The project focuses on various kinds of trauma fiction in contemporary culture. The question of how to make sense of and represent traumatic events and reactions emerges frequently in today’s literature, film, visual arts and television. A main goal for the project is to analyze selected media and artistic manifestations from contemporary Western culture and discuss them in relation to recent contributions to trauma studies and aesthetic theory.
Trauma studies have over the past two decades expanded into a large interdisciplinary research area, not least including hermeneutic approaches. One important part of this expansion is Holocaust studies, which have followed in the wake of an increased concern with World War II in art and media after the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These research efforts include a variety of contributions about witnessing and testimony, narratives and photography as well as exhibition and museum aesthetics.
Supported by psychology and psychoanalytic theory, another branch of trauma studies is occupied with reactions to loss and separation, mourning processes and grief. Medical research on post-traumatic stress disorder offers descriptions and explanations of human behavior after experiences of shock, panic and fear, as well as processes of memory and forgetfulness after long-term physical or psychological violence and abuse. Intrusive images, nightmares, sleeping disturbances, numbness and bodily alertness are recurring symptoms in individuals unable to successfully deal with past disasters.
Trauma studies often imply an ethical or political aspect, since manmade violence, be it military conflicts, war, terrorism, torture, rape as warfare strategy, are actions conducted within institutional, national and ideological frameworks. Media productions and artistic expressions frequently negotiate the ethical implications of trauma-producing policies. The critical importance and significance of aesthetic objects in contemporary culture are undisputed, but the way they work within the complex frameworks of today’s global culture and digitalized communication practices must be explored and analyzed.
Trauma theory was in the 1990s dominated by a post-structuralist approach that involved a re-appropriation of early psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet (Krystal 1995; van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995). Their observations of traumatized patients’ re-enactments and dissociations, and their hypotheses about different kinds of memory processes in the human mind, provided important background information for new reflections on the connection between experience, recollection and representation. Crucial to this post-structuralist branch of trauma theory is the question of reference or representativeness.
One of its most contested arguments is that trauma is ontologically at odds with representation. Trauma, within this framework, would be by definition an event that one could not cognitively grasp and apprehend, thus rendering it inaccessible to understanding and representation. Cathy Caruth, drawing on Freud’s notion of Nachträglichkeit, defines it as “the unwitting re-enactment of an event that one cannot simply leave behind” (Caruth 1996:2). Her deconstructivist way of reasoning describes trauma as “referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence” (Caruth 1995:8).
In a similar manner, the question of representativity is at the very core of Holocaust studies. Primary witnesses and death camp survivors like Dori Laub and Elie Wiesel claim that this “founding trauma” of the twentieth century (LaCapra 2001:161) is essentially impossible to describe, be it verbally or visually. It is simply assumed to be "significant and unsignifiable, overwhelmingly meaningful but also impossible to depict or understand" (Gross and Rohr 2010:10). In this intellectual climate the concept of memory offers a way to supposedly "avoid the distance, the false objectivity, and the epistemological pitfalls of ideology-laden, historical narration" (Gross and Rohr 2010:15).
The current tendencies in trauma theory still revolve around this problem of coming to terms with the challenges of representing overwhelming and destructive experiences. But the critique of the notion of representation and the assumption that the Holocaust and other traumatic events are beyond comprehension has been met by a less nihilistic philosophy. Concepts such as affectivity, mediality and performance have emerged to make sense of a new set of practices that wish to approach the phenomenon through new conceptualizations and methods. These terms provide alternative models for thinking about symbolic exchanges beyond the limits of the representational paradigm (Agosthino, Antz, and Ferreira (eds.) 2012).
Another response to the critique of representation is a gradual return to history at the expense of memory. This development does not call for literary or artistic reticence or assert the illegitimacy of imaginative art or fiction about the Holocaust. On the contrary, as stated by Ruth Franklin, we have an obligation "not only to remember the Holocaust, but also by now, at our vantage point and moment in time to situate it properly in historical perspective" (Franklin 2011:233). The emphasis on history entails, firstly, the acknowledgement that the Holocaust, despite its cataclysmic dimensions, is an historical event; that it belongs to past life and not some other mysterious realm beyond human reach. Secondly, it recognizes that fiction is a proper means to historicizing the event because of what fiction uniquely offers: “an imaginative access to past events, together with new and different ways of understanding them that are unavailable to strictly factual forms of writing” (Franklin 2011:13).
Our ambition is to work within and critically discuss the theoretical frameworks that dominate the present debates on trauma and aesthetics. One obviously highly relevant way of thinking about trauma fiction in contemporary culture is to develop the concept of affect. Trauma involves strong emotions, both from victims and from witnesses, and is a feeling that art works intend to investigate and express. But where emotions usually refer to the subject (emotions are something you have), affects are contextualized and situated (they are something you are in). A concept of affect will therefore stimulate an understanding of situations and contexts as important coordinates for potentially traumatizing events. Frederik Tygstrup underscores the triple approach to affects “as relational, as situational and as corporeal” (Tygstrup 2012:201) thus arguing for an analysis of traumatic experiences as an interface between internal and external processes and interaction.