The concept I am taking back was first suggested in a talk given at MLA in , subsequently published in ImageTexT in , and then elaborated in a keynote address given at The University of Florida's annual Conference on Comics in For readers familiar with trauma theory, the idea of comics as a traumatized medium may call to mind some strong objections to metaphorical or other non-therapeutic uses of the category of trauma; such objections will be discussed presently. While developing the concept, I certainly knew it to be a metaphorical application of trauma—more precisely, a similitude—that not everyone would find acceptable.
But my immediate concern was its usefulness for understanding the cultural conditions of comics in the US, and specifically the relationship between the medium's past and present. The similitude emerged from research on the era of the graphic novel—a period beginning in the late s and continuing to the present, during which the term and the books it names have circulated more and more widely—and on this era's relationship to comics' travails in mid-century US culture.
While investigating how contemporary comics creators understand themselves and their work, and how they parse their relationship to their medium's past, I observed three trauma-like features. First: marked attention to and elaborate recollection accurate or not of the moment of the comics code, which so decisively shaped comics' fate, and of the circumstances leading up to the code. Third: a tendency to discuss, and to picture, status concerns on the comics page, often in ways that seem deliberately implosive or self-cancelling, that is, autoclastic. These features of contemporary comics struck me as testifying to a culture, and a creative atmosphere, marked a great deal more strongly by mid-century condemnations of comics than is generally acknowledged.
The historical moment when the medium was subject to widespread public condemnation, threats of state and federal censorship, and ultimately to a decimation of its readership is not distant from us. Some living comics creators were profoundly affected by it—hundreds never published comics again after —and in at least a few cases, their subsequent conduct suggests that their experiences might have been, in a specific and clinical sense, traumatizing.
Rather, there is a marked impulse to make the worst period of comics history visible, and a constant attention to problems of status—including problems of creative and career limitation—related to that moment. It was appropriate, I believed, to describe a scenario in which the violence done to comics had inflicted damage severe and complex enough to result in repetitive articulation of that damage, resistance to the idea of "moving on" from it, and self-thwarting aesthetic tendencies; again, all these features of contemporary comics resemble models of traumatic experience and its aftermath.
However, trauma proved to be the wrong similitude. The more closely I examined the relationship between comics' past and present, the more I discovered conditions to which trauma did not apply as even the most general of likenesses. It became increasingly clear that however harmful the medium's mid-century circumstances might have been, current conditions are not nearly as good for comics as a host of observers seem to assume.
What contemporary comics creators express does have to do with the medium's difficult past. The extent of the damage done to comics, and its implications for culture at large, have still not been fully articulated, and more than a few contemporary creators seem determined to fill the gap. Yet some of the problems comics faced in postwar US culture are present now; they are factors with which creators still struggle, not historical phenomena alive only in cultural recollection and disposition.
What I initially grasped as cultural memory with, I believed, trauma-like components is actually a response to ongoing conditions of marginalization. Having given this brief account of how my thinking changed, I turn to the larger implications of metaphorical uses of trauma as a category—and, presently, to the question of how comics might aid our understanding of such uses. To begin with a common-sense acknowledgment: some will see my account as beside the point at best.
In his critique of some tendencies of trauma theory, Wulf Kansteiner argues that studies of trauma based in linguistic, literary or cultural analysis tend to "elide the moral differences between victims, perpetrators and bystanders of acts of violence," resulting in a nebulous sense of trauma with little genuine usefulness for victims From this point of view, to speak of a traumatized medium would be to go one step beyond the already-questionable practice of confusing different roles the term "roles" is inadequate here in actual occurrences of trauma by reinforcing the idea that trauma can be experienced at second or third hand—through cultural representation—so strongly as to blur the line between persons and works of art.
This blurring might conceivably be justified by the fact that the trauma in question if it is indeed trauma is intrinsically linked to creative endeavor, namely the making of comics. But regardless of this fact, and regardless of the depth or historical scope of the damage done to comics, Kansteiner would doubtless argue on principle that trauma ought not to be used to describe it, so that the concept might be reserved for more medically specific and historically urgent matters.
It's tempting to insist, with appropriate haste, that I imagined no one would be confused about which parts of the concept were a comparison of likeness not intended to claim the status of persons for art, and that I believed neither my concept, nor the practice of thinking about trauma in cultural or metaphorical terms, would harm anyone.
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But—to disclose a less comfortable truth—while confident no victim of trauma could be damaged by my similitude, I did wonder how, were it to gain any currency, it might be judged by anyone who thinks as Kansteiner does. Frivolously misappropriating the concept of trauma is not something anyone wants to be accused of, but my concern was mainly tactical. Wishing to draw attention to a problem of substantial dimensions in US culture, I sought a persuasive and accurate figure for describing that problem.
While believing my similitude was fruitful, I knew it might be judged an abuse of a vital concept—which would do little to encourage serious attention to the historical fate of comics.
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In early stages of research I chose to put the similitude forward, but in the period of Arresting Development 's completion, as I sifted historical and contemporary evidence more finely, a clearer picture of comics' present conditions emerged, one that excluded trauma and suggested other paradigms more specific to comics and to their distinct cultural condition. By then, I could well appreciate Kansteiner's claim that "[i]t is difficult to resist the considerable gravitational pull of the trauma paradigm and develop categories of emotional-psychological engagement and disengagement that are more subtle and more precise than the robust notion of trauma" In this postmortem examination, I feel driven to ask why this "gravitational pull" is so strong.
Discussing what he sees as the unhelpfully nebulous category of "cultural trauma," Kansteiner expresses bafflement on this point: " For Kansteiner, the tendency to expand usage of the concept of trauma in increasingly "cultural" or metaphorical ways—my own usage would clearly fall under this heading—is an inexplicable conceptual abuse taken to equally inexplicable extremes.
But the answer to Kansteiner's question is more specific, and—as we will see presently in the example of Maus —contemporary comics can give us a vivid picture of it. I suggest that roles again, an inadequate term in and around occurrences of trauma are often confused, and use of the term has become increasingly "cultural" in its application, because the category itself is now inextricable from many efforts to gain recognition and legitimation of suffering.
I imply no critique of this inextricability. When we examine the key role the category of trauma has played in pressing instances of medical, cultural, political, and moral legitimation, for tasks as various as the diagnosis and treatment of veterans with PTSD, the fight to improve legal protections for victims of sexual violence, and the labor of documenting and publicizing large-scale historical atrocities most notably, in the context of trauma theory, the Holocaust , it appears both inevitable and right that the concept of trauma is not a neutral diagnostic tool; it is and ought to be a ground of struggle for recognition and legitimation in the name of justice.
Moreover—and this, I believe, is where Kansteiner's thinking hesitates to go—it is inevitable that the struggles of witnessing will be played out in the arts and humanities, extending and complicating the processes outlined above. The work of witness mandates not only historical and scientific documentation, medical diagnosis, and legislative change, but also the production of images of trauma, their reproduction, circulation, and interpretation, the complex arts of relation and identification that make use of those images, the difficulties of hearing testimony rightly at a mediated distance from it, of speaking at second and third hand for or about victims who might not speak for themselves or who might speak for themselves, but in quite different terms , and all the other practices of communal and self-other relations that surround traumatic phenomena.
Some theorists of trauma in literary and cultural study might, for different reasons, be just as hesitant as Kansteiner to entertain the line of thinking I am suggesting. In her widely cited Unclaimed Experience , Cathy Caruth—condemned by Kansteiner as a signal instance of "survivor envy" because of her all-encompassing and culturally-oriented theories of trauma —suggests at several points that a confusion of roles has a special, even unique relationship to trauma.
Caruth argues that, by generating and propagating absence or lack, trauma both calls for and resists representation. As part of this argument, Caruth seems to assume that complex and uncertain relations among victim, perpetrator, bystander, and witness are intrinsic to traumatic phenomena in ways that are not the case for other scenarios of suffering.
In one of her key examples, the story of Tancred's killing of Clorinda in Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered , Caruth identifies "the story of the way in which one's own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another's wound" 8.
This formulation strongly implies there is something native to trauma that complicates self-other interactions and breaks down relations among roles. And if this is so, the dominance of the concept of cultural trauma is its natural destiny an idea further implied by Caruth's historically wide-ranging assortment of actual and fictional examples. This generalized approach to trauma is, of course, anathema to Kansteiner.
Even if we do not take his hardline position, Caruth's assumptions ought at least to call for comparative study to ask how other, non-traumatic kinds of suffering might generate complex scenarios of mediation and confusion of roles. But the very "gravitational pull" Kansteiner notes—created, I am suggesting, by political and cultural conditions rather than by anything native to traumatic phenomena as such—makes it difficult to answer his demand for new "categories of emotional-psychological engagement and disengagement" that might allow for such comparison Kansteiner Comics can intervene at precisely this point, illuminating the dynamics of identification and legitimation surrounding trauma, and suggesting openness to a plurality of models for describing suffering and its aftereffects.
My thinking here is informed by Hillary Chute's transformative ideas about comics' power to express suffering. In Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn , Chute argues that comics' way of bearing witness to trauma is—by the standards of most models current in the humanities—distinctly unorthodox. Comics undertake what Chute calls "the risk of representation. Specifically, in comics produced after World War II, despite the prevailing views of representing trauma after the Holocaust, we see that trauma does not always have to be disappearance; it can be plenitude, and excess of signification" Disaster Drawn 5.
In Chute's view, comics resist an emphasis on silence, the forgotten, and the hidden that characterize standard models of trauma in favor of glaring, seemingly excessive visibility. Further, Chute suggests that in the context of journalism and autobiography, the drawn line of comics is especially useful for this kind of witnessing. She speaks of "the force, or force field, of the mark and line to impart information both external to the maker and also personal to the maker. The distilled register of the cartoon and the drawn line creates an enveloping, idiosyncratic world of expression that can be powerful for witness" Disaster Drawn In Chute's model of the expressive power of comics, we see potential for some of the phenomena that, I have been arguing, often accompany traumatic witnessing—particularly a confusion of roles and a displacement and re-presentation of traumatic force in new contexts—produced not by lack or absence, but by visual "presence" and "plenitude" in the distinct "world of expression" that comics create.
Thus, comics resist what Kansteiner calls the "gravitational pull" of standard models for understanding and witnessing trauma, challenging received concepts—such as Caruth's assumption that unstable relations among roles in traumatic witnessing necessarily derive from absence or lack—and suggesting other possibilities. If such resistance and potential derive, as Chute suggests, from the "force field" of the graphic line in comics, I would argue that they are also motivated by the medium's strong attunement to dynamics of legitimation, which are now central to the function of trauma as a category.
A crucial example of this attunement is Maus , a powerful work of traumatic witness that also has much to say about the dynamics of cultural legitimation in which the book itself is now caught up.
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In a revelatory reading of the relationship between Maus as a finished work and the extensive documentary materials Spiegelman used in its construction, Chute expounds in detail how the comic "draws on archives, including official archival materials such as posters and photographs, to open and recirculate them in its comics form" But in addition to this material remediation and recirculation, Maus is also focused on the kinds of displacement and confusion that often occur in the process of traumatic witnessing. Most centrally, and from the very first, Spiegelman evokes such displacements and confusions through the book's use of animal cartoons to represent ethnic and national groupings: Jews are mice, Germans are cats regardless of whether the persons so represented experienced the events of the Holocaust directly or not , non-Jewish Americans are dogs, etc.
This has long been a point of controversy among readers—ongoing, as anyone who has assigned the book in a university setting can attest—and it is central to what Maus has to say about how witnessing is influenced by questions of recognition and legitimation. The way Maus speaks to these matters has, unfortunately, been one of the reasons it is sometimes treated as suspect.
In The Shape of the Signifier , Walter Benn Michaels reads Maus as a clear example of what he sees as the reductiveness of contemporary identity politics. Asking whether Spiegelman's animal characters are "a successful parody of Hitler's dehumanization of the Jews" or whether "the parody end[s] up repeating that dehumanization" and other pressing questions, Michaels then claims that Maus asks "the questions without making it possible definitively to answer them actually while making it impossible to answer them " and that "Spiegelman registers—instantiates—the posthistoricist commitment to seeing the world as organized by identities" This view of Maus ignores its author's loudly professed skepticism towards identity politics.
In other words, Spiegleman's animal figures announce that Maus is very much about the complications of traumatic witnessing as they unfold in cultural expression. Michaels acknowledges that the animal groupings in Maus are tied to such struggles and complications, but he does so with the assumption that the text presents its identitarian groupings as authorized in advance.
For instance, he links the fact that all of Maus 's American Jews are depicted as mice to the foundation of the U. Holocaust Museum, and describes a process that makes "the victimization of Jews a fact of American history" while also framing the Holocaust as "a crime of identity" In this view, regardless of what Maus does or does not achieve in terms of documentary witness, its cartoon animals repeat and reinforce a sense of Jewish identity that is now prominent in US culture.
Admittedly, this argument for Maus as identitarian does suggest the degree to which some readers today might be ready to accept its animal groupings at face value. But such readings ignore the complexity with which Maus examines the processes of legitimation that Michaels seems willing to oversimplify. Serialized in Raw from to , the first portion of Maus appeared as a bound volume in and received considerable acclaim. Subsequent installments, published in Raw from to and collected in a second volume together with a final chapter in , clearly respond to this acclaim, "reflexively commenting on [ Maus 's] production and interrogating the staging of 'the Holocaust'" Rothberg, "Talking Jewish" In these later installments, Spiegelman displays in detail his feelings about, and incisive critiques of, the legitimation that—at the outset of his project—was not available to him as an underground cartoonist.
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These critiques come to a head at the opening of "Auschwitz Time Flies " hereafter "Time Flies" , the second installment following the publication of the first collected volume of Maus , and the first occasion on which Spiegelman had an opportunity to respond, in the work itself, to his new level of fame. The opening page of "Time Flies" shows Spiegelman sitting at his drawing table, working on the installment of Maus we are reading, and reflecting on his new circumstances.
It was a critical and commercial success" As Spiegelman discusses the choices that now lie ahead of him as a result of Maus 's success "I've gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T. I don't wanna " , we see that his creative space is surrounded by, or immersed in, the circumstances of the Holocaust A guard tower and a wire fence are visible outside his window, and bodies representing those killed in the camps lie piled below his drawing table, surrounded by buzzing flies.
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Even at first glance, this image brings attention to both its ethical urgency and its potential failure; the creator makes visible the bodies of Holocaust victims, but he has drawn them as an element his cartoon representation of himself is steadily ignoring as he works on the next installment of his now-successful serial. Alternative content If you are reading this text please install Adobe Flash Player. In this confrontation with cultural legitimacy, the implicit pun on "drawing" is complex and multiple. Spiegelman has drawn himself into a Holocaust setting; he feels surrounded by the presence of victims and confined by the act of representing them.
Yet, while rendering the bodies of the dead on the page, he shows himself looking away from them to the page he is drawing—that is, towards a secondary representation, a sign of what it attempts to evoke like the buzzing flies drawn to the bodies, flies drawn throughout the scene by the creator's hand.
They would not have enacted his plan themselves, but faced with a fait accompli the most rational thing to do seems to be to conceal the truth.