On Trauma Intellectualism, Part 2: Response to Question about Survivors of Violence
Tamara K. Nopper, November 4, 2012
A little bit ago I posted this status update on facebook: "I feel like I am witnessing the rise of Trauma Intellectualism and Trauma Intellectualism Branding, where brave acts of speaking out about trauma gets confused w/critical analysis of power relations and structural violence and for some reason, is seen as more marketable and consumable in certain political circles."
I was asked a question via email if I think this is a dynamic that plays out with sexual assault survivors. Here is my response:
Good morning and I hope you're well. Thanks for asking your question and being interested in my thoughts.
Yes, I think there is trauma intellectualism going on with people who experience a range of physical violence (including sexual assault) and people who experience other behaviors that they call violence (such as framing something as discursive violence, or linguistic violence, etc.). In many cases, some people will disclose that they've experienced trauma in their finished product (a film, a poem, an essay) on in the course of a debate (in person, from a panel, on social media) and assume that this is the basis of making an argument (and by argument, making a substantiated claim or a convincing claim about their political commentary that goes beyond just telling their specific story). For example, some people will disclose that they have been violated in some way (or what they see as violation in cases where they have not been physically assaulted) in moments during political debate so as to win an argument but it doesn't necessarily address the questions being asked about the political analysis or framing that follows or precedes the disclosure. For example, I have seen people who disclose surviving rape on social media bring up that they have been raped when people have questioned the way they talk about who can be sexually violated. For example, I have seen women say that men are not vulnerable to rape and when people have tried to address it with them, they will say, I've been raped...and it shuts down a conversation because it sets up a situation where the person asking about the framing of something appears insensitive to violence, rape, or as if they are not believing that person's story of being raped when the people seem to be questioning the analysis, commentary, framing, etc of violence that is going on in the person's story.
Also, what this does, is it creates a dynamic where someone who discloses they survived violence presumably cannot be questioned for their framing or political commentary even as they are presenting their work as feminist analysis and/or politics and trying to shape public conversation about violence. It also suggests that only survivors can talk about violence structurally or at least have the last word but survivors are also influenced by a range of things, including being socialized into certain framing or analysis to think about their experience and to politically analyze it in their public work. So when someone says I survived violence it's as if to suggest 1) there is an automatic political response that all people who experience violence are supposed to share or express (which isn't true and this is similar to the claim that supposedly all rape survivors respond the same way or they haven't been raped); 2) it presumes that the person who might be concerned with a survivor's political framing has not experienced violence or they would presumably be on board with the analysis and just "support the survivor;" 3) it demands that the listener who takes issue with the analysis disclose any violence they may have experienced in order to be able to question the analysis (this is akin to what the state demands, btw--and it is not something demanded of people who agree with the analysis--for example, people don't often point out that they are survivors in the same way--as a preemptive gesture or as a defense mechanism when people are appearing supportive (such as likes on a facebook page, or a retweet, or audible sounds of yes at a panel)). In short, it bullies in some way the listener to have to either accept what the speaker says analytically about structure (a framing that affects everyone and a logic that affects everyone) or risk being labeled insensitive and in cases of cross-gender or cross-racial conversation, possibly being labeled a sexist or a racist just because they asked questions.
In short, it demands silence from people who have questions about the ethics and politics of one's framing of their experience--and how others are implicated, how structural dynamics are framed, etc.--in the name of victim's rights. This is similar to how the state approaches crime in some ways.
I have experienced violence from different men (including physical violence, not just discursive violence) and I have decided to share this publicly when I have wanted to. But I don't tend to bring it up to win an argument or to insulate myself from political inquiry nor do I choose to cave into the demand that I disclose it so as not to be called insensitive to someone who experienced violence. But this dynamic seems to be a certain variant of feminism that is popular and certainly expressed in on-line work and social media. It is a cheap form of feminism that appears to be community building but it actually doesn't want to be engaged. It is also marketable because it doesn't always confront structure (indeed it tends to be solipsistic and self-absorbed but concealed as speaking truth to power or "telling my truth") and it doesn't allow people to question the framing or analysis. It works well for those who don't want to be pushed to think about structure or implications of discourses. In this sense it is less confrontational with white supremacy and capitalism (and instead tends to direct its hostility towards specific individuals and those who question the framing).
Overall, this is a growing body of work and commentary that I find limited, unethical in its approach, and apolitical.
Thanks again for asking and I hope you have a good Sunday.