The Problem With Trauma Culture

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

The focus on all forms of trauma except economic exploitation has helped to disguise the problem at the heart of neoliberalism.


Catherine Liu is a professor of film and media studies at UC Irvine and the author of “Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class” (2021). She is at work on her next book, tentatively titled “Exploiting Trauma: Standardized Suffering in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”

As a species, human beings have always been vulnerable to the shock of an unforeseen violation of body, mind and spirit. But the way in which that injury is understood — not as a vagary of fate that must be endured, but as a subject of legal and medical intervention — emerged with industrial modernity. 

There is scholarly consensus that contemporary ideas about trauma originated in the 1800s, in legal and medical language about the railway accident, said to produce a nervous condition called “railway spine.” The railroad accident brought traveling businessmen — members of the mercantile capitalist or upper middle classes in the United Kingdom — into legal conflict with railroad companies, as it exposed them to what literature professor Roger Luckhurst calls “technological violence previously restricted to factories.” 

Work injuries suffered on the factory line are rarely mentioned in academic accounts of trauma, whether from a literary or a historical point of view. In fact, industrial forms of working-class injury are largely ignored by the literature on the railway accident. “Because the fevered expansion of railroads from the 1840s was driven by free market companies,” Luckhurst writes, “the medical question of injury was always also a legal question of liability.” When, in 1862, a certain Mr. Shepherd was awarded damages by a court for his inability to conduct business after being involved in a railway accident, the medico-legal notion of the “railway-spine” was cited as a specific form of damage to a person’s entire nervous system. In the absence of physical wounds, railway spine affected its victims with nervous ailments that had never been seen before.

Trauma, as we understand it today, is inseparable from the emergence of industrial and then finance capitalism. And since the days of the railway-spine, it has been good for business: Modern technologies created modern afflictions that were treatable not by priests and shamans but by legal, medical or psychological experts. This history of trauma’s emergence as a legal and financial category critical to the development of industrial and then finance capitalism’s class configuration is generally ignored by trauma experts, who range from psychologists to self-help gurus.

Today, the way that psychological trauma is performed and privileged in public discourse — which I will refer to as trauma culture — promotes an ideology of individual suffering that is remarkably well adapted to the spectacle-induced amnesia of late capitalism. Trauma culture destroys the political and historical ground on which to form a critique of capitalism. Since the end of the Cold War, it has worked tirelessly under the guise of progressive politics to depoliticize the public sphere.

The professional managerial class (PMC) has helped promote this culture, along with the fantasy that financial anxiety and stress are temporary states of being that can be overcome through hard work, competition and education. This class emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century as an intermediary between the bourgeoisie, who could live on trust funds and interest, and the working class that labored to produce the profits enjoyed by its exploiters. The PMC consisted of white-collar salaried employees with educational credentials, whose expertise was honed in institutions of higher education. Its expansion and empowerment happened in two waves in the United States: The first, emerging out of the Progressive Era, produced social scientists, engineers, economists and policy experts who could fill roles created by the New Deal. The second wave of PMC empowerment occurred during the Cold War, with the rapid expansion of the military industrial complex.

Trauma culture takes suffering at the individual level as a privileged site of political struggle, inheriting its mandate from the 1960s cliche: The personal is the political. In doing so, however, it standardizes and mass markets individual suffering, through what sociologist Eva Illouz defined as a tightly scripted “trauma narrative” — an innocent protagonist, fractured and destroyed, then redeemed and remade whole as a survivor — that endows individual stories with immediately recognizable meanings.

“Trauma culture takes suffering at the individual level as a privileged site of political struggle. In doing so, however, it standardizes and mass markets individual suffering.”

The goal of psychotherapy should be to work through an unconscious fixation on traumatic material, and it can only happen on an individual level. Psychoanalysis, as I have understood and lived it, helps the suffering individual let go of her attachment to a traumatizing past. This therapy is not political, it is personal…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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