Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis

By | 15 September 2022

This article explores creative responses to crises that are written and technologically mediated in a liminal zone between threat and trauma. In considering how poetic texts witness social injustice-related crises – henceforth referred to as social justice-crisis – I posit that this liminal zone produces a different kind of witnessing than the post-traumatic witnessing traditionally associated with literary trauma testimony, and as such, it is an emergent 21st-century mode of witnessing and testimony.

Literary writing between threat and trauma is not new; what is new is the speed in which writing can now reach readers while crises are in play because of the Internet. This enables a more direct mode of trauma testimony, arising in the present, the space between threat and trauma. For example, a text like The Diary of Anne Frank (published initially as Het Archterhuis in 1947) could only reach readers well after the event, casting the testimony as historic. Likewise, literary writing that communicates as a form of public health or social justice advocacy is not new; what is new is the increasing textual articulation and growing understanding of the two as inexorably linked.

My exploration of poetic witnessing focusses on the Australian 2019/2020 Black Summer fires and the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of crises with broad social justice and public health implications. Examining poetry responding to these protracted events makes clear that both climate change and the pandemic are proving traumatic, especially for those most affected and at the front lines. Both pose potential threat to individuals and society. Researchers warn that the stage is set for climate crisis to wreak havoc: security threats, social unrest, and potential wars (Barnett and Adgar). They also anticipate mental health deterioration due to the limitations of our capacity to adapt to climate extremes (Berry, Bowen, and Kjellstrom). The first global pandemic in over a hundred years has revealed the traumatic fault lines of neoliberal Western social organisations and global inequity. Both climate change and the pandemic have created conditions that increase people’s dependency on the Internet for information and as a shared forum for processing and acting out affect and trauma, and poetry has risen to fore as a form of witnessing that also serves as digital artistic advocacy. In a chapter published in 2010 that seems eerily – if metaphorically – to foreshadow more recent developments, Anna Gibbs stated that:

Contagion is everywhere in the contemporary world. It leaps from body to body, sweeping through mediatized populations at the speed of a bushfire. No longer confined to local outbreaks of infectious disease or even of hysteria, contagious epidemics now potentially occur on a global scale and, thanks to electronic media, with incredible rapidity. (‘After Affect’ 186)

But just as this has negative and damaging potentials, such as the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories, it also has positive and productive potentials, such as the capacity of mediatised poetry to testify to collective trauma in a way that provides connective tissue for grieving, empathy, and action in the (globally warmed) heat of the moment.

Scholars in media studies have productively drawn on media theory and trauma theory to tease out the mediatisation and mediation of trauma (Pinchevski; O’Loughlin). Some even call for a new field; “digital trauma studies” (Menyhért & Makhortykh). Even so, there is not yet a conceptual framework addressing the implications of writing that witnesses to social injustice-crisis during unfolding collective catastrophes. Understanding this is important because witnessing to social injustice is one aspect of how culture evolves (Louis & Montiel; Andrews; Giugni, McAdam & Tilly; Henderson) and the act of bearing witness and testifying to injustice and trauma is critical to the re-evaluation of social values, and, potentially, policies and practices.

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