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CULTURAL TRAUMA / Vol. 87, No. 3 (Fall 2020)

William Hirst, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Over the past century the concept of trauma has substantially broadened its meanings in academic and public discourse. We document four directions in which this semantic expansion has occurred at different times: from somatic to psychic, extraordinary to ordinary, direct to indirect, and individual to collective. We analyze these expansions as instances of "concept creep," the progressive inflation of harm-related concepts, and present evidence for the rising cultural salience and semantic enlargement of trauma in recent decades. Expansive concepts of trauma may have mixed blessings for personal and collective identity.


This article discusses cultural trauma as a concept that is fraught with category mistakes or engenders overly strong distinctions between individual and collective levels. Working from a broader memory studies-perspective, it argues that a combination of research on the "extended mind" with the conceptual repertoire of actor-network theory is well-suited to address "trauma in culture" as a relational process involving biological, mental, social, and material entities as "mnemonic actors." Trauma emerges from a "flat ontology of memory." Understanding narrative templates as mnemonic actors, the article shows how the "odyssey" translates traumatic memory across time, from individuals to groups as well as across identity-categories.


The recent consolidation of trauma studies parallels the growth of memory studies. Tracing their entwined genealogy reveals a focus on the (same) tragic events. This essay focuses on how their histories and entwinements reflect and are constrained by particular and changing notions of temporality and risk. Focusing on the link of traumata and memories, exemplified in the concepts of Posttraumatic stress disorder and cultural trauma, I shall argue that during the last two decades traumatic memories are less about the past (or the present) but primarily political-cultural interventions aimed at preempting fears, anxieties, and uncertainties in and for the future.


Cultural trauma forms when representations of a public event become collectively shared and viewed as traumatic for the community. There is a place for flashbulb memories – vivid recollections of learning about public, emotionally charged events – in this trauma process, in that these memories allow community members to serve as witnesses of the event and participate in the process of shaping the event’s cultural representation. Inasmuch as most members of a community often possess flashbulb memories, an entire community may, on occasion, participate in the creation of trauma-centered meaning through mutual witnessing.


Experiences of loss, tragedy, violence, and upheavals are ubiquitous, with the majority of individuals experiencing several distressing events during their lifetime. Such events may be conceptualized as “traumatic” and contribute to negative changes in mental health. Despite decades of research on the study and treatment of trauma, it remains unclear when a negative event becomes traumatic. Although biologically- and psychologically-based models shed light on this question, we propose a more comprehensive and nuanced conceptualization will emerge from the integration of cultural theories into individual-level analysis when examining the evolution of trauma processing across time.

Social science is parasitical on the world it studies, reconfiguring familiar terms for analytical purposes. This is clear in the history of trauma, which began as a label for physical injury and evolved into a description of psychological suffering. How does social scientists’ embrace of the trauma framework—which bears the marks of its origins in medicine—influence assumptions about the social world we purport to understand and explain? We compare the cultural trauma framework with one of its predecessors, tragedy, which informed an earlier generation of social theorists as they reckoned with the seemingly irrational suffering born of modernity.

Experiences of loss, tragedy, violence, and upheavals are ubiquitous, with the majority of individuals experiencing several distressing events during their lifetime. Such events may be conceptualized as “traumatic” and contribute to negative changes in mental health. Despite decades of research on the study and treatment of trauma, it remains unclear when a negative event becomes traumatic. Although biologically- and psychologically-based models shed light on this question, we propose a more comprehensive and nuanced conceptualization will emerge from the integration of cultural theories into individual-level analysis when examining the evolution of trauma processing across time.

This paper examines how the memory of violence against demonstrators is culturally produced. In line with cultural theories of trauma, it assumes that the collective meaning of violence is socially mediated. However, it critiques the primacy of trauma as an analytic frame because its gravitation towards victimhood and negativity occludes the dynamic of action and reaction that defines contentious politics. Drawing on cultural memory studies to identify complex processes of mediation and remediation that render some events more memorable then others, the paper shows how the memory of outrages committed against demonstrators is made meaningful and imbued with a mobilizing capacity.

What happens if, instead of the Holocaust being the baseline event for understanding cultural trauma, settler colonial examples are recruited to decolonize cultural trauma framings? Here, a partly successful tribunal hearing lodged by Arrernte residents in Santa Teresa, central Australia, over neglected repair and maintenance issues, shows how settler state deployments of the traumatic and the traumatizing also pivot on event models. Such containment tactics enable more perennial forms of cultural trauma to thrive in insidious and distributed ways. This litigation case study highlights the need to decolonize, rather than reproduce, counter-sovereignty acts of cultural trauma in our conceptual models.


This paper explores drones in relation to states' capacity or desire to generate national memories around warfare. How may a society remember a drone war whose rationality is the cultivation of distance? How sense is made of that lacuna between the visibility and invisibility of suffering, and how victimhood is understood is an embodied phenomenon, corresponding to a schematic of trauma, specific to the style, or rationality, of violence. Since body-less war transcends physical and political limits of the body, eclipsing traditional commemorations of trauma, we consider the conditions of possibility for a distinctly national remembrance of drone wars.

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