by Iro Filippaki
The last twenty years have slowly but surely seen a change in the way we witness, understand, and represent trauma. The inexplicability, absurdity, and silence that accompanied trauma noticed in the 1990s by cultural theorists and scientists alike has given way to the current enunciation, presence, and confrontation of all that we call trauma. If theorizations of trauma changed, it’s because trauma in itself changed. As Michael Rothberg and others have written, decontextualized trauma is dangerous: trauma is not only an affective and physical category, but an ideological one. Migration and economic crises, war, racial, class, gender and sexuality oppression, and climate change are no longer treated as isolated traumatic moments, but rather examined as a call back to the big picture: the systemic issues that are part and parcel of civilization.
This synchronic exploration of trauma is featured by all the contributors to this issue. Writing from a plethora of vantage points, as healthcare professionals, patients, students, parents, and (global) flaneurs of a flailing world, the authors claim their spot in the wasteland and consistently ask the reader to listen differently—to perform “occult hearing. Darkling ,” as Joyelle McSweeney writes (The Rose of Sound). More importantly, though, perhaps, the voices heard in this issue reflect a crucial development of the field of trauma studies in every discipline. The concept of trauma is not singular, and it should not be addressed by singularities. Social and personal anxiety are indivisible (Kristin Brig‑Ortiz, Little Traumas), the master narrative of history seems incomplete without personal testimony (Chang Su, No news in Dachau), and the body becomes an institutional firing range: scars on bodies resemble maps (Manjari Thakur, Kashmir). Individual identities are contested, and trauma is no longer shown as a break, but as continuity: “You can try to evict trauma from the premises of your body, you can try to burn down the house, but it’s been in you since before you were you” (Luise Eihmane, Baggage). Each traumatized, “bulbous being” Alise Leiboff, La Peste) makes “the horizon tremble[…]” (David Ney, Save the Monkey).
The work of the featured artist of this issue, Chelsea Anne Markuson, powerfully reflects the tone and mood of the poems, prose, and visual imagery of this issue, that work, as Joyelle McSweeney suggests the role of the poet is, as “counterpunching radios” (The Rose of Sound). Through her project, Our Work is Never Done, Markuson responds to the intergenerational Holocaust trauma of her family through performance art. Forcefully dunking a stained sheet in a bowl of water, playing with the concepts of cleaning and staining, and embracing the cathartic sensation of seeing and hearing water are key elements of her artistic practice.
For Markuson, trauma is a “learned behavior” that we unwittingly perpetuate and that we should not try to contain. Each artist, she says with a serious aura around her, has an “obligation” to point towards healing. In her work, Markuson is drawn to the stained and the tainted, in an effort, as she ponders, “to heal myself[…] and thereby heal others.” Performing the rhythmic dunking of white linen in the water in front of the Holocaust Memorial in Leipzig, Germany, and the Hannah Administration Building at Michigan State University, where serial child predator Larry Nassar worked, Markuson helps shatter the previously established relationship between absence and trauma, silence and suffering. The sounds and movements that are produced, resembling cathartic laments as much as violent seizures, animate the traumatic wasteland. The fabric soaking in water creates a powerful image of resistance: the water travels upward onto the fabric, making its mark. Survival is work unending. Markuson’s, and all of the contributors’ pieces in this issue, seem to move trauma away from cenotaphs, gaps, and official narratives; trauma, they shout, is met by the hard work of art, writing, and reflection.
And hard work it is. As Markuson says, it has not always been easy to release the burden, even through creativity: “I was very blocked. I could not come to terms with what I was making in front of me […] I didn’t feel that my truth is valid.” In many ways, the contributors to this issue negotiate truth, invalid. Truth that doesn’t fit in the medical wards, the academic halls, the parental living room, the schoolyards, and because it doesn’t fit, this truth overflows with creativity and vengeance. As the new decade demands our presence, these powerful and diverse voices urge us to imagine a future whose history is admittedly traumatic, but also to collectively reframe, rebuild, restore, recover, and even resist the wasteland.
Performance 499+ and 000, 2 channel video installation, duration 4:56, 2019, in collaboration with Marcos Serafim.