Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Public vs. Personal Trauma: Berlant Misses the Mark

“While Jenny deliberately seeks out the deteriorating political and aesthetic public culture of modern America, Gump notices nothing and excels at everything he decides to do. He is too stupid to be racist, sexist, and exploitative; this is genius and it is meant to be his virtue” (Berlant 183).

“I have suggested that the crisis of the contemporary nation is registered in terms of threats to the imagined norm of privatized citizenship: Gump defines ‘normal’ through the star’s untraumatized survival of a traumatic national history, which effectively rewrites the traumas of mass unrest of the last few decades not as responses to systemic malaise, exploitation, or injustice, but as purely personal to the dead, the violent, and the violated” (Berlant 185).

As Professor Szczeszak-Brewer mentioned in class, Berlant’s argument hinges on the premise that Forrest Gump is centered within the context of an identity crisis in America. Suddenly, there is an alleged gap in what we as Americans espouse—a nostalgic desire for an official national culture. I grapple with Berlant’s distinction between the private and the public spheres. She claims that Jenny leaving her home represents a “vicious” urge for a public identity. Indeed, Jenny represents the epitome of the star struck, fame-crazed girl gone awry. She attempts to insert herself into the culture—just like Forrest’s mother tries to “lubricate[. . .] Forrest’s way into normal culture” (Berlant 181). And Jenny attempts this insertion via her sexuality. Indeed, she plays a role in two decades of the American sexual and political development (Berlant 182). Jenny dies of AIDS. Thus, Berlant argues, she does not survive “the traumatic national history.” Forrest, on the other hand, does survive. But does he really?

Forrest survives the fragmented national history; indeed, he lives. But he loses his “best good friend” and his lifelong love in the process. Thus, I disagree with Berlant’s assertion that the ending represents Forrest’s “untraumatized survival.” He is indeed “too stupid to be racist, sexist, and exploitative,” but he is not too stupid to feel emotion. He too is traumatized. And that, I feel, is Forrest’s true “genius.” I have trouble accepting the argument that the film’s directors rewrote the last few decades as the fault of those who needed external validation. To me, the political and cultural struggles of the time seem much more collective. Jenny enters the fray, struggles with her own identity, and finds that she can’t make it. She goes from the “gentleman’s” club where she sings nude with a guitar to a waitress—far from the famous life she imagined. But she does not enter the fray because of personal motivations. She is motivated to fame because of external forces—because of the “systemic malaise, exploitation, or injustice” of her own life (i.e., her abusive father and her poor, rural upbringing). In short, Berlant misses the mark. The film’s depiction of trauma is both a response to systemic problems within the culture and personal problems.

**From: The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship by Lauren Berlant. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

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