysteric’s “memory” of such abuse is a masking/revealing of the structural abuse built into being made a woman in our world.

Just so, too, does the emergence of the “false memory” reaction to the 1990s proliferation of “memories” of abuse serve precisely to perpetuate the structural abuse/trauma, by showing up as illusory the supposed “memory.”

The truth, however, is that the memory is all too true!  What is remembered is the truthof the structural, “everyday” abuse involved everywhere in the production of woman–that truth manifest in the memory work, the “memory” of abuse as the work in which the truth of the structural abuse is put into play.

If one learns how to “read”them, then the supposedly”false” memories of abuse are not false at all, but are the truth.

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