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Trauma Theory and Beyond

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Organizer: Leonie Ettinger

Co-Organizer: Cathy Caruth

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An essential consideration for psychoanalysis has been the period of latency in traumatic experience since Sigmund Freud’s investigation of war neuroses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). The individual seems unharmed immediately after the event, only for its impact to (re)surface at a later time. In his revision of Freud’s theory, Jacques Lacan notes that the "real" impact of the traumatic encounter remains ungraspable; it is an instance of horror that forecloses itself to conscious apprehension but repeatedly threatens the individual’s life. While the traumatic encounter remains unknown and unspeakable, it often expresses itself symptomatically through flashbacks, nightmares, or (re)enactments. Jean-François Lyotard calls such inarticulable sentiments "phrase-affects." Arising unconsciously, they are not directed at a specific addressee, and yet, by their very nature as expressions they seek an addressee. 



In recent decades, scholars including Shoshana Felman, Cathy Caruth, Michael Rothberg, and Dominick LaCapra have investigated traumatic temporalities within the realm of aesthetic representation through conceptual frameworks centered on testimony, witnessing, address, realism, deferral, belatedness, and working through. More recently, Lauren Berlant has suggested that trauma should not be perceived as exceptional and repetitive, but as affective and durational––a temporality which she calls "crisis ordinariness." While earlier trauma theory often draws upon deconstructive theory to illuminate the failures and possibilities of language and representation in traumatic episodes, Berlant also emphasizes that traumatic scenes are not necessarily episodes of “stuckness,” for they open up traumatized subjects to “a new habitation of history.” She thus echoes Caruth’s reading of Freud, in which the deferral and repetition of a traumatic disruption can break out of the "death drive" and into a new futurity, that is, the "life drive."



In this seminar, we invite participants to rethink and reformulate trauma through related concepts, including (but not limited to) crisis, catastrophe, and memory. Lyotard once wrote, “What is at stake in a literature...is to bear witness to differends”—missed encounters between different discourses—“by finding idioms for them.” By producing new idioms and forms of evidence, trauma theory can help open up new sites of address for uninscribed traumas still seeking an addressee today. We hope to attend to the politics and ethics of trauma, and ask, with Laura S. Brown, whose suffering is "exceptional" enough to become visible and recognized as trauma? How can attention to everyday and repetitive trauma work against problematic logics of norm and exception? How might voices outside the “normal” that speak to gender-based and racialized violence, queer trauma, and disability help us expand our conception of trauma?


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