Sigmund Freud and the Trauma Theory

fear-eyesAlthough Sigmund Freud himself inaugurated this field of study, he subsequently abandoned it. Early in his career, he assumed that a history of sexual seduction in childhood was responsible for the neurotic symptoms he observed in his patients. Gradually, however, he moved away from a one-to-one formulation of the relationship of the external to the internal world, to embrace a more nuanced paradigm of conscious/unconscious functioning. As a result, he focused on the role of unconscious fantasies in neurotic conflicts and inhibitions. This shift from the inter-psychic (in today’s terms intersubjective) to the intra-psychic realm had powerful implications for the future of psychoanalysis as a discipline.

Trauma theory emerged in the 1960s from several areas of social concern: recognition of the prevalence of violence against women and children (rape, battering, incest); identification of the phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder in (Vietnam) war veterans; and awareness of the psychic scars inflicted by torture and genocide, especially in regard to the Holocaust. Although Freud never denied the reality of incest in the stories he heard from his early women patients, he chose to direct his attention to the drama of internal conflict instead. Similarly, the psychic shocks and disillusionments incurred by the Great War caused Freud to speculate about the kinds of pathology (flashbacks, recurring nightmares and compulsive repetitive behaviour) inflicted by war experience. Yet his inclination towards grand narrative led him away from an investigation of how traumatic experience affects individuals towards the realm of universal theory, culminating in his formulation of the ‘death instinct’.

In the field of trauma studies, feminists have played (and continue to play) a major role, by calling attention to issues that specifically affect women and children, for example, physical and/or sexual abuse, female sexual slavery, genital mutilation, the practices of suttee, bride burning and ‘honour’ killing, not to mention rape as a routine weapon of terrorism. Studies in cognitive neuroscience, moreover, support the assumptions embedded in trauma theory – that the mind confronted with an overwhelming experience tends to isolate the memories associated with this experience in specific areas of the brain that are inaccessible to conscious recall and (hence) integration into the subject’s ongoing narrative of his or her life history (Kolk, 1985). So-called talk therapy (of the sort that Freud advocated in his psychoanalytic methodology) does not fully access these split-off (often dissociated) areas of neuro-subjective awareness.

maxresdefaultThe point here is not so much that Freud was wrong as that he failed to comprehend the myriad ways in which individual subjects are shaped by their experience of being born to and raised by specific parents or caregivers, subject to unique conditions of class, racial, national and cultural influences at a particular historical moment. Together, intersubjective theory and trauma theory have begun to address these imbalances. Freud is central to an understanding of the meanings and trajectories of the twentieth century. There is no single Freud, whose work can be understood in monolithic terms. If the intellectual history of the second half of the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that the value of Freud’s texts lies precisely in their polyvalence and polysemy, exemplifying the very aspects of conscious/unconscious interplay that first engaged him. Reading Freud along a certain axis it is possible to authorise a number of psychoanalytic lines of thinking that he would not have consciously agreed to, much less anticipated. Many, if not most, of Freud’s followers (including women) have done just that. A reading of Freud’s texts that traces his concern with the condition and gender position he associated with a primary wound (castration) might offer feminists a way not only to deconstruct his thinking about femininity, but also to dissolve the link between oedipal theory and patriarchy.

The pre-oedipal emphasis of much post-Freudian thinking paved the way for a reconfiguration of Freud’s oedipal theory without challenging it at the core. Yet, if one takes the assumptions of these lines of thinking seriously, they lead to an account of origins that displaces the concept of a threatened loss (castration) with one that has always already occurred. In this sense, there is no distinction between the sexes – at least in regard to having or not having the actual (penis) or fantasmatic (phallus) symbol of power. Both Lacan and Derrida were right. Patriarchy (according to Lacan) is an arbitrary social construct – albeit one that persists in representing itself as necessary. Even more radically, Derrida proposed that insofar as patriarchy depends on the phallus as signifier, it founds itself on quicksand. Lacan, in addition, imagined the primitive ego as undefined, if not splintered or dissolved into random energies. In order for the ego to pull itself together, he argued for the necessity of a ‘mirror stage’, a moment in which the child conceives itself as a (falsely) coherent entity, either through the reflection of its mother’s gaze, or through the perception of itself as an imagistic whole in an actual mirror. Derrida was invested in what happens if the ego refuses, evades, or simply acknowledges, its state of incoherence.

In this respect his style(s) of writing also resemble the innovative writing practices of French feminists. Judging from his, and their, examples, it is possible to write (that is to say engage with the order of language and Feminist criticism and psychoanalysis culture) in ways that suggest the multiple possibilities of consciousness that coexist at any given moment of time within a single ‘person’. In each of these accounts, the ego is a fragile, amost illusory, construct. Here the propose is that this particularly useful way of thinking for our time also has its roots in a submerged or subtextual Freud.

The Freud of popular imagination (based in part on his unsmiling, cigarwielding photographic representation) is a rather forbidding figure, a father to be reckoned with. Read from this angle, his texts affirm Oedipus as the guarantor of patriarchal culture and authority. From another angle, a more vulnerable, even tentative Freud emerges – a boy, let’s say, who looks to his mother rather than his father for love, comfort and confirmation of his burgeoning selfhood. Increasingly in biographies and reminiscences of Freud and his followers, this particular child may be glimpsed. But he also appears (symptomatically perhaps?) in the interstices of Freud’s own writings.

In The Ego and the Id (1923/1986: 29), a relatively late work, Freud speculates about the primitive formation of the ego as ‘a precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes’, hence an outgrowth of a process of painful separation. In this view, the ego is a product of childhood mourning – of the mother, her breast(s) or the fantasy of originary symbiosis or plenitude – so archaic as to elude memory and, to some degree, theoretical formulation. There is no evocation of the father, his penis/phallus or threat of castration here. Rather, the infant’s loss of its mother’s body, coveted gaze or exclusive attention signals a fall from grace into individual subjecthood, along with the necessity of finding alternate (symbolic) means of connection and communication. It hardly matters how or when this loss occurs – whether in the mother’s womb (certainly a possibility given what we know about this complex two-in-one condition), during the process of parturition (as Otto Rank speculated) or after. The point is that Freud imagined such a primary loss in imagery that he later attributed to the oedipal drama of castration.

As early as 1917, in Mourning and Melancholia (1917/1986: 253), Freud was thinking about loss (in metaphoric terms) as a wound. In this essay, he states that ‘the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies … and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished’. But the analogy goes back even further, being first introduced in 1895 when he described melancholia to his friend Wilhelm Fliess as analogous to ‘an internal haemorrhage … which operates like a wound’ (Masson, 1985: 103–4). Such a wound, he concludes, constitutes a ‘hole … in the psychic sphere’. The ego, for Freud, is an elegiac, or memorial construct – not so much a thing in itself as a tribute to absence. Both sexes are subject to this melancholy condition, hence equally vulnerable or wounded. Freud’s elaboration of the Oedipus complex, with its emphasis on the father’s physical and social authority, masked this painful reality – as if (paradoxically) to shore up the facade of the Victorian culture he was born into, whose false pieties about sex and family life he actively strove to dismantle. The twentieth century’s history of two world wars, genocidal conflict, cultural modernity and postmodernity, combined with new global configurations of wealth and power, have succeeded in redefining the nature of patriarchal authority. No longer the romanticised psychic structure that Freud conceived – based on the visible, genital emblem of male superiority – patriarchy reveals itself for what it is: an arbitrary assumption of power, founded in a set of widely shared belief systems, historical conditions and material, social practices, which combine to instil and compel individual (and sometimes mass assent.


Source: A History of Feminist Literary Criticism Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers. Cambridge University Press 2007

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3 replies

  1. hello
    I just have an urgent question, when did exactly trauma theory emerge, in 1960s or after the publication of Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience (1996)?


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