The History of Trauma, the Trauma of History


Today’s posting contains the first of a number of entries from my journal that pertain to the work of the influential contemporary American historian and trauma-theorist Dominick LaCapra, who  has written especially about the Holocaust.  The journal entry contained in my first posting on this site, on December 12, 2008, already mentioned LaCapra, but only in connection with work of literary theorist Paul Eisenstein, a specialist in German literature.  I also mention Eisenstein again in the entry below.  Today’s entry, and those to follow that will  continue to address LaCapra’s thought, should be taken in conjunction with that earlier entry, from my initial posting.  They all concern, either directly–as is true both for the entry from my first posting and for the one posted below–or indirectly, LaCapra’s drawing of a distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma.

On my way of taking the notion of “screen memory,” which also comes up in the posting below, what I say there should be compared with what I say on the same topic in my posting for December 17, 2008, “Gender, Trauma, and Screen Memories.”  I will have still more to say on that matter in future postings.


Monday, March 11, 2008

In Writing History, Writing Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) Dominick LaCapra writes about distinguishing [between] “structural” and “historical” trauma. He writes (p. 82):  “When structural trauma is reduced to, or figured as, an event, one has the genesis of myth wherein trauma is enacted in a story from which later traumas seem to derive (as in Freud’s primal crime or in the case of original sin attendant upon the Fall from Eden).”  He regards this as a source of confusion and warns against two opposed errors:  (1) “to generalize structural trauma so that it absorbs or subordinates the significance of historical trauma,” and (2) “on the contrary, to explain all post-traumatic, extreme, uncanny phenomena and responses as exclusively caused by particular events or contexts    . . . what one might term reductive contextualism . . . for example, deriving anxiety in Heidegger’s thought [where it plays a major role in Being and Time and other early works] exclusively from conditions in interwar Germany.”

LaCapra, despite [prefacing] this whole discussion with the remark, “The belated temporality of trauma and the elusive nature of the shattering experience related to it render the distinction between structural and historical trauma problematic,” immediately adds, “but do not make it  irrelevant.”  Yet, his way of going on to make [the distinction] does not, I’d say, justify itself.  It seems to me that his way of drawing the distinction is not acceptable, given the very remark with which he has begun (about its problematicity):  It does not reflect how–and where–the distinction must be problematized.

Eisenstein is much closer to  the mark, when he  insists that “historical” trauma presupposes “structural” trauma:  In effect, what makes an “event” traumatic is  that it focuses, both revealing and concealing at once, the structural fault or trauma at issue.

The way I’d put it is by using Freud’s notion of “screen memory.”  I’d say the “historical” event is traumatic precisely and only insofar as it functions as a “screen” for the underlying structural trauma.  And I’d insist on a double sense of “screening”:  first, the sense, to the fore for Freud, of masking, dissembling, covering-over; but also, second, the sense of being a projection surface, as in the movie screen for filmed images.

To paraphrase Spinoza:  Nothing is ever traumatic, save screening make it so.  Precisely because of  its “belated, elusive” quality, “structural” trauma must and can take place (literally) only by screening (i.e., maskingly projecting) itself as a specific image–screening itself, in short, as “historical” trauma.

In turn, “historical” trauma is  not a kind of trauma distinct from “structural” trauma.  Rather, it is the taking place of structural trauma itself.

So it would be better to speak, perhaps, of the historical and structural “faces” of trauma–or, perhaps, to drop the whole distinction.

After all, what really “took place” in the Holocaust?  In and as “9/11”?  In the outbreak of World War I?  What these “events” are cannot be separated from their event-ful character–how they carry their own time with them, as, precisely, the “belated,” “elusive,” traumatic character of temporalization itself.

LaCapra follows up his discussion by an example referring (p. 83) to [some other contemporary] historians’ writing, [wherein he finds the idea that] “once there was a single narrative that most Americans accepted as part of their heritage,” but has now come apart into diverse stories.  LaCapra says this is “close to reductive contextualism . . . in which the proverbial past-we-have-lost becomes the  metanarrative we have lost.”  He wonders when that metanarrative was ever in place, and suggests, instead, “one might argue that there never was a single narrative and that most Americans never accepted only one story about the past.”

But, in effect, the [other] historians at issue can be taken to be themselves sharing, with one another and unspecified “others,” what amounts to a screen memory.  In that case, one is not dealing in the first place with any simple “empirical” claim and its denial (as LaCapra denies it), but with a “truth” the truth of which is itself traumatic, in effect.

Next page (84), he writes:  “. . . structural trauma . . . may not be cured but only lived with in various ways.  Nor may it be reduced to a dated historical event or derived from one.”  But, to speak paradoxically, neither can a “historical” trauma be”cured,” or “reduced to a dated historical event.”  Or, to bring the paradox to its sharpest form:  A dated historical event is no longer an historical event at all!  History is not a series of datable events at all; history is traumatic; it is event-ful.

Finally, on yet the next page (85), the last page of the chapter (“Trauma, Absence, Loss”) to which this discussion belongs, LaCapra writes, “But historical traumas and losses may conceivably be avoided and their legacies to some viable extent worked through . . .”  However, as I’ve noted in this journal earlier this year [see my journal entry for December 26, 2007,  posted on December 12, 2008, as the first posting for this site, “Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy”], the connection of history to trauma (which is what I’m suggesting is  how the whole supposed distinction between two types or levels of trauma, “structural” and “historical,” needs to be recast) is  such that it is especially the attempt to avoid “historical” trauma–that is now to  say, to avoid history in its trauma:  the trauma which ishistory–that condemns us to the ever more insistent escalation of the very trauma we are so trying to avoid.  Another paradox:  The avoidance of trauma generates the worst trauma.

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