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September 29, 1998
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v2.1 Reference

Post-traumatic Culture

Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties

According to Kirby Farrell, the concept of trauma has shaped some of the central narratives of the 1990s—from the war stories of Vietnam vets to the video farewells of Heaven's Gate cult members, from apocalyptic sci-fi movies to Ronald Reagan's memoir, Where's the Rest of Me? In Post-traumatic Culture, Farrell explores the surprising uses of trauma as both an enabling fiction and an explanatory tool during periods of overwhelming cultural change.

Farrell's investigation begins in late Victorian England, when physicians invented the clinical concept of "traumatic neurosis" for an era that routinely categorized modern life as sick, degenerate, and stressful. He sees similar developments at the end of the twentieth century as the Vietnam war and feminism returned the concept to prominence as "post-traumatic stress syndrome." Seeking to understand the psychological dislocation associated with these two periods, Farrell analyzes conflicts produced by dramatic social and economic changes and suddenly expanded horizons. He locates parallels between the cultural fantasies of the 1890's in novels and stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, and novels and films of the 1990's that explore such issues as child sexual abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, racism, and apocalyptic rage. In their dependence on late-Victorian models, the cultural narratives of 1990s America imply a crisis of "storylessness" deeply implicated in the sense of injury that haunts the close of the twentieth century.

About the Author

Kirby Farrell is professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His books include Snuff, The American Satan, and Play-Death and Heroism in Shakespeare.


"Post-traumatic Culture is a highly creative analysis of trauma, both real and imagined, as part of a cultural system. Its mix of literary analysis, provocative moments, and tantalizing speculation makes it truly a one of a kind book."

- Elizabeth Loftus, President, American Psychological Society

"Farrell treats a variety of sensational contemporary issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder and the public's panic over child abuse, as cultural tropes, exploring their literary and cinematic narrativizations for the ideological interests they serve. Of particular interest are the discussions about how English and American cultures 'manage' trauma, and how public fantasies model experiences of victimization. The chapter on the film Schindler's List offers a brilliant reading which relates the slave labor economy of the Nazis and Schindler himself to the inhumane conditions of 'Depression-era capitalist cultures' in general, and to today's trend of corporate 'downsizing' with its all too real traumatic consequences."

- Joel Black, University of Georgia

"A rich and eloquent critical study which offers the violent and visionary aspects of late 19th-century literature and culture as a mirror for our own no less stressful times."

- Patrick Parrinder, The University of Reading
Johns Hopkins University Press
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