Alexander examines how twentieth-century theorists struggled to comprehend the Janus-faced character of modernity, which looks backward and forward at the same time. Weber linked the triumph of worldly asceticism to liberating autonomy but also ruthless domination, describing flights from rationalization as systemic and dangerous. Simmel pointed to the otherness haunting modernity, even as he normalized the stranger. Eisenstadt celebrated Axial Age transcendence, but acknowledged its increasing capacity for barbarity. Parsons heralded American community, but ignored modernity’s fragmentations.
Rather than seeking to resolve modernity’s contradictions, Alexander argues that social theory should accept its Janus-faced character. It is a dangerous delusion to think that modernity can eliminate evil. Civil inclusion and anti-civil exclusion are intertwined. Alexander enumerates dangerous frictions endemic to modernity, but he also suggests new lines of social amelioration and emotional repair.
Alexander argues that traumas are not merely psychological but collective experiences, and that trauma work plays a key role in defining the origins and outcomes of critical social conflicts. He outlines a model of trauma work that relates interests of carrier groups, competing narrative identifications of victim and perpetrator, utopian and dystopian proposals for trauma resolution, the performative power of constructed events, and the distribution of organizational resources.
Alexander explores these processes in richly textured case studies of cultural-trauma origins and effects, from the universalism of the Holocaust to the particularism of the Israeli right, from postcolonial battles over the Partition of India and Pakistan to the invisibility of the Rape of Nanjing in Maoist China. In a particularly controversial chapter, Alexander describes the idealizing discourse of globalization as a trauma-response to the Cold War.
Contemporary societies have often been described as more concerned with the past than the future, more with tragedy than progress. In Trauma: A Social Theory, Alexander explains why.
Central to Alexander’s approach is a new model of social performance that combines elements from both the theatrical avant-garde and modern social theory. He uses this model to shed new light on a wide range of social actors, movements, and events, demonstrating through striking empirical examples the drama of social life. Producing successful dramas determines the outcome of social movements and provides the keys to political power. Modernity has neither eliminated aura nor suppressed authenticity; on the contrary, they are available to social actors who can perform them in compelling ways.
This volume further consolidates Alexander’s reputation as one of the most original social thinkers of our time. It will be of great interest to students and scholars in sociology and cultural studies as well as throughout the social sciences and humanities.