History After Trauma

In 2012, I saw on display at SFMOMA Sam Durant’s “History never ends, I hate to bother you”:

Photo of “History never ends, I hate to bother you,” by Sam Durant

Sadie Coles HQ gave this explanation of the piece:

“The show’s title [History Never Ends, I Hate to Bother You] may furthermore be read as a sardonic refutation of Francis Fukuyama’s famous postmodern thesis ‘The End of History?’, which proposed the end of ideological conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union and advocated the spread of liberal democracy.”

I haven’t read Fukuyama’s thesis, but it would be hard to construe the latest round of globalization as an end to ideological conflict or the beginning of a liberal, democratic world. In the United States as well as abroad, our history of colonialism and exploitation continues to haunts us, and as Durant’s work implies, we continually try to escape it.

No doubt the mental health complex has been a globalizing force contributing to the current avoidance of the impact of violence. Psychiatric diagnoses have themselves been described as part of efforts to spread liberal democracy as well as a way of colonizing minds. As anthropologist Allan Young of McGill University remarked, the diagnosis PTSD “may turn out to be the greatest story of globalization.” With the appropriation of PTSD abroad come attempts to universalize the impact of disaster and violence on both civilizations and psyches. Yet even the best intentions can be colonizing.

Perhaps trauma is a more value-neutral term than the diagnosis PTSD. Traumas, like tragedies, just about everyone endures at some point during the course of their lives. What is described as “tragic” often is determined as much by the event as the outcome, and this is also the case for traumatic events. What one person experiences as traumatic, foreshortening the sense of future possibilities, another person experiences as transformative and the foundation for a more meaningful existence. Even disasters have their bright spots. In her book, A Paradise Built in HellRebecca Solnit chronicles not only the generosity and sense of community that can emerge during disasters, but also the joy many paradoxically experience at times of profound loss.

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I am looking for connections between the denial of traumatic histories and the impact of psychotherapy on how we perceive our personal and collective pasts. Durant’s work got me thinking perhaps it’s not history that is so bothersome, and which we hide from, but the way history has been portrayed, including how much we believe we can learn from the past.

Walter Benjamin described history as “an angel blown backwards through time.” He drew inspiration from Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth hangs open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage hurling it before his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

"Angelus Novus," By Paul Klee (1920)

Paul Klee’s painting, “Angelus Novus” (1920)

Excavating the heap of history is at the root of the psychoanalytic method. The treatment plan more or less goes as follows:

  • Support clients as they regress to the point of their childhood wounding (also described as digging in the dirt, but perhaps the notion “dumpster diving” would be more appropriate given Benjamin’s imagery).
  • Create circumstances for “abreacting,” or releasing the emotions associated with the traumatic wound that were repressed, even silenced, at the time of the injury.
  • With the emotions finally released, clients can begin to rationally interpret and sort out their histories and not repeatedly react in the present moment as if still caught in the past. Hopefully, in the process clients also develop greater compassion for themselves and those who failed them.

I would like to believe the story of history’s revision that psychoanalysis provides. If only rationality and interpretation could put the past to rest (and no less, in such an orderly fashion). Can we really rationally reflecting on the destruction left by progress? Does discharging overwhelming emotions set the foundation for forgiveness and the transformation of the human psyche? Or does such an approach potentially re-traumatize, in effect recreating the psychological conditions of the original trauma?

Sensorimotor psychotherapy and other forms of trauma-focused psychotherapy have taught me that when remembrances of past traumas are triggered, the natural response of the body is fight, flight, or freeze — responses that impede rational reflection on the past. Given what is known today about how our bodies react to reminders of past traumas, what would it take for us to collectively address the wreckage caused by the history of colonialism and exploitation? What does it take to turn the angel of history to face the future head on?

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Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud, was developing his own theories about trauma while Freud was devising the methods of free association and abreaction. Janet had a different take on the nature of trauma. He saw the body as central to relief from the repetition of traumatic defenses that kept people shutdown to the reality of present conditions. According to Janet, traumatic reactions are not only the result of actual efforts to defend against threat. Also recorded in the body are movements, images, and sensations that represent what the body wanted to do — so-called “acts of triumph” that would have led to a different history, one that involved facing down the threat and releasing the grip of the traumatic event(s).

Because of circumstances that impeded self-defense, the path out of trauma is usually also split off from awareness, or dissociated, along with the memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions, and images associated with the actual traumatic event. Janet said, “The patients affected by traumatic memory have not been able to perform any of the actions characteristic of the stage of triumph.” Thus, an event or situation is experienced as traumatic because it necessitates splitting off awareness of what did happen as well as what could not happen — escape from the traumatizing conditions. Healing occurs by integrating what was split off from awareness. According to sensorimotor psychotherapists Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain,

“If, as Janet suggests, traumatization is a failure of the integrative capacity, then the first priority in the treatment of trauma must be to restore clients’ capacity to tolerate and integrate their own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, to bear witness to their own experience, to be able to process significant life events — past and present, painful and pleasurable, ordinary and traumatic — within a window of tolerance.”

The notion of “window of tolerance” is key: to learn from the past, we must be able to tolerate what it brings up for us. I think of Durant’s text, “History never ends, I hate to bother you,” as meaningful because it witnesses our collective failure to grapple with past events that threaten to overwhelm us.  There has also been a failure to create opportunities for “acts of triumph” that could literally transform both personal and collective repetitions of traumatic defenses that keep many emotionally shut down to history (and too often, caught in addictions and other destructive behaviors).

Art is one way to initiate acts of triumph over histories denied. Art provides one avenue towards overcoming a colonizing rationality that enforces norms while implicitly silencing alternative possibilities and interpretations. By imagining the unimaginable, what once was split off from awareness is reclaimed.

In the light of creative efforts to form more integrated selves and a more integrated society, psychotherapy plays a humble role. And although Freud’s methods seem anachronistic today, he nevertheless was brilliantly observant, even remarking, “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.”

An earlier version of this essay was posted on 1/8/2012.

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The post History After Trauma originally appeared on Laura K Kerr, PhD.

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