Depicting atrocity: The body, testimony, and subjecthood in contemporary representations of trauma

McBride, Leah Amber (2019) Depicting atrocity: The body, testimony, and subjecthood in contemporary representations of trauma. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.


In the wake of a resurgence of Holocaust scholarship in North America in the 1980s, a growing interest in the results of collective traumas on the social body and cultural production led to the development of ‘trauma theory’, a loose-knit subdiscipline of scholarly inquiry concerning representations of trauma in the arts, literature, and historiography. The most ardent proponents of theories of trauma— Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dori Laub, among others—propose trauma as a totalising phenomenon with universal applications, while simultaneously placing the Holocaust as a sublime limit of experience. This becomes problematic when trauma theory is employed as a method of engaging with artistic representations of more recent instances of collective traumas, because it collapses the specific cultural, religious, economic, and political causes of the event into a more generalised instance of suffering far-removed from the Holocaust along a continuum.

This thesis explores these issues of universalisation in trauma theory in order to tentatively propose an alternative methodology in approaching artistic representations of collective traumas that engages with the work outside any totalising theories. Using three case studies as examples of artistic practices that both represent trauma and engage with the discourses surrounding it, I discuss the potential for these works to undermine the totalising narratives of trauma theory that invoke the sublime and promote active engagement and intervention on the part of the viewer. In the case of Alfredo Jaar, this is achieved through a reading of his works as predicated on the notion of citizenship. In discussions of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles’ use of the corpse as artistic media, intervention is understood as working through the relationship between neo-liberal global economic policies and widespread violence in under-developed nations. The films of British artist Phil Collins are presented as counter-points to the privileging of filmed oral testimony as the most direct and objective means of representing collective trauma. The intention in proposing methods of reading collecting traumas outside the boundaries of trauma theory is to create a space in which the viewer of a representation of trauma is conceived of not as a disinterested and morally superior subject of the sublime in a position of safety, but an active agent capable of intervention.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Due to copyright issues the full text of this thesis is not available for viewing. Access to the print version is available.
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Culture and Creative Arts > History of Art
Supervisor's Name: Paterson, Dr. Dominic
Date of Award: 2019
Depositing User: Dr Leah Amber McBride
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-74402
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 Mar 2020 13:30
Last Modified: 09 Mar 2020 13:30

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