Writing Wrongs: Historical Injury and the Contemporary Novel
Boese, Stefanie A.
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This project reframes contemporary engagements with past injury by attending to the way novelists since the 1990s have responded to the widening temporal divides that separate us from various landmark atrocities of the twentieth century. Though “historical trauma” has been foundational and useful in articulating how injuries like the Holocaust and the legacy of apartheid shape individual and collective identifications, I contend that trauma theory’s commitment to identity claims has made it an increasingly inadequate framework for understanding the complicated way that these past crimes continue to resonate in the present. Presenting “historical injury” as a productive reframing of the concept of historical trauma, my readings of Phillip Roth, J.M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald illustrate the way in which historical injury shapes the affective contours of everyday experience. Championing a new materialist approach to historical injury, one that replaces narratives of trauma with intensities of affect, I suggest that historical injury must be understood not as belonging to identity but as mediated by the self-transformative capacities of embodiment. Beginning with a reflection on contemporary Holocaust memory, this project examines the ways in which an affective relation to injury may challenge established cultural narratives of identity in both Jewish-American and German contexts. In my final chapter, I explore how affective frameworks for thinking about the historical injury of the Holocaust may be put to productive use in articulating past injury in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Though the authors under consideration approach the problem of historical injury from vastly different perspectives, they all share, I argue, a critique of reading practices that attempt to understand the past through acts of sympathetic identification with trauma’s victims. The trauma model, I argue, in focusing individual psychological effects has limited our ability to articulate the complex ways in which historical injuries manifest themselves within a political present increasingly distant from the traumatizing event. By paying attention to the embodiment of lived experience, I suggest, these authors imagine how instances of collective memory can be transmitted outside of established identity claims and against normative structures of temporality and geography.