“The Weaponization of Language”: an essay on trauma theory, mass communication, the somatization of guilt, and what Mary McCarthy already knew seventy years ago after watching Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” — in LitHub
In the 1990s, trauma theory, most notably that of Cathy Caruth, Judith Herman, Shoshana Felman, and Kirby Farrell, expanded the literary criticism of cultural trauma—based as it was on the Holocaust and the psychological interpretations of its aftermath—to encompass a broader range of subsequent political events that have greatly impacted contemporary society. Caruth drew on the neurological insights of Bessel van der Kolk to assert that trauma, because it so overwhelms the psyche’s capacity for normal perception and memory formation, remains unassimilated and takes its place outside language. The result is a blind spot that is essentially unknown to the traumatized individual, who nevertheless compulsively reenacts it in the form of flashbacks, involuntary bodily responses, phobic reactions, deluded ideation, etc.
While the biological metaphor—the notion that the mechanisms of individual trauma and its somatization can be applied to the pathological symptoms of the larger social body—is not a code for deciphering every troubling feature of the culture, it can nonetheless be instrumental for analyzing phenomena that otherwise defy interpretation, including the enabling fictions that American society, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, creates to reinforce its fundamental beliefs about itself and to justify itself when its behavior transgresses its own declared moral boundaries.
“I know of no love that exists with moderation, at least on my side. The older I get, the busier I am, and the more engrossing my social life becomes, the warier I grow of submitting to the powerlessness of being in a love affair in which the heart is truly engaged. There’s a Kenneth Koch poem posted on the wall behind my computer that explains why. It says, ‘You want a social life, with friends/ A passionate love life and as well/ To work hard every day. What’s true/ Is of these three you may have two.’ When love comes in the door, my work and social life seem to fly out the window. Yet every now and then… even though I know how disruptive it is, I succumb, and all balance is lost.”
I talked to Liesl Schillinger to celebrate the publication of the Strange Attractors anthology with UMass Press—you can read the full conversation here.
And come to the reading at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
“Letting You in on a Secret is a work that reflects on this very depletion of language and mass imagery, a work that proposes and articulates new and surprising ways to recalibrate our perception, to shake ourselves and our stunned senses awake. DeLuccia’s formal reference to Dada provides us with an important clue to the work’s subtly subversive nature: in citing a movement that would presage and then endure the advent of fascism, mass extermination, and world war, she is pointing to the necessity of encoding explosive cultural commentary in humor and visually appealing imagery, of going underground with it, as it were—both to protect one’s powers of perception and to counter the effects of the spellbinding that numbs us to the dangers facing us.”