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Conference spotlights new perspectives on trauma


September 19, 2010

“New approaches to trauma: Bridging theory and practice” will be in the spotlight Oct. 7-9 as scholars and authors from across the United States gather at Arizona State University’s West campus for a conference that builds on recent intellectual work in the field of trauma studies. The event is presented by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, with support from the Arizona Humanities Council and several academic units on ASU’s West and Tempe campuses.

“While some contention surrounds the boundaries, scope, and content of ‘trauma studies,’ the field has been shaped by 20th century catastrophes including war, genocide, and forced migration alongside everyday experiences of violence, loss, and injury,” said Monica Casper, director of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in ASU’s New College. “At the conceptual heart of trauma studies is a set of tensions between the everyday and the extreme, between individual identity and collective experience, between history and the present, between experience and representation, between facts and memory, and between the ‘clinical’ and the ‘cultural.’

“It is our hope that this gathering will help us to create new spaces that link theory and practice, both inside and outside universities, in this relatively young, developing field,” Casper said.

Among the noted scholars in attendance will be four keynote speakers.

Dorothy Allison’s address will focus on “A cure for bitterness.” Allison is author of the books “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Trash,” and “Cavedweller” and has been described by the Boston Globe as one of “the finest writers of her generation.”

Terri Jentz will discuss “Intimate strangers: Reconstructing community years after trauma.” Jentz wrote the acclaimed book “Strange Piece of Paradise” and is now adapting it into a feature film. The book is a deeply disturbing, visceral, and evocative account of the attempted murder of Jentz and her college roommate in the Oregon desert in 1977.

Jackie Orr is a performance artist and sociologist at Syracuse University. She is an award-winning teacher with expertise in contemporary social theory and feminist theory, critical studies of technology, science and psychiatry, and cultural politics. Orr’s keynote, a performance piece, is titled “Necrospeculations (or, Lullaby for Fallujah).”

Maurice E. Stevens is associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University. Stevens refuses to separate his academic work from his community work; he has 20 years of experience in mental health and crisis intervention settings. His keynote is “Trauma is as ‘trauma’ does: The politics of affect in catastrophic times.”

Stevens noted that “trauma” is a concept that has its own social history, which has been tied to various political agendas and investments over its brief life span. “Sometimes the concept of ‘trauma’ guides our affect into other kinds of sentimental responses like the desire to ‘help’ or alleviate others’ suffering to such a degree that we will quickly provide ‘support’ in sites of catastrophe without paying close attention to how our methods of providing support also sponsor imperial practices and the introduction of occupational structures walking in step with ‘humanitarian efforts.’”

Stevens said the trauma conference provides an opportunity for attendees to “share strategies and deep insights, and build bonds of connection that will serve, as needed, down the road, in unexpected and delightful ways.”

Casper, chair of the conference local arrangements committee, said she is pleased by the wide range of disciplines represented among presenters and attendees from around the country. “Historically, clinical and psychological perspectives have dominated trauma studies, for example in the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “But fresh perspectives in sociology, comparative studies, cultural studies, literary studies, gender and race studies, history and other fields have broadened the scope of trauma studies.”

Among the dozens of session presentations scheduled during the conference are “Beauty from pain: The paradox of suffering,” “Memories of progress and loss: The atomic bomb in New Mexico and Japan,” “Culture shock: The experiences of African and West Indian immigrants in the U.S.,” and “Complexities of forgiveness: Early trauma in mother-daughter genealogies.” Presenters represent institutions including Vanderbilt University, George Washington University, Loyola University of Chicago, Roanoke College and New York University.

Conference organizers added a special panel discussion to the agenda on Oct. 9. “Families, separation, and round-ups: The immigrant experience and trauma in Maricopa County” was organized in response to the debates about Senate Bill 1070, according to Casper. “Rather than cancel the conference, as many others in Arizona have been canceled due to boycott, we collectively decided to carry on, but to use the conference as an opportunity to examine these issues in the place where we live and work,” she said. The panel discussion will be moderated by Arizona Republic reporter Richard Ruelas and will feature Victoria Lopez, an immigration rights advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union; Cristina Sanidad, a labor rights promoter with the Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice and a student in New College’s master’s degree program in social justice and human rights; and Carmen Cornejo, an advocate for the DREAM Act.

Arts and performance presentations related to the theme of trauma also are scheduled on ASU’s West campus to coincide with the conference.

David Barker will present his award-winning one-man play “Dodging Bullets” Oct. 7-9 at 8 p.m. in Second Stage West, lower level of the University Center Building. The play tells the story of an act of family violence that changed his life forever. Barker is a theater professor at ASU’s Tempe campus.

Richard Lerman’s sound/video installation “Death Valley Cycle 2” will be presented during the conference in ArtSpace West, second floor of the University Center Building. An opening reception is set for Thursday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. The installation was recorded in each of the 12 calendar months at Death Valley, marking the artist’s eighth anniversary as a survivor of multiple cancers. Lerman is a professor of interdisciplinary arts and performance in ASU’s New College.

The container car exhibit “One Heart Betrayed” will be displayed between Fletcher Library and the Sands Classroom Building during the conference. “One Heart Betrayed” sheds light on the plight of thousands of political prisoners who are imprisoned in steel shipping containers for such “transgressions” as their political and religious beliefs, or for family connections that run counter to authoritarian rule in the African nation of Eritrea.

The documentary “Tar Creek” is scheduled for screening Friday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. in Room 265 of the University Center Building. The film tells the story of 40 square miles of environmental devastation in northeastern Oklahoma and the residents who have spent nearly 30 years fighting for decontamination, environmental justice, and the buyout and relocation of their homes to safer ground.

In addition to the Arizona Humanities Council and ASU’s New College, conference supporters include three New College units – the Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies; the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies; and the master’s degree program in social justice and human rights. Additional supporters are the School of Social Transformation and the Women and Gender Studies Department from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on ASU’s Tempe campus and the ASU Institute for Humanities Research.

The trauma conference is free and open to the public; registration is required by Oct. 1. For details, contact lucy.berchini@asu.edu or visit http://traumaconference.newcollege.asu.edu/.