According to sociologists Jeffrey C. Alexander and Neil J. Smelser, events themselves are not intrinsically traumatic. Rather, it is the meanings applied by discursive carrier groups that shape our perception of which events qualify as cultural trauma. Drawing on this theory, my dissertation examines how fictional responses to the events of September 11, 2001 participate in the ongoing construction of 9/11 as cultural trauma. Some critics question the merits of this theory, arguing that trauma is something that happens to individuals not to groups. They claim that the concept of cultural trauma demotes subjectivity, encourages new master narratives, and produces an aestheticized notion of trauma. Their objections overlook how cultural trauma is dependent on a process, an ongoing, prolonged, and often-disputed struggle to locate meaning. Cultural trauma is not simply the product of initial claims to injury, but is the production of meaning over a period of time.
Beginning with a survey of the many strands of trauma studies and an evaluation of the mainstream media’s framing of 9/11 as “national trauma,” I examine how fiction interrogates this initial response. Selecting works that contest key aspects of the initial coding of 9/11 as culturally traumatic, I focus on Ulrich Baer’s edited collection, 110 Stories: New York Writes After 9/11, Amy Waldman’s The Submission, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American. Even though these short stories and novels challenge and redefine earlier perceptions, they do not negate 9/11’s status as cultural trauma. On the contrary, characteristic of the “continuing counterpoint of interested and opposing voices” (Smelser, “Psychological” 50), they grapple with and contest the various implications of 9/11, and thereby paradoxically maintain the event’s status as cultural trauma. I read these texts as sites of contestation, as evidence of communal grappling, and as vehicles of debate that challenge earlier perceptions of 9/11. As such, they confirm the indelibility of September 11 as cultural trauma and the utility of cultural trauma theory in literary studies.