By Stefano Bellin
The concept of trauma holds a prominent position both in the Humanities and in the Behavioural Sciences. It is simultaneously invoked in a variety of contexts and contested for its fuzziness, Western/Eurocentric pedigree, and sociocultural implications. Given the wide currency that the discourse of trauma has acquired, a study that investigates the roots of the concept and its connection to language, war, and technology is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on modernity. Indeed, as Michael Rothberg writes in the preface of The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism, “thinking genealogically about trauma is one essential means of opening it towards possible, alternative futures” (Rothberg 2013, xi). John Zilcosky’s The Language of Trauma is a brilliant case in point. The first, more noticeable, goal of the book is to shed light on the relationship between trauma and modernity. Zilcosky focuses on the experiences of war, bombing, and early railway journeys – three phenomena that bring to the fore the violence of modern warfare and bureaucratic-mechanised work. The study concentrates on Germanophone literature, taking E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman, Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny, and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as primary examples. These close readings allow Zilcosky to historicise trauma and dissect its aporias, in particular, the difficulty of having one’s trauma recognised – a difficulty that often generates a short circuit, a trauma that grows out of the very slipperiness of trauma and the indeterminacy of its epistemological and ontological status. The second, thought-provoking, goal of the book “is to connect this medical language of trauma with the language of scepticism in romanticism and modernism, specifically, through the two discourses’ obsession with inscrutability” (p. 6).