Archives for : Freud

Affect Theory and Trauma Theory

railway-station-1363771_1920Affect theory is coming to trauma theory.  In fact it’s already here.  The best account I’ve read is Ruth Leys “Trauma and the Turn to Affect.”  A historian of science, Leys is the author of the highly regarded Trauma: A Genealogy.  This post is indebted to her work. 

The main thing to understand about affect theory is that it has nothing to do with affect–that is, feeling and emotion.  According to affect theorists, affect is a

pre-subjective force that operates independently of consciousness or the phenomenological concept of subjectivity. (Leys, 2012) 

Affect is a mental state, separate from belief and desire, the affect program system as it is called.  Affect is the body acting on itself, free of cognition and emotion on the one hand, the quality of the stimulus, or stressor, on the other.  If this sounds weird, stick with me. 

As Patricia Clough puts it,

Trauma is the engulfment of the ego in memory. But memory might be better understood not as unconscious memory so much as memory without consciousness and therefore, incorporated, body memory, or cellular memory. (p. 6)

 

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Trauma and the pleasure principle

manhandstoheadMany who study trauma from a psychoanalytic perspective turn to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) in order to make sense of the apparent desire of people to repeat unpleasant experiences.  Why, the sensible person wonders, would a traumatized person keep repeating a horrible experience, whether it be war-time trauma, or the trauma of an abusive childhood?  In this context, the term “repeating” covers multiple forms of repetition, from flashbacks and nightmares, to acting-out an original trauma, in which, for example, a woman who was abused as a young girl continues to choose abusive partners.

Freud begins Beyond the Pleasure Principle with what he calls the traumatic neuroses, brought about by accidents and wartime trauma.  However, he quickly turns from “the dark and dismal topic of traumatic neurosis,” to children’s play (pp. 50-52).  The reader is at first disappointed.  Should not Freud have paid more than passing attention to the psychological suffering of so many who had just returned from a war that inflicted immense psychic suffering on its combatants?  He does, but one has to search for it.  Or create it. 

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From a trauma perspective, Freud’s fort-da game replaces Oedipus

B0000852This post is largely based on re-reading Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). If one reads the book from a trauma perspective, the fort-da game he describes is more important than the Oedipus complex in the formation of character.

Readers familiar with Freud will recall his puzzlement over the existence of traumatic nightmares. Freud was surprised because he believed that the mind is organized around the pleasure principle, which would imply that dreams are a variety of wish fulfillment. But, what pleasure could there be to the recurrence of a traumatic experience in a dream, what wish could a nightmare fulfill? “People,” says Freud, “have shown far too little surprise at this phenomenon.” (p. 51)

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