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Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 222
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  • Book Info
    Popular Trauma Culture
    Book Description:

    InPopular Trauma Culture, Anne Rothe argues that American Holocaust discourse has a particular plot structure-characterized by a melodramatic conflict between good and evil and embodied in the core characters of victim/survivor and perpetrator-and that it provides the paradigm for representing personal experiences of pain and suffering in the mass media. The book begins with an analysis of Holocaust clichés, including its political appropriation, the notion of vicarious victimhood, the so-called victim talk rhetoric, and the infusion of the composite survivor figure with Social Darwinism. Readers then explore the embodiment of popular trauma culture in two core mass media genres: daytime TV talk shows and misery memoirs.Rothe conveys how victimhood and suffering are cast as trauma kitsch on talk shows likeOprahand as trauma camp on modern-day freak shows likeSpringer.The discussion also encompasses the first scholarly analysis of misery memoirs, the popular literary genre that has been widely critiqued in journalism as pornographic depictions of extreme violence. Currently considered the largest growth sector in book publishing worldwide, many of these works are also fabricated. And since forgeries reflect the cultural entities that are most revered, the book concludes with an examination of fake misery memoirs.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5220-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE (pp. vii-viii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Oprah at Auschwitz (pp. 1-6)

    The notion of popular trauma culture developed throughout the pages of this book can be captured in a nutshell by a brief discussion of three media events that exemplarily mark its emergence, culmination, and critique. The first is the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which began on April 11, 1961.² Information about the trial was not only widely disseminated via radio, newspapers, and magazines, such as Hannah Arendt’s famous reports forThe New Yorkersubsequently published asEichmann in Jerusalem, but also and especially through the new medium of television. While this was the first trial filmed in its...

  6. PART ONE Popular Trauma Culture:: Generating the Paradigm in Holocaust Discourse
    • [PART ONE Introduction] (pp. 7-8)

      Popular trauma culture emerged when the genocide of European Jewry was incorporated into the collective memory of the United States because American Holocaust discourse generated the dominant paradigm that would subsequently be employed to represent the pain of others in the mass media. The Holocaust was transformed from an event in European history into a core constituent of American memory, not only because it became the core marker of American-Jewish identity via the dubious notion of hereditary or vicarious victimhood, but also and especially because it was appropriated politically on a national level. After the popular stage and film adaptations...

    • 1 Holocaust Tropes (pp. 9-21)

      The Holocaust has been so thoroughly integrated into American national memory that, according to Gary Weissman, “as a term, ‘the Holocaust’ suggests not only the Jewish genocide but its Americanization, not only the event but the attempt to name or represent it.”² Located among the core monuments to American history, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opened in 1993 in the nation’s capital, and its operating expenses—originally to be raised by private donations—have been largely taken over by the federal government. U.S. presidents have urged their constituents to preserve Holocaust memory and official remembrance ceremonies are held annually...

    • 2 Victim Talk (pp. 22-31)

      The subject position of victim constitutes an instance of what philosophers call human kinds and distinguish from natural kinds. Unlike natural kinds, like thunderstorms or bacilli, human kinds do not exist independently of the knowledge we create about them because, as Ian Hacking writes, “they come into being hand in hand with our invention of the categories labeling them.”² For instance, Michel Foucault argued in theHistory of Sexualitythat, while male-male and female-female sexual acts existed prior to the invention of the category of homosexuality, the people engaging in them were not homosexuals. Analogously, the broadcast of testimony from...

    • 3 American Survivors (pp. 32-41)

      The inflation of claims to victim status and their expression in the epistemologically and ethically flawed victim talk rhetoric significantly changed the meaning of victimhood. The victim figure was increasingly understood not only as a saintly antihero but, reviving Social Darwinism’s unethical tenet, also perceived as a weak loser in the fight for the survival of the fittest. Alison Cole argued that the victim became such a key figure in American culture precisely because of its “very susceptibility to diverse, indeed, opposing, interpretations and applications” as they “facilitate contestation and render keywords pregnant with meaning.”² However, because popular trauma culture...

    • 4 Trauma Kitsch (pp. 42-48)

      The ubiquity of victim talk, the increasingly metaphorical claims to victim and survivor status, and American Holocaust discourse have begun to be critiqued in scholarship. Moreover, these core elements of popular trauma culture have recently been parodied and satirized in literary texts like Tova Reich’sMy Holocaustand on television shows like Larry David’sCurb Your Enthusiasm,which are much more widely consumed, and therefore more influential in shaping cultural trends, than scholarship.

      Despite the recent presence of such critical voices, melodramatic Holocaust-and-redemption kitsch continues to generate highly commercial media products. It was prefigured in the American mythification of Anne...

  7. PART TWO Television:: Watching the Pain of Others on Daytime Talk Shows
    • [PART TWO Introduction] (pp. 49-54)

      Like the televised witness testimony from the Eichmann trial that signaled the advent of popular trauma culture, the dominant contemporary narratives of victimhood and suffering are autobiographical, relayed orally in a manner of heightened emotions, and broadcast on television, most prominently on daytime TV talk shows. First-generation programs likePhil DonahueandOprah Winfreyemployed and further disseminated the core elements of popular trauma culture established in American mass media representations of the Holocaust: the lead characters of victim, survivor, witness, and perpetrator; the dominant rhetoric of testimony-cum-victim-talk; the melodramatic good-versus-evil plot structure; and the dominant reception mode of kitsch...

    • 5 Talking Cures (pp. 55-69)

      On Monday, November 6, 1967, at 10:30 a.m., Phil Donahue made TV history at a local station in Dayton, Ohio, by creating a new television genre: the daytime talk show. He dispensed with the typical band and, microphone in hand, left the stage to talk to the audience and, even more radically, decided that, since he was unable to get the rich and famous to come to Dayton, he would feature ordinary people as guests.²The Phil Donahue Showopened with the Catholic-turned-atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hare, who discussed her campaign to eliminate prayer in public schools. On Tuesday, a group...

    • 6 Trauma Camp (pp. 70-82)

      Mass culture products like popular literature, commercial cinema, and television programs exhibit a propensity for formulas because media corporations seek to duplicate profitable formats. The attempt to repeat the success of the talk shows hosted by Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, and particularly Oprah Winfrey thus gave rise to a second wave of shows in the early 1990s. As popular psychology constituted the organizing paradigm for first-generation shows, guests were inherently defined as dysfunctional Others, who confirmed the viewer’s normalcy. Moreover, at times they exhibited a penchant for spectacle, such as the propensity for drag queens onGeraldo...

  8. PART THREE Popular Literature:: Reading the Pain of Others in Misery Memoirs
    • [PART THREE Introduction] (pp. 83-86)

      Since literary and cultural studies scholars predominantly analyze canonical texts and films, their discussions of victimization and suffering are largely restricted to representations they consider to be aesthetically superior. Virtually no mention has been made of the fact that autobiographical narratives of extremity that are emplotted as redemptive tales of trauma and recovery and thematically focussed on child abuse, addiction, or terminal illness have become ubiquitous in popular culture. Since mass media representations reach far greater audiences and consequently have a vastly greater impact on the generation of cultural trends than the literary and filmic canon, they also gave rise...

    • 7 Selling Misery (pp. 87-98)

      According to Nancy Miller, the Clinton era of the 1990s “will go down in history, not just for the halcyon days of endlessly touted national prosperity and the explosion of the dot-com culture, but also for a paroxysm of personal exposure: making the private public to a degree startling even in a climate of over-the-top self-revelation,”² not least by the president himself, whose personal indiscretion created an unprecedented political scandal. The relentless exposure of celebrities’ personal lives dominated TV entertainment news programs and both pseudo-therapeutic talk shows likeOprahandDonahueand the freak show spectacles ofRicki Lakeand...

    • 8 Fake Suffering (pp. 99-113)

      The immense commercial successes of misery memoirs also gave rise to counterfeits, supposedly autobiographical texts that depict partly, largely, or entirely invented tales of victimization and suffering. Literary forgeries “are like those old black-and-white films where a bolt of lightning illuminates for a split second the murderer in the upstairs bedroom with the knife raised above his head,” Michael Heyward wrote, because “the weird light they cast allows us to glimpse the cultural weather that let them happen.”² For centuries, only the most important texts were forged. Put differently, literary forgeries signify which objects are aesthetically or commercially most valuable...

    • 9 Forging Child Abuse (pp. 114-135)

      Holocaust kitsch continues to be a popular commodity, as the commercial success of the novelsThe Boy in the Striped PajamasandThe Readeras well as their successful 2008 movie adaptations indicate. However, its preeminent position particularly in American culture has been taken over by other narratives of victimhood and suffering, survival and recovery, for which it generated the paradigm. Tropes like the melodramatic good-versus-evil plot structure, its culmination in the kitsch-sentimental redemptive-happy ending, and its embodiment in the lead characters of innocent victim and evil villain have been widely employed for representing terminal illness, recovery from addictions, and...

    • 10 Simulating Holocaust Survival (pp. 136-157)

      Although child abuse is increasingly replacing Holocaust survival as the preeminent subject for depicting victimization and suffering, it is represented through the suffering-and-redemption plot paradigm generated in American Holocaust discourse. Contemporary media products moreover merged both subjects in the Holocaust victimhood of children. Prefigured by the stage and movie adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary in the 1950s, it was particularly Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novelThe Painted Birdthat fused Holocaust survival and child abuse. The pseudo-autobiographical bestseller represented the Holocaust as a titillating horror spectacle of physical and sexual violence perpetrated on a young boy. It thus echoed the two...

  9. Epilogue: Fantasies of Witnessing (pp. 158-166)

    Contemporary everyday life is often experienced as mundane and banal, interchangeable and unoriginal, lacking a deeper meaning or purpose, in short, as an inauthentic simulation rather than the “real thing.” The notion of authenticity is thus created by ascribing inauthenticity to ordinary life as its imaginary and ideal alternative, analogous to the idea of paradise emerging from the notion of paradise lost. It is the reification of authenticity that generates “an ontological fiction called the ‘real thing.’”² As the nostalgia for the “real thing” expresses a longing for something that never actually existed, authenticity constitutes the ever-elusive holy grail of...

  10. NOTES (pp. 167-202)
  11. INDEX (pp. 203-206)
  12. Back Matter (pp. 207-208)