Witnesses to the unpresentable: narratives of memory and trauma at the end of history
Di Sotto, Marc Laurence
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This thesis investigates the problem of historical representation in the context of the contemporary turns to trauma and memory visible in cultural theory and in wider popular culture and contemporaneous with post-Cold war ‘end of history’ discourse. Rather than apply the theories of trauma to readings of contemporary texts, the present study proposes that trauma theory be seen as part of the wider cultural tendency towards memorialization, characterized by a privileging of the notion of witnessing, an emphasis on the punctuality of the traumatic moment, and the fetishization of the historical trace. This thesis argues that what unites these various features of memorial culture is a notion of history that emphasises both the impossibility of comprehension and representation and yet a sense of proximity to a literal past through the traces that remain. If postmodernism designates a ‘crisis of historicity’ which delegitimizes the authority of representations of history, to think history through the prisms of memory and trauma reasserts a notion of historical truth, albeit relocated in the traumatic memory of the survivor, in the ethical imperative to bear witness, or in an aesthetics of the aporia. The parallel discourses of history as trauma and history as memory conflate the problems of historical representation with problems of historical witnessing, and in doing so conceptualize a notion of an historical event with no actor, proposing instead a passive subject without agency and thus without politics. The thesis is organized through close readings of four key texts, each of which can be read to be in dialogue with wider memorial culture, but which also problematize the orthodoxies of contemporary trauma theory in its application to the literary text—Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Focusing on notions of witnessing, testimony, traumatic memory and the trace, and drawing on the work of Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Rancière, this thesis sets out to resist the theoretical creep that would see all history as trauma and all text as testimony, and instead reasserts the necessary role of fiction and the imagination in constructing a relationship to the past.