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Kali Tal, Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture 95. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996. x + 296 pp. $54.95; $18.95 paper.
With the publication of three important new books on the psychoanalytic concept of trauma as it intersects with literature, literary theory, historiography, and contemporary culture, it is worth asking why, at this moment, trauma should attract such attention and become a pivotal subject connecting so many disciplines.(1) Of course, looking at contemporary American culture and at the history of this century, one might well ask how trauma could not be a primary concern, and why it has taken so long to elaborate the three suggestions for traumatic theory put forward by Freud.
Freud's earliest idea, in Studies in Hysteria, concerned the dynamics of trauma, repression, and symptom formation. Freud held that an overpowering event, unacceptable to consciousness, can be forgotten and yet return in the form of somatic symptoms or compulsive, repetitive behaviors. This initial theory of trauma and symptom became problematic for Freud when he concluded that neurotic symptoms were more often the result of repressed drives and desires than of traumatic events. Freud returned to the theory of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a work which originated in his treatment of World War I combat veterans who suffered from repeated nightmares and other symptoms of their wartime experiences. Here, the traumatic event and its aftermath again became central to psychoanalysis, but again Freud shifted his emphasis from the event to what he considered a more comprehensive frame, in this case a biological urge toward equilibrium which he then theorized as the "death drive." Finally, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud attempted a theory of trauma that would account for the historical development of entire cultures. Especially valuable in this work is his elaboration of the concept of "latency," of how memory of a traumatic event can be lost over time but then regained in a symptomatic form when triggered by some similar event. In this way, each national catastrophe invokes and transforms memories of other catastrophes, so that history becomes a complex entanglement of crimes inflicted and suffered, with each catastrophe understood--that is, misunderstood--in the context of repressed memories of previous ones. The chief problem with Moses and Monotheism, it seems to me, is its overreliance on the mythical, oedipal anthropology of Totem and Taboo. All historical traumas are seen ultimately as repetitions of a "phylogenetic" ur-trauma, the murder of the primal father--an interpretation which, in addition to being fanciful, once again discredits the event, whether in a personal or a social history, in favor of some all-encompassing instinctual-biological determination.(2)
All Freud's thinking on trauma manifests this ambivalence regarding the significance of the historical event. Reading Freud, we are tempted to ask, Are there events, are there traumas at all? That is, do events in history have consequences, as Freud urges in the first movements of each of his theoretical ventures, or, as he concludes in each of his second moves, are events secondary to desire, instinct, or a form of genetic history? Dominick LaCapra, Cathy Caruth, and Kali Tal all confront the Freudian ambivalence toward the event (an ambivalence, though based on different premises, seen also in poststructuralist theory), and all, in different ways, regard events, their aftermaths, and their representations as crucial to interpreting personal and social histories.
But again, what are the needs for and values of a theory of trauma in the United States at present, and why in particular should there be such interest in trauma among literary and cultural theorists? First, we can look at a popular culture and mass media obsessed by repetitions of violent disasters: et the successions of Die hards, Terminators, and Robocops, as well as Nightmares on Elm Street, disease and epidemic films, and now the return of the "classic" disaster films of twisters and turbulence and the repeated sequences of mini-apocalypses within each film; at "real life" cop shows; and at the news itself, that never exhausted source of pure horror. I am particularly fascinated by the "black box" obsession that follows each airplane crash--the wish (which I share) to witness the last moments, especially the moment that reveals the certainty of death entering the pilot's consciousness. Why do I want to know this, over and over?
We can look next at the preoccupation with family dysfunctions--child abuse, incest, spousal abuse--in the media, most strikingly on the talk show circuit. There appears to be the sense both that the family is the only hope for curing all social ills and that the family is damaged …