Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

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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.

Once More, With Feeling

For me, notions of trauma and Freud are inextricably bound with horror; or, perhaps more accurately, I choose to interpret these events in such a way. Of particular interest to me in the readings for this week was Caruth’s note that stories of trauma, at their core, touch upon a dual set of crises:  the crisis of death and the crisis of life (7). What meaning does life continue to hold after one has become intimately familiar with the inevitability of one’s own death? I continue to think about how individuals who have experienced trauma are forced into a sort of liminal space between worlds wherein life (as we know it) is made strange in the face of death; although achingly familiar, life is forever made uncanny.

Although Freud speaks to the interwoven themes of life and death in his treatment of Thanatos/Eros, I (again because of my horror background) tend to think about these issues as they are inscribed on, and enacted through, the body. Horror, of course, has a long history of obscuring the boundaries between sex, violence, life, and death (let’s not even get started on the modern history of the vampire love triangle), with a number of academic works uncovering the implications of this in psychoanalytic terms. Reading Caruth’s mention of trauma as accident, however, caused me to contemplate one of the works that I find myself continually revisiting over the years:  David Cronenberg’s Crash. (Note:  If you are not familiar with the movie, you may want to check out the Wikipedia page before watching the trailer—my undergraduate training was as a Pre-Med Biology major and I study horror in my current work so I fully recognize that my threshold may be far off the norm.)

The film (and the book that it is based upon) speaks to a point made by Caruth in the final section of the introduction:

“It is possible, of course, to understand that other voice, the voice of Clorinda, within the parable of the example, to represent the other within the self that retains the memory of the “unwitting” traumatic events of one’s past. But we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound. (8)”

I fully admit that Caruth means something slightly different in her passage but I think that there is something worth considering here with regard to trauma:  what does it mean that we can be divorced from ourselves and our world by trauma yet connected to others through trauma? Is this form of connection possible only because we seek to redress a deficit of some sort?

But there is also something fascinating to me about this intense desire to relive the trauma (in this case a literal accident) over and over in a way that does not necessarily speak to any sort of desire to “get over it” as one might expect from treatment of PTSD or in aversion therapy. There is something powerful, I think, in attempting to understand the mentality of those who do not relive trauma in order to escape it but instead have come to feel that the moment just prior to their death is precisely the moment in which they feel most alive. To be traumatized, then, is not to be subject to an ongoing process of everyday nightmares but to suffer the indignity of life’s ceaseless banality. Continuing this thought, we have seen over the course of the semester that the despondence and disconnection that potentially results from close contact with death can take on many forms and that the issue continues to pervade our current culture, if Buffy Summers (taking a cue from Doc Hata) is any example:

The notion of the voice and speech is interesting to me here because, like in all good musicals, Buffy sings only what she cannot say. In the end, perhaps this insistent desire to relive trauma is not about any sort of masochistic drive—assuming that most of us do not like to suffer per se—but rather an attempt to glimpse the knowledge that lies beyond the shock and the numbness:  to do it once more, with feeling.

Somewhere Only We Know

The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations:  as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”:  “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.

Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:

“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”

In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility:  things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.

Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma:  according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?