Amuse-Bouches V – What Makes a Trauma Traumatic? (Part II)
In Part I we looked at the history of trauma theory and framed its various debates against the backdrop of two key problems that any theory of trauma has to confront: the ‘event’ and its ‘affective weight’.
Problem 1: The Event – if a certain event or experience is often sought at the aetiology of the trauma, what makes this event traumatic rather than another? If the answer lies in the supposed magnitude of the event, why does the same event or experience seem to be traumatic for some but not for others; or for the same person but not immediately, sometimes only years later in their life? Although the event itself might be accidental, our selection of it as an aetiological agent cannot be lest that choice appear arbitrary. And once we have made that choice, what accounts for its effect? In other words…
Problem 2: Affective Weight – how it’s felt. In more psychoanalytic terms, the level of psychical investment or emotional ‘charge’ that is experienced. We cannot appeal to the ‘magnitude’ of an event here, given there are different ways that people react to the same event experientially. What we are looking for is rather an explanation of how the trauma becomes ‘traumatic’ in the way it is processed, ‘worked-through’ or ‘metabolised’ by each individual. These ways will be different for each person, and likewise the ‘affective weight’ a trauma carries will be felt differently for each person. It follows that the symptoms which are manifested following a trauma will take different forms, indicating that some unconscious process or dynamic is at work. This is where psychoanalysis has something to say.
In Part II we will look at four possible answers to the question ‘what makes a trauma traumatic?’ Some of the answers may already appear familiar, reflecting what is supposed to be commonly-known about trauma, so to each we will add a slight twist from the perspective offered by psychoanalysis.
1. Trauma always needs two moments… but based in reality, not just fantasy
A theory of trauma needs a theory of time. We find one in Freud’s work, hidden in the term Nachträglichkeit. It is Lacan who can claim credit for rescuing this word from Freud’s German original and for relieving English readers of Strachey’s choice of ‘deferred action’ as its translation. But it was Laplanche who revived it as a concept from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, bringing out its implications for the theory of trauma in his careful and highly-readable Après-coup: Problématiques VI. That work was published in English in 2017 (and you can read my review of it here).
Laplanche proposes a beautiful English neologism which perfectly captures the complexity of Nachträglichkeit: ‘afterwardsness’. It implies a theory of trauma which always needs two separate moments in time. What makes a trauma traumatic is not just a single important or shocking event – it has to also have an echo in a past event. Trauma is not at either of these two moments but is constituted as a trauma only in the second moment (Après-coup: Problématiques VI, p.122). In other words, trauma is the result of a message which sleeps for years and then demands understanding or translation après-coup.
When most psychoanalytically-informed readers hear the term Nachträglichkeit they think of the case of Emma (Eckstein) from the late 1890s. But as he traces the history of the term in Freud’s work, Laplanche counts no fewer than 15 appearances in the Wolf Man case history twenty years later. This allows him to locate it at the pivotal moment in the split with Jung and the emergence of the Ur– phenomena (primal fantasies, primal scenes, primal father, primal repression) in Freud’s work.
Here’s an example of how ‘afterwardsness’ works. Let’s imagine that time is like an arrow:
- The arrow of time moving forwards: The heavy lorry drove over the rickety bridge, and 30 seconds later the bridge collapsed. This is an example of ‘progressive signification’: the past determines the present.
- The arrow of time moving backwards: The bridge collapsed and the engineer realised she had built it wrongly. This is an example of ‘regressive signification’: in the present we reinterpret the past.
Laplanche uses these two models to contrast Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (afterwardsness) to a term preferred by Jung, Zuruckphantasieren (retroactive fantasising). The first keeps the arrow of time moving forward, privileging the original event which leads to its later effects. The second allows for a re-conceptualisation or re-interpretation of the past, meaning that finding the original event doesn’t matter quite so much. Laplanche’s argument is that Freud always comes down on the side of Nachträglichkeit when looking for the explanatory power of trauma – indeed, for all psychical life – in contrast to Jung’s Zuruckphantasieren (it’s true that Freud sometimes uses this term, but he doesn’t give it much importance). However Freud never completely succeeded in defeating the regressive resignification-retroactive fantasising model, as we will see.
What’s the difference between the two? Throughout his work, Freud is meticulous about finding a place for every historical fact in a case – to keep the arrow of time pointing forwards – so that the past always has explanatory power over the present. You have to find the point in the past in order to have a therapeutic effect in the present, he believes. Laplanche describes it as the difference between painting an image with a broad brush versus constructing a jigsaw puzzle. In building a jigsaw puzzle, you not only have to find a place for each little piece in the whole picture, you also have to make sure that the picture is still comprehensible when its put together.
In the fantasy versus reality debate therefore, Freud will always come down on the side of reality, Laplanche argues. This is not because Freud neglects the importance of a ‘psychical reality’ but because he wants to establish a place for the facts which have created that psychical reality. Hence why he avoids Jung’s term – to prevent the inversion of the arrow of time.
But what happens when facts don’t have a place, or when there are gaps between them? Freud reaches outside the jigsaw puzzle.
Let’s follow Laplanche and take the example of the Wolf Man’s case. If Freud wants to justify the importance he gives to the castration threat, he has to explain how his patient would have figured out that women could be castrated in the first place. Freud knows the Wolf Man has a peculiar interest in women with large buttocks, especially when they’re in a certain posture (SE XVII, 41); and he knows that this relates in some way to the scene in which he witnesses Grusha scrubbing the floor (SE XVII, 92-93). But how to connect this to the dream about the wolves? Freud looks further back. Maybe the Wolf Man witnessed a scene of coitus a tergo (anal sex) between his parents (SE XVII, 37)? Maybe it wasn’t his parents, maybe it was the animals on his estate (SE XVII, 57)? Then comes the crucial speculative leap that was to become so important in hastening the split with Jung.
Instead of relying on the notion of Zuruckphantasieren (retroactive fantasising) to explain the timeline, Freud injects phylogenesis. If I can’t find the hypothetical scene of parental coitus in the patient’s memory, Freud thinks, maybe that doesn’t matter quite as much as I thought it did. In fact, even if there were an infantile memory of this scene, why would it be so important as to produce all the effects that I’m witnessing in my patient on the couch? Perhaps, Freud suggests, such a scene isn’t unique to the Wolf Man’s case after all – or indeed to all neurotics – but is part of “the regular store in the – conscious or unconscious – treasury of their memories” (SE XVII, 59). This universal stock of memories would be, “The phylogenetically inherited schemata… like the categories of philosophy” (SE XVII, 119).
And then we find the astonishing line:
“Wherever experiences fail to fit in with the hereditary schema, they become remodeled in the imagination” (SE XVII, 119).
It’s an extraordinarily audacious leap. Freud is effectively telling us that if the facts of the family history don’t fit his theory, so much the worse for the facts. But he is also re-learning his own lesson from the 1890s when – after a fruitless search for a scene of infantile seduction at the origin of the neuroses – he came to the conclusion that fantasy was indistinguishable from reality. “I no longer believe in my neurotica” becomes ‘I no longer believe that the scene I am trying so laboriously to reconstruct in the case of the Wolf Man actually happened’.
So we end up with a schema that looks something like this:
I – The fantasy is determined, après-coup, by the infantile scene
II – Retroactive fantasising (Jung) that Freud never agreed with, but never managed to decisively kill off as an idea
III – Phylogenetic primal phantasies
Daring and original though this hypothesis is, according to Laplanche there are three mis-steps that Freud makes over the course of his career which leave it tantalisingly incomplete (Après-coup: Problématiques VI, p.153):
- He is a prisoner of the arrow of time – Freud fails to recognise the subtlety of his own theory: that Nachträglichkeit can work in more than one direction. He is always looking for the ‘original’ or ‘primal’ event. The Ur- phenomena (primal fantasies, primal scenes, primal father, primal repression) that followed the Wolf Man case study and precipitated the split with Jung were a product of this – as was his recourse to phylogenesis.
- He overlooks the importance of the other’s desire – especially the extent to which it appears as what Laplanche will call an ‘enigmatic message’ from the other. Freud was simply not as interested as he should have been in the desire of the parents (for each other, for the Wolf Man, or for the Wolf Man’s sister – in whatever degree). Were he to have probed this aspect more, Laplanche suggests, Freud would have understood the way in which this enigmatic desire was messaged to the child and the effect its translation had to undergo, which bore the key to determining the shape of the Wolf Man’s later neurosis.
- He introduces a ‘translational’ model of repression but does not advance it – we might add: ‘does not advance it to a theory of trauma’, because this is clearly what Freud is getting at. In a letter to his one-time close confidant Wilhelm Fliess of 6th December 1896 (the famous Letter 52) Freud proposes a model of memory that lays the groundwork for this. Under this model, each memory is broken up into separate memory traces which are in turn inscribed separately across a psychical apparatus, stratified as if they were notes on the stave of a musical score. From time to time, at different points in life, they are re-arranged so that the excitation attached to them can be left behind. This helps us ‘move on’ from the ‘affective weight’ that the excitation carried (time heals). The result is a new inscription of the memory trace with the effect that “memory is present not once but several times over”. During this process of re-arrangement and re-inscription some things get lost, in the same way that a message gets lost in translation when it is transcribed into a different language. “A failure of translation is what we know clinically as ‘repression’”, Freud proposes. While this is a really eloquent and clever theory, what about the things that are ‘to-be-translated’? This where Laplanche has something to say. Freud misses the real implication of the seduction theory, he claims – that humans are translation-making machines – because he doesn’t have a theory of the ‘to-be-translated’. In Après-coup that is precisely what Laplanche tries to add.
2. The sexual is traumatic… but not in the way we might think
And what about sex? To the question ‘what makes a trauma traumatic?’ Freud is convinced that the answer has to do with something sexual in nature. But it’s not enough to say that the sexual is traumatic in and of itself; or even to say that the sexual is traumatic because of some instance of infantile abuse. Real though one may be, by September 1897 Freud had already abandoned his hope that this could provide the complete explanation he was looking for. Instead, he thought that what linked the sexual and the traumatic was an encounter with the sexual which could not be understood as sexual in the moment – in other words, experiences that were ‘sexual pre-sexual’:
“In every analysis of a case of hysteria based on sexual traumas we find that impressions from the pre-sexual period which produced no effect on the child attain traumatic power at a later date as memories, when the girl or married woman has acquired an understanding of sexual life” (SE II, 133).
Around this observation Freud developed quite a clever theory. When he looked at trauma in the mid-1890s he wondered why his patients had such trouble in remembering their traumatic experiences. All seemed to involve scenes of a sexual nature, he noted. His idea was that in normal circumstances traumatic experiences will lose their unpleasurable charge with each successive recall from memory. Time heals, we move on, and gradually we deal with what is in the past. But sexual experiences are different. The magnitude of excitation actually increases as we become more sexually mature, progressing from childhood to adolescence and through to adulthood. Writing to Fliess, he ventures:
“The memory behaves as though it were some current event. This case can only occur where the events are sexual; because the magnitude of the excitations which these release increases of itself as time passes (i.e., as sexual development takes place)” (Freud, Letter 52 to Fliess, in The Origins of Psycho-Analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes, 1887-1902, p.176).
This is why we find that trauma always occurs in two moments (think of the case of Emma). Like sexuality itself, it has a diphasic onset. It is also why Laplanche’s big idea – the ‘General Theory of Seduction’ – is so apposite.
Laplanche’s model involves the transmission of an ‘enigmatic message’ directed to the child by the parental other, with ‘enigma’ here implying that it can come without any intention or overtly sexual resonance on the part of the adult. These enigmatic messages are always linked to the body, and they will always refer to what he calls an ‘exchange zone’ – that is, some kind of opening on the body or privileged point of interface in the relationship between child and caregiver. They constitute the ‘sexual pre-sexual’ experiences Freud was describing. The work that the child has to do to decipher these enigmatic, mixed messages kick-starts the process of sexualisation and socialisation
Let’s take the example of Little Hans to explain this. One morning:
“Hans was given his usual daily bath by his mother and afterwards dried and powdered. As his mother was powdering round his penis and taking care not to touch it, Hans said: “Why don’t you put your finger there?”
Mother: “Because that’d be piggish.”
Hans: “What’s that? Piggish? Why?”
Mother: “Because it’s not proper.””
(SE X, 19)
What’s going on here is that a relationship is being established between the mother and a certain part of Hans’ body, signalled to Hans as a kind of taboo. Hans is not sure why, but he knows that this part of his body is special in some way to the mother – it is a privileged area (an exchange zone) which is the locus of an interest he cannot quite fathom (an enigmatic message). Thus the body starts to get mapped and zoned, and a self-representation is achieved that results in certain parts having special significance as loci of these enigmatic messages (that is, they are sexual pre-sexual). In his own reading of Freud, Lacan will later situate the objects a at these points. For Laplanche, what we see in Hans’ example is a process of implantation and translation.
Freud thought that as we progress through the ‘epochs’ of life – from childhood to adolescence and on to adulthood – memories (or, more precisely, memory traces) will undergo re-transcription and re-translation in the process of dealing with certain things in our past. In Laplanche’s terms they are ‘metabolised’. If this process fails – if something cannot be translated because it is too hot to handle, too traumatic, or overly-sexual – the result is repression (Freud, Letter 52 to Fliess, p.175).
Laplanche’s re-reading aligns nicely to what Freud was getting at: repression is the result of a failure of translation of these enigmatic messages. The difference in Laplanche’s general theory of seduction (compared to Freud’s original, pre-1897 theory) is that it doesn’t presume any overtly-sexualised or abusive intent on the part of the adult towards the child. Instead, Laplanche emphasises the difference between representing to oneself (in French, se representer) and signifying to someone (to a child, by an adult). In fact, the situation is the same for the parents. “These messages are enigmatic for the one who sends them”, he adds. “In other words, they are compromised by the sender’s unconscious” (‘A Short Treatise on the Unconscious’, p.93).
This gives an elaboration to one of the elements Freud misses in his hunt for the ‘primal scene’ of the Wolf Man: the sexuality of the parents, how they dealt with and metabolised their own enigmas, was simply not something Freud seemed to care about that much. Instead, he sort of bypasses the question and heads straight for a phylogenetic explanation in order to root the particularities of the Oedipus complex in human prehistory. We can see how what Dominique Scarfone has called the “fundamental anthropological situation” was very different for Freud and Laplanche. If we care more about the ‘enigmatic message’ and how it has been metabolised however, we don’t have to care quite so much about the material reality of an original scene of sexual trauma. Or in other words, the event.
3. Trauma resists representation… but not inscription
Just as we saw with Freud’s early idea about how traumatic memories are dealt with, all of the different models of trauma share the idea that there is something about a traumatic experience which cannot be integrated by the subject’s psyche. In Part I, we saw this notion appear in different guises, and with different clinical perspectives on what should be done about it:
- We have to re-establish the chain of memory (early Freud);
- We have to construct a historical truth where memory fails (later Freud);
- We have to forge new associative links between traumatic memories and more “adaptive” ones (Shapiro and EMDR therapy);
- We have to strengthen the ‘integrative’ functions of the brain (the thalamus, it is assumed) to build connections between its ‘emotional’ (amygdala) and ‘sensorial-temporal’ (hippocampus) regions (van der Kolk);
- We have to help people to tell their story, give them a voice with which to articulate their testimony (Felman, Laub);
- We have to narrative-build, reconceptualising retrospectively the past in light of the present (Jung’s Zuruckphantasieren)
As we’ve seen, each of these ideas has problems. A simpler distinction however has been emphasised by the British psychoanalyst Darian Leader: that between representation and inscription.
Following a traumatic experience it might be more fruitful, Leader suggests, to look for the production of a minimal inscription existing purely as a marker for the experience, rather than a record of it. This minimal inscription may link to a wider narrative, or it may not. It may carry some kind of meaning, or it may not. Just as Lacan’s idea that the ‘phallus’ is nothing more than a symbolic memorial to a lack, and only indicates the presence of a fundamental irreconcilability in the process of becoming a sexualised subject, so this minimal inscription of a trauma would stand in the place of something inassimilable to the psyche which can never be put into words or images:
“It’s as if at the point where something can’t be thought the psyche fixes on tiny contingent details… [for example, markers of space] which generates the same meaningless elements – geographical, topographical – which have been abstracted from the original situation as simply markers, points of inscription, of something that can’t be thought or imagined” (Leader, comments at LSE’s ‘Why Remember?’ conference, 2015).
Leader has elaborated on this idea in his latest book, Why Can’t We Sleep? He proposes that what can’t be bound psychically – by being assimilated into the pre-existing complexes formed during childhood which have come to structure our unconscious – returns in the phenomena associated with trauma such as recurrent nightmares, waking flashbacks, and bodily dissociation. Such manifestations will resist being framed into a coherent narrative, precisely because they don’t fit into the network of representations we have constructed to explain ourselves and our world:
“Trauma involves a fracturing of subjectivity, a rupturing of physical and psychical boundaries that will not produce a nice neat story, but rather, one with contradictions, inconsistencies, and errors” (Leader, Why Can’t We Sleep?, p.86).
Therapeutically therefore, beginning with this minimal inscription and allowing it to come to the fore might be key in taking the first steps towards a psychical elaboration. In place of a memory for instance (a representation) it would stand in the place of a representation. The psyche could alight on any element, anywhere to produce this – whether a memory-trace of some small detail that is divorced from the traumatic experience itself; an inscription on the body, like a tattoo or scar; or through a textual element or an image like those we find in abstract art. All that matters – in what Leader calls these “practices of inscription” – is that there be the most minimal form of psychical registration, with the sole function of allowing the work of psychical processing to get started. A therapy of whatever kind could then be elaborated and built from there.
As Leader notes, this is very different from an approach which aims to recover a memory, to push someone to represent what has happened, or to encourage them to construct a story around it. If these inscriptions are markers of impossibility – the impossibility to articulate a traumatic experience – we “have to respect the limits of what can pass to the level of language or imagery”. Thinking about the debate between Freud and Jung, attempting instead to merely overcome it would entail the kind of regressive resignification or retroactive fantasising (Zuruckphantasieren) that Freud had been so uneasy with. His ceaseless and highly speculative effort to trace the origins of trauma further and further back – to the origins of human history, even – would seem to be on to something. As so often with Freud, his intuition proves more productive than his conclusion.
In some ways this perspective has parallels with the notion of the ‘real unconscious’, an idea which has undergone substantial elaboration in Lacanian circles in recent years. Its heritage is in Lacan’s late work, particularly the work on Joyce and the sinthome from Seminars XXII and XXIII. The essential argument – for example, the one put forward by Jacques-Alain Miller in his text ‘The Real Unconscious’ – starts from the idea that the signifier as such signifies nothing. This itself is a point made again and again by Lacan, but refined in one of the last sessions of Seminar XXIII (13th April, 1976). The unconscious always supposes a knowledge, Lacan says, and that knowledge is always a spoken knowledge. So, when it’s spoken it can be interpreted. We can say therefore that knowledge needs two supports, two signifiers, which he calls S1 and S2. The job of S1 is to support the subject – “The signifier represents the subject…”, as we recall from the Lacanian aphorism – “… for another signifier”, S2. Hence subjectivity is suspended in the gap between two signifiers. But, as Miller points out, S1 isn’t a representing signifier – in effect it signifies nothing. This is what Joyce’s work makes so apparent, his playful manipulation of the materiality of the signifier-as-such rending it from a meaning we might otherwise have anticipated. So, when we are looking for what is truly unconscious we shouldn’t look for some hidden meaning but for the lack of meaning, Miller suggests. It is on these grounds that he makes a distinction between the ‘real’ unconscious and the ‘transferential’ unconscious: the ‘real unconscious’ is the unconscious without meaning.
This might all sound very vague and theoretical, but it has important implications for a clinic which encourages ‘practices of inscription’ over the production of a meaning, narrative, or the integration of memory as a response to trauma. Where words and images fail, we have three choices: either fall into an unfathomable abyss (psychotic foreclosure); attempt to force a meaning, memory, or narrative into being (retroactive reconstruction); or to respect the limits of speech and memory and work therapeutically within these boundaries.
The latter is the solution Lacan was closest to with his excited preoccupation over the Borromean knot in the late 1970s. As he said in Seminar XXIII, the point of this topological model is to show how the register of the real makes the imaginary and symbolic registers hold together (13th April, 1976). After all, what better example can there be of how representation in words and images can fail than the Borromean knot itself – as Lacan and his collaborators found when attempting to reproduce it in their letters back and forth to each other:
4. Trauma is a reaction to an unbearable proximity… not to an event, but to the other’s desire
The final possible answer we will look at to the question of what makes a trauma traumatic begins from another commonly-noted factor: that trauma is always marked by an over-proximity, an unbearable closeness of some kind. This is often not a physical proximity but one in psychical reality, a reality whose space is different.
Different how? Lacan hit upon the perfect representation of the nature of psychic space when in 1953 he identified a topological model that seemed to defy the standard inside-outside, internal-external dichotomy which had – and still does – govern psychological thinking: the torus. What makes the torus so special, Lacan thought, is that its “peripheral exteriority and central exteriority constitute but one single region” (Écrits, 320-321). In other words, its inside is its outside.
(For more on topology, check out the two-parter on why topology matters in psychoanalysis).
When talking about trauma we often hear people refer to getting ‘distance’ from an event, a ‘hole’ left in their lives, or something from the ‘outside’ that has caused a problem ‘inside’ them. These expressions describe the kinds of spatial proximities that interest topologists. As Lacanian psychoanalyst Eric Laurent has noted, in the same way that the torus allowed mathematicians to re-think the notion of distance in geometry, so too can we use it to re-think psychical distance in trauma (Laurent, Lost in Cognition, p.101).
This is not a metaphor for Lacan. This is the structure of human reality itself. Lacan stuck to this conviction all the way through his teaching, returning to it in his very last Seminar to give it its most radical articulation: “The structure of man is toric”. To which he then added, as if this wasn’t enough: “The world is toric” (Seminar XXIV, 14th December, 1976).
But the twist to our final hypothesis is that the kind of proximity which is problematic in trauma is not to an event but to an other. This conclusion would not naturally seem to follow from Lacan’s assertions about the nature of psychical space. After all, so many ways of treating trauma in fact take proximity to the other as their aim. Think of the way that Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman privilege the effort for a communal registration of trauma, as we saw in Part I; or how historical traumas suffered by certain groups, passed down through testimony and stories shared across generations, can lead to a common group identity or common group narrative. Yet the communal nature of these narratives is in many ways their drawback. In starting from the group they obscure the narrative of the individual, with all the singularity and specificity that a truly subjective experience entails. As we saw in Part I, acknowledging this is vital in understanding what makes a trauma traumatic for one person but not another.
But why proximity to the other’s desire in particular? The Lacanian hypothesis is that an other – any other, whether a loved one or a stranger – always evokes an enigmatic question in us, one that we must ask both of ourselves and of them. Che vuoi? – ‘what do you want?’ – is how Lacan phrases this question in the late 1950s while sketching his famous ‘Graph of Desire’, and it’s no accident that its form most closely resembles a question mark:
This question – Che vuoi? – designates the fact that there will always remain something fundamentally enigmatic about the other’s desire for us: how they see us, what we are for them, and what they might want of us beyond what we can or want to give. In Lacanian parlance, ‘other’ is a term used to denote the radical alterity of another person, but most particularly the alterity of their desire, which will always remain opaque at its heart.
With all this said, it is clear nonetheless that we cannot see the processing of trauma only as a matter of individual agency. It has a function deeply embedded in social and political relations, and we could see Freud’s project in Totem and Taboo – which he called his favourite work – as an attempt to reveal this function beyond its individual manifestations. If we recall Durkheim’s definition of mourning as less an individual act of grief than a duty of the community, it is the presence of a third party that would allow us to move from an intra- to an inter-subjective space in which we can deal with trauma. As we see all around us, there has to be some form of registration of an experience in the domain of the Other in order for it to count as an experience per se. Facebook’s Crisis Response feature – allowing people to mark themselves as safe when there is a disaster or threat in their area – extends the core function of its social network to capitalise on this requirement.
We have seen that there is a fundamental problem with theories of trauma that rely too heavily on the ‘event’ and its magnitude for explanatory power. With this in mind, we could sort and order theories of trauma into those that imply retroaction (for instance, the tradition that begins with Freud’s complicated notion of Nachträglichkeit) and those that imply retrodiction (the regressive resignification implied by Jung’s Zuruckphantasieren, for example). And yet within this another distinction could be made: one that separates ‘scenes’ from ‘screens’.
We know very well the problems of relying on memory to provide an accurate record of an event; and we know equally the hermeneutic traps that are laid for us when we attempt to construct such memories (‘scenes’). Trauma however does not reside in memory, and its persistence is not the result of our inability to recover it through an effort to re-establish the continuity of memory. As Freud showed, memory is neither a transcription nor a fixation – it is more like a transmission or a screen.
As such, the only model of trauma that would seem to make sense is a non-representational one. That is, one that recognises and works within the limits of what can be remembered, reconstructed, put into words, or set into images. ‘Practices of inscription’ and topological models like the torus are non-representational, and so point us towards possible responses to traumatic experiences in ways which may or may not be avowedly psychotherapeutic. In contrast, responses which involve narrative-building or the imperative to create a testimony (whether individually or communally) might provide comfort, insight, and some therapeutic value, but they tell us very little about the nature of trauma itself, and in particular what makes a trauma traumatic.
An early version of this article was delivered in a talk to the North West Regional Psychotherapy Association, Manchester, UK, February 2019.
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
All content on LacanOnline.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
first of all thanks for your effort and great work of bringing of closer psychoanalytic and lacanian thought! I have a question in regards of your trauma article, maybe you can help me with that one.
Shouldn’t be there a difference between a trauma within the symbolic order of the subject and some kind of ‚real trauma‘? The latter could be associated to the ‚real unconscious‘ and is kind of the condition humaine of human subjectivity which always bases on a radical contigent and incomprehensible and therefore traumatic act? In opposition to that I would assume that you can distinguish from this universal traumatic dimension a trauma experienced within the symbolic order or because of the particular structure of the symbolic order of the subject. I am asking this because if so, you could ‚heal‘ this trauma by kind of enlarging or changing the symbolic order of the subject so that the trauma can be integrated – or retroactively spoken it doesn’t have to be traumatizing anymore.
And I have another question regarding sexuality or jouissance and trauma. As you pointed out there is structurally a connection between trauma and proximity which maybe can translated as well to a relationship between the subject and something which is missing or the subject and its desire? Is jouissance therefore always at least potentially traumatic because the subjects enters in jouissance in a relationship to its missing part, which for the sake of it has to be missing, and therefore the more the subjects comes close to it the more it is a traumatizing experience? I think there is a part in seminar X where Lacan is describing this experience. (I don’t know if I get jouissance right here, I haven’t really understood the concept of it..)
Thanks a lot!