Archives of Trauma
Part One of this special issue, "Archives of Trauma," emerges from the morning plenary session on the topic of "Memory, Trauma, History, Action" at The 2002 Scholar and Feminist conference. The panelists, Marianne Hirsch, Saidiya Hartman, Nieves Ayress, and Ann Cvetkovich (all of whom, with the exception of Hartman, are included here), touched on a wide range of geopolitical sites of loss, violence, and trauma, including the events of September 11, 2001, the Holocaust, slavery and the African diaspora, political torture and repression in Chile, and AIDS. To juxtapose these different histories and locations immediately raises questions about the connections and differences between them. Can they be productively linked while also acknowledging their specificities? Is it possible to avoid hierarchies of suffering, those insidious comparisons that make some forms of suffering pale in comparison with others or seem presumptuously equated?
A possible way out of this impasse would be to focus on reading or analyzing sites of trauma in relation. As Janet R. Jakobsen reminds us in Working Alliances and the Politics of Difference, to put things in relation is not the same thing as comparison. Nor does it mean equation. Instead, the act of relation asks us to think "intersectionally," to look, that is, for points of contact, even as we attend to particularity and difference. The memory of September 11 cast a long shadow over the proceedings, serving as a point of reference for much of the discussion. Although the conference had been organized well before September 11, it created new urgency for our questions about how to respond to and document trauma. The panel offered a range of answers, though, that shifted the focus to other issues and thereby helped to put September 11 in a broader context. Marianne Hirsch connected 9/11-related photographs to documents of the Holocaust. Nieves Ayress reminded us of another September 11 in Chilean history, September 11, 1973. Ann Cvetkovich discussed how the work of mourning invented by queers grappling with AIDS makes possible a different approach to remembering September 11. (Later contributions by Rebecca Schneider, Alyssa Harad, and Kathleen Stewart, among others, continue this project of contextualizing September 11, 2001, by juxtaposing it with other scenes of emotion, often ordinary or everyday moments.)
Trauma has been defined as a shock to the psyche so profound that it escapes perception and hence ruptures memory. At the same time, it has also been characterized as producing a repetitive return to the scene of shock, an intrusion of memories that cannot be escaped. Significantly, all the essays dealing with trauma refuse to treat it as an individual symptom or pathology. Instead, they seek to clarify its larger cultural connections. Trauma is a crucial locus of public feeling not only because it often involves events of national and transnational proportions that are collectively shared, but also because it simultaneously challenges and demands public constructions of history, what we might also call "public archives."
To link trauma to public sentiments can be a way of de-medicalizing it, moving away from definitions of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, that characterize - "diagnose" - those who have been traumatized as medical patients in need of a cure. Instead to think trauma publicly reconceptualizes it as a social and collective experience that requires public recognition and collective response. This issue of public recognition and response is a vital one. Historical traumas are not always evenly recognized. The Holocaust has achieved a level of visibility due to considerable public effort. In more recent years, there have been politicized as well as ethically urgent struggles over application of the word "genocide" to other historical traumas, from the Armenian catastrophe of the early twentieth century to the mass killings in Rwanda at that century's other end. AIDS activists struggled in the 1980s to make AIDS a public issue, and feminists have worked to make sexual trauma a public issue and not just a private matter. On the other end of the scale, September 11 has been the focus of such tremendous public attention that it has been accorded a kind of exceptionalism that actually gets in the way of thinking about it. Certainly, within U.S. public discourse, September 11, 2001 threatens to obscure other times and places of violence not only outside the U.S. but within it too, in the form of the everyday violences of racism and exclusion that are often relatively invisible or unnoticed next to the spectacular loss and destruction at the World Trade Center site.
Trauma studies has focused in particular on new kinds of archives and archiving strategies for documenting what defies memory or representation. The testimony of individuals who have lived through and experienced trauma has been one of the most important forms of representing trauma. First-person accounts of atrocity are particularly powerful because of their emotional effects on audiences. Testimony is far more than a matter of giving "evidence" or "proof." It also involves, for the teller, complex processes of mourning and recollection that may defy easy resolution into "this is exactly what happened." In addition, testimony almost always carries with it an activist agenda. For events that are in the historical past, such as the Holocaust, but which have living residues, such as anti-Semitism or conflict in the Middle East, testimony acts as an injunction to make sure that this will "never again" happen. For current struggles, testimony can be a way to make an intervention in the public arena in order to call for social and political aid. Testimony can also be a way in which cultures seek to reconcile the past, as in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Archives of Memory project in Kosovo. Or, it can encourage others to speak out about what they have kept private or silent, such as sexual abuse and violence.
Testimony, to understate, has powerful emotional effects, a point driven home again at the "Memory, Trauma, History, Action" panel. The panel's audience was understandably still affected by the events of September 11. Predominantly New Yorkers, virtually all of them had some direct experience of 9/11. However, another notable emotional dynamic of the panel and the discussion afterwards was the profoundly disturbing effect on the audience of Nieves Ayress's testimony about her experiences under Pinochet's regime in Chile. Although Ayress's experiences were distant in time and space for most of the audience, her live presence and her blunt language made her experiences painfully vivid. Even the mediating presence of the translator added to the drama of the event; to listen to her words twice, to have the pause of waiting for the translator, made the words burrow even deeper. It is shocking to believe that someone experienced what she did - and even more shocking to have her in front of the audience as a survivor. As a measure of - what? - acknowledgement, empathy, perhaps even shame at the role the U.S. played in what happened to Ayress and so many other Chileans, or perhaps all of these things at once: in response the audience gave Ayress a standing ovation. Her testimony thus offered a vivid example of how performance of testimony produces public sentiments through its impact on an audience.
And yet, how testimony acts upon its audience, what it moves them to do or become in its wake, is not predictable. The history of sentimentality is important to remember here in order to remain alert to the force of testimony that may move audiences, variously, to tears or shock or numbness, but not necessarily to action. To understand the archives of trauma in affective terms, as forms of public sentiment, is to open a discussion of what kinds of archives of trauma are necessary for what kinds of public and social transformation.
About This Section
As befits the question what does it mean to remember trauma?, the essays in this section, "Archives of Trauma," do not reproduce the panel word for word. Rather, this section of the special issue builds on the conversations of that day in order to consider how trauma demands new kinds of archives that not only preserve or, better, make space for memory and testimony but also intervene in more public conversations. The "Archives of Trauma" are also archives of sentiment. The essays address - and use - a range of genres, some of them ways of preserving and even reviving testimony, such as performance, video, and installation; others, such as photography, serving as sites (and sights) for "capturing" emotion. These archives work to pass on trauma, even when it seems resistant to realist representation, so that it can be a force for social transformation. In focusing on representation, these essays together illustrate that the representation of trauma is never transparent - nor are the emotions that such representation produces.
These three clusters of essays also make possible a consideration of how three quite disparate sites of trauma - 9/11/01, human rights violations in a transnational context (and here Chile's 9/11/73 is just one vital counterpoint), and AIDS activism - might be connected. Importantly, these connections take us beyond sites of catastrophic violence per se to the everyday emotions that are a sign of trauma's ongoing effects, often across a wide-scale territory. Although it was not possible to reproduce Saidiya Hartman's remarks from the panel, her work in Scenes of Subjection on the history of slavery is central to the conception of this special issue; it explores the complexity of historical trauma across generations and also raises questions about how slavery and African diaspora, which are among the founding violences of the U.S. nation, might be connected to the operation of racism across the daily fabric of life in the contemporary U.S. Alongside catastrophic violences, then, which seem to rupture the fabric of the everyday, we need also to attend to the apparently mundane emotions that are, in many respects, the ongoing pulse of earlier historical traumas. Such critical attention means also noting the public dimension and force of what is too often bracketed and dismissed as "merely personal."
Aftersight: Photographic Remains
Unlike some forms of historical trauma, 9/11 has been a massively documented event in all forms of media, although perhaps most notably in the idioms of mass journalism, namely, television and newspaper. The essays in this section explore photography and oral history as documents through which 9/11 is archived, and they are concerned with how alternative representations of 9/11 might intervene in dominant constructions of the event. Peter Lucas's and Marianne Hirsch's accounts of photographs as affective documents propose that the archive is not simply a realist representation. Hirsch, in particular, draws on her previous work on photography as cultural memory to explore how photographs, in her words, "affected the public and private process of mourning and memory" in the wake of 9/11. Mary Marshall Clark's essay complements this work on photography and provides a bridge to the other materials on testimony by describing Columbia University's oral history project, which aims to document those who have not been covered in the mainstream media. This massive project, which has now begun a second phase of interviewing, offers a way of linking 9/11 to everyday lives, charting the intersection of personal and public history and also acknowledging a much broader picture. Certainly, 9/11 raises profound questions about how to remember, document, mourn, and respond to traumatic events without obscuring other experiences and feelings that are also deserving of public notice and response. The three essays in this section make needed connections between 9/11 and other historical events. They also bring into view a range of affects largely left out of mainstream ways of documenting September 11, 2001.
Afterwords: Testimony in the Public Sphere
As the essays in this section attest, where trauma is concerned, matters are never as simple as just telling it like it is or was. In her powerful injunction to remember another 9/11 - 9/11/73 - Nieves Ayress intervenes in the nationalistic trauma narratives still under construction in the U.S. post-2001. Ayress connects her account "This is How Pinochet Tortured Me" to U.S. support of Pinochet's regime in the 1970s. Implicit in her account of what happened "then" is a caution, if that word is even strong enough, against the dangerous forms mourning takes when it forgets history in the act, purportedly, of recollecting and responding to it.
In this cluster of essays, Ayress's remarks are juxtaposed with Anne Cubilié's and Meg McLagan's discussions of human rights testimony in the international arena. Cubilié's absorbing account of her own experiences collecting testimony in northern Afghanistan in the period prior to 9/11 complicates mainstream media coverage of that region's conflicts. Notably, she does not shrink from exposing the tension between how people situate themselves as narrators of suffering and her own complex position in relation to that testimony. In revealing the material challenges of collecting testimony, Cubilié asks, with post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, not just "Can the Subaltern Speak?" but also, why should the subaltern want to speak to us?
For her part, McLagan reminds us that testimony is a production and even a performance; she focuses on how media work to generate and deliver testimony in a transnational context. Her discussion of the various strategies used to present this material, including the new technologies of the Internet, dramatically reveals how media and mediatized genres shape testimony. In particular, she attends to the affective dimensions of media, the emotional tactics they use to reach an audience. Importantly, she also shows us how these emotional tactics sometimes backfire and produce overwhelming inertia, even boredom. Cubilié corroborates this point in her alertness to whether and how testimony intervenes. Nevertheless, Cubilié remains respectful of the Afghani women she spoke to and of their desire to communicate their stories even when they could not be assured what kind of witnessing response their testimonies might garner on the "other" side.
This uncertainty or unpredictability of response, which both Cubilié and McLagan draw our attention to, also complicates what it means to read and respond to Ayress's personal testimony in its apparent immediacy. Even as her audience was moved to its feet by her testimony that day at the panel, applause is not the same thing as coming to witness what you were never there to know. Bearing witness asks us, as both tellers and hearers, to be responsible before an other whose experiences we can never fully share.
Documenting AIDS Activism
Although AIDS is now generally recognized as a global problem, this has not always been the case. Its early associations with gay male sexual practices meant that AIDS was a trauma for some communities and wholly unrecognized by others. Drawing on her own extensive work in this area, as both an activist and writer, Cvetkovich counsels us to be wary of constructions of national trauma for the ways dominant narratives too often leave out experiences at, and of, the margins. It is necessary, then, to turn to alternative archives for what they have to say about lives lived and feelings felt outside the purview of the "general public." In her essay, in which she makes use of oral history, Cvetkovich is especially interested to consider AIDS activism as a kind of archive, rich in public sentiments; she considers how emotion was combined with activism and mourning, with militancy (to invoke the much cited formulation of critic and activist Douglas Crimp).
Like Cvetkovich, Roger Hallas too is interested in developing alternative ways of documenting AIDS; his analysis of AIDS activists' avant-garde media strategies also expands our sense of testimony's visual scene/seen. In their multi-media contribution to this section, longtime AIDS activists and media artists Jane Rosett and Jean Carlomusto present AIDS: A LIVING ARCHIVE™. Not a contradiction in terms, "living archive" rather points to the way the past continues to live - "flash up," as Walter Benjamin might say - in and for the present. This flashing up allows new sites for public sentiments to emerge.