In my previous post1 I wrote about the importance of (and problems with) boundaries in relation to trauma – both on the individual and social levels. I argued that without boundaries it becomes very difficult to define the scope of a traumatic experience. It also becomes difficult, if not impossible, to circumscribe the traumatic event, and, in doing so, to construct a narrative of that event around it. This is true both in the case of individual trauma and in the case of what might be best described as social or cultural trauma.
The one thing that all these types of trauma share in common, I would argue, is the importance of meaning. However, by saying this I do not mean that trauma can be defined as something ‘outside’ of meaning; rather, I would argue that the problem with trauma is that it is ‘inside’ meaning. In fact, not only is trauma ‘inside’ meaning, but it is a function of meaning.
This seems somewhat unfortunate as meaning is often seen as a ‘treatment’ of trauma; in other words, because trauma is usually regarded as an experience (or more precisely the memory of such an experience) that doesn’t make sense, that is somehow ‘outside’ of meaning, then the way to alleviate trauma would seem to be to give it meaning, to assimilate it into the subject’s history.
There are a number of problems with this approach, however. I’ve already mentioned one, i.e. the fact that trauma is a function of meaning, rather than something that can be ‘cured’ by meaning. The other problem is that it is not at all clear what the nature of the trauma is in the first place. Part of the reason for this is a mechanism that I’ve already referred to in a previous post2, that of deferred action or Nachträglichkeit.
There is a lot a misunderstanding with regards to Nachträglichkeit: often it is thought of in terms of a later traumatic event triggering the memory of an earlier one. However, Freud is quite clear that this is not how the process works; rather, the later event constructs, retroactively, the earlier experience as traumatic. Of course, there are some serious conceptual and clinical complications with Nachträglichkeit. Firstly, it seems to fly in the face of common sense: after all, I suspect most people can get their head around the idea that a later traumatic event, for example being physically or sexually assaulted in adult life, can trigger the memory of a similar, earlier event in childhood. But to suggest that the later event somehow ‘creates’ the earlier trauma….how can this be so?
This approach to Nachträglichkeit also has serious clinical implications. To start with, it seems to suggest that memories of early childhood trauma – and abuse – are somehow fabricated, made up. In other words, nothing untoward happened to the subject when he or she was child. This is simply not the case. What this approach to Nachträglichkeit is suggesting is that the earlier experience is impossible to symbolise, to put into words – except retroactively. In other words, the later experience – precisely because it is experienced when the subject is older and more psychologically developed – allows the subject to ‘make sense’ of what happened to them as a child. Admittedly this is a constructed history, but then again so is all history – both individual and social. It is precisely because something untoward, unexplained, inexplicable did happen that it becomes necessary to try and construct a narrative, a meaning, around it.
The real problem with trying to make sense of trauma is that there is always something in the ‘sense’, in the meaning, that doesn’t quite make sense, something that always escapes meaning. And this is not because the ‘sense’ isn’t quite ‘meaningful’ enough; in other words if only we could just find that missing piece of the puzzle…….Rather there is something in the process of ‘sense making’ itself that undermines itself, that ‘generates’, so to speak, non-sense.
Going back to the question of the Great War, which I referred to in my previous post: I argued that one of the reasons it’s important to be clear when the War began and ended is because it allows it to be contained, to be circumscribed. This in turn allows a narrative of the War –and its traumatising nature – to be constructed; and from this emerges both the history and the mythology of the War. One of the unforeseen consequences of such ‘sense making’ of the War is that the more narratives, the more histories, that appear (and over the next four years I suspect we are going to by inundated with them) the less sense it all seems to make. And I’ve already alluded to one example of this lack of sense making, i.e. being able to ‘fix’ the beginning and end of the War itself. The more we know about the history of the period, the clearer it becomes that there is no precise starting or ending point. In many ways it does seem to be a war – and a trauma – without end.