An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
Text by Diana Anders
References to America’s “collective trauma” have become increasingly common since Donald Trump won the presidential election. In a recent New York Times op-ed, for example, Professor Neil Gross contends that the aftermath of Trump’s election exhibits all the “telltale signs of collective trauma.”1 He applies this diagnosis to disempowered white working-class Trump voters, but places greater emphasis on its tightening grip on those who ended up voting for Hillary Clinton. Charles Figley, chair of the Disaster Mental Health program at Tulane University, maintains that we are witnessing “all the hallmarks of collective trauma,” limiting the diagnosis to “those who assumed Hilary Clinton would be elected.”2 Collective trauma and cultural trauma are sometimes used interchangeably,3 but both are thought to emanate from formidable “cultural upheaval” and challenges to peoples’ normative or “assumptive worlds.”4 This characterization of our current condition is echoed elsewhere, especially in mental health circles dealing with trauma in its various forms.5
Collective trauma is not a new concept, though it is typically applied to communities most impacted by catastrophic events.6 This has included US citizens after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, black South Africans in the wake of Apartheid, Holocaust survivors and even their offspring, and communities hit hard by the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, for example.7 And yet the concept struggles to gain traction as either a mental health diagnosis expanded to a group or as a useful analytic framework for describing various forms of social malaise or distress produced by historico-political events, especially those that fall short of the cataclysmic. The rise of Trumpism may feel catastrophic to many, but it is unclear whether collective trauma aptly captures the destabilizing and disturbing circumstances it has occasioned.
Although some part of me is sympathetic to this sweeping diagnosis as a means of underscoring my deep sense of emergency in this political moment, the “collective trauma” label gives me pause for a number of reasons. My concern stems in part from the imprecision and confusion that surrounds the designation, but also from the political work that it may be doing, undoing, or proscribing. I want to raise the possibility that pronouncements of collective trauma have a certain depoliticizing pull, insofar as they take the form of a palliative defense against “politically induced suffering” and an ethical plea over and against “politics” to recognize and remedy an ailing and vulnerable collective.8 If nothing else, this kind of inquiry provides an opportunity to meditate on the growing tendency to place various modes of social suffering and discontent in the psychological rubric of trauma.
My reflections here grow out of a strong sense that those who invoke the collective trauma diagnosis are not necessarily using the term metaphorically or hyperbolically; rather, it is figured by many members of the field of mental health as a real, public-health phenomenon that extends beyond discreet individuals and somehow resides in the social body, or part thereof.9 Contemporary diagnoses of collective trauma can in large part be traced back to Emile Durkheim’s theory of collective trauma. He argued that “norms, values and rituals were linchpins of the social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.”10 This understanding dominates recent references to Trump-based collective trauma. For example, Jack Saul, head of the International Trauma Studies Program, links collective trauma to disruptions of the “social and moral order,” and notes that “long-term chronic oppressions” as well as sudden events such as tsunamis or war can precipitate this phenomenon.11
Collective trauma’s more recent instantiations have retained some of the ambiguities of Durkheim’s model. For instance, it’s not always clear who qualifies as the collective victim in the post-Trump scenario, and how the boundaries around distinct collectivities are to be drawn. Another frequently elided issue is whether or not it relies on an understanding of a collective psyche of sorts, and what that might consists in, if so. Furthermore, collective trauma diagnosticians shy away from the question of what the term “trauma” can do that less psychologized/medicalized descriptions cannot. Another inclination in this emergent field is to simply plug in terms commonly ascribed to individuals when describing collective trauma’s symptoms, thereby glossing over important differences between trauma’s individual and collective manifestations.12 Although the disruption of shared normative frameworks is frequently sited as the origin of collective trauma, few attempts have been made to historicize and specify what those shared norms might be in this case (and, again, who shares them), or the power relations that produce, accompany, and authorize those norms. If we are indeed witnessing the rise of a collective pathology marked by “trauma,” to which definition of trauma are we subscribing?13 And relatedly, this rush to trauma raises questions about the relationship between this trend and the over-diagnosis of trauma and PTSD as applied to individuals.14 Is the former simply another expression of the latter? Finally, these recent diagnoses often fall short when it comes to elaborating on remedial options. What might a collective therapeutics even look like here? Where might we look for possible examples?
Diagnoses of collective trauma share points of overlap with what political theorist Wendy Brown sees as the ascendance of “victimization” politics over the last several decades. She perceives this as a “dominant modality of contemporary political discourse, a tendency that leads even those who do not appear overtly victimized to claim victim status.”15 This status, she argues, has become an increasingly common basis for shoring up political identity that can then serve as a platform for demanding recognition, rights, and remedy. In this model, injury or victimhood serves as the binding agent in the face of social fragmentation and alienation, even impotence (precisely what Durkheim and his contemporary followers see as the source of collective trauma). But what if it also reproduces forms of fragmentation, alienation, and impotence as well? Brown alerts us to this potentiality in her books States of Injury and Politics Out of History, pointing to ways in which recourse to collective identities grounded in injury can come at a cost. I will briefly outline a few of them with respect to the emergent collective trauma diagnosis—not to argue that it necessarily does these things, but to underscore its susceptibility to them.
One of the pitfalls of the kind of victimization/trauma politics Brown outlines is the ways collectivities can be reduced to their injuries (especially if there is little aside from their “trauma” that unifies or adds content to the category, which is the case here). The appeal to sympathy that is also a faint call to political action in the name of the traumatized collective victim paradoxically presumes and risks reifying a (collective) docile subject in the Foucauldian sense. My point is not that trauma (in its individual or collective incarnations) necessarily or solely entails docility and passivity, but rather that the domination conjures up an image of a “shattered” and “lost” subject, lacking in vitality, buoyancy, focus, and organization.16 Judith Herman’s highly influential work on trauma sums up this connotation nicely when she refers to trauma as “an affliction of the powerless.”17 The cri de couer associated with the identifying trauma can easily shade into a call for protection and remedy on the injured party’s behalf.18 In other words, this discourse intimates a certain kind of subject that may not be reducible to its vulnerability and incapacity, but is by definition hobbled and identified as in need of a certain kind of recognition, protection, and care. This is not in itself a nefarious thing (it goes without saying that recognizing suffering is central to its possible alleviation), and yet, as Foucault has pointed out, new categories of subjectivity invariably invite new possibilities for regulation and subjection. Also at play here are the unavowed attachments to one’s own (or others’) suffering and impotence that can crowd out or eclipse alternative, potentially more active and empowering visions of social and political suffering. Such alternatives would ideally extend beyond a focus on the helplessness of injury, such that resilience and resistance would be recognized as equally “proper” to it. Again, I am not arguing that designations of collective trauma necessarily presume docility or succeed in rendering the traumatized collective docile and condemned to suffering. I am instead flagging a notable (if somewhat naturalized) predilection to psychologize political and social problems that often summon up images of incapacity. The rush to trauma sheds light on the need for critical reflections on some of the possible implications of the ascendance of trauma- and victim-centered politics in an era wherein trauma is often taken to be that which embodies “the most unacceptable suffering” and “symbolizes at best a radical fringe of what is human.”19
Another potential consequence of this kind of diagnosis is that different and overlapping forms and degrees of marginalization, suffering, and victimization (here resulting in “trauma”) are often homogenized, equalized, and abstracted from the conditions and contexts from which they spring. Collective trauma, as Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman put it, has a tendency to homogenize and thus “obliterate experience,” and obscures the specificity of “social relations, historical realities and political situations.”20 At issue is the unmarked violence that often accompanies the construction of the “we” (or “they”) and the failure to differentiate within and between particular collectivities with respect to uneven exposure to symbolic and structural violence (the All Lives Matter movement as an answer to Black Lives Matter powerfully sums up this colonizing move). Blanket descriptions of collective traumas risk trivializing the important differences between specific experiences of privilege, violence, and suffering unevenly apportioned by historically embedded discrimination and inequality in both more manifest and subtle ways, and shot through with class, racial, ethnic, national, and gendered differences. The failure to account for those differences is also the failure to make visible the various forms of violence producing and perpetuating them.
When we consider that disappointed Clinton supporters and genocide survivors are placed under the same diagnostic “collective trauma” category without adequate qualification, and in a political and cultural climate wherein a portion of Trump’s supporters, for example, claim traumatized/victim status as a result of “foreigners” taking “their” jobs (another extreme expression of this would be white supremacists’ claims of “White Genocide” in the face of interracial marriage and movements aimed at combatting entrenched and widespread racialized violence targeting people of color), we are reminded of some of the reasons for being cautious when turning to collective injury as a grounds for registering and remedying social discontent or fostering political change. Not all injuries or traumas are equal, and some collective claims to traumatized or victimized status authorize and engender their own forms of trauma and victimization for other individuals and collectivities. In a world where Donald Trump can represent the working class and identify as a victim, it behooves us to reflect on the political import of the emerging competitive market of “who’s most victimized, who’s most traumatized?” In this sense, we can begin to see an unsettling compatibility between neoliberalism’s core principle of competition and victim politics’ bids for traumatized status.
I am less interested in determining if the collective trauma diagnosis in this case is an expression of victim politics than I am in pointing out the ways in which the category’s increased circulation indicates a shift in the moral and political landscape. As such, it requires careful, critical analyses of who and what identifies as traumatized, and the expectations surrounding what that status might afford. My intention here is not to suggest that the concept of collective trauma holds no promise or is an irrevocably inadequate description of particular aspects of a post-election Trump slump. Clearly those—especially mental health workers—mobilizing this particular term are doing so as a means to respond to the varied and real social and individual forms of suffering that Trumpism has engendered, triggered, and exacerbated. They laudably seek to draw public attention to what they perceive as a public emergency and a profound political and social set of problems and modes of violence that cannot be swept under the rug or merely dealt with in the privacy of the home or the therapist’s office. But given the extent to which the concept is fraught with obfuscation, the ways in which it is hastily diagnosed and insufficiently theorized, and the aforementioned risks of assigning collective trauma, I have a hard time giving it much credence in its current forms as a powerful tool to attenuating suffering or as a catalyst for social, psychological, and political change. What is more, I see it as a potential means of reducing what could be healthy anger and despair21 into a monolithic injury that enfeebles a much-needed constituency in the struggle against Trumpism and all that it entails.
Keeping in mind that collective trauma is most often seen as emanating from disruptions to a collective’s shared normative foundations, it seems equally tenable that targeted disruptions and contestation of these foundations could supply a powerful means of both activating enervated and melancholic segments of the population and trouble the exclusionary effects of fantasies of collective sameness (which is precisely what the recent women’s marches around the US and world have endeavored to spearhead and embody). One implication of recent proclamations of collective trauma is that this sick collective is suffering from too much politics and not enough community and commonality—wherein community is conceived of as the antidote to politics and is rooted in “shared values”/a presupposed sameness. Here I’m positing that perhaps some of the suffering in question can be traced to a more general retreat from the necessary volatility and plurality of politics in a radical democratic sense and an overreliance on pacified, standardized, and calcified conceptions of the collective. For instance, might “traumatized” Clinton supporters in part be suffering from the realization that their attachments to “shared values” may have been phantasmatic—that is, not so shared and secured in the first place—or from a dawning awareness of the ways they/the values they subscribe to may have been complicit in others’ suffering? When the salve to politically induced suffering is limited to registering injury/psychological-social disorder, then active modes of collective resistance and political existence are at risk of being deferred and/or diffused.
Features of Hannah Arendt’s work come to mind here for a few reasons: not only did she attempt to theorize the preconditions for totalitarianism and the latter’s penchant for reducing the population to a homogenous (master) race22 (think: Trump’s border wall and anti-Muslim executive order), but she also put forth a model of democratic politics based on the principles of action (vita activa), plurality, and natality that I think might serve us well here. For Arendt, politics in a democratic sense is centered on collective, participatory action and antagonistic debate. There are certainly drawbacks to Arendt’s conception of politics, but for the purposes of the collective trauma phenomenon I’ve attempted to sketch here, Arendtian politics evokes a capable and dynamic collective and individual political subject, one with the potential to recover, resist, and even revolt (despite and because of their suffering). On this model, plurality serves not only as the “conditio sine qua non,” but also the “conditio per quam” of politics.23 In other words, difference or plurality is the source, not the demise of, politics and the collectivities that animate it. It is only through vigorous and sometimes charged interaction with others (who are by definition not the same), airing one’s views and making judgments, that free human communities are sustained. “Natality” is Arendt’s term for humans’ capacity to create something unexpected and is predicated upon our uniqueness, our inherent plurality.24 Politics seen in this light is not reducible to that which quashes the individual and communal ties. It presents an opening for an ongoing, demanding, and creative process of making the world anew with others and a sustained practice of determining and evaluating (and sometimes undoing) what counts as shared values. As idealistic or anachronistic as it might seem, I sketch this scene of vitalized collective existence and robust political engagement in the spirit of radical imaginings of the present and otherwise futures, and as a counter to a uniform but etiolated collective suffering from “PTTSD.”
Image via The Atlantic.
1 Neil Gross, “Is This Collective Trauma?” New York Times, December 18, 2016.
2 Neha Thirani Bagri, “An Unfortunate Side Effect of Collective Identity is Collective Trauma,” Quartz, January 20, 2017 →.
3 Some mental health professionals, such as Ronald Eyerman, professor of sociology at Yale University, make a clear distinction between the two. For Eyerman, collective trauma is always at risk of becoming cultural trauma, which he regards as more serious and even potentially violent. See ibid., and Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering, eds. Ronald Eyerman, Jeffrey C. Alexander, and Elizabeth Butler Breese (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013).
4 John A. Updegraff, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman, “Searching for and Finding Meaning in Collective Trauma: Results From a National Longitudinal Study of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no. 3 (2008): 709–22.
5 See, for example: Gail Sheehy, “America’s Therapists are Worried About Trump’s Effect on Your Mental Health,” Politico, October 10, 2016 →; Julie Beck, “How to Deal with Post-Election Stress,” The Atlantic, November 10, 2016 →; Bagri, “An Unfortunate Side Effect.” University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty has drawn up a manifesto for psychotherapists working to resist and respond to this “collective crisis,” and commissioned a study to document its extensive reach and impact: “A Public Manifesto,” Citizen Therapists Against Trump →.
6 See, for example: Didier Fassin and Fichard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009); Dominick LeCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001).
7 See, for example: Alexander L. Veerman and R. Ruard Ganzevoort, “Communities Coping with Collective Trauma,” 2001 →; Yael Danieli, Introduction to International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (New York: Plenum Press, 1998); Carol A. Kidron, “Surviving a Distant Past: A Case Study of the Cultural Construction of Trauma and Descendant Identity,” Ethos, vol. 31, no. 4 (December 2003).
8 Wendy Brown. “The Most We Can Hope For…’: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3 (Spring–Summer 2004): 451–63.
9 Collective trauma can be viewed as an emergent and multivalent discourse and field of study that has affinities with, and points of origin from, a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, social psychology, psychoanalysis, Holocaust studies, trauma studies, restorative justice, and anthropology. See, for example: Jeffrey C. Alexander, Trauma: A Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); Updegraff, Silver, and Holman, “Searching for and Finding Meaning in Collective Trauma”; Jack Saul, Collective Trauma, Collective Healing: Promoting Community Resilience in the Aftermath of Disaster (New York: Routledge, 2014); Cultures Under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma, eds. Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000).
10 Gross, “Is This Collective Trauma?”
11 Beck, “How to Deal with Post-Election Stress.”
12 For instance, William Doherty (see note 5 above) proposes that, in the context of collective trauma, individuals turn to friends and community rather than “another a glass (or bottle) of wine” (Sheehy, “America’s Therapists are Worried”). Although this speaks to the importance of connection to others and implies a less passive, isolated account of trauma, it still does not attend to the difference between individual and collective suffering, and is thus symptomatic of the slippages one tends to see in this bourgeoning field.
13 The unconscious is markedly absent from these contemporary discussions of collective trauma, which both partially explains and results from a certain avoidance of psychoanalytic theory on the part of the diagnosticians in question. Sigmund Freud’s forays into the mechanisms of group psychology in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego accommodate an understanding of the unconscious, libidinal drives that animate the group dynamic and preserve its unity and purpose. His work on trauma, however, remained squarely in the realm of individual psychology, and steered clear of collective applications. He was wary of “attempt[s] of this kind to carry psychoanalysis over to the cultural community … [I]t is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to tear them from the sphere in which they have originated and been.” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), 338. Freud’s understandings of idealization and melancholic attachment in the group setting seem potentially more useful as frameworks for comprehending the sense of despair ostensibly felt by many Clinton supporters in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.
14 See, for example: David Dobbs, “Post Traumatic Stress Trap,” Scientific American, April 2009; Alice Kerekezi, “How PTSD Took Over America,” Salon, November 15, 2011; Wulf Kansteiner, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 8 (2004).
15 Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001), 54.
16 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
17 Ibid., 33.
18 Much has been written about the ways in which an analogous “victim politics” has taken hold in the international arena (for example in the case of humanitarian intervention, international development programs, and campaigns to “spread democracy” abroad), and the troubling ways in which politics in the name of protecting or aiding traumatized or suffering segments of humanity abroad can produce forms of regulation and domination for the very populations it endeavors to help. See, for example: Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A Short History of Humanitarianism (Ithica, NY: Cornell UP, 2011); In The Name of Humanity, eds. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010); Postcolonial Disorders, eds. Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good and Sandra Teresa Hyde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, eds. Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Brooklyn: Zone Book, 2010).
19 Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 22.
20 Ibid., 280–81.
21 See Robin Marasco, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel (New York: Columbia UP, 2015).
22 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1979).
23 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 7–8.
24 Ibid., 177–78.