Hitting the Books: The age of digital media has changed how we process trauma

'The storyteller is the truth-teller' -- Ursula K. Le Guin

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The COVID pandemic has damaged us all. Perhaps not directly, not physically, but the isolation, the anxiety and uncertainty we have endured over the past year has left an indelible mark on our collectively psyche. And it is only one of a litany of traumas, catastrophes at both the global and individual scale, inflicted upon us daily. In her latest book, All My Friends Live in My Computer: Trauma, Tactical Media, and Meaning, Director of Technology Influenced Practice at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Dr. Samira Rajabi combines personal essays from three distinct American viewpoints with media studies to explore what happens when those who have been hurt address those traumas online, connecting to others with similar experiences and working towards their personal recoveries.

All My Friends Live in My Computer Cover
Rutgers University Press

Excerpted from All My Friends Live in My Computer: Trauma, Tactical Media, and Meaning by Samira Rajabi with permission from Rutgers University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Samira Rajabi.

Suffering demands to be seen. When locked away, trauma seeps out, insidiously injecting itself into the suffering subject’s everyday life and even the most mundane experiences. The confronting nature of trauma, combined with the pervasive need to presence oneself in digital space to constitute a curated identity (Couldry 2012, 51), leads to the widespread mediation of trauma. The current mediatic moment, constituted through capitalism and driven by technology, leads those who suffer to negotiate their experience online. It is in digital space that trauma sufferers contend with the central dialectic of trauma: the visceral need to share one’s suffering and the simultaneous impulse to deny its gravity (Herman 1997, 1). Knowledge is produced through actively engaging with the world; everyday experience functions as a teacher to suffering subjects who must learn to remake meaning. When people experience trauma, they become “epistemically privileged in some crucial respect” because of what they’ve felt and experienced (Wylie 2003, 339). Suffering bodies become privy to this “epistemic privilege,” therefore triggering a re-evaluation of the various schema by which life is led and, by extension, mediated.

Sufferers’ lives become instantaneously governed and defined by the pain, uneven memories, and up-and-down experiences informed by a sense of victimhood. Understandings of victimization come from received social and cultural frameworks, frequently told through media. These encounters with received culture force suffering material bodies to situate themselves in their symbolic universe, often necessitating a reorientation of the symbolic. Digital media enable one negotiative space through which these new circumstances can be articulated, mediated, re-mediated, and contested or resisted. Trauma, in changing the everyday lives of its sufferers, then shifts the everyday media produced using digital technology to account for life’s various contingencies — contingencies informed by the clash between one’s material reality and a new and changing recognition of the symbolic world. Mediation, for many, is an alternative or addendum to more conventional, therapeutic forms of coping with trauma, indicating that trauma is a useful optic through which to examine why and how media capture human imagination and participation when suffering is prolific. The what, why, and how of posting online, as well as the who, exactly, sufferers are posting for, become markers of identity that negotiate, resist, and re-mediate conceptualizations of the sick, the sufferer, and the victim as they seek legibility within a globalized circulation of meanings and ideas.

Digital media are spaces where stories are shared and meaning is made. This space is a bastion for resistive discourse while still being a massive, ideologically inflected marketing machine intent on reinforcing the most oppressive expressions of society. Recent events, from the suspicions of election tampering to the battle cry of women to be taken seriously as victims in the #metoo movement, have highlighted the varying shades of the possibility and refusal inherent in digital space. In all of this, one thing has remained consistent: digital space is an important place for the articulation, contestation, and negotiation of both personal and public life. Approximately 70 percent of Americans use social media, and some estimates count at least half of the world’s population to be online (Smith and Anderson 2018). What binds many of the current online movements and debates is the stories that underlie them. Le Guin (2004) says that, in stories, as dominant narratives become imbedded in society, they become internalized, yet imagination and an ability to envision alternatives to the present reality help overcome oppression. Though digital tools may reify dominant discourses around material bodies, as spaces for stories, they provide users a way to imagine alternate possibilities. Le Guin is deeply in favor of telling stories and making meaning: “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller” (Le Guin 2004). Trauma causes an inherent questioning of the way things are or perhaps the way things have always been. Though suffering ensues, there is a space for the construction of alternative meanings.

Invisibly marked bodily experience comes to light in digital media because of platform-enabled testimony. This book uncovers how much of this trauma testimony is part of a careful dance of creativity and testimony alongside the co-optation and commodification of suffering. In this dance, meaning making is a mundane but resistive act, any analysis of which must bridge social and cultural context with the individual deployment of technology and media, positioning politics at the heart of the experience of suffering. The cases that make up the empirical argument in this book highlight the dual possibilities inherent in mediation of trauma—the reinscription of oppression on already marked and erased bodies, and the alternative resistance and subversion of norms around what it is to be a victim in the modern social imaginary, as it is cultivated and constructed online.

Digital users who come to the Internet after trauma engage digital media to reorient themselves and their shifting physical, mental, and emotional landscapes to the world around them. This move can be tactical and subversive in the way that it creates small shifts in the discursive conceptions of trauma and the traumatized subject, as well as how the traumatized subject recognizes and inhabits the world. Conversations around the resistive possibility of the Internet have perpetuated in the last decade of scholarship. In this book, I offer a unique epistemic position that recognizes the importance of everyday mediation and the primacy of the individual in social media while recognizing and accounting for the systemic forces that inform, influence, and complicate digital life. The data note that social space online allows for expression of public imagination and thus accordant meanings to slowly shift, take hold, or be cemented. A post-structural feminist framework lends itself to an examination of discursive possibility among digital communities of sufferers. The digital acts of sharing, of being seen, of being made legible, and of expressing voice are subsequently explored. Ultimately, this book is less about trauma than it is about media. Trauma, in this study, serves as a catalyst through which to explore how digital media operate for users during contingent life moments. Primarily, this is an exploration of how media studies can account for the way mediation and re-mediation work online to foster identity exploration and production, and how digital media enable users to express ideas about their bodies in spaces that don’t require physical mediation but have consequences for material life.