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.
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 develops a cultural pragmatics that shifts cultural sociology from texts to gestural meanings. Positioning social performance between ritual and strategy, he lays out the elements of social performance - from scripts to mise-en-scène, from critical mediation to audience reception - and systematically describes their tense interrelation. This is followed by a series of empirically oriented studies that demonstrate how cultural pragmatics transforms our approach to power.
Alexander brings his new theory of social performance to bear on case studies that range from political to cultural power: Barack Obama's electoral campaign, American failure in the Iraqi war, the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, terrorist violence on September 11th, public intellectuals, material icons, and social science itself.
This path-breaking work by one of the world's leading social theorists will command a wide interdisciplinary readership.
In this short and brilliant book, Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky argue that neither money nor demography can explain this dramatic turnaround. What made it possible, they show, was cultural reconstruction. Realizing he had failed to provide a compelling narrative of his power, the President began forging a new salvation story. It portrayed the Republican austerity budget as a sop to the wealthy, and Obama as a courageous hero fighting for plain folks against the rich. The reinvigorated cultural performance pushed the Tea Party off the political stage in 2011, and Mitt Romney became fodder for the script in 2012. Democrats painted their Republican opponent as a backward-looking elitist, a “Bain-capitalist” whose election would threaten the civil solidarity upon which democracy depends.
Real world events can spoil even the most effective script. Obama faced monthly unemployment numbers, the daunting Bin Laden raid, three live debates, and Hurricane Sandy. The clumsiness of his opponent and his own good fortune helped the President, but it was the poise and felicity of his improvisations that allowed him to succeed a second time. Converting events into plot points, the President demonstrated the flair for the dramatic that has made him one of the most effective politicians of modern times.
While persuasively explaining Obama’s success, this book also demonstrates a fundamental but rarely appreciated truth about political power in modern democratic societies namely, that winning power and holding on to it have as much to do with the ability to use symbols effectively and tell good stories as anything else.