Isn’t ALL trauma ‘cultural’?

In a recent post I introduced Jeffery Alexander’s idea of cultural trauma which occurs when members of a social group feel they have been subjected to an horrendous event, which changes their sense of group consciousness, memory and future identity in a fundamental and irrevocable way.  What’s critical to note here is that Alexander refers to an ‘horrendous event’ rather than ‘trauma’; and this is because the trauma itself is the product of an elaborate cultural process. 

As I pointed out in my subsequent post, Alexander appears to be making a differentiation between cultural and individual trauma.  This is not explicitly spelt out in his argument, but he does appear to conflate ‘cultural’ with ‘social’, and his focus is on collectivities rather than individuals.  However, in my view this misses the point entirely because the idea that a culture can be ‘traumatised’ makes no sense.  This is because ‘culture’ is precisely the system of representation and meaning that makes the concept of trauma possible in the first place.  Far more problematic, in fact, is the concept of the ‘individual’, which is often another way of describing the ‘self’ or the ‘ego’. Both self and ego are essentially the product of Imaginary identifications with a range of specular others.

Perhaps the real issue here is that the term ‘trauma’ actually has two very different meanings, although as we shall see they are still related to one another.  Firstly, trauma is a manifestation of the Real, as Lacan makes clear in Seminar XI.1  Used this way, trauma is something that is ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ of representation; something which makes no sense to the subject. There are number of problems here, however, including the idea that the Real is a function of language itself.

Secondly, trauma can be seen as a narrative, which is constructed retroactively and which brings us back to the idea of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit.  The complication here is that such a trauma narrative has traumatic effects itself, for reasons I will come to shortly.   The key point here is that, in this sense, all trauma is a construction; and the process of constructing such a trauma narrative is cultural.  This applies as much to the ‘trauma work’ that takes place in the therapist’s consulting room as it does to histories of the Holocaust.  Both are attempts to represent and make sense of events and experiences which are essentially beyond meaning.

But if trauma is a cultural construction, does it make sense to speak of an ‘original trauma’, which is often thought of as being located in early childhood and (quite often) rooted in some form of sexual encounter?  On the other hand, of course, such an ‘original’ trauma can be an event such as the Holocaust, which whilst not rooted in the early life of a particular individual, is still none the less beyond comprehension.  In either case, though, the question of ‘origin’ looms large. 

The idea of an ‘origin’ only makes sense within a discursive framework.  Furthermore, there has to be an ‘anchoring point’ in order to construct such a framework; or, to be more precise in this particular case, in order to construct a historical (trauma) narrative that has a ‘beginning’ (if not an ‘end’).  And if we are to take the idea of Nachträglichkeit seriously then it’s clear that such a narrative can only be constructed retroactively, which includes its ‘origin’.  This is what led Lacan to argue that rather than the subject’s future being determined by his past, it was the other way round; the subject’s past is determined by his future. 

Clearly this goes against any ‘common sense’ notions of temporality and causality; how can the future ‘determine’ the past?  The key point to remember here is that ideas of temporality, causality, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’, only make sense within a symbolic framework.  But even if we accept this idea of a retroactively constructed ‘original trauma’, surely this is not to suggest that nothing actually happened?  On the contrary, something certainly did happen; the problem is trying to work out what this ‘something’ is. 

At this point I would like to hypothesise that rather than looking for an ‘original trauma’, it would be more helpful to think of history in terms of writing the Real into the Symbolic.  This not only gets round the problem of an ‘original’ traumatic event or experience, but also helps explain how trauma narratives can have traumatic effects.  The ‘original trauma’ is essentially a Real Event; one that can only become historicised through a retroactive, symbolic process. This process is the ‘trauma work’, the construction of a trauma narrative.

But is every Event traumatic? In one sense yes, because until it is codified, articulated, given meaning, it remains in the Real. Of course, in most cases this process of representation, giving meaning to something, happens very quickly and often unconsciously. Sometimes though, the experience is so strange and peculiar that it can take longer to ‘process’ – if indeed it can be processed at all.

What I’m essentially arguing here is that all history is based on the construction of trauma narratives.  This is because such narratives represent a writing of the Real into the Symbolic, and every Event (human experience) is Real until it becomes thus written. The complication with this argument is that it doesn’t appear to explain why trauma narratives themselves can be traumatic.  In fact, this argument appears to suggest that it is only when an Event is written into the Symbolic that it can have traumatic effects.  In that case, how are we to explain, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which the symptoms are (taken to be) the result of ‘unprocessed’ trauma?

The point about PTSD, though, is that the ‘symptoms’ are actually manifestations of the Real (flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, etc).  The treatment of PTSD essentially involves the construction of a trauma narrative, a way to try and ‘make sense’ of what happened.  However, my argument is that within that trauma narrative is a traumatic (Real) core. What further complicates the argument is whether PTSD itself is a form of (rudimentary) trauma narrative; in other words, has there already been some initial ‘processing’ of the experiences which is enough to traumatise the subject? This might help explain the ‘delayed reaction’ of PTSD, which can sometimes take years or even decades to manifest itself. 

Perhaps if we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then could it be argued that the ‘past’ itself is Real?  In one sense, yes, insofar as the ‘past’ is simply that which is not written, not articulated or given meaning.  As soon as the ‘past’ is written it becomes history.  But in that case,  what about the different types of history; for example, of individuals, societies, etc?  In other words, if the ‘past’ is just one, undifferentiated Real, how is it that different histories can be written from it?

In fact, though, this is not such a problem.  If the Real can be conceptualised in terms of isolated signifiers, which is Tom Eyers’ argument, then the work of history is essentially about ‘writing’ these isolated signifiers into various Symbolic formations, networks of meaning.2 Therefore, the history of an individual and the history of a whole society are simply two different Symbolic articulations. However, one of the problems with such an argument is that it suggests that human subjects themselves are simply a particular form of Symbolic articulation, which, of course, is essentially the Lacanian position. 

However, even if the human subject is a Symbolic articulation, it does not follow that the human being is.  And this is why the Real matters so much.  Although on the one hand it can be seen as a traumatic disturbance in the fabric of human and social existence (what we like to call ‘reality’), on the other hand it represents a dimension of human existence that escapes the ‘determinism’ of the Symbolic. 

Going back to the original question: is all trauma cultural?  The short answer is yes and no.  Yes in the sense that all trauma narratives are cultural products, including those that emerge in the confines of the therapist’s consulting room.  In other words, all trauma, as narrative, as a product of Nachträglichkeit, is produced through a (cultural) process which involves giving meaning to the experience.  No, in the sense that trauma is a manifestation of the Real, and to this extent is ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ the network of signification.  However, the complication here is that such a manifestation of the Real can only take place within the trauma narrative itself.  In other words, the Real is a function of the Symbolic; but only retroactively, after it has been ‘written’ into the Symbolic itself. 

  1. Lacan, J. (1979) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin. []
  2. Eyers, T. (2012) Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. []