The Problem With Trauma Culture

The focus on all forms of trauma except economic exploitation has helped to disguise the problem at the heart of neoliberalism.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

As a species, human beings have always been vulnerable to the shock of an unforeseen violation of body, mind and spirit. But the way in which that injury is understood — not as a vagary of fate that must be endured, but as a subject of legal and medical intervention — emerged with industrial modernity.


There is scholarly consensus that contemporary ideas about trauma originated in the 1800s, in legal and medical language about the railway accident, said to produce a nervous condition called “railway spine.” The railroad accident brought traveling businessmen — members of the mercantile capitalist or upper middle classes in the United Kingdom — into legal conflict with railroad companies, as it exposed them to what literature professor Roger Luckhurst calls “technological violence previously restricted to factories.”

Work injuries suffered on the factory line are rarely mentioned in academic accounts of trauma, whether from a literary or a historical point of view. In fact, industrial forms of working-class injury are largely ignored by the literature on the railway accident. “Because the fevered expansion of railroads from the 1840s was driven by free market companies,” Luckhurst writes, “the medical question of injury was always also a legal question of liability.” When, in 1862, a certain Mr. Shepherd was awarded damages by a court for his inability to conduct business after being involved in a railway accident, the medico-legal notion of the “railway-spine” was cited as a specific form of damage to a person’s entire nervous system. In the absence of physical wounds, railway spine affected its victims with nervous ailments that had never been seen before.