“A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11 – Representing Vulnerability in a Digitized Present.”  Talking Point. Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London. June 8, 2016. 

No image evokes the impact of 9/11 like that of the ‘iasFalling Man’, a person in headfirst fall from the World Trade Center captured by Richard Drew; this photograph crystallizes what I define to be the pivotal challenges of trauma theory in the early 21st century. The striking contrast between vulnerable body and an architecture of glass and steel, the ambivalent publishing history between global spectacle and journalistic taboo, all point to the necessity of re-thinking habitual frames of response to terrorist violence. The 2001 attacks brought large-scale violence into the Western 21st century with force, and have come to epitomize this entanglement of terror and the media, pain and spectacle that is typical of the globalized present.

In the IAS Talking Points Seminar on 8 June, I discussed how trauma theory can become responsive to these changes in structures of mediation and experience. While the core challenge of trauma remains unchanged, when it marks the limits of literary representation, we also need to recognize that, as Michael Rothberg puts it, “Trauma today is probably not the trauma of twenty years ago and certainly not the trauma of the early twentieth century” (Rothberg 2014).

This recognition that trauma varies across time and space, and that its theory, ethics and poetics will differ accordingly, means recognizing distinct literary and cultural contexts instead of universalizing psychoanalytical premises. This is not to argue with the continuing salience of the cornerstones of trauma theory, namely its definition as a Freudian pathology of memory, or, to speak with Cathy Caruth, an “enigma” (Caruth 1996) within thought. 9/11 has proven, though, that it has become entwined with current mediascapes. Theodor Adorno’s dictum that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, thus, still resonates as a caution about the ethics of mediation in a consumerist cultural marketplace; yet contemporary memory cultures are characterized by an excess of imagery rather than its absence. This does not ensure that what has been repressed can emerge onto the surface of culture. What it does entail is that the study of trauma in the humanities faces new challenges.

Working with concepts of trauma, mediation, and materiality, she proposes to discuss trauma theory vis-à-vis the digitized present. She argues that a literary ethics of witnessing terror exposes the materiality of the human body in its universal vulnerability. The intersubjective empathy this engenders is politically subversive, as it undermines the discourse of historical singularity and exceptionalism by establishing a global network of reference and dialogue. Formally diverse texts, for instance by J. S. Foer, Art Spiegelman, Don DeLillo and William Gibson, show trauma to be an experience that is simultaneously pre-discursive and inhibited by the virtuality of the present-day real.

Respondents: Dr Larne Abse Gogarty, Teaching Assistant, Department of History of Art and Tom Snow, PhD Research Student, Department of History of Art