Trauma and Group Identity


What follows is three day’s worth of entries from my philosophical journal, first written on the dates indicated, occasioned by my reading of Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, by sociologists Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sytompka (University of California Press, 2004).

Readers interested in the topic of trauma and group identity might also want to compare what I say below to what I  say in entries posted earlier concerning the notion of what sociologist Sudhir Kakar calls “founding traumas.”  (See the index and tags for this blogsite.)

With regard to the whole endeavor to differentiate between “individual,” “social,” and “cultural” trauma, as Alexander and the other authors of Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity try to do, my own sense is that all trauma is mediated by all  three dimensions, individual, social, and cultural, at once.  As Alexander and his colleagues themselves insist, no event is traumatic solely by virtue of its objective properties or characteristics.  Only insofar as an event is “symbolically mediated,” as we might put it at least provisionally, can it have traumatic impact.  Such symbolic mediation, however, is itself always a matter of an inextricable overlapping of individual, social, and cultural factors.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The introduction, “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma,” is by Alexander, who starts off this  way (p. 1):  “Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”

He talks about “lay trauma theory”–and the academic versions of it he takes to be psychoanalytic and other accounts–committing “the naturalistic fallacy” of thinking that events, “in and of themselves, create collective trauma.”  He and his collegues base their approach on the rejection of this “fallacy” and the counter-assertion (p. 8), “Events are not inherently traumatic. Trauma is a socially mediated attribution.”  [Note from 3/30/09:  The point I  am making here in my journal is not that being traumatic is  some  sort of “natural” characteristic that certain events have and other lack.  As already mentioned above in my introductory remarks to today’s post, I agree with Alexander and his coauthors in rejecting that idea completely.  My point, rather, is that he is perhaps setting up a straw-man here, since I am inclined to think that no reasonable reading of what in he calls “lay trauma theory,” in either its common or its academic manifestation, can attribute such a “naturalistic” construction to that “theory.”]

In the same paragraph he does manage to say one thing good, though I reject his contextualization of it [for reasons indicated in my parenthetical remark below, after the quotation]:  “Sometimes, in fact, events that are deeply traumatizing may not actually have occurred at all; such imagined events, however, can be as traumatizing as events that have actually occurred.”  (Who’s being fallaciously “naturalistic” now?)

Though he doesn’t do so, one could unfold such an insight into an account of the truth of “false” memories!

P. 10:  “For traumas to emerge at the level  of the  collectivity, social crises must become cultural crises.  Events are one thing, representations of these events quite another.  Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain.  It is the  result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity.”  Although he does not seem to realize how naive and reductionistic is the very rigidity of the distinction that he is trying to draw between “event” and “representation,” what he says here can be salvaged.  But then he adds this, which his use of quotes around “decides” shows he himself already at least dimly perceives to be a very questionable formulation:  “Collective actors ‘decide’ to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to their sense of who they are, where they came from, and where they want to go.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

In Cultural Trauma, Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological and Cultural Trauma” (ch. 2 of the book), p. 34, cites Freud from a work originally of 1896 ([by the reference given,] “Further Remarks on the Neuro-psychoses of Defense,”  pp. 162-185 in 3rd vol. of Standard Edition [of Freud’s works], p. 148 (which pagination would actually fit within what the authors of Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity give in their bibliography as an earlier piece in that same third volume of Freud, namely, “Heredity and Aetiology of the Neuroses”) concerning how hysteria, though at that time Freud thought it was grounded in an original trauma of sexual incest abuse, can be triggered by “emotional disturbances, physical, exhaustion, acute illness, intoxications, traumatic accidents, intellectual overwork, etc..”  Freud says these are not the cause, but are just “agents provocateurs,” but that–and here’s what I find of interest, really–“practical interest attaches to them, for a consideration of these stock causes may offer lines of approach to which a therapy which does not aim at a radical cure and is content with repressing the illness to a former state of latency” [might fruitfully attend] (my italics).

Just so were “war neuroses” treated in WW I and WW II:  Get them back to the front to be cannon fodder ASAP.

Glossing this and similar passages, Smelser writes:  “. . . even in Freud’s preliminary formulations, the idea of trauma is not to be conceived so much as a discrete causal event as a part of  a process-in-system.  To put the conclusion in its briefest form, trauma entails some conception of system.”

Among the conditions for something to be a “cultural trauma,” Smelser says (p. 36):

It must be remembered, or made to be remembered.  Furthermore, the memory must be made culturally relevant, that is, represented as obligating, damaging, or rendering problematic something sacred  –usually a value or outlook felt to be essential for the integrity of the affected society.  Finally, the memory must be associated with a strong negative affect, usually disgust, shame, or guilt.

Leaving aside how he (and his coauthors) [may] themselves [be to some extent] caught in a sort of “lay trauma theory” (as Alexander labels it), in accordance with which the traumatic is always seen as negative–and leaving aside, in general, the question of the adequacy and accuracy of his criteria–his next remark, which attempts to give clarifying examples, shows at least one crucial  problem with how all these sociologists are proceeding in this volume:  the problem of who is to be taken as the “subject” or “victim” of the “cultural” trauma, in effect–and how one must work to keep the identification of that “subject” (the “culture” at issue) free from racial, sexual, class, or other bias.  Thus, he writes:

Looking at the sweep  of American history, the memory of  the  institution of  slavery appears to qualify most unequivocally as a cultural trauma [Only if the “culture” is white, given what he  goes on to use as a counter-example, as I’ll get to in a minute!], because it comes close to meeting those three conditions.  The seizure of Native Americans’ lands and the partial [!  No more and no less than the Nazi extermination of the Jews was “partial”!] extermination of their populations is another example, but at the present time its status as trauma is not as secured as it is for slavery.

Oh?  It is surely no less “secured” as a trauma for “Native Americans” than slavery is for African-Americans!  Again, it’s only if one assumes that “American” culture is white culture that his examples work–at least in the way he lays them out.

P. 36:  As opposed to a society (and there can be “social” trauma, as well as “cultural” trauma [according to this author]), “a culture can be defined as a grouping of elements–values, norms, outlooks, beliefs, ideologies, knowledge and empirical assertions (not always verified), linked to one another to some degree as a meaning-system.”

P. 40:  Concerning the sort of “vicarous traumatization” that can come from hearing the stories of others’ traumas (as is common among therapists and, by the way, exemplified by Rivers in Pat Barker’s [Regeneration] Trilogy), he writes:

This principle also explains why individuals who are passively watching or reading thrilling, gripping, or frightening movies or books can be temporarily “traumatized” by them even though they are completely fictional.  They attach the affects that would have been excited by actual events to fictional situations.  This implies further that trauma can be experienced by attaching appropriate affects to imagined situations.

This whole approach has concealed presuppositions I find very questionable (even if not questioned, they should be acknowledged).  At the root, for one thing, if all trauma is  ultimately the precipitation, in effect, of structural “faulting,” then the whole distinction between “real” and “fictitious” events becomes insignificant, and the very idea of “vicarous” trauma is undercut:  that traumatization, as the surfacing of structural fault–Lacan’s”bone in the throat”–is infectious, does not say the same as that it can be acquired or experienced “vicarously.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ch. 4 of Cultural Trauma, Bernhard Giesen, “the Trauma of Perpetrators:  the Holocaust as the Traumatic Reference of German National Identity,” P. 534:

In contrast to the [Willy] Brandt [then Chancellor of West Germany] gesture in 1970 [when he spontaneously knelt in silence at the memorial at the Warsaw ghetto], [later West German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl [at Bitburg with Reagan in 1985 at the German war cemetery] did not take on collective guilt, but tried to disperse it in the intractable space of history or to change it to demons, thereby reviving the postwar narrative of the seduced [German] nation.  But remembrance and repentance cannot be separated if the collective identity of perpetrators is  involved  [my italics].  Representing the nation in a ritual of repentance in a believable way is fostered by the innocence of the representative as a person.  Kohl failed to see the opportunity in what he presented as an excuse.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Typo in the last quote:
    “In contrast to the [Willy] Brant [then Chancellor of ”
    The name is Willy Brandt – the “d” is missing

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