Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Freud and Trauma

Notes on "Freud and Trauma" by Ruth Leys

If only to transition to the principle subject, Freud's place in the genealogy of trauma, the chapter begins with a very brief consideration of the way in which trauma can lend itself to trivialization. Freud is described as an "ineluctable" figure in said genealogy precisely because he "'cemented' the idea of psychic trauma—specifically the trauma of sexual assault, Freud's famous seduction theory" (18). This is to say that Freud's seduction theory is central to the conceptualization of trauma and came to play an important role in the theorization of childhood trauma (see Ian Hacking's "Memory Sciences, Memory Politics" and his discussion of the recovered memory movement). Today Freud is widely criticized by modern theorists for having abandoned his seduction theory, which according to Leys reveals a misunderstanding  of his thought. 

A brief etymological consideration traces the term trauma to its use in describing a surgical wound, that is to say physiological trauma. This sense of the term goes well with the modern neurobiological definition of PTSD, explicitly modeled on a physiological-causal theory of shock. Freud, following Charcot and others, took an entirely different direction in his theorization of trauma, attributing traumatic hysteria to psychological rather than  anatomicophysiological changes, stressing the role of a post-traumatic incubation, or latency period of psychic elaboration:

"In Studies on Hysteria, coauthored by Josef Breur, and even more explicitly in "The Aetiology of Hysteria," Freud argued that the symptoms of hysteria could only be understood if they were traced back to experiences that had a traumatic effect, specifically early experiences of sexual "seduction" or assault (20).

Leys signals the failure of Freud's critics to grasp Freud's preoccupation not with the originary status of the traumatic event but with the delayed revival as a memory after the individual had reached sexual maturity; Freud constituted trauma according to the temporal logic of Nachtrâglichkeit, or deferred action: two related events were of significance in this light: 1) an event, not necessarily traumatic,  occurring in early childhood (too early to be understood and assimilated) and 2) a second event also not inherently traumatic which triggered a memory of the first event that only then was given a traumatic meaning and hence repressed (20). Rejecting a straightforward causal analysis of trauma according to which the traumatic event assaults the subject from the outside, Freud conceived trauma to be a dialectic between two events, latency or deferred action was central to his theorization, and, owing to the peculiar unevenness of its temporal development, human sexuality provided an eminently suitable field for the phenomenon of deferred action.

"In sum, for Freud traumatic memory is inherently unstable or mutable owing to the role of the unconscious motives that confer meaning on it. That premise underlies Freud's studies of parapraxes in The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901)" (20).

Freud's early conception of trauma emphasized the interiority of psychical trauma. However, his interest in traumatic neurosis—certainly after World War I—led him to reconsider his position on the primordial importance of the infantile psychosexual drives and interiority of trauma, that is its firm standing in the psychic rather than the physical. Psychoanalysis would become the only theoretical-therapeutic approach capable of interpreting and treating the functional disorders associated with the massive traumas of modern warfare. The process of catharsis would be reinstated as a therapeutic method and psychoanalysis would emerge from the war with an enhanced reputation. Lastly, a challenge arose: how would Freud assimilate the experience of shell shock into his already well established theoretical system, especially the libido and psychosexual origins of the neuroses theories. 

Freud initially suggested that war neuroses were the consequence of a conflict between different parts of the ego,  the peace-loving ego and interest for self-preservation and the war loving ego or instinct for agression. These egos were defined according to Freud's new theory of narcissism as sexually charged or libidinally charged. For Freud, the term traumatic would have no other sense than an economic one, by which it is understood as applicable to experience which within a short period of time overwhelms the mind with an increase of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in a normal way, resulting in potentially permanent disturbances (23). This economic approach would inform Freud's theory of the death drive, which is principally concerned with a kind of repetition, a haunting by memories which refuse to be extinguished and stand in firm opposition to pleasure (as envisioned in the pleasure principle). The death drive is a "beyond" of pleasure, acting independently of and often in opposition to the pleasure principle. Trauma, in the case of shell shock neuroses, was defined as a rupture or break in the "stimulus barrier" or the ego's protective psychic shield designed to defend organisms against upsurges of large quantities of external stimuli that threaten to destroy the psychic mechanism. 

Binding and unbinding are terms in Freud's lexicon that are of great importance. For Freud, the challenge of therapy was that of mastering disruptive stimuli, binding them in such a way as to make them disposable. Traumatic neuroses represented a radical "unbinding" of the death drive. There arises in the subject a compulsion to repeat, to conjure up memories of physical traumas (of childhood) in conjunction with a wish to recall what has been forgotten and repressed. 

Freud's departure from the pleasure principle in a movement toward his new hypothesis of the death drive marks a subtle shift from the analysis of desire to the analysis of the ego and the various defense mechanisms implemented by the ego to cope with and regulate external stimuli, as well as the consequences for the psyche when those defenses fail. Freud identified repression, supplemented by obscure mechanisms of defense (disavowal or "Verleugnung," rejection or repudiation or "Verwerfung" [Lacan's foreclosure], splitting of the ego or "Ichspaltung," and primal repression or "Urverdrângung")  as the psyche's fundamental response to excitation.

Most recently, modern critics have returned to Freud in an attempt to resolve problems with contemporary trauma theory. Despite differences of approach and conceptualization among contemporary psychoanalytic critics, all share a concern with the role of external reality (or the environment) in the etiology of trauma (26). A renewed interest in Freud's concepts of automatic anxiety, primal repression, and mimesis has emerged among critics who have reevaluated these fundamental concepts in important efforts at clarification and disentanglement of contradictions in Freud's thoughts. Recent aspirations to replace Freud's economic theories of anxiety and primal repression by operational and structural approaches respectively, especially in work by Krystal and Cohen, have led to a failure to address the formidable issues raised by Freud's economic concepts. 

In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Freud's key text on anxiety and the obscure notion of primal repression, these two concepts are shown to be closely linked. Freud privileges a signal approach to an economic or automatic approach to anxiety in Inhibitions. Freud "subordinates the economic dimension of anxiety in favor of an account that historicizes and narrativizes it, by taking the danger that threatens the ego to be the reproduction of a prior situation that the ego can in principle signal, indicate, and represent: the threat of the father (castration) or more primordially, the danger of the loss of the mother, or her breast. On this model, anxiety serves the purpose of protecting the psyche's coherence by allowing the ego to represent and master a danger situation that it recognizes as the reproduction of an earlier situation involving the threatened loss of an identifiable libidinal object" (27). 

Leys signals a contradiction in Freud's conception of anxiety as both cure and cause of psychic trauma: "the result is that the opposition between the signal theory of anxiety and the automatic or economic theory of anxiety cannot be sustained. For the historical situation of threatened loss (of the phallus or the mother) is itself defined as a situation of helplessness or "unbinding" (primal repression) due to an excess of stimulation that by traumatically breaching the boundary between inside and outside shatters the unity and identity of the ego" (28-29). 

The term "unbinding" belongs to the pair "Bindung-Entibindung," terms associated from the start of Freud's economic hypothesis. In Freud's earliest work, binding is the process that binds "free" or "unbonded" energy in order to establish stable forms—for example, the ego, which requires a mass of neurones whose energy is in a bound state. Binding is among the most important function of the psychical apparatus which binds external quantities of stimulation in order to master them. Binding thus serves to protect the organism agains the unpleasurable "unbinding" or breaching of the protective shield by the excessive excitation of external stimuli, or trauma. By binding excitations the organism defers its own death drive, or compulsion to repeat, and neutralizes the lethal tendency to disband into a disorderly panic of all against all (this latter function is characterized as political). 

Identification with the other through feeling or sympathy becomes of interest as Leys considers the subject of mimesis. "According to Freud, violence is inherent in the imitative-identificatory process, which he describes as a cannibalistic, devouring, incorporative identification that readily turns into hostile desire to rid oneself of the other, or enemy, with whom one has just merged" (30). See Freud's Mourning and Melancholia in which he emphasizes the emotional ambivalence of identification. 

Diegesis, the patients self-narration grants access to the unconscious, the repository of repressed infantile representations. This narrativization, unlike hypnosis which is held to be a mimetic act in the absence of consciousness and self-representation, is part of a process of transference, positive transference onto the analyst, the other with whom the subject identifies and merges. "In short, where the notion of recollection becomes problematic in Freud is where he states in his speculations in Inhibitions that the Oedipal tie which is supposed to be recalled in transference is itself derivative of an even mor archaic affective tie or primary identification—an identification that can never be remembered by the subject precisely because it preceded the very distinction between self and other on which the possibility of self-representation and hence recollection depends" (32). 

Identification and mimesis come together in a consideration of the traumatized subject's inclination not to repress a representation of the traumatic event but to the sheer vacancy of the traumatized subject or ego in a hynotic openness to impressions or identification occuring prior to all hypnotic openness to impressions or identifications occuring prior to all self-representation and hence to all rememeoration. If the victim of a trauma identifies with the aggressor, she does so not as a defense of the ego, as suggested by Ana Freud and Sándor Ferenczi, but, according to Freud, "on the basis of an unconscious imitation or mimesis that connotes an abyssal openness to all identification. This explains why traumatic events are not remembered but relived in the transferential relationship not in the form of a recounting of a past event but of a hypnotic identification with another in the present—in the timelessness of the unconscious—that is characterized by a profound amnesia or absence from the self" (32).

Leys aligns trauma both with the breaching of the protective shield or "unbinding" and with mimetic identification or "binding."She explains that the in economic terms, the traumatic experience involves a fragmentation or loss of unity of the ego resulting from the radical unbinding of the death drive, but it also entails a simulataneous binding or rebinding of cathexes. The traumatic experience involves a dialectic between two processes, unbinding and binding, constitutive of the traumatic reaction: love and hate. Here we find mimetic identification, cathexes are abruptly cut through and the defused destructiveness which is turned against the ego is manifest in the form of loss of consciousness. The ego loses its leadership and enters into a state of panic. Unbinding (death drive or Thanatos) is juxtaposed with binding (life drive or Eros). An unbinding or trauma can be succeeded by its opposite, a rebinding and hence an attempt at cure. The traumatic nightmare can be understood (Kardiner) as a retroactive attempt at binding, or mastery, of this kind. This is perhaps misleading as Freud's economic and political approach hold both unbinding and binding to be constitutive to the traumatic reaction. 

"Panic—in individual terms the unbinding or splitting of the subject into mimetic identifications, in political terms the unbinding of the ties between individuals in the unruly crowd of all against all—is simultaneously and irreducibly a binding consequent on the very mimetic identifications that suggestively or contagiously bind the individual to the other, or mass" (34).

See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen for a penetrating account of sympathy, identification, and narcissism in Freud's thought. Jacobsen tells that sympathy is the most immediate possible bond between subjects.  The disappearance of love does not liberate the anything at all, and certainly not autarchic subjects or individuals. What results of the panic phenomena is immediate hypnotic fusion, the very fusion that Freud had rejected as suggestibility. The acme of the sympathetic relationship with others is simultaneously the ultimate nonrelationship: an every man for himself scenario that results in a mass of of panic stricken individuals, a disbanding band, both narcissistic and nonnarcissistic, egotistic and altruistic, asocial and social (35). The boundaries between the traumatized soldier are at once so completely effaced and socially identified, the victim's behavior so rigid, his face so lacking mimicry and expressions of feelings that he gives the impression of pure detachment and yet he is so identified with the world's dangers that he gives the impression of being completely impressionable. This is the result of a process of binding and unbinding, a failure and success of defense.

Freud rejected hypnotic-dissociative indistinction between subject and other precisely because he felt that the hypnotic state was conducive not to conscious transference but to unconscious mimesis. Freud attempted to evade the uncanny losss of individuality of dedifferentiation between self and other held to take place in hypnosis, reinterpreting the effects of suggestion not as the product between subject and hynotist, but of the subject's sexual desire. Morton Prince, pioneer in the study of dissociative disorders, attributed the effects of trauma simultaneously to an immemorial hypnotic dissociation or splitting and to the spontaneity of the subject who witnesses the scene of trauma and so represents it to herself. Again, we find the double structure of mimesis and anti-mimesis. The hypnotic element, the unbinding, renders the experience immemorial, while the mimetic element renders the process representable. The reliving of trauma under hypnosis is understood not as a dramatic mimesis but as a verbalized diegesis, in which the patient recounts and recollects the trauma in full consciousness.

A turn toward the antimimetic within the mimetic paradigm led therapist's to demand that the patient be a subject capable of distancing herself from the the traumatic scene. Emphasis shifts from the notion of trauma as involving a yielding of identity to identification to a notion of trauma as a purely external cause or event that comes to an already constituted ego to shatter its autonomy and integrity. The internal violence of unbinding is externalized, expelled into the external world and identified as an absolute exteriority, allowing for the subject to distance herself from the event, forestalling the possibility of scapegoating by denying that the victim participates or colludes with the scene of abjection and humiliation. This value also has its costs:

1) It renders invalid the mimetic-suggestive dimension of the traumatic experience. This renders possible "false memories" that ignore the victims complicity or participation in the traumatic event.
2) Such an analysis produces a conceptualization of the traumatic event as purely literal, denying its possible unconscious-symbolic underpinning. This literal view continues to be challenged by evidence of a subjective-suggestive component in the constituted traumatic experience.
3)The dichotomy of internal and external compels that of the absolute victim/absolute agressor dichotomy. The mimetic approach, unlike the anti-mimetic, allows for the acknowledgment for the hideous ways in which the victim can come to psychically collude in the scene of violence through fantasmatic identifications with the scene of aggression. Rejection of this theory render the source of the such identifications mysterious. 
4) The dichotomy reinforces gender stereotypes. Female victim is entirely passive and helpless. Ironically, the stark distinction between inside and outside allows for the aggressor to also become a victim (See Leys commenting on a recent work on trauma by Caruth).
5) Recent views of the hypnotic state and hypnosis resolve the tension between imitation as blind mimesis and imitation as spectatorial distantiation by deciding in favor of lucid simulation. This new position rejects any concept of the unconsious and any notion of libidinally repressed or mimetically dissociated traumatic memories. These ideas (Borch-Jacobsen's) generate a number of contradictions resulting from the tension between internal and external and the potential for both mimetic and anti-mimetic processes to be purely internal rather than external.

Overall, a fascinating and excellent work by Leys. Dense, this chapter provides an excellent introduction to Frudian thought surrounding trauma. Admittedly, my own understanding of this chapter is limited and requires further reading. It may prove useful to review Borch Jacobsen's "The Freudian Subject" and some works by Freud on the subject of hysteria before returning to Leys genealogy. 


  1. Please post the citation as well . . .

    1. I've included the citation in the comment section.

  2. Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A genealogy. University of Chicago Press, 2010.