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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 525-527

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Book Review

Trauma: A Genealogy

Trauma: A Genealogy. Ruth Leys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. x + 318. $55.00 (cloth); $19.00 (paper).

In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a diagnosable ailment, one that was fundamentally understood as a disorder of memory. By the spring of 1998 the contradictory logic of traumatic illness was made manifest in what promised to be one of the most notorious cases of sexual harassment in the history of the United States: Paula Jones versus President Clinton. Lawyers for the claimant declared that Jones suffered from PTSD as a result of her alleged traumatic experience. Technically speaking, such a claim implied that Jones's mind had been split by a sudden, intense emotion of terror to the degree that ordinary forms of cognition were unable to process the devastating wound to her psyche. How, then, could Jones testify to her experience? What might she possibly say on the witness stand? To the degree that modern medicine understands post-traumatic ailment as a temporal dislocation in which the fearful experience is fixed or frozen in time, and thus one in which the victim is unable to represent the past event as "past," trauma is precisely that which defies or precludes self-representation. Accordingly, as Ruth Leys quips in her introduction to Trauma: A Genealogy, Jones "should only have been able to repeat [her traumatic experience] in the mode of a compulsive and repetitive acting out" (2).

This anecdote is a telling one because it touches on the most compelling questions raised by Leys's study. What constitutes the self? How are representation and memory intertwined? Are images more powerful than words? How have our conceptions of these terms changed in the course of the past century? Trauma takes up major conceptual issues and provides insights that will prove indispensable for anyone working in the field of modernism, or, for that matter, anyone interested in the contingencies of modern subjectivity more broadly.

As Jean LaPlanche reminds us, "trauma" was originally a surgical term denoting a physical breach of the body's surface and the graduating effect of the wound throughout the entire organism. 1 Yet in the late nineteenth century, trauma became psychologized and, subsequently, has come to designate a purely psychical shock. Leys's study begins at the fin-de-si├Ęcle, ultimately disclosing an intellectual history that spans the twentieth century. The names that structure the eight chapters of her book range from the well known, including Sigmund Freud, Morton Prince, Pierre Janet, and Sandor Ferenczi, to the less familiar, such as Abram Kardiner, William Sargent, Bessel Van der Kolk, and Cathy Caruth. Her analyses are organized chronologically yet, laudably, she avoids treating the discourse on trauma as part of a continuously unfolding historical development. The resultant force is indeed that of a genealogy, alert to asymmetrical swerves and uncanny repetitions. One trusts Leys's claim that her approach "enables us to see what is recurrent, and in an important sense structural, in the difficulties and contradictions that have tormented conceptualizations of trauma throughout the century" (10). Her claim is repeatedly borne out by the force of her insights.

By positioning conceptions of trauma as the cornerstone of modern psychoanalysis, Leys exposes the countervailing and irresolvable impulses constitutive of the discipline's governing principles. The fundamental task of psychoanalysis is that of recollection or reconstruction and interpretation of repressed libidinal representations. Psychoanalysis, of course, rarely presumes the subject's direct access to the past--to the facts as they were--and has theorized the vicissitudes of memory as an individual's negotiation of a past that is always being altered, caught between an originating event and its oscillating relation to the present. Yet, says Leys, trauma quietly disrupts even this conception of the past, in the sense that trauma may not constitute an "event" (real or fantasized) per se. In a convincing rereading of Freud, she teases out the ways in [End Page 525] which the traumatic "event"--such as the determinate, localized...


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