Saturday, July 02, 2005

Olick on Collective Trauma

from Olick, Jeffrey K. "Collective Memory: The Two Cultures." Sociological Theory 17.3 (1999): 333-348.

"Many observers, of course, move easily from such collected diagnoses to genuinely collective diagnoses. In some warring forms, such efforts operate in terms of facile concepts of national character or of anthropomorphized collectives in which collectivity itself has singular desires, needs, and wills. But there are better versions of such collective diagnoses, particularly those articulated in terms of collective narratives. If genuine communities are communities of memory that constantly tell and retell their constitutive narratives, as the Bellah quote above asserts, there can be genuinely collective traumas insofar as historical events cannot easily be integrated into coherent and constructive narratives.

"Surely this is what we mean when we speak, for instance, of the U.S. Civil War as a trauma for American society, or of Vietnam as an ongoing problem. In the [/] case of the former, there were indeed multitudinous individual and, as a result, powerful collected traumas. But the individuals who personally experienced the event have been gone for quite a while now. While we might speak of the residue of individual traumas, insofar as parents or grandparents imparted to their offspring stories of their experiences, psychological traumas cannot be passed down through the generations like bad genes. In the first place, the fact that the memory of such personally traumatic experiences is externalized and objectified as narrative means it is no longer a purely individual psychological matter. And in the second place, discussing the ongoing nature of the trauma in terms of such transmitted personal narratives does not capture what we really mean--that is, an unassimilable breech in the collective narrative. In regard to Vietnam, there certainly are many traumatized individuals walking our streets, suffering from a wide range of neurotic disorders, of which posttraumatic stress disorder is only the best known. But Vietnam was traumatic not just for American individuals (to say nothing of Vietnamese individuals), but for the legitimating narrative that we as individuals produce for us as a collectivity. In this way, for instance, the traumas of Auschwitz will not disappear with the death of the last survivor; not is it carried only through those--mainly their children--who suffered its personal ripple effects: Auschwitz remains a trauma for the narratives of modernity and morality, among others (Bauman 1989). It clearly makes both ethical and conceptual sense to speak of trauma as irreducible to individuals and aggregated psychology" (344-45).

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