Of recent interest is the new book by Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Since the return of the American soldiers from Vietnam, we are generally familiar with the clinical concept of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Since this syndrome has also been picked up in the feminist literature on rape and incest survivors, it would be difficult to avoid acquaintance with this concept completely, even for those who never listen to an afternoon TV talk show.
But with his eye keen for cultural tropes and patterns, Prof. Farrell notices much more in this idea than most of us. While we might assume that trauma in one form or another has always been potentially present in human society, Farrell suggests that in our time the possession of some kind of traumatic influence as an explanation for individual or group action has become a ubiquitous badge of cultural legitimacy.
For the individual, such trauma may lurk in the dark secrets of childhood and family life, in experiences of racism, peer rejection and dislocation, as a victim of rape or other violent crime. Collective trauma may be experienced in military defeat, cultural displacement and decline or in the ravages of a 'winner-takes-all' economic system. Any of these may create a sense of social crisis, a feeling of having been wronged or betrayed, which then feeds into the post-traumatic narrative extremes of self-protective isolation and withdrawal or of explosive and uncontrolled violence. From literary sources, to film and television dramas, to the way news media pitch current events, narratives of traumatic injury and its results form the very contours of how life is perceived in this decade. It is a cultural mood for which Prof. Farrell has found astonishing parallels in the popular literature of England in the 1890s, a time of twilight for that empire on which the sun never sets. Farrell suggests, drawing here primarily on Ernest Becker but also finding reflections of the same notion in Rene Girard and other social analysts, that the theme of trauma has such singular power because people "...use trauma as an enabling fiction, an explanatory tool for managing unquiet minds in an overwhelming world... people feel, or are prepared to feel, whether they are aware of it or not, as if they have been traumatized."
Farrell's demonstration of this assertion is an exciting and at times breath-taking romp through the cultural products of the late 20th century. This is a work of true scholarly criticism which demonstrates clearly the fruitfulness of applying and expanding upon Beckerian themes in the service of cultural interpretation. Most scholars would be pleased to have the grasp and command of even one medium which Farrell exhibits in half a dozen! Yet Farrell is never dry nor pedantic. Many of us who have heard Prof. Farrell lecture on these issues know his ability to keep us on the edge of our seats, even late in the day and with the house lights dimmed. This book is like that - 420 pages leave the reader sad that the experience of reading is finished. And with a long list of movies, which never sounded so interesting when Siskel and Medved reviewed them, to pick up at the video store.