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trauma culture 



by Hal Foster 


Today some artists appear driven by an 

ambition, on the one hand, to inhabit a 

place of total affect and, on the other, to 

be drained of affect altogether; on the one 

hand, to possess the obscene vitality of the 

wound and, on the other, to occupy the 

radical nihility of the corpse. Pure affect, 

no affect: It Hurts, I Can't Feel Anything. 


Why this fascination with trauma, this envy 

of abjection, now? To be sure, motives exist 

within art, writing and theory alike. There 

is a dissatisfaction with the textual model 

of reality--as if the real, repressed in 

poststructuralist postmodernism, had 

returned as traumatic. Then too there is a 

disillusionment with the celebration of 

desire as an open passport of a mobile 

subject--as if the real, dismissed by a 

performative postmodernism, were marshaled 

against a world of fantasy now felt to be 

compromised by consumerism. But obviously 

there are other forces at work as well: a 

despair about the persistent AIDS crisis, 

invasive disease and death, systemic poverty 

and crime, a destroyed welfare state, indeed 

a broken social contract (as the rich opt 

out in revolution from the top, and as the 

poor are dropped out in immiseration from 

the bottom). How one articulates these 

different forces is a difficult question--

perhaps a definitive question for cultural 

criticism. In any case these forces have 

driven the contemporary concern with trauma 

and abjection.


And one result is this: a special truth 

seems to reside in traumatic or abject 

states, in diseased or damaged bodies. To be 

sure, the violated body is often the 

evidentiary basis of important witnessings 

to truth, of necessary testimonials against 

power. But there are dangers with this 

siting of truth as well, such as the 

restriction of our political imagination to 

two camps, the abjector and the abjected, 

and the assumption that in order not to be 

counted among sexists and racists one must 

become the phobic object of such subjects. 

If there is a subject of history for the 

culture of abjection at all, it is not the 

Worker, the Woman or the Person of Color, 

but the Corpse. This is a politics of 

difference pushed beyond indifference, a 

politics of alterity pushed to nihility. But 

is this point of nihility a critical epitome 

of impoverishment where power cannot 

penetrate, or is it a place from which power 

emanates in a strange new form? Is abjection 

a refusal of power or its reinvention in a 

strange new guise, or is it somehow both 

these events at once? Finally, is abjection 

a space-time beyond redemption, or is it the 

fastest route for contemporary rogue-saints 

to grace?


Today there is a general tendency to 

redefine experience, individual and 

historical, in terms of trauma: a lingua 

trauma is spoken in popular culture, 

academic discourse, and the art and literary 

worlds. Many contemporary novelists (e.g., 

Paul Auster, Dennis Cooper, Steve Erickson, 

Denis Johnson, Ian McEwan, Tim O'Brien) and 

filmmakers (e.g., Atom Egoyan in Exotica, 

Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys, the Monty 

Python version of La Jetée) conceive 

experience in this paradoxical modality: 

experience that is not experienced, at least 

not punctually, that comes too early or too 

late, that must be acted out compulsively or 

reconstructed after the fact, almost 

analytically. Often in these novels and 

films narrative runs in reverse or moves 

very erratically, and the climax is an event 

that happened long ago or not at all (per 

the logic of trauma this is sometimes 

ambiguous).


On the one hand, especially in art, writing 

and theory, this trauma discourse continues 

the poststructuralist critique of the 

subject by other means, for strictly in a 

psychoanalytic register there is no subject 

of trauma--the position is evacuated--so in 

this sense the critique of the subject is 

most radical here. On the other hand, 

especially in therapy culture, talk shows 

and memoir-mongering, trauma is treated as 

an event that guarantees the subject, and in 

this psychologistic register the subject, 

however disturbed, rushes back as survivor, 

witness, testifier. Here a traumatic subject 

does indeed exist, and it has absolute 

authority, for one cannot challenge the 

trauma of another: one can only believe it, 

even identify with it, or not. In trauma 

discourse, then, the subject is evacuated 

and elevated at once. And in this way it 

serves as a magical resolution of 

contradictory imperatives in contemporary 

culture: the imperative of deconstructive 

analyses on the one hand, and the imperative 

of multicultural histories on the other; the 

imperative to acknowledge the disrupted 

subjectivity that comes of a broken society 

on the one hand, and the imperative to 

affirm identity at all costs on the other. 

Today, 30 years after the death of the 

author, we are witness to a strange rebirth 

of the author as zombie, to a paradoxical 

condition of absentee authority.



Hal Foster teaches art history at Cornell 

and is an editor of October. This text is an 

excerpt from an article that will appear in 

October 76, due out in the fall.