An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures

An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures

by Ann Cvetkovich

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In this bold new work of cultural criticism, Ann Cvetkovich develops a queer approach to trauma. She argues for the importance of recognizing—and archiving—accounts of trauma that belong as much to the ordinary and everyday as to the domain of catastrophe. An Archive of Feelings contends that the field of trauma studies, limited by too strict a


In this bold new work of cultural criticism, Ann Cvetkovich develops a queer approach to trauma. She argues for the importance of recognizing—and archiving—accounts of trauma that belong as much to the ordinary and everyday as to the domain of catastrophe. An Archive of Feelings contends that the field of trauma studies, limited by too strict a division between the public and the private, has overlooked the experiences of women and queers. Rejecting the pathologizing understandings of trauma that permeate medical and clinical discourses on the subject, Cvetkovich develops instead a sex-positive approach missing even from most feminist work on trauma. She challenges the field to engage more fully with sexual trauma and the wide range of feelings in its vicinity, including those associated with butch-femme sex and aids activism and caretaking. 

An Archive of Feelings brings together oral histories from lesbian activists involved in act up/New York; readings of literature by Dorothy Allison, Leslie Feinberg, Cherríe Moraga, and Shani Mootoo; videos by Jean Carlomusto and Pratibha Parmar; and performances by Lisa Kron, Carmelita Tropicana, and the bands Le Tigre and Tribe 8. Cvetkovich reveals how activism, performance, and literature give rise to public cultures that work through trauma and transform the conditions producing it. By looking closely at connections between sexuality, trauma, and the creation of lesbian public cultures, Cvetkovich makes those experiences that have been pushed to the peripheries of trauma culture the defining principles of a new construction of sexual trauma—one in which trauma catalyzes the creation of cultural archives and political communities.

Editorial Reviews

Critic and scholar Ann Cvetkovich wrenches the concept of trauma away from the analyst's couch and recasts it in the context of lesbian culture. By resisting the use of academic psychobabble, she makes a cogent argument for trauma as a source of queer creative and political energy. . . . Cvetkovich's prose is passionate and bold, delving head-on and clear-eyed into topics like S/M butch/femme sexual dynamics, and incest. She's refreshingly savvy about underground dyke culture: Here the experience of moshing to Tribe 8 at a women's music festival is as relevant as Freud's theory of trauma and consciousness. As scholarship, this book is bound to become an essential study of lesbian cultural output and political activism; as a lay read, it's both edifying and invigorating.—Chelsey Johnson
From the Publisher
An Archive of Feelings makes an extremely important contribution to queer and feminist cultural studies by insisting upon the public, and indeed national, dimensions of sexual trauma. Ann Cvetkovich's book argues for the productive rather than repressive power of trauma and accounts for its role in the production of queer identities and queer counter publics. This is queer cultural studies at its finest!”—Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity

”Avoiding bullshit moralism and sentimentality, Ann Cvetkovich breathes new life into the study of trauma. This is the book I looked for in so many libraries and bookstores and never found. It is not only brilliant but totally necessary.”—Kathleen Hanna of the band Le Tigre

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Duke University Press
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An Archive of Feelings

Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures


Copyright © 2003 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3076-9

Chapter One

The Everyday Life of Queer Trauma

Sometimes people say we're living in a trauma culture-that it's a time of crisis, and that the crisis is manifest in people's feelings, whether numbness or anxiety, lack of feeling or too much feeling. And sometimes they say that calling it a trauma culture is a symptom rather than a diagnosis, a quick-fix naming of the zeitgeist that misrecognizes a structural condition as a feeling. A significant body of work within American studies has recently mounted a critique of U.S. culture by describing it as a trauma culture. Wendy Brown speaks about identity politics as a politics of ressentiment in which claims on the state are made by individuals and groups who constitute themselves as injured victims whose grievances demand redress. Mark Seltzer writes about a wound culture, describing the cultural obsession with serial killings and other sites of violence that produces a "pathological public sphere." Lauren Berlant develops the notion of an "intimate public sphere," the result of a process whereby "a citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States." In these analyses, U.S. culture's transformation into a trauma culture is a problem,representing the failure of political culture and its displacement by a sentimental culture of feeling or voyeuristic culture of spectacle.

While such critiques of trauma culture have been indispensable for my thinking about trauma as a category of national, and particularly U.S., public culture, I take them in a different direction by exploring how trauma can be a foundation for creating counterpublic spheres rather than evacuating them. I share these critics' concern with the problem of what Lisa Duggan calls the "incredible shrinking public" where attacks on public institutions, ranging from the arts to education to welfare, along with the effects of privatization and globalization have led to severely diminished resources and arenas for public and democratic debate. But I also want to hold out for the presence and promise of cultural formations that bring traumatic histories into the public sphere and use accounts of affective experience to transform our sense of what constitutes a public sphere. As Berlant suggests, "In the patriotically permeated pseudopublic sphere of the present tense, national politics does not involve starting with a view of the nation as a space of struggle violently separated by racial, sexual, and economic inequalities that cut across every imaginable kind of social location." By contrast, this book and the public cultures it documents do take as a starting point "the nation as a space of struggle," seeking to illuminate the forms of violence that are forgotten or covered over by the amnesiac powers of national culture, which is adept at using one trauma story to suppress another. This version of national trauma doesn't always lend itself to media spectacle since it frequently operates in the less dramatic terrain of everyday experience and involves groups of people who make no claim to being representative citizens. Douglas Crimp, for example, writes about the trauma of AIDS for gay men as residing partly in its invisibility as such to the national culture. Even though aids has ultimately received considerable attention in the national public sphere, many of its losses, such as unprotected sex, remain unacknowledged or scorned.

Here, lesbian sites of trauma often fly under the radar screen of national public culture. I don't look to Hollywood blockbusters, media events, or national crises such as the Vietnam War or Kennedy assassination; in fact, I resist the way that trauma can be used to reinforce nationalism when constructed as a wound that must be healed in the name of unity. As Kathleen Stewart does in her exploration of Appalachian culture, I focus on a "a space on the side of the road"-locations of culture that often seem too local or specific to represent the nation; as well, I am alert to the way that transnational perspectives challenge the boundaries of the nation as both geographic and conceptual category. In focusing in particular on lesbian public cultures and other related queer sites, I invoke the categories of identity politics that Wendy Brown critiques, but explore public articulations of trauma that don't look to either identity or the state as a means for the resolution of trauma. Refusing any quick-fix solution to trauma, such as telling the story as a mode of declaring an identity or seeking legal redress, the cases that interest me offer the unpredictable forms of politics that emerge when trauma is kept unrelentingly in view rather than contained within an institutional project. I keep open the question of how affective experience gives rise to public culture rather than operating with any presumptions about what constitutes culture or politics, or their conjunction. My investigation of trauma thus becomes an inquiry into how affective experience that falls outside of institutionalized or stable forms of identity or politics can form the basis for public culture.

In opening with a discussion of trauma as a social and cultural category, this book signals its recognition that trauma is the subject of a discourse that has a history. My use of the term comes from a tradition that begins in the nineteenth century, when the term trauma, which had previously referred to a physical wound, came to be applied to mental or psychic distress. Medical anthropologist Allan Young locates the origins of trauma discourse in the phenomenon of "railway shock": the accidents that were the inevitable by-product of the new technology of the train produced in some victims symptoms of nervous distress that had no apparent physical basis. Trauma and modernity thus can be understood as mutually constitutive categories; trauma is one of the affective experiences, or to use Raymond Williams's phrase, "structures of feeling," that characterizes the lived experience of capitalism. Other Marxist theorists, most notably Walter Benjamin, have taken up the category of shock as a way of describing modern life, particularly in urban contexts, in an effort to characterize its effects on the senses.

For the most part, though, sociocultural approaches to trauma have been overshadowed by psychoanalytic and psychiatric discourse, not only in the work of Freud but also in the investigations of nineteenth-century researchers, the theories of Freud's contemporary, Pierre Janet (whose theory of dissociation constitutes an alternative to Freud's notion of repression), and more recently, the development of PTSD as a clinical diagnosis. Indeed, psychoanalysis, like trauma, is constituted by the assumption that illness can be psychic, not just physical, and the close affinity and shared history of the two concepts make it difficult to separate them. I seek to resist this tendency, however, by holding on to trauma's historical embeddedness not just in modernity but in a range of historical phenomena, including not only World War I, the Holocaust, and Vietnam but feminist discourses about sexual violence, experiences of migration, and queer activisms. The clinical definition of trauma as PTSD includes a list of symptoms (hyperarousal, numbing, repetition) and a description of the kind of event that produces trauma-"outside the range of usual human experience" in the case of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition and revised third edition (DSM-III and IIIR), or involving "actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity" in the case of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV). I treat trauma instead as a social and cultural discourse that emerges in response to the demands of grappling with the psychic consequences of historical events. Defined culturally rather than clinically, trauma studies becomes an interdisciplinary field for exploring the public cultures created around traumatic events. Trauma becomes a central category for looking at the intersections of emotional and social processes along with the intersections of memory and history; it gives rise to what Marita Sturken and others have called "cultural memory."

An exclusively historicist or constructivist approach to trauma will not alone exhaust its meanings or significance, however. Trauma has exerted a powerful hold over cultural theorists because it offers compelling and urgent cases of unrepresentability that confirm the fundamental assumptions of poststructuralist theory. Especially prominent in this respect is the work of Cathy Caruth, who has pointed out that trauma presents an epistemological challenge, standing at the "limits of our understanding" as well as the crossroads of the "complex relation between knowing and not knowing." Caruth's influential definition of trauma as "unclaimed experience" shifts attention away from the specificity of the traumatic event to its structural unknowability. Drawing in particular on deconstructive readings of Freud, Caruth repeatedly emphasizes trauma's paradoxes. With similar results, though using not only psychoanalytic but also Marxist approaches, Mark Seltzer notes that trauma discourse is important precisely because it challenges distinctions between the mental and physical, the psychic and social, and the internal and external as locations or sources of pain. Discourses of trauma serve as a vehicle for sorting through the relation between these categories rather than resolving them in a definition. When trauma becomes too exclusively psychologized or medicalized, its capacity to problematize conceptual schemes, the exploration of which is one of cultural theory's contributions to trauma studies, is lost.

I take a certain distance from Caruth's universalizing form of theorizing about trauma. Her work is quite portable to a range of contexts because of the abstractness of her formulations. By consistently stressing questions of epistemology and trauma as structurally unknowable, she flattens out the specificities of trauma in a given historical and political context. While Caruth does not always acknowledge the historical origins of her work (and resists historicist readings of Freud, for example), her own work is rooted in the texts of Freud and has strong ties to Holocaust studies. Furthermore, Caruth focuses on trauma as catastrophic event rather than on everyday trauma. Drawing on Freud, she uses the example of the "accident" as a way of describing trauma's contingency and lack of agency-a model that may not work well for traumatic histories that emerge from systemic contexts. By contrast, I seek to remain alert to the historical locations out of which theories of trauma arise and the possible limitations of those models for other contexts. This presumption is necessary in order to make room for the category of sexual trauma and the lesbian contexts from which most of my cases are taken-instances that might otherwise seem tangential to a discussion of trauma. Without rejecting the emphasis that Caruth and others place on trauma's unrepresentability, I try to rearticulate that insight through a set of examples that are themselves the locus of new theories of trauma.

A PTSD clinical diagnosis defines trauma as an overwhelming event that produces certain kinds of symptoms in the patient. Poststructuralist theory defines it as an event that is unrepresentable. I want to think about trauma as part of the affective language that describes life under capitalism. I'm interested in how shock and injury are made socially meaningful, paradigmatic even, within cultural experience. I want to focus on how traumatic events refract outward to produce all kinds of affective responses and not just clinical symptoms. Moreover, in contrast to the individualist approaches of clinical psychology, I'm concerned with trauma as a collective experience that generates collective responses. I am compelled by historical understandings of trauma as a way of describing how we live, and especially how we live affectively.

Four theoretical allegiances-feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, and queer theory-each of which offers contributions to and problems for theories of trauma, serve as points of departure for this study. From feminism comes an interest in bridging the sometimes missing intersections between sexual and national traumas, and the sense of trauma as everyday; from critical race theory, especially African American studies, comes an understanding of trauma as foundational to national histories and passed down through multiple generations; from Marxism comes a dialectical approach to the intersection of lived experience and systemic social structures and to trauma's place in the social history of sensation; and from queer theory comes a critique of pathologizing approaches to trauma and an archive of examples from lesbian public cultures. These theoretical resources have been necessary in order to do justice to a series of cases that never seem to quite measure up to expectations that trauma be catastrophic and extreme; I'm interested instead in the way trauma digs itself in at the level of the everyday, and in the incommensurability of large-scale events and the ongoing material details of experience. Drawing on these theories, I hope to seize authority over trauma discourses from medical and scientific discourse in order to place it back in the hands of those who make culture, as well as to forge new models for how affective life can serve as the foundation for public culture.

Roller Coasters and Little Women

When my examples of lesbian trauma culture seem a little too slight or marginal, I remind myself that Lisa Kron approaches the Holocaust in her performance piece 2.5 Minute Ride by talking about roller coasters and Little Women. It's a story about visiting Auschwitz with her survivor father so that he can see the place where his parents were killed, but it's also about how much her father loves to ride the giant roller coaster at the family's annual outing to the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. Kron talks about being overcome with horror by one of the Auschwitz displays, yet she also describes crying at her brother's wedding in a burst of emotion that reminds her of the women sobbing in the dark during a matinee screening of Little Women. 2.5 Minute Ride insists on the queerness of emotional life, documenting unpredictable surges of feeling that fall outside the terrain of the sublime horror of Holocaust testimony or the sentimentality of U.S. popular culture's women's genres.

Like a roller coaster, 2.5 Minute Ride careens, often wildly, not only between widely disparate stories but between widely disparate affects, taking the audience from humor to traumatic rupture without even pausing for a theatrical beat. Kron stresses the challenge of addressing an audience that comes already equipped with a huge repository of Holocaust representations, which are the product of successful efforts to create a culture around this historical trauma. She painstakingly attempts to avoid some of the affects frequently prompted by such representations, including empty sentimentality and its not-so-distant relation, incapacitating awe. Can a trip to Auschwitz be something other than another version of a trip to an amusement park, where history's terrors are domesticated into safely consumable artifacts and emotions? By juxtaposing stories of these two kinds of visits, Kron forces scrutiny of the limits and inadequacies of the quest for an encounter with trauma, testimony, and the Holocaust that are implicit in trips to both Auschwitz and the theater.


Excerpted from An Archive of Feelings by ANN CVETKOVICH Copyright © 2003 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Judith Halberstam
An Archive of Feelings makes an extremely important contribution to queer and feminist cultural studies by insisting upon the public, and indeed national dimensions, of sexual trauma. Cvetokovich's book argues for the productive rather than repressive power of trauma and accounts for its role in the production of queer identities and queer counter publics. This is queer cultural studies at its finest!
— author of Female Masculinity
Kathleen M. Hanna
Avoiding bullshit moralism and sentimentality, Ann Cvetkovich breathes new life into the study of trauma. This is the book I looked for in so many libraries and bookstores, and never found. It is not only brilliant but totally necessary.

Meet the Author

Ann Cvetkovich is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism.

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