Book Review / Essay:
Postcolonializing Trauma Studies


World Memory: Personal Trajectories in Global Time
Edited by Jill Bennett and Rosanne Kennedy
Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
ISBN: 1-4039-115-5 (hardback and cloth)


World Memory is an absorbing collection of essays that makes an important intervention into the burgeoning field of trauma studies. Many of the essays derive from papers given at a conference entitled: "Trauma and Memory: Cross-Cultural Perspectives," held at University of New South Wales in 1998. The book's aim is to diversify or, one might say, postcolonialize — a field that the editors portray as Eurocentric in its debt to psychoanalysis, its preference for high modernist aesthetics and its focus on the Holocaust. They envisage an "outfolding" of trauma studies that would take in non-European events and experiences, analyse a wider variety of aesthetic and vernacular modes of representation and explore alternative critical methodologies. 

The collection certainly achieves a more global and multicultural focus, encompassing the experience of Stolen Generation aborigines, Korean immigrants in Japan, a field anthropologist who broke her neck in a car crash, the Abelam of Papua New Guinea, September 11th, apartheid, the invasion of Okinawa during World War Two, child abuse in the UK and second-generation Jewish-Australian Holocaust survivors. It also deals with a fairly wide array of representational modes, including literary texts, films, sculpture, and personal testimony, both oral and written. However, it is the desire to explore alternative critical methodologies that raises the most interesting — and difficult questions: how does one contest the universal applicability of psychoanalysis without losing the specific purchase of trauma as clinical tool and explanatory model? How to avoid the tendency of cultural studies to decontextualize a term and apply it indiscriminately across a diverse array of cultural phenomena?

At least three responses to the psychoanalytic origins of trauma studies are in evidence: 1) borrow from those European critics who have mounted an internal critique of psychoanalysis, 2) reject the psychoanalytic tradition altogether as inappropriate for the study of non-Western cultures and peoples, or 3) develop and expand the insights of psychoanalysis while attempting to remain sensitive to issues of cultural difference. It is worth bearing in mind that trauma has always been what Homi Bhabha would call a "travelling theory," borrowed by Freud from conventional medicine and put to work as analogy or metaphor, and that the metaphoricity of trauma as a description is necessarily heightened by attempts to extrapolate from the clinical understanding of trauma in individuals to notions of collective or cultural trauma.

The first response is imbedded within the title: the term "world memory" is taken from Gilles Deleuze's dazzling study of film, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, as deployed in the final essay in the collection, Timothy Murray's "Wounds of Repetition in the Age of the Digital." Deleuze uses the term to describe the world memory — or more often the "memory world" — produced by the films of Alain Resnais, and in particular Hiroshima Mon Amour, which juxtaposes the memory of Hiroshima with a French woman's memory of the death of her German lover in World War Two.  Murray references Deleuze and Resnais in order to mount a sophisticated argument concerning "cinematic repetition as the memorial thought of suffering itself" (209). Like Deleuze, he is making an argument about cinematic form, and principally about a particular modernist/postmodernist tradition of film-making. The term "world memory" is thus an unlikely ally in the editors' attempt to diversify the field of trauma studies. Although Deleuze has himself mounted a critique of psychoanalysis in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the term returns one to precisely the avant-garde European aesthetic from which the editors are keen to escape: Hiroshima Mon Amour is of course the subject of the second chapter of Cathy Caruth's seminal Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History.  Like its Australian predecessor, The Empire Writes Back, World Memory borrows extensively from European high theory while simultaneously critiquing that theory for its Eurocentrism. While I can see the strategic advantages of deploying Deleuze's term, Caruth's central thesis that "history is precisely the way we are implicated in one another's traumas" (24) might have provided a more direct insight into the relationship between trauma and what Bennett and Kennedy describe as the "multicultural and diasporic nature of contemporary culture" (5). Nevertheless, the term "world memory" is suggestive as a description of how memory moves beyond the individual and translates itself across and between cultures.

The second response, to reject the psychoanalytic tradition outright, is employed by Diane Losche in her essay on the nature of memory in Abelam culture, and by Rosanne Kennedy and Tikka Jan Wilson in their search for a mode of analysis that could do justice to the testimonies of the Stolen Generation. 

Losche's essay is fascinating: how does one recognise memory in a culture that is indifferent to personal genealogy, recycling names to the extent that the individual identity of the dead seems to be submerged? Losche eventually locates something approaching memory in dances that reenact the mythic stories of the community's - rather than the individual's - origins. Reading these dances as "an expression of mourning for loss" (38), she notes that in performance they become a mode of exchange: "the burden of enacting memory and mourning is passed from one moiety to another with each cycle of exchange and the burden of the past is passed on, or given, at least temporarily, to another social group" (40). Losche writes that the Abelam stories "could lend themselves effectively to Freudian or Lacanian interpretations but that the idea of memory as exchange "‘struck [her] as a more mature insight'" (41). Undoubtedly so, but what remains obscured is the way in which she has declined the opportunity to explore Abelam culture in relation to the psychoanalytic categories in order to return to the familiar anthropological interest in the idea of exchange, a practise that is tacitly assumed to be common to all cultures. 

Anthropology has, of course, grappled for years with its own universalizing heritage.  But it seems to me that, like psychoanalysis, anthropology is at its best (and its worst) when it takes the risk of cross-cultural analysis. When Losche notes the length of mourning in Abelam ceremonies in order to contrast them with the brevity of such ceremonies in her own culture, she falls into a familiar trap. But what might have been the consequence of comparing the Abelam exchange of memories with that undertaken by the characters in Hiroshima Mon Amour? Might it be possible to arrive at a genuinely universal insight into the inter-subjective exchange economy of mourning, the paradoxical imperative to share precisely those traumatic experiences that mark us out as different?

Kennedy and Wilson go a step further than Losche, actively contrasting a psychoanalytic approach to aboriginal testimony with a narrative therapy model, ostensibly based on a Foucauldian understanding of the relationship between discourse and power. Like that of Deleuze Foucault's work offers a sustained critique of psychoanalysis. The article is successful in pointing out that a psychoanalytic understanding of testimony as an indirect presentation of a truth that the speaker may not be consciously aware of functions to disempower those "who wish to use testimony to make political and social claims" (123). While psychoanalysis tends to pathologize the testifier and make him/her understand herself as the victim of a trauma, narrative therapy seeks to empower individuals by allowing them to recognise how they have been manipulated by various discourses and to "retrieve and then perform alternative narratives of themselves" (130). Such a process transforms the potential address of testimony, replacing Felman and Laub's notion of an "empathic witness" with an emphasis on "becoming critically conscious of our own positions in the ongoing practises of denial" (129). This is an important intervention, and one that serves to highlight the political blind spots in Felman and Laub's work. Nevertheless, the narrative of heroic resistance that narrative therapy seeks to promote, while politically preferable to the pathos-laden narrative of the trauma victim, may take the post-structuralist understanding of the self as a construction a little too seriously: isn't part of the lesson of trauma studies that we are precisely not free to make ourselves up, that the unconscious will always be there to disrupt those meticulously assembled fictions of the self?

The final approach seeks to extend and contextualise the insights of psychoanalytic theory. Several authors explore the distinction between deep and common memory, first formulated by the Ravensbruck survivor Charlotte Delbo and taken up by Holocaust commentators such as Lawrence Langer and Saul Friedlander.  The term is certainly much more widely employed than "world memory," which only appears in the introduction and final essay, and it is in the threads that connect the various discussions of deep memory that the collection may turn out to have made its most telling contribution to the field.

Sandra Soo-Jin Lee's "Aged Bodies as Sites of Remembrance" and Esther Faye's "Impossible Memories and the History of Trauma" both point to the bodily dimensions of traumatic memories. Delbo uses the term "deep memory" to describe experiences that become "sedimented into the body" (88). Lee shows us how the bodies of Koreans forced to migrate to Japan during Japan's colonization become "colonial archives" (91). Inscribed with the metaphorical and literal scars of racism and invested with the deferred desire to return home (if only as ashes), these diasporic bodies become monuments to difficult and incomplete cultural passages. 

Faye's article borders uncomfortably on psychobiography, reading Brett's stories and memoirs as evidence of an eating disorder that is bound up with her mother's experience of starvation in the Lodz ghetto and the death camps. As with many readings of literature by clinical psychoanalysts, there is scant attention paid to the significance of genre and literariness in framing what she takes to be "unconscious testimony" (164); there is little acknowledgement that Brett may in fact be using writing as a way of understanding - and even mastering - her symptom. Nevertheless Faye is right to emphasise the way in which the symptom exceeds the boundaries of the individual as it "remembers" a collective history of anti-Semitism and the stereotype of the fat Jew. As in Lee's article, deep memory turns out to be a collective memory of racism that inscribes itself on individual bodies.

Although deep memory may have a transpersonal dimension, it is not to be confused with what Delbo terms common memory. While deep memory is bodily, fragmented and traumatic, common memory, as Heidi Grunebaum and Yazir Henri argue in "Re-membering Bodies, Producing Histories: Holocaust Survivor Narrative and Truth and Reconciliation Commission," "resides in the intellect, in thought, and in language" (109) and manifests itself in the collective narratives that a culture develops about its past. For them, deep memory is a bodily, non-narratalogical record of the individual's experience, and as such antithetical to the unifying telos of common memory. They are concerned to show how mediatized representations of the TRC process subsume the "problematic memories" present in personal testimony into a national narrative of reconciliation and forgiveness. Henri speaks of the way in which his own TRC testimony was "disembodied" by the media and appropriated by Antje Krog in her account of the TRC hearings, Country of My Skull

As another contributor, Fiona Ross argues in her own contribution, "Bearing Witness to Pain," Country of My Skull is part of a tradition of representation that "collectivizes" individual pain for political purposes. A number of questions arise: how might a literary (or non-literary) text bear witness to deep memories without subsuming the individual experience within the collective? Delbo's own fragmented testimony provides a model for Grunebaum and Henri, but what about texts that testify to the experience of others ? Can a privileged white South African, such as Antje Krog, produce a text that testifies to the suffering of black South Africans or is such a task better left to other black South Africans? Fiona Ross compares the controversy surrounding Country of My Skull with the positive reception of Mother to Mother, in which Sindiwe Magona imagines herself as the mother of the murderer of a white American student. Her suggestion that the differing receptions may have to do with differences in genre seems to me (as a non-South African) slightly disingenuous. Whilst it perpetuates apartheid thinking to refer to writers in racial terms, the reception of each text is clearly marked by the problem of cross-racial identification. Perhaps the problem lies not simply in the collectivisation of traumatic personal experience - the very possibility of a political text lies in its ability to transform individual deep memories into a collective memory-consciousness of oppression - but in the nature of the collective consciousness that the text attempts to bring into being. Although Magona's text is addressed to the American student's mother, its true task is to make one township mother's loss and anger representative of all those forced to live in the townships. Krog's text, by contrast, attempts to represent the TRC hearings as constitutive of a new national consciousness ("if you cut yourself off from the process, you will wake up in a different country" (131)) but ends up producing a text that perhaps says more about the guilt-laden memory-consciousness of privileged Afrikaners. Both texts ultimately testify to the near-impossibility of producing a truly collective post-apartheid memory. How to reconcile Krog's desperate plea for forgiveness (Country of My Skull ends with, "You who I have wronged, please/ take me/ with you" (278)) with Magona's sense of outrage (she ends up presenting - if not quite justifying - the mother's son as "an agent, executing the long-simmering dark desires of his race" (210))?

At the heart of this dilemma is the humanist assumption that is possible to empathise and identify with those whose experience is radically different from our own. Several essays draw attention to the way in which such an assumption functions to ignore the radical difference of traumatic experience - or indeed simply the fact of difference itself. Jill Bennett's essay on September 11th mobilises Kaja Silverman's distinction between idiopathic identification (which operates according to an assumption of sameness) and heteropathic identification (which preserves a sense of the other's alterity), eventually championing the work of the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo for its refusal to offer easy modes of identification. However, the "foreboding austerity" of Salcedo's sculpture almost amounts to a dehumanising absence of affect. If we are to represent the complex relations that make up our postcoloniality then we need an art that both engages and keeps its distance at the same time. As Bennett argues: "In the spaces opened up by post-colonial literature, theory and politics, such sharing of suffering via a form of heteropathic identification has become something of an ethical imperative" (181).

This imperative haunts Jennifer Loureide Biddle's "Anthropology as Eulogy: On Loss, Lies and License," which concerns the author's own experience of breaking her neck during a car crash while doing fieldwork with a remote aboriginal tribe in the Australian outback. The trauma turns out to be connected not simply to her own physical experience and painful recovery, but to the loss of her aboriginal "sister," who is turned away from the hospital but eventually dies from wounds sustained during the crash. Before she dies, the sister returns to the hospital unit but Biddle declines the offer to have her bed placed next to hers, declines the opportunity to "share her trauma" across the colour line (56). This refusal, she writes, "is the violence not yet finished with, not yet over" (57). Biddle has subsequently found herself unwilling to return to the field and she meditates suggestively on the corporeal shock that is constitutive of the field-worker's encounter with cultural difference. She doesn't quite spell it out, but it is as if the accident of the car crash is the belated registration of a blow that had already occurred at the first moment of cross-cultural contact: this is why it is the gulf that the hospital exposes between herself and her "sister," rather than her physical injuries, that she struggles to come to terms with. Although she does not use the term deep memory, her account, like those of many in the collection, points towards the inextricable relationship between trauma, the body and cultural/racial difference: what binds her to others - her corporeality, the fact of her embodiment, her capacity to suffer - is also precisely that which differentiates her. Deep memory is an embodied memory precisely because racism has rendered the body the traumatic signifier of our difference.

What is missing from this collection is adequate recognition of the extent to which postcolonial studies has already developed its own discussion about cultural or collective trauma: African-American writers are referenced but no mention is made of Caribbean or Black British writers such as Wilson Harris, Edouard Glissant and Paul Gilroy, who have written on the Middle Passage as constitutively traumatic, as the abyssal and diasporic foundation of Caribbean or Black Atlantic subjectivity and community. There is also a growing amount of work on the traumatic effects of partition in India and Homi Bhabha has of course employed the concept of nachträglichkeit or belatedness to explore postwar immigration from the ex-colonies to Europe as the traumatic return of a history that happened overseas. What may perhaps emerge out of a postcolonializing of trauma studies is a clearer understanding of the traumatic nature of racial identity - as the ultimate embodiment of deep memory in which skin is rendered symptom. That such a memory is always bound to disrupt the collective fictions inspired by official common memory might go a long way to explaining the failures of multiculturalism and the persistence of racism.  As work in postcolonial studies makes its way back to work on the Holocaust, it may appear (as Jean-François Lyotard has already suggested in Heidegger and "the jews") that what was traumatic about the Holocaust was not the numbers involved or the horrors of the camps but precisely racial difference itself, as the violent negation of our commonality.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin.  The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures.  London: Routledge, 1989.

Bhabha, Homi.  "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Nation State."  The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Caruth, Cathy.  Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History.  Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane.  London: Athlone, 1984.

—. Cinema 2: The Time Image.  Trans H. Tomlinson and R Galeta.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub.  Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Friedlander, Saul.  "Trauma, Memory and Transference." In Holocaust Remembrance:The Shapes of Memory.  Ed. Geoffrey Hartman. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995. pp. 252-63.

—, ed.  Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press: 1992.

Gilroy, Paul.  The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.  London: Verso, 1993.

Harris, Wilson.  Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles.  Ed Hena Maes-Jelinek. Mundelstrup, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1981.

Krog, Antje.  Country of My Skull.  Johannesburg: Random House, 1998.

Langer, Lawrence.  Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Lyotard, Jean-François.  Heidegger and "the jews."  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Magona, Sindiwe.  Mother to Mother.  Boston: Beacon, 1998.

Silverman, Kaja.  The Threshold of the Visible World.  New York: Routledge, 1996.


Reviewed by Sam Durrant
Leeds University