The Sciences, Humanities, and Autobiography

There’s a huge tension between the sciences and the humanities as to what “counts” as knowledge, while the social sciences appear to draw from and contribute to both.  (yes, this is an extreme simplification – each individual discipline within the sciences, social sciences, and humanities will have its own connections and locations within the pantheon of knowledge-making).

trauma theory appears to be caught in a liminal space between all three.  Although psychology addresses trauma from a “therapeutic” perspective (see Judith Herman; Ruth Leys), the humanities turns to trauma…as a means of further theorizing the political hierarchies that emerge?  As a way of considering the repression and suppression of narratives of experience?  That appears to be what I’m doing, at any rate.

In the sciences, there is actually quite a bit of interest in the neurological aspects of trauma, PTSD in the particular.  Imaging studies indicate the possibility of biological mechanisms describing memory loss (_______), intrusive memory (________) emotional detachment (_______), and changes in the inscription of memory (______).

Something that I find very annoying about scholarship in the humanities is a frequent disregard for scientific studies.  I rarely see articles that extensively reference scientific findings – when they do, they tend to be very selective, and they treat the scientific findings as a kind of novelty.  Maxine Hairston’s appropriation of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms to describe composition studies appears emblematic of this trend (and Hairston’s article was roundly criticized by _________ for exactly this reason.)
Now, I haven’t read enough in trauma studies to see if this is also the case here – Judith Herman is approaching trauma from a psychology/social sciences perspective, Ruth Leys references the major works conducted by psychologists, and Cathy Caruth apparently takes a neurological turn (and is then blasted by Leys for her approach here, though I haven’t read this yet to see if Leys critiques the use of science of Caruth’s methodology – I have a feeling I’ll see more a critique of the latter.)  Rebecca Saunders does point out some of the dangers of scientific positivism in trauma studies, while Dominick LaCapra appears not to place little focus on the scienctific studies in his approaches to historicizing the phenomenon and understanding of trauma.

It’s important to note, however, that I’m not entirely certain that I’ve gauged these scholars correctly.  Their views are very complex, and I haven’t read through everything yet.  I can’t make a blanket statement of “humantities scholars treat scientific data this way…” because different scholars take different approaches.  I think my approach might be unique in that I’ve tracked down a dozen (or more?) brain imaging studies that examine specific facets of the autobiographical recall of trauma.  I think it would be wrong to attempt addressing trauma without referencing these studies….but I must also admit that I have difficulty fully parsing the data, and that I instead find myself gisting the articles from the abstracts, introductions, and conclusions.

As a scholar in the humanities, then (because I am clearly not a scientist or social scientist, but rather a creative writer who also studies the rhetorical effects of autobiography), I must define how I will use scientific studies in my work.  Following Leys and LaCapra, one important approach is the historical, to examine how the shifting scientific findings (particularly as more effective imaging technologies have become commonplace) have affected the discourses surrounding trauma.  On the other hand, I’m not as interested in the historical as I am in the pedagogical – I want to know how trauma (and our understanding of trauma / acceptance of trauma survivor’s / punishment of perpetrators) affects the ways in which students are able to learn in the classroom.  And a key to this is looking at my own views on trauma and the life events that shape my understanding of how others have suffered.

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