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date: 04 July 2022

Abstract and Keywords

For much of the twentieth century, the connections between trauma, memory, and law have traditionally been represented as redemptive. Naming traumatic experience by recovering the memory of victims, typically privileging their first-person testimony, has been critical to the work of seeing justice done. Across the disciplines of history, psychoanalysis, law, psychology, and critical theory, a vast literature seeks to connect the testimony of traumatic memory in a metaphysically immediate way to justice and truth. In many of these accounts memory work itself—remembering, testifying—is the work of justice, just as in psychoanalysis, recovering traumatic experience, reducing it to first-person narrative, is the cure. But the valence of the trauma/memory/law circuit is complex. Law is, after all, frequently a principal source of traumatic experience, operating repressively, causing revictimization, refusing to recognize the claims of the injured, and, more ominously, providing the state opportunities for biopolitical and emergency intervention. This chapter provides a brief history of the entanglement of trauma, memory, and the law, emphasizing its links to the development of the field of psychoanalysis and to deeply gendered, physicalist assumptions about harm. The chapter also synthesizes an emerging critical literature and suggests that criticism (methodological, political, conceptual, and normative) reflects fundamentally unresolved questions about the meaning of traumatic experience—questions that both reflect and obscure profound anxieties about the challenges traumatic experience poses to assumptions about the nature of modern life. If there is a practice of justice equal to the problem of traumatic experience, it has not yet been named.

Keywords: trauma, memory, law, traumatic memory, traumatic experience, psychoanalysis, mass atrocity, Sigmund Freud, restorative justice, queer theory

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