Popular Trauma Culture: The Pain of Others Between Holocaust Tropes and Kitsch-Sentimental Melodrama

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.


Popular trauma culture emerged when American collective memory transformed the Holocaust from an event in European history into a metaphor for evil and generated the narrative paradigm—the basic plot structure and core set of characters—for representing experiences of pain and suffering in the mass media. Constructed around a melodramatic conflict of good-versus-evil that is embodied in the flat characters of the victim-cum-survivor and the perpetrator, the paradigmatic narratives of victimhood and survival, suffering, and redemption encode an escapist and politically acquiescing kitsch sentimentality as the dominant mode of reception. After tracing the emergence of popular trauma culture’s exemplary plot paradigm and cast of characters in American Holocaust discourse, this chapter explores the transition from the victim to the survivor figure as the preeminent protagonist and the transformation of witness testimony into victim talk. Subsequently, it examines melodrama as the dominant narrative mode of representing experiences of victimization and suffering and the kitsch sentimentality they encode as their paradigmatic mode of reception. This chapter concludes with a discussion of consuming trauma kitsch as fantasies of witnessing in a dubious search for late-modernity’s holy grail of authenticity.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

... In this way, it seems important to remark that people have been exposed to death at close quarters during the Covid-19 outbreak, whether it be from a family member, a neighbor, an acquaintance, including children who may not understand what happens to those people or health workers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders (3). Given that different or common country measures were applied worldwide, studies across different nations allow, not only the understanding of our own nation externally, but also other internal processes, where, to some extent, the country in which they are born (4) and therefore the human expression of pain is influenced by the product of culture, customs or symbols among others (5,6). ...
Full-text available
Italy and Spain are two representative examples on strict lockdown last March 2020, also suffering a high rate of mortality in Europe. The aim of this study is to examine their attitudes confronting death awareness during the Covid-19 outbreak. Moreover, Personality was also considered. Different sociodemographic, in situ questions related to attitudes and the brief Big Five of Personality were employed in a cross-sectional design. The main results suggested that Personality traits were stable across countries. A relationship was found between Fear to contagious diseases and Neuroticism and other attitudes during the Covid-19 outbreak, and two different clusters were identified with regards to attitudes, however these did not differ on Personality. Finally, a Cluster group, Neuroticism, Age and Sense of belonging to the Country did predict Fear to contagious diseases. Of note, no differences were found across countries during grief.
This paper considers the depiction of violent, traumatic spectacles in the opening of select AAA videogames, questioning how these affective devices function to attach and motivate the player. This research deployed two methods: a qualitative content analysis adapted to engage with many layers of games and gaming; and an immersive-affective autoethnography that makes visible the researcher’s role in the creation of knowledge and thus allows the critical ‘gaze’ to be turned upon this relationship. Utilising (vicarious) trauma theory, this paper considers the role of witnessing and the provocation of ethical responses when the player experiences the early victimisation of the player character. This paper asserts that these early violent spectacles act as cues for moral disengagement and function as an enabling fiction legitimating the use of ‘righteous’ violence. Combined with the iterative ‘overcoming’ afforded by such games, this paper argues that these traumatic prologues create an affective and ethical attachment to the game’s outcome.
Full-text available
In this article, an attempt will be made to elaborate a theory of kitsch that dispenses with the traditional hierarchical framework within which kitsch is often understood. Avoiding both the populist approach of cultural studies, and the elitist approach of mass culture theorists, an argument is made for a uniquely kitsch aesthetic that employs the thematics of repetition, imitation and emulation as a distinct aesthetic style. Breaking from traditional analyses of popular conventionality in the realm of taste which aligns taste habits with class identities (such as that offered by Pierre Bourdieu), it is argued instead that the repetitive quality of kitsch addresses a general problem of modernity, that of 'disembeddedness', or the undermining of personal horizons of social and cosmic security ja model drawn from Anthony Giddens). The basis of this argument is drawn from a reconstruction of traditional theories of kitsch, though illustrative cases are offered.
Full-text available
The metaphor of cultural trauma, which currently enjoys great popularity in cultural and literary studies, combines two independent traditions of trauma research. The writings on cultural trauma are based primarily on philosophical reflections about Auschwitz and the limits of representation, which emerged in the postwar writings of members of the Frankfurt School and were further developed by a number of poststructuralist thinkers. In addition, the proponents of the cultural trauma metaphor take advantage of the large body of psychological and psychotherapeutic studies about the experiences of actual trauma victims, including victims of the Holocaust. But the attempts to integrate these very different research traditions and concepts of trauma have ultimately not been successful. The writings on cultural trauma display a disconcerting lack of historical and moral precision, which aestheticizes violence and conflates the experiences of victims, perpetrators and spectators of traumatic events.
Distant Suffering, first published in 1999, examines the moral and political implications for a spectator of the distant suffering of others as presented through the media. What are the morally acceptable responses to the sight of suffering on television, for example, when the viewer cannot act directly to affect the circumstances in which the suffering takes place? Luc Boltanski argues that spectators can actively involve themselves and others by speaking about what they have seen and how they were affected by it. Developing ideas in Adam Smith's moral theory, he examines three rhetorical 'topics' available for the expression of the spectator's response to suffering: the topics of denunciation and of sentiment and the aesthetic topic. The book concludes with a discussion of a 'crisis of pity' in relation to modern forms of humanitarianism. A possible way out of this crisis is suggested which involves an emphasis and focus on present suffering.
It may be said that every trauma is two traumas or ten thousand-depending on the number of people involved. How one experiences and reacts to an event is unique and depends largely on one's direct or indirect positioning, personal psychic history, and individual memories. But equally important to the experience of trauma are the broader political and cultural contexts within which a catastrophe takes place and how it is "managed" by institutional forces, including the media.In Trauma Culture, E. Ann Kaplan explores the relationship between the impact of trauma on individuals and on entire cultures and nations. Arguing that humans possess a compelling need to draw meaning from personal experience and to communicate what happens to others, she examines the artistic, literary, and cinematic forms that are often used to bridge the individual and collective experience. A number of case studies, including Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism, Marguerite Duras' La Douleur, Sarah Kofman's Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, and Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries, reveal how empathy can be fostered without the sensationalistic element that typifies the media.From World War II to 9/11, this passionate study eloquently navigates the contentious debates surrounding trauma theory and persuasively advocates the responsible sharing and translating of catastrophe.
In this book, Roger Luckhurst both introduces and advances the fields of cultural memory and trauma studies, tracing the ways in which ideas of trauma have become a major element in contemporary Western conceptions of the self. The Trauma Question outlines the origins of the concept of trauma across psychiatric, legal and cultural-political sources from the 1860s to the coining of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1980. It further explores the nature and extent of ‘trauma culture’ from 1980 to the present, drawing upon a range of cultural practices from literature, memoirs and confessional journalism through to photography and film. The study covers a diverse range of cultural works, including writers such as Toni Morrison, Stephen King and W. G. Sebald, artists Tracey Emin, Christian Boltanski and Tracey Moffatt, and film-makers David Lynch and Atom Egoyan. The Trauma Question offers a significant and fascinating step forward for those seeking a greater understanding of the controversial and ever-expanding field of trauma research.
In Popular Trauma Culture, Anne Rothe argues that American Holocaust discourse has a particular plot structure-characterized by a melodramatic conflict between good and evil and embodied in the core characters of victim/survivor and perpetrator-and that it provides the paradigm for representing personal experiences of pain and suffering in the mass media. The book begins with an analysis of Holocaust clichés, including its political appropriation, the notion of vicarious victimhood, the so-called victim talk rhetoric, and the infusion of the composite survivor figure with Social Darwinism. Readers then explore the embodiment of popular trauma culture in two core mass media genres: daytime TV talk shows and misery memoirs. Rothe conveys how victimhood and suffering are cast as trauma kitsch on talk shows like Oprah and as trauma camp on modern-day freak shows like Springer. The discussion also encompasses the first scholarly analysis of misery memoirs, the popular literary genre that has been widely critiqued in journalism as pornographic depictions of extreme violence. Currently considered the largest growth sector in book publishing worldwide, many of these works are also fabricated. And since forgeries reflect the cultural entities that are most revered, the book concludes with an examination of fake misery memoirs.
This chapter contains an essay by Zygmunt Bauman that describes the world we live in as a ‘haunted house’ where the ‘ghosts’ are the social repercussions of the Holocausts which continues to haunt individuals and groups today. The essay elaborates on the different manifestations of these ‘ghosts’ that are created from the fear and struggles of an ethnoreligious group surviving a historical genocide. The apparitions of the ghosts manifest in such forms as survivor's guilt (a mental condition when a survivor feels guilty to have survived a tragedy while others had not), survivor complex (a psychological wound that came about through constant trauma), and more. The essay explains that the effects, or the ghosts, of the Holocaust still continue to haunt individuals and groups who were directly and indirectly impacted by the Holocaust, and continued to do so even half a century after the end of the Holocaust era. Overall, it explains the consequences of living in a ‘haunted house’.
Some evil actions are public. Maybe genocide is the most awful. Other evil actions are private, a matter of one person harming another or of self-inflicted injury. Child abuse, in our current reckoning, is the worst of private evils. We want to put a stop to it. We know we can't do that, not entirely. Human wickedness (or disease, if that's your picture of abuse) won't go away. But we must protect as many children as we can. We want also to discover and help those who have already been hurt. Anyone who feels differently is already something of a monster. We are so sure of these moral truths that we seldom pause to wonder what child abuse is. We know we don't understand it. We have little idea of what prompts people to harm children. But we do have the sense that what we mean by child abuse is something perfectly definite. So it comes as a surprise that the very idea of child abuse has been in constant flux the past thirty years. Previously our present conception of abusing a child did not even exist. People do many of the same vile things to children, for sure, that they did a century ago. But we've been almost unwittingly changing the very definitions of abuse and revising our values and our moral codes accordingly.
Foreword by Eugen Weber Introduction Pain and Suffering, Currencies of Value Sacrifice, All But the Philosophers' Way Christianity, Suffering's Worth Death to Sacrifice: The Eighteenth Century Revolution Against Transcendence An Expanded Heart: A Century of Reform, Feelings, and Empathy A Century of Victims: Europe's Responsibility for a World's Suffering America: Its Victims Universal Victims and the Limits of the Politics of Suffering Conclusion: To Tell of One's Own Sufferings Bibliographical Essay Indexes
“Public” life once meant that vital part one’s life outside the circle of family and close friends. Connecting with strangers in an emotionally satisfying way and yet remaining aloof from them was seen as the means by which the human animal was transformed into the social – the civilized – being. And the fullest flowering of that public life was realized in the 18th Century in the great capital cities of Europe. Sennett shows how our lives today are bereft of the pleasures and reinforcements of this lost interchange with fellow citizens. He shows how, today, the stranger is a threatening figure; how silence and observation have become the only ways to experience public life, especially street life, without feeling overwhelmed ; how each person believes in the right, in public, to be left alone. And he makes clear how, because of the change in public life, private life becomes distorted as we of necessity focus more and more on ourselves, on increasingly narcissistic forms of intimacy and self-absorption. Because of this, our personalities cannot fully develop: we lack much of the ease, the spirit of play, the kind of discretion that would allow us real and pleasurable relationships with those whom we may never know intimately.
In this book I explore the ways in which texts of a certain period—the texts of psychoanalysis, of literature, and of literary theory—both speak about and speak through the profound story of traumatic experience. The chapters . . . explore the complex ways that knowing and not knowing are entangled in the language of trauma and in the stories associated with it. Each one of these texts engages, in its own specific way, a central problem of listening, of knowing, and of representing that emerges from the actual experience of the crisis. My main endeavor is . . . to trace in each of these texts a different story, the story or the textual itinerary of insistently recurring words or figures. The key figures my analysis uncovers and highlights—the figures of "departure," "falling," "burning," or "awakening"— in their insistence, here engender stories that in fact emerge out of the rhetorical potential and the literary resonance of these figures, a literary dimension that cannot be reduced to the thematic content of the text or to what the theory encodes, and that, beyond what we know or theorize about it, stubbornly persists in bearing witness to some forgotten wound. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
The collective memories of Nazism that developed in postwar Germany have helped define a new paradigm of memory politics. From Europe to South Africa and from Latin America to Iraq the German case has been studied to learn how to overcome internal division and regain international recognition. In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz examines three arenas of German memory politics?professional historiography, national politics, and national public television?that have played a key role in the reinvention of the Nazi past in the past sixty years. Wulf Kansteiner shows that the interpretations of the past proposed by historians, politicians, and television makers reflect political and generational divisions and an extraordinary concern for Germany's perception abroad. At the same time, each of these theaters of memory has developed different dynamics and formats of historical reflection. Kansteiner's interrelated essays offer a comparative analysis of the German scene that reveals a complex and contradictory social geography of collective memory. In Pursuit of German Memory underscores the truth that, while all memory may be local, German memories of Nazism are highly mediated and part of a global exchange of images and story fragments. Wulf Kansteiner is an assistant professor of history and director of graduate studies at the State University of New York at Binghampton.
Condemnations of “victim politics” are a familiar feature of American public life. Politicians and journalists across the ideological spectrum eagerly denounce “victimism.” Accusations of “playing the victim” have become a convenient way to ridicule or condemn. President George W. Bush even blamed an Islamic “culture of victimization” for 9/11. The Cult of True Victimhood shows how the panic about domestic and foreign victims has transformed American politics, warping the language we use to talk about suffering and collective responsibility. With forceful and lively prose, Alyson Cole investigates the ideological underpinnings, cultural manifestations, and political consequences of anti-victimism in an array of contexts, including race relations, the feminist movement, conservative punditry, and the U.S. legal system. Being a victim, she contends, is no longer a matter of injuries or injustices endured, but a stigmatizing judgment of individual character. Those who claim victim status are cast as shamefully passive or cynically manipulative. Even the brutalized Central Park jogger came forth to insist that she is not a victim, but a survivor. Offering a fresh perspective on major themes in American politics, Cole demonstrates how this new use of “victim” to derogate underlies seemingly disparate social and political debates from the welfare state, criminal justice, and abortion to the war on terror.
Psychic trauma is one of the most frequently invoked ideas in the behavioral sciences and the humanities today. Yet bitter disputes have marked the discussion of trauma ever since it first became an issue in the 1870s, growing even more heated in recent years following official recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a book that is bound to ignite controversy, Ruth Leys investigates the history of the concept of trauma. She explores the emergence of multiple personality disorder, Freud's approaches to trauma, medical responses to shellshock and combat fatigue, Sándor Ferenczi's revisions of psychoanalysis, and the mutually reinforcing, often problematic work of certain contemporary neurobiological and postmodernist theorists. Leys argues that the concept of trauma has always been fundamentally unstable, oscillating uncontrollably between two competing models, each of which tends at its limit to collapse into the other. A powerfully argued work of intellectual history, Trauma will rewrite the terms of future discussion of its subject.
Selling the holocaust. From Auschwitz to Schindler: How history is bought, packaged and sold
  • T Cole
Jewish values in the post-holocaust future: A symposium
  • E Fackenheim
  • G Steiner
  • R Popkin
  • E Wiesel
Making up people Reconstructing individualism: Autonomy, individuality and the self in western thought
  • I Hacking
Against the concept of cultural trauma
  • W Kansteiner
  • H Weilnböck
The man in the glass box: Watching the Eichmann trial on American television
  • J Shandler
Foregone conclusions: Against apocalyptic history
  • M Bernstein
Die Konkurrenz der Opfer: Genozid, Identität und Anerkennung
  • J.-M Chaumont
Geschichte ohne Zeitzeugen? Einige Fragen zur “Erfahrung” im Übergang von Zeitgeschichte zur Geschichte
  • Von Plato
The trauma must remain inaccessible to memory: Trauma melancholia and other (ab-)uses of trauma concepts in literary theory
  • H Weilnböck
Parables of a survivor
  • J Young
Literary trauma: Sadism, memory, and sexual violence in American women’s fiction
  • D Horwitz
Introduction: Extremities
  • N Miller
  • J Tougaw
Surviving victim talk
  • M Minow
The era of the witness
  • A Wieviorka
Writing and rewriting the holocaust. Narrative and the consequences of interpretation
  • J Young