Rejoinder is an online journal published by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University in partnership with The Feminist Art Project, a program of the Rutgers Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities.
What does it mean to speak of trauma? The word is one that has meaning across academic disciplines, professional discourse, and cultural production. At the same time, “trauma” rejects easy or coherent definitions. It is both the event and the disruption left behind in its wake. It describes both the catastrophe and the silence that follows.
Institutional efforts to categorize and “cure” trauma routinely prove inadequate. In 2019, the Center for Disease Control identified psychological trauma as one of the largest public health issues facing the global community (Thayer, 2019). Despite this, reinforcing and stressing the validity of the PTSD diagnosis routinely takes precedence over the actual understanding of trauma itself. Likewise, a focus on diagnostic criteria often distracts from the fact that trauma is described and practiced in culturally specific ways that reject easy categorization (Afana, Pedersen, et al. 2010). In such cases, doctors end up replicating and reinforcing systems of imperial domination by classifying suffering and declaring authority over the treatment and potential recovery of suffering individuals. In the face of institutional neglect, to speak of trauma becomes a method of destabilizing categories of identity and difference.
Especially within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this notion of “recovery” becomes particularly fraught. This special issue of Rejoinder emerges during a period when dominant narratives proclaim the COVID pandemic, at least in the United States, as a thing of the past. The CDC has reframed its risk formula, transporting millions of people from an area of “high” to “low” risk with the click of a mouse (Stone 2022). To be clear, this does not reflect a change in transmission rates, but a change in policy that centers getting “back to normal life” by ending mask mandates and vaccine checks in public spaces (Drake 2022). At the same time, many of us are already looking ahead to a country where reproductive rights, health, and justice are denied and criminalized. We feel the pain, fear, and mistrust of a time yet-to-be surrounding us in this precarious present, binding us in a complex web of memory and emotions that define easy explanation.
Image: Gail Winbury, The Fear Monger, 2019, oil and cold wax, 60″ x 48″. Courtesy of the artist. (detail)