Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #4


The following is the sixth in the series of seven entries, made earlier in my philosophical journal, that pertain to Duncan Bell’s edition of essays by various contributors in Memory, Trauma, and World Politics (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).  The entry posted below concerns two different articles in Bell’s collection, both by European professors of international relations.  I address the first, by Jens Bartleson, only briefly, then the second, by K. M. Fierke, at greater length.  


Sunday, May 5, 2008

Jens Bartleson (Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen), “We Could Remember for You Wholesale:  Myths, Monuments and the Constitution of National Memories” (in Bell,pp. 33-53), from the last paragraph of the article (p. 53): 

“[What happened to us with the rise and fall of the nation state has left us] as traumatized by the experience of nationhood as we are by the expectations of its demise.  As long as we rely on collective memories as a source of personal identity, we will inevitably face a certain loss of self whenever those collective memories are strategically rearranged to cater to  new political concerns.  The prospective loss of national identity looks scary indeed, yet our sense of personal identity will inevitably remain fragile so long as we seek to derive it from belonging to a community thus constituted.  There is neither a past nor a future that can provide the anchor points for individual or collective identity anymore, since what has been fractured in the present is any connection between memory and identity.  To some, this will pave the  way for a brave new world of individualized memories. . . If this is  the  case, we would then cease to be what we remember and start to remember who we are.”

And then, indeed, we may start to remember the political,  as opposed to politics, and enter into that “coming community”–that community of the always not yet future–wherein the only thing we have in common is the fact that we all die:  the genuinely open community of we who are alone together in the face of death.


K. M. Fierke (she is Professor of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews in Great Britain), “Bewitched by the Past:  Social Memory, Trauma and International Relations” (pp. 116-134 in Bell), first page (116)of her essay, mentions (as do others in Bell) “Maurice Halbwacks, who, through a concept of collective memory explores how present concerns determine what past we remember and how we remember it.  In this theory [which is actually that of Peter Novick, she says, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory–London: Bloomsbury, 1999], collective memory is ahistorical in so far as it simplifies and is impatient with any kind of ambiguity, reducing events to  mythic archetypes.  Memory in this conception denies the ‘pastness’ of its objects and insists on their continuing presence.  [My emphasis.]  A memory once established defines an eternal truth and identity for members of a group.”

I  would read the italicized line at least partly against the grain of her own apparent reading [by interpreting it as follows]:  The manipulation of the traumatic past (A pleonasm?) to form “collective memory” reduces the past, which, as [William] Faulkner says, “isn’t over, it isn’t even past,” to a past present–reduces time to an “image of eternity” [Plato’s line]–and, therewith, reduces the present to that vanishing point between what “was” but “is no longer” and what “will be” but “is not yet.”

A page later (124), she comes back to this (mistaken, I’m saying) idea, after citing a case I’ll come back to in a moment.  She treats the repetition [involved in] that case as follows:  “The victim in the one world [in the case at issue, a father who survived the Holocaust, “in” the world of which he was victim] later does to himself and to others what was done to  him [as this father ends up doing to his daughter], as a way of staying involved with a (now absent) perpetrator [which notion of victim identification with perpetrator I would also reject] or reproducing a (now absent) abusive terrain.”

Against [such a] reading:  The distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma [e.g., in LaCapra]–[or,] as I’d recast it:  between triggering/signifying/activating occurrence and the underlying traumatism it triggers/signifies/activates–lets us realize that neither “perpetrator” nor “abuse” are “now absent” at all!  It is precisely the reduction of the “perpetration” of the “abuse” to a datable, and now dated, now “past,” event/occurrence that locks the “victim” into a sort of endless “eternal now.”  It is precisely because the underlying abusiveness of the situation remains ignored and silenced that it–that very abusive situation [itself]–can only perpetuate itself endlessly.

The case she cites is this (p. 123), from psychiatrist James Glass (Private Terror/Public Life:  Psychosis and the Politics of Community–Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1989):  A case in which “a Holocaust survivor passed on a set of meanings and relational patterns, acquired in the concentration camp [Acquired there?  Or already aquired long before, by birth into the sort of riven, non-communal community that was/is what passed/passes for community in that/this day?], to his  daughter Ruth.  As Ruth was growing up, she was never allowed to express suffering or pain.  If she did, she was told that her suffering could never compare to that in the camps and was thus of little consequence.  The father also replicated the communicative patterns of his Nazi tormentors [Indeed he did!  But not via “identifying” with them!  Rather, because such replication/reproduction of abuse is/was the very structure of the situation in which he continued/continues to find himself] in relating to his daughter, ordering her to ‘perform this, do that, be obedient, stay invisible, don’t get in the way’.  As a result, she never experienced home as place of  safety or security.  She dealt with this acquired worthlessness [one into which, I’d insist, she was born!] by dissociating the ideal public self she presented to the world from the miserable human being she felt herself to be.  The two selves are not distinguished by conscous and unconscious.  [Granted!]  Instead, they are two conflicting self-representations [Yet one of the two “selves”is not represented at all!  That’s the difference!] in which the public self is dissociated from the private self. By the time she was hospitalized for psychosis, she had entered into the world of 1943, without ever having been there physically.  [But that’s just where she’s been “physically,” given the abuse she’s received from her father!  The whole idea Fierke has here, of “the world” of a given date as itself “past” “in reality,” needs to be overturned!]  The beds of hospital became barracks, the staff were SS guards and Kapos.  Her therapist was Josef Mengele, waiting for  the right moment to do experiments on her brain.”  Indeed, that was just who these folks were, in the world Ruth inhabited!  It would be worthwhile to compare this case with that of Artie and his father in Maus.  The two cases have the same structure.

Then Fierke gives a longish citation from “Ruth’s narrative while in hospital” (Bell, pages 123-124), the last lines of which are:  “Is it 1983, 1943?  Does it make any difference?  Is anyone around here human?” 

Ruth may be psychotic, but she’s not stupid!  Does it make any difference?  Isn’t it still “1943”?  Just as 1984 is 1948 [when Orwell’s novel 1984 first appeared] is “now”?

After her remark about the “now absent” perpetrator and abuse, Fierke writes:  “that the daughter could enter into her father’s trauma [She is born into it!], as if [!!  Hardly a mere “as if”!  She is there!] she were reliving the pattern of interaction he had passed on to her [here, Fierke is quite right]. . . . The father did not narrate the story of his experience in the camps as past [and it is not past:  those who do so narrate it, as a past over and done with–just what Jean Améry refused to countenance!–are those who, in a certain sense, suffer from “false memory syndrome”–false and falsifying memory!]; rather he continued to live [unlike those of false and falsifying memory who continue to be dead!] within the linguistic [and far more than merely linguistic!] boundaries of that world.”

In traumatic repetition, says Fierke (P. 125):  “Far from being forgotten, the past is  continually relived in the present.  At the same time, as this past world becomes habitual, there is a forgetting of the uniqueness of the original event. [But there is no “original event” of trauma, insofar as trauma is always structural; and, thus, the very equation of trauma with “an original  event” that has “uniqueness”–i.e., is just an occurrence the occurring of which consigns what occurs to a date–is what forgets the trauma!]  This contrasts with the narrative memory where the self stands outside the past in the present and provides a representation of events gone by.”  I’d say against her, reduces events to what merely “passes by!  The end of the next paragraph, same page:  “Political trauma can be understood as the state in which fear and hypervigilance become habitual.”  No!  When fear and hypervigilance become habitual, political trauma–that is, the opening  of  a gap wherein the genuinely political can at last emerge, restructuring the entire situation–is not allowed.


Fierke, p. 127, on Ben Gurion around and in connection with the Eichmann trial, creating the connection of Israel to the Holocaust:  “The experience of the Holocaust was woven into Israeli identity, rather than distancing it in the  past.”

Given her discussion to this point, what she is doing  here–no doubt unknowingly enough–is conflating such Holocaust victims as Ruth’s father repeating the trauma [on one hand] with someone manipulating and exploiting the Holocaust to construct collective memory [on the other].  It would be the same as equating Bush with one of the survivor victims of 9/11.

She herself goes on to  note, in fact:  “Hitler himself called on the trauma of defeat in the first World War and the humiliation  of the Versailles treaty, in mobilizing an existential threat to German society, to the end of making Germany great once again.”  She prefaces that with a remark of how Milosevic used the same sort of manipulation of memories to justify Serbian aggression in the 1990s.  She goes on, after the remark about Hitler, as follows [pp. 127-128]:

“The United States Bush administration post-11 September 2001 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, made a discursive link between Iran and  the terrorist attacks, a link which lacked evidence in fact.  This was part of articulating an existential threat to America itself, despite, as was later revealed, the absence of any weapons of mass destruction capability on the part of Sadam Hussein.  While these very different contexts are by no  means equivalent [Why not, exactly?], they all relied on similar semantic and logical connections that were retained and repeated and became the container of past memory.  [So at least in that regard they are equivalent!]”

As she correctly goes on to note, “While distorted, the salience of the discursive move [in such cases] is dependent on a context of past experience. . . . [C]ollective anxiety is never purely a product of elite intervention or manipulation, although there is an element of this. The discursive moves are only effective if they respond to deep and genuine social concerns in a time of general malaise, that is, a population has to be receptive to  manipulation.”

Her qualifications are uncalled for here, and just weaken the point of the very observation she is making–which point is no more an no less than that there must first be a trauma before trauma can be manipulatively exploited in the construction of collective memory. 

P. 130 she uses the expression “a politics of trauma,” which is an apt name for the sort of manipulative exploitation of trauma she’s just been discussing.  A politics of trauma is the forgetting of the trauma of the political–a forgetting in the service of the perpetuation of abuse (oppression).


P. 131:  “In the political world, denial, rather than a function of unconscious repression [as it is in Freud], can be understood as a political act for the  purpose of creating a unity of interpretation . . . which require[s] the suppression of alternative memories.”

Indeed!  And such suppression is then not comparable at all to repression and denial in Freud’s sense.  They are two very different things.  The suppression directly intended by such a “political act” of the forced universalization of a single interpretation is, in fact, a manipulative exploitation of the very repression and denial that are an inseparable part of trauma. That’s why, for example, Bush is already calling for a moment of silence to memorialize the victims of 9/11 even before the towers have fallen and the planes have crashed in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

She continues:  “While this process involved an element of repression, it did not require psychological denial.  What is repressed is difference, debate or alternative narratives of the past.”  But this is not re-pression at all!  It is simply sup-pression, as she just said in what I’ve already cited above.

She ends this paragraph so:  “Individuals may be inclined, in a repressive situation [she means op-pressive and sup-pressive], to adopt an interpretation akin to that of the authorities, in order to  survive or avoid conflict, but this  is not the same as repression an in unconscious.”  It most certainly is not.  But the sort of situation she describes should also be carefully distinguished from cases in which those who are oppressed are not even granted the possibility of articulating their oppression clearly–in cases where they are denied any language in which to speak their oppression, as occurs when the “common,” shared language is hijacked as has so largely happened today, when public discourse can only be  formulated in terms that implant an unacknowledgeable prejudgment in favor of the  right wing (e.g., “color blind,” “reverse discrimination,” “illegal aliens,” “special rights,” etc.).

Insofar as the powers that be control even the means and media of communication, suppression and oppression reach the zone of such a maximum–the maximum of the closure of the trauma of the political, the gap granting place for the political, as opposed  to politics, to take place.

Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #3


Below are two more entries I first made in my philosophical journal on the dates indicated.  They are the fourth and fifth of a series of seven consecutive entries addressing some of the articles in the collection Memory, Trauma, and World Politics, edited by Duncan Bell (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006). 


Thursday, May 1, 2008

In Bell, pp. 74-95, by Jeffrey K. Olick and Charles Demetriou, “From Theodicy to Ressentiment:  Trauma and the  Ages of Compensation.”  [I seriously question] their reading of Nietzsche’s Genealogy.  [They seem to me to do an equally questionable] discussion of Scheler, and even worse of Arendt.  Only on [author and Holocaust survivor Jean] Améry are they good.  Overall, [I think] the article is a botched attempt at revalorizing the notion of ressentiment–which should, in fact, be left its stench.


Friday, May 2, 2008

In Bell (pp. 54-73), historian  Jay Winter, “Notes on the Memory Boom:  War, Remembrance and the Uses of the Past,” pp. 58-59, quoting Ernst Renan’s “series of lectures in Paris in 1882–entitled ‘What is a nation?'”: 

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.  Two things, which, in truth, are really one, constitute this soul,this spiritual principle.  One is in the past, the other in the present.  One is the possessing in common of a rich legacy of memories, the other is the present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to  continue to value the individual heritage one has received . . . To have the glory of the past in common, a shared will in the present; to have done great deeds together, and want to do more of them, are the essential conditions for the  constituion  of a people . . . One loves the house which one has built and  passes on.”

Winter comments:  “Such ideas and images were commonplace in late nineteenth century Europe.  What was much newer were powerful means to disseminate them.  Writers on memory reached a much wider audience thatn  ever before.  The expansion of the print trade, the art market, the leisure industry, and the mass circulation press allied to  developments first in photography and then in cinematography, created powerful conduits for the dissemination of texts, images and narratives of the past in every part of Europe and beyond.”

The passage from Renan points to this:  such “collective”or “community” memories are false memories–[but not] in the same sense at issue in [so called] “false memory syndrome”:  They are both manufactured  images, [but the first sort of “memory,” the sort Renan writes about, are] based on and utilize the manipulation of memory and of trauma itself for  some  purpose arrived at by the manipulator, [“collective” as that manipulator may be,] whether conscious or not.

In contrast, “screen memories,” properly so called, issue from the trauma itself, as part of the mechanism  of repression.  Thus, they “screen” in the double sense of hiding or covering over, and of providing a “surface” upon which trauma may project itself.

Sometimes, paradoxically, the very phenomenon of a sort of hyper-real image [of a traumatic occurrence] compulsively recurs and is a common sign of “dissociation,” thereby masking and indicating (at one and the same time) the underlying trauma, serving the very same “repression” of trauma that  is served by “screen memories.”  So such hyper-real images are functionally still “screen memories” [themselves].

The key distinction is between the job of repressing and [that of] manipulating a trauma and the like.

Supposedly “false memories,” in the sense [at issue in so called] “false memory syndrome,” are a form of “screen” memory in the double sense (hide, and give a surface upon which what is hidden projects itself0, as are, too, the hyper-real memories of, for instance, recurrent nightmares or “flashbacks.”

The sort of collective memory Renan describes, however, is not a “screen,” but is manufactured, a product of the manipulation of trauma for the ends of the manipulator.

Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #1


In the entry below from my philosophical journal, as in those for my next few postings, I continue my exploration of works by contemporary American historian and trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra.  Both today’s entry and the one I will post next contain a series of related but independent, separate numbered items pertaining to various  aspects of his thought.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

(1)  The use of the Holocaust as what LaCapra calls a “founding trauma”–e.g., as used too often by Israel–does not honor the debt all of us alive after the Holocaust owe to the dead.


(2)  LaCapra ([History and Memory] After Auschwitz, p. 166) quotes Art Spiegelman [comic-strip artist, winner of the Pulitzer Prise for his two-volume Holocaust comic-strip classic  Maus] in an interview on the Poles who witnessed the Holocaust:  “The Poles were the victimized witnesses.”

That notion, of “victimized witness,” is useful.  It covers all witnesses to abuse, from those who try to do something to stop the abuse, to those who are gleeful in watching it.  Just to witness abuse is, as such, itself traumatizing.  That, I  think, is the deep  truth in what Spiegelman says–in the concept he formulates in his remark.


(3)  La Capra comes (After Auschwitz, pp. 182-183) close to saying what I would about “false memory syndrome”:  “Here ‘recovered memory syndrome’ is not a pathology. . . . It is rather a subcase or even a metonymic exemplar of a larger problem concerning the difficulties of memory with respect to traumatic events…”

He does not go quite as far as I would, which would be to argue that all memory is traumatic, and to combine that with the double sense I’ve used [before, in earlier posted entries from my philosophical journal] of “screen” memories, whereby they (1) mask/cover at the time time–indeed, as such “masks/covers” of what cannot be masked as such–that they (2) become the “surface” (screen) upon which the trauma projects itself (in and as the image).

Memory is always symbolic!


(4) LaCapra comes very close (p. 187 [of same book]) to what, following Eisenstein, I would also say about what such disasters as the Holocaust come from:  “Particularly when one avoids recognizing the sources of anxiety in oneself (including elusive sources that are not purely empirical or historical in nature), one may be prone to project all anxiety-producing forces onto a discreet other who becomes a scapegoat or even an object of quasi-sacrificial behavior in specific historical circumstances.”  He gives the figure of the Jew in German culture as an example.


(5)  LaCapra (p. 195 [same book]):  “. . . historical events of the seismic nature and magnitude of the Holocaust may, in transgressing a theoretical limit, pose a challenge to the distinction [between structural and historical trauma, with the former defined earlier in this paragraph as “the condition of possibility that generates a potential for  trauma”]:  the structural (or existential-transcendental) seems to crash down into the empirical.  Thus [it can come to serve in effect] as an index of God’s intention in history,” or the like.

Might this not be because catastrophes such as the Holocaust arise from  an idolatrous identification of the traumatic, which is as such a structural, transcendental, existential  birth of the historical, empirical, [and] individual, with one instance of that which it so makes possible, with, that is, an isolable, historical “this” such as “the Jew”?

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.