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Trauma and Justice

Trauma and Justice

The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa

Jose Brunner


Burnner, J. (2007). Trauma and Justice: The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa. In Trauma and Memory: Reading, Healing, and Making Law (pp. 97-118). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sometimes the tissues of community can be damaged in much the same way as the tissues of mind and body, as I shall suggest shortly, but even when that does not happen, traumatic wounds inflicted on individuals can combine to create a mood, an ethos—a group culture, almost—that is different from (and more than) the sum of the private wounds that make it up. Trauma, that is, has a social dimension.

—Kai Erikson, “Notes on Trauma and Community”


Jose Brunner appears to be largely interested in work that sits at the intersection of history, trauma, and memory, with publications that largely involve either Freud or psychoanalysis. According to Brunner, his main areas of research and publication include the relationship between law, memory and identity, the history and politics of psychoanalysis, the politics of the mental health discourse on trauma, psychological theories of Nazism and genocide, modern and contemporary political thought, and the history of compensation for Holocaust survivors in Germany and Israel.


Brunner opens his essay by recounting a key moment in the history of the industrialized West:  the use of demographic data allowed governing bodies to conceptualize risk in terms of statistical probability, which then allowed for the development of insurance as a system to provide recompense for injury. Although the implications of this even are much more significant than Brunner indicates,[1] he introduces the idea in order to begin a discussion of how trauma sits at the intersection of law, government, and health.

This context is a key one for Brunner as he intends to focus on the association between trauma and justice as a means to begin a discussion that uncovers embedded moral codes surrounding trauma and its treatment. Using Axel Honneth’s concept of “moral grammar,” which speaks to the way in which individuals’ responses to transgressions of moral order in everyday life form the basis for social justice movements, Brunner introduces three separate dimensions on which trauma discourse can be placed (suspicion-compassion, silence-solidarity, and victimhood-healing) as it moves from a modern to postmodern context. Brunner’s overall argument is that each case presented exemplifies that time period’s concerns over the politics of life.

Suspicion-Compassion (late 19th and early 20th century)

In the wake of an 1889 decision by the Imperial Insurance Office that allowed German workers to seek compensation for trauma (as a form of injury) experienced while on the job, doctors in Wilhelmine became suspicious that 1) opportunists were taking advantage of the situation to press their claims and that 2) providing such a safety net would subtly encourage the transformation of acute symptoms into chronic ones. Exemplified by Hermann Oppenheim, the counter position argued that the process of redress was itself traumatic in that it stigmatized the petitioner and involved a prolonged revisiting of the original trauma. Although arguments ultimately resulted in the Simulationsstreit (debate on malingering), Brunner notes that this case speaks to a way in which the medical community challenged the law, citing it as detrimental to those it purported to help and thus invoking a moral claim that stemmed from the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

Solidarity-Silence (mid-20th century)

After a broad introduction[2] that essentially argues that cultural recognition of trauma must precede medical and legal legitimation and the irony that “as a rule, the traumatized could achieve acknowledgment of their powerlessness, vulnerability, victimhood, and suffering only when they managed to gain the power or status needed to overcome at least part of the marginalization and exclusion mechanisms that silence the traumatized” (105), Brunner goes on to suggest that the creation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[3] as a diagnosis destabilized the victim-victimizer dichotomy in trauma, opening up new frameworks through which to understand trauma.

Victimhood-Healing (late 20th century)

Brunner’s final dichotomy looks at efforts of therapeutic jurisprudence to assist in the healing process, specifically focusing on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Furthering the scope of trauma outlined in the previous section, Brunner notes that the TRC identifies five categories of trauma sufferer: victim, perpetrator, families of victims, the community, and Commission personnel. In exploring the ramifications of this classification scheme, Brunner essentially invokes Maria Root’s concept of insidious trauma, which looks at the ways that the effects of an initial trauma can radiate out. Root’s interest is in examining how the knowledge that one is subject to trauma forms a type of oppression that is damaging to an individual. Brunner ultimately argues that the net effect of this focus on the community was to move trauma and healing outside of the confines of a victim/therapist model such that individuals could help treat each other and themselves.

[1] This is in fact one of the key developments for a discussion of biopolitics and the “new conception of the relationship between the state and its citizens” (98) that Brunner invokes is important not only for understanding the changing legal responsibility that the state had toward its citizens but also for how the state thought of its citizens and therefore what the citizen meant to the state.

[2] Brunner then makes a rather large leap in suggesting that individuals increasingly grew distrustful of the law’s ability to protect their interests. Although this sentiment may certainly be true, Brunner does not seem to provide sufficient evidence to support this claim.

[3] Despite a discussion about the possibilities that an individual can experience multiple forms of trauma and that scholars are increasingly interested in studying the effects of trauma in non-Western contexts, Brunner frustratingly fails to interrogate the limits of PTSD’s aforementioned comprehensiveness. As a diagnosis that was largely conceived of and interpreted by white males, “generally outside of the usual experience” was a guideline that was necessarily limited by the white male perspective. Most egregious is Brunner’s failure to comment on the way in which the very diagnosis of the PTSD also serves to reinscribe silence into trauma even as it destabilizes it.