“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.