Culture, Memory, Trauma and Social Reproduction


In an email I wrote to two of my Radical Contact co-organisers in October 2016, I wrote:

Maybe one focus of our [next] event could be the consequences of different kinds of past and present oppressions – rape and femicides, slavery and colonial violence, injuries of class… – on the physicality of the victims, the perpetrators and the “implicated” – and their descendants. How memories, postmemories, transgenerationally transmitted effects of past terrors affect all of us, differentially, physically as well as emotionally and intellectually. What role physical practices play in remembering and dealing with past terrors. Problematics of restitution, reparation and recognition. What a radical vision of reconciliation could be.

I still think this is a good idea and I believe it meshes well with our focus on cultural mixing and the issue of social reproduction. In what follows I will try to draw out the connections I see between cultural exchange, historical trauma and social reproduction.


I’m using culture here in the sense of ethnic or national culture. This reduction of culture – a group’s particular way of life, the learned behaviour of a group of people, transmitted from generation to generationto its meaning as national or ethnic culture is of course problematic. It relegates other uses of culture – for example the idea that different social classes might possess different cultures, or that differences in behaviour between genders could be described as gender cultures – to the sidelines. That said, I’m going to stick with this more conventional sense of the word here, which means that when I talk about cultural mixing I mean the combination of cultural practices or elements from different ethnic / national backgrounds or traditions.

So, why are we fascinated by cultural mixing?

A first answer to the question could be: because many forms of cultural mixing used to be forbidden, and in many places and cases many kinds of cultural mixing are still, have always been, are again, problematic, dangerous, outrageous… transgressions of boundaries that, we are told, we need to be whole and safe.

But isn’t this just a corollary of the fact that all cultural mixing happens under conditions of oppression and exploitation – that it often is, in fact, essentially, a form of oppression, exploitation, even extermination? And as people who grow up and live in a society obsessed with wealth and power, everything to do with social power moves us deeply, whether we are conscious of it or not.

One way in which we are moved by social power is sexually. But not only by the rich symbolism of male domination, heterosexism, gender binarism. The erotic, the sexual, is just as much about class, race and ethnicity as about gender. We are often titillated by cross-class or cross-race encounters – so exotic, so forbidden, so fascinating. Especially if they happen at a safe distance, in a book or a movie. Or, if we personally are involved, if they are the right kind of boundary-crossings – ones that do not involve a massive and permanent loss of social status, exposure to the threat of terrible violence… for ourselves.

A second answer to the question could be: because cultural mixing – understood and presented as thoroughly and only cultural, as apolitical, as all about pleasure, creativity, sharing and human encounters, stripped of all connection to current or past injustices and acts of violence, without connection to political and economic questions – is so incredibly contemporary. Hip. Cool.

Diversity and cultural fusion function as symbols of neoliberalism’s brave new world, of capitalist globalisation’s promise: a universe of mobility and flexibility, where we cross obsolete borders, a society that makes the cultural riches of the world accessible to all, recombining them to create new and exciting mixtures, sweeping away the limitations of stuffy old identities.

So one of our tasks at the gathering would be to criticise such conformist understandings and ideological uses of cultural mixing.

Our job would be to make an issue of the violence, oppression and exploitation framing and accompanying cultural encounters past and present.

One of our main questions would have to be: how have oppressed people used, and how do they still use, culture, particularly physical culture, to deal with their situation, create community, deal with collective trauma, resist oppression.

But we must also ask how culture, particularly physical culture, can reproduce negative and stereotypical images of oppressed and marginalised groups, tie people to limiting images of themselves and perpetuate oppression.

But, some might say, aren’t you overthinking this? Aren’t you weighing down and ruining pleasurable pursuits like dance and music with all these heavy thoughts about history and suffering?

Well, no.

Politics and history is everywhere, and you must be blind not to see it. Politics, history and activism are important and exciting, and if people don’t realise that anymore, that’s the result of the dumbing-down onslaught of conformist culture we are exposed to every day.

But, some might ask, couldn’t there be a completely innocent curiosity about people and cultures that are different, an unproblematic longing for that which is strange and far away?

Well, no.

I am all for becoming familiar with that which is different from us, educating ourselves about other cultures, learning languages, studying the histories of other places, attempting relationships with people from very different backgrounds, challenging our ideas of who we ourselves are. But none of this will ever be innocent or apolitical, and, the way I see it, no motivation of ours can ever be exempt from critical questioning.


Against a framework that understands collective memory as competitive memory – as a zero-sum struggle over resources – the concept of multidirectional memory suggests that we consider memory as multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative.

Collective memory is the relationship that groups that have suffered a historical trauma establish between their past and their present circumstances.

Movement, dance, movement rituals, community dance… can be ways of dealing with trauma – both individual life trauma as well as culturally transmitted, historical, collective trauma. “Dealing with” could mean, in this instance: remembering, working through, healing.

Memory is work and dealing with trauma is social reproduction.

Postmemory”, a term created by Marianne Hirsch, describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before – to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up.


It has become an increasingly accepted idea, among therapists who work with trauma, researchers in the field of psychophysiology, and critical thinkers of various kinds, that experiencing more or less and different kinds of violence, poverty, humiliation, marginalization, etc, will differentially tune different people’s autonomic nervous systems.

Examples of catastrophic events at the origin of historical traumata that will immediately come to mind for many people are the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazi state and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These are horrific violences that targeted national / ethnic / racial groups.

A group clearly defined as racial in the Nazi case, and, since trans-Atlantic slavery spanned hundreds of years and began before the Western concept of race was fully developed, groups defined in various ways which we can approximate with our contemporary conceptions of nation, ethnicity and race.

But less horrific violences than war, slavery or genocide may also cause collective trauma, and the groups targeted don’t have to be national / ethnic / racial.

Wouldn’t it make sense to interpret great defeats that people have suffered in struggles for better working conditions, better wages, shorter working hours, paid holidays, social wages (child care, welfare, pensions) as historical traumata?

The defeat of the miner’s strike and Thatcher’s successes in the war against the unions would be an example from a rich and powerful Western nation.

What about the utter destruction of the hopes and aspirations of the millions of people who once fervently believed in the promises of revolutionary socialism?

Starting with the rapid evolution of the new society created by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 into an extremely oppressive and exploitative social system of a new type in the 1920s, poor, working class and peasant communities in Russia, China and many other parts of the world have suffered extreme violence and exploitation at the hands of elites that had promised to bring them freedom and a better life.

I think it makes sense to assume that these defeats and disappointments have left deep wounds in people’s collective memories, shaped their culture and outlook on life in profound ways.

In the West, the past 40 to 50 years have been a series of defeats for working people in the class war waged against them by the capitalist class.

These defeats have contributed to the culture of despair characteristic of many poor and working class communities across the world today. In many regions of the world, people are poorer than 40 years ago. And everywhere, even where people are better off than they used to be, as in China, most people have lost all hope that there will ever be a more just society, a better life for everyone.

Many leftists would agree that the abysmal state of class consciousness in the United States is due to the success of the political right in destroying the labour movement of that country. Partly as a result of this, it has been possible to brainwash large numbers of people in the US into believing various right wing myths – that there are no social classes in the US, that there is lots of social mobility in this country, that getting ahead there depends primarily on individual merit, etc.

Obviously this has a lot to do with who owns the media, what gets taught in schools etc, but is there maybe also an element here of a collective emotional response to a historical defeat? Do denial and identification with the aggressor play a role?

What about gender and collective trauma? Here we are obviously not talking about one big event, not even about a few hundred years of repeated injuries as in the case of trans-Atlantic slavery or the violence against and oppression of indigenous people in various Western colonialist / imperialist settings, their displacement from the land etc.

Here we are talking about millennia of objectification, rape and other sexual and non-sexual violence, emotional and economic exploitation, various forms of oppression, denial of recognition as fully human etc.

We don’t need to subscribe to a notion of a globally undifferentiated, historically unchanging system of patriarchy, we don’t even need to believe that a trans-cultural concept of male domination makes any sense, to claim that different forms of oppression and exploitation of women by men have been going on in most parts of the world for a very long time.

Some key words: Transgenerational trauma, historical trauma, collective trauma, complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some people who have done practical and theoretical work in these fields: Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart (“historical trauma”, North American indigenous communities), Joy DeGruy (“post traumatic slavery syndrome”, African Americans).

Social reproduction

Theorising social reproduction is essential to the development of a left feminist project that could supersede, be a convincing alternative to, both traditional class-reductionist, production-fixated leftism as well as culture-fixated versions of anti-racism and feminism that tend to be oblivious of political economy and class.

What’s more, the concept of social reproduction allows us to take emotions in general, different kinds of love, friendship and loyalty, sensuality and sexuality, but also processes of healing and restoration, working through and remembering, seriously.

It allows us to understand these aspects of human life as essential to the stability and continuity of society as a whole, and challenges us to think about how they relate to the formal economy and large-scale institutional politics.

Radical Contact

The idea of organising encounters between contact improvisation, hip hop, vogue, parkour, capoeira and other martial arts came out of conversations about the limitations of contact improvisation in terms of its demographic, its appeal, how it is marked as middle class, and, in many contexts, as white.

The idea of organising situations of mutual learning between practitioners of different movement disciplines was conceived as a parallel to my/our preferred “egalitarian”, “exchange” model of political coalitions between different constituencies / identity groups.

This model is of course meant to be an alternative to “assimilationist” or “paternalistic” forms of organising that we see as problematic.

An example for “assimilationist” organising would be a group dominated by white people recognising their “unrepresentative” composition as a problem and as a result attempting to “recruit” or “integrate” people of colour into their group – but without considering looking for opportunities to link up with already existing autonomous forms of organisation of people of colour, and without any attempt to fundamentally question the culture and politics of the group.

In previous gatherings, contact improvisation was a central element, and the whole atmosphere of the event was profoundly influenced by the fact that all participants had it as a common practice.

How central should contact improvisation be at this event?

Is it true that contact improvisation tends to foster an atmosphere of connection and cooperation?

What would the status of contact improvisation be in a gathering conceived of as an exchange with other movement disciplines?

What would this entail in practical terms?

What exactly would being open to other norms of social behaviour than those in force in the mostly middle class contact scene entail?

What is human connection, actually, what different forms can it take?