Printer Friendly

Governing traumatic events.


From the point of view of Western states and media, the "stuff" of global politics is increasingly dominated by stories of crisis, emergency, and catastrophe. So-called traumatic events of one kind or another--terrorist attacks, natural disasters, global pandemics, and (even) financial crises--occupy news and policy discourses on an almost daily basis. Indeed, it seems that trauma is fast becoming a paradigmatic lens through which the dynamics of contemporary international politics are framed, understood, and responded to.

The everyday prevalence of what we might call the discourse of the traumatic event presents a quandary for those political analysts seeking to develop critical theoretical or disciplinary insights with which to diagnose, address, or engage this emergent global milieu. On one hand, our understanding/understandings of trauma and the traumatic event tend to be dominated by the ascendancy of managerialist discourses of humanitarianism, psychology, and the newly emergent frame of resilience planning. These (often overlapping) discourses usually address the question of how to respond to traumatic events in the terms of a problem-solving exercise, seeking to better manage the outcomes of traumatic event more efficiently without first unpicking the power relations which produce and are sometimes sustained by trauma. (1) On the other hand, there has been a curious naturalization of specific events as emblematic of critical concerns. For instance, while scholars of international relations have been drawn to the spectacle of particular events, most notably "9/11," less attention has been paid to the concept, discourse, and practice of the traumatic event as a political problematic as such.

At one end of a spectrum, it is possible to identify a generalization of knowledge about traumatic events, seeking depoliticization, management, efficiency, and so on. At the other end, we detect a fetish for the particular: trauma as an arresting device for rethinking the political. However, both approaches fail to capture how governing traumatic events is a complex and movable feast. Refusing a choice between the general and the particular in this way, the pressing task facing the critical scholar is rather to question how they produce and sustain each other: how the general concept of trauma is read from specific events and interpellated into others, and to analyze how these practices generate differential political effects among governed populations. (2)

Far from being exceptional, we would argue, the repertoire of the traumatic event may be quite ordinary, a banality of established and establishing knowledge practices that render "the event" governable; in other words, trauma can be understood as a normalizing discourse of power. On this view, the increasing incidence of events produced as traumatic carries its own set of political narratives that can be unpicked. There are important historical markers--Chernobyl, Lockerbie, 9/11, the Tsunami, Katrina--and an established (and highly emotive) accompanying vocabulary of shock, devastation, anger, and blame. The political logics entailed then become quite recognizable. Governments need to coordinate, humanitarian organizations need to mobilize resources, people on the ground are portrayed as helpless victims. Political energy is drawn to a specific and limited narrative of disaster and response where human experience is portrayed in universal terms: subject to the unthinkable, the unimaginable, that we all need to survive. An ethics of pity is quickly marshalled, a politics of empathy constructed: something of the human persists and such events remind us of that. (3) In these and other ways, traumatic events are always already "governed" or known.

Rendered thus, the question of governing traumatic events becomes an enquiry into the possibility, and indeed the impossibility of "knowing trauma" so that "it" might be governed in new and more effective ways. Problematizing events as traumatic opens up a range of opportunities for producing/reproducing sovereign power (Kinnvall), political community (Pupavac and Pupavac, and Svensson), as well as logics of securitization/insecuritization (Neocleous, and Aradau and van Munster) and militarization (Howell). At the same time, such problematizations also work to close down other forms of response (Lundborg).

The aim of this special issue is to draw together a range of critical perspectives on the politics of governing traumatic events. Our central task is to problematize the idea of trauma and the traumatic event, so as to generate a set of provocative perspectives on how governance/resistance is made possible by these discourses. Questions that animate the articles gathered here include, but are not limited to:

* How is the traumatic event produced?

* What notions of time and space are instantiated in contemporary practices of governing traumatic events?

* How are people and things made into subjects and objects of the traumatic event?

* How are traumatic events produced as governable via critical infrastructure and resilience planning?

* Are there better ways to govern trauma?

* Does trauma resist governance?

In different ways, each of the articles speaks to the capacity of generalized knowledge/knowledges of the traumatic event to overlap with--and performatively produce--particular experiences and subjects of trauma.

While there is a range of interpretation among the articles, each speaks to the way different understandings of trauma and the traumatic event produce a set of ethicopolitical possibilities and limits. Beyond the technocratic problem-solving approaches of disaster management and psychosocial intervention, which work largely within an unproblematized ethical--political frame of event/response, our contributors work with a performative set of assumptions highlighting the political effects of the generalization of such knowledge/practices. Among the critical approaches presented here, however, there are notable divergences between accounts that highlight the potential "success" of governmental logics (where trauma serves as an organizing logic that conditions broader frameworks and practices) and others that seek to show how such knowledge/practices are in a process of change, breakdown, or might otherwise become a target for resistance. Another animating tension, as we see it, exists between those scholars, typically of a Lacanian persuasion, for whom trauma reflects a prediscursive and fundamentally ungraspable ontological lack on one hand, and those who treat trauma in less foundational terms as a discourse mobilized by particular actors with various ethical and political implications.

We do not seek closure on these theoretical debates, but rather take them as productive sites for ongoing critical reflection on the resources available to theorize trauma and the work that traumatic discourses do in contemporary political life. Indeed, it is here in particular that we see the special issue as a whole contributing to and pushing further extant discussions in the interdisciplinary literature. The special issue consists of seven especially commissioned articles engaging with these questions against a deliberately broad range of empirical backdrops.

Mark Neocleous' opening article explores the connection between the ubiquity of trauma and shifts in the concept of warfare. It traces the development of trauma through the rise of "posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but does so by simultaneously pointing out the rise of "anxiety" as a diagnostic category within the same manual. The rise of the psychiatric problem of anxiety is treated as contemporaneous with the rise of what has been called the age of anxiety--that is, the age of the security/insecurity state. This state was one that relied on a gradual erosion of any distinction between war and peace, to the point where talk of "endless war" is now common. Neocleous suggests that trauma-talk is a means of interpellating political subjects in an age of endless war. Contrary to the assumption that trauma is about the past, trauma is instead here treated as a means of preparing subjects for future war. In this way, a suggestion is that knowledge about traumatic events can be used and deployed so as to render the future governance of subjects in particular ways.

In their article, Mlladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac question how the politics of trauma has been associated with antimilitarism and victim advocacy. The discussion considers how international trauma or psychosocial models of humanitarian intervention influenced veteran politics in Croatia. As President Tudjman was skeptical toward the relevance of PTSD, initially, such trauma models were promoted by the nongovernmental organization sector, fostered by an international aid. However, over the last decade, Croatian government bodies and policies have helped promote trauma advocacy. In particular, the current Croatian prime minister has been closely associated with veteran politics and trauma advocacy. Pupavac and Pupavac discuss how a feminized therapeutic discourse has helped legitimize veteran politics and cohere a strong veterans' constituency following demobilization.

Against the grain of many of the "ethical" and "humanitarian" associations of knowledge about trauma, Pupavac and Pupavac find an increasing overlap with nationalist politics: a therapeutic state. Croatian veteran politics has been associated with nationalist politics, defence of Croatian veterans accused of war crimes, and defence veteran pensions and other wide social entitlements. Veterans' pensions now represent a significant drain on the Croatian economy. Consequently, trauma advocacy, rather than supporting political opposition, antimilitarism, and antinationalism, has ironically tended to support more militarist, nationalist politics. Generalized discourses of trauma and recovery have, on this view, been occupied and rendered according broader frameworks of sovereign power.

In her article, Alison Howell argues that PTSD has held a privileged position as a "go-to" diagnosis over the last three decades since its invention and inclusion in the 1980 DSM III. Its remit has expanded, encompassing a wider variety of experiences, and extending onto a greater number of populations. However, Howell questions whether the diagnosis of PTSD is now becoming less "useful," given the ascendency of new psychiatric and psychological techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), positive psychology and the drive to resilience, which are gaining increased authority in a broader context of the neoliberal valuing of self-help and self-governance. She provides an empirical account of a number of sites of mental health governance, in order to argue that PTSD is increasingly being parsed and divided, so as to account for serious and less serious cases, and between "normal" and "abnormal" reactions to stress. These arguments are illustrated through a number of cases, such as the United Kingdom National Health Services's rollout of CBT, and the reining in of PTSD diagnoses in postconflict settings. Yet, drawing on Michel Foucault's analysis in Discipline and Punish, it is argued that the key empirical site to examine in order to assess the place of PTSD are Western militaries, and particularly the US military, since the development of psychiatric practice within these militaries and the conduct of prolonged wars more generally have often been the catalyst for changes in psychiatric governance that come to be applied not only to military but also to civilian populations.

Howell's original and bold argument is that we may be witnessing the potential demise of PTSD. First, through the resurgence of the notion of injury (e.g., through the diagnosis of Traumatic Brain Injury), which once again weds the physical and emotional or mental experience of trauma, and second, through the increasing authority of governing through resilience, for example, through the US Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which represents a concerted and explicit attempt to circumvent the diagnosis of PTSD. In these ways, new modes of reconciling the general and the particular, the governance of selves and populations may be displacing or overlaying trauma and PTSD. The contexts in which its authority grew are changing to such an extent that the diagnosis may now be beginning to outlive its usefulness. As such, Howell's article offers an important contribution to the study of biopolitical governance in the overlapping fields of mental and physical health.

Developing this Foucauldian line of analysis, Claudia Aradau and Rens van Munster look at how trauma has come to function as a grid of intelligibility around which a range of practices, discourses, perceptions, and interventions to manage catastrophic events are structured and organized. By asking what the political implications are of reimagining such events as traumatic, they unpack how the language of "trauma" impacts upon our understanding of subjectivity, sociality, and normality. It is suggested that the representation of catastrophes as collective traumas has mobilized and reactivated a form of governance based on psychosocial understandings of resilience and enactment. The political implications of psychological knowledge of resilience and enactment are unpacked through a reading of exercise scenarios which are devised and practiced so as to "inhabit" catastrophic futures. In this way, the attempt to create resilient subjects through the enactment of catastrophic scenarios ultimately disciplines subjects, by targeting the everyday events of work and ordinary interaction rather than unexpected and disruptive events.

While the first four articles deal with generalized forms of knowledge about trauma and the performative production/reproduction of traumatic events, subsequent pieces shift the focus to consider how responses to "traumatic events" condition the possibility for particular forms of governance.

Tom Lundborg explores how the government of trauma can be analyzed in terms of a process of folding the traumatic event. While folding seeks to capture the traumatic elements of what has happened by containing them within the forms of what can be said and what can be seen, he argues, there is always something that escapes this process: the reality of trauma or the reality of that which eludes representation. Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, the concept of folding in this context refers to a process of trying to capture something that cannot be fully captured and ultimately resists closure. Lundborg uses the concept of folding to analyze the competition for designing a new Master Plan at the site of Ground Zero in New York. The article shows how the different proposals reflected various attempts to fold the unspeakable dimension of trauma, or the unspeakable dimension of planes flying into buildings and people falling to the ground. This was attempted through architectural designs and memorials, many of which expressed visions of strength, freedom, and liberty, as well as fear and security. The discussion also considers some alternative ways of folding the traumatic event that were excluded from the competition and can be seen as forms of resistance to the ways in which trauma has been governed at this particular site.

Pursuing this theme of the unspoken trauma of traumatic events, Ted Svensson seeks to unpick how the "act of terror" in Mumbai in November 2008 has been widely referred to as India's "9/11." It is a resemblance thought to reside in the event's place within a wider pattern of global Islamist terror as well as in its embodiment of the traumatic and the need of a curative response. Svensson suggests that the proper setting of the event is neither its relation to what occurred in New York seven years earlier nor in how it engaged an international or "global" audience. Neither is the act of violence--the unfolding of and response to it--adequately grasped through the employment of tropes of Mumbai as the most cosmopolitan space in India and of India as (economically and geopolitically) "shining." Instead, the rupture ought to be read in relation to the founding of the Indian Republic, in the violence of founding the authority of foundationless juridical-political structures, and in the traumatizing and intrinsically traumatic vision inscribed into and through it. On this view, the "Mumbai attacks" allow us, first, to critically probe the notion of "governing traumatic events" and, second, to ponder the seeming tension between a permanency of trauma and that of trauma as eruption and rupture/disrupture. Svensson argues that whereas Independence, through partition and decolonization, represents the traumatic through its quality as a founding act or moment--which inaugurates the "new" and "betrays" existing forms of community--the "Mumbai attacks" are most properly described as occurring within and confirming reified, and presently hegemonic, expressions of political life.

Finally, Catarina Kinvall examines the unfolding of traumas as structural and sociopsychological narratives focused on the bordering of identity and the governing of past, present, and future. Proceeding from a Lacanian conception of trauma and a Foucauldian understanding of governmentality, the article is centered on hegemonic counter-narratives involving the bordering of Islam and Muslim identity on one hand and the bordering of Europe and national identity on the other. This "European trauma," or psychological moment, is perceived in terms of Chosen Traumas and Chosen Glories, referring to the mythologization of past events that are retold, reinvented, and awarded new meanings in the present. Such traumas and glories can create a foundation for governing practices in which hegemonic interpretations of identity turn into normalizing narratives that justify violence. However, the governing of narratives is a contested process and alternative narrative understandings can also bring about social resistance and psychological resilience in terms of everyday practices. Such everyday practices may eventually challenge the normalizing bordering processes we encounter in Europe today.


The authors would like to thank all the contributors to this special issue, the attendees at the "Governing Traumatic Events" workshop at the University of Warwick in January 2011, and R. B. J. Walker for their generous support of the project. The authors especially thank Jenny Edkins for her insight and inspiration.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

37(3) 183-187

[c] The Author(s) 2012

Reprints and permission: Permissions.nav

DOI: 10.1177/0304375412449786



(1.) Vanessa Pupavac, "Therapeutic Governance: Psycho-social Intervention and Trauma Risk Management," Disasters 25, no 4 (2001): 358-72.

(2.) James Brassett and Nick Vaughan-Williams, "Crisis is Governance: Sub-Prime, the Traumatic Event, and Bare Life," Global Society 26, no 1 (2011): 19-42.

(3.) D. Fassin and R. Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

James Brassett (1) and Nick Vaughan-Williams (2)

(1.) International Political Economy, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK

(2.) International Security, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK

Corresponding Author:

James Brassett, International Political Economy, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK



James Brassett is Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick.

Nick Vaughan-Williams is Associate Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick. His monograph, Border Politics: The Limits of Sovereign Power (2009, 2012), was Gold Winner of the Association for Borderlands Studies 2011 Book Award. He convenes the British Academy 'Critical Border Studies' network and is currently working on an ESRC funded project entitled 'Public Perceptions of Security Threats in Britain'.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brassett, James; Vaughan-Williams, Nick
Publication:Alternatives: Global, Local, Political
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2012
Previous Article:Children--democracy and emancipation.
Next Article:"Don't be scared, be prepared": trauma-anxiety-resilience.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters