Collective Trauma and the Self after the Paris Commune

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
The siege of Paris in 1870-71 inspired an impressive flowering of associational life in the capital. The ferment of political activity helped to give ordinary Parisians a stronger sense of solidarity than they had probably ever experienced before. This provided the immediate basis for the Commune of March-May 1871. Nonetheless, the pattern of resistance to the repression that followed, notably during la semaine sanglante, reveals the predominance of neighborhood solidarities over class identities. However, it is not the events of the Commune itself so much as its aftermath that needs to be examined to understand its impact on social identities. The recollective reconstruction of an event is often more important in generating its traumatic effects than is the initial experience alone. In other words, collective traumas are not natural or inevitable responses to large-scale violence, but are culturally constructed in ways that often distort, exploit, or obscure the personal tragedies upon which they are built. This paper will explore the ability of photographs, press coverage, and personal narratives to convey the experience of victims of all types, whether insurgents or not, of the Commune. Just because individuals have always suffered does not mean that they have always understood that suffering in the same manner. The diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and or the emergence of phrases such as "a shattered self" are recent evidence that cultural understandings – and therefore personal experiences (that is, the cognitive phenomenology) – of violence have changed considerably over time. This paper addresses, therefore, the reflex relationship between the growing salience of "the self" in individual identity and representations of the extreme violence of the Commune that helped to produce both a collective trauma and new social identities.
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