Cultural trauma as a social construct: 9/11 fiction and the epistemology of communal pain.
While it gained immense popularity in the 1990s, this approach to cultural trauma has been recently under severe criticism for either its self-celebratory attitude in using horrible human disasters as opportunities for abstract theoretical adventures, or its overextension of a problematic trope, whereby cultural trauma is loosely based on a metaphor for individual psychic trauma. These critiques have opened a gap to be filled with newer, more robust theoretical methodologies to study trauma at a communal level. In these pages, I examine a social theory of cultural trauma that, instead of following poststructuralist and psychoanalytic approaches, is informed by cultural sociology. The goal is to assess this theory, point out its possible advantages, and investigate its potential in opening new paths for literary inquiry. In the next step, using this theoretical apparatus, an alternative angle in studying post-9/11 literature is proposed, detailed through an analysis of two novels, Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007) and Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil (2008). This essays general argument stands in contrast to the established view that regards literature as inherently insufficient to represent trauma, invoking Theodor Adorno's classic statement, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (34). (1) Richard Gray's aforementioned book quotes a poem by Suheir Hammad to explicitly claim that "no poetry ... no prose ... not one word" can be said in response to the terrorist event of 9/11 (Gray 1; Hammad 139). But even claiming an event to be out of representation's reach is itself a representation strategy. There is an irony that seems too obvious to note, when a poem claims that no poem can be written about the post-9/11 situation; the same goes for Adorno's much-cited aphorism, which condemns poetry after trauma in the most poetically powerful way. To surpass the ironic veil of unrepresentability of cultural trauma, I suggest a theory that investigates trauma's politics of representation, and examines the epistemology rather than the ontology of trauma literature: instead of asking, "Is it possible to narrate?" it asks, "How the narration is perceived? Who narrates and for whom? And what claims does the narration make for the victims, the victimizers, and the witnesses?" But first, an overview of the general criticism against the poststructuralist-psychoanalytic theory of cultural trauma should be made.
The first critical objection targets the psychoanalytic approach's tendency to appropriate trauma as "a basic ontological condition," instead of a concrete horrific experience (Kansteiner 204). When, for instance, Caruth notes that "physicians and psychiatrists have begun to reshape their thinking about physical and mental experiences," and finds this an appropriate call to a similar move for "resituating [history] in our understanding," she directly links the indelible effect of psychological trauma on an individual and the general issue of representation at the cultural level (Unclaimed 11). As Wulf Kansteiner puts it, rather than "improving our understanding of the experiences and treatments of trauma victims or revising the theoretical foundations of such treatments," Caruth studies the question of trauma "because the phenomenon appears to her as a perfect, particularly vivid illustration of her understanding of the workings of language, which she adopts from Paul de Man" (203). This critique is against both the philosophical premises of this approach and its moral responsibility regarding trauma. The model loses its force if one disagrees with the poststructuralist claims about language, but even if those premises are accepted, the conflation of serious harmful events and general failures of representation and language does not meet the required level of commitment toward the victims of trauma. This is why, reading Felman's bold statement that "every woman's life contains, explicitly or in implicit ways, the story of a trauma," one cannot help but notice that the effective, albeit inadvertent, result of such an argument is to gloss over the harsh reality of an actual victim of psychological trauma (16). (2)
Kansteiner believes that these generalizations, extending the effect of a traumatic event to a whole society, race, or gender, do not notice a crucial fact: "Just because trauma is inevitably a problem of representation in memory and communication does not imply the reverse, i.e. that problems of representation always partake in the traumatic" (205). Placing Caruth's argument against the larger background of scholarship in the Humanities, Harald Weilnbbck and Kansteiner criticize its integrity:
Caruth goes on to celebrate the experience of trauma as providing unprecedented insight into the human condition. Applying an interpretive strategy borrowed from Paul de Man, Caruth emphasizes that the failure of the trauma victim to come to terms with the origins and symptoms of his/her mental illness represents a rare and valuable moment of authenticity because human beings only get a chance to perceive reality directly whenever our cultural systems of signification temporarily disintegrate under their own weight. (230)
What makes this method even more questionable is the way it assumes trauma spreads its effects in a society. Partly because this mode of thinking invests considerably in the issue of language, it takes for granted that the linguistic representation of trauma is itself a vehicle for trauma. This leads to the second line of criticism against this approach: overextension of metaphoric language.
The psychoanalytical model of trauma neglects the fragility of the metaphor that constitutes its foundation, and tends to treat it as literal. This problem seems to be equally the result of the Freudian aspect of the model as well as its reliance on post-structuralism. Caruth, for example, extensively uses Freud's most speculative book Moses and Monotheism for her analysis of trauma. Regardless of all the criticisms of Moses and Monotheism in particular, and psychoanalysis in general, one can find a significant problem in Freud's text, which is directly inserted into Caruth's. "The psychoanalyses of individuals have taught us that their earliest impressions, received at a time they were hardly able to talk, manifest themselves lately in an obsessive fashion," Freud writes. "We feel that the same must hold good for the earliest experiences of mankind" (167). When the analysis assumes that the society at large can be studied like an individual human being, there is no need to explain the mechanisms of social life, nor does it seem important that different bodily aspects of humans may have no parallel in the social sphere. Kerwin Klein, among others, criticizes Dominick LaCapra's study on the Holocaust for its reliance on a generalization from the personal realm to the social one, stating that LaCapra's basic premise is that "psychoanalysis deconstructs the bad old dichotomy of individual and collective, and so it is pointless to ask how clinical vocabularies developed for the analysis of individual psyches may apply to collectivities" (140). Although LaCapra, as a trained historian, is aware of the risk that this type of generalization may have, and even warns against "a great temptation to trope away from specificity," it seems that the dependence on psychoanalysis to argue about social phenomena is inherently founded on a problematic metaphor (23).
Jeffrey Alexander uses a somewhat different approach to address the same problem. He claims the primal mistake in the psychoanalytic model of cultural trauma, which he places under the group of "lay trauma theories," is in claiming that "traumas are naturally occurring events," the reaction to which is assumed to be "an immediate and unreflexive response" (Trauma 7, 8). He calls it "the naturalistic fallacy," the extension of an understanding about human nature into the social world, leading to the belief that being culturally traumatized is the one and only natural reaction of a society to extremely harmful events (Trauma 13). To reject it, Alexander states, "First and foremost, we maintain that events do not, in and of themselves, create collective trauma. Events are not inherently traumatic. Trauma is a socially mediated attribution" (13). This creates the touchstone for Alexander's own theory of cultural trauma. (3)
More than a decade ago, Alexander and his fellow sociologist Ron Eyerman launched a series of studies on trauma from a social constructivist perspective. The former was initially preoccupied with the historical condition of the Holocaust, while the latter focused on the formation of African-American identity out of slavery's traumatic memory (Alexander Remembering; Eyerman Slavery). The two scholars then expanded their research in collaboration with others, both in the theoretical dimension and in the variety of different case studies, which led to the publication of two essay collections, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (2004) and Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering (2011). The case studies covered a wide range of global situations, including the trauma of Kosovo (Spasi), the Greek civil war trauma (Demertzis), and the traumatic condition of post-communist societies (Sztompka). Recently, Alexander has consolidated most of the earlier findings into a social theory of trauma, pursuing two main objectives: clarifying the existence of a social link (instead of a natural one) between collective suffering and cultural trauma, and examining the dimensions of this link in terms of the roles played by social institutions.
As Alexander's initial definition of trauma reads, "Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways" (Trauma 6). This definition makes a clear point that cultural trauma is not identical with the horrible event itself, but should be perceived as a social process generated out of a society's response to such an event. Also, the definition relies on a certain understanding of "collective memory" and "collective identity" that is rooted in a Durkheimian sociology, although Alexander himself only passingly discusses these concepts, possibly because he is addressing sociologists, who are presumed to be familiar with these issues. The concept of "collective memory" plays an especially crucial role in Alexander's theory of trauma because it is via this concept that his theory can part ways with the naturalistic--"lay"--theories of trauma.
The term "collective memory" was coined by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in his landmark study The Social Frameworks of Memory (Les Cadres sociaux de la memoire, 1925), where he attempts to define memory's social structure against the more dominant theories of memory (including Freud's), in which prominence was given to the individual. Since then, a wide gamut of theories of social memory has been proposed and examined, to the extent that the very idea of memory in a social sphere has become one of the broadest (and most challenging) interdisciplinary topics in today's Humanities and Social Sciences. (4) A recurring problem in this area is confusing two different, but related, concepts: the memory of individuals in a social sphere, and the memory of a society itself. One is still an individual memory, only perceived against, and accumulated in, a social framework, and the other is a fundamentally different concept, which considers the memory of a collectivity distinct from the accumulation of its individuals' memory. Jeffrey Olick proposes a terminology to clarify the case. He gives the name "collected memory" to "the aggregated individual memories of members of a group," and uses "collective memory" only to focus on the institutional practices of creating and maintaining an image of a shared past (338). In a different manner, the philosopher Avishai Margalit claims that using the term "collective" in reference to the act of memory can generate "a deceptive metaphor," and proposes the terms "common memory" and "shared memory" instead (49, 50). "A common memory," he states, "is an aggregate notion," while the shared memory "is not a simple aggregate of individual memories. It requires communication.... Other people in the community who were not there at the time may then be plugged into the experience of those who were. Shared memory is built on a division of mnemonic labor" (51). Opting for either Olick's terminology or Margalit's, one would avoid the central problem of psychoanalytic thinking that undermines the poststructuralist theory of trauma--that the memories of traumatic events shape the experiences of a society in the same manner that they influence an individual psyche.
Alexander's theory puts forth an outline of claim-making processes that construct cultural trauma. "It is a claim to some fundamental injury," he writes, "an exclamation of the terrifying profanation of some sacred value, a narrative about a horribly destructive social process, and a demand for emotional, institutional, and symbolic reparation and reconstitution" (Trauma 16). He categorizes four different types of questions that a successful trauma narrative has to provide acceptable answers for: What is the nature of the pain? Who are the direct victims? What is the relation between the victims and the wider audience? And who should be taken responsible for the pain? (17-19). Contrasting this with the famous title of Caruth's book, Unclaimed Experience, one notices that social theory perceives trauma as the result of claiming certain experiences, not the complexity of leaving them unclaimed. This theory does not aspire to provide means for moral assessment of the social claims' authenticity but delivers a medium to study "how and under what conditions the claims are made, and with what results" (Trauma 14). By focusing on the concrete and local dynamics of a collectivity, it seeks to know the process in which "[c]ollective actors 'decide' to represent social pains as a fundamental threat to their sense of who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go," without pursuing any direct moral judgment about such decisions, or extending them to any question about the general condition of human beings (15).
Of course, neither the claim-making questions nor their possible responses materialize in short periods, nor does the relative success of a trauma narrative become visible in a brief time frame. "Social narratives are not composed by some hidden hand of history," Alexander states. "The trauma-drama emerged in bits and pieces," as he explains for the specific case of the Holocaust. "It was a matter of this story and that, this scene and that scene from this movie and that book, this television episode, and that theatre performance, this photographic capturing of a moment of torture and suffering" (Trauma 65). In this sense, this approach to trauma has to take into account the possibility that in some cases a collective suffering may not at all lead to trauma. In sharp contrast with the general psychological assumption about trauma, the social constructivist theory considers the communal reaction to a pain open to a variety of different alternatives, not all of which qualify as traumatic.
To exemplify a historical condition where social pain does not lead to a full-fledged narrative of cultural trauma, one can briefly look at the study by Volker Heins and Andreas Langenohl on commemorations of German victims of the Second World War, published in a collection edited by Eyerman and Alexander. Heins and Langenohl begin their discussion by listing some of the German casualties of the War. "More than five million [German] soldiers were killed," they assert. "British and American bombings attacked more than one hundred German cities and towns ... killing around six hundred thousand civilians, and making many more homeless ... On their way to Berlin and in the fallen capital itself, Soviet soldiers raped altogether perhaps one and a half million women" (3). Yet, as their study suggests, "that has not become a cultural trauma, not even for the successive generations of the victim group" (5). Of course, they do not mean to deny that "the defeat of Germany set the stage for a trauma process in the course of which Germans began to fundamentally redefine themselves. Yet this process was successful precisely because Germans learned to connect their own suffering to the suffering of others" (4). The kernel of Heins' and Langenohl's argument is that postwar Germany did not create its own discrete narrative of trauma because it subsumed the memory of its own suffering in the bigger trauma of the War, for which the Germans themselves were held mostly responsible. Heins and Langenohl delve deep into the historical documents of commemorations of two Allied air bombing victims in Hamburg and Dresden in order to show that although the collective pain was not forgotten, nor was its recollection tabooed, it did not create any German trauma. Instead, the German society came to remember its pain in the bigger framework of the Second World War. (5)
This study also illustrates the positive (or progressive) role of cultural trauma. Again, to contrast it with the commonplace understanding of individual trauma, cultural trauma is not necessarily a plight itself, or an illness that needs to be cured. It is a social experience in which an interaction at the cultural level plays itself out to assign meaning to a horrific occurrence and to inject this newly formed meaning into the collective identity of the group. In this sense, cultural trauma is a communal practice of historical hermeneutics, an attempt by a society's various institutions to interpret a calamitous event, redraw the history of the event through that interpretation, and consolidate its newly shaped identity via social practices that uphold certain values in the light of that horrible memory. From the perspective of this theory, literature can play two distinct roles. It can act as a representation of the relative success or failure of trauma narrative's social consolidation, while creating chances to ponder the various reasons behind it. But it can also act as a social apparatus itself, not only mirroring the cultural condition of trauma in a given time, but being part of the social interplay of forces that lead to trauma. In the former sense, literature is a reservoir of memories and experiences that can be exposed and studied, and in the latter case, literature is itself the medium of collective memory. It is not only the container of memories, but the instrument of a social act of remembering--or forgetting. The task of a literary scholar in studying cultural trauma can include both of these aspects. As Astrid Erll points out, literature has the unique ability to offer "first- and second-order observations of the world simultaneously," in the sense that "literary works construct versions of the past," and also "they make exactly this process of construction observable, and thus also criticisable" (151). This unique condition gives the literary scholar a chance to study cultural trauma from a highly productive viewpoint.
To exhibit the capacities of the social constructivist theory of trauma, a brief analysis of two works of 9/11 fiction is presented here: Don DeLillo's Falling Man, a representative of American literature in direct response to the terrorist attacks, and Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil, which takes a look into both the aftermath of 9/11 and a few precedent global episodes, including the end of the Cold War and the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism. The former is set mainly in New York, with characters that are directly involved with the event as survivors, witnesses, or inflictors. The latter takes place mostly in Afghanistan just after the American invasion and follows a handful of dissimilar characters, including an old British physician whose Afghani wife was executed by the Taliban, an ex-spy whose years of service under the CIA have left a scar on his mind, a young and passionate Afghani jihadist, and a Russian woman looking for the remains of her brother, a USSR soldier, supposedly lost in Afghanistan two decades ago.
The briefest account of their synopses shows how the two novels follow two diagonally opposite directions, depicting two different geographical loci, but also revealing two contrasting mindsets. On the one hand, a native New Yorker and one of the most celebrated American novelists seeks to express the deep rupture in the American life caused by the terrorist attacks, to which he had alluded in "In the Ruins of the Future," an essay published a few months after the attacks. "This catastrophic event," he writes in the essay, "changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come" (33). For DeLillo, the most significant issue is that the "sense of disarticulation we hear in the term 'Us and Them' has never been so striking, at either end" (34), and he takes it as his novelistic mission to gather "the smaller objects and more marginal stories in the sifted ruins of the day ... to set against the massive spectacle that continues to seem unmanageable, too powerful a thing to set into our frame of practised response" (35). On the other hand, the Pakistani-born British author of The Wasted Vigil represents an already ruined world on the other side of the planet, seemingly isolated from civilization, but where one can "[p]ull a thread" and "find it's attached to the rest of the world" (Aslam 319). Aslam's novel does not inquire into the post-9/11 American society, but takes a detour to Afghanistan to examine the event from the perspective of those whom DeLillo's essay calls "Them."
Since its publication in 2007, Falling Man has attracted not only a general American readership, but also much scholarly attention. A general trend in several academic readings of the novel involves a direct application of the poststructuralist-psychoanalytic theory of trauma. Hamilton Carroll, for instance, argues that Falling Man is preoccupied with the question of "how to represent an event that is at once too known and unrepresentable," and thus, examines the ways the story faces the barrier of representation caused by the trauma (111). Likewise, Kristiaan Versluys bases most of his reading of the novel on the idea that the "historical trauma caused by the terrorist attacks reveals a structural trauma that has to do with the condition of modernity as well as with the human condition in general" (34). Their arguments are based on the problematic premises of the psychoanalytic understanding of trauma, because not only do they use case studies of psychic trauma as the springboard for discussions on the social condition, but also invest highly in the restrictedness of representation as a natural outcome of cultural trauma.
In a few of their close readings, the traumatic condition is deliberately exaggerated or mystified. Carroll, for example, reads a few lines from the opening chapter of the novel, where the falling bodies from the towers are vaguely described, and asserts, "The world, after September 11, has become the world in which the unimaginable--people falling from the sky--becomes the actual and it is this world that the novel is trying to make sense of" (111). This is either an underestimation of the imaginative faculty of the human mind, or a hyperbolic statement that has gone too far, because as much as it is improbable to see people falling from the sky, it is not unimaginable. Similarly, in a section of his study called "The Evaporation of Meaning," Versluys meticulously reads several paragraphs in the novel to show the "very texture of the prose itself reflects the raggedness of experience, while the splintered composition of the novel is the most telling proof of the indelibility of trauma and its shattering impact" (40). While the details of his analysis are quite compelling, what makes it problematic is the result he seeks in the end, that "[o]rdinary language collapses with the tower" (42). In considering trauma as an opportunity to reflect on abstract enigmas of human culture, practitioners of the poststructuralist-psychoanalytic approach do not hesitate to mystify the event and its aftermath. What, on the other hand, the social constructivist theory can probe into is the concrete process of claim-making as a consequence of the terrorist attack.
The story of Falling Man starts on the morning of September 11, 2001, and after relating the tales of a handful of characters including Keith Neudecker, a survivor of the attacks, his estranged wife Lianne, a performance artist called Falling Man, and a young terrorist named Hammad, returns back to the exact moment of the first plane's crash into the WTC tower, finishing the narrative in a full circle. The novel's tripartite structure, each section named after a character, Bill Lawton (1), Ernst Heschinger (85), and David Janiak (179), displays three key features in the construction of trauma narrative. The name Bill Lawton, generated by Keith and Lianne's son and his two friends out of mishearing Bin Ladin's name on the television, is the crystallization of the novel's critical attitude toward the immediate media response to the terrorist event. Too hasty to find the culprits, the enraged American media, much like the three children, imagine their enemy within their own limited cultural and linguistic boundaries, forcing the unfamiliar 'They' to become familiarized. Bill Lawton is the symbolic symptom of the cognitive disease that infects many American minds. The novel, through Bill Lawton, depicts a troubling aspect of the claim-making process. As the trauma narrative requires the attribution of guilt, the novel observes how the limits of recognition intensify the shortcomings of cognition. The book is filled with vignettes of confrontation with unknown people followed by a sudden rise of fear, hatred, or confusion. But as much as it holds a critical position against these cases, probably to present them as the ugly side-effects of an unfortunate condition, the novel itself exploits the stereotypical boundaries to proffer its own claim.
In an interesting case, Lianne notes that many non-Muslim people around her have started to read the Qur'an in English translation, "trying earnestly to learn something, find something that might help them think more deeply into the question of Islam" (231). She finds herself detached and mildly critical of the situation, as she sees it to be "the determined action that floats into empty gesture," and then remembers that someone she knew has even recited "the first line of the Koran in his office. This Book is not to be doubted" (231). Apart from a minor inaccuracy about the cited line--it is actually the second line of the second verse of the Qur'an--it displays a curious mistranslation. The original Arabic line has a much more neutral tone and a simple declarative structure, while DeLillo's version is imperative and dogmatic. Two commercial translations of the book, for instance, present the same line as "This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt," and "This is the Book about which there is no doubt" (Abdel Haleem 4; "Quran.com."). The original Arabic line is, of course, somewhat vague in its tone, so a less declarative and more assertive tone can also be construed. (6) Thus, the quote is not as much a simple mistranslation as an intentionally harsh translation of the line. In any case, its deliberate grimness and obvious dogmatism serve the purpose of the novel quite well.
The second section's title, Ernst Heschinger, refers to a former member of the German leftist fraction Kommune 1, who has now changed his name to Martin, and whose discussions with Lianne include inferences about the political and ideological motives behind the terrorist attacks. As several critics have noted, Ernst functions as the translator for the terrorist character in the novel (DeRosa 165; Conte 572, 73). DeLillo's depiction of Hammad is the most criticized aspect of the book: too vague in his motives, too carnal, and too familiar in his unfamiliarity, a condition that Aaron DeRosa calls "a crisis of expectations in representing alterity" (165). Hammad's political drive is reduced to suggestive personal anecdotes; his impressions of his superiors, his instant emotions against the Americans that he encounters, or his mixed feelings about his teachings that never flourish into a tangible argument--"But does a man have to kill himself in order to accomplish something in the world?" (174). Pankaj Mishra finds DeLillo's depiction of the terrorist fragmented and formulaic, pointing out that "the resonant views on terror, conspiracy, mass society and art [that DeLillo] previously articulated through his characters are metaphysical, even religious, rather than political" (Mishra). He implies a reference to DeLillo's praised novel Libra (1988) that recounts a fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, and claims that DeLillo's formulae in creating Hammad may be useful "to explain the lone assassin or other outcast figures of American history, [but] were likely to prove inadequate before foreign terrorists dealing in mass murder" (Mishra). Construction of a trauma narrative requires a factual answer to the questions of the victim and the victimizer. While the novel is confident in providing a detailed response to the victims' case--by portraying Keith's disconsolate attempts to regain his confidence in life, and relating stories of several other individuals, whose links to Keith are gradually revealed--its depiction of the Other is uncertain, nebulous, and, according to Mishra, a replica of an indigenous type of terrorist that DeLillo has so far been comfortable to picture.
Unable, or maybe unwilling, to provide a compelling voice for Hammad, the novel uses Ernst Heschinger as proxy. Unlike Hammad, he has a calm tone, an articulate voice, and, most important of all, a shared language with his interlocutors, the novelist, and the readers. It is therefore, Ernst's task to voice the apparently silent enemy: "They want their place in the world" (116). The immediate reference for "they" is the terrorists, but it can also be extended to the majority of non-Western people, who are now outside the cognitive wall that the trauma narrative is building. Ernst's own ambiguously dark background and his constant defence of the terrorists makes Lianne suspicious that maybe "he was a terrorist," but she instantaneously reminds herself that "he was one of us ... which meant godless, Western, white" (195). The novel maintains a meta-awareness of the widening gap between Us and Them, and critically details the process in which the gap becomes wider and wider as an aspect of the claim-making process in trauma construction. But curiously enough, the novel itself participates in this process. It mentions the ironic complication of having no access to the minds of the terrorists other than through a white Western man, but it also indulges in this irony by not acknowledging the "political and ideological belief as a social and emotional reality in the world--the kind of fact that cannot be reduced to the individual experience of rage, envy, sexual frustration and constipation" (Mishra). (7) Hammad's reduction to a carnal presence, who either thinks in abstractions or does not think at all, demonstrates how DeLillo's critique of ideological limits in recognition of the Other can be applied to his own work.
The novel's third section, "David Janiak," is named after the deceased performance artist, known publicly as Falling Man. His performances embody off-the-record and unacknowledged claims in the tragedy that tend to fall outside the realm of official control, resisting the urge to appropriate the grief for any kind of accusation. Remembering one of his performances after his death, Lianne "tried to connect to this man ... There were no photographs of that fall. She was the photograph, the photosensitive surface" (223). The artists re-enactment of the fall is in fact a restoration of witnessing. Falling Man's performance is both a metaphor for the meaningful silence of watching a disaster and the passive resistance to being arrogated for a political agenda. But his silence is also employed by the novel to open a path of abstract consideration about the horrific event. Falling Man's effect on Lianne is a highly personal experience, one that is not only too difficult to share, but also too dear, as if it holds a metaphysical value that is not to be lent to any policy or ideology. In other words, it does not produce an argument against the general counter-terrorism political front; it only evades such a confrontation. In Lianne's searches on the internet to find more about Janiak, she "clicked forward to entries in Russian and other Slavic languages," and not being able to understand the texts, she only looked at their pictures (220). Perhaps inadvertently, this short remark displays the novel's own policy of preferring abstraction to local details, undermining the possibility to link the event to concrete political arguments. The novel's employment of Janiak is not exactly a defence against the post-9/11 mainstream political agenda in the U.S., but an escape from any engagement with that agenda.
On the other side, The Wasted Vigil does not shun the contested world of political convictions. By displacing 9/11 from its domestic context, Aslam's novel illustrates what Oona Frawley, borrowing a phrase from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, calls "a global civil war" (Frawley 445; Hardt and Negri 4). The head-on approach to the global question of terrorism is evident from the novel's opening epigraph by Zbigniew Brzenziski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor: "What is more important to the history of the world--the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? A few agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"(l) The terrorist event in 2001 is suggested to be a backlash of American foreign policy, and its trauma, as the novel depicts, has to be regarded in that light. To observe how the book demonstrates a cultural trauma narrative and how it simultaneously contributes to it, I briefly review three cases: the significance behind the young Afghani extremist's name, the novel's attempt to work against monumentalization of 9/11, and the examples of culturally reinforced ideological blockades on both sides that surpass language barriers.
Contrary to DeLillo's Hammad, Casa, the young jihadist in The Wasted Vigil, is not a submissive character with a vague history, but a hardened fighter with clear motives and a detailed background. The novel goes to considerable efforts in describing his path from a wretched childhood into coming of age as a militia member with a deep faith in fundamentalist Islam. Perhaps the most significant feature of Casa's character is his name, coming from Gioconte Casabianca, "the twelve-year-old son of a French admiral," who died during Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt (155). The French boy's courageous acts before his death in the battle are recorded in a French poem that was taught in schools; thus "in 1988, the six-year-old Casa, known then only by the generic 'little boy,' had exhibited similar valour and obedience ... [and somebody] laughed and called him Casabianca" (155). In a significant turn of events, the person that gave Casa his name, who at the time was in "an expensive Western-style school," was later sent to a "free Islamic one" because of his family's financial deterioration, and now he believes "in the primacy and supremacy of Muslims above all," and therefore, regrets calling Casa by that name (156). Nonetheless, the shortened form of the name stuck on the boy, and when much later he is asked about its origin, he invents a different answer: "It's short for Qaisar" (260). The name Casa, therefore, is a palimpsest, whereby the histories of Western Colonialism and Islamic Fundamentalism meet. As each new historical episode rereads, erases, and rewrites its antecedents, Casa's name encapsulates a seemingly indeterminate identity that is moulded out of clashes between the West and the non-West. Any direct answer to the questions of who the terrorists are, what they want, and where they come from suddenly becomes superficial, when the embodiment of terrorism in the novel bears a name that showcases an ongoing battle of ideologies and geographies.
Against this backdrop, the novel purports to historicize 9/11, partly to show how reductive it can be to treat that event as a highly exceptional one that outweighs any representation. It strips 9/11 of its epistemological shield, presents it as an event far from unique from the perspective of the Afghanis, for whom its effects were simply a continuation of disaster and calamity. By contextualizing the rise and relative fall of the Taliban, Aslam indicates how the havoc of the Cold War extended into the ongoing instability of the post-Taliban era. In this sense, the singular day of 9/11 has very little meta-historical singularity, and the magnitude of its shock, when aligned with the Afghani's daily dose of shock, is not at all unique. But also in terms of America's own history, 9/11 is placed in line with another terrorist attack in February 1993 that was meant to destroy both of the World Trade Center Towers, but failed and only damaged parts of the North Tower. The novel has a direct reference to that attack through a recollection by David (147), the former CIA agent that has now retreated to seclusion in an Afghani village, harbouring a never-ending dilemma between his patriotism and the dark reality of his former employers' impact on this side of the world. While remembering the event of February 1993, David also recalls that "workers digging the foundation of these buildings years ago had found ancient cannonballs and bombs, a ship's anchor of a design not made after 1750, and one small gold-rimmed teacup made of china but still intact" (147). These disinterred relics discovered in the 1970s, as Eoin Flannery notes, "resurrect an earlier age of international ambition and conflict together with the remainders of historical artisanship," which artistically couple the two ideas of "destruction [and] craftsmanship" (302). 9/11, thus, is not an apocalyptic event, but "one among many violent crimes ... built upon the residues of previous lives and communities," and by the same token, it opened a path for its own subsequent events (Flannery 302).
The framework to consider the trauma of September 11 is widened geographically and historically, spacious enough to accommodate critical observations on the limits of representation that are due to local circumstances and narrow dogmas. David and Casa know each others language out of a strategic necessity, but their mutual limits of recognition prevail even within the boundaries of a shared tongue. "Having studied manuals for weapons and computers ... [and] having taken lessons in passport and credit card forging," Casa is a self-taught English speaker, but his most fruitful usage of this linguistic prowess is to "put together films at the jihadi camps in that language, to be sold in the mosques of European cities" (158). In the same way that young American soldiers in the novel boast about freeing a country from its own plague, without acknowledging American policy in previous decades, Casas knowledge of the West is also filtered through his biased teachings. He is taught to perceive the West as inherently corrupt and fundamentally anti-Islamic. In a satirical scene, Casa asks David about the American President, "Ibraheem Lankan," who was shot for being a Muslim (205), and elsewhere he relates a tale about Neil Armstrong's conversion to Islam after hearing the Muslim call to prayer in a bazaar, saying that "he had heard that sound while on the moon" (262). Casas deep hatred for his version of the Islamophobic West is not reducible to personal history, in the same way that his own name is not exclusively his. The counter-trauma that Casa projects is reinforced by the trauma that Falling Man describes, and through a vicious circle of claim-making the latter finds acts and creeds of Casa and his fellows as the evidence for its own legitimacy.
The claim for victimization and responsibility needs an annexation of the pain, and against the established Western trauma narrative of 9/11, the Fundamentalist groups push their own claim by channeling their own imagined pain. Casa's internal monologue is revealing:
These days they keep saying, Why do the Muslims become suicide bombers? They must be animals, there are no human explanations for their actions. But does no one remember what happened on board flight United 93? A group of Americans--"civilized" people, not "barbarians"--discovered that their lives, their country, their land, their cities, their traditions, their customs, their religion, their families, their friends, their fellow countrymen, their past, their present, their future, were under attack, and they decided to risk their lives--and eventually gave up their lives--to prevent the other side from succeeding. He is not wrong when he thinks that that is a lot like what Muslim martyrdom bombers are doing. (185)
The novel debunks the idea of Islamic terrorism as a theological battle with little, if any, concrete political arguments, the same notion that DeLillo, for instance, assumes in his essay: "[T]here is no logic in apocalypse," he writes. "They have gone beyond the bounds of passionate payback. This is heaven and hell, a sense of armed martyrdom as the surpassing drama of human experience" ("In the Ruins" 34). But Aslam's novel says otherwise. Following the bombing of an American-administered school in Jalalabad, killing dozens of children and adults, the official statement by the terrorist group does not only address theological ideas, but points out "the hypocrisy of the Americans who condemn this killing of the children but whose president had shaken hands with the people who in the 1980s had blown up a passenger plane just as it took off from Kandahar airport, carrying Afghan schoolchildren bound for indoctrination in the Soviet Union" (79). It is irrelevant to ask if the political concerns are the real reason behind such a violence, or if they are merely shallow justifications. What matters is not a moral adjudication of either side's honesty, but an inspection of the historical process that links the seemingly distinct nodes of religious dogmatism, intervention policies, and local resistance. By including several indigenous characters like Dunia, a young teacher in the village, whose life is threatened, and later taken, by the local extremists for not being a docile woman, and Bihzad, an indigent who is tricked into executing a suicide bombing mission, Aslam generates a compelling case against fundamentalism, yet his narrative is not willing to project terrorism as a simple and pure incarnation of evil to fortify the trauma narrative of 9/11. The novel's contribution to trauma narrative does not revolve around the case of Us versus Them, but traverses back and forth between the two fronts, demonstrating how an act of terror defines itself as a response to a previous terror, which then licences its own brutality.
The offered analysis of the two novels is far from exhaustive, but through these briefly discussed points, I have shown the promises of a social constructivist theory of cultural trauma. When trauma is defined not as a horrific event and a natural response to it (or absence of such a response), but instead viewed as a socially built narrative that assembles the collective grief, shapes it into a tale of virtue against vice, and implements a redefinition of the collective identity, the analysis will be focused on the mechanics of social praxis, not the ontological questions of human language and representation. Literary text such as Falling Man and The Wasted Vigil can provide insight into the dynamics of trauma formation in a cultural level; they fuse a critical witnessing of social activities that arises after the traumatic event together with their own contribution to these activities. This unveils a hermeneutic circle, where understanding the position of the text in regard to the cultural condition is interwoven with understanding that condition itself, which is in turn constantly shaped and reshaped by this text and many other ones. What, therefore, a literary study of cultural trauma can offer is a vision into the complexity of the cultural system that solidifies the memory of a horrible past.
Prospects for further analysis in this vein are numerous; the textual progress of claim making can be aligned with other, non-textual, activities of the same inclination, and its effect on the general reader can be examined in terms of revoking or fortifying the prevailing trauma narratives. Various responses to the text, either via references by other literary texts or direct readings of it by, say, reviewers, can be analyzed in order to observe the exact role that such a work can play in the broader context of cultural trauma. And, last but not least, via this theory, a work of literature can be read comparatively against similar texts in other social conditions--e.g., novels written about other traumatic experiences, and their attempts in trauma claiming for their own society of readers. This essay, of course, does not address all these issues in detail. Yet, as stated earlier, my goal is to advance an ambitious trajectory for further studies, by introducing Alexander's theory, and assessing its potential for literary analysis. And we shall not forget that a literary study of cultural trauma does not only absorb the social theory and apply it on certain texts, but opens a mutual connection, whereby the sociological analyses of the aftereffects of a horrific condition for a collectivity can also gain a valuable understanding of the inner workings of a unique cultural apparatus.
I'd like to thank Jerry Varsava, Albert Braz, and Lahoucine Ouzgane, from University of Alberta, for their meticulous and patient comments on the earlier drafts of this essay.
(1.) The limits of this essay do not let me include in detail Adornos approach to trauma, but for a comprehensive critique of Adorno in this regard, see Kansteiner (2004).
(2.) It is worth noting that while the poststructuralist approach is now criticised for its limited ethical responsibility, it is the product of the so-called "ethical turn" in poststructuralism, after its major practitioners (e.g., Yale School or Derrida himself) were facing accusations about their lack of engagement with real-life issues. For a recent overview of the rise of trauma studies, and an attempt at responding to some if its criticism, including Kansteiner's, see Eaglestone (2014). Also, for a particular assimilation of the psychoanalytic trauma theory in a political analysis of 9/11, see 2izek (2012).
(3.) There are other criticisms levelled against the poststructuralist-psychoanalytic model of cultural trauma that do not attack its main structure, but find serious methodological faults with the details of some of its leading texts. For instance, Ruth Leys, in her comprehensive study Trauma: A Genealogy (2000), devotes a whole chapter to Cathy Caruth, where she meticulously examines Caruth's references to Freud to show that "Caruth's interpretive practices ... involve not so much detailed readings of the texts under consideration as the-matization of them in terms of certain privileged figures or tropes" (279). In one case, for example, Leys demonstrates that Caruth's extensive quotation from Freud "involves the omission of the very words in the passage she cites that would appear to disprove her contention" (288).
(4.) For a concise overview of Halbwachs's theory, see Marcel and Mucchielli (2010). Also, for detailed discussions of various theories of social memory, see Erll (2011) and Misztal (2003).
(5.) This is also quite visible in various literary works by the post-war German writers, like Giinter Grass and W. G. Sebald, in which any attempt to revive the German identity has to pass through an inclusive understanding of what Germans did to others, including the Jews. For a comprehensive analysis of these two writers in this regard, see Morgan (2009).
(6.) A verbatim translation of this line is, "This book, not doubt about it," which is then completed by the next line, "A guidance to believers." The original Arabic does not employ any verbs at all, making the sentence's tone quite hard to grasp.
(7.) Mishra's reference is also to Martin Amis' "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" (2006) and John Updike's Terrorist (2006), both of which portray terrorist characters, similar to DeLillo's, whose main features are physical rage, sexual complexities, and lack of intellectual capacity.
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UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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