Presidential Forum

Trauma Theory, Implicated Subjects, and the Question of Israel/Palestine

Michael Rothberg

The dominant scene of trauma theory has been one of victimization, and the figures who most frequently populate its landscape have been victims and perpetrators. This is no surprise: human-created trauma often involves the infliction of violence by a perpetrator or group of perpetrators on a victim or group of victims. Trauma, victims, and perpetrators are necessary categories for thinking about violence, suffering, and vulnerability, but they are not sufficient. Trauma theory’s victim-perpetrator imaginary comes with several interconnected risks: it tends to polarize and purify the relationship between victims and perpetrators, evacuate the field of other crucial subject positions, and model violence on a small-scale, decontextualized scene, even when it takes on large-scale historical events such as the Holocaust or transatlantic slavery. To avoid these pitfalls, we need to supplement our familiar categories with concepts of implication and implicated subjects that help us better capture the conditions of possibility of violence and suggest different routes for opposing it.

The first limitation of trauma theory’s dominant imaginary is that scenes of violence—especially the collective, political violence that concerns me here—rarely permit clean distinctions between traumatized victims and traumatizing perpetrators. From the beginning, some of the most famous subjects of trauma—say, soldiers of World War I or Vietnam—have been perpetrators at the same time they suffered from the conditions of violence they helped produce. Recognizing this complexity of subject positions in the field of violence is one of the rarely remarked and, perhaps, unintentional insights afforded by Cathy Caruth’s now canonical theory of trauma (Trauma; Unclaimed Experience). Ruth Leys and others have criticized Caruth for mobilizing the figure of the accidental murderer Tancred as the emblematic subject of trauma in Unclaimed Experience, but the confusion of subject positions in Caruth’s scene of trauma indexes real, pressing dilemmas (see Rothberg). It also suggests that we need to distinguish between the diagnostic category of trauma and the legal or moral categories of the victim and perpetrator.

The second limitation of trauma theory’s imaginary is that it radically simplifies the field of violence by ignoring subject positions beyond victims and perpetrators, however complexly conceived. Indeed, it leaves out of the picture a large and heterogeneous collection of subjects who enable and benefit from traumatic violence without taking part in it directly. I call these missing figures implicated subjects, and I hold that they are essential to the production of much of the traumatic violence that concerns us. The category of implicated subjects emerges in relation to both historical and contemporary scenarios of violence: that is, it describes the indirect responsibility of subjects situated at temporal or geographic distance from the production of social suffering. It helps direct our attention to the conditions of possibility of violence as well as its lingering impact and suggests new routes of opposition. Like the proximate term complicity (see Sanders), but with more conceptual flexibility, implication draws attention to how we are entwined with and folded into (“im-pli-cated in”) histories and situations that surpass our agency as individual subjects. The distinctions between forms of diachronic and synchronic responsibility—between, say, contemporary United States citizens’ responsibility for transatlantic slavery, on the one hand, and contemporary imperial wars, on the other—are significant. But, I venture, we also need a general category to describe modes of responsibility beyond the criminal guilt of the perpetrator—a project Karl Jaspers inaugurated with The Question of German Guilt in the wake of National Socialism—if only because such indirect modes of responsibility frequently overlap and interact.

The third limitation of a trauma theory oriented around a victim-perpetrator imaginary is that it tends to circumscribe the forms of violence at the center of analysis. Feminist, Marxist, queer, and postcolonial critics, including Laura Brown, Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Rob Nixon, and Stef Craps, have faulted recent versions of trauma theory for their focus on extraordinary catastrophes at the expense of insidious, structural, everyday, and slow forms of violence. Here, too, a theory of implication and implicated subjects proves necessary for making sense of and resisting violence. As one moves from the punctual and event-like violence that concerned early theorists of trauma, who were influenced by psychoanalysis, to more structural forms of damage, the field of violence becomes exponentially more complex and the need to fill in other subject positions more pressing. Consider how both capitalist globalization and climate change reconfigure agency, for instance. The suffering produced in the circuits between spaces of consumption and spaces of production in globalization or between human beings’ “geological agency” and the climate chaos that ensues in the Anthropocene cannot be grasped through the linear causality of the victim-perpetrator model (Chakrabarty; see also Nixon; Rothberg). Neither simply perpetrators nor victims, though potentially either or both at other moments, implicated subjects are participants in and beneficiaries of a system that generates dispersed and uneven experiences of trauma and well-being simultaneously.

Besides providing a new footing for trauma theory, the concept of implication can help us reflect as well on one of the other key words of this forum: vulnerability. In a series of texts over the last decade, Judith Butler has sought to “reimagin[e] the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss” (Precarious Life 20). “Each of us,” she writes, “is constituted politically by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies. . . . Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure” (20). Theorizing from the site of loss, as Butler so powerfully does, makes vulnerability and precariousness the bases for a critique of violence and the construction of solidarity. But what if our relation to others is characterized by excess in addition to loss? By a capacity to wound as well as a fundamental vulnerability? Might this starting point provide an alternative perspective on the uneven distribution of precariousness that concerns Butler and ought to concern us all? The concept of implication asks us to think how we are enmeshed in histories and actualities beyond our apparent and immediate reach, how we help produce history through impersonal participation rather than direct perpetration. It shifts attention to the other side of precariousness: to complicity and privilege. In calling for this change of course, my argument is not that we should do away with the concepts of vulnerability and precariousness (nor of trauma, victimization, and perpetration), but rather that a shift of focus to implication and implicated subjects may help us address pressing political issues, including climate change, globalization, and the transgenerational legacies of slavery, genocide, and indigenous dispossession.

Such a shift can also help illuminate another case that has challenged easy solutions: Israel/Palestine. The endemic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians certainly has identifiable victims and perpetrators (even if consensus about who those victims and perpetrators are might be hard to reach). Yet, as recent debates about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS; among scholars in professional associations like the MLA indicate, the conflict also involves a panoply of subjects beyond the most immediate participants. Proponents of the BDS movement might be seen as arguing that academics—both in and beyond Israel—are implicated subjects who participate in the conflict at a distance. In response, opponents of BDS deny the kinds of links between the academy and the occupation that would entail implication or responsibility at a distance. Yet American (and other non-Israeli) supporters of Israel also act out of a sense of implication in the situation in the Middle East; they simply draw opposite conclusions about the meaning of that implication. Although an approach based on implication and implicated subjects does not provide simple or direct answers, it can help illuminate the stakes and background assumptions of the BDS debate.

In recent writings and public appearances, Butler has been one of the most visible unofficial spokespeople for BDS in the United States (see Butler, “Academic Freedom”). Her engagement with the question of Israel/Palestine strikes me as better explained through the concept of implication, however, than through the concepts of vulnerability and precariousness that she has been elaborating in recent writings. For instance, in Parting Ways, her most significant scholarly contribution to the debate about Israel/Palestine, Butler writes that if we are “to depart from [the] communitarian moorings” that undergird the project of political Zionism, we also need “to depart from a concern only with the vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people” (27). While Butler’s formulation implies the need to recognize the vulnerability of Palestinians (and others) alongside that of Jews—certainly a necessary project—it can also be read as a call to explore Zionism from the perspective of indirect responsibility and implication rather than vulnerability. Indeed, it is as an implicated subject that Butler approaches the conflict, and, to my mind, this is one of the most important features of her approach: instead of mobilizing a critique on universal, “objective” grounds, she attempts to work through her subjective formation as a Jew to break with those aspects of Jewishness that might support an ethnically absolutist ideology. She draws on the resources of Jewish (as well as Palestinian and other) philosophy, art, and political theory to think a non-Zionist, diasporic Jewishness that is inseparable from the conditions of Palestinian life and death and that opens onto a binational, post-Zionist future. Butler’s point is not that a critique of political Zionism must come from an attempt to work through the formation of Jewish subjects or can only come from such an attempt; rather, the fact that she pursues her critique along this path demonstrates a recognition of the philosopher and activist as implicated subject. In her writings on Israel/Palestine, it seems to me, her wager has been that working from and through implication carries moral weight and opens up political possibilities.

Bruce Robbins’s affecting film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists offers similar insights. Some of My Best Friends consists of interviews with Jewish American intellectuals (including Butler) about how they came to change their minds about Israel and play a more critical role in the American Jewish community. The film’s interviews make palpable both the production of implication—in the stories of how Jewish Americans are inculcated into unquestioning support for Israel—and the recognition that such implication produces, in turn, long-distance responsibility. Not all the interviewees in Robbins’s film have the prominence of Butler or of the playwright Tony Kushner, who is also featured, but they have all decided to confront their uncomfortable implication as diaspora subjects in a state project of occupation they have come to see as unjust.

The attention to one’s own position as implicated subject fostered by Butler and Robbins can provoke more robust and politically efficacious forms of self-reflection than a sole focus on trauma and victimization, which—at least in the case of Israel/Palestine—can feed the dynamics of violent conflict. Such attention also serves to caution us against self-righteousness and to encourage us to acknowledge how we are caught up in the very policies we oppose. For Butler and Robbins, as for me, our implication as diaspora subjects needs to be placed within our even more consequential location as citizens of the United States. We are implicated not just because Israel sometimes claims to speak for all Jews but also because our own country makes the occupation possible through military aid and other forms of material and ideological support. As the examples of Butler and Robbins demonstrate, accounting for implication brings the scholar of trauma back into the picture and highlights the uneven but consequential relation between privilege and the production of suffering.

We live in vulnerable times, to be sure, as Marianne Hirsch has suggested in choosing the presidential theme of the 2014 MLA convention. If we want to understand the unequal distribution of vulnerability both locally and globally, we need to track the silent participation of implicated subjects. And we need to remember that we too are implicated.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Brown, Laura. “Not outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Caruth, Trauma 100–12.

Butler, Judith. “Academic Freedom and the ASA’s Boycott of Israel: A Response to Michelle Goldberg.” The Nation. The Nation, 8 Dec. 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <>.

———. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

———. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004. Print.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

———. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222. Print.

Craps, Stef. Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma out of Bounds. New York: Palgrave, 2013. Print.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Jaspers, Karl. The Question of German Guilt. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Fordham UP, 2000. Print.

Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Print.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.

Robbins, Bruce, dir. Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists. Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <>.

Rothberg, Michael. “Beyond Tancred and Clorinda: Trauma Studies for Implicated Subjects.” The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. Ed. Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone. New York: Routledge, 2013. xi–xviii. Print.

Sanders, Mark. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Michael Rothberg is professor and head of the Department of English and director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

Published 2 May 2014

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