In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trauma Theory

  • Introduction
  • Key Works
  • Key Works in Trauma Theory and Film and Media Studies
  • Memory Studies
  • War and Conflict
  • Sexual Abuse

Cinema and Media Studies Trauma Theory
Susannah Radstone, Janet Walker, Noah Shenker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0147


Trauma theory denotes a vibrant, interdisciplinary area of Western scholarship developed since the 1980s through cross-fertilization between psychology and the humanities. The incorporation of trauma theory into film and media studies, realized in relation to the field-shaping influence of psychoanalytically informed film theory (see Trauma and the Inner World), has enabled a fuller explication of the power and complexity of the relationships among calamitous historical events, media objects and networks, spectator positioning, and mental processes. In designing this article, we have considered the historical development of trauma theory while recognizing and reflecting, through subheadings and entry choices, the fact that this history is multidimensional rather than linear, temporally recursive rather than chronological, and characterized by genuine differences of opinion. Key debates include the location of trauma (is trauma an internal, psychical phenomenon; an event in the world; or a combination of the internal and the external?); the unfathomability of traumatic experience; the vicissitudes of memory (see Memory Studies); the set of representational affinities (realist, anti-realist, unrepresentable); and the critique of the psychoanalytic paradigm as possibly Eurocentric and racially, economically, and ethnically exclusive (see Decolonizing Trauma Studies). In short, scholars of film and media studies, along with those from many other disciplines, have embraced a plurality of trauma theory approaches while at the same time recognizing and contributing toafrom within or from outside of trauma theoryfthe ongoing (self)critiques of this research rubric. A large number of the significant texts in this area of trauma theory have referred directly to the Holocaust of World War II. One might even say that Holocaust studies, if not the Holocaust itself, has been germinal for trauma theory. The method of categorizing Holocaust-related research in this article is twofold: The authors of this article have elected to disperse such references throughout to signal the overlap among Holocaust, memory, and trauma theory, and they have included as well a separate heading on Holocaust under which key works in Holocaust trauma theory are listed. The authors of this article aim also to emphasize, most explicitly under the heading Decolonizing Trauma Studies, research related to trauma theory that seeks to critique and expand the paradigm beyond psychoanalysis, beyond the West, and beyond the Holocaust of World War II. Thanks to David Gray and Jade Petermon for their assistance with this article.

Key Works

The foundation for trauma theory has been firmly established across multiple disciplines and fields ranging from American studies, history, and psychoanalysis to cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology among others, with a particular upsurge in scholarship during the 1990s. That underpinning is reflected in the key texts cited in this article. Antze and Lambek 1996, an interdisciplinary volume, includes essays that mobilize and problematize the concept of trauma as does Radstone 2007 in offering a critique of the tendency of trauma theory to revert to binaristic thinking from more sophisticated theoretical approaches previously established in film and media studies. Other works, such as Caruth 1996, Tal 2004, and Hirsch 1997 have concentrated on the representation of trauma through literature, film, and photography. Equally intense in their inquiries of trauma, the authors Felman and Laub 1992, LaCapra 1994, and Leys 2000 have engaged with both theoretical and clinical aspects of psychoanalysis and how they inform our contemporary understanding of individual and collective psychic wounds.

  • Antze, Paul, and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    With chapters contributed by scholars from anthropology, psychiatry, and the history and philosophy of science, this volume helped establish the field of contemporary trauma theory. Emphasizing memory’s sociocultural constitution, discursive embeddedness, and frequent existence as a site of struggle, participants explore various intersections of trauma, identity, history, society, and memorialization.

  • Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

    This foundational text places the idea of “belatedness” at the center of a theory of trauma, arguing that a traumatic event is accessible only in its return. Caruth explores a number of literary texts and also includes an analysis of Alain Resnais’s and Marguerite Duras’s film, Hiroshima mon amour.

  • Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

    In this germinal trauma studies text, Felman and Laub explore testimony and witnessing from a number of perspectives. Laub’s contributions take up these issues through the lens of a practicing psychoanalyst, while Felman uses examples from literature, film, and her own pedagogy to highlight trauma theory in practice.

  • Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    This text explores the power of photographic images in the construction of collective memory. Here, Hirsch advances her theory of post-memory, which draws out the complex relationship between generations that precede traumatic events and the photographs that reference these events.

  • LaCapra, Dominick. Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

    This collection of essays by LaCapra investigates both the historiographical and the interpersonal dynamics of representing past traumas, with particular emphasis on examining the transferential relationship between scholars and their subjects. For LaCapra, it is the psychoanalytic process of “working through” rather than “acting out” that serves as the basis for a critical representation of the Holocaust and other traumas.

  • Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226477541.001.0001

    This respected forensics of the last century of trauma theory identifies tendencies to resolve the mimesis/anti-mimesis polarity in favor of one or the other, and to impute an irresolvable conflict between the two. It includes a critique of Caruthian trauma theory’s dilution and generalization of trauma to encompass the position of the victim, the perpetrator, and the witness.

  • Radstone, Susannah. “Trauma Theory: Contexts, Politics, Ethics.” Paragraph 30.1 (2007): 9–29.

    DOI: 10.3366/prg.2007.0015

    Critiques Trauma Theory’s bypassing of the complications of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and post-structuralism. Argues that work in trauma theory resurrects binary thinking transcended by psychoanalysis, has a tendency to ignore the lessons of literary and media studies, and tends to privilege events that are considered traumatic in the West.

  • Tal, Kali. Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    In this book, Tal examines three central crises—the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and sexual abuse and incest—and how their representations have sparked intense critical debate in American culture. This book brings to the fore the voices of those survivors of trauma and compels a reading against the grain of hegemonic narrative discourses. Originally published in 1996.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.