Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics by Susannah Radstone

Susannah Radstone

Radstone, in this essay-Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics, focuses the current ‘popularity’ of trauma research in the Humanities and examines the ethics, context, and politics of trauma theory, as exemplified in the writings of Caruth and Felman and Laub. It begins by examining and offering a critique of trauma theory’s model of subjectivity and its relations with theories of referentiality and representation, history and testimony. This essay also argues that the political and cultural contexts within which this theory has risen to prominence have remained largely unexamined. Hence, the essay concludes by proposing that the trauma theory needs to act as a brake against rather than as a vehicle for cultural and political Manicheanism (the dualistic philosophy dividing the world into evil and good principles). So, the world should not be divided into evil and good.

Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics by Susannah Radstone
Source: Variety, Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics by Susannah Radstone

Susannah Radstone in this essay-Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, brings the references to Ruth Leys’s, the trauma theorist’s ideas who harshly criticized Cathy Caruth’s essay for being a double standard. Leys criticized that, Caruth is saying, trauma’s history and the truth is inaccessible and also she says we can be closer to truth or history. On one side, she argues that truth is not accessible and at the same time she claims we can be closer to the truth. So, it is a double standard for him (Ruth Leys). Ruth Leys’s idea is more like mimetic or representational theory and Cathy’s ideas are anti-representational or anti-mimetic. Ruth Leys focuses that we can be closer to the truth but Caruth claims we cannot get access to truth. For her, to get the truth, we have to construct a story and several constructed story will lead to the truth. Hence, Radstone in Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics, wants to consider over the two forms of trauma theory: the anti-representational or anti mimetic trauma theory by Cathy Caruth and representational or mimetic trauma theory by Ruth Leys. Redstone wants to see which one is more convincing. Finally, Radstone says that Ruth Leys has broken the deconstructive approach of trauma theory and favors Cathy Caruth’s anti-representational trauma theory. The present deconstructive reading focuses that we cannot get fixed meaning or truth.

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Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics by Susannah Radstone
Source: Pininterest Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics by Susannah Radstone


Radstone, with regard to Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics comes to the conclusion with the three important ideas or terminologies. They are (i) Testimony/witness, (ii) Subjectivity and Ethics, (iii) Representation (referentiality). Structuralists theories are representational, referential/mimetic and deconstructionists theories are anti-representational or anti-mimetic. Representations are highly mediated. So, we may not reach the truth, there will be partiality. (as it is anti-representational).

In Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics, we talk about recalling or telling as it is. Then you recall those events which are in the unconscious. You will experience, you will send it to an unconscious and finally, you will recall those events. In anti-mimetic theory- “Trauma is an internal manifestation of external things. There is always a gap between event and manifestation.” The nature of language is slippery/unreliable or indirectly referential. Any event in itself is neutral. When you give inadmissible/unacceptable meanings then your meanings will create trauma. It is not the event that is toxic, but meaning you create with your mind is toxic or decides toxic.


According to Felman and Laub, testimony (to trauma) demands a witness and it is only within the context of witnessing that testimony to trauma is possible. The subject of trauma theory is characterized by that which it does not know or remember. This is not a subject caught up in desire, but a subject constituted by forgetting. When something triggers, you are forced to recall or tell the events. Some of the testimony is voluntarily done, some for cultural purposes, police affairs, legal process and sometimes travel writing. The witness is your first-hand experience. Testimony is possible within the context of witnessing or what you have reconstructed or narrated. Testimony is subjective construction. So, trauma history is political (constructed) history. It is not fact-based, it is not objectively based but is subjective.

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Subjectivity and Ethics

Everything is internal for trauma theory- or everything is subjectivity. Subjectivity is different in psychoanalysis and trauma theory. Psychoanalysis takes the darker side of the mind (id) as granted, the sexual pleasure, inadmissible sexual fantasy is always there. Trauma a theory claims that an event in itself is not toxic but it is the meaning associated depending on subjects. The question of ethics comes when you ask the victims to bear the witness of unbearable subjects. Should we ask the victims to bear the testimony? Though Redstone doesn’t give a concrete answer to the question she raises, she is bringing for debate. The politics of representation involves subjectivity. The next thing is ethics, whether it is related to sufferings, humanity and so on. Ruth Leys’s genealogy of trauma links the rise of an anti-mimetic theory of trauma to the defense of an (ideological) commitment to the sovereignty and autonomy of the subject. Leys further argues, it is thus anti-mimetic theory which suppressed the mimetic-suggestive paradigm in order to reestablish a strict dichotomy between the autonomous subject and the external trauma.

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He claims mimetic and anti-mimetic tendencies cannot be strictly divided from each other. The trauma theory of Caruth and of Felman and Laub emphasizes lack of recall and inexperienced nature of trauma. In these senses, it leans towards the mimetic paradigm. Leys argues that whereas in the mimetic theory, the subject unconsciously imitates or repeats the trauma, in the anti-mimetic theory, the subject is essentially aloof from the traumatic experience. Leys’s account of the differences between the anti-mimetic and mimetic paradigms also draws attention to the question of the traumatized subject related to the aggressor. The mimetic paradigm posits a moment of identification with the aggressor and the anti-mimetic theory depicts violence as purely and simply on assault from without.

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Representation (referentiality)

Referentiality derived from structuralism but post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and deconstructions suggest that representations bear only a highly mediated or indirect relation to actuality. Thomas Elsaesser explains that the traumatic event has ‘the status of a (suspended) origin in the production of a representation. This is about the representation of trauma. The politics of representation involves subjectivity.

  • This essay considers the rise of trauma theory within its academic contexts.
  • This essay also opens up the discussion of the promise and limitations of trauma theory.
  • In this essay, Radstone refers to Caruth’s works and Felman and Laub’s, though Radstone brings references of Ruth Leys who criticized Caruth’s works.
  • Freudian emphasis on memory’s relation with unconscious conflict, repression, and memory is replaced by an understanding of memory to brain functioning.
  • Deconstruction shaped the emergence of trauma theory and its influence can be shaped.
  • Post Structuralism, Psychoanalysis, semiotics and deconstruction suggest that representations bear only a highly mediated or indirect relation to actuality.



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