The Cultural Trauma Process and the Ethics of Memory John Sundholm

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The Cultural Trauma Process and the Ethics of Memory

John Sundholm
Sociologist Jeffery C. Alexander has launched, what he has coined “A Theory of Cultural Trauma”. The aim with Alexander’s notion of cultural trauma is to both criticize what he calls “lay trauma theory” and to offer a perspective for considering social and cultural processes of collective traumas.

My interest is basically two-fold: to discuss his theoretical model and its implication that trauma is a phenomenon of migration (it is the effect of something that is absent) and to address the question of what the consequences are if the relation between event (origin) and its meaning (trauma) is viewed as a question of value rather than of epistemology. Hence, what is the outcome if we treat cultural trauma as an object for memory studies instead of being an inquiry for historical studies? The tentative answer that I will deliver is that if we talk about a phenomenon that is constructed by human beings in the present and we therefore accept the presupposition that the origin can never be reached, then we are talking about migrating symptoms and thus we have primarily to consider questions of value. Accordingly, trauma is a normative concept, but in what way is it also a question of an ethics? – Of thick relations as Avishai Margalit has named it, dichotomizing the relation between ethics and morality into thick and thin relations respectively.

Cultural Trauma and Ethics

In general psychologists and sociologists agree that trauma and event are separate. Trauma is an act of signification, hence something social. Jeffery C. Alexander stresses the social dimension even further with the notion of cultural trauma:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.

Moreover, Alexander gives cultural trauma an ethical dimension, although he does not explicitly use the notion ethics:

Insofar as they [the collective] identify the cause of trauma, and thereby assume such moral responsibility, members of collectivities define their solidarity relationships in ways that, in principle, allow them to share the suffering of others. Is the suffering of others also our own? In thinking that it might in fact, societies expand the circle of the we. By the same token, social groups can, and often do, refuse to recognize the existence of others’ trauma and because of their failure they cannot achieve a moral stance. [….] by refusing to participate in what I will describe as the process of trauma creation, social groups restrict solidarity, leaving others to suffer alone.

Thus, Alexander’s aim to deny that trauma is grounded in something objective (external or real) becomes a way of stressing the ethical character of the cultural trauma process. 1 However, one of the key questions is how to ‘expand the circle of the we’ and still withhold the ethical imperative.

The Semiotics of Cultural Trauma

What I find highly problematic in Alexander’s theory is the claim that we, collectively, may choose how to represent events: “Collective actors “decide” to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to their sense of who they are” (10). It is difficult to consider the events of, for example, mass rapes that so often are part of warfare, as being mere happenings and that we may actually choose to signify them as traumatic – this especially so when the intention behind the deeds is to create traumas, to shake, interrupt and break the identity of individuals and groups.2 However, in a broader perspective, when we talk about the dynamics of groups and collectives and their identity, I think that cultural trauma is a useful notion. Then it makes sense to talk about a construction of social meanings, of how the event is transformed and migrates into a grid of significations.

The thesis about a gap between sign and referent is well-known in (social) semiotics or cultural studies. No meanings are inherent in the object, or the event, it is always a matter of appropriation, negotiation, cultural struggle and the making of meaning.

Culture and Ethics, or, the Process of Sharing and Caring

The cultural trauma process, or what we might call, the semiotics of trauma, takes place in-between event and representation. But in order for the event to become a cultural trauma, to migrate into social significance, it has to be established as a shared value – even if we talk about a negative value as in the case of trauma. This is a process that takes time and that require agents, mediations and a community of carriers and ‘caretakers’. Thus, cultural trauma, as a social and cultural phenomenon implies an ethics. I want to stress that this concerns cultural trauma and not all trauma. The gap between event and representation is not always a free and open space that is accessible for intervention and agency. Some events may be so difficult and horrible that it takes an extensive time span to appropriate them (one example would be the Finnish Civil War in 1917 that could only be dealt with openly 80 years later). I also consider, psychological or individual trauma – at least in part – to be outside the model and the interpretative frame that Alexander establishes.

Accordingly, the theory that Alexander establishes – and that he considers to be an empirical one – is for me a cultural perspective on dramatic events that have the potential to be made into collective traumas, into a shared past and a common memory around something that is deeply disturbing. I prefer to talk of ‘perspective’ instead of theory because what we face is a heuristic process where we are trying to find reasonable meanings for situations, acts and things. It is also a question of culture because trauma is used as a metaphor, it is something that is carried over – and migrating – from the discipline and domain of psychology into that of culture, or cultural anthropology and sociology of culture.
The Epistemology of Cultural Trauma

One of the consequences with the idea of cultural trauma is therefore that we have to get rid of the epistemological problem of memory. Who did what is not what matters. Our semiotics is instead based upon the principle of migration (we study effects of an absent event) and the question of origin or what actually happened is of no relevance. If we, on the other hand, focus on the question of the character and quality of the event and the origin, then we are moving into the domain of the morality of trauma and of memory. That is a project were we are driven by the imperative to find out what the event was like. This is the world of the detective, the police of morality. As Margalit claims we need morality because we don’t care about people in general, we care only for those we know, for those who are near us. Therefore caring is placed in a now, and so to speak localized. Consequently, to pose the question what actually happened is only important from a moral point of view. Moral, according to Margalit, is abstract and general, when ethics is material and specific. Hence, ethics presupposes a shared past, memory and community. Morality does not. A true cultural trauma process is therefore a sign for a thick relation, an ethics.

Thus, acknowledging a cultural trauma is a social form of caring. If we care for a collective that has suffered we consider their traumatic past. If we care for the moral of the trauma (for example about what actually happened, or of whom that has the right to claim to be traumatized) we don’t necessary care for the community or the victim. It is, for example, this relation between moral and ethics that the father in the classical American melodrama East of Eden did not understand. The righteous patriarch is incapable of caring for his sons because his primary principle of upbringing is that of morality.
The Enclosed Space of Cultural Trauma

Following Margalit’s thesis then an ethics presupposes an enclosed social space. Morality on the other hand is unlimited. It regulates our “thin” relations, our common humanity. Morality is born out of principles and therefore the result of an act of negotiation and legislation. As Margalit writes: “Morality is long on geography and short on memory. Ethics is typically short on geography and long on memory.” Consequently we are facing a dilemma that I would like to discuss at our workshop: When facing one of the primary characteristics of today’s society, migration and immigration, how to move between the open and abstract space of morality and the enclosed space of ethics? And: how can one transgress and overcome the dichotomization of ethics and (fixed) place vs. morality and (open) space? One tentative answer could be that we in fact are talking about a process; hence our chains of signification are closed and opened up through time. The time span is important because it also implies that the cultural trauma process includes the act of forgetting as well; the absent other of memory.

Works cited
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2004) ”Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma”. Alexander et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Margalit, Avishai (2002) The Ethics of Memory. Harvard: Harvard UP.

1 Alexander claims that there are two fallacies in lay trauma theory that fetishizes the event or the real: the psychological and the naturalistic. Both are based on the idea that trauma is inherent in an original event, or ‘real’.

2 This becomes evident through Alexander’s examples: The wound of Vietnam War and the American psyche; slavery as a collective trauma for African Americans etc. It is also typical that a radical constructivist view such as Alexander’s cannot consider intentional acts; the presupposition of the perspective is that we live in the world of the sociologist, of ‘tabula rasa’.

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