Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I’ve been thinking about what Katie King writes at her blog about Cvetkovich’s book An Archive of Feelings. The bulk of the post is about citations, and truth be told, I’m a bit too daft to respond to that in a substantive way. For me citations remain the thing at the bottom of the page (formatted via the footnoting function in Word, now, thank goodness) that reference quotations and ideas borrowed from other scholars. There is something more that intrigues me in King’s blog. It intrigues me, but it’s not the substance of what I want to write. I want to take up her this part of her blog.

But it has made me wonder about the aspects of academic life configured by and around trauma, and allegations of trauma. Not least, of course, are such legal reconfigurations over the last twenty years around sexual harassment and around procedures surrounding tenure and other professional performances. In a bit of a different register, some of our Ph.D. students have used terms like trauma to describe their experiences around professional hurdles such as their general exams -- those mandated elements in their professional initiations -- and urged that if these are traumatic they are somehow not feminist. I wonder what differences reading Cvetkovich would make to them even while I consider how we might reconfigure our exams.

Freespeechlover responded in the comments section with this insightful paragraph:

When I read this paragraph, my first reaction is huh? to the use of "trauma" by grad students in Women's Studies at U. of Md. in relationship to exams. I don't mean to trivialize this use, but when I think of trauma in academia, I think of my colleagues in the West Bank, who are writing about the denial of academic freedom for Palestinian faculty and students and the struggle to keep an entire system of higher education going under conditions of foreign and quite brutal military occupation.

I want to say, “Right on.” I keep returning to it in my mind, however. I think what interests me is how in US feminist circles and progressive political circles trauma has been adopted as a part of our regular discourse, as a way of understanding the world and our experience in the world. To understand it more fully because I feel quite entrenched in it, I have to first think about there being an alternative. I like reading the political writings of socialists and Zionists from the 1930s and 1940s for that reason. There was a different way of understanding what was happening to people in the world and there is a hopefulness about what collective action can do for change. That is strong influenced of course by Marxism. Today, however, we experience the world through a lens of therapy and the language of trauma. Cvetkovich’s first chapter in which she explores how Judith Herman naturalizes trauma and defines a history of understanding trauma as a cultural artifice through careful readings of the Holocaust and the history of slavery and the African Diaspora. I think Cvetkovich’s book explains why we as graduate students frame our experience as “traumatic” in regard to “professional hurdles” as King writes and she provides some basis for thinking about this in a new way.

On a political level, I am aligned with Freespeechlover and don’t want to frame my experience as a graduate student as “trauma.” In the traumatic framework understood in therapeutic cultures, it is not. I understand the popularization and the extension of trauma to include some aspects of what we experience in graduate school, but ultimately it makes me bristle. What I experience in graduate school is intellectual work that I am still learning to quantify in the way that I’ve quantified professional work and that frankly I find less invasive or overwhelming than other professional work that I have done, although that may be a consequence of being in only my first semester of my program. I do experience profound loneliness in graduate school, which is, I think, a consequence of doing work that is solitary, and I do experience intellectual angst that manifests itself as insecurity and anxiety, but I don’t feel that any of that results in a collection of experiences that could be called trauma.

Part of the refusal to call it trauma may also be my sense that I can leave at any time. To me, trauma is inescapable either explicitly or implicitly. The trauma of the public cultures that Cvetkovich analyzes are cultures in which people are bound and from which they cannot just walk away. To me that’s an essential part of what creates trauma, being trapped, being unable to leave. I don’t feel that and I think I don’t in large part because of my age and the point at which I am returning to this Master’s degree program. I joke in my professional life that the most liberating thing to do is quit a job. I think that is true. The second most liberating thing to do is to know that you can quit. That you are not bound to a set of circumstances which describe life at one particular moment. I am not sure that all of my graduate student colleagues have that sense yet; I am not sure that they all think, well, I could just walk away.

So while I am politically resisting an notion of aligning the graduate student experience with trauma, I think that Cvetkovich provides a way to explore that notion which is actually contrary to my belief. In An Archive of Feelings, Cvetkovich actually moves the trauma dialogue from a discourse that is focused on events like the Holocaust and US slavery to a dialogue in which trauma is a way of understanding a collective affective experience. She provides view of trauma with greater gradiations. She also explores how trauma is not just an experience that is inflicted on people, but an experience that is constructed and in which people participate, in particular in her oral histories of lesbians from ACT UP.

While the “academy” in the United States is a system of educational capitalism and there are ostensible power relations between graduate students and professors, it seems to me that the experience of graduate education has at it’s center the objective of developing professionals who will engage in and carry on the system of educational capitalism as opposed to an objective of subjugating and/or traumatizing its participants. (I think the latter function is a part of the system of academic capitalism, but I don’t think that graduate students are its target.) That is not to say that some graduate students don’t feel subjugated and/or traumatized by the process; they do. That experience, however, is where Cvetkovich’s intervention is critical. Cvetkovich destabilizes the traditional discourse about trauma and up-ends the formulation that Katie writes about in which a traumatic experience is not feminist, quite to the contrary, Cvetkovich looks at how a traumatic experience in a lesbian public culture can be traumatic and how that can be part of the experience of the public culture. Through Cvetkovich’s lens trauma becomes not something that is inflicted upon us and that should be either avoided or “recovered from,” but rather is an experience of engagement in our public cultures.

While part of me still argues in my head as I am entrenched in the pre-Cvetkovich paradigm, I am starting to feel how useful this book is. The questions that it raises for me, however, are: What trauma is useful? How do we/I determine where to engage in the trauma of the public culture? Where do we/I draw the line? How do we know where that line is?

I think these are the questions that I grapple with as a graduate student. My buddy who has finished her PhD and is teaching over in London emails me in response to my panicked and overwrought emails, “Remember you can always quit.” I tell her that I can’t; not in the first semester, that is too much humiliation; I would have to feign insanity or some health issue. I tell her I hear voices in my head. She tells me they all sound like me. She’s right. I choose to carry on in this program, in part, because I’m exhausted from the activist work. I’ll take this trauma, unknown, uncertain, over the trauma I have known. For now. For this time.

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