The Concept of Trauma – University of Copenhagen

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The Concept of Trauma

One-day research seminar


“... let me be quite clear about it. It was not the Gare de Lyon, the crowd, the swirling of that sudden spring storm: it was not, in short, the world around me that seemed unreal. It was I who seemed unreal. It was my memory that held me in the unreality of a dream. Life was not a dream, oh no! It was I who was. What’s more, it was the dream of someone who appeared to have been dead for a long time ... That serene, quite desperate certainty of being no more than a dream of a young man who died long ago.” (Jorge Semprun, What a Beautiful Sunday!)

This striking expression of a Spanish survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp captures issues that are recurrent for those who have experienced severe interpersonal trauma: a profoundly altered sense of self, of reality, and of time, reflected in disorders of memory. If we take seriously his statements and try to understand them as true descriptions of what life is like for him, what do they tell us about trauma in terms of its effects on the experiential lifeworld of the subject?

Interpersonal trauma is experienced when a person is intentionally subjected to physical or mental pain by another person. Such a violation targets the fabric of selfhood: the relationship to others in a shared, meaningful world. The Greek word τραῦμα means wound, and in the case of interpersonal trauma we can ask: What is wounded? Where is the wound? Is it ‘inside’ the individual mind or should it be seen as a wound ‘between’ persons, which pertains to our essential relatedness to each other and a world we share through experience and memory? Should such questions have an impact on the treatment of traumatized persons, and if so, how?

At this workshop we will discuss the concept of trauma in an interdisciplinary setting by focussing in particular on the (inter-)subjective dimension and on the significance of trauma for human existence. Drawing on different philosophical traditions (especially phenomenology, hermeneutics and existential thought), literature, psychology and psychiatry, as well as on Holocaust and memory studies, we will try to clarify the contexts, implications, and consequences of various ways of conceptualizing ‘trauma.’ The concept of trauma becomes vague when used over-extensively, for instance when it is used for experiences of destabilization we all know from our daily lives. A more distinct definition is also more selective, yet it is controversial which aspects the concept of trauma should include or exclude.

In three sessions with panel discussions the following problems will be addressed:

(1)  Traumatized persons often experience a fission or fragmentation of the self. As such they reveal a potentiality inherent to human existence, namely that of being utterly estranged from oneself. Does the traumatic fission of the self belong to the ordinary structure of subjectivity in relation to alterity, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has put forward, and how do we distinguish between a constitutive and an extraordinary fission, and thus also between at least two types of traumatization?

(2)  Interpersonal trauma covers a huge range of different circumstances and the symptomatology is consequently immensely varied. This has led to continued discussions and revisions of the clinical criteria for diagnosing trauma and stress-related disorders such as PTSD and Enduring Personality Change after Catastrophic Event (ICD-10). The diagnostic picture is further complicated by comorbidity and by the overlap of symptomatology, where e.g. dissociative symptoms can make it difficult to reliably differentiate between some cases of PTSD, personality disorders, and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Which ‘grey zones’ or overlap areas deserve special attention?

(3)  As testimonies of Holocaust survivors show, traumatized persons not only struggle with flashbacks, repression, or instances of amnesia referring back to an overwhelming event (Ereignis, Widerfahrnis) in the past, but also with the impact that this event has on their experience (Erlebnis, Erfahrung) in the present. Which specific strengths and weaknesses appertain to different trauma-theoretical models such as psychoanalytic, neurobiological or phenomenological approaches in understanding disorders of memory and alterations of the sense of time, reality, and relationality?

Co-organized by Gry Ardal Printzlau and Claudia Welz

Funded by the VELUX Foundation supporting the research project “Self-Understanding and Self-Alienation: Existential Hermeneutics and Psychopathology”

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Participation is free, but online registration is required by October 7.