Trauma’s transmogrifications

27Oct07

/1/ – The commons of trauma

The panoply of images after shocking events, whether wildly national/global, such as September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, or somewhat more localized, as in the case of school shootings and abuse scandals, invariably contains the image of the traumatized victim par excellance, the woman with her reddened face buried in her hands, tears streaming, supported by another.

Opposed to this full trauma, or the trauma of ‘too much,’ there is also the trauma of the ‘too little.’ This is a trauma that is a kind of destitute trauma, the lone person on the roof of the flooded house holding a white board with ‘help’ spray painted on in black. Or ‘Alive Inside!’ to borrow from Dawn of the Dead.

In both senses these traumas are public but seem to function differently. The trauma of fullness, or what could be called a sublime trauma, is effective because it focuses on the boundless of the traumatic event itself, and the victims are merely a kind of bodily extension of the event, the trauma personified, the results of the disaster solidified in flesh.

In the trauma of emptiness the uncertain endings of events are in focus. In the case of hurricane Katrina or other massive natural disasters, the life span of what has already happened is what is at stake: the gap between the damage and when things ‘return to normal.’ The full trauma is about diagnosing the pain in all its forms and effects while the empty or lonely trauma is about understanding the entire traumatic event as a bounded object.

It may be that, whether local or global, that the full trauma is human-caused (genocides, serial killings, et cetera) and that the empty trauma is caused by nature. The obvious explanation here is blame – one cannot blame a hurricane like one can a terroristic organization, lone gunman or what have you. Blame allows the trauma to live on in a way that environmental trauma cannot. (One can of course blame the human response or lack there of to natural disasters thereby transforming empty trauma into a full one.)

/2/ – Children’s private nationalities

A fistful of Queer theory texts including, but not limited to, Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of American Goes to Washington City, Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings and Lee Edelman’s No Future, all deal with the interplay of children, trauma and or nationality. All three texts involve a kind of quotidian trauma, a ‘commonizing’ of traumatic feelings and subsequently of politics.

Berlant argues that an ‘intimate public sphere’ has become the center of American politics, and that the fetus, in particular, has become the signifier around which much of contemporary political concern encircles. Berlant goes on to state that the figure of the fetus in particular has become the most used loci of public intimacy. Berlant further argues that the pregnant woman becomes reduced to an almost formless “vehicle for the production of national culture” (p. 87). This line of thinking seems best supported by the bumper sticker that claims that abortion is killing future American soldiers, or that America’s future as an anglo dominated country is threatened by abortion (here it seems archaic fears of miscegenation are being drug up from the tomb.)

One has to wonder how exactly such an intimate sphere came about when, as aptly analyzed in Jacques Ranciere’s text Disagreement, the first democratic publics in Greece rejected the plebians in the discussion of governmental issues – it was believed that they could not engage in enlightened discourse, that all they had to offer was animalistic cries of pain. It seems someone learned, along the long way of democracy’s history, that it is best to utilize such cries of pain, displays of affect, and the like, as an undeniably valuable form of political currency.

The fetus and the child are the ‘most silent’ and therefore necessitate the most political attention, according to our contemporary intimate public. Yet silence is not the determining factor since many injured groups are only ‘heard’ politically when someone dies, as Cvetkovich suggests in Archive (p. 278). Edelman goes even further suggesting that queer folk are diametrically opposed to the view that a viable future is possible only through a politics of ‘think of the children!’ or what he dubs ‘reproductive futurism.’

Let us take a somewhat sharp turn into the more common field for visual depictions of trauma.

/3/ – Horrific productions

Filmic representations of horror seem to oscillate between the two aforementioned poles of traumatic experience (that of full and empty) but, at the same time, horror inverts the form of their progression.

In the classic horror slasher film we have the tension building up to the murder, the murder itself, and then the eventual discovery of the body. For our purposes here we are focusing on the first and third terms. The first term appears to be the reversal of the empty trauma: the lone survivor. The slow approach of the killer is about the work of getting to the empty trauma – that small increments of killing are oddly designed to lead us to the empty surviver, to the last victim. (This process is oddly formalized in the film Unbreakable when Samuel L Jackson’s character admits that he has caused a series of attacks in order to find someone like him, to find another person that shares his gift.)

In relation to the full trauma, we have the acts of killing continued to the eventual discovery of the body/bodies and then the ultimate effect it has on the lone survivor. This trope of the final girl, dubbed by Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws, states that the woman surviving in a male dominated genre (horror) is only possible through phallic appropriation by the woman such as her taking of the villain’s weapon. On the website Cinema de Merde, the author suggests a compelling alternative: What if the final girl is just the excuse which allows the viewers to enjoy the sadism that has been happening for the past few hours?

Circling back to Berlant’s argument and the first photo above, it seems that women are codified as the bearers of trauma. How many countless war movies spend an exorbitant amount of time on the telegram of death, the notifying man at the door? Regardless of whether the scale of the trauma is national, as part of a larger conflict/disaster, or more localized, women seem to be required to carry the weight.

/4/ – Trauma’s short circuit

If it is true that men die and that women endure in the national and horrific imaginary, then is this why children must remain unsexed and, more forcefully, the only figurative hope for the future in both body and concept? Children are reduced to pure victim; they only obtain adult characteristics when it expands their victimhood. Furthermore, and to return to the previous few passages, the absence of child and the fragility of the child as child is anchored to that of the vague codification of the fertile or pregnant female body.

Here again we have the interplay of the full and empty trauma – the dead child, full of now impossible potentiality, and the empty arms of the mother-not-to-be. The short circuit here would explain the figure of Medea, of the mother who kills her own child.

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is the most well known piece that tarries with a Medean theme. Using the story of Margaret Garner as a point of departure, Morrison engages in an interesting work on the livibility of trauma and history and how the present disperses somewhere in the crossfire. This relation is discussed openly by the main character Sethe when she says:

“I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms” (p. 18). Sethe is worn to the bone by the eventual materialization of her dead daughter, whom she beheaded to spare from slavery. Beloved’s somewhat ghostly but somewhat physical body displays the confusion between the physical and emotional history of slavery’s victims. As the end of the text suggests, in a somewhat maudlin fashion, only community is capable of making trauma livable even when one’s particular experience of a larger trauma (such as slavery) is always different from another’s. And while Sethe’s experience is ‘not one to pass on’ it is passed on, it needs to exist as a kind of splotch on history itself that cannot be ignored but can only be partially discussed.

/5/ – Frayed ends

The horror film seems to the the transformation of anxiety into possible trauma, whereas the quotidian futurism of childhood is the overly active or disregard for trauma’s creation. The sphere of childhood is continually armored against possible invasion, and the life and times of children are becoming ever more sheltered in ways which grace many young people with social and psychological fragility.

In a sense we can grasp the internal limit of children’s futurity in the concept of ‘growing up too fast’ intertwined with never leaving the mother’s side. While we cannot predict the dangers of the external world, we cannot avoid having anxiety about them, but to let that anxiety become trauma in our fantasies freezes certain possibilities. Given too much freedom, trauma becomes constant and unrelenting.

Showtime’s program Dexter is an interesting twist to this logic. The main character, Dexter Morgan, was left in a tank full of dead bodies along with his brother at the age of three. He’s later adopted by a policeman named Harry who recognizes that the boy has sociopathic tendencies. Harry decides to make Dexter into a socially responsible serial killer by training him in his talent while making sure he only targets the guilty – criminals who have slipped through the cracks of the justice system.

Dexter is about the endlessness of trauma as Dexter’s brother becomes a killer as well, suggesting that the ongoing potency of the traumatic event. One has to wonder about Dexter’s upbringing – if he could be taught to be socially responsible in his murder, couldn’t he be stopped as a murderer all together? Dexter’s ‘dark passenger,’ the entity which takes control of Dexter and forces him to kill, has all the markings of the Freudian drive – while it can be somewhat directed and reformed by the subject’s environment, its fundamental nature cannot be changed.

This brings us back to the split of the full and empty trauma and, in particular, the function of origin and blame. The two traumas meet each other in the figure of the serial killer – if one cannot change who one is, if one is either born a serial killer or becomes one very early on in their ontogentic development, then where is the final origin of the trauma, where does its weight fall? If we take into account our earlier discussion of a gendered split in trauma, or at least a division of perception, it seems that the full trauma is gendered feminine, that women carry the weight of the large, disastrous trauma whereas men epitomize the lonely trauma. In the case of the final girl, this lonely trauma turns into anxiety and culminates in a kind of hysteria whereas for men, the full trauma is converted into a violence that produces trauma in others, that works towards an impossible collusion between fullness and emptiness.

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3 Responses to “Trauma’s transmogrifications”


  1. 1 Migrations of Trauma « Naught Thought
  2. 2 Flashes of Terror/Dredges of Horror « Naught Thought
  3. 3 What is that?: Horrorific Ontology « Naught Thought

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