Trauma is a highly discomfiting affect resulting from overpowering events that escape direct representation and memory. Victims of trauma act out their symptoms compulsively and repetitively without fully comprehending the initial event which traumatized them. As Cathy Caruth puts it, “[t]he event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it” (4). In addition to the tendency of the traumatized to continually relive wounding experiences, emotional symptoms of traumatized people may range from irritable discomfort to impassive detachment. Overcome by feelings of helplessness, victims are constantly alert to sensations which may retrigger the affect accompanying the original traumatic event.

The question of where traumatic experience originates, however, remains inconclusive. As Kai Erikson points out, conventional medical definitions ascribe trauma to the “stressor” (cause) rather than the effect it produces, to “the blow” instead of “the injury” (184). A war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to this usage, is  considered traumatized only by the external stimulus that inaugurated the ‘disorder’. This definition downplays the affective response to a stressor while privileging the stressor itself. It discounts, in other words, the “structural experience” of trauma (Caruth 4). By “structural experience,” Caruth might have in mind what Thomas Pfau calls a “moment of interpretive crisis, which, however local, incidental, or even apocryphal, may be considered as a symptom of deep-seated historical antagonisms” (192).

Early formulations of trauma, especially before the turn of the twenty-first century, borrowed  from psychoanalytic discourse, especially from Lacanian understandings of the subject as lack. For Lacan, humans become subjects by submitting to the symbolic law of the father. Castrated symbolically, the child’s sense of its wholeness proceeds from an imaginary and narcissistic fantasy it encounters once seeing its image in the mirror. The subject hence attempts to compensate for its lack of wholeness, its unsatisfied desire to merge sexually with its parent, by pursuing an endless chain of symbolic signifiers that constitute its unconscious. The ‘Real’, the kernel of experience that escapes symbolic representation, remains inaccessible even as it determines the subject’s entrance into the social. This inaccessible, real kernel is repeatedly described as both traumatic and social, and according to Zizek, the very existence of ideology itself is “to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel” (45).

More recently, definitions of trauma have shifted focus away from the original event and onto the mind or body on which events impress themselves, thereby enfranchising the affective responses of formerly silenced traumatized victims. In this way, Roger Luckhurst discusses the relationship between individualized traumatic experience and the wider problems posed by modernity, global warming, and post-colonialism (14-15). He calls for an affective criticism that engages with victims whose symptoms bespeak trauma but who have not suffered a single, identifiable, traumatic event. Similarly, Michael Rothberg argues against the psychoanalytic model of trauma for failing to consider large-scale sociological factors, for “its attention to events and not systems; its assumption of privileged, secure subject positions; its investment in fragmented modernist aesthetics” (xii-xiii). In a similar attempt to speak for silenced victims, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Grace M. Cho, and Hosu Kim have recently attempted to redress a privileging of Euro-American traumatic experiences by discovering unacknowledged narratives conveying such experiences. Kabir’s analysis of the 1947 partitioning of India attends to the affect-clusters infusing this traumatic event while Cho and Kim address the problem of linguistically-alienated Korean-American citizens compulsively reliving the traumatic experiences of their mothers during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War. As these systemic analyses indicate, trauma proceeds both from discrete events and from persisting conditions (Erikson 84). Yet to be considered traumatic, whether issuing from either prolonged subjugation or temporary shock, the experience must constitute an enduring affective state that extends well beyond the traumatic situations themselves. Hence, it may be instructive to turn to  Pfau’s chapter on Wordworth’s ballad “Michael” in Romantic Moods. Linking the genre of the ballad with a traumatic “moment of interpretive crisis,” Pfau analyzes Michael’s progressive disillusionment with the formal properties of the ballad, a genre more suited to a local and pre-industrial agrarian society. Because the ballad is unable to assimilate the inscrutable complexities of industrial capitalism and urban commerce, Michael painfully realizes his chosen genre has become anachronistic, yet he remains caught in the cycle of systems “that effectively repeat the original meconnaissance” (192-199).

Models of trauma may be characterized in two ways: as either more psychoanalytic or more sociological. Affect theory is more interested in the social. If affect studies aims to subvert liberal fantasies of individual sovereignty and self-containment by addressing cultural—instead of individual—symptoms, then scholars have increasingly come to recognize the ways in which trauma can exceed the boundaries of the self, circulating between bodies in a community. Just as affect studies posits a body operating independently of will, so too has recent trauma theory begun analyzing how the mind fails to recognize the enduring traumas of structural violence and social exploitation.

Benjamin Philippi

Works Cited:

Caruth, Cathy. “Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995. 3-12.

Cho, Grace M. “Voices from the Teum: Synesthetic Trauma and the Ghosts of the Korean Diaspora.” The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. Eds. Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone. New York: Routledge, 2014. 151-169.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Eds. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 183-199.

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. “Affect, body, place: trauma theory in the world.” The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. Eds. Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Kim, Hosu. “The Parched Tongue.” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Eds. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 34-46.

Pfau, Thomas. Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790-1840. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005.

Rothberg, Michael. “Preface: beyond Tancred and Clorinda—trauma studies for implicated subjects.” The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. Eds. Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone. New York: Routledge, 2014. xi-xviii.