If there is one figure in the history of philosophy who I have never much wanted to delve into, it’s Sigmund Freud. Yet he is also a fascinating liminal point where philosophy, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and medicine all blur together. As well, Félix Guattari once called Freud a brilliant literary thinker because of the evocative power of the images with which he described subjectivity and states of mind. But there was simply so much Freud that, as an academic researcher, I could not specialize in his work without the study of Freud monopolizing all my time. Freud’s work can be interesting, but finding the interesting parts under all of everything else there is more work than a single person can handle if he wants to do something else early in his career.
It’s why I’m glad I have theorists like Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, and Zizek to rely on, to bring Freud’s ideas in various forms to philosophical conversations that touch on wider issues: the nature of subjectivity, the psychological dimensions of political philosophy, and so on.
But in one chapter of Living in the End Times, Zizek points to a single issue in Freud’s work that I find very illuminating of a particular way of thinking about the human mind. This isn’t so prevalent anymore, ironically enough thanks to the psychological and neurological science that developed after Freud’s remarkable epoch of a career. One chapter of this book is an exploration of the nature of trauma, particularly the impact of trauma on the subject, and what that impact reveals about the nature of the subject. Trauma, says Zizek (following an argument from philosopher Catharine Malabou) is the blunt force of an explosion that literally shocks the subject into a catastrophic state. A traumatized person is utterly transformed, a character that cannot return to the state of existence before that shattering act. Malabou offers a vision of subjectivity that understands trauma as a wound with an external cause.
And this conception of trauma wouldn’t be so strange were it not for the ideas of Freud, who saw trauma as an internal breakdown that could be healed by uncovering the meaning that the damage to your personality is hiding. This is terribly contrary to how we understand trauma today, and how Zizek and Malabou conceive of trauma in their books. Talk therapy for victims of PTSD is not about revealing any hidden childhood scars that are the true roots of their traumas. Modern trauma has real, obvious causes: soldiers watched their friends die horribly, children see their parents and siblings immolated in white phosphorus, whole towns of women are gang raped and mutilated. There is no secret meaning here to uncover, only wounds that must be somehow healed.
A wild speculation occurs to me as to why Freud may have thought this way. I’ve done no scholarship on the matter, or much else in terms of research. I am only wondering. Perhaps Freud still clung onto a shade of the old-fashioned dualism that saw mind as a separate substance from matter, obeying its own rules of causality. If the physical was the realm of affects, then the mental would be the realm of meanings. Since trauma is a mental occurrence, so goes this dualistic reasoning, it would have to operate according to the causality of meanings and associations. That was David Hume’s idea as well, that the mind worked not by efficient causality, but by the association of ideas. If trauma is mental, and the mental is a realm of meanings, then trauma is a matter of hidden meanings. A sad, misdirected idea, but fascinating in its own right.