Conference Report – “Languages of Trauma – Body/Psyche, Historiography, Traumatology, Visual Media”


Conference Report by Jason Crouthamel

On November 25-26, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin hosted the conference, “Languages of Trauma,” sponsored by the Institut für Kulturwissenschaft (Humboldt-Universität) and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Brooks College at Grand Valley State University. The conference aimed to move trauma research towards new sites of inquiry and innovative methodologies, concentrating on interconnections between language and trauma in audio-visual media, visual culture, national historiographies, medical and political discourse, literary narratives, and the fine arts. The conference speakers focused on questions of disciplinary terminology and explored how different cultures and interest groups – medical professionals, traumatized individuals and communities, patients, families, politicians, artists, and academic scholars – shape distinct notions and conceptions of trauma. A central question that unified the conversations between international interdisciplinary colleagues included: how do shifting and at times competing theories and representations of trauma in different disciplines alter our understanding of trauma?

One of the challenges that the speakers faced was the realization that ‘trauma’ is an elusive concept, and that cultural theorists, artists, and historians needed to find, if not common definitions, a shared space to explore how trauma is defined, represented, and narrated. The first keynote speaker made a case for shifting paradigms in conceptualizing and analyzing trauma. RAYA MORAG (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), in her talk titled “Perpetrator Trauma in Current World Cinema,” proposed a shift in focus from victim to perpetrator trauma to reflect the evolution from 20th century to 21st century wars in which violence is directed at civilians as a deliberate strategy. Canonical psychological and psychiatric trauma research from Freud’s Etiology of Hysteria (1896) to the present has traditionally been carried out from the perspective of identification with the victim, as have cinema trauma research and contemporary humanities-based trauma studies, climaxing during the 1990s in widespread interest in the victim and in testimony vis-à-vis the Holocaust, war, and domestic violence. Perpetrator trauma, which is a form of ethical rather than psychological trauma, Morag argued, has largely been repressed in recent decades. This new paradigm breaks over 100 years of repression of the abhorrent and rejected concept of the perpetrator in research, which generally perceives perpetrator trauma as unseemly and unthinkable. The core of perpetrator trauma lies in the profound moral contradiction where the perpetrator is haunted by the physical space in which the trauma occurred and the need to confess in order to reintegrate into society. Morag identified five characteristics of perpetrator trauma, including the crisis of evidence (and failure to accept the act of perpetration), crisis of disclosure, crisis of gender norms, crisis of audience (no supportive community), and crisis of narrativization. Excerpts from the films Waltz with Bashir (2007), 232 (2008), and the documentary To See if I’m Smiling (2008) were screened to illustrate these elements of perpetrator trauma in the context of Israeli male and female soldiers struggling to come to terms with their roles as perpetrators in the Second Intifada. In the US film Good Kill (2014), the drone pilot protagonist is portrayed as morally injured but never comes to term with his responsibility as a perpetrator. Good Kill serves as an example to what Morag calls the “perpetrator complex,” a term that describes the major outcome of perpetrator trauma as it relates to the intricate, multi-conflictual, and irresolvable relations between society and the perpetrator who served at its behest. These boundaries between moral injury, perpetrator trauma, and individual and collective responsibility, Morag emphasized, are critical but portrayed and suppressed differently by filmmakers.

The first seminar, on “Audio-visualization of Trauma and History of (Psycho)traumatiology” was led by ANNE FREESE and JULIA B. KÖHNE (both, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). Köhne explored European medical cinematography of the First World War where battlefield experiences were re-enacted in dissociative-hysterical states by neuropsychiatric patients, and soldiers’ bodies, which became filmic mediums, replayed concrete fighting actions and the sensory experiences of combat. These war re-enactments, Köhne argued, reveal shifting gender categories and shifting boundaries between ‘defeated masculinity’ and ‘hypermasculinity.’ Medical film sources of the time also expose how doctors portrayed themselves as ultimate authority figures who could miraculously cause mental injuries to disappear. To illustrate her points, Köhne referred to French medical films as well as the British medical film excerpt The Battle of Seale Hayne (1917/18), a war re-enactment directed and played by ‘war hysterics’ themselves, as well as (pre-war) films by neurologist Camillo Negro and cinematographer Roberto Omegna. Köhne confronted the film sources with contemporary neuropsychiatric literature and later psychotraumatological theories on “dissociation” stressing their openness towards synchronic as well as diachronic readings. She emphasized that it is difficult for historians to make concrete interpretations of the often ambiguous gestures by patients in medical cinematography, and that one needs to be sensitive to the context and different possible avenues of interpretation. Anne Freese demonstrated that sensitivity to both psychiatric and political discourse is essential for uncovering how the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) came into being. The concept and diagnosis of PTSD, Freese argued, was generated in the political and psychological environment of victimhood. Doctors who first used this term to diagnose Vietnam veterans broke free from Freudian conceptions of childhood trauma to reveal the war experience as the cause of symptoms. This represented a broader shift away from psychoanalytic thinking about internal triggers to focus on external trigger factors. The aetiology for PTSD (the war experience), Freese stressed, was never in doubt, but this also meant that the diagnosis could have overlooked common experiences that would complicate this clear aetiology.

In a seminar led by PETER LEESE (University of Copenhagen) and MAJ HASAGER (Malmö Art Academy) on “Trauma Aestheticization and Imagery,” the conversation turned to the influence of power structures and gender roles on trauma narratives. Leese introduced Hasager as an artist who works at the intersections of art, trauma, and memory in the context of workers’ uprisings in Poland in 1970 and 1981. Hasager emphasized that she is interested in the “perhaps not so spectacular aspects of daily life” that reveal how memories of trauma are stigmatized and suppressed. In her documentary Decembers, which she screened an excerpt from, she gave women the chance to take ownership of their stories. Hasager’s documentary art emphasizes how trauma can be unpacked through personal conversations. Without an overarching theory or political bias, Hasager gained the trust of women to reveal their stories, where trauma is a ‘lived experience,’ sometimes difficult to talk about, but important to contextualize through reflection.

The second keynote speaker, THOMAS ELSAESSER (University of Amsterdam), spoke on “Trauma and Media: A Question of Reference or Mode of Address?” Elsaesser highlighted what he sees as a break in trauma theory since the 9/11 attacks. Many of the key formulations of trauma theory in the humanities date from before 9/11, revolving around ‘absence’, ‘latency’ and ‘unrepresentability’, taking the Holocaust as their common reference point. As this central cultural trauma became remote in time, it began to serve symbolic and ethical agendas. This is best exemplified by the EU’s culture of commemoration which takes “working through” the Holocaust legacy as a crucial signifier that gives the EU a moral high ground on issues such as human rights and the refugee crisis. After 9/11, trauma took on an entirely different urgency, and a trauma theory focused on ‘absence’ and ‘latency’ no longer seemed relevant or adequate. After 9/11, trauma was also cynically used by the US political elite as part of a retaliatory Realpolitik. Tracing the oscillating trajectory of trauma theory between high theory (deconstruction) and cultural studies (melodrama and identity politics) since the 1990s, Elsaesser argued that ‘trauma’ in trauma theory is an intermediate category (with a ‘mimetic’ and an ‘anti-mimetic’ version). Rather than a pathology that needs to be therapized, trauma is now a term that can either signal technologically induced information overload (and therefore is the new ‘normal’ of contemporary subjectivity) or it is a way of ‘creating an identity, based on wound, and hurt, discrimination and abuse that enables us to hear the voices of those that may not otherwise be heard.’ This may explain why trauma is also popular (Oprah Winfrey: ‘what’s your trauma?’) so that even superheroes in Hollywood blockbuster movies now must have a trauma that motivates their actions and serves to explain their exceptional powers and abilities.

ULRICH KOCH (The George Washington University, Washington D.C.) and STEVEN SCHOUTEN (European University Institute, Florence) led the next seminar, “Speaking in Different Voices: Oral and Written Languages of Trauma, and Interdisciplinary Histories of Trauma Conceptualizations.” Using the memoirs of the German playwright Ernst Toller as a case study, Schouten focused on how trauma is revealed in written narratives. Toller suffered from ‘war neurosis’ and the disillusioning experience of the trenches in 1915-1916, which pushed him to revaluate his assumptions about heroism and nationalism. Schouten argues that the traumatic shock of the war experience was at the epicenter of Toller’s personal and artistic identity, and that his narrative of trauma was characterized by numbness, fatalism, and disconnectedness. Toller’s war memories, according to Schouten, reveal an interesting tension: he conveys both perpetrator and victim trauma, which is simultaneously repressed and brought to the forefront of his narratives. Ulrich Koch turned his attention to trauma not as an analytical category, but as a concept that is researched. He admitted that ‘trauma’ is too limiting as a medical category, but this is with good reason. The medicalization of trauma, Koch argued, necessarily decontextualizes it from societal conceptions of the traumatic experience. The challenge of contextualizing does not pose a theoretical problem, but it does present a practical problem. At the same time, Koch noted that while the sciences tend to decontextualize, environmental contexts of trauma are never completely lost in medical studies. Patients often have a way of asserting the context of the trauma in the narratives they tell doctors.

The third keynote of the conference was delivered by AGNIESZKA PIOTROWSKA on “(Postcolonial) Trauma, Transgression and Transference.” The focus of her presentation was the screening of her award winning documentary, Lovers in Time (2015), which explores the intersections of gender, racism, identity, love and traumatic memory in contemporary Zimbabwe. In his introduction to her work, Thomas Elsaesser praised the film for experimenting with the boundaries between documentary and fiction, as well as crafting a persona for herself that credibly embodies many of the tensions and contradictions that the film as a whole raises. Lovers in Time documents the production of a play staged by Harare actors and directed by Piotrowska that was threatened to be shut down by police. The film explored the controversy through different subjective perspectives on the creation and significance of the play. It oscillates between sexual and social tensions, sometimes with humor, and the legacies of traumatic violence and repression. The memories of colonialism haunt every aspect of the controversial play as well as the documentation of the production, revealing complex layers of tension in not only the topics of political violence, religious tradition and sexual convention, but also in the interactions between the actors and the director.

In the final seminar panel of the conference, VILLE KIVIMÄKI (University of Tampere, Finland) and EVA SCHWARK (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) explored “Silences and Corporealities of Trauma.” Schwark explored how trauma theory could be reconfigured in the context of postcolonial African studies. She argued that ‘traumatic experience,’ because it does not identify as a particularly Western phenomenon, implicitly claims universal validity while actually perpetuating Eurocentric views of trauma. Using examples from African literature, Schwark showed a non-European context in which trauma can be narrated and confronted with details about its effects on the body without being precisely defined in psychological terms. Rather than focusing on trauma as a sudden event categorized by social and political elites, postcolonial literature reveals how trauma can be discussed as a long-term, everyday experience, which individuals often silently and resiliently work through. Turning to a specific historical context for corporealities of trauma, Ville Kivimäki used his expertise with over 500 archival files of psychologically traumatized Finnish soldiers from 1941-45. The psychological element of trauma was present in patient files, but largely unrecognized, as doctors focused on physical symptoms, or ‘conversion disorders.’ Physical symptoms served a vital need for both soldiers and doctors who both needed to see recognizable wounds to prove they were not simulated, but rather tangible symbols of traumatic experiences. These corporeal symptoms mirrored the violence of artillery barrages and combat conditions. A centerpiece of Kivimäki’s presentation was his screening of several minutes of medical cinematography of traumatized men, which illustrated not only his arguments, but, in a fitting end to the conference, provided a visceral and moving reminder of the effects of industrialized war on the minds and bodies of human beings.

In the final roundtable discussion, participants agreed that debates over trauma theory still have not been fully exhausted and, in light of current debates about the refugee crisis and war in the Middle East, these debates are incredibly relevant. Seeking to move beyond 1990s scholarship over trauma and memory that emphasize political bias in trauma construction, colleagues emphasized that there is still much to study about representation, language, and definitions of trauma in a world where trauma and violence become (or remain) increasingly normal. As one colleague noted, trauma is not just a theoretical concept, it is a living experience, ‘part of life.’ The scholars asked whether it is possible to build bridges between historians, cultural theorists, medical experts, artists, and film theorists who approach trauma differently and to find a common language between the disciplines. The conference made it clear that scholars may not agree on definitions and language, but the common space for debate and exchanging ideas between disciplines was incredibly rewarding.

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