Had some fabulous conversations at the bar last night re: affect theory and trauma theory. After Ruth Leys delineated the inconsistency at the heart of Caruth’s major claims in Unclaimed Experience, I’m increasingly skeptical of affect theory’s utility as an interpretive practice. Affect theory is often brought to bear when analyzing texts that include historical injury or trauma in their plots. These analyses often emphasize trauma’s transmissibility: Caruth, by Leys’ analysis anyway, makes the Holocaust into a kind of contagion paid forward through history, so that descendants of concentration-camp survivors can literally experience the trauma of a past they themselves never lived through.
Affect theory, when used as interpretive lens, too often winds up being 1) just a good (or bad) close reading with 2) an obfuscatory layer of neuroscience jargon slathered on top of it.
One of the lynchpin claims of trauma theory is that it maps the outline of a trauma that is at core unrepresentable: the shape of a continent on a map, but without topography (a simile which fails because we actually can map topography. But let’s pretend we can’t). The question then becomes, how does outlining a problem of representation require invoking affect or trauma? Why isn’t it just a problem of representation, full stop? Pointing at the outline of the continent and saying, “lo, a continent” doesn’t tell us anything new about that land mass’s inaccessible topography.
This Post45 article argues that climate change is unrepresentable, and that this problem of representation threatens our survival as a species. By discussing a current problem of representation whose ramifications actually could affect (contaminate?) all (or many) humans currently alive on the planet today, Zimmerman appears to avoid many of the inconsistencies that dog trauma-theory-based interpretations.
Or am I wrong, and the strength of Zimmerman’s argument is still just a straight close reading of various global climate change arguments? Somebody else stare at this and tell me if I’m seeing things.