Monday, December 17, 2007

Trauma, trace, and the bodily in Freud

Cathy Caruth's important book, Unclaimed Experience, at bottom just proceeds on the wrong path to understanding how trauma marks experience in Freud. I'll elaborate on this more, but the problem can actually be stated quite simply. Caruth, like Lacan (to a certain extent), starts out from Beyond the Pleasure Principle to understand trauma, and then proceeds to read its structure back into the rest of Freud's corpus. What this overlooks is the persistence of the concept of the memory-trace from Freud's earliest writings on. Thus a confusion occurs in Caruth as to the relationship between trauma and the memory trace. Trauma marks the subject like the memory-trace. The only difference is one of degree: traumatic experience is the excessive force of an experience entering the psyche and puncturing the whole mystic structure of the memory apparatus. Thus the memory-trace is only a potential trauma: trauma is latent in any experience. This faulty reasoning, which seeks to merely use a language of marking without looking into its logic, becomes most evident in her hackneyed attempt to outline an "ethics" of trauma (she says trauma must be remembered, which makes no sense), though again this is present already in her first sketches of her reading of Freud. In the end it empties out the concept of trauma of much of its meaning.
However, another option remained open to her: the reverse path, which starts with the primacy of the memory-trace in Freud's thought (especially in his early sketch for a scientific psychology), and then only proceeds to Beyond the Pleasure Principle and its analysis of trauma as a breakdown in this theory of memory. Derrida, the person who made available to Caruth the language of marking, takes this path. On this reading, trauma isn't a non-experience because what has been traumatic has imprinted itself indelibly on the subject, but rather because it constitutes a break in an apparatus that constantly is laying down memory-traces which are traces, that is, lay themselves down in order to defer themselves through experience. This means that the non-experience is that of a non-memory qua trace. Thus experience is led back to the memory-trace in order to trace it. This is traumatic repetition, the return to lay down as if for the first time an experience that one supposedly already had. Caruth explains repetition as the inability to get over an experience that formed itself into a gap because it was over-full: that is, it is a memory, which for Freud is absolutely not the case.
This is a bit sketchy (and of course I'm over-simplifying Caruth... though actually not much I think), but I will revise this and outline it more.
The thing that is probably the clearest proof that Caruth is mistaken in her view, and Derrida more correct, is that for Freud the psyche is bodily. Freud (famously) says in The Ego and the Id, "the ego is first and foremost a body-ego. It is not merely a surface entity, but is in itself a projection of a surface." He also (and also famously) writes in a brilliant late note: "the psyche is extended, knows nothing about it" (in Schriften aus dem Nachlass, the last volume of the Standard Edition). And--and here is the key thing I'd like to personally suggest--also all his continual references to grounding psychoanalytic findings in biology and neuroscience, far from being just empty speculation or falsities, can be seen as meditations on this embodied state of the psyche: they indeed presuppose this to be the case in order to be speculations at all. All this noted, we can see that for Caruth, trauma remains a penetration of the bodily into the mental, the outside into the inside, while for Freud the bodily nature of the psyche actually already constitutes any "inside" or "outside." In fact, the embodied nature of the mind is precisely what allows trauma to happen to it: trauma does therefore not stem from the instant the mind is disturbed and made too aware of its bodily nature. So in Caruth we have the paradox that a theory of trauma as marking, imprinting, etc. would end up being radically unable to account for the body within trauma, i.e. would remain more idealist or subjectivist than ever.


Matthew said...

I'm not sure I understand the contradiction between the psyche being embodied and trauma being a penetration of the bodily into the mental.

That is, can't the psyche become aware of its own embodiment at moments of (for example) physical or psychic pain? What I've read suggests that this is in fact trivially true.

What about trauma makes these two terms incompatible? I think this is what you explain in your metaphor of containment, but I'm not sure I follow.

I don't mean in any sense to recuperate Caruth from your larger objection, which is that her line of argumentation tends to detach most of the meaning from "trauma."

Mike said...

Of course the psyche can be aware of its embodiment in pain--I'm saying that pain (or unpleasure) is for Freud part of a pleasure principle within the mind which trauma must go beyond. I'm not saying the bodily can never penetrate into the mental, just that what is constitutive of trauma is that embodiment itself is troubled, not what is embodied. Put another way (a la Merleau-Ponty/neuroscience), pain is a correct functioning of the embodiment of the mind. Trauma, though perhaps having something to do with an increase in pain, is not reducible to it as Caruth ends up arguing. Trauma is a troubling of the very possibility in embodiment of pleasure and pain: this means trauma is bodily, but only if we consider the body as dislocated within the functioning of embodiment--that is the body in trauma often appears as such because all of a sudden it is ripped out of its normal functioning where it becomes visible only primarily as an involved unit within an embodied action. Of course the body can be present to us as such in our objective picturings of it, thinking on it, etc, but trauma is really when this occurs, when the contingency of the bodily disrupts any ability of the mind to integrate it back into the embodied system. Maybe that helps--I don't know if I'm being clear though I get the general thrust of the question. This is of course all sounding too much like it isn't Freud, but trust me, I'll read his amazing description of the "encrusting" of the mind in BPP and show this is more of the case. Everything revolves around that interesting fragment: the psyche is extended (has extension), knows nothing (is unconscious) about it. The unconscious is constituted by the fact there is a bodily-ego: this fragment is clearer than that passage in the Ego and the Id, which deals too much with "projection," with what you are concerned about--how we could have awareness of the body at any time (and have that not be trauma!).

Mike said...

Oh, and if this is interesting to you, check out Kaja Silverman's book The Threshold of the Visible, which outlines it pretty well, and also has pictures: she's a film studies genius at Berkeley! I like any theory book with pictures.