Sevan Beukian 2018
Research on the link between nationalism and social memory has gained momentum since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historians, social scientists, and philosophers have often attempted to explain the link between nationalism and memory through a historical lens that frames the story of a nation-state’s formation in a linear progression. Social memory is thus emphasised as an important part of national identity formation and maintenance. Though often focused on the glorified versions of historical past, social memory encompasses much more than simply the ‘positive’ moments of the past for the nation. More recent works on remembrance and memory have increasingly put emphasis on the traumatic collective past and the memory of mass trauma as an important historical ‘site’, with a strong impact on national and group identity formation over time. The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the Balkan Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have recently received more scholarly attention in the study of memory and nationalism. One particularly important avenue of this work is the study of the memory and history of war and genocide in the intersection of gender and memory. Discussions of such traumatic experiences also entail forced exile, movement, and displacement (such as the recent plight of Iraqi, Afghani, and Syrian refugees, which engage important discussions of trauma and identity).
Beyond conceptions of warfare and conflict studies, a more critical perspective has brought the discussion of trauma to the centre of nationalism studies. How traumatic episodes in the history of nations shape national discourse and national identity constructions is the main focus of inquiry in this article. The sections below highlight how trauma studies have been included in nationalism studies, and how this work enriches both the fields of nationalism and trauma studies. The main aim here is to highlight how the literature and field of trauma studies can enhance our understanding of national identity formation and to show that it is vital to consider traumatic experiences within our examination of nationalism.
The article suggests three angles through which the concept of trauma has been connected to the study of nationalism: first, trauma as a trigger of nationalism, challenging national identity discourses; second, the way that research on perpetrator trauma can continue or create discourses of denialism that attempt to distort or silence the trauma of victims; and third, trauma seen as more than an event or set of events investigated as autonomous phenomena, by examining trauma through the lens of justice, recognition, and retribution. These three avenues of studying trauma can play a vital role for the study of nationalism, not only because they help us to understand the impact of these atrocities, but also how they shape national identity discourses. Studying trauma and nationalism through these lenses helps show why some traumatic (historical) events or periods have a strong impact on these discourses across generations, and how memories are transmitted, and can also contribute to a (re)thinking of apology, reconciliation, and justice in (inter)national politics and in the attempt to reconstruct the broken social fabric. Critically, it is also apparent that there is a need for more attention from scholars of trauma studies on the intersection of gender and micro-approaches to nationalism and the discussion on postcolonial perspectives on trauma and reconciliation, as these areas have been neglected at the expense of the macro-explanations of nationalism that focus on the European context alone.
Literature on nationalism and memory
The field of nationalism is extremely interdisciplinary, presenting divergent definitions of the concepts of nations and nationalism and explanations regarding when they emerged, which came first, and how they are maintained as modern constructs that have become the basis of world politics today. As such, different theorists have provided important contributions to the field of nationalism, coming from varying theoretical perspectives, ranging from primordialism to those inspired by post-structuralism and discourse analysis (for an overview of the field of nationalism and the problems with the concept of nationalism, see Ozkirimli 2010; Ichijo & Gordana 2005; Calhoun 1994). Both fields of nationalism studies and memory studies have addressed the central debate around the ‘birth’ of nation states and national identity. Most scholars of nationalism posit that the nation is a modern phenomenon, linked to structural changes happening around the time of industrialisation, urbanisation and capitalism. Such “modernists,” however, do not completely abandon the idea that the past shaped nations; instead, their shared position tends to be that the modern era represents a significant rupture from significant elements of the past, a forgetting of certain elements of the past, as Ernest Renan claims (1882, 23). However, traumatic experiences, as extreme as genocide for example, that are engraved in the collective (and individual) historical memory of a nation do not ‘disappear’ or ‘dissipate’ over time. Instead, I argue that the field of memory and nationalism studies can show us that these traumatic memories articulate themselves in the constructions of the nation continuously over time.
In memory studies, national identity construction refers to the shared collective memory that focuses historically on specific people (heroes), events (through commemoration), and places of memory and memorialisation – or “lieux de memoire” to use Pierre Nora’s seminal concept (Nora & Kritzman 1996), which has been critiqued by postcolonial and poststructuralist scholars for relying on a homogenising ethos. The emphasis in the literature on contesting hegemonic forms of national identity construction brings to light the need to break away from the idea of national identity as a single collective memory, as Jeffrey K. Olick explains, “…the origins of the concept of collective memory [is] in the crucible of statist agendas,” which leaves “reductionist tendencies” in the field for those working on the concepts of memory-nation (2003, 5).
The literature on nationalism and memory has focused on discussions of history as tied to the glorified past of the nation or the myths of ancestry, strongly emphasised by scholars like Anthony Smith and Eric Hobsbawm, for example. Increasingly, however, it is the history of brutality, of colonialism, of migration, of war, that are brought front and centre in the discourse of nationalism. This can divide the nation, but, ultimately, it sheds light on the marginalised histories of individuals and communities that have long been silenced due to the hegemonic structures of colonialism, capitalism, industrialisation and modernisation, and systemic violence (Chakrabarty 2007; Dallmayr 1998). As such, memory studies is an important field of inquiry, especially when linked to the theories of nationalism, because it helps to highlight the importance of an often persistently lingering past into the present and future of national identity. This memory making can take the form of top down state-imposed memory discourse that attempts to erase the presence of minorities, dissidents, or gendered identities (such as LGBTQI individuals and communities). On the other hand, memories are also powerful tools of struggle against imperialism, hegemony, and top-down silencing attempts. It is through the latter understanding of memories that the subaltern can speak (Dallmayr 1998; Foucault 1980; Chakrabarty 2007). For example, in the case of the Soviet Union, historiography was deliberately used by the leadership in order to integrate a multinational society and modernize it in the aim of achieving socialism. However, as Vicken Cheterian points out in the case of Armenia, a marginal discourse prevailed as “a more subtle discourse distinct from the Soviet official line, often for the defence of the nation and against either the Russia central power or a rival neighbouring nationality.” (2008, 37; Mink & Neumayer 2013).
Another challenge against the modernist perspective in social sciences has been expressed by several scholars who argue that the modernist school tends to focus on a teleological future, with prescriptions towards an endpoint that is more advanced, better, and more civilised (Bhabha 1994; Suny 1993; Duara 1995; Assmann 2010). Moreover, explanations that the past ‘disappears’ in the modern construction of the nation are strongly argued in the literature by several theorists, including John Rawls, Ernest Renan, Ernest Gellner, etc. However, thinking about memories and the strength of the transmission of memories in families and collectives, the past could be viewed not as countering the present or the future, or regressing them, but as simultaneously coexisting with them. The historiographical linearity with the perception of time is therefore not useful in explaining the place of memory (and trauma) (Hirsch 2012; Edkins 2003).
Explaining nations and nationalism through collective trauma
The critical discourse analysis tradition, led by Ruth Wodak and other critical theorists of nationalism, has become an important alternative to the traditional theories of nationalism, especially when considering the place of trauma and history in the making of national identity. The emphasis in this case has strongly shifted from the structural, historical, and institutional explanations of nationalism to the everyday practices and discourses of national identity (Fox & Miller-Idriss 2008; Wodak 1999; Calhoun 1994, 1997). Calhoun explains that nationalism refers to what “Michel Foucault….called a ‘discursive formation,’ a way of speaking that shapes out consciousness, but also is problematic enough that it keeps generating more issues and questions, keeps propelling us into further talk, keeps producing debates over how to think about it.” (1997, 3) In addition, intersectional studies have reminded us that several other factors are necessary to consider when studying identity, such as class, ethnicity, race, and gender, and other social divisions (Yuval-Davis 2006).
Traumatic memory is not just represented through an individual’s own sphere of collective events, photographs, objects of recollection from the past, or family belongings or stories, but it is also viewed as a collective phenomenon. Collective memory may be the result of a need to create strong bonds among people, emphasising, as Marianne Hirsch posits, their “shared inheritance of multiples traumatic histories and the individual and social responsibility we feel toward a persistent and traumatic past” (2012, 33-34). Indeed, as Jeffrey Alexander (2012) also stresses, cultural trauma becomes embedded and engrained in the collective identity. He posits that cultural traumas need to be interpreted, narrated, and given meaning by carrier groups, “which performatively seek to have a particular event acknowledged (or not) by the wider group as traumatic” (Woods & Debs 2013, 611). As such, cultural traumas, unlike individual traumas, depict “a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion” (Eyerman 2001, 2).
This aspect of trauma studies has implications for the construction of national identity, in the way in which the traumatic event marks an important turning point in the national identity and discourse (See Beukian 2015 for the case of post-Soviet Armenia). As defined by Alexander, the concept of cultural trauma is understood as the collective feeling of being “subjugated to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon [a] group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (2004, 1). The literature on collective traumatic memories therefore highlights the way in which negative historical experiences impact national identity in a way that can shake the foundations of perceived or imagined unity – traumatic events can have a long-lasting impact on collective identities and consciousness (Neal 1998). Social constructions of collective memories and remembering are never universal (Giesen 2004), due to varying historical experiences and social positioning. For example, the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada in 2017 highlighted the contested nature of collective memory, raising questions regarding whose Canada is really being celebrated. As such, despite attempts of reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the continued subjugation of Aboriginal narratives of collective identity to the top-down dominant narrative of ‘Canadianness’, is striking (Coulthard 2014).
Trauma studies has become strongly focused on the ways in which the traumatic experiences of the past become internalized and expressed through commemorations and various acts and practices of remembering. Much of this work has considered intergenerational shifts of traumatic memory, especially in terms of studying memory as the history of brutality, of colonialism, of migration, and of war (often through a critical gendered lens) (Chatterjee 1993; Nagel 2003; Peterson 1999). From this literature we can see how traumatic events and memories require us to consider the impact of collective harm in triggering a sense of loss, destruction, and reparation (see Theriault 2014 on individual versus collective harm in genocide). The ‘shadows of trauma’, as Assmann puts it, highlight the “involuntariness and inaccessibility in the experience of those who engage with the traumatic past, both of those who are directly affected by it as well as those who come after” (2016, 5). Remembering, in this sense, is not associated with the “golden age” of the nation as Anthony Smith posits, but also, and more importantly, with the histories of violence, defeat, movement, and loss. The feeling of being part of this shared group, especially based on traumatic experiences, is reinforced through trans-generational transmission (Assmann 2010, 42), based on habitus, rituals, commemorations, archives, historiographies, etc. As such, the individual and collective are interlinked, because people form memories about the collective “not only via lived experience, but also via interacting, communicating, identifying, learning, and participating.” (Ibid., 40). Marianne Hirsch (2012) captures that with the concept of ‘Postmemory’, an important concept that can help to bridge the historical traumatic events to the younger generations in a family or community, through various symbolic systems.
Much of the modern traumatic experiences are embedded in the conceptualisation of trauma as a cultural object of study, “a product of history and politics, subject to reinterpretation, contestation, and intervention” (Casper & Wertheimer 2016, 3). The recent interdisciplinary volume by Monica J. Casper and Eric Wertheimer strongly highlights these points, reflecting how much there is need for more attention from scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The field of critical trauma studies is increasingly focused on unpacking the term trauma, more aware of the need to think of it in terms of an intellectual epistemological inquiry and an experiential category that works through social and political events, movements, and peoples’ experiences, as trauma deals with “both ontological and epistemological, assemblages and intersectionalities, modes of being and ways of knowing” (Ibid., 6). This is an important development in trauma studies, as it links with the critical discourse analysis tradition in the study of nationalism – both fields try to combine an examination of both intellectual, epistemological, and structural factors that shape identity and being, with an experiential focus on the agency of individual in understanding and shaping their surroundings.
Trauma as trigger of nationalism
Remembering and commemorating moments of historical trauma, such as genocide, defeat in war, or loss of territory and identity, displacement, play a significant role in determining the discourse of national identity. The study of the role of defeat in nationalist discourse has been emphasised by some scholars of nationalism because of the particular significance it has on distinguishing the national group from other social group associations. Steven Mock’s work is well positioned in that perspective, as he argues that the focus on the history of defeat in national myth-making is in fact “a product of its unique ability to address this dilemma in the context of modern nation building” (2011, 8). In this sense, the debate between those who claim the nation is strictly modern and those who see stronger ethnic roots in the past seems not as meaningful. John Hutchinson (2007) also focuses on the memory of warfare and its role in the conception and making of nationalism and the nation. The collective memory of war in history is important to consider in examining the rise of nationalism, for example, if we think of the ways in which the victory of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and the loss of the Azerbaijani side shape their respective national identity, tied not only to the post-independence development, but even the way the two national identity discourses become linked to past traumatic experiences, such as the Armenian Genocide of 1915 for the Armenians (Marutyan 2009; Beukian 2015).
These studies, however, do not consider the impact of trauma on national identity constructions, and do not address the gendered component of warfare, highlighting its masculine militarised context. Defeat (and victory) play a role in the discourse of national identity, but to further deepen our understanding of national identity and the place of trauma, the latter’s impact is not measured by how nationalism was born in the first place, but by the way in which collectives respond to this trauma and place it in their own histories – rituals and performances of remembering, discourses on national identity, collective myths and heroes. As such, memories of defeat, loss, and broken collective ties are remembered in a way that may strengthen or weaken national identity. Borrowing from Roland Barthes, Bernhard Giesen argues that “traumas and triumphs [of remembered histories] constitute the “mythomoteurs” of national identity (2004, 112). This also marks the significance of traumatic events for national identity constructions, and why it is vital to consider the place and role of traumatic events in the making of collective identities.
Perpetrator trauma, denialism, and distortion/Silencing of narratives
Traumatic recollection based on victim identities have more commonly been the focus of the literature, leaving less room for the examination of the trauma of perpetrators, often a sensitive and difficult topic. The trauma of perpetrators has been analysed in the context of looking for the guilt and punishment of perpetrators (Giesen 2004, 114). LaCapra advocates for the distinction between the trauma of perpetrators and that of the victims. While they both suffer trauma, even in similar ways, the “perpetrator trauma…is ethically and politically different in decisive ways. The denial or repression of that crucial difference is one basis of the projective attempt to blame the victim or apologetically to conflate the perpetrator or collaborator with the victim” (1998, 41). On a national level, a cultural trauma of perpetrators’ “shameful acts”, to borrow from Taner Akçam (2006) creates disruptions to the norm, because trauma, as Alexander claims, “is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (2004, 10). Gülay Türkmen-Dervisoglu (2013, 673) explains the various mechanism adopted by nations to come to terms with their pasts, reflecting on the literature dealing with perpetrator trauma covers how some nations develop “defense mechanisms…to handle their pasts,” including forgetting and denial, silence, and justification are part of these coping measures. The perpetrator trauma response may also be based on acceptance of the “shameful acts”, with confessions, reconciliation, and even public apologies (Lind 2008; Giesen 2004). In the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 memory in Turkey, “the assassination of Hrant Dink initiated the formation of a cultural trauma,” as Türkmen-Dervisoglu argues, and from that moment, “this trauma even succeeded in giving birth to collective guilt…” and a sense of responsibility and acknowledgement of the atrocities, but it failed to achieve reconciliation (2013, 688).
Therefore, as much as the mobilisation around a national identity can be oriented toward forgetting and denying the atrocious events, a perspective often propagated by the perpetrators, it can also be an expression of the need to maintain the identity around that atrocity, in order to ensure that the struggle for recognition does not dissipate in the near future. Perhaps it is at the juncture of acknowledging an event as traumatic that leads to a sense of responsibility, acceptance, and apology; as Alexander posits, agency is an important element in this process of acceptance, whereby “collective actors ‘decide’ to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to their sense of who they are, where they came from, and where they want to go” (2004, 10). In the same light, mobilisation and maintenance of national identity can also aim for the recognition of and reparations from the atrocities for the victim groups, and to achieve the state of reconciliation and acceptance by the perpetrators of their crime. Such a perspective has been advocated by the transitional justice literature and the literature on recognition that challenges and critically engages with liberal notions of justice often embedded in retribution and redistribution (Theriault 2014; Coulthard 2014; Rubio-Marin 2006; Nagy 2008).
Addressing trauma for recognition and (gendered) justice in nation-building
The work of transitional justice scholarship is an increasingly growing field, especially around questions of gendered transitional justice. For example, Ruth Rubio-Marin discusses how we can rethink reparations in a way to make considerations of gender justice “‘mainstreamed’ in the discussions and design of reparations” (2006, 23). Transitional justice perspectives focus on the question of reconciliation, particularly “how the implementation of trials and truth commissions tends to structure conceptions of violence and justice,” (Nagy 2008, 278), highlighting the necessity of examining processes of the impact of trauma also through the reconciliation mechanisms and institutions in place, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. As much as talking about trauma is significant in understanding the shaping of national identity constructions, it is equally important to think of the ways in which reconciliation, reparations, and recognition are processed and occur in a nation (or internationally). Apology cultures are increasingly becoming part of the international discourse on the relationships between states, or within state actors that have challenged state hegemonic discourses that have attempted to distort or deny the histories of the groups in question (see Lind 2008).
Feminist approaches have brought good examples of such a bottom-up approach, questioning the absence of gender in the study of nation, for a few decades, enriching the understanding of the origins of the nation and perceptions of nationalism. While some exceptions in the literature on gender and nation exist, particularly from the perspective of warfare and militarisation of societies to follow the discussion in this section (see the seminal contribution by Cynthia Enloe 1990), gendered approaches have been lacking not only in the field of nationalism studies but also in memory and trauma studies. It is only more recently that works on genocide, for example, have begun to really address the gendered aspect of this crime against humanity (see the edited volume by Amy E. Randall 2015). The consideration of gender is not only important in the literature on nationalism and trauma/memory, but also in the transitional justice perspectives that I believe are strongly linked to that discussion. The gendered perspective in transitional justice can bring out the often embedded assumptions and essentialization related to women’s experience, much similar to those that guide many theoretical views on nationalism, conflict, and politics. As such, “…Transitional Justice is a process of drawing and re-drawing boundaries of inside and outside a community, demarcating those groups who have their rights considered and those who have not,” in relation to the importance of considering trauma in national identity studies (Buckley-Zistel & Zolkos 2011, 19). There is a significant gap in the literature and should be complemented with studies that take different approaches to understanding the impact of warfare, colonialism, migration, movement, and their consequences on individuals and collectives, through post-colonial, comparative, and gendered perspectives.
This article has highlighted the importance of including the study of trauma in national identity theories. Studies should not only understand the trauma itself – why an event has become traumatic in the memory of the nation, as Alexander’s cultural trauma concept does, but also how the process of trauma or these traumatic events shape the nation not only for the surviving and perpetrating generation, but also for the generations after. However, much the past is remembered, celebrated, or mourned, the past itself or the narratives around the past are not static. The shared collective memory is a powerful tool that created a sense of “collective membrane forged by a shared inheritance of multiple traumatic histories…” (Hirsch 2012, 33-34).
Two critical methodological and theoretical insights stem from the current state of the national-memory/trauma literature. First, future research on trauma and national identity should more actively engage with a comparative approach in traumatic experiences, emphasising a critical approach to nationalism studies that focuses on bottom-up expressions and practices, from the Armenian Genocide to the histories of slavery, the Rwandan genocide, the Shoah, and the Indigenous Peoples’ experiences (through genocide and settler colonialism). These traumatic experiences of “shared precariousness”, to borrow from Stef Craps (2013), are brought into comparison in order to help us to understand how to prevent future atrocities and think more seriously about reconciliation and recognition through indigenous and postcolonial lenses. Second, history and memory making involve the “sedimentation of macroprocesses into micropractices,” and this is especially significant when considering memory making and trauma as resulting from “processes of conquest, colonization, dislocation, and turmoil.” (Shaw 2002, 6) This is translated not only in the explicit expressions of memory in the forms of written and oral narratives that can be relatively more easily accessed by researchers, but also in the form of tacit expressions of practical memory, inspired by Bourdieu’s theory of practice, as they have become “embedded in habits, social practices, ritual processes, and embodied experiences.” (Shaw 2002, 7; also see Beukian 2015) As such, these two concluding points require a more thorough consideration of postcolonialism in trauma studies (Craps 2013), that can help to rethink trauma and reconciliation and recognition though a bottom-up transitional justice approach.