By Priscilla Charrat Nelson
The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies is pleased to co-sponsor the upcoming graduate conference entitled The Future of Trauma and Memory Studies, which will take place April 11th-12th. To mark the occasion, University of Illinois graduate student, Priscilla Charrat, takes a look at the recent work of the conference’s keynote speaker, Stef Craps (Ghent University), and looks forward to his keynote presentation, “Trends in Trauma Theory.”
Stef Craps's 2014 MLA talk entitled "‘You call it disorder ... We call it life’: Postcolonial Trauma in Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love" proposed an analysis of Forna's 2010 novel, which addresses Sierra Leone's eleven-year civil war and its aftermath. Craps's analysis, and its strength, lies undeniably in the unsettling premise that while war survivors can obviously be identified as vulnerable (vulnerability being the theme of the 2014 MLA convention), this vulnerability might not only come from the trauma of war, but also from the professional psychological help survivors receive from European psychologists. This help, Craps argues, might prove partly detrimental because it does not address the cultural specificity of the locus of trauma. The expected trauma-diagnosis-treatment-healing process is therefore disrupted by the inadequacy of the direct importation of Western psychology to a non-Western setting.
Craps's talk was very much in line with the arguments he develops in his latest book Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (2013), where he advocates for addressing trauma in a postcolonial context on the postcolonial subject's own cultural terms rather than privileging the Western, Freudian, event-based notion of trauma. His position reflects a larger turn within memory studies, away from founding branches like psychoanalysis and Holocaust studies, toward an interest in more structural and diffuse phenomena such as slow ecological violence, quotidian violence linked with race, gender, and sexual orientation, or the day-to-day violence of living in a postcolonial setting.
For Craps, the European bias jeopardizes trauma theory's own goal of ethical engagement in three distinct ways. Firstly, it does not take into consideration non-Western forms of violence, and fails to deliver on its promise of transculturalism by not acknowledging non-Western trauma on its own terms. Secondly, the direct import of a Western concept precludes discussions of how a traumatic stressor might be defined in a non-Western context, as illustrated by the quote from Forna's novel included in Craps's talk title, "You call it disorder…We call it life." Finally, trauma theory tends to focus on the individual rather than on societal dynamics. Craps further pointed out that trauma theory tends to favor modernist aesthetics of aporia and fragmentation as well as validate the failure of narrative as a literary technique, which leads to a narrow canon of trauma narratives considered by critics.
In the Q&A session following his talk, Craps insisted, however, that he does not want to essentialize Western and non-Western trauma, but rather advocates for a larger consideration of all types of trauma, including insidious trauma. He pointed out that insidious trauma could also happen in the West, and that event-based trauma happens in non-Western contexts. With this in mind, one might also want to consider further the interaction between event-based trauma and a context of structural trauma.
We are extremely excited to have Stef Craps as our keynote speaker at the upcoming graduate conference on The Future of Trauma and Memory Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His keynote, “Trends in Trauma Theory,” will address recent turns in the field, such as globalization, de-aestheticization, perpetration and limitation. We look forward to the discussion his talk will inspire as well as the work by graduate students to be presented throughout the conference.
For a full schedule of The Future of Trauma and Memory conference, you can find the conference’s webpage here.
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.