Epistemologies of Trauma

Cognitive Insights for Narrative Construction as Ritual Performance


  • Tyler M. Tully University of Oxford, Faculty of Theology & Religion




Trauma Theory, Affect Theory, Ritual Theory, Ted Jennings, Judith Herman, Cathy Caruth


Beginning with Cathy Caruth's post-structuralist approach in the early 1990's, the study of trauma, memory, and affect has seen significant growth across many academic disciplines. Recent postcolonial perspectives, however, criticize Caruth's trauma theory for its focus on individual melancholia, its Eurocentric assumptions, and its diminishment of discursive practice and ritual. This article considers the rapidly expanding field of trauma studies, including current neuroscientific and biological approaches, to clarify the depth and breadth of trauma's relation to memory inscription, cultural identity, and the embodied transmission of trauma. Using a comparative methodology to examine the seminal contributions of Ted Jennings to the field of ritual studies (Jennings 1982, 1987, 2014) that correspond with Judith Herman's three-stage narrative therapy process (Herman 1997), this essay suggests that Herman's method of narrative construction conveys unique, embodied knowledge that can be understood as ritual performance. Several case studies are put into conversation with Herman's trauma theory in the conclusion of this paper to illustrate possible correctives to the weaknesses inherent in Caruth's “unspeakability” school of trauma theory—correctives having implications for fields as wide-ranging as cultural history, anthropology, ritual studies, affect theory, collective memory, anthropology, and postcolonial approaches to the study of religion.

Author Biography

Tyler M. Tully, University of Oxford, Faculty of Theology & Religion

Tyler M. Tully is an American writer, postgraduate student, and theologue whose work has been featured in local and national news sources including Real Clear Religion and Al Jazeera America. In 2016, Tully won the Arthur Peacocke Graduate Studentship in Theology at Oxford's Exeter College for research at the intersection of science and religion. Tyler's current research project situates Feminist Science and Technology studies, Quantum Mechanics, and New Materialism in conversation with Deep Incarnation theologies toward a posthuman metaphysics of Creation. A distinguished graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University with a BA in Religious Studies and Theology, Tyler later earned a Master of Divinity with Distinction at The Chicago Theological Seminary. Tyler is currently a Doctor of Philosophy student at the University of Oxford studying under the supervision of Dr. Donovan O. Schaefer and Prof. Graham Ward. In addition to his studies, Tully is a perpetual member of the Alpha Chi National Honor society and a member of the NAASR and AAR.


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How to Cite

Tully, T. (2017). Epistemologies of Trauma: Cognitive Insights for Narrative Construction as Ritual Performance. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 46(3-4), 48–56. https://doi.org/10.1558/bsor.32590