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With reference to at least two other theories of trauma taught on the module,

critically evaluate the explanatory power of Alexanders theory of cultural

Trauma can be understood in terms of both individual and collective natures. In this essay,
I will focus on the collective understandings of trauma, but will draw on links and
comparisons to the individual understandings. I will first attempt to convey the variety of
definitions of trauma which exist, and how they affect theorising. I will then summarise
Alexander's model of collective trauma, by looking at the function it plays in society, the
process of 'carrying' trauma to wider society, and finally the social construction of collective
trauma. I will then look at how earlier theorists, such as Freud and aruth, link in with this
explanation, in the context of the psychoanalytic thinking which shaped Freud's initial
theories on trauma. Finally, I will assess some criticisms of the theory of cultural trauma,
drawing strongly on !oas' review.
"There is no firm definition of trauma, which has been given various descriptions at various
times and under different names# $aruth, %&&%' %(%). *rikson, however, describes
collective trauma as a "blow to the basic tissues of social life#, while individual trauma can
be understood as a "blow to the psyche# $*rikson, %&+,' %-.). /e sees both forms of
trauma as the shock of realisation that an "important part of the self has disappeared#
$*rikson, %&+,' %-0), be it a supportive community or an aspect of the psyche. According
to Alexander, Trauma "is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this
discomfort entering into the collectivity1s sense of identity# $2330' %3). An alternative
definition of trauma would be "an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic
events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled
repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena# $aruth, %&&%'
The most fundamental point Alexander makes is that collective trauma is "socially
mediated# and that "events do not, in and of themselves, create collective trauma. *vents
are not inherently traumatic# $Alexander, 2330' (). This point is key because the nature of
collective trauma relies on the "trauma process# $Alexander, 2330' %%) being carried out
$making collective trauma inherently socially constructed) in order for an event to become
traumatic. Arruti understands collective trauma as a memory which has been hashed over
and over again until it gains an existence of its own outside the event it relates to. The
$collective) memory becomes idealised, becomes "an event endlessly played and re4
played, fixed in time and meaning# $Arruti, 233+' 0). Alexander has a similar
understanding, and states that "*vents are one thing, representations of these events
5uite another# $2330' %3). It can therefore be concluded that "cultural trauma occurs when
members of a collectivity feel they have been sub6ected to a horrendous event that leaves
indelible marks upon their group consciousness# $Alexander, 2332' %). !oas, in making
reference to this definition of Alexander's, raises the 5uestion 7/ow does this de8nition
differ from the usual de8nitions of trauma in psychological or psychiatric handbooks97
$!oas, 233-' .,,). !oas then goes on to explain that the psychological definition of trauma
includes the reference to horrendous events and indelible marks, and that the only
difference lies in the notion that Alexander refers to collectively experienced traumas such
as the holocaust rather than individual ones. !oas then goes on to 5uestion whether or not
the notion of trauma can be extended to whole cultures $!oas, 233-' .,+). :hile I can see
the point that !oas is making here, it is frustratingly clear that he misses a key aspect of
collective trauma' that it is experienced by those not even affected by it. Alexander
therefore does not speak of the psychological meaning of 7trauma7; he instead refers to a
new understanding of the word which includes sympathy for the victims of certain
publicised atrocities. In 7The '/olocaust' from :ar rime to Trauma <rama7 Alexander
focuses mostly on the =>A's reaction to the /olocaust. This is not because the =>A was
directly involved in experiencing the /olocaust, but because of the position of the =>A in
presenting the /olocaust to the world, in dealing with uncovering the /olocaust itself, and
in presenting the ?a@i enemy as an ultimate evil.
Alexander's model
"Aeople also have continually employed the language of trauma to explain what happens,
not only to themselves, but to the collectivities to which they belong as well# $Alexander,
2330' 2)
Trauma can be seen as a "socially mediated attribution# and is not necessarily
contemporaneous with the event itself. It can even be claimed that traumatic events may
not have even occurred $Alexander, 2330' (). *xamples of "imagined# traumatic events
include the hatred rallied in ?a@i Bermany against the !ews, with the 6ustification of the
"!ewish onspiracy# which was claimed to have been responsible for "Bermany's
traumatic loss in :orld :ar I# $Alexander, 2330' & Citalics addedD) The flip side of this is of
course that events which should be traumatic do not get noticed and are forgotten about
and ignored' notably the rape of ?anking, during which .33,333 hinese citi@ens were
slaughtered by !apanese soldiers. Eecause of the lack of a carrier group to turn this
atrocity into a cultural trauma, it has "contributed scarcely at all to the collective identity of
the Aeople's Fepublic of hina, let alone to the self4conception of the postwar democratic
government of !apan# $Alexander, 2330' 2,). From this, Alexander concludes that
collective traumas do not reflect the initial suffering, and "failures to recogni@e collective
traumas... do not result from the intrinsic nature of the initial suffering# $Alexander, 2330'
2,). The failure, instead, stems from an "inability to carry through... the trauma process
$Alexander, 2330' 2+). "For an audience to be traumati@ed by an experience which they
themselves do not directly share, symbolic extension and psychological identification are
re5uired# $Alexander, 2332' (). Alexander backs up this assertion with reference to the
initial reception of the holocaust4 there was no collective trauma, according to Alexander,
upon the liberation of the !ewish victims. Gther victims were seen to first even though $and
arguably because) they were treated more humanly, and therefore could evoke more
"In retrospect, it is bitterly ironic but also sociologically understandable that the
American audience1s sympathy and feelings of identity flowed much more easily to the
non4!ewish survivors, whether Berman or Aolish, who had been kept in better conditions
and looked more normal, more composed, more human.# $Alexander, 2332' ()
The !ewish victims of the holocaust were seen as a mass rather than as individuals.
"American and Eritish administrators felt impatient with many !ewish survivors, even
personal repugnance for them, sometimes resorting to threats and even to punishing
them# $Alexander, 2332' &). Alexander calls this "sociologically understandable# as the
audience to these atrocities would find it far harder to sympathise let alone empathise with
the barely human victims of the death camps. "They were presented as a mass, and often
as a mess, a petrified, degrading, and smelly one... This depersonali@ation made it more
difficult for the survivors1 trauma to generate compelling identification# $Alexander, 2332'
he rauma !rocess
"Trauma is not something naturally existing; it is something constructed by society#
$Alexander, 2330' 2).
It has been mentioned previously that the representation of an event and the event itself
do not e5uate. "The gap between event and representation can be conceived as the
"trauma process## $Alexander, 2330' %%). It should be noted that it is not collectivities that
make decisions, it is individual agents, who make claims about the "shape of social reality#
which is a "symbolic representation# of "ongoing social events, past present and future#, as
well as claims about the "responsibilities for actions such causes imply# $Alexander, 2330'
%%). This means that individual agents, with enough influence, can carry the trauma to the
wider public. arrier groups are the agents responsible for making claims of "fundamental
in6ury#, and are described by Alexander as "collective agents of the trauma process#. They
have vested interests, both ideal and material, and are sometimes elites, sometimes
"denigrated and marginali@ed classes# $Alexander, 2330' %%) The term "carrier group# itself
comes from :eber, and has its origins In the sociology of religion. In the case of the
trauma of the /olocaust, the !ews in America who "carried# the trauma to the whole
American population were in some ways both an elite and a marginali@ed class. Anti4
>emitism was common in the =>A, but was successfully combated by high placement and
power of the !ewish loby $Alexander, 2330' %.4%-). ":hat was a trauma for the victims
was not a trauma for the audience# $Alexander, 2332' 2,). The trauma process, likened to
a "speech act# by Alexander $2330' %%), include a carrier group carrying out the role of a
speaker, the public carrying out the role of an audience, and the the event or situation4
context for the trauma. The audience in this stage of the trauma process, however, is not
the public at large4 it is comprised of members of the carrier group. :ithin the context of
the campaign to promote action against !oseph Hony, leader of the Iord's Fesistance
Army, the carrier group could be considered users of the internet. A video explaining the
cause4 carrying the trauma4 went 'viral' meaning that a lot of people viewed it, numbering
roughly .(,333,333 in about . days. :ith the success of the trauma being conveyed to the
audience, the traumatic claim can "be broadened to include other publics within the
"society at large## $Alexander, 2330' %2). >ome examples of traumas which were carried
by the government in some way include' Buatemalan "ethnocide# against the Jaya being
acknowledged by the government; >outh African apartheid and the Truth and
Feconciliation commission; and !apanese second world war "comfort women#' primarily
Horean women who were enslaved to provide sexual services to !apanese soldiers. There
are also examples of governments "whitewashing# traumas' the reaction to the %&(3s
AI<> epidemic was significantly less dramatic than it perhaps should have been, because
of views about homosexuality, and American atrocities committed in Horea such as the
massacre of civilians at Bun Fi $Alexander, 2330' %&422). The media is not impartial in
reporting traumatic events. "There is the competition for readership that often inspires the
sometimes exaggerated and distorted production of "news# in mass circulation
newspapers and maga@ines# $Alexander, 2330' %(). /owever, it is not always the media
which carries traumas. ":hen the trauma process enters into the state bureaucracy, it can
draw upon the governmental power to channel the representational process# $Alexander,
2330' %&). The American government's "control over the means of symbolic production#
$Alexander, 2332' .&), which means the extent to which the American Bovernment
controls the representation of events, could be seen clearly by general attitudes about the
second world war. :hat could also be clearly seen is the loss of control over the symbolic
production, when 5uestions were raised about the bombings of <resden and Tokyo, and
the two ?uclear bombs which ended the war with the slaughter of "hundreds of thousands
of innocent and pathetic human beings4 in short, as typifications of the '/olocaust'#
$Alexander, 2332' 0%). Furthermore, the treatment of Aalestinians by Israelis have
"inverted the !ewish nation's progressive myth of origin# $Alexander, 2332' 0.) leading to
an "e5uation between ?a@i and Israeli treatment of subordinate ethnic and religious
groups# $Alexander, 2332' 0.). It is therefore clear 6ust how significant the means of
symbolic production is, and 6ust how black and white the real world is not. It should be
noted here that not all traumatic events become traumas. "The urgency to tell the story is
present after all trauma, but critical reception varies a great deal in terms of focus and
coverage if we look at the global mapping of trauma# $Arruti, 233+' ,). This notion of 'focus'
and 'coverage' distinctly ties in with Alexander's concept of 'carrier groups'.
The "elements of the trauma process... can be thought of as social structures# $Alexander,
2330' 20) meaning that in the complex process of socially constructing and de4
constructing a traumatic event is a collaborative effort of the various institutions involved,
such as religion, such as state bureaucracy, the mass media, religion and the legal sphere
$Alexander, 2330). It can be argued that the mass media exaggerate and distort the
production of news in the "competition for readership# $Alexander, 2330' %(); the media
therefore are not impartial in their portrayal of traumatic events. This is nothing new.
/owever, that charities also have vested interests in the representation of traumatic events
is a notion hard to accept. /owever, in the recent collective 'trauma' about the Iord's
Fesistance Army in =ganda, Invisible hildren4 who are acting as the carrier group4 have
a low level of financial accountability, arguably spent most of the funds raised on salaries,
travel expenses and film4making, and even "manipulated facts for strategic purposes#
$EE ?ews, 23%2)4 an act usually attributed to the media. In the context of human
engineered trauma, such as the holocaust, it follows logically that any understanding of the
enormity must be in some way constructed. After the moral ambiguity of the first world war,
the ?a@is became coded, weighted and narrated as the "dominant evil of our time#
$Alexander, 2332' %.). This goes to explain how the holocaust could be portrayed in the
way that it was. "It wasK precisely and only because the means of symbolic production
were not controlled by a victorious postwar ?a@i regime, or even by a triumphant
communist one, that the mass killings could be called the /olocaust and coded as evil.#
$Alexander, 2332' %%). Furthermore, the concept of evil itself can be seen as a social
construct and as a "contrived binary, which simplifies empirical complexity to two
antagonistic forms and reduces every shade of gray between# $Alexander, 2332' %3). It
goes without saying that had the ?a@is won the war, the holocaust would have been
portrayed in a very different light, if at all. /istory is written by the victors. :hen the ?a@is
were defeated in %&0-, and allied forces took control of the death camps, they had "taken
over control of the representation process from the ?a@is# $Alexander, 2332' .&) and
ensured that the mass murder of the !ews would be "presented in an anti4?a@i way#
$Alexander, 2332' .&). ?a@ism was a "traumatic epoch# $Alexander, 2332' %,). It was
socially constructed to be a 'sacred evil' in order to separate it from the profanity of the
concepts of 'mass murder' and 'genocide' which placed it "too closely in proximity to the
banal and mundane# $Alexander, 2332' 2(). The evil nature of ?a@is outweighed, in many
respects, the atrocities of the holocaust. This is represented in the claim that the
?uremberg :ar Trials were"to establish the principle that no nation shall ever again go to
war, except when directly attacked or under the sanction of a world organi@ation#
$Alexander, 2332' %&). The purpose was not directly to prevent genocide happening again.
The reason for this given by Alexander is that "Jost Americans did not identify with the
victims of the !ewish Trauma# $2332' 23).
"in#s $etween individual and collective trauma
aruth cites an interesting passage by Freud, in which he compares the 'latency period' in
developing a traumatic neurosis to the latency period between Joses helping the people
of Israel escape *gypt and !ewish monotheism occurring, which Freud links in with the
concept of cultural trauma $Freud, cited in aruth, %&&%' %(,). aruth latches onto the
notion that an individual, suffering a trauma such as being in a train collision, was arguably
"never fully conscious during the accident itself# $aruth, %&&%' %(+) in order to explain
how a modern day !ew can still feel traumati@ed by an event that occurred thousands of
years ago. This is a key aspect of collective trauma as, by definition, it refers to the wider
public4 who are not affected by the event itself4 being 'traumati@ed' and feeling outrage that
such an event could occur. "The experience of trauma, the fact of latency, would thus
seem to consist, not in the forgetting of a reality that can hence never be fully
known; but in an inherent latency within the experience itself# $aruth, %&&%' %(+). aruth
further explains how historical events can only be traumatic by their historical nature,
which is to say they re5uire time to sink in and gain significance. "For history to be a
history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully
perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only
in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence# $aruth, %&&%' %(+). Ey repressing memories
in this 'latency' period, be it in the context of individual or collective trauma, the "truth about
the experience is perceived, but only unconsciously# and ultimately "traumatic feelings and
perceptions... come not only from the originating event but from the anxiety of keeping it
repressed# $Alexander, 2330' -). This comes about when "bad things happen to good
people# thereby throwing the individual's sense of 6ustice, and can only be resolved by
both "setting things right in the world# and "setting things right in the self# $Alexander, 2330'
-). Further, the responses to traumas such as political scandals, economic depressions
and lost wars will be "efforts to alter the circumstances that caused them# $Alexander,
233-' .).
Freud was forced to "withhold or repress# $aruth, %&&%' %(&) part of his work under the
historical context of the ?a@i "persecution of his family and of psychoanalysis# $aruth,
%&&%' %((). /e was ultimately forced to leave Austria, allowing him to publish his work
analysing religion generally, and specifically the history of Joses. It is fascinating how the
cultural trauma of which Freud was writing, that of the exodus of the !ews, could be so
aptly mirrored by the ?a@i persecution of both !ews generally and Freud specifically
$aruth, %&&%); furthermore, the 'exodus' of Freud $and countless other persecuted !ews)
to havens like Iondon at the time could be described as a collective trauma. This can be
likened to the plight of the !ews historically' "the captivity and return, while the beginning of
the history of the !ews, is precisely available to them only through the experience of a
trauma# $aruth, %&&%' %(-). Freud explained anti4>emitism in terms of the relationship
between hristianity and !udaism by claiming that hristians "feel Gedipal rivalry with their
!ewish older brothers, a lingering castration anxiety, brought out by !ewish circumcision,
and finally a complaint that the !ews will not admit the guilt which the hristians, in their
recognition of hrist's death, have admitted# $aruth, %&&%' %(+). Gbviously hristians
cannot claim a literal blood relationship to !ews, and therefore the Gedipal rivalry
mentioned is purely metaphorical, as is the castration anxiety, and the guilt of hrist's
death. /owever, the latter metaphor creates a sense of 'alterity' as some hristians do in
fact use the trauma of hrist's death at the hands of !ews to practice anti4>emitism.
!sychoanalytic thin#ing
Alexander describes Asychoanalytic thinking as the "academic version of lay theory#
$2330' -). In the context of the holocaust, the psychoanalytic version of trauma theory
states that'
":hen faced with the horror, !ews and non4!ews alike reacted, not with criticism
and decisive action, but with silence and bewilderment. Gnly after two or even three
decades of repression and denial were people finally able to begin talking# $Alexander,
2332' &).
This would fit Alexander's theory of collective trauma, as it backs up the claim that events
and the traumas which occur are not one and the same, and that events do not even
create the trauma. The trauma, as in the case of the holocaust, can take years to be
'carried', which Freud calls a latency period $%&(&). Freud links hysteria to "the memory of
a traumatic experience# $Freud, %&(&' %33). /e continues to explain that in every case of
hysteria "the memory of earlier experiences awakened in association to it plays a part in
causing the symptom# $Freud, %&(&' %33). :hile Freud, here, talks purely of the
individual's response to trauma in the context of the psychoanalytic model, he links this
with premature sexual experience such as "an attempted rape... or the involuntary
witnessing of sexual acts between parents# $Freud, %&(&' %3%). This brings to light the
social problem of premature sexual experience, manifesting itself later in life in the form of
hysteria. The move away from psychoanalytical thinking, and towards what Alexander calls
'lay trauma theory' began with attempts to understand the social phenomenon of 'shell
shock' $Alexander, 2330) but is reflected also in Freud's understanding of hysteria. aruth
talks about how phenomena such as rape, child abuse and autoL industrial accidents are
"understood in terms of the effects of Aost Traumatic >tress <isorder $AT><)# $%&&%' %(2),
and namely how this was not always how these phenomena were understood. Trauma, in
the form of AT><, is a relatively recent understanding of physical and mental experience,
which aruth attributes to "increasing occurrence of such perplexing war experiences and
other catastrophic responses during the last twenty years# $aruth, %&&%' %&%).
%riticisms of collective trauma
!oas critici@es Alexander's understanding for lacking a sufficient distinction between
aspects of individual and collective trauma'
"A provisional summary of my argument thus could be that Alexander does not
make a clear distinction between psychological and social conse5uences of
traumas on the one hand and the social construction of cultural memory and a
phenomenon called Mtrauma1 on the other hand# $!oas, 233-' .+%)
This argument can be seen as pure pedanticism. :hile !oas' intention to draw the focus
back to psychological individual trauma is an understandable cause, he ignores the fact
that Alexander specifically does not intend to make a clear distinction between the
individual and cultural aspects of trauma as he is not arguing against the existence of
individual trauma. Indeed, he acknowledges that such a definition is academic, and that
cultural trauma can only hold a lay position as it encompasses a far less definitive term.
!oas further suggests that Alexander's theory of collective trauma might "lead astray and
neglect the true potential of psychological trauma research for historical sociology# $!oas,
233-' .,+). In response to Alexander's distinction between lay trauma theory and its
academic predecessor psychological trauma theory, !oas states that
"In view of the fact that research about trauma indubitably has its origin in medicine
and psychology $and not in sociology) this conceptual move is a bit presumptuous. It is
unpleasant as well because right from the beginning the reservations of the critical
reader are downplayed and seen as the dif8culties of the ignorant layman# $233-' .,+).
/owever, I cannot find anything in this statement which I agree with. For starters, pre4
emptively explaining the position of a theory in relation to a previously accepted alternative
theory is not presumption, in fact it is 5uite the opposite. !oas seems set on having his
preconceptions, or 'reservations', about Alexander's theory, and many of his criticisms,
such as claiming that "we
can be traumati@ed by occurrences that we haven1t experienced personally# $!oas, 233-'
.,(), seem to contradict his position regarding Alexander's collective theory, and leaves
the reader wondering what his opinion on collective trauma actually is. Alexander's theory
of collective trauma would seem to imply that understandings of experiences that have
changed with time are nonetheless false and represent only the construction of the trauma
relating to the event. /owever, sub6ective experience even when "imagined# can be
considered ob6ective, considering that' "As the hicago sociologist :illiam Isaac Thomas
famously remarked long ago, everything that is taken to be real by the actors is real in its
conse5uences. The imagination of an event is then an ob6ective fact even when this
imagination does not comply with the fact# $!oas, 233-' .,().
To conclude,
!oas' criti5ue of Alexander's theory holds two ma6or criticisms. First, that his focus on
collective trauma detracts from the importance of individual trauma, under the
psychoanalytic and medical understandings. Alexander acknowledges that his theory of
trauma is 'lay' and that it does not contradict or detract from the 'academic' trauma theory,
so !oas' argument does not hold much weight. The second criticism !oas has for
Alexander's theory is that Alexander makes no clear distinction between psychological and
social conse5uences of trauma. This has an element of truth to it, as Alexander sees
cultural trauma as having an impact on identity as well as societal bonds. :hile this could
be seen as a weak aspect of Alexander's theory of cultural trauma, it should be noted that
as I have previously discussed, the ties between individual and collective trauma are not
6ust semantic. As Freud discovered, the nature of hysteria, which was explained using an
individualistic psychoanalytical model, indicated a larger social problem, an event which
had not yet become a trauma save through the noticeable symptoms of 'hysterical'
women. aruth further explains more of Freud's work explaining the nature of !ewish
identity in their historical collective trauma of being enslaved and then led to freedom. In
summary, individual and collective traumas are not as separate as theorists such as !oas
insist. To understand fully the nature and extent of collective trauma, you must understand
on one hand both the social structures which accommodate its creation and the social
structures which create it, and on the other hand, the individual agents who carry forth the
Alexander 2332, Gn the >ocial onstruction of Joral =niversals' The '/olocaust' from :ar
rime to Trauma <rama in European Journal of Social Theory: 8, Iondon' >age
Alexander 2330, Toward a theory of cultural trauma, in Cultural Trauma and Collective
Identity, alifornia' =niversity of alifornia Aress
Arruti 233+, Trauma, Therapy and Representation: Theory and Critical Reflection,
*dinburgh =niversity Aress
EE ?ews $(L.L23%2) !anda revel Joseph "ony tar!et of viral campai!n video in EE
?ews ConlineD Available from http' Caccessed
Jarch 23%2D
aruth %&&%, =nclaimed experience' Trauma and the Aossibility of /istory in #ale $rench
Studies: %8, Nale =niversity Aress
*rikson %&+,, Everythin! in its path, ?ew Nork' >imon and >chutser
Freud %&(&, The &etiolo!y of 'ysteria, in Aeter Bray $editor) The $reud Reader, ?ew
Nork' :.:. ?orton
!oas 233-, ultural Trauma9 Gn the Jost Fecent Turn in !effrey Alexander's ultural
>ociology in European Journal of Social Theory: (, Iondon' >age