Sunday, September 19, 2010

Response to: "Trauma Time: A Still Life"

Stewart, Kathleen. "Trauma Time: A Still Life." Histories of the Future. Eds. David Rosenberg and Susan Harding. Duke University Press, 2005, pp 321 - 338.

Just when I thought I couldn't top the obnoxious theorizing that I was reading about intellectualism earlier today, I just read something that did. The article: Trauma Time, by one Kathleen Stewart. 

What is trauma time? Trauma time is that sensation, that experience where everything is moving, change is happening, that leaves someone standing still and disorients people at once, as their brain tries to catch up. From what I understand, because she writes that trauma time is not an idea or a concept, it "has the restlessness and obsessions of modernity's simultaneous overstimulation and numbness, alarm and anesthesia." She goes on to dictate a series of "still lifes", basically snippets of people's lives that she has recorded to illustrate trauma time, I hope, and "do not signify something that can be gathered into a generalizable code or system as they do ferment and record a series of moves." Sounds good so far, until she starts talking about how she learns that the photocopier machine can staple stuff, and she's gobsmacked that it does, and it's like being illiterate, and everything's change! Everything's changing! Things are always improving and you must always keep up! Then there are a couple of vignettes that don't actually make sense to me, like a vandalized car, and a chick who housesits as a hobby and is damned good at gambling and lucky with the slot machine.

Oh, but Kathleen Stewart wants me to understand the pathos of a car that has "PMS POWERED" on the number plate that is now standing without two of its wheels, looking tipsy on a "hastily placed jack", and Stewart uses her housesitting friend to illustrate that the slot machine? You just have to wait for the right time, that it's a matter of being able to feel all the pent-up hopes and dreams in the lost tokens within the machine and taking that final leap of faith - apparently this is part of the talent of winning at a fucking slot machine.

But where this article really enrages me is when she starts describing the maintenance man of the trailer park she lived in who leads a life emotionally and psychologically abused by an ex-girlfriend and he can't read and has no driver's license and he is anxious and scared because of the shit he's been through due to his illiteracy. "He hated his job because his boss was viciously cruel to him, his pay was below minimum wage, and he was 'live-in help', on call twenty-four hours a day to take care of anything that came up." So Stewart listens to these storys, that "went from bad to worse with one humiliation after the next and no future to imagine." Until finally, he calls an old girlfriend, and she has a daughter who adored him as a child and is now paraplegic and he decides to move out there to be this young woman's caregiver, raising money and deciding when he'll leave and how to sell his stuff. 

And she writes,
"From the desperation of a present-past misery he was caught in, he invented the fantasy of a new and improved still life. Another past, nostalgically remembered, became not only the site and living trace of redemption but the means to achieve a future. From a space entrenched in trauma time, a last-ditch, desperate agency propelled him into a history of the future."
I'm sorry. I just. I don't even. WHAT? The man is trying to live his life. And make it better. How the hell do you know that it's a fantasy of a new life? What if he actually made it? What the hell was wrong with you that you couldn't empathize with him all those evenings he decided to get personal with you and off-load his stories onto the one attentive ear he found? Why are you writing this paragraph so goddamn far removed from what's actually happening: a man set on improving his lot by doing his damnedest to get the fuck out of a bad situation, in order to help someone else and himself? 

No. I just. No. I'm very good at code-switching , but I am not going to go this distance, stepping back so far that I'm talking about "stills", and "scripted" "visceralities", and "forces" and "specters" and "phobias" and "idioms" and "technology".

Because this "trauma time" you're talking about is everyday stuff. We all live with it and we all learn how to deal with it. I know this anthology you just contributed to is "a conceptual tool kit for thinking about the hopes and anxieties embodied in the ideas of the future", but I'm not sure I want to leave reality behind for such an abstract method of approaching what's really just day-to-day business. I don't have the spoons for this. 

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