Topologies of Trauma: Essays on the Limit of Knowledge and Memory (review)
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Biography 26.4 (2003) 745-748

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Linda Belau and Petar Ramadanovic, eds. Topologies of Trauma: Essays on the Limit of Knowledge and Memory. New York: Other Press, 2002. 284 pp. ISBN 1-892746-97-2, $50.00.

The current backlash against trauma studies is, perhaps, understandable. The trauma craze that took hold of literary and cultural critics in the mid 1990s has sometimes led to aggrandizing appropriations of tragic history as a source of moral capital. Though my own work in the area does not completely immunize me against skepticism vis-à-vis the so-called "trauma industry," I was pleasantly surprised by this excellent new collection. The challenge of the volume is succinctly posed by David Farrell Krell in the opening essay, which reflects on knowing versus narrating the past in light of F. W. J. Schelling's Die Weltalter. Krell writes that "the question is not whether trauma studies has anything to learn from philosophy but whether philosophy is capable of thinking its traumas." The essays comprising Topologies respond to this challenge by probing the limits of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature.

From the standpoint of writing and teaching in the field, I found Thomas Elsaesser's and Ellie Ragland's contributions particularly useful and have already cited them in my own work. Elsaesser's "One Train May Be Hiding Another: History, Memory, Identity, and the Visual Image" performs an incisive reading of the post-historical deployment of famous traumatically charged photographs. Elsaesser's discussion ultimately centers on a photograph of a Sinti girl being deported to Bergen Belsen who is nevertheless misrepresented as the quintessential Jewish victim on her way to Auschwitz. His analysis offers an illuminating case study for the way in which historical [End Page 745] images function as traumatic icons that enable identification but displace actual contexts and referents. Ragland's "The Psychical Nature of Trauma: Freud's Dora, the Young Homosexual Woman, and the Fort! Da! Paradigm" will be invaluable for students of psychoanalysis because it does not "speak Lacan" from on high as it were, but instead takes the vital step of lucidly explaining how Freudian and Lacanian terminology might help us to understand the social and ontological ruptures affected by traumatic events, and the role of effective listening in testimonial contexts.

Cathy Caruth's interview with Jean Laplanche is also important for revisiting and clarifying the analyst's core insights, developed from years of refined close readings between Freud's topography of the perceptual-conscious and unconscious systems and his various revisions of the libidinal economy. Caruth's engagement with Laplanche highlights the epistemological and temporal dynamics of trauma implied by Freud's theories of the drives. The interview with Laplanche serves as an effective bridge for Charles Shepherdson's elegant exploration of temporal topoi between philosophy, literature, and psychoanalysis. Shepherdson's "The Catastrophe of Narcissism: Telling Tales of Love" draws on Maurice Blanchot, Julia Kristeva, and Plotinus among others to conceptualize the relation between the "time of narcissism‚" and the "time of disaster‚" in order then to reconsider the distinction between repeating and remembering. For Shepherdson, "the time of narcissism is the time of disaster, the time of an event whose traumatic character repeats itself at every moment, beyond the recovery of historical memory." Shepherdson therefore treats the relation between repeating and remembering as a historical problem for philosophy that reflects back upon the place of psychoanalysis as an intervention into the thinking of time and discourse.

The problematic of repetition versus remembering is a core preoccupation among trauma theorists, including Ragland, Caruth, Linda Belau, and Herman Rapaport, who are concerned with the belatedness of memory and the potential for working through the epistemological impasses affected by wounding events. Belau's "Trauma, Repetition, and the Hermeneutics of Psychoanalysis" provides a careful map of the shifts in the psychoanalytic theory of interpretation evinced in Freud's rejection of the seduction hypothesis, his conceptualization of fantasy, and his delineation of the drives between "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Rapaport also takes up the belatedness of traumatic affect in "Representation...