- Introduction: Trauma and Crisis
The development of theory in America is marked by what has come to be known in the last ten years as trauma, and our purpose in this introduction is to point to that, and to open our collection with and to the question: What is meant by trauma theory? We will situate this question through a brief examination of history as it unfolds between texts, and will forego a discussion of social and political events that may have contributed to the development of the interest in trauma. We choose to do this in the belief that access to the former (history as it unfolds between texts) will provide a path to the latter (social and political events), and that this would not be the case if we were to reverse the direction.
We begin with one precise moment, Shoshana Felman’s “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” a text that ushered the term trauma, in its present critical formation, onto the American theoretical scene.1 As Cathy Caruth made clear in her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory and throughout her Unclaimed Experience, trauma is an overwhelming experience which is in some way present in and through a literary text.2 What makes literature into the privileged, but not the only, site of trauma is the fact that literature as an art form can contain and present an aspect of experience which was not experienced or processed fully. Literature, in other words, because of its sensible and representational character, because of its figurative language, is a channel and a medium for a transmission of trauma which does not need to be apprehended in order to be present in a text or, to use Felman’s and Dori Laub’s term, in order to be witnessed. What is thus also presented through a text is a certain truth about history that is not otherwise available.
“Education and Crisis” is even more pertinent for our present purposes because in it Felman reads Mallarmé’s lecture “La Musique et les lettres” and a text based on it, “Crise de verse.”3 The two writings, we remember, played a pivotal role for literary theory in the U.S. when they were read by Paul de Man in his “The Crisis of Contemporary Criticism,” which first appeared in Arion (Spring 1967) and was later included as the opening essay—now entitled simply “Criticism and Crisis”—in Blindness and Insight. We recall also that this and other essays in Blindness and Insight were written in “response to theoretical questions about the possibility of literary interpretation” (de Man xi). So, when Felman turns to Mallarmé, this is in effect a return to the possibility of literary theory and to its history.4 Here are the five most important points about this critical turn, before we begin our reading of Felman’s essay which will help us situate this volume with respect to the current state of trauma theory.
First, in “Education and Crisis” Felman does not cite de Man’s engagement with Mallarmé. But she does offer more than an allusive suggestion as to which theoretical path she is pursuing when, in her own title, she repeats the crucial term (crisis) de Man developed in his “Criticism and Crisis.”
Second, de Man uses “crisis” to define the state of literary criticism in analogy to Mallarmé’s description of the state of poetry in his time. Adapting and paraphrasing Mallarmé, de Man says:
Well-established rules and conventions that governed the discipline of criticism and made it a cornerstone of the intellectual establishment have been so badly tampered with that the entire edifice threatens to collapse. One is tempted to speak of recent developments in Continental criticism in terms of crisis.(3)
Taking some liberties, we can read these two sentences as saying that the role of Mallarmé’s poetic revolution in revamping literature at the end of 19th century is, in the 1960s, performed by a theoretical revolution. Since literary criticism “occurs in the mode of crisis” (de Man 8), we can assume that its task is, in fact, perpetually to trouble and reinvent writing.
Third, “crisis” for de...