No doubt, history hurts. But the irreversibility of this proposition immediately relocates its subject beyond what is conceivable within the horizon opened up by its predicate. For if not everything that hurts is actually history, then there is an insurmountable gap or an irreducible barrier of alterity between the subject and the predicate. This complication suggests that even if history manifested itself exclusively in the form of suffering, its identity would still remain irreducible to this universal affliction. Thus, we must ask ourselves— without the shadow of the slightest cynicism—whether it would be possible to find some enjoyment in history that is not the sadistic pleasure of the one who inflicts wounds?
The question is difficult both on historical and theoretical grounds. On the one hand, in the wake of the cultural triumph of psychoanalysis in the West, the twentieth century learned to explain itself to itself in the quasi-theoretical language of therapeutic utopias. The field opened up by Freud (but often in contrast to Freud's own convictions) gave rise to a whole set of ideas that have become the tacit presuppositions of our cultural self-definitions. In its most reductive form, this worldview suggests that the past is by definition the site of suffering, while the future is, if not the site of happiness, at least that of manageable compromises and redemptive reconciliations. On the other hand, in the wake of the historical catastrophes of the century and the seemingly anachronistic persistence of violent barbaric forces, Western thought by its own inclination gravitated toward ethical paradigms. Thus, the category of "trauma" emerged as a fundamental component of our definitions of history, ethics, and politics as well. We discover here a distant affinity between academic theoretical reflection on the constitution of the subject and popular narratives of selfhood. [End Page 31]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
In fact, the pervasive presence of this newly discovered "traumatic subject" did not go unnoticed by critics of the zeitgeist. By the second half of the 1990s, the term "trauma culture" was coined in order to designate our cultural obsession with traumatic narratives. For example, in 1997 Mark Seltzer argued the following: "The notion of the public sphere has become inseparable from the collective gathering around sites of wounding, trauma, and pathology: sociality and the wound have become inseparable" (24).1 This transformation of our [End Page 32] relation to the public sphere, however, had at least one important consequence. Both in academic and popular accounts of the self, it tended to eliminate the problem of enjoyment from our understanding of the historicity of the subject. This is why, at the same time as the theorization and public performance of traumatic subjectivities was on the rise, the category of "nostalgia" has been redefined as the negative correlate of trauma. Paraphrasing Seltzer, we could even say that we have learned to approach any "collective gathering" around sites of nostalgia with a good deal of political skepticism: sociality and nostalgia have become irreconcilable for us.
This two-fold distribution of theoretical and public narratives is so self-evident for many of us today that it is very difficult to conceive of alternatives to the imaginary matrix that it defines. So the task that I would like to propose here is precisely the invention of a relation to history and the public sphere of sociality that deconstructs the trauma/ nostalgia opposition. The theoretical goal is to separate concrete narrative forms from actual political contents. In other words, we need to insist that just because a particular historical narrative is clearly marked by tropes and figures of trauma or nostalgia, we cannot determine its political significance in an a priori fashion. At the same time, the theoretical separation of narrative form from political content needs to be complemented by another strategic argument. It follows from the previous point that it might be possible to conceive of historical moments or concrete rhetorical situations in which we need to rely on nostalgic rather than traumatic narratives in order to imagine progressive political change. In these situations, the political task could...