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Issues in the German History of Psychiatry

I have been invited to the 6th Central German Conference on the History of Medicine and Science at the College of Medicine at Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg this week. The conference featured a number of presentations on the history of Halle’s university and affiliated research institutions, and several on the history of psychiatry in (central) Germany.

My talk presented a brief overview on my current research project, particularly the social-activist stance in public discourse on war experience, veterans’ issues, and PTSD in US civil society. Writing this, I realize how much the project has expanded in recent years: Initially, I described it as an analysis of milblogs, read through the lens of Indigenous warrior traditions. Today, with the book manuscript almost completed, I find that milblogs comprise only one among many source types informing the project, and that its discussion covers research interests and methodology from literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, anthropology, cultural and medical history, and psychology.

In Halle, I focused on notions of social therapy and cultural transfer in public discourse about PTSD and military psychology since Vietnam. In particular, I addressed how the frequent reference to Native American traditions among civic activists helped promote social therapy, alternative medicine, and the notion of ritual as a therapeutic tool in US psychology, psychiatry, and social work on veterans’ issues.

What I found fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to compare and contextualize: Many presentations also touched upon the role of social issues in German psychiatric history, notably the competition between biological and social approaches after 1945. Apparently, social perspectives in psychiatry coming from the US and the UK (e.g. discussing the origin of psychoses) heavily influenced public and academic debates in post-war West Germany. Eventually, these social perspectives helped pass legislation that made victims of Nazi persecution eligible for financial compensation – dominant biological explanations (e.g. the assumption that genetic predispositions were the sole root of psychoses) had prevented such compensation for years after the war.

It was striking to compare the interweaving of psychological/psychiatric research, public debates, and contemporary social problems in post-war Germany with the public debates on war-related psychological injuries and civil-military relationships in the US, and once more realize the transatlantic dimension of such public debates. I hope that I can present further thoughts and evolving ideas in more posts during the coming weeks to accompany the completion of my manuscript.

“The Art of Misdirection”: Trauma and the Dissolution of Genres in Video Arts

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The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead

In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.

As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on  Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.

In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.

I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might haveon one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.

The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.