Legible Grief : Discursive Liminality in Twentieth Century Literatures of Trauma

Schaeffer, Tesla. Legible Grief : Discursive Liminality in Twentieth Century Literatures of Trauma. 2017. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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Currently, scholars in the fields of trauma and affect studies are sharply divided on whether "direct" or extra-discursive experience is possible, and moreover about how such a space might function within the fraught contexts of survivor narratives. On the one hand, scholars of trauma in the Caruthian tradition share with affect theorists such as Eve Sedgwick an interest in possibilities of "unassimilated" or extra-discursive experience. On the other hand, there is also a rich body of research dedicated to tracing the movement of traumatic affect through discourse itself, which treats both trauma and emotion as socially-produced and historically-contingent categories of experience, available only to particular subjects at particular times. Importantly, scholars are divided in terms of where to locate possibilities of resistance against the ideological machinations that fix all bodies in networks of power, positing "unassimilated" space as either problematically apolitical or as a site of profound political possibility. Despite their differences in emphasis, however, I suggest that scholars in affect and trauma share an over-reliance on a false binary between the discursive and non-discursive realms: it is frequently assumed that if an experience fits ontologically within one, it cannot simultaneously exist in the other. My project aims to intervene at precisely the ignored middle juncture between pre-reflective or sub-conscious experience of traumatic affect and its entrance into language and discourse, to position literature as a source of knowledge about the process of assimilation itself, the entrance of encounter into language, the moment where traumatic affect is given shape in traumatic narrative. I am focused on tracing the ways in which individual grief becomes legible in discourse, analyzing the extent to which traumatic recognition may ironically either require subjective annihilation or guarantee subjective being. Through intersections among studies in trauma, affect and phenomenology, it is possible to understand assimilation in discourse as a process that needn't inevitably remove survivors from direct experience of their own emotions and experiences, and to shift conversations about the ontological existence of discursively liminal affects towards a deeper exploration both of the resilient felt-sense and of the scholarly value of affects - like grief - that frequently feel "speechless."

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