Essay

Reconsidering Jeffrey Alexander’s Cultural Trauma Theory

According to Jeffrey Alexander, reference to events is not significant to trauma creation. What matters to him, is the representation. We might ask ourselves following this: representation of what?

For Alexander, “Events are not inherently traumatic. Trauma is a socially mediated attribution” (2012: 13).

In another part of his discussion, he further asserts: “Imagination informs trauma construction, just as much when the reference is to something that has actually occurred as to something that has not. it is only through the imaginative process of represetantion that actors have the sense of experience.”  (2012: 14).

He further asserts this point:

“Even when claim of victimhood are morally justifiable, politically democratic and socially progressive, these claims still cannot be seen as automatic, or natural, responses to the actual nature of an event itself” (2012: 14).

Furthermore, trauma is spelled out as such: “It (trauma) is neither ontology nor morality, but epistemology, with which we are concerned” (2012: 14).

In the following, note the contrastive use of the word actual and belief word “believe” in this sentence: “Traumatic status is attributed to real or imagined phenomena, not because of their actual harmfulness or their objective abruptness, but because these phenomena are believed to have abruptly, and harmfully affected collective identity” (2012: 14).

To Alexander, events are one thing, representations of these events are quite another.

It is the meanings (representation) that provide the sense of shock and fear, and not the events in themselves. Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity.

With this backdrop, Alexander locates trauma in the middle position, as the filler of “the gap between event and representation” (2012: 15). Here, the production/creation of trauma begins with claim-making as claims are described as:

“…an exclamation of the terrifying profanation of some sacred values, a narrative about horribly destructive social process and a demand for emotional, institutional, and symbolic reparation and reconstitution” (2012: 16).

This is in fact representation.

Given all these assertions, we can see a steady pattern of undermining event by aggrandizing representation in the trauma creation.

To be clear, it is uneasy to agree with Alexander’s epistemological-based theory of cultural trauma.  Nevertheless, I can understand where he came from and where he is going forward with this postulation.

By establishing a theory of cultural trauma that focuses on the trauma of the collectives, Alexander is trying to develop a conception of temporal-distance experiential of trauma.

Following that, trauma appears to be severed from the real event. In addition, we could also understand, how in reality that narratives of collectives often suffer from conscious manipulations/ alteration of subgroups for certain ideological agenda to be propagated. These distortions of facts undoubtedly undermine real events.

Therefore, Alexander is not entirely wrong in his posturing toward a social-constructed-ness of trauma. He is only producing a working theory, derivational of his observation. However, could it be that his observation is inadequate?

In my mind attentions to these observables are simply pathology that resulted from undermining the factual evidence of events in the first place.

In my opinion, event is important in the production of cultural trauma as it connects distant generations to the original source of the trauma, or fresh-contact of trauma. It feeds into the understanding of what was going on at the time. Therefore, events are documented factual evidence that follow from careful/robust methodology.

Event here stresses on the factual evidence, the truth and limit itself from what is believed to have happened, the mere feelings of being traumatised that devoid of faithfulness (fidelity) to the event by the probability of inserting motives.

Could this lack of appreciation to the precision of the event contribute to the problematic cases of polarizations, endless complicated contestations of narratives and decisive acts to be completely apathy from the historical past?

If so, then can we conclude from here, due to reason above, any effort for reconciliation, the one of many steps to reparation of social tear from the traumatic experience is also stunted?

On good example of this: the propagandization of Indonesia’s distressed episode in 1965—Pembantaian 1965—when the communists or alleged members of the communist party and their family members were brutally exterminated. This was a massive and very organized brutality, carefully planned and enforced top-down by government officials.  

I would urge you to watch “The Act of Killings” and “The Look of Silence” by Joshua Oppenheimer to get the idea how this distortion of facts—propagandization via media and education (recent times)— leads to failure to attempt at reconciliation, to have meaningful discussion of the past to bring about efforts to eliminate stigmas toward current generations of the communist party members/ alleged members/victims of the that particular time.

As you can see here, these pathologies that I have mentioned about are potentials to perpetuating trauma.

Therefore, in his projection of an epistemological-based theory with his constant dumbing down of events appears paradoxical when at the very beginning of his work, he stresses on how the understanding of his cultural trauma theory brings about recognition of others sufferings leading to a useful social responsibility and political action.

This is logically challenging as without any sensitivity to the factual evidence of the event, it is difficult to grasp how simply representation of events with its many cleavages provide the best point of departure from understanding a traumatic event to the more involved effort of practical moral actions.  

With this challenge, I would say that events (with the stress on factual evidence of the events) are key in making the idea of cultural trauma a more complete picture hence the practicality of its consequent application.

With this in mind, I suggest we need to reconsider Jeffrey Alexander’s representation-heavy cultural trauma theory by fairly observing the crucial role of events in the representation of trauma.

Reference:

Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2012. Trauma: A Social Theory. Cambridge & Malden: Polity.

Categories:Essay

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