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Cultural Trauma

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 11, 2004
Latest Update: June 11, 2004

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Index of Topics on Site Different Approaches to Understanding Cultural Trauma
Abu Ghraib has touched the American public to a far greater extent than other such killings and trauma have done. The Holocaust had this effect in the 40s, the Vietnam War in the 70s, and now images of ourselves as just as capable as others of committing unspeakable horrors. The Rwanda Genocide we were more able to ignore, to pretend that somehow it wasn't happening, or was none of our concern. Of course, answerability and globalization and democratization would say that there could be no such denial in legitimacy. Nor could we legitimately deny the Disappearances in Chile, in Guatemala, in so many other countries where we could have acted in the name of justice and did not.

Today a journal announcement spoke of Wulf Kansteiner's article, "Genealogy of a category mistake: a critical intellectual history of the cultural trauma metaphor," in Rethinking History, Volume 8, Number 2 / June, 2004, pp.193 - 221. Kansteiner says in his abstract: "The writings on cultural trauma display a disconcerting lack of historical and moral precision, which aestheticizes violence and conflates the experiences of victims, perpetrators and spectators of traumatic events." And that made me ponder on the collection of cultural traumas we are now experiencing.

I haven't read the article, don't have access to it. But it did trigger some responsive thinking. Kansteiner speaks of analysis "based primarily on philosophical reflections about Auschwitz and the limits of representation," OR "the experiences of actual trauma victims, including victims of the Holocaust." I grant the the Frankfurt school took the first approach and tried, and perhaps continues to try to understand philosophically what leads to such catastrophes. But I fail to see why such an approach must be juxtaposed to listening in good faith to the victims of catastrophe. Why can't we substitute AND for OR? Do we not need to recognize cultural trauma as affecting victims, perpetrators, and spectators on both a philosophical and systemic level, as well as individually in the way the catastrophe, whatever their experience in it, constitutes forever more a part of their life, of their apperceptive mass?

Abu Ghraib is a cultural trauma we have all experienced, up front and personal. If we have refused to ask ourselves how and in what ways we are complicit in this trauma, then the trauma itself has forced us into a denial that can only remain comfortable as long as no one manages an effect challenge to that denial. We are complicit in forming, shaping, maintaining the culture out of which this trauma grew. We are complicit in failing to reflect upon the ways in which our imaginary of sexuality and sex colored the trauma as it took place. We are complicit in failing to reflect upon ways in which we could reasonably and effectively challenge some of that imaginary, certainly in our use of that imaginary to hawk consumer products. We are complicit if we fail to openly face these issues and engage in governance discourse over why this happened and what we can do to assure that it never happens again.

Now where does that fit in with Kansteiner's brief statement from his abstract? Yes, our discussions probably lack historical and moral precision. That could be because we're still really unsure of what history is, depending on who we are and what our culture is, and we're pretty unsure on universal morals. We thought we knew that "torture" was wrong, and that we could all agree on that. We thought that because that's the only international law treaty we were all willing to sign. Torture and piracy are wrong. But we all know that Abu Ghraib was wrong. We all felt the horror in the pictures, whether the administration calls them abuse or torture or aberration or whatever. So we may not be able to prove it in a court of international law, to whose jurisdiction the US won't submit, anyway. But we still know it's wrong. So let's just talk about what's wrong in it, and how to guarantee that we let everyone know that it's wrong and that we won't tolerate it. That's what several professors once said about prostitution, and they were right. We know it's wrong. Let's just do something about it to make everything as right as we can, again. That's restorative justice. So what if you can't punish anyone, because the ones who should be punished are the ones with the power to have prevented it in the first place. You can still heal our culture, heal us and our individual experiences of the trauma as perpetrator or as victim or as spectator.

Macro and micro sociology or criminology or warfare don't conflict unless you try to split them off indefensibly (note that pejorative, value-laden word shouldn't be present in scholastic writing, so it tells you I have a lot of affect about this topic) and claim to have in fact a coherent explication that we never have, not with humans and their social systems. We need fuzzy logic here. We need to grant validity to what people know and feel as being genuine. And then we need to worry about the fact that some of them know and feel things that reflect rumor, bigotry, exploitation. That doesn't mean they don't know and feel them. It means that our community, local to global, has to do something about getting out new images that will help us overcome the rumor and bigotry and exploiatation.

In a democracy, we have a better chance at that. We can say that other arguments, other validity claims, are based on rumor, bigotry, exploitation, and we aren't arrested for that. (Homeland security does raise a problem here.) And when we say that collectively it has a major effect on our culture. If Others object when we give rumor as an argument, we will be less likely to do so, since negative rewards hurt. That doesn't mean we give up those negative beliefs (Thorndike's renounced second law that punishment eradicates unwanted behavior.), but it does mean that we are less likely to pronounce them where we will experience approbation. Getting punished for stealing from the cookie jar doesn't teach you not to steal cookies; it teaches you not to get caught at stealing cookies. Now, if that brings to mind plagiarism in school, you have the germ of an ineresting essay.)

This is an exciting topic. I would like to read Kansteiner's article and think more on these issues. But right now I have to update the site. Please notice that you can write a respectable essay by thinking arguments through, citing your sources, and not extending your conclusions to cover material you haven't gotten to yet.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is a cultural trauma?

    Consider that you know what cultural is and what trauma is, and that the essay gives you some examples. For me, a cultural trauma is one that we as a social group experience together, with our experience being that of perpetrators, victims, or spectators, with all of us sorely affected by the experience as representing some form of violent interruption to our lives.

  2. There is considerable discussion in the literature of whether each well-known trauma counts as genocide or not. How would this essay suggest that you answer that?

    Consider that we have some evidence that something bad happened to get the term "cultural trauma" flying. Then consider that some people (or Nature or God) were involved as perpetrators of the event, that some were victims, and that the rest of us are spectators. Globalization means that these things can't go on unnoticed for long, though the powers that be may keep denying them if it suits their agenda. Consider then that what matters is that people are harmed, other people can do something to alleviate that harm, and to prevent further such harm. We don't need a definition to restore peace and calm and security to other humans, we just need to know that we believe in not harming Others.

  3. What does this essay suggest about Kansteiner's criticism that the two approaches to studying cultural trauma lack historical and moral precision?

    Basically, it reflects jeanne's attitude of who cares? Reality therapy, folks. Both the overall philosophical and legal systems matter, and so do the individuals who are the ones everything else lands on. It matters less whether our theories lack precision than it does whether we can move towards "Never again."

  4. Would it help if Kansteiner's article could clarify the different ways in which we measure and analyze cultural traumas?

    Well, I reckon it would. There are those of us who sit and ponder, and they give us theory we might never have picked up in the field. And then there are those of us who simply move to action in the field. Maybe those do lack historical and moral precision, but somehow I don't think that means that we can afford to do away with either of them. How about we just collaborate and coordinate our efforts instead?

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