Genealogy of a category mistake: A critical intellectual history of the cultural trauma metaphor

The metaphor of cultural trauma, which currently enjoys great popularity in cultural and literary studies, combines two independent traditions of trauma research. The writings on cultural trauma are based primarily on philosophical reflections about Auschwitz and the limits of representation, which emerged in the postwar writings of members of the Frankfurt School and were further developed by a number of poststructuralist thinkers. In addition, the proponents of the cultural trauma metaphor take advantage of the large body of psychological and psychotherapeutic studies about the experiences of actual trauma victims, including victims of the Holocaust. But the attempts to integrate these very different research traditions and concepts of trauma have ultimately not been successful. The writings on cultural trauma display a disconcerting lack of historical and moral precision, which aestheticizes violence and conflates the experiences of victims, perpetrators and spectators of traumatic events.