Trauma Studies is alive and well today—and its reach is expanding, as evidenced by the special section of this journal on "Witnessing and Performance." Scholars in more fields find the lens of trauma illuminating for understanding art about catastrophe. Partly because global disasters dominate our mediated worlds as never before, such art is more visible than in the past. And along with it, scholars continue to analyze not only the impact of art about atrocities on audiences, but also the ethical imperative to create witnesses to disaster through art. Dori Laub's insistence, years ago, on the importance of bearing witness to catastrophe where there was no witness before, has been taken to heart by artists in recent years as they turned to make works about disasters worldwide.1
While I will briefly return to debates about exactly which kind of art best offers the position of the ethical witness, I do not intend to pursue arguments I have made elsewhere about differences between a viewer experiencing vicarious trauma or empty empathy in responding to different media representations of catastrophe.2 Rather, I will first comment on the interdisciplinary development of theories dealing with collective or cultural trauma, incited by sociologists such as Wulf Kansteiner and Jeffrey Alexander, themselves sometimes inspired by reading humanities trauma studies.3 I will then address my new interest in what I call "future-tense trauma" (for short),4 as it relates to a specific kind of witnessing. That is, in this case, viewers witness probable futurist dystopian worlds, as they are imagined on film, before they happen. Some media images proliferating through a society create what I have called "cultural trauma," when people live in fear of imminent disaster, and affects of future threat dominate consciousness.5 But other films offer a position of being witness avant la lettre to the challenges that face humans worldwide in regard to disastrous human impact on the planet leading to infrastructure collapse. [End Page 53]
Witnessing in the ethical sense has to address not just the individual but the social collectivity as well. It involves taking responsibility for injustices in the past, and, as I will argue, preventing future human-based catastrophe. It is a position in which one acts as a member of a collectivity or culture. Understanding this kind of cultural witnessing and its implications requires theorizing how cultural trauma functions and how we can generalize for a collectivity. Humanists have had trouble doing this. From a Freudian and specifically clinical point of view, trauma can only be known by its belated return in symptoms—nightmares, phobias, hallucinations, and panic attacks. No event, then, is inherently traumatic; it only becomes so in its later symptomatic return. Yet we talk of events themselves as "traumatic." Focusing heavily on a specific event as the origin of trauma phenomena runs the danger of rejecting the psychoanalytic understanding of memory "as the outcome of complex processes of revision," as Susannah Radstone (following Freud) put it, in favor of a linear registration of events as they happen.6
Nevertheless, to abandon the word "trauma" is to lose the resonance and aura, if you like, that the word carries. We know we are talking about something atrocious, almost beyond understanding, if we call an event "traumatic." When I use the term "trauma culture," as in the title for my 2005 book, I mean a culture in which discourses, and especially images, about catastrophic events proliferate, often "managed" by government; these discourses overtake public discussion of other things, dominating the social atmosphere. Like Jeffrey Alexander, a sociologist, I agree that "trauma is not something naturally existing; it is something constructed by society,"7 and I would add especially constructed through the media. When I refer to people being "vicariously traumatized" by such proliferation of catastrophe discourse, I mean that people suffer effects similar to trauma by watching or experiencing the trauma of others. So I use the term loosely but I think effectively. Other words do not communicate what the term "trauma" does.
However, the leap from describing traumatic symptoms, clarified in clinical research with individual subjects in therapy, to applying...