Against the Return to Normal: Trauma and Human Sociality

Bojan Srbinovski //

Tancred and Clorinda by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1761); in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud writes about the tragic story from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata in which the hero Tancred unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda twice as a story of traumatic repetition.

The past three months have given people in the United States good reasons for cautious optimism. After a disastrous winter season that saw the number of recorded cases of COVID-19 rise over 300,000 per day and the total number of deaths exceed half a million people, the pandemic and the country seem to be on a different trajectory. The nationwide immunization efforts have accelerated, and, despite concerning trends of vaccine hesitation, people are beginning to speak of what has repeatedly been called a return to normal.

As encouraging as these trends may be, we need to resist the idea that there is such a thing as a return to normal, or even an “after” to the COVID-19 pandemic. I also want a world in which the pandemic has been brought to heel and new possibilities of human flourishing are no longer a mere dream. Like so many others, I do not want to contest the idea that the experience of the pandemic has been traumatic and that we cannot stay in it forever. In fact, it is because the pandemic has been so traumatic that I worry about the orientation toward a “return to normal.” The problems of the normal have been discussed in generative ways, including in this journal, but the matter of returning comes with its own set of challenges.

Historical examples of previous catastrophes show that the attempt to return to a time before trauma renders one structurally bound to it. The desire for a world in which we never have to worry about COVID-19 again must not surpass the demand­–to listen, to witness, to remember–that the trauma of the pandemic presents before us.  

A return to normal constitutes, as I understand it, a return to a world in which protective measures such as quarantining, remote work, and remote education are all gradually and safely lifted. It is essentially a return to a particular kind of sociality, and thus it is not only a question for the medical sciences, but also for the medical humanities. For me, it is a question about how trauma cuts into the structures of the social. Ultimately, however, it is not we who are returning to a life before catastrophe, but catastrophe itself that will return unwittingly to our lives as traumatic repetition should we press forward unreflectively into the future.

There is a massive body of work that spans the fields of medicine, law, and the humanities that engages the particular challenges to the social that trauma presents in catastrophic contexts like this one. Writing about his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a psychiatrist who treated other survivors, Dori Laub once remarked that “the very circumstance of being inside the event…made unthinkable the very notion that a witness could exist…[t]here was no longer an other to which one could say ‘Thou’ in the hope of being heard” (Testimony 81). Along similar lines, writing about a patient who had experienced childhood sexual trauma, the American psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk distinguished ordinary from traumatic memory. “Ordinary memory is essentially social; it’s a story that we tell for a purpose…but there is nothing social about traumatic memory” (The Body Keeps the Score 152). In his work with survivors of Hiroshima, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton discovers “a psychic closing off…a symbolic form of death” that dominates the survivors’ lives long after the bomb; it is a state of being marked by a strong “guilt resulting from the death encounter,” or, in other words, the paradoxical condition of having both encountered death and survived it prevents the subject from any real psychic or social re-integration (Death in Life 34-5). Writing about a witness who faints on the stand during the Eichmann Trial, Shoshana Felman suggests that, because “law is a language of abbreviation, of limitation and totalization, [and] art is a language of infinity and the irreducibility of fragments, a language of embodiment, of incarnation, and of embodied incantation or endless rhythmic repetition,” the former is always relegating trauma to the past, and the latter is always pulling it into the excessive present. The former will thus always read the muteness of a fainting witness as the absence of meaning; the latter can “make silence speak” (The Juridical Unconscious 153-4). The French analysts Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière indicate the necessity for a “social link” in the treatment of what they call “madness”–a link that requires of the analyst that he enter into the domain of madness so that the symptom can find “someone to speak to” (History Beyond Trauma 11). To be sure, these texts turn on catastrophic encounters that differ in many substantive ways from our encounter with COVID-19. Still, they exemplify different attempts to figure traumatic experience as both the undoing of a subject who is marked by an experience that was not assimilated as it occurred and the condition of possibility of address, testimony, transmission, and, in some unexpected way, sociality. They therefore suggest that it is through trauma, and not beyond it, that we must chart a course into the future. Every field that engages trauma has something to contribute; all of them need to help us bear witness to the traumatic stories that any “return to normal” unwittingly seeks to suppress.

If unaddressed, the effects of this traumatic year on the social may be deeply corrosive. In 2019, the Pew Research Center released a study in which they described worryingly low levels of social trust. Americans’ beliefs about how their fellow citizens feel about the federal government and each other reveal concerning trends. These have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, and it makes sense that they would affect the startling levels of vaccine hesitancy, which, curiously enough, stand in the way of any imaginary return to normal.

There is no way of addressing these low levels of social trust without addressing the trauma (both personal and collective, as if those terms could be adequately distinguished from each other) of this year. The way beyond COVID-19, into a future that can be materially better than both the pandemic and the “normal” that came before it, brings us into uncomfortable, or perhaps even unbearable, contact with death–the deaths of other members of the polity and of those who have been abjected from it by neoliberalism’s extractive logics. This encounter with death, trauma theory teaches us, is also an encounter with life. To attend to both at the same time lies at the heart of any attempt to move into a future where a return to normal is no longer desirable.

Works cited:

Davoine, Françoise, and Jean-Max Gaudillière. History beyond Trauma: Whereof One Cannot Speak, Thereof One Cannot Stay Silent. Other Press, 2004.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Routledge, 1991.

Felman, Shoshana. The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Robert Jay Lifton. Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.

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