Listening to Trauma

Cathy CaruthCaruth

Two world wars, colonialism, nuclear bombs, the Holocaust: uncounted millions suffered trauma during the 20th century. In the early 1990s, scholars seeking an ethical response to human suffering and its representations founded the field of trauma studies; one of the earliest, seminal works, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History,” by Cathy Caruth, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.

To mark the occasion, the Theory Reading Group is hosting a conference at Cornell, “Listening to Trauma,” April 27-28, which will bring together Caruth’s former students and colleagues whose work has been influenced by her two decades of teaching and writing about trauma.

“Cathy Caruth’s important text created a language and a conceptual framework through which scholars could take seriously the role of trauma in the 20th century. It opened up questions and avenues of inquiry that were foundational to the now-established field of trauma studies,” said Nasrin Olla, president of the Theory Reading Group and a graduate student in the field of English. She organized the conference with Elizabeth Wijaya, a graduate student in the field of comparative literature.

Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, noted: “Cathy Caruth was one of the first to realize the importance of trauma theory for the humanities. Working closely with psychoanalysts and psychologists to bring techniques of literary interpretation to bear on questions about the meaning of survival, and the nature of witnessing, she edited two historically important issues of American Imago on Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma. Exploring trauma as a model for thinking about relations between history and experience, her books have made her a leader in this field which she partly created.”

The conference will include speakers from diverse fields including law, cinema, theology, philosophy, historiography, translation studies and literature. As British historian Dan Stone has noted, “Trauma studies has become something of an interdisciplinary discipline in its own right, largely thanks to the achievements of Cathy Caruth.”

Documentary filmmaker Amy Ziering, a former student of Caruth’s, will deliver the opening lecture, “Sexism, Lies and Videotape – Derrida, Trauma, Trump and Me.” Her film, “The Hunting Ground,” will be screened at Cornell Cinema during the conference. Caruth will offer closing remarks as well as participate in the opening roundtable, “Unclaimed Experience 20 Years On.”

Caruth’s most recent work, “Literature in the Ashes of History,” seeks to investigate the “enigma of a history that, in its very unfolding, seems to be slipping away before our grasp”: what kind of narrative emerges from the “ashes of history” when the future remains uncertainly lodged in a disappearing past?

“Cathy’s work has taught a generation of literary and cultural critics to be sensitive to the unique and enigmatic phenomena of traumatic histories that seem to disappear in their very emergence,” said Olla. “In a time of ‘alternative facts’ her work seems particularly relevant.” Caruth will teach a course next semester, History of the Lie, using Jacques Derrida’s book of the same name to understand the relation between lying and history across time.

The conference is sponsored by the Society for the Humanities, the Institute for Comparative Modernities, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Cornell Program on Ethics and Public Life, the Graduate School, the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for German Cultural Studies and several departments and programs.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences