The Aesthetics of Trauma

The Aesthetics of Trauma
Dates and time: 22–25 September 2014, 14.00-17.30
Venue: Suur-Kloostri 11, room S-212, Library of the Department of Cultural Heritage and Conservation, Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn
Credits: 4 ECTS
Language of the course: English
Hosting institutions: Institute of Art History, Estonian Academy of Arts; Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts (GSCSA)
Programme director: Prof. Krista Kodres, Estonian Academy of Arts

Guest lecturer: Margaret Iversen, Professor of Art History and Theory at the University of Essex. Her books include Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory and Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes.

Trauma is defined as an event so overwhelming that it cannot be assimilated by the subject’s conscious understanding or memory. Since the event is not properly experienced, it is confined to an unconscious limbo where it remains unrepresentable but nonetheless capable of affecting the subject. How could something so elusive be the subject of a work of art? How could there possibly be an aesthetics of trauma? In fact, this very unrepresentability is what puts trauma in touch with other aesthetic discourses, especially notions of the sublime, defined precisely as an aesthetic response to what is unrepresentable or beyond our powers of imagination and understanding, like huge mountains or stormy seas. Art, at least since the Romantic Movement, is seemingly attracted to what is at the margins of our understanding and so incapable of being represented in ordinary language or conventional forms of representation. This is perhaps especially true of artistic avant-gardes. On this account, the idea of trauma is generally well-suited to integration into a long tradition of writing on aesthetics.

Yet there were specific historical circumstances that initiated a dialogue between aesthetics and trauma. I’m referring to the important contribution that psychoanalysis has made to both fields. Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and ‘The “Uncanny”’ (1919) launched a tradition of writing on art ‘beyond pleasure’—a tradition that was almost immediately joined by the Surrealists. André Breton’s surrealist understanding of trauma, contributed to his formulation of the key concepts of ‘objective chance’, the ‘encounter’ and the found object, as articulated in Mad Love (1937) and elsewhere. These ideas were, in turn, appropriated by Jacques Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973), where he discussed the ‘missed encounter’ with the real. In effect, Lacan gave a surrealist, and hence aesthetic, twist to his reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes carried forward this tradition with traumatic theories of photography. These are the key texts for any history of the aesthetics of trauma. However, I want to include discussion of the historical trauma of the Holocaust and the problems it presents for representation. In his book, Images in Spite of All, Georges Didi-Huberman defends the power of the image against those who insist on the absolute unrepresentability of the traumatic real of the Holocaust. The sessions will delve into these texts and finish with some examples of works of art that evoke trauma without literally representing a traumatic event. This displacement mimics the psychic effect of trauma, which may account for the affective charge of these works (e.g. Gerhard Richter, Felix Gonzalez- Torres, Chantal Ackerman).

Reading list


Reading materials (password for the reading materials will be provided by Heili Sõrmus upon registration for the course)

Requirements for participation

Reading the required texts is the prerequisite for participating in the course. Bibliography is for those more deeply interested in the given topic. Participation in the course is free of charge. The accommodation and travel costs of the members of the GSCSA will be reimbursed.

Interested graduate students can apply for the course by e-mail by 1 September 2014 at

The event is supported by the European Union through the European Social Fund (Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts)