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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

The Afterlife of Trauma

  • Fred Turner (Author)
    Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Leigh Gilmore (Author)
    The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Cornell University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Michael Rothberg (Author)
    Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representations. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Marlene Briggs

A decade has passed since the publication of Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992), a landmark book on trauma co-authored by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. Now (illuminating the retrospective anxieties of the millennial turn), such preoccupations as amnesia and memory, haunting and inheritance, mourning and reconstruction motivate a wide array of researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Scholars have become increasingly attentive to the protracted social, economic, and cultural aftermath of massive trauma. For instance, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War are now widely acknowledged historical traumas whose legacies remain ongoing and unresolved. Byway of contrast, traumas engendered through sexuality or family life occupy a more precarious place within the contemporary politics of memory. Oscillating between past and present, the current proliferation of memoir and testimonial writing blurs distinctions between public and private, thereby highlighting the complex afterlife of trauma, a subject investigated in distinct ways by Rothberg, Turner, and Gilmore.

Michael Rothberg’s attention is turned to the afterlife of the Holocaust. Noting the absence of "a transdisciplinary space of dialogue" between the fields of Holocaust Studies and cultural studies, Rothberg proposes to fill this gap. Ranging among philosophy, literary testimony, film, television, figure skating, the US Holocaust Museum, as well as fiction and art produced by subsequent generations, his ambitious book follows a tripartite division in pursuit of the postwar responses of modernism, realism, and postmodernism. Not surprisingly, in the face of such a bewildering range of material, the book is highly schematic. Arguing that neither mimetic nor post-structuralist models alone are adequate to interpret Holocaust artifacts, Rothberg introduces a new category: "traumatic realism." Through this category, he juxtaposes issues which normally polarize discussions in Holocaust studies: the everyday and the extreme, narrative and anti-narrative, survivors and descendants, the real and the hyperreal. This category seems most valuable in its application to works of testimony by Charlotte Delbo and Ruth Kluger, projects which strive for connection even as they enact a profound rejection of conventional modes of response or consolation. And adapting the work of Marianne Hirsch on "postmemory," Rothberg is eloquent on the dilemmas of the present generation in their search for "representational practices adequate to the aftermath" in an age of commodification. Because "the process of coming to terms with the past is not simply belated but radically uneven, the afterlife of an event needs to be periodized as carefully as the event itself." Whether or not traumatic realism may be adapted as a heuristic tool to other instances of historical trauma remains open.

Fred Turner’s focus is the Vietnam War. Arguing that the Vietnam War is a "cultural trauma," the author tracks down traces of the conflict in popular culture, from pulp fiction serials to paramilitary paintball contests. Drawing on sociology and communications, his most provocative readings involve well-known films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Star Wars (1977). Turner has a nuanced understanding of the way successive histories and conflicts overlap, and he makes selective but effective forays into group psychology and psychoanalysis; fantasy, misogyny, and perversion are key terms in his discussion. He draws on the work of American historian Richard Slotkin in a fascinating chapter on the ways in which Puritan captivity narratives are redeployed in staged fantasies of rescue ranging from the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Gulf War. Turner is persuasive in his condemnation of an "amoral rhetoric of recovery" that works to occlude American violence and its legacies in Vietnam. Above all, in the wake of powerfully recast myths, the author insists that the violence done to the Vietnamese people has "slipped from sight," in spite of the fact that "more than three million Vietnamese had been killed, nearly two million of whom were civilians" (italics in original).

Leigh Gilmore is not concerned with historical trauma. Instead, her carefully framed readings of injury in literary texts focus on traumas caused by family and sexuality. She considers law a critical and undertheorized aspect of trauma studies, particularly in her interrogations of the family, a topic neglected in a body of literature oriented toward war and genocide. She offers highly detailed readings of texts by Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeannette Winterson. These limit-cases of autobiography "constitute an alternative jurisdiction for self-representation in which writers relocate the grounds of judgment." The chapters on Dorothy Allison and Mikal Gilmore addressing the nexus of childhood, property, patrimony, and violence break significant new ground. Building on the research of Laura Brown, Janice Haaken, and others, Leigh Gilmore attends to questions of gender and trauma throughout.

Gilmore’s analyses are inspired by psychoanalysis, speech-act theory, and decon-struction. Critics cited most frequently include poststructuralist icons such as Althusser, Butler, Kristeva, de Man, and Spivak; Limits begins and ends with invocations of Foucault. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Gilmore does not draw on recent work that observes a fixation on trauma in poststructuralism. As a consequence, the author’s insistence on textuality becomes somewhat strained when she repudiates the validity of redress, compensation, or reparation for survivors of violence; however, these matters deserve more extended consideration. Critiques of poststructuralism that emphasize its curious admixture of emancipatory rhetoric and its tendency to disembodiment become relevant here: to call limit-cases "extratestimonial" is to depoliticize their links with other modes of testimony, including those analyzed by Rothberg and Turner.






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MLA: Briggs, Marlene. The Afterlife of Trauma. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 171 - 173)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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