Saturday, October 2, 2010

International Relations


This essay has demonstrated that traumatic events can be instrumental to the construction or consolidation of wider political identity and community. In arguing this I have offered a contrast to prevailing views, which tend to conceptualise trauma as a solitary, lonely encounter; a dive into unknown depths that reveals fragility and fear. In these studies, trauma is shown to sever victims and witnesses from their ordinary moorings and set them adrift. Trauma breaks narratives rather than recreates them. However, this prevailing approach opens important questions for socially and politically orientated studies of trauma: if traumatic events only ever exist in a gap or absence of understanding, how is it possible to examine, let alone comprehend, trauma’s political signifi cance? If trauma can never be wholly understood or reconciled from the outside, by bystanders, how it is that extreme events can powerfully cohere and fragment the landscapes of local and global communities?

Suggestive in these questions is that although the prevalent understanding of trauma helps to conceptualise the impact of trauma on individuals it falls short in helping scholars appreciate the political limits and possibilities that are a consequence of the widely perceived ‘communal’ or ‘national’ trauma that this essay outlines. I have argued that key to the link between trauma and community is the process of representation. Representations can make traumatic events meaningful in ways that construct communal solidarity. I have also stressed that there is a need to recognise the crucial role emotions play in this process. Emotions are central not only to representing trauma but also to how individuals and societies make sense of and work through the legacy of catastrophe. Simply put, representations of trauma foster solidarity and community at least in part by arousing the affective sensibilities of individuals, and by prompting particular shared cultural meanings and concomitant emotions.

I have examined the collectivising and emotional dynamics of trauma by demonstrating how representations of the Bali bombing positioned Australia as a national affective community. Representations of the bombing created a context in which the catastrophe was perceived as traumatic for the entire nation. Textual and visual representations in the media played a particularly important role. They invoked a sense of shared feeling, and promoted meanings that drew on emotions such as fear, outrage and solace. They did so by presenting Australians with images of death and of heroic survival, of families and friends in mourning, and the expedience of political responses.

Headlines and associated stories captured the public imagination by suggesting that Australia, as a nation, was a community united by shock and grief. While such mediations may not go so far as to specifi cally tell individuals what to think and how to feel, making sense of representations inevitably involves a reliance upon the socio-cultural discourses most familiar to us. Representations of the bombing can thus be seen to have alluded to meanings that linked the trauma with stereotypical ideals of Australian identity and the search to protect a vulnerable and insecure national political community. My inquiry into linkages between trauma and the constitution of political community has at least three broader implications for the study of international relations. First is the recognition that politics and international relations scholars need to look beyond customary understandings of trauma in order to engage the immediate and more enduring social and political infl uence of pivotal traumatic events. Doing so is important because past trauma pushes forward into present-day politics. Traumatic events play a powerful role in confi guring communities, from the local to the global. Indeed, traumatic legacies can stretch far in the future, inhabiting prevailing societal memories and shaping political relations for generations.

A more sustained engagement with the political infl uence of trauma therefore consists of shifting the focus away from the individual challenges of experiencing trauma to an investigation of the processes through which traumatic events take on a wider social signifi cance. Foremost here is the need to examine the manner through which popular representations politicise and collectivise pivotal traumatic events The second implication of this essay lies in the need to illuminate further the political role of emotions. International relations has a long history of expunging emotions from scholarly analysis. Emotions have largely been considered as feelings or bodily sensations that overtake us, distorting our ability to make moral or rational judgements. A sharp contrast to the steady, (male) hand of reason, emotions are meant to be kept private. As a result of this prevailing view there are very few accounts of the signifi cance of emotions in world politics. My inquiry shows that much can be learnt from taking emotions seriously in politics and international relations scholarship. To do so it is important that scholars cease to consider emotions in opposition to rationality.

One way to examine emotions in world politics is to consider them as forms of appraisal, as a pervasive part of the perceptive tools individuals use to situate themselves and make the social world meaningful. Also important is the recognition that emotions are social phenomena. They are constituted in relation to culturally specifi c traditions, such as language, habits and memories. Shared forms of emotional expression and meaning are likewise necessary for individuals to make sense of the world in the context of a wider community. Emotions are thus both private and public, individual and collective. Expressed in a more general way: emotions have a history and a future. Particular emotional dispositions can be passed down, helping to form and reform not only social attachments and communities but also concomitant political decisions and behaviours. Emotions are thus an important part of the larger cultural framework within which international relations takes place. At its broadest, understanding that emotions are a constitutive aspect of social and political life increases our ability to understand the nature of identity and agency and why individuals come together in the ways they do. The ensuing insights would be of signifi cance to a range of scholarly and practical endeavours, from understanding the motives and behaviours of nation-states and other key actors in international relations, inquiries into terrorism, international security and cooperation to engagements with more normative issues, such as humanitarian intervention, international justice and the politics of reconciliation.

Third and fi nally, by illuminating the political and emotional dynamics of representing trauma this study adds to scholarly understandings of the politics of community and security in international relations. At issue here is that traumatic events – particularly when triggered by politically motivated violence – are often represented in ways that promote antagonistic political affi liations and allegiances. In the push to overcome uncertainty and restore order after trauma, communities become centred around disingenuous inside/outside dichotomies.65 Energies and resources are spent keeping perceived ‘dangers’ at bay. Defensive, militaristic security policies are frequently privileged. Hence the emotions and in turn the solidarity that are generated after trauma can reinstate a conservative vision of political community. Established, often stereotypical and exclusionary boundaries of identity and political community – whether these are racial, ethnic or those of a nation-state – may be reinforced. Communities motivated by a search for vengeance can also emerge from perceptions of shared pain. Key to both confi gurations, nonetheless, is that emotions accompanying trauma can help to cultivate a perception of cultural or societal injury that helps to divide societies and fuel new confl ict. An awareness of the linkages between representations of trauma, emotion and political community is important because it opens up paths through which scholars and politicians can critically evaluate and rethink prevailing responses to widespread trauma. Important here is the need to resist the refl ex reaction of overly swift, uncritical responses that seek to diminish trauma’s uncertainty by creating a culture fraught with insecurity and a corresponding desire for retribution. What is needed instead are attempts to take stock after trauma.

Scholars and politicians need to embrace the political space opened by trauma rather than seek to immediately foreclose it. They need to take time to contemplate (and complicate) the habitual or prevailing ways of interpreting trauma in order to form a more measured political response. Intended here is that harnessing alternative meanings and feelings after trauma may pave a way for the construction of political communities that are motivated more by a willingness to refl ect upon and assuage the source of trauma than by the legacy of anxiety and resentment that trauma so often creates. Communities that are less hostile and less prone to generate internal and external confl icts may also result from such critical engagements with pivotal traumatic events and their emotional legacies.

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