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  • Guest Editor's Introduction
  • William Hirst (bio)

when the editor of this journal asked me to guest-edit an issue on cultural trauma, neither she nor I anticipated that the world would be in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic as the project was winding down. When this special issue was initiated, an exploration of what had become known as "cultural trauma" seemed more of an intellectual undertaking than a plunge into an ongoing crisis. Now, as I write this in early April and the timing of the pandemic's end is still unknown, one cannot read through the contributions to this special issue—most of which were written before anyone had heard of COVID-19—without asking how they might contribute to an understanding of the pandemic and the collective memories society might form of it.

A number of contributors to this volume underscore the role social science can play both by revealing the way society responds to suffering and by offering means not just for individuals but for the population at large to cope with this ordeal. Quite a few years ago, in response to the AIDS crisis, Social Research sponsored and published the proceedings of a conference called In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease, which has just been reissued. A similar exploration of the COVID-19 pandemic will need to wait for a time when we have some distance from the current crisis. Nevertheless, the present contributions may offer at least ways of thinking about how to frame this discussion.

Without doubt, pandemics can have long-term consequences. During the bubonic plague pandemic of 1349, Jews were scapegoated, accused of poisoning wells, and, as a result, substantial portions of the Jewish populations in many German cities were killed (Benedictow 2004). The result was a mass migration of the remaining Jews to [End Page xxxiii] Poland, permanently changing the demographics of Europe. With the massive death toll it brought, the bubonic plague also altered labor relations, with the wages of workers doubling as a result of the ensuing labor shortage. To a large extent, it led to the end of feudalism as a social system.

But my concern when putting this special issue together was not necessarily with such logistical societal consequences. Rather it was with the representations people form of the collective suffering. The two are separable, to a degree. After all, the increase in wages observed after the plague occurred because of the labor shortage itself, not necessarily because of the way the plague was represented by the public. In pursuit of this concern about representation, the contributors to this volume were asked to address questions such as: Does society remember a cultural trauma over the long term? How will society remember it? Will it alter societal actions not just in the near future but also for generations to come? Will it do so in a way that reflects the evolving representation? What are the forces behind shaping these representations?

I find these questions to be as important as those about the logistical societal consequences because, in the end, they bear on a community's sense of itself and on the way the community deals with its past—and constructs its future. This evolving sense of identity has profound consequences on the way society itself evolves. The labor shortage following the bubonic plague may have increased wages and put financial strain on the elite class, but the way society reacted to this strain—either by suppressing the laboring class or responding to its demands—reflects, in a major way, how society has come to understand the trauma and its consequences. One might come to see the deaths of a substantial portion of the population as merely an unfortunate natural disaster of little meaning or a tragedy that needs to be responded to.

Answers to questions about representations of collective suffering are not straightforward, of course. In what might be viewed as [End Page xxxiv] an enduring mystery, many pandemics seem to be forgotten rather than remembered, at least in the long term. They do not haunt us, generation after generation, much to our collective regret when new pandemics...


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