vanishing acts

a review of Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History

Trauma conveys a kind of philosophical force: it puts pressure on the epistemological status—and the evidential value—of recollected and recounted memories. Crucially, for Caruth this pressure is not only epistemological; it is also necessarily ethical. This is because trauma cuts across the personal and the historical. Indeed, Caruth contends that trauma is “not so much a symptom of the unconscious as a symptom of history,” such that “the traumatized carry an impossible history within them.” For her, it follows that this “impossible” quality must be preserved—particularly if we wish to bear “witness” to the histories that our traumas transmit. It is easy to see this idea’s deconstructive colouring. Recalling Derrida’s similar style of ethical thought, Caruth argues that trauma’s aporia ought to be retained; that impossible histories call for appropriately unresolved types of testimony. In short, if we are ever to take stock of trauma, we must remain faithful to its “affront to understanding.”

read the review in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 Nov 2014