It should be emphasised that traumatic experience does not only involve physical injury. If one were trying to define trauma, the first thing that could be done is to type it into Google and rely on this for the simplest, (though most inadequate) answer. From all the literature that I have consulted – including popular literature - the following supposition can be made: trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; or a physical injury. This gives the basic foundation for understanding trauma from which can be extended.
Trauma can be studied individually or collectively. For instance, Hirsh deals with survivors of trauma and not collective trauma in societies. Hirsh suggests that in order to cope with the past it must be owned – perhaps by acknowledging past mistakes – since, “… the past exists only as other to present and future”. Viewing the isolation and disempowerment of a trauma survivor depicted in a photograph can be highly affective. Hirsh characterises trauma as devastation, abolition, absolute transformation and alterity, and suggests that trauma is a tug of war between the familiar and the culturally alien. On the other hand, James Berger argues that trauma can be studied psychoanalytically because of its potential to go beyond merely individual analysis to social analysis, thereby placing socio-historical trauma’s effects on a society’s culture and politics. Hirsh, contra Berger, confronts individual survivors of trauma and not collective trauma in societies. She claims that isolation and disempowerment are the effects of trauma.
On the other hand, according to Berger, trauma studies is a way of understanding non-linguistic experiences that negate language, through the use of language. The definition of trauma has changed in the last few decades from physical injury (for example Freud’s reflections were based on his treatment of wounded soldiers in the first world war) to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the same soldiers a few years later. PTSD was also used to describe the emotional state of rape victims and those with childhood sexual abuse. Trauma is still widely understood as clinical but recent developments using psychoanalytic theory allow for a wider understanding, for instance there are many psychological symptoms of a mental illness (PTSD) – which develop after a traumatic event – such as amnesia, compulsive behaviour, emotional numbing, flashbacks and hallucinations. Trauma is essentially a social and historical phenomenon, that is, individual behaviour projects onto broader cultural symptoms.
For instance, Elizabeth Hirsh talks about the abuse of Vietnamese people by Americans, and more specifically of young Vietnamese girls, highlighting violence and vulnerability in photographic images that seem to express an artist’s desire for coming to terms with the past. For example The Terror of War by Nic Ut, a photograph captured in 1972 that shows Kim Phuc running down a road, naked, shortly after a napalm attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force.
According to Cathy Caruth, transforming a traumatic event into a story of the past, a memory, allows for verbalisation and communication of history – thus, perhaps, providing a means to cope. There are many terms synonymous with studies of trauma, for instance collective memory and collective trauma – or “traumatic recall” – as well as PTSD, and, in some cases, cries for restitution. This is not to say that collective memory always brings about restitution. There is always a relation between history and memory, a kind of social framework of memory. And, importantly, this history is always mediated. There is also interplay between the past and the present in particular socio-cultural constructs. By rethinking the old into current discourse, the potential for cultural memories allows for social memory as well as social amnesia, along with collective retribution. Individuals react in different ways but many act in the same way as other people, in this way individual memory coincides with collective memory and collective trauma. There are certain catalysts or objects of recollection that aid the transference of memory – how memory is transferred from subject to subject. Memory can be nostalgic, whether it is restorative, reflective or postcolonial. It can also be traumatic: a lot of people have experienced trauma, and through these traumatic memories, collective memory is developed, even though there is a proliferation of memories in the imagination.
Individuals who have suffered from trauma need to re-integrate themselves into society through a process of re-signification as part of their recovery. It is apparent that the recovery of survivors is essential to their healing process. This is also discussed in Berger’s article where he quotes Adorno that "…we will not have come to terms with… the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active”. According to Ross Chambers, collective trauma is culturally beneficial since the community is no longer substantially based on the need for protection and the shared risk of exposure. This is because of the practice of figuration and disfiguration – “…the tug of war between the culturally alien and the familiar…” – which allows for the acceptance of the possibility of the past returning. Similarly, Sigmund Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” refers to patients with neurosis who attempt to recreate the traumatic experience that caused them to be in their present state. It progresses counter to Freud’s pleasure principle and is dependent on the death drive or instinctual impulse – the drive to return its body to its original state, an inanimate state.
A person’s traumatic experience, or in Berger’s terms, historical trauma, is of more interest as a narrative providing the story of the survival of some personal or social catastrophe. It is a direct experience, an event occurs, one endures it, passes through it, one undergoes it: “…one suffers it”. From this overwhelming occurrence, a person’s psyche – or a society’s culture – is shattered. However according to Berger, trauma as a direct experience is mediated in two ways:
"First, the traumatic event is defined as being so overwhelming that it cannot consciously be apprehended as it occurs; it can only be reconstructed in retrospect, is always belated, at a distance. Second, and following from this, the apprehension of trauma involves always a study of symptoms, and so the central focus of trauma studies is not an attempt magically to reconstitute a direct experience of trauma, which must always be inaccessible even to its subject, but rather is on acts of interpretation of traumatic symptoms. Trauma studies is primarily a hermeneutics whose goal is to read traumatic symptomatic texts."
According to trauma studies, one can only understand a present event in terms of the past and encountering the incident is only possible by means of its effect on the present. Semantically, understanding a non-linguistic event is still possible with the use of language, a metaphor, for example. Jean-Francois Lyotard described the Holocaust as a powerful earthquake that would wipe out the scales that measure it. Because hyperboles are part of the rhetoric of trauma studies, it needs to be understood that language is also visual, and trauma can be articulated through the language of art where catastrophe becomes revelation.
According to Jean Baudrillard, paraphrased by Timothy Richardson, language has agency, it is alterity, the Other, and writing (or drawing) with the intention of expressing something meaningful may produce something else entirely even though this may not be the authors intention. Richardson calls this “accidental form”. Trauma is universal, it is the: “…unassimilable kernel at the heart of human experience, and the contingent, the only haven for human subjectivity". An individual’s trauma is specific; however, when collective trauma leaves a mark on culture, it affects it in a way that cannot be symbolised. This is what Julia Kristeva is talking about when she writes about the abject.