How spaces embody trauma

On occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold

By:

I hold my trauma in my body.

It manifests itself in mental triggers and physical reactions, in winces and tightened muscles; it is the weight in my chest and on my shoulders.

It’s brought on by flashbacks and loud noises, men who interrupt me, walking down a street alone at night, talking about sexual assault and “justice” in class, alcohol.

It looks like bags under my eyes, anxiety, distraction, bailing on plans, staying in bed.

I’ve been struggling to understand it: how my trauma (or rather, my struggles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)) impacts the ways that I navigate the world and how I interact with other people and different spaces.

At first, I tried to see it as something outside of myself – I refused to let it define me and refused to let it become a part of my identity. It was easier if I saw it as something I could carry; it was just another weight or burden I had to hold. Sure, I’d tell myself, it made simple tasks a little bit harder, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d ensure myself that this was not the real me and that soon enough I’d be back to my old self. Because if it wasn’t a part of me, then I would eventually be able to let it go.

I’ve spoken to others who negotiate and understand their trauma in different ways. Some repress their traumatic memories and force themselves (whether consciously or subconsciously) to forget. Others identify with their trauma personally and deeply; they seem to have a strong grasp on the ways that their own subjectivity has been informed by their trauma. They speak openly about mental health and identify as someone with PTSD, anxiety, depression; they identify as a survivor.

And of course, the ways that we experience our trauma are deeply informed and framed by our gender identity, race, sexual identity, nationality, citizenship, ability, class, and sense of identity in the society in which we live and the spaces that we occupy. In fact, trauma is often a product of events and processes that are enabled and perpetuated by these same structures and systems, namely: racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, war, occupation, colonization, nationalism.

I was recently talking to a friend about a book he read for class. He told me that in the book – an ethnography – the author describes the ways that ruins in postwar Cyprus hold the trauma of the community. I then began to question the ways that trauma and affect might exist outside of ourselves. It was not until this conversation that I realized how much my own understanding of trauma was based on myself: a self-reflexive, human-centric, interior understanding.

Affect – a non-conscious experience of intensity, distinguishable from emotion and feeling – has been understood in the social sciences as consisting of subjectivity, the self, and the energy that emerges from within. As per this analysis (often one founded on psychoanalysis), we come to see affect as something inherently personal and individual, something that is held within us.

This analysis also extends to the ways that our own subjectivities are informed by the environments around us. For example, the ways that my PTSD is triggered when I’m walking home alone at night.

In this sense, I was aware of the transmission of affect within particular spaces, and the ways that our own sense of self, trauma, and emotion are influenced by interactions with others, but I always saw them as two distinct concepts:

My mind vs. other people.

My body vs. the environment.

But what would happen if we were willing to imagine that these distinct categories were not as concrete as we once thought them to be? Wouldn’t it be possible that trauma and affect could exist in non-human, objective spaces? What would happen if we stopped privileging our own subjectivities as humans?

Anthropologists (cultural constructionists) view affect as contingent and contextual; it is understood and managed within a particular cultural context. Yael Navaro-Yashin extends this anthropological analysis to suggest that affect is not a singularly human phenomenon. She suggests that we must understand affect as it is created from interactions with space and materiality. Contrary to the psychoanalytic analysis, Navaro-Yashin proposes that places emanate energy as well.

In her book, the one my friend was talking about, she describes the ways that the ruins in Cyprus hold the trauma of the community. The ruins hold an energy that is felt by the community and tourists alike. The ruins, and the energy they hold, are also used by the community, through abjective interpretations (understanding yourself in relation to the undesirable or grotesque “other,” being able to say “I am not that”), to help them understand their own subjectivities, their own trauma; they come to understand themselves as they exist “in relation.”

I think we can feel an energy in other spaces as well. For example, the feeling of walking down a quiet street on a sunny day; there’s an energy that emanates from the sidewalk.

Or entering a boardroom full of businessmen wearing suits in a corporate office made of glass;

Or standing in Times Square at midnight on a Saturday night;

Or the place on campus where it happened, where violence turned into trauma.

I know that the place where it happened has an energy to it now, one that does not solely live inside of me and is not purely informed by my own affect. And I can imagine that there exists a phantasm, or even a haunting, that permeates these spaces, holding the stories and experiences of violence, whether it be sexual, structural, or institutional violence, that these institutions have attempted to suppress within themselves, within the spaces we negotiate every day.

As such, I would like to offer the idea that maybe our trauma also exists outside of ourselves. Maybe our trauma lives in other places and our interactions with these places can help us better understand and engage with our trauma. Maybe our emotions aren’t always our own and don’t always come from a place within.

I’m still not sure if I believe this, but maybe this way of thinking and understanding has a radical potential.

Maybe it means that we don’t have to carry the weight of our trauma alone as it flows within and without us;

Maybe this means that our stories and our trauma are trapped within these spaces and eventually others will feel them too;

Maybe this means that we aren’t as alone as we thought we were.