Modern trauma

In the latest issue of Harper’s, Will Self argues that trauma is a distinctly modern phenomenon:

I shall be advancing the heretical notion that trauma as we now understand it is not a timeless phenomenon that has affected people in different cultures and at different times in much the same way, but is to a hitherto unacknowledged extent a function of modernity in all its shocking suddenness.

By “modernity” — that wench of a word — he means mostly modern technology; that is, technology after the Industrial Revolution. Self quickly makes the distinction between trauma and suffering. Suffering, of course, has always been with us. Western literature is a literature of suffering. Sometimes the suffering is a consequence of ignorant or evil decisions. Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, and so suffers the consequences of his actions. Agamemnon’s immoderate pursuit of glory ruins his own home. Sometimes it’s just dumb luck.

But this isn’t the same as trauma, Self argues. If I understand him correctly, Self defines trauma as an injury (psychic or physical) that manifests itself in delayed and recurring physical and psychological responses. It is accompanied by anxiety and disorientation. He argues that the first case of trauma was what was called “railway spine.” In the early years of railroad travel, there were a number of accidents. People who had not been physical injured in those accidents, however, had various kinds of physical and psychological responses to the event days or weeks afterwards. Take the case of Charles Dickens, Self writes:

These were the sort of effects that Charles Dickens suffered when he survived a railway accident in June 1865; seemingly unhurt, he hurried to help those who’d been injured. However, when he was recounting the incident in a letter a few days later, symptoms arose: “But in writing these scanty words of recollection I feel the shake and I am obliged to stop.” Which he did, abruptly, with the appropriate valediction: “Ever faithfully, Charles Dickens.” This is apposite, I think, because it’s the fidelity of recollection that becomes the most important issue for those struggling to establish an etiology of psychological trauma. There was ‘the shake,’ and there was the memory of what provoked it: a cause that, since it was too extreme to be assimilated at the time, becomes a strange sort of effect by recurring in the victim’s psyche, often in the form of day- or nightmares.

Because in Dickens’s time, Self argues, only physical events can cause physical “suffering,” individuals who were in railway accidents were diagnosed with “railway spine,” a supposed compression of the spine that produced these responses to the accident days or weeks later even though no immediate physical harm could be identified.

In fact, Self thinks that modern technology — and modern life — is responsible for what we call trauma. Modern technology and modern life divide the self. The photograph, for example, separates the self into the object self in the physical photo and the subject self who is looking at the self in the photo. The inability to assimilate the two selves can produce a kind of anxiety:

Images of this kind endeavor to produce objectivity retroactively, by showing the overall context, the omission of which is the cause of subjectivity. This applies to all the specular technologies spawned in photography’s wake — right down to the MRIs and ultrasounds of our frantically medicalized era. These scans produce an odd sort of frisson in us when we contemplate their ghostly images, presented to us as objective representations of our own irredeemably subjective experience. …Looked at this way, the symptoms associated with modern conceptions of trauma are the psychic correlates of physical processes to which the individual psyche cannot consciously adapt: you either repress the posthumous shock engendered by the totality of the camera’s image, or you rise up giddily into psychosis.

Men have always fought in wars, but there is a difference between ancient and modern warfare, Self argues. Modern warfare similarly divides the self into two — soldier and civilian — that cannot be assimilated:

At least one explanation for the widespread suffering from what was first dubbed “shell shock” (and then placed under the causational catchall “war neuroses”) was that the mass conscript armies of World War I returned to take up social roles that afforded no valorization of their disturbing experiences—no Ajaxes, they. In earlier eras, career warriors were not only permitted to describe their bloody feats and failures but were part of a wider culture that effectively encouraged them to do so, or sustained others to do so using the appropriate poetic forms. Moreover, conscripts returning from the war had to reassume civilian identities, thus introducing a troubling doubling of their own psyches: such extraordinary memories were quite simply unassimilable by their quotidian minds.

We see this same sort of division in social media, Self writes, which creates both a sense of objectifying security (taking pictures of food and places and sharing them with others is a way of giving subjective experience a permanence it doesn’t have) and “high anxiety.” That anxiety is the result of our inability to assimilate this objectification of the self with our subjective experience. (Of course it doesn’t help that social media is also a vile place at times). Here’s Self:

If we understand trauma to be a function of technologies that engender in us a sense of profound security underscored by high anxiety, then platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok would seem purpose-built for its manufacture. …A recent article in Slate pointed out that on TikTok, any number of behaviors are now dubbed “trauma responses” by the self-styled “coaches” who post videos on the app telling their followers how to identify the trauma within themselves. Many thousands of people are becoming convinced that perfectly ordinary reactions to such commonplace problems as overbearing bosses or perfidious friends are, in fact, reflex responses seared into their psyches by the white heat of trauma, which suggests to me that this medium is indeed its own message. That message is the very antithesis of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ namely: being infected with emotion in pandemonium.

Well, what to make of all this? Speaking of emotions recollected in tranquility, I was reminded of a couple of things while reading Self’s essay. I remembered that while it’s by no means traumatic to read Self’s prose, it sure is a pain in the ass. I also remembered that Self has written about technology before. In 2014, he explained how digital media killed the novel. In 2016, he explored how technology is changing our perception of reality. In his novels, travel and communication technologies are a sort of disease.

That’s not say he’s not onto something in this piece, but he can be overly reductive. At times, he’s a little like a secular Amish treating industrial technology as categorically different from other kinds of technology and blaming it for all sorts of things. But is modern technology categorically different? I’m not so sure. Did the objectification of the self start with the photograph? What about the Venetian mirror? Renaissance portraiture? Is the divided self as new as all that? Were ancient warriors so uniformly warriors both on and off the battlefield? (Wasn’t Julius Caesar expected assimilate to “civilian” life after returning from Gaul and wasn’t one of the reasons he was killed his decision not to, or at least not in the way his fellow senators expected?)

Self makes an off-the-cuff remark at the beginning of the piece that modern trauma as indebted to Christianity in the sense that those who suffer trauma are somehow made noble by their suffering. Self is right that this idea has Christian roots. The ancient Greeks didn’t have any time for physical suffering. It should be avoided at all costs. But with Christianity, we have the idea that suffering purifies the soul. Modern trauma, of course, perverts this into a kind of semi-spiritual sense of well-being. It is a cult. One just needs enough money to subscribe to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to get in.

In other news

Have Americans got George III wrong? Andrew Roberts thinks so:

In 2015, Queen Elizabeth II allowed 200,000 pages of the Hanoverian monarchs’ private papers to be put online by the wonderful Georgian Papers Programme, a collaboration between King’s College London and the Royal Archives. Had there been any plan on George III’s part to establish an oppressive regime in his North American colonies, there would have been at least a whisper, shadow or echo of it somewhere amongst his extraordinarily extensive correspondence and memoranda. Yet there is nothing of the sort. Instead, there are papers attesting to his genuine interest in American topography, flora and fauna, and local lore. King George bought books about America, quizzed Native American chiefs about their customs and showed the kind of paternal attitude that one might expect from a constitutional monarch. Of any sinister plan to oppress his colonists there is not a word. Yet this is the man of whom Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “A prince, whose character is marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Speaking of revolutions, Simon Heffer revisits Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume history of the French Revolution, which has just be reissued by Oxford:

If the only book you were able to read on the events of the French Revolution was Thomas Carlyle’s breathtaking, expansive, and, in stylistic terms at least, revolutionary 1837 account of them, you would not be too gravely handicapped. Carlyle’s sources were exhaustive. He read every printed work he could find on the subject, every eyewitness account, every contemporary report that could be traced. His level of accuracy was remarkably high. If history is ultimately to be about truth—and it is not a bad aim if it is—then Carlyle hit the target. What his critics, at the time and since, did not like was the way in which he did so.

R.R. Reno reviews George Packer’s Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal:

George Packer is a good journalist, but he has written a bad book. Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal offers none of the deep reporting that characterized The Unwinding (2013), Packer’s justly praised book about the Tea Party response to the 2008 financial crisis. It is instead the hasty distillation of notes taken by an overwrought man who spent 2020 in his basement watching cable news, reading clickbait, and compulsively checking his Twitter account. The results are, frankly, embarrassing.

J.H. Elliott writes about a handful of new books — and the new approach to — the Spanish conquest of Mexico:

As the process of decolonization swept the globe in the decades after World War II and the long-established triumphalism of the Western powers waned, guilt-ridden historians began to rewrite the history of the vanquished as the history of victims permanently traumatized and scarred by the predatory rapaciousness of their colonial masters. Some historians, however, took umbrage at the notion that colonized and subsequently liberated populations were passive victims and instead portrayed them, in a manner befitting the postcolonial age, as the agents of their own destiny. In their view, only through a close investigation of these downtrodden peoples’ capacity for resistance and long-term survival could their histories be fully appreciated. The transformation of victims into agents has in many respects proved very fruitful. If such peoples refused to accept the fate prescribed by Westerners and chose instead to resist, their means of resistance called for closer historical scrutiny than they were customarily accorded. Anthropology, ethnohistory, archaeology, and the history of art and literature all needed to be brought into play. Every artifact, such as a religious image or a decorated ceramic bowl, has a story to tell. This new interdisciplinary approach helped to enrich a story that in the past was too frequently depicted in monochrome. But enrichment by its nature creates new levels of complexity, and this in turn gives rise to new historical problems that are not easily solved.

A fragment of a lost 12th-century epic poem has been discovered: “Dr. Tamara Atkin from Queen Mary University of London was researching the reuse of books during the 16th century when she came across the fragment from the hitherto lost Siège d’Orange in the binding of a book published in 1528.”

The problem with contemporary political art isn’t that art shouldn’t be political, Manick Govinda argues in The Critic, it’s that it has become so “high-handed, reeking in moral superiority and disdain for the ordinary man or woman who are seen to have been manipulated by darker forces when voting against what are seen as liberal-left values.”