• Bearing witness: Autoethnographic animation and the metabolism of trauma

Young, Susan, 2023, Thesis, Bearing witness: Autoethnographic animation and the metabolism of trauma PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

This inquiry explores my principal research question, which considers how autoethnographic animation practice—that is, animation that connects personal stories to wider social or cultural issues—may assist in processing, or metabolising, psychological trauma in animators. The stories that form the focus of my practice include my experience of domestic violence culminating in my ex-husband attempting to murder me, and further traumatisation due to abusive subsequent psychiatric treatment, and the othering experience of being psychiatrically labelled. Emerging from my principal research question, three sub-questions address trauma’s embodiment, narratives, and processes of bearing witness, through a transdisciplinary engagement with cognitive science, autoethnography, and animation practice. This enables me to read insights from each of these fields through each other, in order to capture the complex causes of trauma, and innovate methods of processing it through animation practice.

Traumatic events such as child abuse and domestic violence present a major human health challenge. Survivors of these events often experience symptoms such as emotional dysregulation, negative cognitions, and, most commonly, intrusive memories. These are the principal focus of therapeutic intervention, and consist of distressing sensory-perceptual mental images that involuntarily re-intrude into consciousness, causing a re-experiencing of what is, metaphorically speaking, unmetabolised trauma.

Numerous cognitive studies have moderated intrusive memories by interfering with their associated mental images. This inquiry questions whether autoethnographic animation practice might be used to similar effect. Animator-survivors often explore their trauma through their practice, but the reasons why remain under-researched in animation studies. In addition, few transdisciplinary studies connect cognitive research and animation studies, or address the effects of animation on trauma. My inquiry fills these gaps.

Drawing on Karen Barad’s agential realist theoretical framework, I suggest that autoethnographic animation practice can be viewed as an apparatus that animator-survivors may use to perform and metabolise trauma, by transforming intrusive memories and related imagery into new forms of creative imagery.

My autoethnographic practice consists of the films Expts. 1 and 2. Both use my medicolegal records as source material for animation. Screenings at conferences and symposia provide a forum for further examining issues raised within the films, such as animation as a form of creative revenge on abusers, and experiences of addiction and othering as a consequence of psychiatric prescribing and labelling.

My research questions are developed through Expts. 1 and 2, and further explored through semi-structured interviews with scientists, clinicians, therapists, an autoethnographer, and animators with lived experience of trauma. Thematic analysis of my interview data suggests three overlapping themes significant to my inquiry. These identify animation’s capacity for embodied cognition (where the whole body is involved in cognition), imagery rescripting (where imagery is used to reformulate trauma narratives), and capacity to bear witness (or testify), to traumatic experiences.

My original, transdisciplinary, contribution to knowledge is my proposition that animator-survivors may use autoethnographic animation practice to metabolise trauma via cognitive processes involving mental imagery and imagery rescripting. Such metabolism occurs as a result of the animator-survivor’s embodied engagement with animation’s multisensory, sensorimotor, visuospatial, and rescripting processes, and through exploring, disseminating, and discussing their autoethnographic practice at screenings and other related events. These findings will be of interest to scientists, clinicians, autoethnographers, animation theorists and practitioners, and those working between disciplines, or interested in transdisciplinary approaches to treating trauma using cognitive perspectives and animation practice.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W290 Design studies not elsewhere classified
School or Centre: School of Communication
Uncontrolled Keywords: Psychological trauma; autoethnographic animation; embodied cognition; imagery rescripting; bearing witness
Date Deposited: 17 Feb 2023 10:47
Last Modified: 17 Feb 2023 10:47
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5277
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