Trauma in post-9/11 American Culture: Between the Virtual and the Real (International Workshop, October 15th, 2011)

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University of Berne, Switzerland

Almost ten years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the idea of a 'collective American trauma' continues to haunt American culture. Especially the killing of Osama bin Laden has been interpreted as some sort of closure and thus as a milestone in the working through of this supposedly national trauma. Remarks by President Obama at the occasion of the victory over the leader of Al-Qaeda sketch out the field within which this sense of a collective trauma evolved. In the opening words of his address to the nation on May 1st 2011, Obama acknowledges the impact the mass media have had in their creation of an event that could be simultaneously witnessed by all Americans: "The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory. High-jacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky, the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground." In an interview with the BBC (May 22nd 2011), Obama translates this shared witnessing into "what an extraordinary trauma it [9/11] was for the country as a whole." Up to this day, the implications and consequences of a conflation of the media event that s(t)imulates trauma with the notion of a 'collective trauma' has seldom been critically discussed in the field of cultural studies. Rather, the alleged existence of a traumatized collective served as a mask through which all cultural production about 9/11 has been analyzed - to the exclusion of less charged concepts such as 'shock,' 'insecurity,' or 'depression.'
In his publication The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror (2009), Marc Redfield is one of the few American scholars to criticize the uncritical application of the label 'collective trauma' to 9/11. By instead naming 9/11 a 'virtual trauma', he tries to "describe the ambiguous injury inflicted by the September 11 attacks as mediated events" (2). Furthermore, he examines the grave consequences of the conflation of 'virtual trauma' and 'collective trauma,' as this seems to have been instrumental for the implementation (and acceptance) of the War on Terror. Ultimately, this conflation was possible because the virtual aspect of the media event was obscured by the constant drawing from the "real" suffering experienced by the victims of the attacks.
Suggesting Redfield's concept of a 'virtual trauma' as a point of departure for a critical revision of ideas of collective trauma regarding highly mediatized events, the workshop would like to invite scholars from the field of cultural studies to discuss questions such as the following:

- In what ways is Redfield's concept of the 'virtual trauma' helpful for an understanding of American post-9/11 culture? What are its implications on the level of cultural production?
- What are alternatives to the concept of 'virtual trauma' for both addressing the mass media's construction of a traumatized American collective after 9/11 and its consequences?
- Might we nevertheless look at cultural production as expressive of various collectives who feel traumatized by 9/11 (e.g. white middle class New Yorkers)?
- How can we discuss fictionalized individual trauma that is offered to a collective in the framework of artistic / literary production?

International scholars are invited to participate in a workshop chaired by Prof. Marc Redfield. The workshop will be preceded by a public keynote lecture by Prof. Redfield titled "The 'Cultured Nazi' and the Cut of the Shibboleth: Les Bienveillantes, Inglorious Basterds, and the Globalization of English" scheduled for October 14th, 2011, 6 p.m.

Invited researchers are asked to prepare a presentation of about 15 minutes which demonstrates their position regarding the workshop's topic. Scholars interested in participating in the international workshop may send a proposal (approx. 500 words) to Christina Rickli (christina.rickli_at_ens.unibe.ch) July 25th, 2011.

Invited scholars will receive some financial recompense for travel and accommodation costs.