Hard to See

How trauma became synonymous with authenticity

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In her essay Regarding the Pain of Others, on images of violence and suffering, Susan Sontag famously asks: “What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel ‘bad,’ that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? … Do they actually teach us anything?”

This question — what is the point — has been on my mind a lot lately. As I scroll through TikTok and find images of war, tear-stained confessionals, and cooking videos airing generational wounds over aesthetic s’mores; read novels where characters are put through gauntlets of torture befitting Job; watch shows that delve into the messed-up lives of high schoolers, superheroes, the rich, and the famous. As Parul Sehgal wrote in an essay for the New Yorker, “on the page and on the screen, one plot — the trauma plot — has arrived to rule them all.”

Trauma content is necessarily traumatizing; it welcomes you into the fold

It feels heretical to even ask this question. To look askance at other people’s trauma is to risk aligning oneself with those who would sooner call an injured person a snowflake than acknowledge their pain. However, I’m not alone: Signs of fatigue have bubbled up across popular media, finding expression in Seghal’s essay, called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” as well as a Will Self piece published in Harper’s the same month. Self argues that trauma is not a “timeless phenomenon that has affected people in different cultures and at different times in much the same way,” but rather a consequence of modernity and the particular shocks and ruptures it wrought — the logic of one, he writes, is wedded to that of the other. Seghal points out that “trauma” has become chimera-like, a diagnosis with over 636,120 possible symptom combinations, “meaning that 636,120 people could conceivably have a unique set of symptoms and the same diagnosis.” Her focus is on the way the concept is employed in literature and pop culture: Trauma has become reduced to a trope, a way for writers to imbue their work with meaning and relevance, while avoiding engagement with deeper structural elements that cause trauma in the first place.

Seghal is not the first to advance such critiques. Versions of it appear in Paul McAdory’s analysis of “Gay Sincerity fiction” — in which “miseries pile atop each other,” occasionally towering “high enough for someone to reach a state of grace,” yet always collapsing only to “mount anew, gray and grim, like the novels’ barely distinguishable covers” — and Anne Rothe’s exploration of trauma as “kitsch sentimentality” in the melodrama genre, among others. But her breadth of examples, ranging from popular shows like Ted Lasso to novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, shows just how widely this narrative strategy has traveled.

The response to these outwardly contrarian pieces was surprisingly positive. They seemed to be met with a sort of relief: finally, nuanced discourse that pushes against this traumatic monoculture without reductive grumbling about oversensitive libs. Moreover, there seemed to be more to say. Beyond unpacking the concept of “trauma” and tracing its narrative deployments, there is the matter of confronting its everyday manifestations, its special status in the attention economy. Even on TikTok, creators often parody writers like Rupi Kaur, whose diasporic poetry (complete with stock imagery of parents delivering fruit, being made fun of for your weird-smelling lunch, and the feeling of belonging neither here-nor-there) has become a sort of in-joke. More bluntly, a headline for a Gawker piece summarizes our malaise and exhaustion: “a tip for living well: Mute the word trauma.”

If trauma seems ubiquitous online, that’s because it has become the authentic experience par excellence — uniquely able to jar our scroll, hold our gaze, compel us to keep watching. This casual misuse, and the burnout it creates, shouldn’t distract from the fact that “trauma,” fraught as the concept has become, refers to a real mode of experience that demands seriousness and consideration. That requires unpacking the ways it has become synonymous with “the real.”

The word for trauma comes from the ancient Greek term for “wound” (τραυμα, traûma). In English, we can trace it back as far as 1656, when an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary described it as “belonging to wounds or the cure of wounds.” For most of the term’s history, it strictly referred to physical wounds, a legacy preserved in medical phrases like “blunt force trauma.” The mental dimension wouldn’t open up until the mid 19th century, with the introduction of railways, or more specifically, railway accidents. Railway travel birthed a new world, giving us everything from synchronized time and Einstein’s relativity thought-experiment to the unprecedented devastation of the First World War. It also, as Will Self writes, gave rise to the modern conception of trauma. Hurtled across space at unprecedented speeds and confronted with a technological apparatus over which they had no control, passengers were beginning to confront the sort of unease and powerlessness that would come to mark much of our modern relationship to technology. Large-scale “accidents” became possible, the “wholesale collapse of a functioning system,” as Self puts it — collapse, shock, rupture, the paradigmatic elements of what is now considered traumatic.

In 1866, British physician John Erichsen published “On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System.” In it, he observed that people were getting into train accidents and emerging seemingly physically unscathed, only to succumb to a host of physical and psychic problems afterwards. Most histories of trauma trace its contemporary lineage to this text, in which he attributed these ailments to an unobservable shock to the spine, comparing the accident to a blow to a magnet which disrupts its magnetic force without appearing to physically damage it. Just like a magnet, he writes, “if the spine is badly jarred, shaken, or concussed by a blow, we find that the nervous force is to a certain extent shaken out of the man.” Though this description of “railway spine” was still rooted in the nervous system — as were contemporary theories like those of neurologist Paul Oppenheim, who ascribed what he called “traumatic neurosis” to undetectable changes in the brain — it laid the groundwork for thinking of the phenomenon in terms of latent psychological effects.

This psychological dimension would be explored more fully in the ensuing decades by figures like Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, and Pierre Janet, who would frame trauma as a mental shock that circumvents the domain of awareness, imprinting itself onto the psyche unbeknownst to the survivor, only to emerge again in return and repetition. They would assert that the syndrome identified by physicians like Erichsen could occur from psychological causes alone, and be brought to light through hypnosis and psychotherapy. As Ruth Leys notes, this would connect the idea of trauma to “a ‘memory crisis’ that disturbed the integrity of the individual under the stresses of modernity.” Trauma was understood to be a fundamental rupture with the past, a personalization of modernity itself. Despite these developments, survivors of trauma received little sympathy during the early half of the century. Many of the “shell-shocked” soldiers returning from WWI were accused of moral defect, or of simply faking it. The concept only entered psychiatric nosology in the wake of the Vietnam War, after a long campaign from psychiatrists, activists, and women’s advocates, entering the DSM-III in the 1980s.

I tell myself that by watching, I can make the war real. Of course, the war is real regardless

From there, the mantle of modern trauma theory would be taken up, curiously, by literary studies in the ’90s, most notably by Cathy Caruth with her foundational text Unclaimed Experience. In her view, the traumatic experience is precisely that which is not experienced in our cognition, but instead imprinted directly onto a psychic space where we can’t narrativize or access it. By circumventing normal cognitive processing, trauma therefore leaves a literal mark on the survivor’s mind. Aligning herself with the sciences via the research of Bessel van der Kolk — who, on the basis of animal response to shock or stress, made the contentious case that trauma is encoded directly in a nondeclarative (that is, non-narrative/linguistic) part of the brain Caruth crafted a conception of trauma grounded in a notion of unmediated impact and cognitive circumvention.

As Caruth was formulating her views, literary theory was preoccupied with postmodern alienation — a “reality crisis” in which symbols seemed to have broken off from their referents. The rise of contemporary advertising and its symbol-laden logic of “branding,” the proliferation of television and the image-dominated mass media culture that followed, and the continued ascent of global capitalism to head-spinning levels of abstraction all contributed to the sense that the real had been dethroned by simulacra. Pure models, predictions, representations now seemed to be steering the ship with only the most cursory reference to the messy world of objects and things. In this context, “trauma,” defined in the modernist era as a fundamental rupture with the past, became something nearly aspirational. Amid this sense that reality was overgrown with representations — to the point of ceasing to be “real” — “trauma” was a direct encounter with pure, unmediated experience. An experience so real, in fact, that it defied all attempts at representation, even to oneself. This account of trauma has since received wide traction, informing — more than medical science — the colloquial understanding of what it is.

The version of trauma theorized in literary studies renders the traumatized subject strangely secondary. Though they bear the trauma, they lack the keys to enter its sanctum. Instead, the witness becomes a necessary figure, serving as a mediator, standing in at an intermediary subject-position from which the trauma can be encountered and worked through. This notion of bearing witness to other people’s trauma itself becomes aspirational — it puts us in communion with the real — as well as moral. There is an imperative to witness, an act synonymous with aiding the survivor in their processing. In a paradoxical twist, since trauma cannot be adequately represented, understanding somebody else’s trauma requires experiencing it in some way oneself. By this logic, trauma content is necessarily, in some way, traumatizing; it welcomes you into the fold. 

The literary turn abstracted trauma from a medical construct into a metaphor, and the trauma survivor into a “rhetorical figure to theorize a supposed postmodern crisis of signification,” as Anne Rothe writes in her critique of the field. By equating trauma with “authenticity,” this theory grants it social capital. No wonder we can’t seem to figure out exactly what we mean when we talk about trauma, as medical concepts collapse into conflicting metaphorical ones (which perhaps explains the push to disambiguate “large T” traumas from “small t” ones, as well as the accompanying complaint that these days, everything is trauma).

This conceptual logic of trauma, along with the importance of witnessing, seems tailor-made to thrive in today’s media ecology. In Trauma Culture, published in the mid-aughts, E. Ann Kaplan wrote that “among art forms, cinema is singled out by scholars … as involving a special relationship to trauma in the ‘shock’ experience of modernity.” Nearly 20 years later, “trauma” is ubiquitous in the scrolling feed, and consuming it takes on the elevated quality of moral self-sacrifice. Trauma’s supposed characteristics — isolating, impossible to incorporate in the everyday run of reality — find a companion in the decontextualized, fractured logic of the internet: the unassimilable event can now be injected anywhere to disrupt, shock, and engage an audience. Nothing can stop a scroll faster than traumatic content, be it an image of war or a tearful confession. It adds depth and gravitas, a can’t-look-away break from the regularly scheduled programming. Social media platforms algorithmically trade on shock and affective valence, which promises a taste of the “real” within the supposedly “unreal” digital environment. In short, contemporary media culture rewards everything the traumatic has come to represent.

Recently, a friend, speaking about the ongoing war in Ukraine, told me that he watches all of the TikTok clips coming out of the conflict because it “feels important” to do so. I can’t help but do the same, doomscrolling until I’m dizzy. It feels somehow critical not to avert my eyes — what else on TikTok, or any social medium, could be more important? I tell myself that by watching, I can shake myself from my ignorance and make the conflict real. Of course, it is real regardless, and I know this — but nonetheless I feel that I must watch in order to make it real to myself, through endurance. I watch and rewatch these clips to internalize the gravity of the horror, a compulsive behavior that mimics the return and repetition of trauma, and which the algorithm registers in the eyeball-maximizing language of “engagement.” But no amount of return and repetition can bring about understanding. As Sontag frankly reminds us, “We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like.”

To advertisers, even a brief pause makes all the difference

The myth is seductive, however, and TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are happy to grant me another look as long as I remain on the platform. Stumbling upon a video discussing or depicting trauma in a feed of highly curated content certainly feels like the intrusion of the real, a cut in the fabric of artifice. On platforms where advertisers frequently measure the success of campaigns via the three-second “thumb-stop” rate of its creative, even a brief pause makes all the difference.

This extends to more commonplace traumas, which can become a device for content creators. One article in Rolling Stone discusses the rise of “vulnerability porn” on Instagram, and the ways trauma narratives are being leveraged online in a “suggestion of authenticity” to foster a connection between influencers and their followers. Encountering an admission of personal trauma on social media can feel like a revelation, as if a veil has been temporarily lifted to restore depth, forcing us to “break character.” Who hasn’t paused on a multi-paragraph caption detailing personal struggle? I begin to glaze over gorgeously shot videos of Korean cooking, only to jolt back when those clips are paired with a voiceover detailing the trauma of diaspora. Though creators may often be genuine in their admissions, whatever gets eyeballs is quickly monetizable.

This strategy is harnessed in more traditional entertainment media as well. Take Bo Burnham’s comedy special Inside, which used the confessional and the stresses of Covid isolation as a framing device to cultivate an aura of authenticity around the comedian, all while maintaining the artificiality of a more classic special behind the scenes. Inside grapples directly with the manipulations that define a digital life, while replicating them. As one critic on Slate notes, despite Burnham’s meta-comedic, self-aware stance, much of the special’s effect is lost when we realize that he wasn’t “trapped in that tiny studio, sleeping in a messy bed, living on cereal, desperately tormented and desperately alone” throughout the film’s production.

In the case of the zeitgeisty show Euphoria, over-the-top trauma has even spawned memes, with critics comparing the grotesque displays of the show’s second season to “trauma porn.” One Mic article discussing Euphoria asks if the show is doing enough to support its viewers “after traumatizing them,” as if that were the aim of the series. Shirley Li, writing in the Atlantic, notes that Euphoria has become “the kind of series meant to be not analyzed but repurposed into bite-size pieces made for online consumption,” reflecting the fractured logic by which trauma effectively captures attention online — the way shock is so easily decontextualized and distributed across the web.

Though TV shows have long traded on trauma to shock audiences, what sets Euphoria apart is precisely the way that trauma has become the condition of its virality. Despite the show’s absurd excesses — Russian roulette, near-pornographic sex fantasies, a shootout between a SWAT team and a child with a shotgun in a bathtub — vast swathes of user content online are dedicated to affirming the show’s relatability. One TikTok trend even features text that reads “Euphoria isn’t relatable” before cutting to scenes or images (often of characters with wild hair, faces with tears streaming down, makeup smudged in agony) that supposedly contradict that statement. Unlike in melodrama, the trauma experienced by Euphoria’s characters isn’t meant to set them apart from their viewers; on the contrary, it makes them more “real.” Their relatability has less to do with the storylines in which they suffer, and more to do with their suffering itself, which is made iconic in the show’s imagery: the mascara-streaked faces and smudged lipstick. As Seghal writes, “evoke the wound and we will believe that a body, a person, has borne it.”

Euphoria’s creators maintain that it is a show rooted in empathy, in seeing “people from their own eyes,” and its online response reveals the extent to which that statement rings true. The show is targeted to an audience for whom the distorting carnival mirror of pain has become a dominant lens through which the world, and the self, is apprehended. The narratives that suffuse Western culture — dating back, as Self notes, to the Judeo-Christian notion of redemption through suffering — present pain as a mark of difference; proof of one’s status as a main character. Narrativizing one’s own suffering, real or perceived, often feels like a requirement for success, even a point of competition. It endears characters to their viewers, users to their followers, and ensures survival for reality TV contestants. Use it right, we’re told, and you might even end up with an essay that lands you in your dream school. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows entry for lachesism best encapsulates this feeling, this “desire to be struck by disaster… which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp.”

Stories about trauma often result in content that is designed to simply be traumatic. In “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Seghal takes for her central example Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which follows Jude, a character with no discernible traits beyond his pained existence — an orphan, abandoned to an abusive monastery, a victim of child prostitution, basement sex-slave captive to a doctor, run over by a car, the list goes on and on. In him we find trauma incarnate, a manifestation of the belief that suffering can constitute the entire basis of a character’s identity. A review in the Atlantic describes the book’s onslaught of violence as “violating the canons of current literary taste” in order to deliver important “emotional truths.” What truths, exactly? The truth of suffering, of powerlessness in the face of the text.

Reading A Little Life, or watching Euphoria, or crying to Mitski’s screams during “Drunk Walk Home,” or scrolling through our feeds, it all becomes too much. One might counter that this feeling is the point, that such helplessness is informative — that it constitutes, or at least mimics, an “authentic” experience of trauma itself. This echoes the logic of the French New Extremists, who often defended their depictions of gore and sexual violence by claiming it was evidence of a moral project — shaking us out of our bourgeois sensibilities — even when it just seemed crudely manipulative.

There is no moral value in simply being able to bear the sight of suffering

I’m skeptical that this artifice, even at its most artful, could deliver us to anything more than an illusion of understanding. Instead, the feeling of casually bearing witness serves as a convenient moral guise through which inaction and excesses of all kinds can be justified. In a piece for the Guardian, writer Tayo Bero highlights this symbiotic relationship when she discuss the ways that “​​Black trauma porn” in film and TV “allows white audiences (and film-makers for that matter) to say ‘I’m engaging with the tough and important stuff,’ while reasserting a status quo of racial violence and Black suffering under the guise of authenticity.” Despite appearances, there is no moral value in simply being able to bear the sight of suffering.

If the shocks and ruptures of modernity spawned the concept of trauma, then postmodern alienation — a longing for “real,” “unmediated” experience — gave rise to the justification of trauma as a method: an aesthetic-narrative strategy and an attention tactic. This conceptual basis allows viewers to justify passivity through the notion of bearing witness. It benefits platforms by adding moral heft to mere acts of attention generation (staying online becomes a civic duty). It gives creators and showrunners a narratological tool by which they can stand out in digital ecosystems, and fosters a sense of connection with their audiences. And in attributing “meaning to suffering” it allows for the belief that “despite appearances to the contrary, the world is predominantly good and just,” as Anne Rothe writes. But consuming trauma does nothing for those who bear the weight of war, famine, oppression, and early death.

We need to interrogate trauma’s conceptual basis, untangling the assumptions at its heart; also, to disentangle it from the equally powerful, but ultimately false concept of “authenticity,” which is at best an empty ideal, and often simply a marketing ploy. Pragmatism is a far less romantic framework through which to think about trauma, but it acknowledges trauma as a necessary construct, and empowers us to shape it in the way that would best serve those in need.

Adopting this sensibility also reveals ways that we can widen our aperture to approaches that seek to proliferate and preserve traumatic images with non-traumaphilic aims in mind. Linda Kinstler, for example, takes on a legalistic lens in Wired when she writes about the need to document and preserve the media coming from Ukraine in order to gather evidence of Russian war crimes, betraying a practical attitude that is often lost. In short, we should always keep in mind Sontag’s question: “What is the point?” Do these avenues provide a way for those affected to heal? For us to push back against the root causes of trauma?

In concluding this piece, I find it critical to emphasize that my quarrel is ultimately with the media propagation systems, technologies, and opportunists that have used “trauma” to their own ends — not those who are subject to very real suffering, and who find ways to process online. Though I’m aware that the distinctions between these two groups can often be muddy, especially at a time when the lines between audience/creator are thinning, I hope that there is an intuitive way to differentiate between them. The backlash has begun against a culture that has hollowed out trauma to form and figure, a growing recognition that we’ve lost the plot. Trauma should jar us out of our scroll: not necessarily to bear witness, or suffer vicariously, but to determine, through other modes of cognition, whether redress is possible and how.

Leo Kim is a writer based in New York. He covers film for the zine From the Intercom, and spends most of his spare time wading through contemporary image culture.