Archives for : Ruth Leys

Trauma escapes language, but so does life

human-1411499_1920Trauma escapes language, but so does life.

Trauma theory has a problem with language.  Leading trauma theorists such as Cathy Caruth hold that the mark of a traumatic experience is that it escapes language.  This is the primary reason that Caruth and others have been attracted to the work of Bessel van der Kolk, and neuroscience generally.  Van der Kolk holds that traumatic experience is so sudden and overwhelming that it cannot be put into words.  Ruth Leys addressed the problem in a 2010 interview.  I don’t believe the intellectual situation has changed much since then, other than the increasing influence of affect theory: the claim that there is an autonomous neurological system that experiences not just trauma, but life, in such a way that language is always playing catch-up. 

It is my claim that a major reason for the popularity among postmodern theorists of non-cognitive theories of trauma and affects is that there is a deep coherence between the views of cultural critics and those of the scientists to whose work they are attracted. . . . Van der Kolk [a psychiatrist and neuroscientist] believes that the literal nature of the traumatic flashback or memory means that it belongs to a system of traumatic memory different from that of ordinary memory and as such is cut off or dissociated from ordinary recollection, symbolization, and meaning.  In the case of Caruth the same argument takes the deconstructive form of claiming that the aporia or gap in consciousness and representation that van der Kolk and others believe characterizes the victim’s traumatic experience stands for the materiality of the signifier in de Man’s sense, that ‘moment’ of materiality that simultaneously belongs to language but is aporetically cut off from the speech act of signification or meaning. (p. 666)

An aspect of this argument that does not get a lot of attention is how language normally develops.  The answer seems to be that language is always cut off from experience, not just among the traumatized, but among us all.  If so, then traumatic experience is continuous with ordinary experience.  Trauma does not operate in a parallel neurological or linguistic universe.  The difficulties the traumatized experience putting words to their experiences are exaggerated versions of everybody’s experience with language.  Trauma is uniquely painful, but the way traumatization happens is not unique, but is shared by all who speak. 

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Affect Theory and Trauma Theory

railway-station-1363771_1920Affect theory is coming to trauma theory.  In fact it’s already here.  The best account I’ve read is Ruth Leys “Trauma and the Turn to Affect.”  A historian of science, Leys is the author of the highly regarded Trauma: A Genealogy.  This post is indebted to her work. 

The main thing to understand about affect theory is that it has nothing to do with affect–that is, feeling and emotion.  According to affect theorists, affect is a

pre-subjective force that operates independently of consciousness or the phenomenological concept of subjectivity. (Leys, 2012) 

Affect is a mental state, separate from belief and desire, the affect program system as it is called.  Affect is the body acting on itself, free of cognition and emotion on the one hand, the quality of the stimulus, or stressor, on the other.  If this sounds weird, stick with me. 

As Patricia Clough puts it,

Trauma is the engulfment of the ego in memory. But memory might be better understood not as unconscious memory so much as memory without consciousness and therefore, incorporated, body memory, or cellular memory. (p. 6)

 

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Trauma narratives without the narrator: a trauma marker

DSC00212slimThere is an influential school of thought about trauma which argues that psychic trauma is the direct intrusion upon the mind of an unmediated experience. Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman are associated with this view.

As it is generally understood today, post-traumatic stress disorder reflects the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control. (Caruth, p. 58)

Elaborated, this view holds that people do not have traumatic “experiences.” Traumatic events happen when people are unable to possess their own experiences in narrative form. The traumatized are deeply affected by these experiences, but unable to know them, for narrative is the language of experience.

In my experience, narrative competence is a poor measure of trauma.

This doesn’t fit my research

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