21st century writing | 21st century approaches

A New Century of Trauma?

Lewis Ward


According to Shoshana Felman, “The twentieth century can be defined as a century of trauma” (171 n.1). But is the trauma paradigm relevant for the study of twenty-first century literature? Or should it be considered firmly wedded to its origins in the post-deconstructive thought that emerged from Yale University in the 1980s and 90s? Arguably, trauma theory’s popularity then owed more to the parallel wave of “Holocaust studies” that sought to define the century around the Shoah, than to any sustainable project of mapping onto literary form. An appraisal of the pertinence of this often controversial critical paradigm seems apposite in the wake of a significant event at the University of Lincoln in August 2012. Two of trauma studies’ most eminent figures, Cathy Caruth (Trauma: Explorations in Memory [1995] and Unclaimed Experience [1996]) and Kalí Tal, (Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma [1996]) appeared at the international conference Interrogating Trauma in the Humanities. Joining them in a roundtable was Anne Whitehead, author of the seminal Trauma Fiction (2004), which was itself heavily influenced by Caruth’s ground-breaking readings of Freud. This was an opportunity to take stock and consider future directions for the study of trauma and literature.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson's best-selling crime trilogy reveals new directions for 21st-century trauma literature [Image by Katrineholms Kommun under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


The discussion at the roundtable revealed some of the critical issues facing the field, including: the pros and cons of expanding interdisciplinarity, as seen in, for example, the emergence of the medical humanities; widespread fears over the normalization and over-politicization of trauma; and the continuing opposition between epistemological-linguistic approaches and what Tal calls “the reality of trauma”. All of these issues may impact on the study of contemporary literature, insofar as it continues to engage with trauma-related themes such as war, exile, memory and identity.

Caruth’s famous 1995 definition of trauma went as follows: “The pathology consists [. . .] solely in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it” (4-5, emphasis in original). However, though she believes in the “truth” of trauma, Caruth does not favour trying to heal it through therapy or (written) narrativization, as this may interfere with its sanctity. Because “trauma [. . .] evoke[s] the difficult truth of a history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence”, the flashback memory experienced by the survivor conveys both “the truth of the event, and the truth of its incomprehensibility”, leading to a dilemma of sacrilege in which “talking it out” in order to effect a cure will lose the memory’s specificity and precision, the “force of its affront to understanding” (153-4, emphasis in original). 

This approach might seem to close off the possibility of conveying traumatic experience in literature. It has also been criticized as tending towards the traumatic sublime. Dominick LaCapra, for example, commenting on the passage above, argued in 2004 that “Caruth here seems dangerously close to conflating absence (of absolute foundations and total meaning or knowledge) with loss and even sacralizing, or making sublime, the compulsive repetition of acting-out of a traumatic past” (History 121). Yet in their introduction to Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction (2011), Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau reassert the Caruthian insistence on unrepresentable excess and incomprehensibility, while nevertheless presenting new readings of trauma fiction. Invoking the Kantian sublime, in which surprise causes a “failure of faculties”, Onega and Ganteau argue that:

[a]s with the sublime, then, literary trauma, concerned as it is with the experience of limits and the destabilization of the accepted, might be considered as an emotional experience that strikes at the roots of identity and durably displaces certainties. Trauma would, thus, be compatible with a conjectural mode that would throw us subjects, in our capacity as readers and critics, into a complex ethical state of disquieted “negative capability”. (19)

Thus Onega and Ganteau seem to restate, in a new form, the very traumatic sublime that Dominick LaCapra warned against, and to paradoxically preclude the possibility of meaningful criticism while presenting a volume that nevertheless attempts such work. The collection offers innovative readings of, for example, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004) (“aesthetics and the trauma of gayness”) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) (“the ethics of affect”).


Wanderers Above a Sea of Fog: Like the Kantian sublime, trauma literature engages its readers through disquieted “negative capability” [Image by Taran Rampersad under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


Along with a tendency to inappropriate sublimation, trauma studies have also been criticized for being overly burdened by Western/Euro-centricism and pathologization. Claire Stocks has shown how the canonical trauma theory originating in the 1990s is predicated on a “binary that juxtaposes the healthy, unified subject with a pathological, fractured self” (73-4), and asks how we can go beyond this and “account for subjects who do not have a singular self which precedes the trauma and to which they might seek to return after exposure to traumatic events” (77). In a special issue of Studies in the Novel (40) 1&2, (2008), critics take up this call by turning to “postcolonial trauma novels” such Christopher Abani’s Graceland (2004), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Book of Not (2006), Lisa Fugard’s Skinner’s Drift (2006), Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story (2000) and Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000).

In their Introduction to the journal, Stef Craps and Gert Buelens call for a dialogue between Western and colonial traumas. This plea has since been taken up by Michael Rothberg in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), which breaks new ground by bringing together the fields of Holocaust and postcolonial studies. Citing the antagonistic claims in the US between the memories of slavery and the Holocaust, Rothberg suggests a new paradigm: “Against the framework that understands collective memory as competitive memory – as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources – I suggest that we consider memory as multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative” (3). Two novels which might be said to engage with this “multidirectional” negotiation are Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s Moses, Citizen and Me (2005) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010), both of which are set in the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002). These fictions deal with the consequences of imposing Western discourses of childhood and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder on an African country’s traumatized inhabitants, who include victims of multiple rape and former child soldiers; but the novels also show how Sierra Leone’s complex and European-influenced history complicates any easy distinction between “West and The Rest”.


Multidirectional memory: Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s Mose, Citizen and Me (2005) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010) both explore the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002) [Images used under fair dealings provisions]


The Memory of Love focuses on medical and psychiatric responses to trauma, and a key context for current work in trauma studies is the emergence of the medical humanities. During the Lincoln conference roundtable, Kalí Tal called this uneasy alliance between literature and medicine a “delicate dance with the devil”. One problem is the alleged tendency of scientific disciplines to view literature as a tool for revealing human nature – as an unproblematised window on the soul. This assumption may lead, in turn, to dubious attempts to “humanise” medical practitioners through exposure to literary texts (chosen by who?) While it is perhaps condescending to worry that doctors will confuse characters with real people, nevertheless there may be an important difference between the literary critic who aims to reveal ambiguity and to emphasise plurality of interpretation, and the psychiatrist who reaches for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to find “answers” to the traumatic symptoms presented by their patients.

This raises the ethically problematic binary opposition in trauma studies between victim and observer, which is the subject of another recent essay collection, Other People’s Pain: Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics (2011). Presenting readings of Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee and Herta Müller, among others, the editors of this volume argue that  “[a]rt, in particular postmodern art, can navigate brilliantly the territories of trauma, but it should be careful not to succumb to voyeuristic and arrogant spectatorship” (9). One answer to this problem is LaCapra’s theory of “empathic unsettlement”, in which those who write about the victims of trauma foreground their own position, thereby highlighting what LaCapra calls “the implication of the observer in the observed” (Writing 36). Recent applications of empathic unsettlement to the literature of trauma include Anne Whitehead’s “Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go” (Contemporary Literature 52.1 (2011)) and Lewis Ward’s “A Simultaneous Gesture of Proximity and Distance: W.G. Sebald’s Empathic Narrative Persona” (Journal of Modern Literature 36.1 (2012)). Moving the debate on further, Whitehead’s next book will focus on the idea of “detached concern” as a counterweight to the over-emphasis on empathic response in the doctor-patient scenario, looking especially at Pat Barker’s ongoing fictional exploration of psychoanalysis and medicine in the Regeneration Trilogy (1991-5), Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012).


Encountering Austerlitz at Antwerp train station: "empathic unsettlement" has recently been applied to such writers as  W. G. Sebald [Image by Jack Amick under a CC-BY-NC license]


Indeed, there is much new work being prepared that promises to develop the field. Alan Gibbs’ Contemporary American Trauma Narrative (Edinburgh UP, 2013) will argue that fiction has the capacity to resist the process of normalization that has created dominant paradigms such as fragmentation and temporal disruption. Meanwhile, The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary Criticism (Routledge, 2013) will include contributions from both American and European scholars on topics including biopolitics and globalisation, and has intriguing chapter titles such as “Implicated Passages: Traumatic Exchanges in Postslavery Literature” and “Future Schock: Science Fiction and Trauma”. Caruth, meanwhile, is soon to publish Literature in the Ashes of History, her first book-length intervention since 1996, which will no doubt raise fresh questions and controversies, as will the publication of the fifth edition of the DSM (scheduled for May 2013), which is expected to significantly extend the boundaries of what we call traumatic. It seems trauma theory is, after all, still highly relevant for literary studies in the 21st century.


CITATION: Lewis Ward, "A New Century of Trauma?," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012): n. pag. Web. 9 December 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.7.03.


Dr Lewis Ward has taught modern and contemporary literature at the University of Exeter, the University of Plymouth and the University of the West of England. He is currently working on a book provisionally titled Voices of Empathy in Contemporary Narratives of War, Genocide and Exile, which will investigate intersections between ethics and narrative voice in recent transnational fiction.


Works Cited:

Caruth, Cathy, ed and introds. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995).

Felman, Shoshana. The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002). 

LaCapra, Dominick. History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004).

— Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001).

Modlinger, Martin and Philip Sonntag (eds). Other People’s Pain: Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics. Cultural History and the Literary Imagination 18 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011). 

Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau (eds). Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction. DQR Studies in Literature (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011). 

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009). 

Stocks, Claire. “Trauma Theory and the Singular Self: Rethinking Extreme Experience in the Light of Cross Cultural Identity.” Textual Practice 21.1 (2007): 71-92, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502360601156971



Please feel free to comment on this article.


  1. Robert Eaglestone /

    Really interesting and useful piece…! Thanks

  2. Thanks for this. It is a field that I know very little about, but I am very interested. You look at it here through the lens of the postmodern, but I wonder what role the study of ritual and anthropology has to play in some of these discussions? One of the classic texts for this would be Leslie Silko's Ceremony in which a psychologically disturbed protagonist exhibiting symptoms of PTSD begins to uncover a recuperative power in native American ritual practices. Might "the novel" be considered as a ritual form (a type of performative/expressive culture) that helps us to negotiate trauma? 

  3. Lewis Ward /

    Hi Mike, yes I think that would be highly relevant. This might sound a bit reductive, but in a way your idea that novel-writing and -reading is a ritual that helps us negotiate trauma is similar to more general claims that story-telling is evolutionarily necessary for dealing with the human condition. Therapeutically speaking, meanwhile, claims were made by Pierre Janet at the turn of the C19th/20th that traumatic experiences can only be healed by 're-integrating' them into one's 'narrative memory'; this was used by neuroscientists like van der Kolk in the 1990s as part of a thesis positing traumatic memory as qualitatively different from other kinds of memory. Meanwhile, Freud was interested in ritual, and his work has been used as the basis for much of trauma theory…I don't doubt that this link has been followed up elsewhere, but I don't have any specifics to hand. Finally, I haven't read Silko, but thinking of Alexie's short stories, the question arises as to the differences and/or similarities between Native American rituals and the Western tradition in which 'the novel' emerges…Alexie at once asserts the primary of narrative in its interlinked short-story form and the importance of other kinds of storytelling (repetitive, non-time-specific etc). Does Silko cover this sort of ground too?

  4. Faisal Arif Sukhera /

    this condensed and precise piece gives the scholars of trauma various insights into various emerging trends in the trauma theory.a superb effort.

  5. Cathy Caruth /

    Thank you for attempting to help people begin to read in this field. However, I want to make it clear that nowhere do I say that one should not try to enter therapy for trauma! Nor do I sacralize it. All of my readings turn from a repetition of incomprehensible death to that of survival. LaCapra and others have seriously misread me. That the trauma is never a single thing in Freud–it is always a missed encounter with death and with survival–means that its truth can't be reduced to a single encounter or "fact." Of course much needs to be done in the work on trauma and it is welcomed; false debates, however, do not get us further along. 


    as a french psychoanalyst and survivor as hidden child, I approuve of this important work still ignored from me. Especially Ms Caruth, to whom I say that Dori Laub has only last year been extensively published in french. Does she know of the duet Davoine-Gaudillière (in english also), and the major work of Gorges Didi-Huberman? I regularly follow (and correspond with) Ms Siri Hustvedt, whose work is for me crucial in this field.

    (I have been published in American J. of Psychoanalysis)

    thank you




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