Historical Distinctions in Trauma

A concern I share with LaCapra and others is the ways in which trauma can be defined and redefined and “watered down” to the point that it no longer carries any real meaning:

Moreover, there is an important sense in which the aftereffects…of traumatic events are not fully owned by anyone and…affect everyone.  But the indiscriminate generalization of the category of survivor and the overall conflation of history or culture with trauma…have the effect of obscuring crucial historical distinctions. (LaCapra xxxi)

This is the type of concern that many Holocaust scholars articulate in countering the use of the label “genocide” to describe events like genocide in the Americas (see Vine Deloria; Ward Churchill).  LaCapra’s approach address the articulations of trauma as a separate phenomenon from traumatic events themselves or the survivors and “commentators”:

I would distinguish between victims of traumatizing events and commentators (or those born later), but even with respect to the latter, I put forth what might paradoxically be termed a limited or framed defense of hyperbole…as discursive symptom of, and perhaps necessary affective response to, the impact of trauma. (xxxi)

Thus, for LaCapra, “exaggeration” or “hyperbole” might sometimes be “necessary” (and in this sense I think he may mean that hyperbole might be sometimes needed to “get the message out,” but I need to investigate his argument further before I can say that this is what he means.)  This could well tie in with Smith and Watson’scrisis in testimony,” which results from the fact that some human rights activists have exaggerated or even manufactured life narratives as a means to draw attention to human rights issues, and the subsequent response has been an “ethic of verification” that applies a skeptical (and hence suppressive) lens to the reading of all such crisis narratives.  Within discursive public spaces, attracting attention to human rights issues might be seen to require and overstatement of the case, so to speak.  Berlant’s intimate publics and Fricker’s hermeneutic injustice show that inconvenient social narratives can be and are suppressed through the absence of narrative language.  Thus, hyperbolic autobiography becomes the means which certain narratives become sufficiently viral to overcome the social barriers of skepticism (see Kaplan and Haenlein).

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