To be convinced of our culture’s fascination with trauma, all one needs to do is turn on the television. On any given evening, the trauma junkie can get a quick fix from shows like Train Wrecks, When Animals Attack II, World’s Wildest Police Videos, and, for the more discriminating viewer, The Learning Channel’s Adrenaline Rush Hour. Even the Animal Planet network goes beyond the brutality and violence of nature documentaries to offer pet owners vicarious traumatization and grief in its show Emergency Vets. With his book Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation [End Page 1081] in the Nineties, Kirby Farrell makes a tremendous contribution to our understanding of this cultural fascination with trauma.
The central concern of Farrell’s book is to extend our interpretation of trauma beyond the clinical case study by examining how trauma functions as a trope, “a strategic fiction that a complex, stressful society is using to account for a world that seems threateningly out of control.” Because of our increased awareness of trauma and its effects, most of us recognize that a traumatic experience changes a survivor. Farrell, however, reveals that a reciprocal process also takes place in our culture. When change occurs in our lives or our culture, we create “trauma and fantasies about trauma” to rationalize change and thereby mitigate our fear of disorder and cosmic chaos or indeterminacy. Trauma becomes an interpretive system for explaining cultural change.
To illustrate this relationship between trauma and culture, Farrell looks at the post-traumatic themes and ideologies common in the final decades of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they are portrayed in literature, art, film, and television. Both decades bear witness to an individual and communal struggle to cope with the “shock of radical historical change.” Such a shock is registered as an injury, a trauma that sabotages faith in traditional value systems and the cultural order, undermines our sense of safety and stability, erodes identity and self-esteem, challenges interpretation, and often defies or destroys meaning. In both decades, the sense of having survived a trauma caused an increase in death anxiety—whether it be the fear of physical, social, or economic death—and an increase in post-traumatic symptoms, such as dissociation or numbing, hypervigilance, repetition compulsion, obsessive mourning, or anger often manifest in berserking rage.
Farrell begins his discussion by examining the post-traumatic mood of the 1890s, manifest in fin de siècle morbidity and a pessimistic sense of cultural degeneration and decay. The fictions of the time focused on traumatic heroism, traumatic rescue, and mourning as efforts to manage the anxiety produced by such fatalism. The story of Saint George, so popular in the nineteenth century, illustrates the reassuring and culturally reaffirming attributes of heroism and heroic rescue, but it also raises the issue of futility. Traumatic mourning is another means of dealing with the period’s sense of loss, for it establishes a space in which life and death can co-exist and symbolic immortality can provide compensation for loss. In the nineteenth century, Queen [End Page 1082] Victoria was the quintessential mourner, whose personal grieving over the death of her husband Albert spawned a cultural fascination with mourning that was evident, for example, in the increase in spiritualism and séances. Farrell also sees the theme of mourning played out in Rider Haggard’s autobiography and novel She. Like Haggard, H. G. Wells dealt with trauma in his personal life and in his literary works, and in both, notes Farrell, he illustrates the “rift between radical individualistic and social modes of traumatic coping.” Such a rift was mirrored in the Victorian dichotomy between the efforts of social reformers and a Darwinian political and economic ideology that encouraged individualism, competition, and discipline. Farrell concludes his look at the 1890s with Oscar Wilde, whose “imaginative style held in precarious suspension so many post-traumatic themes: generational competition, vexed expectations, mourning, and alienation.”
These post-traumatic themes are still evident at the end of our century, and we have increased our vulnerability to...