- The Time of TraumaRereading Unclaimed Experience and Testimony
For the wound remains open by our terror before the future and not only the past. . . . It is the future that determines the unappropriability of the event, not the present or the past. . . . We are talking about a trauma, and thus an event, whose temporality proceeds neither from the now that is present nor from the present that is past but from an im-presentable to come (à venir).—Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides”
It is a curiosity deserving a place at a beginning of an article: the key works of literary trauma studies— Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience and Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony— do not discuss tragedy.1 Although it is obvious that literary trauma theory is essentially connected to the Western tragic tradition— that tradition put together between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries by thinkers like Hegel and Freud and embodied in Sophocles’s heroes Antigone and Oedipus— in Unclaimed Experience the word “tragedy” is used twice: once in the colloquial sense (111) and once in a footnote as a part of a quotation (127). In Testimony, similarly, “tragedy” is mentioned all of three times.2 Neither lists the term in its index.
Despite this limitation, the two books have been crucial, following Elie Wiesel, in establishing a new category for understanding testimonial aspects of literature, witnessing to an otherwise unrepresentable traumatic event. This notion has become so popular that the mla database lists over [End Page 1] twelve hundred works published after 1999 with the term “trauma” in the title, most of which are applying the simplest of formulas— “trauma in X,” where X can be anything from a Shakespeare tragedy to Native American hip-hop.3 The newfound ubiquity of trauma does not, however, imply that the very basic concepts of this theory are well understood, including issues like how trauma is present in a work of art or who is traumatized exactly. Is it the character? The audience? The author? To complicate matters, with the work of Jacques Lacan (whose concept of the “missed encounter” is behind Caruth’s and Felman’s understanding of trauma) psychoanalysis stopped psychoanalyzing literary characters and authors and moved beyond reading narratives as representations. After his seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” Lacan defined a whole new task for analysis that concerned the nature of interpretation and consisted of investigating the structure of meaning, the role of the signifier, and so on. Such reading is very hard to align with the critique of literary trauma theory in influential works such as, for instance, Ruth Leys’s Trauma: A Genealogy.4 Among other things, Leys suggests that for Caruth trauma is a literal repetition of some prior wound, implying that for contemporary literary theory literature is a representation of an actual past moment.5
In her critique Leys does, however, put her finger on a crucial issue that neither Caruth nor Felman explain precisely enough, an issue that has been behind the widespread misunderstanding of what trauma theory implies. So we are compelled to ask once again: how is trauma present in a piece of writing at all if not as the past making a second appearance? Starting with an answer to this question, the chief goal of this article is to offer a new and different way to understand the proposition that a literary theory of trauma is firstly an aesthetic theory (and not a historical or medical theory). I will start with an unusual assumption: that trauma theory is about the future and not, as scholars commonly argue, about the past, which will be the starting point of my aesthetic argument.6
I mean that trauma theory is about the future in several ways. First, in the very simple sense that trauma connotes a disruption of the continuity between the present and the past. Without such continuity, trauma’s temporal dimension is indeterminable. Since the survivor has survived, we are, however, bound to see the dimension of time “after” a trauma as a future. Second, I mean it in the sense that trauma theory is a theory of...