The Possession of Trauma

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Possession of Trauma

‘to be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’1
Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory

A young German soldier during the Battle of the Somme, 1916

Trauma is a ‘disorder of memory and time’2 a type of psychological damage which results from extremely distressing events experienced individually or collectively. Such events fundamentally violate a person’s understanding of the world, creating a sense of insecurity and making memories of these events difficult to integrate into a broader context. As a result of their inability to be contextualised as memories of the past, these episodes intrude into the present as ‘hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviours stemming from the event’.3

The mnemonic anomaly of trauma offers interesting insights into the functioning of photography and time. Freud characterised memory in terms of a camera, suggesting the unconscious served to store memories until they ‘are developed, like prints from black-and-white negatives, into consciously accessible recollections’.4 Similarly Scott McQuire has argued that ‘memory necessarily implies selection, ordering, narration, perspective’,5 much in the same way as a photograph or series of photographs. Expanding this further, Baer suggests that traumatic memories and actual photographs of traumatic events function in broadly similar ways, resisting the need of the viewer to place these images into familiar narratives. In most photographs and memories ‘the viewer is supposed to be safely grounded in the present over here while the photograph is assumed to refer to a prior moment that can be kept safely apart over there’.6

Some images and memories, however, refuse to exist in the past and instead deliver what is termed an ‘illusion of the real’ directly into the present, a mesmerising effect that transcends the viewer’s knowledge that what is shown is now past in the same way that a traumatic memory overcomes the normal defences of memory. This, Baer argues, exposes ‘as a construction the idea that history is ever flowing and preprogrammed to produce an ongoing narrative’.7  Photographs like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of people with disabilities walking on crutches or crawling on all fours, or those taken by Zdenek Tmej while he was performing forced labour in Nazi Germany. These are images which explode myths by refusing to remain in one place and which instead appear to stand apart from the time and context in which they were originally made.

1 Cathy Caruth, Introduction in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, 1995) p. 5
2 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 9
3 Cathy Caruth, Introduction in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, 1995) p. 4
4 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 9
5 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 164
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 2
7 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 1

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