Repression, Recurrence, and Representation


Below are two entries I made in my philosophical journal last summer. They complete my journal reflections on Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally’s Remembering Trauma (Cambridge:  The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), reflections which I began in the entry contained in my preceding post, “Recurrent Trauma and Representational Memory.”

At bottom, one might argue, all trauma is “recurrent,” so to speak. Insofar as trauma is characterized by Freudian “belatedness” (Nachträglichkeit), the very “occurrence” of trauma is characterized as re-occurrence, the coming back around again of what was denied a place to take place heretofore.  Trauma always has, phenomenologically, the structure that Jean-Francois Lyotard in Heidegger and “the jews”, translated by Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts (University of Minnesota Press, 1990) calls a “double blow,” which he describes this way (pp. 15-16):

The double blow includes a  first blow, the first excitation, which upsets the apparatus with such ‘force’ that it is not registered. . . . The discovery of an originary repression leads Freud to assume that it cannot be represented.  And it is not representable because,  in dynamic terms, the quantity of energy transmitted by this ‘shock’ is not transformed into ‘objects,’ not even inferior ones, objects lodged in the substratum, in the hell of  the  soul, but it remains potential, unexploitable, and thus ignored by the apparatus. . . .

The first blow, then, strikes the apparatus without observable internal effect, without affecting it.  It is a shock without affect.  With the second blow there takes place an affect without shock.  I buy something in a store, anxiety crushes me, I flee, but nothing had really happened. . . . And it is this flight, that feeling that accompanies it, which informs consciousness that there is  something, without being able to tell what it is. . . . The essence of the [traumatic] event:  that there is comes before what there is.

This ‘before’ of the quod [the “that”] is also an ‘after’ of the quid [the “what”].  For whatever is now happening in the store (i.e., the terror and the flight) does not come  forth; it comes back from the first blow, from the shock, from the ‘initial’ excess that remained outside the scene, even unconscious, deposited outside representation.

To this way of thinking, then, all trauma as such would  have the paradoxical structure of “the return of the repressed,” the re-turn, that is, of what was denied any turn in the first place (at the point of Lyotard’s “first blow” in the quote above):  All trauma would  be “recurrent” trauma. 

Yet, whatever one finally wants to say about such analyses as Lyotard’s, according to which the phrase “recurrent trauma” becomes redundant, authors such as McNally clearly have an obvious and important difference in mind when they differentiate “recurrent” trauma, trauma which strikes the same person  repeatedly, such as it recurrently strikes children in homes where abuse is the order not just of one day but of everyday, from trauma which strikes only once, so to  speak, such as the railroad accident that Freud himself uses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to explain his notion of “belatedness” itself. 

The difference between those two defining examples is also what is in play, to give another good example, in a book I am currently reading, by clinicians for clinicians, called Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders:  An Evidence Based Guide, (New York:  The Guilford Press, 2009).  Christine A. Courtois and Julian D. Ford, the editors of that volume, use the very distinction at issue in their diagnostic definition of what they, following Judith Herman, a longtime leader in the field of trauma studies and author of the now classic work Trauma and Recovery, call “complex psychological trauma” (p. 1): 

We define complex psychological  trauma as involving traumatic stressors that (1) are repetitive or prolonged; (2) involve direct harm and/or neglect and abandonment by caregivers or ostensibly responsible adults; (3) occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the  victim’life, such as early childhood; and (4) have great potential to compromise severely a child’s development.

In the Sophist Plato says that the philosopher is like the child who, when one offers her the choice between two gifts, one in each of two closed hands one holds out to the child, chooses both.  Well, at least in the present case, I can lay claim to that philosopher’s credential, the one of being like the child begging for both:  I want both what Lyotard’s analysis has to offer, and what the various authors in the “evidence-based guide” to treating victims of  “complex” trauma have to offer.

Whether and, if so, how to have both is the thought that is still struggling to get thought, as I put it in my preceding post, in many of the entries on trauma in my philosophical  journal, including those on McNally given below (from three different days, as indicated by the dates given). 

 Toward the end of the second entry below I refer to contemporary Canadian philosopher of  science Ian Hacking’s notion of an “interactive kind.”  By that he means a concept, or “kind,” the understanding and definition of which is altered by the very behavior of those who accept identification as belonging to the kind in question,their behavior after accepting that classification with regard to themselves.  

In The Social Construction of What? Hacking uses depression as an example of such a “kind,” writing on page 123: 

A person undertakes a certain regimen of  behavioral modification, intended to diminish the  symptoms  and  feelings of depression.  Numerous kinds of behavior are reinforced, all of which run counter to the  classification depressed.  The patient starts to live in this new way.  If the behavior modification works, then even our psychiatric understanding of  depression changes.  Yet simultaneously, by living in this way, adopting certain types of behavior, a certain chemical condition of the brain, thought to be correlated with depression, is alleviated.  We have a dynamic working at the level of classification and biolooping.

A few pages later (on p. 130) he goes on to argue that the emergence of such “interactive” kinds or concepts can actually alter the past itself: 

But the past, of course, is fixed.  Not so. . . . Events in a life can now [after the emergence of a new kind/concept] be seen as events of a new kind, a kind that may not have been conceptualized when the event was experienced or the act performed.  What we experienced becomes recollected anew, and thought in terms that could not  have been thought at the time.  Experiences are not  only redescribed; they are refelt.

A bit later, Hacking applies the idea of an interactive kind to victims of child abuse, even going so far as to argue that with the acceptance of the  identification of oneself as such a victim,  one’s very past itself is  changed.  Thus, he writes (p. 161), with the emergence of the concept of child abuse there occurs “the phenomenon of restrospectively seeing events as abusive which were not directly and consciously experienced as such at the time,” a phenomenon in which there takes place “a radical re-evaluation of childhood experience,  a reclassification, and in a way a re-experiencing of it.”  Regarding this phenomenon, he asks (p. 162),

What happens to the woman who now comes to see herself as having been sexually abused?  I am not referring to the person who has merely kept an awful private secret, who now may feel liberated by being able to talk about it, or oppressed by having it brought to surface consciousness again.  I am referring to entering a new world, a world in which one was formed in ways one had not known.  Consciousness is not raised but changed.  Someone now sees herself as abused as a child, because she has a new concept in terms of which to understand herself. . . . Child abuse is a new kind that has changed the past of many people, and so changed their very sense of who they are and how they have come to be.

With those explanations, I will now turn to the final entries on McNally’s book from my journal last summer.



Thursday, July 24, 2008

McNally, p. 88:  “Reviewing recent epidemiological studies, Rachel Yehuda [in “Post-traumatic stress disorder.”  New England Journal of Medicine, 346. 108-114] emphasizes that interpersonal violence tends to produce PTSD at higher rates than does other trauma.”

P. 96:  “The final proximal [sic.] cause of PTSD may be the way the person interprets the meaning of the stressor.  Ultimately, the psychological  interpretation of the event may be the crucial determinant of whether it produces PTSD.”

P. 110:  “In any event, if replicative nightmares are nothing more than compelling memory illusions [as he has been strongly suggesting], that dreams can seem to replay the event is an important fact about how people remember trauma.  [He’s onto something there.]  Only trauma survivors appear to report the memory illusion of having their traumatic experiences replayed with frightening regularity while they sleep.”


Friday, July 25, 2008

McNally, p. 173:  On “repression”:  “. . . it is often difficult to determine whether the missing information was encoded but is inaccessible, or whether it was never encoded in the first place.”

Even prior to reading this, I was thinking that the best way to take the notion of  repression positively–rather than just rejecting it, as he  does–might well  be to treat it as a matter of not seeing in the first place, rather than seeing (i.e., experiencing), and then pushing down and denying access to consciousness.

At any rate,  if nothing else, at least reading McNally has given me an impetus to return to what first and most interested me in the phenomenon of trauma–even before  I starting thinking of it in terms of [the word] “trauma,” for that  matter, and was just using “event.”  That is what Bergson calls “the impossible but real/actual”–the incomprehensibility, within the horizons [of understanding] it disrupts, of the event.  I want to steer clear of all the endless debate about “repression” and “forgotten[/recovered] memory” (and its counter–“false memory”) and all.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

McNally’s book belongs among such “debunking” volumes as those of Stanton Peel [e.g., The Diseasing of America] (whom McNally does not cite), or of Carol Tavris [e.g., The Mismeasure of Women] or Ian Hacking (both of  whom he does cite).  He does not make any use, however, of what I  find most interesting in Hacking’s discussion of “interactive kinds,” which McNally mentions on the very next to  last page (284) of his book–the notion, which, specifically, Hacking applies to child abuse victims for whom the  new emergence of the very category of such abuse gives them, as it were, a changed past.  That would not fit with McNally’s own axe-grinding operations, I guess, designed, as they are, just to trash notions such as repression, dissociation, or “recovered memories.”  (His discussion of Hacking’s notion of “interactive kinds” is just off kilter altogether, in my judgment.)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting thought, is this where some of our ‘unnatural fears’ come from? I wonder.

    The first blow, then, strikes the apparatus without observable internal effect, without affecting it. It is a shock without affect. With the second blow there takes place an affect without shock. I buy something in a store, anxiety crushes me, I flee, but nothing had really happened. . . . And it is this flight, that feeling that accompanies it, which informs consciousness that there is something, without being able to tell what it is. . . . The essence of the [traumatic] event: that there is comes before what there is.

  2. I ffor all time emailed this weblog post page to all my associates,
    since if like to read it afterward my friends will too.

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