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American Imago 59.3 (2002) 367-384
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A Commentary on Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy
"Analysis should lead to the sharing of a truth supposed possible between the analyst and the analysand, acknowledgment of which aids in their mutual emancipation."
—André Green, "The Double and the Absent"
We speak of trauma incessantly these days, so much so that when a recent story in The New York Times about troubles in the Catholic church casually refers to "the now familiar trauma of a sexual abuse scandal" (5/14/02), we may not pause to reflect on the many questions the phrase implies. In what sense can a trauma be "familiar"? Is the scandal itself traumatic, or the fact of its occurrence, or is it the sexual abuse alone? For whom is this abuse traumatic? To what extent has the scandal simply occurred and in what ways is it a media creation, defined for its political and economic uses? And is not "abuse," like trauma, another term incessantly used to refer to or evoke an enormous variety of experiences? Elastic uses of loaded terms seem symptomatic of our times, and the list could go on. Add "addiction," for example, or "victim." The events of September 11, 2001, have certainly exacerbated the stretch marks of linguistic usage, but the problem of locating sources and meanings of overwhelming experiences and psychic dangers was felt urgently long before that disruptive day. The burgeoning interdisciplinary literature on trauma is both a response to and a symptom of our times, and Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy aims to clarify the central issues. Her book is a [End Page 367] densely argued intellectual effort in a field whose boundaries have yet to be firmly adjudicated. The history of thinking about trauma is replete with conflicts between people using differing assumptions, fundamental concepts, and vocabularies, and Leys consistently displays a remarkable ability to navigate some of the most intricate confluences and ramifications of psychological, psychoanalytic, psychiatric, neurobiological, and literary critical writings spread over more than a century. Her historical scholarship is wide and deep, and her powers of lucid explication can be truly formidable. Allan Young, author of The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (1995), provides a blurb calling Leys's book "a fascinating voyage of intellectual discovery." In many respects, it is easy to agree with him. Leys identifies and explores some of the knottiest recurrent issues in modern theories of trauma from pre-Freudian writings to very recent reconceptualizations by Bessel van der Kolk and Cathy Caruth of the nature of traumatic experiences and therapeutic responses to them.
But as her title indicates, Leys's book is not a narrative history, and I cannot fully share Young's opinion that it is "a pleasure to read." My responses to reading Trauma: A Genealogy are considerably more mixed, and this is not only because her material is extraordinarily rich, complex, and open to a variety of interpretations. From the beginning, Leys intermixes history and theory in problematic ways. What is a genealogy? This is what Leys says:
I do not proceed as if trauma has a linear, if interrupted, historical development. Rather, I shall take a genealogical approach to the study of trauma, in an effort to understand what Michel Foucault has called "the singularity of events outside any monotonous finality" and in order to register their recurrence, as he put it, not for the purpose of tracing "the gradual curve of their evolution but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles." (8)
This is not my dictionary's definition of genealogy, which is based on the organic metaphor of a family tree in which [End Page 368] branches descend and are inseparable from common roots. The organic concept of genealogy describes unities that unfold in time. There is no unity to be found, however, in the conflicting and often incompatible assumptions of trauma theories as...