The ruins of the future: Trauma and utopia at the limits of imagination

 May 2017


Multidirectional memory and temporality

Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory takes as its starting point one of the major problematics in theorizing memory and trauma in an increasingly globalized world, namely ‘how to think about the relationship between different social groups’ histories of victimization.’1 Central to this problematic is the conception of what Rothberg terms “competitive memory,” the notion that cultural memory ‘obeys a logic of scarcity,’ functioning in a way akin to ‘real-estate development,’2 with claims to cultural memory occupying a limited space that becomes the site of a struggle for recognition. It is hardly necessary to point out how easy it has become to see Rothberg’s point play out in recent times. The various discourses coming from both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum around the recent boom of identity politics and the various populist ideologies that have been gaining traction across the world have saturated our consciousness in such a way that a productive discussion of them would be beyond the remit of this paper. That being said, this worrying trend does point to what makes Rothberg’s analysis so urgent, and why a different understanding of memory and trauma might be important to a radical political project.

Rothberg sees the model of competitive memory as being based on the belief that ‘a direct line runs between remembrance of the past and the formation of identity in the present,’3 a notion  that introduces the spatial and temporal terms of Rothberg’s analogy. Competitive memory, by assuming a direct path between the event (or a shared memory of it) and the formation of an identity that comes to be seen as something natural and autonomous, admits of only one temporal direction: that from memory in the past to identity in the present. If spatiality can be invoked in such a conception of memory it is a limited one, occupied by closed-off identities struggling for a limited amount of recognition and public consciousness. As Rothberg writes, this hinges on ‘the notion that the boundaries of memory parallel the boundaries of group identity.’4 But the directional movement implied in this case would be one that goes inwards rather than outwards, constituting a mode of remembrance that closes itself off both to a dialogue with other perspectives and to a serious and open engagement with the difficulties of charting a clean path between memory and identity, not to mention acknowledging the problematic porousness of their boundaries.

The difficulty of tracing these boundaries, and the way in which their totalizing dimension so readily can lead to extreme violence is what Rothberg sees as urging us to restructure our understanding of memory. As he writes, ‘the borders of memory and identity are jagged; what looks at first like my own property often turns out to be a borrowing or adaptation from a history that initially might seem foreign or distant.’5 What Rothberg proposes, then, is a multidirectional understanding of memory, one that is ‘subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing.’6 As Rothberg stresses, such a multidirectionality would not ‘entail dispensing with a notion of the urgency of memory, with its life-and-death stakes,’ but would rather emphasize a mode of ‘comparative thinking that, like memory itself, is not afraid to traverse sacrosanct borders of ethnicity and era.’7 Here, the analogy of multidirectionality serves to illustrate a crucial point, one that is at the crux of the issue of overcoming any rigid or closed discourse—not just of memory and identity, but of politics, aesthetics, and philosophy as well—namely, the question of how to negotiate and engage with the multiplicity of strands, often muddled and messily intertwined with each other, that form what we think of as single, self-contained concepts and categories. How do we move past limiting and reductive binary oppositions towards a more inclusive and open understanding of memory? And how do we negotiate the paradox of stressing the need for an understanding of the historical world that is not dependent on difference without negating the oftentimes very valid claims to collective memory and identity?

The drive towards this multidirectionality is, for Rothberg, of great ethical import. He writes that ‘if memory is as susceptible as any other human faculty to abuse,’ we can nevertheless find a great wealth of examples of ‘how memory is at least as often a spur to unexpected acts of empathy and solidarity.’8 This ethical dimension is stated expressly by Rothberg when he identifies the notion of competitive memory as ‘one of the stumbling blocks for a more inclusive renarration of the history of memory and a harnessing of the legacies of violence in the interests of a more egalitarian future.’9 This is what grants multidirectionality its potency and propels it into the realm of the utopian, or at the very least, the realm of utopian imagination, which Fredric Jameson describes as ‘the imagination of otherness and radical differ­ence.’10 By positing multidirectional memory as a discourse ‘subject to ongoing negotiation,’ open to change, to dialogue, and most crucially to the critical reevaluation of its own terms, Rothberg opens the door for the discussion of memory to move forward into the unknowable and unconceptualizable domains of the future and the utopian. Further, in stressing ‘the need to think outside the universal/particular opposition that marks much discussion of the politics of identity and cultural difference,’ Rothberg toes a precarious line, on which one must be acutely aware that the radical openness that is being fostered is as much an opening for a radically different and ‘more egalitarian’ future as it is an opening to failure and misappropriation. After all, as Rothberg himself concedes, competitive claims to memory easily ‘can derive from these restless rearticulations.’11 But what is crucial to understand is that the same non-discursive openness is the only thing that can allow the space for truly radical possiblity—a possibility that, precisely because it is radical, is always beyond the limits of representability in the present moment. Opening this space does not mean immediately filling it with something else, but rather fostering it as a field from which can emerge ‘visions that construct solidarity out of the specificities, overlaps, and echoes of different historical experiences.’12

Realizing the role of utopian desire in Rothberg’s understanding of multidirectional memory directs us to two closely related lines of thought that will propel the remainder of this essay. The first of these points us towards the concept of trauma, which is so fundamental to memory discourse, particularly the kind that is most prone to claiming a competitive model of remembrance. In its status as something unrepresentable and inaccessible to present memory (but that nevertheless shapes and influences behavior and perception in profound ways), trauma, I will argue, is intimately linked with utopian imagination. Indeed, as we shall see by comparing Roger Luckhurst and Cathy Caruth’s notions of trauma with the theorization of utopian desire in Eric Cazdyn’s work as that unrepresentable category that is all but squashed under our present discursive formations, utopian imagination today is fundamentally traumatic in its psychological functioning. To develop this, however, means reconfiguring Rothberg’s multidirectionality to include our second line of enquiry, which leads us to the central question of this essay: if multidirectionality can be seen as an interconnected network opening up the conception of cultural memory to an ongoing dialogue with other groups’ memories, one that would stretch across geographical and symbolic boundaries of identity (and their attendant temporality as products of the historical past), might it be productive to re-engage that multidirectionality as a more dynamically temporal category? Could we see memory and trauma as shaping our notions of identity and difference not only from the vantage point of what we call the past, but also as coming to us from an unconceptualizable future catastrophe? To start answering these questions, let us now turn to the concept of trauma and see how its functioning depends wholly on the creation and conservation of radically unrepresentable thought.

Trauma and representability

The difficulty in offering up a readymade definition of trauma is intimately tied to its unrepresentability. As such, the fact that it has come to occupy a central position in discourses of memory and identity in spite of that very unrepresentability is of great significance and it points to something that is shared across boundaries and difference. Trauma, like the utopian impulse, occupies a space of unresolvable paradox, one in which its suppression from the realm of representability allows it to work unimpeded on our behavior in myriad unseen ways. But this suppression—in the case of trauma, its inability to be accessed by conscious memory; in the case of utopian imagination, its incapacity to move beyond the tight confines of the discursive formation that contains it—is at the same time what opens these categories to the radically different temporality that we are discussing. This temporality might enable us to think of the aporetic space at the center of any discussion of trauma as, if perhaps not the same, overlapping with the one at the center of any utopian project. In this way we could understand this unrepresentable point as a sort of prism diffracting in myriad temporal directions that which past trauma and future impossibility come to mean for our present. Or perhaps we can see it, as Bruno Latour does in the case of concepts and knowledge, as a knot, which, as Luckhurst writes, ‘helps to visualize the many heterogeneous elements it binds together.’13 But while the history of Latour’s knot, as Luckhurst points out, ‘would be an act of unravelling, revealing how the knot is intensely connected to a much larger repertoire of resources,’ the unravelling of our knot might instead reveal something else entirely at the heart of its binding of heterogeneous strands—a sort of nothingness, not a nihilistic one, but one filled with potentiality and radical possibility. What can arise out of this radical space at the heart of both discourses, of course, is itself unrepresentable, but a slightly clearer course of action now presents itself to us: that there might be something productive in mobilizing the aporia at the center of both these concepts in order to open radically non-discursive and non-conceptual fissures in the order of things that contain radical possibility—possibility of spectacular failure, perhaps, but possibility nonetheless. Only in those spaces can something new, something previously unimaginable, emerge. ‘A more egalitarian future.’

In order for us to develop this argument and thoroughly chart the relationship between trauma and utopia, however, it is necessary to make a brief diversion into the domain of trauma theory to see some of the ways in which trauma has become central to both memory studies and psychoanalysis. Trauma, Caruth writes, could be seen as a ‘wound inflicted on the mind,’ a ‘breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world’14 that, unlike a physical wound, can’t be seen simply as something that heals over time. Rather, Caruth writes, it is a wound inflicted by an event that ‘is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.’15 Citing Andreas Huyssen, Luckhurst writes that ‘it seemed as if the entire twentieth century was marked under the sign of historical trauma.’16 The prevalence and increased frequency of unspeakably violent events around the world in the last century, as well as the technological developments that have ensured that images of such events are able to be transmitted and reproduced anywhere, has meant that the notion of trauma is now at the center of many identity discourses. As Luckhurst writes, ‘increasingly, memory worth talking about—worth remembering—is memory of trauma.’17 But trauma’s location in the unrepresentable and paradoxical space of repressed memory makes it a radically open category, one that can serve as a locus for healing and growth, but also one that, due to that radical openness, can be used to justify ideologies founded on ignorance and intolerance, as we have already seen through Rothberg’s work. Further, what Caruth calls trauma’s “latency” makes it particularly vulnerable to misappropriation and abuse. ‘[T]rauma is not experienced as a mere repression or defense,’ she writes, ‘but as a temporal delay that carries the individual beyond the shock of the first moment.’18 This moving past the shock of the first moment is what gives trauma the possibility of being misappropriated, and what raises all sorts of questions about the possibility for claiming a traumatic event that wasn’t directly experienced.

This fact of latency, however, is also what makes trauma an inherently paradoxical category, one that it is crucial to come to terms with in the socio-historical understanding of identity. It might also help us to understand why the most vivid and consequential events in identity discourses are often fundamentally traumatic in nature. As Caruth writes, ‘the historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all.’19 In other words, it is only through its being constituted as a traumatic “other,” as a memory that can’t be consciously accessed but that marks the present in indelible ways, that the event comes to be seen as real. Here we can see clearly the paradox that Caruth writes about when she says that trauma’s ‘blankness—the space of unconsciousness—is paradoxically what precisely preserves the event in its literality.’20 This also presents an impasse. If trauma is that which can’t be accessed by conscious memory, that which is repressed, how can it acquire the literality necessary to make it an important component of any notion of identity? Might it be that the unrepresentable void at the core of the concept of trauma is what opens it to be gratuitously appropriated and filled with binary notions of justice/injustice, good/evil, and self/other that are necessary for the establishing of difference?

To be clear, there is no denying that claims to trauma are often extremely valid and significant. There is even less denying that the great historical ruptures created by massively violent events reverberate through time and continue to have very real and profound effects on present paradigms of privilege, recognition, and representability. However, as Caruth argues, engaging with the notion of trauma means beginning ‘to recognize the possibility of a history that is no longer straightforwardly referential,’ involving rather ‘a rethinking of reference […] aimed not at eliminating history but at resituating it in our understanding, that is, at precisely permitting history to arise where immediate understanding may not.’21 This situates trauma ‘at the specific point at which knowing and not knowing intersect,’22 and opens up the possibility of Rothberg’s multidirectionality, along with a more ethical and compassionate approach to memory and trauma. Perhaps only by re-imagining trauma no longer as the ground for the establishing of claims to difference, and by reclaiming its radically non-discursive qualities as something to be maintained and expanded, we can allow that non-discursivity and unrepresentability to permeate other areas of thought and action, and thus arrive at the beginning of a truly multidirectional healing process.

The effects of trauma, I want to argue, can be seen as not only tied to past events that remain out of the reach of the conscious mind, but also to that great unknowable category of a future that is common to us all: death. As Caruth writes, trauma, ‘in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.’23 Caruth might not be thinking here in temporal terms but, as we have seen, there is a very clear link between the way trauma is dependent on limiting what can be known and conceptualized, and the way utopian imagination functions (or is prevented from functioning) today. The following section will take Cazdyn’s work on terminality and (un)representability as a starting point for the argument that, today, the unknowability of the future has come to have the same traumatic effects on discourse as past historical ruptures do. By taking the paradigmatic symptom of trauma, the flashback, and asking how the radically unknown future disturbs the present through “flashforwards,” we’ll be able to ask whether Rothberg’s multidirectionality can serve as a tool for negotiating a present in which both history and the unknowability of the future are, to go back to Caruth, ‘experienced too soon, too unexpectedly,’ or simply at too fast a rate to be fully known.

The ruins of the future and the reclaiming of death

In his 2012 book The Already Dead, Eric Cazdyn proposes that we have entered a new condition, a new temporality that he terms “the new chronic.” This is ‘a mode of time that cares little for terminality or acuteness, but more for an undying present that remains forever sick, without the danger of sudden death.’24 As his starting point for an analysis of this move into a new chronic time, Cazdyn looks at medical practice in North America, particularly as pertaining to the treatment of cancer and other terminal diseases. As he notes, medical culture in America has in recent years switched its focus away from the paradigm of curing disease towards a focus on management and preemption. Cazdyn writes that ‘[i]nstead of depending on the total removal of cancer […], doctors regularly turn to drugs […] designed to preempt the very manifestation of cancer itself.’25 This marks a shift away from the category of the terminal to the chronic. Cazdyn writes that ‘cancer is quickly transforming from something to be cured to something to get along with, to manage with technologically advanced drugs that keep things in check.’26 

This move to the chronic, Cazdyn shows, can be seen to permeate all areas of discourse today. Most insidiously, it is what replicates and sustains the hegemony of capitalist ideology. As Cazdyn notes, ‘crisis is not what happens when capitalism goes wrong, but when it goes right.’27 This fundamental crisis state at the heart of capitalism is what naturalizes and reifies it. Since the system perpetually teeters on what appears to be the brink of its own collapse while never tipping over, we are now at a moment in which, as Jameson writes, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’28 For Cazdyn, this marks the shift into the new chronic in that the radical, or “terminal” categories of anti-capitalist discourse (revolution) are abandoned as mere idealistic dreams, to be supplanted by the “chronic” discourses of reform. Thus, capitalism becomes, like cancer, ‘something to get along with,’ to manage with so many piecemeal reforms and revisions. Revolution, meanwhile, now sits outside the horizons of imaginability. ‘There is a capitalist future that is built right into the present,’ Cazdyn writes, ‘and any noncapitalist future can only be imagined within capitalism itself. […] This however, does not mean that a noncapitalist future is impossible, only that it is unimaginable from the current situation.’29

The new chronic, then, is the notion that if confronting the unknown categories of a radical future—a future that not only hasn’t been imagined, but that is by its very nature unable to be contained in present imagination—is too risky and unsettling, the ‘maintenance of the status quo,’ Cazdyn writes, ‘becomes, if not quite our goal, what we will settle for, and even fight for.’ This means that the new chronic ‘insists on maintaining the system and perpetually managing its constitutive crises, rather than confronting even a hint of the terminal, the system’s (the body’s, the planet’s, capitalism’s) own death.’30 The new chronic temporality permeating the horizons of possibility today is ‘an experience of time that enables the very shifting of how time works.’31 As such, it produces new categories and modes of being that are unprecedented and uncharted. For Cazdyn, the most crucial of these is what he terms “the already dead,” a subject that has, for all intents and purposes, been killed but has yet to physically die. He illustrates this by returning to the medical realm, in which ‘the paradigmatic condition illustrating the already dead is that of the medical patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease only to live through medical advances that then turn the terminal illness into a chronic one.’32 For Cazdyn, this means a thoroughly novel conception of temporality and of the future. For the already dead, there is a sort of double future at play in that ‘the disease remains life threatening, still incurable, even though it is managed and controlled, perhaps indefinitely.’ What this does is open up a “meantime” for the patient, a temporal dimension ‘that functions like a hole in time, an escape route to somewhere else and a trap door to where he began.’ This double future acts, Cazdyn writes, as something of ‘a looping of time in which the future is spelled out in advance, granting to the meantime an impossible location that is heading somewhere and nowhere at once.’33

I want to suggest that, just as in Cazdyn’s analysis, what is at stake in many discourses of memory and trauma is our relationship to death itself. Certainly, in speaking about trauma in a collective sense we are often referring to historical events that took a great number of human lives. But in today’s culture of disaster, the aporia that arises in the face of death is not only tied to past events and loss of life, it is also inextricably linked to the future, to our own death. Understanding death as that which drives present action is central to the psychoanalytic project, of course, but it also becomes essential for understanding the “multi-temporality” that we are seeking to derive from Rothberg’s work. This is because the move towards the new chronic, towards dominant paradigms of management and preemption, is at bottom a reconfiguration of our stance towards our own annihilation. In our current chronic moment, death becomes one more thing to be managed and “lived with,” or as Cazdyn writes, something to be ‘radically separated from everyday life,’ or figured ‘solely as dystopian fantasy.’34 Indeed, as Cazdyn’s study of medical practice shows, even the process of dying itself is now an institutional concern, to the extent that we have all but lost our right to die.

Jameson is right. It is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In fact, it is now extremely easy to imagine the end of the world. It is hardly necessary to point out the many ways in which our continued existence is jeopardized in 2017. What I want to suggest is that the cultural and societal attitudes towards “the end of the world” reveal the traumatic fracture that arises when discourse attempts to contain and limit radically open categories (in this case, death itself). Take for example the recent boom of “ruin photography,” the practice of photographing dilapidated buildings and mega-structures. These sites of post-industrial decay attract photographers for a variety of reasons. For some people, they stand as warning signs, crumbling monuments to a failed consumerist ideology. For others, they may signify a way of bringing to light issues of underdevelopment, social and economic inequality, and poor urban planning. But whatever reasoning there may or may not be behind photographing ruins is secondary to the aesthetic pull these pictures have in today’s culture—perhaps most crudely exemplified by the moniker given to this kind of photography on the Internet: “ruin porn.” The aesthetic enjoyment derived from these pictures signifies an unconscious desire, one that Cazdyn describes as the desire ‘for the everyday to erupt, to explode the chronic temporality that [our] culture is instrumental in producing in the first place.’35 By showing the sites of the most human (as opposed to natural) processes and activities—factories, transport stations, theatres and concert halls—being overtaken once more by nature, they function as flashes of what the planet might look like long after we’re gone. Make no mistake, their vision of the future is the totalizing one of our chronic temporality: either we continue to manage our sickly present indefinitely, or we face our complete annihilation. But, in the morbid fascination they arise in us, they can be seen as “flashforwards” of sorts, the symptoms of a deeper trauma that arises as a result of such severe limiting of possibility. This trauma is, simply stated, our paradoxical relationship to our own death, and what is flashing through the cracks is the desire to reassert its autonomy. As Cazdyn writes, ‘[d]eath is the pure form of radical change, and once our deaths are taken away from us in the name of the chronic then so is our capacity to imagine other radical possibilities. […] Our right to die […] is our right to dream—and live in—a radically different present than the one we now inhabit.’36 Here is where utopian imagination comes back into the fold. To open up discourse to the possibility of utopian imagination is, in a way, to die—not a physical death, but rather a dying to what can be easily known and conceptualized; a death that, as Cazdyn puts it, ‘simply means that a fundamental change in the historically specific expressions of these forms occurs.’37 To close off discourse to the possibility of utopian imagination is at the same time, as Cazdyn writes, ‘to remove the possibility of death and settle for the new chronic,’ effectively closing the door to  any radical possibility. It is ‘to choose the known limits of the present over the unknown freedom of the future.’38

In the present chronic moment, we are presented with one of two imaginaries: either the world will carry on in the same way with us in it—with the same structural inequalities, the same exploitation, injustice, and intolerance—or it will heal itself once we have been wiped out. This failure of imagination is what traumatizes us all equally, and what causes the aporia at the heart of political, philosophical, and cultural discourse. But in its traumatic functioning it holds another third option, one that offers the possibility of something else entirely. This third option can not, by definition, be known in advance. As Cazdyn writes, revolutionary possibility is ‘change so radical that it is unrepresentable at any moment before it erupts.’39 Because it is radically unrepresentable, any attempt to define it or to prescribe it would inherently negate it. ‘Not only is such a radical change […] unimaginable and unrepresentable before it occurs,’ Cazdyn adds, ‘but it is also unimaginable and unrepresentable after.’40 This is because the process would not be a linear one, and—because it would be creating non-discursive openings—what would work to overcome the aporia in one case may not ever work again.

There is no easy way out of this historical trap, but there is a way to reclaim the radical categories of trauma, the future, and death, and to mobilize them in productive ways for the re-enlivening of discourse. To open the door to radical possibility without attempting at once to fill it with so many concrete agendas is the only way to escape the totalizing blow of difference. Further, if we can come to see trauma as a category that emerges from both the historical past and the unknown future, we can engage an even more dynamic multidirectionality and multitemporality. And if we are able to see the injustices and traumatic events of our present moment as arising out of the aporetic middle where the historical past and the unknowable future converge, perhaps we can come to see past traumatic events as arising in their own “presents,” their own aporetic moments. In this way we might be able to overcome the models of competitive memory that dominate current discourse, to move past the notion that past individual trauma differentiates us and erects boundaries between self and other. What might emerge is the realization of a different trauma, one that is common to us all. But this trauma, the trauma of death—the death of capitalism, the death of our planet, the death of imagination, and yes, the death of the body—would not have to be seen in a negative light, because what would emerge with it is radical possibility. We might not be able to know in advance what this would be a possibility of, but we would know that there would at least be the space for the possibility that we, together, could heal—heal ourselves, heal each other, and heal our ailing world.


Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 2
2 ibid.
3 ibid., p. 3
4 ibid., p.5
5 ibid.
6 ibid., p. 3
7 ibid., p. 17
8 ibid., p. 19
9 ibid., p. 21
10 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London & New York: Verso, 2005), p. 289
11 Rothberg, op. cit., p. 16
12 ibid.
13 Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question (Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 14
14 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 4
15 ibid.
16 Luckhurst, op. cit., p. 2
17 ibid.
18 Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 10
19 ibid., p. 8
20 ibid.
21 Caruth (1996), p. 11
22 ibid., p. 3
23 ibid., p. 4
24 Eric Cazdyn, The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 5
25 ibid., p. 18
26 ibid.
27 ibid., p. 2
28 Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (2003), p. 76
29 Cazdyn, op. cit., p. 141
30 ibid., p. 5
31 ibid., p. 4
32 ibid.
33 ibid.
34 ibid., p. 7
35 ibid., p. 70
36 ibid., p. 7
37 ibid., p. 41
38 ibid., p. 6
39 ibid., p. 41
40 ibid.