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“Speaking a Trauma of Place with Paul Ricoeur”: Upcoming Talk in South Africa

     On Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018, I spoke on a panel at From Where Do You Speak: Society for Ricoeur Studies Conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. My talk is called, “Speaking a Trauma of Place with Paul Ricoeur: Memorialization, the Body, and the Crisis of Witnessing.” I will shared the panel with Vasti Roodt (Stellenbosch University, South Africa).

     This paper explores Paul Ricoeur’s famous question, ‘From where do you speak?’ related to what I am calling a “trauma of place.” I define this trauma as an event that interrupts time, posing a challenge to the integration of the traumatic event into individual and collective consciousness. The central guiding question of the project is, “How do we interpret memory and experience the crisis of witnessing from distinct places of trauma?” The question, therefore, presses Ricoeur’s notion of the demand to listen.

     I approach trauma of place as “speaking” from three locations. The first location that I confront is the place of trauma memorialized in architectural structures, memorials or museums, erected at the site of the traumatic event(s), such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the House of Slaves Senegal, and the 9/11 Museum & Memorial. The second location I explore is the place of trauma which is not memorialized but which bears the wounds of trauma in the landscape, especially emergent in places where insidious trauma has occurred, such as plantations in the American South and the streets of Belfast, Ireland. Each of these places will be considered (in a longer version of this paper) alongside the Celtic traditional notion of “thin place” – an in-between place that merges the natural and sacred. I explore whether in a trauma of place “thick place” emerges, impeding the natural-sacred connection intrinsic to “thin place.”

     At the center of interpretation – that to which we need to listen as Ricoeur prompts us – I situate the third location represented by the body, the interpretive guide of traumatic narratives, a body which may also bear the wounds of other unrelated trauma(s). Following Ricoeur’s work with Jean-Pierre Changeux in What Makes Us Think, I consider the objective body (as a source of affect from which we can interpret trauma). Ricoeur aligns this objectivity with the brain and neurological feedback calling it a “first discourse,” met by a second discourse on one’s own body, “with its vast ethical implications.” These discourses are followed by what Ricoeur label’s a normative discourse, which deals with legal and political issues that graft themselves on the two preceding discourses. In this grafting, I explore how the trauma of place acts out the past, incorporated bodily, as Ricoeur states, “in the present without distance,” illustrating trauma and “habit memory.” This type of memory, contrasts with “pure memory” – encapsulated perhaps more in the structure of the memorial and museum – where the anteriority or priorness of the remembered event stands out. Through the discourses of the body as a location of trauma and/or an interpreter of trauma, a more robust understanding of how trauma functions in place will manifest.

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