The recent issue of The London Review of Books has a fascinating review by historian Thomas Laqueur (“We Are All Victims Now”) of The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman (translated by Rachel Gomme). Cutting a bit against the grain of accepted wisdom on the subject among historians of the human sciences, Laqueur concludes:
I take trauma as it is wielded even in these [various professional] communities to be largely epiphenomenal and strategic, and part of a larger story. The empire of trauma, the elevation or degradation of the term into a floating signifier, is the result of processes that we see at work elsewhere. Like so many others (‘tragedy’, ‘agony’), it is a word that has been translated from another realm and retains only wisps of its original meaning. Many more people are ‘passive aggressive’ than ever before; Bernard Madoff is a ‘sociopath’ not a ‘scoundrel’. This doesn’t matter very much; I don’t think that the drift of any of these words away from their narrower technical meanings into common usage makes much difference; I don’t think, and I am not sure Fassin and Rechtman do either, that the ubiquity of a word speaks to its efficacy, though they do seem to think that it testifies to the power of the newly constructed category.
More important, I don’t think they make the case that the category of trauma as it has been constructed in particular professional communities has in fact transformed reality, offered a language for victims to speak about historical wrongs and so on. I would suggest that the empire of trauma, in the sense of a universal acceptance that the suffering of others matters, that psychic wounds demand our attention, is part of a revolution that began in the 18th century, and whose moral dilemmas are still with us. ‘I do believe that in the end humanity will win,’ Goethe wrote in 1782. ‘I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everyone else’s humane nurse.’
The review is available here to subscribers.