European Journal of Social Theory 11 (3):405-420 (2008)

Jeffrey Prager
University of California, Los Angeles
How to mobilize a traumatic national history on behalf of a less fractured polity? How to gain closure over a past that bifurcates the nation and establishes two national histories — history as told by the victims and by the perpetrators, now to be replaced by a history, as Mark Sanders describes it, not of `bare facts but, at a crucial level, a history judged, and thus shaped, according to norms of universal human rights'. How to engineer through politics the creation of new national selves, no longer pathologically attached to old and circumscribed forms of identification? These are now the critical questions confronting many elites: the overcoming of traumatic memory through various publicly mandated `technologies of the self'. To heal the nation requires the curing of the self. The politics of social repair understands itself largely through a psychologically inflected vocabulary of regret, apology, and forgiveness — the language of reconciliation. `Social cure', or reconciliation is understood as a process of social healing. In the face of traumatic ruptures in the body politic, in short, governments have sought to repair past wrongs and to heal an emotionally infirmed community. Such politics imply that societies have the capacity to repair themselves, to overcome traumatic pasts, just as an individual possesses the potential to overcome his or her own psychic trauma and fragmentation. But what evidence is there to support the claim that trauma — even for the individual — can be overcome, that history can be overridden, that forgiveness is possible? Psychoanalysis offers the most fully developed systematic body of work embracing a concept of the healing of the self. The article's aim, based upon an empirically derived psychoanalysis, is to move toward a more robust theory of self-transformation and political reconciliation in post-traumatic communities. Thus, the article considers contemporary psychoanalytic evidence and asks of it the following questions: How is traumatic experience in the past recovered, and disabled, in the present? Is it necessary through memory to `return to the scene of the crime', in order to move beyond it? What features in the present-day therapeutic setting and in the therapeutic relationship promote healing? The objective is a grounded theory of reconciliation that includes discussion for whole societies of the role of historical recovery in social repair, the relation of the present to the past in self-constitution, and the requisite structure of the present-day reparative community to promote self-transformations.
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DOI 10.1177/1368431008092570
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