We love big ideas! Like Lego we can construct marvellous palaces with our words, indeed whole cities; we can make an empire so extraordinary that even Marco Polo will not be able to describe it.Take a recent book, The Empire of Trauma by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman. Even the title tells a tale: of its imperial ambition. Trauma, once just a psychological illness, has been turned into a metaphysical entity; a grand theory we can use to understand the world and its phenomena. Like dialectical materialism, or Freud’s unconscious, trauma can now explain not only personal sickness but major political events; it has become the explanation for society’s ills.[I] It can also cure them.
The book, according to Thomas Laqueur’s review, follows the current fashion of concentrating on the power of language, showing how a profession, here the medical establishment, can use its own professional language to dominate and control the outside world; to create its own standards, and in this case, to create particular maladies. Like trauma. A cluster of medical institutions thus generate powerful concepts and categories, that create illnesses and their remedy, and then justify them to the general public; all grounded in their own expertise and professional authority. We live inside their ideas and definitions; we are trapped within a series of language prisons, or so it seems.
The reviewer separates these two issues out (the illness and its representation), correctly in my view. He acknowledges recent research, which appears to show that a trauma victim suffers a brain lesion; that is, there is neurological, not an ideological, explanation for this particular illness. Of course, as the reviewer accepts, a physical illness, or any natural condition or preference, will still be viewed differently over time – witness the changes in European attitudes to homosexuality and race. Trauma was once seen as a weakness; we disapproved of it as a moral failing. It was believed that people used it to get out of work, and later out of the First World War. This view has changed. Today, trauma, and particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are recognised in courts of law as real illnesses for which the sufferers can legitimately claim compensation. That is, the illness remains the same, but our ideas about it change.
The book asks what brought this about; and what does it mean. The latter first:
They believe that trauma has become the arena in which people can acquire their status as victims and find treatment for their suffering; that it has created new avenues for exposing the reality of persecution and prejudice; and that it has given the victims of such persecution a tool in their struggle for recognition and compensation.
They give the example of the Occupied Territories, where they believe the recognition of trauma can help to resolve the conflict, by ‘’bearing witness’’, by speaking to ‘the deeper historical truths of victimhood’, and by ‘testifying to particular injustices perpetrated by one side.’ However, the authors state that the Israelis have also suffered trauma at the hands of the Palestinians – particularly the soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank!
What is going on here? Trauma, from being a particular diagnosis for a specific mental illness, has become an idea, symbol and metaphor. In the process it loses all particularity; it can be applied to anything. And thus explains nothing. If I say that all the population in the Occupied Territories are victims, it is no different than if I said that all Israelis and Palestinians have arms and legs. No different, that is, if we want to understand the historical record, and suggest political alternatives; if we want to talk about the facts and about arguments from those facts. It is curious that this isn’t understood. Though the reasons for it are explicable – intellectuals tend towards an idealist mindset, towards theories and worldviews that are saturated with ideas not facts. Scholasticism, rather than being some historical aberration is the modus operandi for most thinkers. The background of the authors may also play a part, in this particular case: they belong to the medical establishment, whose power their reveal. Ideas and self-interest are a powerful combination; and, as I write elsewhere, both ideas and the specialised disciplines that generate them have an urge to expand and to conquer. They are small states that want to become empires.
Laqueur doesn’t agree with the authors’ metaphysical claims, and undermines their really big idea: that the Holocaust, by potentially making everyone a victim of trauma, changed its status and gave it respectability.
In the early 1970s there was a turn away from political radicalism in some quarters. The students got older, became tenured professors, physicians and accountants. Explanations for the ills of society changed, no longer large corporations or the military-industrial complex, but cultural and psychological factors were now the key – language replaced economics as the main focus for explaining domination and control. This was just at the moment, of course, when economics, through the financialisation of the economy, achieved new heights of influence and power (there is almost certainly a connection between the two. Consider the German metaphysical professors in the Prussian state in the 19th century). That is, there was a turn from social to individual explanations for the causes of our ills; which became psychological and cultural rather than political and sociological. At the same time the Holocaust became the symbol of evil in western liberal discourse. This book appears to have merged these two trends. Laqueur separates them out nicely:
I can say that the talk among survivors had little to do with trauma or morality and a great deal to do with whether one person’s lawyer was cleverer than another’s in constructing the elaborate counterfactuals that went into arriving at a settlement: how great a career would X have had but for the Nazis and hence how much money was owed?
And then he makes the key point:
Trauma, once it expands to become the psychic and metaphorical trace of all pasts in anyone’s present, erases as much of a victim’s life as it might recover.
The problem of turning the Holocaust into a symbol is well known. Norman Finkelstein has shown how the new wave of compensation claims in the 1990s were used to line the pockets of unscrupulous lawyers. While there was been the unedifying sight of frauds and tricksters writing books and making money by pretending to be victims – eg Binjamin Wilkomirski and his book Fragments. Here is Richard J. Evans:
What was worrying was not so much the fraudulent nature of Fragments itself, as the ease with which the book’s authenticity had been accepted by many people involved in ‘Holocaust Studies’, a field dominated not by historians but by people involved in other fields, from literature and aesthetics to religious studies and education. (my emphasis)
And Israel, of course, has used it to prevent criticism of its occupation and territorial invasions. As Finkelstein says, can there be a worse use of the victims’ memory than to use it to oppress someone else?
The problem when ideas leave the ground is that they may never come back down again. This is certainly the case here. Today our two pilots are heading into the stratosphere, with trauma allowing, ‘a new relationship to time and memory, to mourning and obligation.’ Let’s wave them goodbye.
One day we will believe in God, not because he exists, but because he suffers.