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General Survey of Trauma Theory: A Critical Study

4430 words (18 pages) Essay

8th Feb 2020 Psychology Reference this


Examining human existence is to encounter with the experience of people derived from so many fundamental components: suffering, obstacles, prejudices, war, terror and so forth. How meaningful is human life in terms of their suffering is a philosophical matter of debate but the experience of people in different corner of the world have the terrifying event that has significantly influenced human life. The overwhelming experience from suffering, genocide, killing, murdering, and terrorizing phenomena has created trauma in people. Such traumatic experience impacts on the well-being of people in the notion of psychological, historical, cultural as well as their social level. This paper basically explores the theoretical debate on trauma rather than narrating some historical events in particular. To make a general theoretical survey, this paper essentially brings Cathy Carruth, La Capra, and alongside some other prominent theorists and critics while discussing trauma as a complex but important component associated to human existence in different spheres of history. Drawing upon the discussions on ethics and memory, this paper further maps out categories of trauma, fundamentally cultural and historical trauma, in the light of major trauma theorists and critics.

Cathy Carruth, Trauma, and Freud

The Greek word ‘trauma’, or “wound,” originally refers to an injury inflicted on a body. In its later usage, particularly in the medical and psychiatric literature, and most centrally in Freud’s text, the term trauma is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind.

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The name Cathy Carruth has been perceived as one of the remarkable figures in terms of dealing with traumatic experiences not only of the holocaust survivors but also of the people who have been overshadowed and misrepresented in the sociopolitical dynamics of the world. The ideas that she has incorporated to theorize people’s terrifying and horrible experience, though there are a lot of critiques on Carruth’s thought of trauma theory, are really significant for representing and defining trauma in academia and beyond. Caruth (1991) describes trauma as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events, in which the response to event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucination and other intrusive phenomena” (p. 181). While talking about trauma and traumatic experience, Cathy essentially tries to impart the message about the belatedness of trauma and its nature of being experienced. In this context, she seems to have followed the Freudian notion of traumatic experience. She further states, “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature-the way it was precisely not known in the first instance-returns to haunt the survivor later on”(p.4). For Caruth, this very nature of belatedness forms trauma complex and indelible.

According to Caruth, in trauma, every violent experience of a subject not only refers indirectly to the unexpected reality but also hints towards the locus of referentiality of the traumatic experiences that associates reference with an impact. Thus, it seems clear that every story of trauma is inescapably bound to a referential return as its belated impact on the subject. That’s why, trauma is supposed to be the narrative of the belated experiences, that happen to return back again and again in the form of the referential return of the ‘horrendous past’.

Carruth’s perception of trauma does not simply indicate an effect of destruction but for her, it is essentially an enigma of survival. While exploring traumatic experience, Carruth sees the paradoxical relation between destructiveness and survival in terms of unintelligibility at the core level of catastrophic experience of the people. Carruth provides a synopsis of the history of the Jews that Freud imagines in Moses and Monotheism. The Jews are led out of Egypt by an Egyptian named Moses, who saves them in order to preserve a following for his monotheistic sun-worshipping cult. In this regard, Carruth finds the Freudian conception of trauma as controversial especially the ideas that Freud has stated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Moses and Monotheism, while addressing the complexity of trauma. Carruth (2016) writes:

Freud’s formulation of trauma as a theory of the peculiar incomprehensibility of human survival. It is only by reading the theory of individual trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in the context of the notion of historical trauma in Moses and Monotheism that we can understand the full complexity of the problem of survival at the heart of human consciousness (p. 60).

Caruth traces an evolution from an initial model of trauma as an exceptional state undergone by individuals in extreme circumstances as witnessed and experienced by Jews at Auschwitz to a broader model in which history itself is founded on trauma. Carruth reads Freud’s Moses and Monotheism in a way that can support this notion of a politically charged engagement with the ethical call ‘imposed on the living by the dead’. Caruth (1991) further says:

The project of Moses and Monotheism is clearly linked to the attempt to explain the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But this can apparently be done, according to Freud, only through reference to a past, and in particular to the past represented by Moses. By replacing the weight of his history on the naming of Moses, moreover, the liberator of the Hebrews who led them out of Egypt, Freud implicitly and paradoxically connects the explanation of Jews’ persecution to their very liberation, the return from captivity to freedom (p. 282-283).

Caruth attempts to contextualize the convincing ethical approach alongside the historical emphasis she places on trauma. She applies her thought on the ethical aspects of trauma to her reading of trauma as historical that will be able to redeem what might otherwise seem an elegant but potentially empty rhetorical gesture; the articulation of an ethic of the real. In other words, by relating the ethical dimension of trauma in horrendous event historically, it becomes easier to flesh out an otherwise purely contractedness of history and memory in writing.

Caruth’s study of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle differentiates between the wound of mind-something that is always unavailable to consciousness rather manifests in the form of repetitive nightmares which are unhealable and the wound of body-a mortal wound that can be experienced too soon, to unexpectedly and can be fully known and healable. Caruth, commenting on the analysis of Freud, further clarifies the repetitive nature of the trauma as the unknowing acts and the burden of the witnesses to such repetition both as the subject and the object as well. Caruth (1991) writes:

The notion of Jewish history as a history of return might seem unsurprising in the perspective of a psychoanalyst whose works repeatedly focus on the necessity of various kinds return—on the return to origins in memory, and on the “return of the repressed” (p.183).

Thus, Caruth claims that emergence of the trauma not only goes beyond the level of conscious representation as in the case of Freud’s analysis of Jewish history but also discloses the repressed truths of the committed crimes as the enigma of the otherness and as the enigma of a human agent’s repeated acts. Cartuh’s concept of trauma as an ethical call imposed on the living by the dead makes a direct connection with Avishai Margalit in relation to ethics and memory.

Ethics and Memory

Margalit in The Ethics of Memory (2003) makes two important arguments in respect to memory and remembrance. Firstly, that memory plays a constitutive role in the formation of political communities. Secondly, that the members of such communities have a duty to remember.  She has made a critique of the Freudian notion of censorship and memory. She further writes:

The explanatory power of the censor is only one of our concerns. The more serious one, in my view, is Freud’s belief in the healing power wrought by bringing repressed memories to the light of consciousness. In Freud’s model repressed memories are subversive agendas that cause dysfunctional behavior and even bodily symptoms in the individual (3).

 While dealing with memory issue, Margalit focuses on a normative claim about an ethics of memory follows from an empirical claim about political reality. A challenge to this aspect of her argument brings the ethical argument into question. Margalit writes:

Ethics is typically short on geography and long on memory. Memory is the cement that holds thick relation together, and communities of memories are the obvious habitat for the thick relations and thus for ethics. By playing such a crucial role in cementing thick relation, memory becomes an obvious concern of ethics, which is the enterprise that tells us how we should conduct our thick relation (p.8).

An adequate ethics of memory needs to provide a stronger account of the role of memory in the societal constitution. Though Margalit enriches communitarian political theory by providing it with an account of the sources of communal value, she fails to adequately deal with both the problematic status of memory as a category of knowledge and its ambiguity as a site of ethics. However, all the obsession with memory has been engendered by the legacy of the Holocaust. Finding Margalit’s ideas of ethical memory tilting towards the political notion of trauma, memory, and ethics, Jenny Edkins, however, brings the importance of moral values in dealing with traumatic past embedded into historical wars. Edkins explores how even an ethical memory has a political importance. Taking examples from the World Wars, Vietnam, the Holocaust, Kosovo and September 11th, Edkins offers a thorough discussion of practices of memory such as memorials, museums, remembrance ceremonies, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress and the act of bearing witness. Edkins writes:

Events that give rise to what we categorize today as symptoms of trauma generally involve force and violence. Often this is a threat to those people involved, their lives and integrity, as in rape in torture or child abuse; sometimes it also involves witnessing the horrific deaths of others, for example in wartime combat or in concentration camps (p. 3).

She examines the implications of these commemorations and memories in terms of language, political power, sovereignty, and nationalism. She argues that some forms of remembering do not ignore the horror of what happened in a historybut rather use memory to promote change and to challenge the political systems that produced the violence of wars and genocides in the first place. This wide-ranging memoir of Holocaust embraces literature, history, politics and international relations, and makes a significant contribution to the study of memory. Edkins further articulates that “memorialization is difficult if not possible. It can be many years before memory surfaces in the public arena or indeed there is a willingness to listen to survivors’ testimony (p. 2).

Despite the fact that they have different perspectives on traumatic experience and its impact, both Margalit and Edkins tend to prioritize the importance of memory to come out of the traumatic burden of the past. Lacapra on the other hand aligning herself to the ideas of Water Benjamin, argues, trauma despite its indelible nature, can possibly be redeemed.

Lacapra and Healing Trauma

Another prominent name in the realm of memory and trauma study is Dominick Lacapra. She focuses on the issues of Trauma, history, and memory are either ethical or moral have a triple connection among them. Traumas in its psychological and cultural level, and memory in its ethical and moral ground rely on historical events that were horrible to see or witness and unspeakable or unbearable to remember and indelible to forget. Lacapra further writes that “in traumatic experience one typically can represent numbly or with aloofness what one cannot feel, and one feels overwhelmingly what one is unable to represent at least with and critical distance and cognitive control” (p. 206). Though Lacarpa says that it’s all but impossible to completely cure trauma, she has taken some fundamental ideas of Walter Benjamin in respect to working through trauma. In this respect, trauma can be addressed or cured by cooping post-traumatic situation through so many literary activities like plays, essays, rituals, and dances. Lacapra thus tries to link Benjamin’s concept of understanding the usefulness of history as redemptive.

On the other hand, Lacapra seems to have borrowed some concepts of Caruth exploring the nature of trauma and posttraumatic experience. She further adds “the experience of trauma is thus unlike the traumatizing event in that it is not punctual or datable. It’s bound up with its belated effects or symptoms, which render it elusive” (p.207). This very concept of Lacapra connects itself with the meaning of what Cathy Caruth uses the term “unclaimed quality” that it is really difficult to distinguish trauma from structural and trans-historical trauma while working through it. She claims that working through trauma does not necessarily mean of creating a situation in which the ‘self’ gets integrated. Lacapra writes:

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Working through means work on posttraumatic symptoms in order to mitigate the effects of trauma by generating counterforces to compulsive redemption (or acting-out) thereby enabling a more viable articulation of effect and cognation or representation, as well as ethical and sociopolitical agency, in the present and future (p.207).

With this very statement, Lacapra means to say that once trauma takes place or occurs there is no way to change and heal it. In another word, Lacapra does not see the possibility of a final way of getting out of trauma while some critics have given some strategies including social integration. However, Lacapra’s perception of our capacity to work with the cause of trauma with social, political, and economic dimensions seems paradoxical since she has attempted to define trauma as trans-historical in nature. Lacapra further states:

And any notion of full redemption or salvation with respect to it, however, this worldly or deferred, is dubious. But at least in trauma’s historical dimension, we can work to change the causes of this cause insofar as they are social, economic, political and thereby attempt to prevent its recurrence as well enable forms of renewal (p.207).

Lacapra views in working through trauma make a departure from Caruth’s perspective of integration and testimony to cure trauma. While Caruth focuses on the strategy to transform trauma into narratives that get verbalized and communicated to the people, Lacapra, on the other hand, says that narrative does not help people get the past event changed. She rather argues that “narrative at best helps one not to change the past through dubious of history but to work through posttraumatic symptoms in the present in a manner that opens possible futures” (208). However, it is essential to investigate different manifestation of cultural and historical categories of trauma that often depart from the notion of redemption. Thus, here follows the critical overview of cultural and historical trauma in order.

Cultural Trauma

Unlike psychological trauma, cultural trauma does not belong to an individual; it is a collective trauma caused by a horrific event that leaves an impact on the community. In general, psychologists and sociologists agree that trauma and event are separate, trauma is an act of signification, hence something social. Jeffery C. Alexander stresses the social dimension with the notion of cultural trauma. Alexander says:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectively feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. (p.1)

Moreover, Alexander gives cultural trauma an ethical dimension, although he does not explicitly use the notion of ethics. According to his perspective, the cultural trauma process, or what we might call, the semiotics of trauma, takes place in-between event and representation. But in order for the event to become a cultural trauma, to migrate into social significance, it has to be established as a shared value – even if we talk about a negative value as in the case of trauma. This is a process that takes time and that require agents, mediations and a community of carriers and ‘caretakers’. Thus, cultural trauma, as a social and cultural phenomenon implies an ethics.

Alexander’s definition makes it clear that cultural trauma is not something naturally existing; it is something constructed by society. It is something like a wound on the cultural psyche of the group that changes identity in an irrevocable way. Though there is no any possibility of getting completely cured of cultural trauma, we can tone down its effect. cultural trauma gets transformed from one generation to another. The sense of responsibility acts out the cultural trauma. According to Alexander confrontation of trauma is necessary to tone down its effects. So, Alexander’s emphasis is that it is very important to understand the political contractedness of cultural trauma before we think of coming out of it. Alexander’s concept of political contractedness and confrontation of trauma is similar to Larry Ray’s concept of mourning that leads towards reconciliation thus tone down its effect.

Larry Ray in his book Mourning, Melancholia, and Violence (2006) states that if traumatic memory is in the state of melancholic repression that causes the continuous loss. Ray further argues “death and genocide evoke powerful responses and it is crucial whether these take the form of reconciliation with the past (mourning) or melancholic repression of grief followed by the repetition of trauma that can’t be expurgated” (p.145). And if traumatic memory is in the state of mourning, then a reconciliation is possible. According to Ray, mourning is an expression of grief at a tragic event which has got the therapeutic value whereas if the traumatic memory is in the state of melancholic, we can’t express the grief which comes from sadness. Melancholic worsens the condition of trauma therefore therapeutic value is out of the question, which in Smelser’s words demands collective efforts.

Smelser takes cultural trauma as a collective experience that is laden with negative effects. Smelser agrees with Alexander’s concept that trauma is something made not in born as he says, “that the cultural traumas are for the most part historically made not inborn” (p. 37). Smelser’s emphasis lies on the cultural trauma that forms a collective identity.  Traumatized people identify themselves with that cultural identity as a victim, according to Ron Eyerman. He articulates that trauma need not be experienced by all the members of the culture, it is something transmitted memory.  Eyeman writes:

collective memory is conceived as the outcome of interaction, a conversational process within which individuals locate themselves, where identities are described as the different ways individuals and collectives are positioned by, and position themselves, within narratives. This dialogic process is one of negotiation for both individuals and for the collective itself. It is never arbitrary (p. 67).

Since Eyerman emphasizes on the collective memory, as he perceives is semantic, imagistic or sensory context; it is the location where all recollections are stored. He takes a work of the memory as political, making meaning as well as cognition are also political. Thus, according to Eyerman, memory is not only in the mind of the person but on the group which he belongs to. Therefore, memory is not arbitrary because it comes from negotiation, it is political in nature.

Thus, cultural trauma is a collective affair caused by a horrendous event which leaves an inedible mark upon the psyche of the group. It is a wound on the cultural psyche of the group which changes its identity in an irrevocable way, according to the debate and thought made by the thinkers mentioned above. The foundation of cultural trauma, however, heavily relies on the effects brought by historical events like holocaust into human psyche.


Historical Trauma

Though cultural trauma has some connection to the historical trauma, as such it is an open-ended and experimental approach to engaging with the violent and catastrophic legacies of the past. Understandably, historical trauma depends not only in terms of bearing witness to specific events and experiences but also belongs to an ongoing struggle over the representations of the past. Thus, conceptualization of historical trauma plays an important part in that struggle. To understand other facets of historical trauma, it’s essentially important to talk about the ideas of Allen Meek, as he articulates:

Historical trauma is not grounded in memory traces but in the interpretation of what may be ‘forgotten’ in the texts of mass media, academic criticism, psychoanalysis and the critical theory itself. Historical traumas are constructions of collective memories that cannot be verified through empirical research, or by ascribing an indexical relation between the images and the real (p.1).

 We know that history is a narrative about the past violence, wars, conflict and some horrendous events that were inherently traumatic for large collectives, such as nations or specific ethnic groups.

Trauma theory emerged from a conjunction of research into Post-traumatic stress disorder with a critique of representation. However, trauma is not only a psychological condition extended into the domain of literary and media texts. It has always formed a central part of psychoanalytic theories of culture. Freud himself extended the concept of trauma beyond the individual to include social collectives. Benjamin and Adorno employed Freud in their critical theory in the 1920s and 30s. For Benjamin and Adorno, the then new media of photography and film presented images of a mass culture shaped, on one hand, by a history of revolution and terror and by practices of industrial production and consumption on the other.

In a nutshell, the Freudian account of both individual and collective trauma enabled these critics to develop a critical account of violence, shock, and propaganda in mass-mediated societies. In the late 1930s, facing the deepening crisis that would result in World War II and the Holocaust, Freud, Benjamin, and Adorno all developed somewhat different theories of historical trauma. In Moses and Monotheism (1939) Freud attempted to explain Jewish identity with reference to the collective trauma of the murder of the primal father and the psychic impact of monotheistic faith. Freud writes that “the child saved by Jewish people and brought up as their own. “National motives” in rank’s terminology had transformed the myth into the form now known by us” (p.14). Thus, the way events are represented in different cultural discourses, narratives, and media have a great role in transmitting such traumatic events to the upcoming generation. In case of misrepresentation of such might provoke further violence and conflict in the nations and communities whereas a correct representation without any appropriation might help mediate such events in building peaceful communities and harmony among nations. In general, such representation bears the danger of being political which tends to appropriate historical trauma and traumatic events of the past. That’s why bearing witness to authentic forms of testimony that directly transmit experience outside the codes and conventions is a most.



  • Alexander, J., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N., & Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. CA: University of California Press.
  • Caruth, Cathy. (2016). Unclaimed Experience : Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Caruth, C. (1991). Unclaimed experience: trauma and the possibility of history. Yale French Studies, (79), 181-192. doi:10.2307/2930251
  • Edkins, J. (2003). Trauma and the memory of politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freud, S. (2016). Moses and monotheism. Leonardo Paolo Lovari.
  • LaCapra, D. (2004). History in Transit : Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. Ithaca, N.Y. ; London: Cornell University Press.
  • Margalit, A. (2002). The ethics of memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Meek, A. (2010). Trauma and media theories, histories, and images (Routledge research in cultural and media studies ; 23). New York: Routledge.
  • Ray, L. (2006). Mourning, melancholia and violence. In Memory, Trauma and World Politics (pp. 135-154). Palgrave Macmillan, London.


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