Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #1

2/2/09

The entry posted below, first written a bit more than nine months ago in my philosophical  journal, is the first of a series of seven consecutive entries that address issues raised in various articles in the essay collection Memory, Trauma, and World Politics, edited by Duncan Bell (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).  The next six posts will continue with the same series.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Memory, Trauma, and World Politics:  Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present, edited by Duncan Bell (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Bell, “Introduction:  Memory, Trauma, and World Politics” (pp.1-29).

P.2, quoting from p. 14 of Avishar Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2003):  “Memory . . . is knowledge from the past.  It is not necessarily knowledge about the past.”

Interestingly, even if the separation between “the past” as somehow there in itself, apart from how it is “remembered”–even if the whole distinction between the past “as it really was” and the past “as it is remembered” needs to be radically revised, as I think it does–even then Margalit’s remark says something worthwhile:  The past, even as/insofar as it “is” at all only “in” memory, as the kept (ge-borgen) in/of memory, is authentically there not as some object that could be known, but as the keep of memory.

Also p. 2:  [Duncan] distinguishes between “memory, whereby the past is made present,” and “history, that which simply happened before.”

But what if there is no such thing as what “simply happened before,” insofar as the very structure of “happening” is always already “traumatic”–and therefore characterized by the Nachträglichkeit of the traumatic?

P. 4, he uses the expression “traumatic memory.”  Well, that is usefully ambiguous.  On the one hand, it could mean the memory of trauma, in the sense that trauma is what gets remembered.  But on the other hand, it could be a memory–or even memory as such as a whole–that, in being remembered, traumatizes:  that memory, or even “remembering” at all (of anything) may be itself traumatic in the sense of traumatizing, wounding.

And would not any appropriate/authentic memory/remembering “of” a traumatizing event have to be traumatizing itself, or “on its own”?  Otherwise, the remembering is the enactment/effecting of the forgetting/repression/denial of the trauma as such.

Except:  insofar as such “forgetting” is itself brought forth only in and as the traumatizing [that] the trauma itself enacts, then the “two” forms of memory are in fact ‘the same,” insofar as they belong together in/as the full process of remembering.

P.7, [Duncan] quoting Jeffrey Alexander,”Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma, in Alexander, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity(Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2004), p. 1:  “For Alexander . . . trauma is entirely a social construct:  ‘Events are not in themselves inherently traumatic.’  ‘Traumas occur,’ he argues, ‘when individuals and groups feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their consciousness, will mark their memories forever, and will change their future in fundamental and irrevocable ways.'”  I’d say what Alexander has in mind is true and important, though his way of putting it is not good:  it’s not that trauma occurs when people feel that an event will mark them, etc., but that only what takes place in feelings/affectivity in such a way/with such an input, on the basis of its symbolically effective “screen” power, will be a trauma.

The same problem and confusion resurface in what Bell goes on to quote [further] from Alexander [pp. 7-8 in Bell]:  “In this [Alexander’s] account trauma is ‘attributed to real or imagined phenomena, not because of their actual harmfulness [my emphasis] or their objective abruptness, but because these phenomena are believed [Bell’s emphasis] to have abruptly, and harmfully, affected collective identity.”  As my underlining coupled with Bell’s shows, his way of putting things depends on distinguishing “actual” harm to “collective identity” from what is “believed” to do harm to it.  But since “collective identity” is hardly some present-at-hand separate entity, but is itself thoroughly “constructed” (and maintained) by “beliefs,” that distinction between “actual” and merely “believed” breaks down.  In effect, within a belief structure, what is “believed” to be so, is so.  I may mistakenly believe that I have suffered a bodily injury (maybe I see blood and think that it comes from a cut I have somehow suffered, when it is really from a cut someone else suffered), but how could I be “mistaken” about my own sense of identity being shaken?  If I feel shaken in my sense of who I am, then I am shaken.  The two say the same thing in such a case.

Furthermore, the Nachträglichkeit of feeling itself, when it comes to a trauma, means that the traumatic events are not felt to affect my sense of who I am until “later.”  So, paradoxically, it is characteristic of traumatic events not to be “felt” to  harm my sense of self, when those events “first occur.”

The complexity of the phenomena is dense here.

Published in: on February 2, 2009 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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