Saturday, 28 August 2010

Trauma (II) In our Fingernails

Railway Spine.  This was the name given to victims of railway accidents in Victorian Britain who suffered trauma.  The symptoms were both psychical and somatic and included mental confusion, blurred vision, and noises in the head.  A surgeon, John Erichsen, who gave this illness its name, believed it had a physical, neurological cause. His ideas were highly successful in convincing judges and juries that the effects of trauma were no different from the effects of other physical accidents; winning many compensation claims against the railway companies.

Thomas Laqueur compares him to Charcot; who also believed that trauma had a neurological basis, though he thought it was due to a congenital weakness within the patient – they had a susceptibility to it. 

Then came Freud.

It was Freud that popularised the view that trauma was a psychic rather than a physical illness; due to repression of disturbing memories, or through our ordinary mental development: ‘as a result of the process through which infantile and childhood sexuality was shaped into its adult form’ (Thomas Laqueur).  Either bad memories, or natural mental growth, created disturbing psychic phenomena that had to be released, like air out of a vent, through psychoanalytic therapy.  Only then would we be well.

Laqueur is good on all of this.  He shows how the views on trauma have shifted; from something that happens to the victim from outside (a train wreck), to something that originates from within (our maturing sexuality).  And he makes the extraordinary interesting point that the moment Freud’s thinking changed from believing that an actual event caused the trauma, his seduction theory, to his view that is was a part of mental development, the incident or event no longer counted, it became irrelevant.   That is, a significant chunk of Freudian thinking rested purely on an idea, without any empirical foundation! No one can prove, for example, that the Oedipus Complex actually exists, or if it does, that it applies to everyone.  For what Freud did was to work back from the effects… but you can’t conclusively prove the cause unless at base there is some empirical fact; which you can test experimentally, and show convincingly the connections between them both.  Otherwise, you can only infer, make strong guesses, and have the occasional insight; which is why Freud was not a scientist, though his influence almost certainly depended on this belief (Ernest Gellner shows how it was the scientific persona of the psychoanalytic movement that gave it authority).

Think about this, and then compare Freud, particularly his later years, when he used his psychoanalytic theories for large scale historical speculation, with the two authors in a previous post; who turn trauma into a concept of world historical importance, that will create ‘a new relationship to time and memory, to mourning and obligation.’ 

Here is Freud, on the origins of Monotheism:

Early trauma – defence – latency – outbreak of neurotic illness – partial return of the repressed.  Such is the formula which we have laid down for the development of a neurosis.  The reader is now invited to take the step of supposing that something occurred in the life of the human species similar to what occurs in the life of the individuals: of supposing, that is, that here too events occurred of a sexually aggressive nature, which is left behind them permanent consequences but were for the most part fended off and forgotten, and which after a long latency came into effect and created phenomena similar to symptoms in their structure and purpose. (Moses and Monotheism)

The chains of sexual repression are broken, and out pops God!  Very 19th century in the idea that we create our deities; coupled, of course, with the new psychoanalytic variant – sex is the cause of it all.  This is not to say that Freud is wrong.  He could be right; we just don’t know.  Compare with David Hume, who also has interesting ideas about religion and society; many of which again, would be difficult if not impossible to prove.  However, Hume was also an historian, who tried to ground his ideas and speculations on fact and historical evidence.  Freud quotes historical sources, and seeks to assure us that he sticks to the evidence, but the sense is much more that he selects and interprets the source material to match his theories.  Here’s his response to critics in Totem and Taboo:

To this day I hold firmly to this construction.  I have repeatedly met with violent reproaches for not having altered my opinions in later editions of my book in spite of the fact that more recent ethnologists have unanimously rejected Robertson Smith’s hypotheses and have in part brought forward other, totally divergent theories.  I may say in reply that these ostensible advances are well known to me.  But I have not been convinced either of the correctness of these innovations or of Robertson Smith’s errors.  A denial is not a refutation, an innovation is not necessarily an advance.  Above all, I am not an ethnologist but a psychoanalyst.  I have a right to take out of ethnological literature what I might need for the work of analysis. (my emphasis)

What is rather wonderful about this passage is its certainty and dogmatism – I know I am right!  This is the mindset that would stop progress of real science (although individual scientists are no doubt prone to his character trait).  And his absolute confidence: I am a psychoanalyst, and can interpret the material as I see fit.  Note how he relegates ethnology to inferior status; for it is just material for his analysis. A little more humility, and scientific curiosity, and he might actually learn about the topic, which in turn may influence and alter his own views and profession. But no, he looks for facts like a treasure hunter for gold on a lost ship.  He gives sermons rather than lectures; he decodes the world rather than understands it; and his words have the power of the Absolute; and like any sacred text they cannot be altered, only the rest of the universe. For in a religion you not only see the truth, you feel it and live it, it inhabits you – it is no longer a rational exercise.  This allows the believer to create their own conceptual world; without relation to the landscape around them.

Ernest Gellner ends his book with a marvellous comparison of Freud and Nietzsche (and which captures something of the above):

History played an old joke on Europe in making Nietzsche a German, and Freud a Jew.  It could hardly have gone further in inverting customary stereotypes.  Nietzsche, bitterly, sardonically self-ironizing, fully aware of the way in which his problems and solutions were rooted in his own past, of the way in which efforts at transcending it were but one further example of its power, aware of the way in which such self-knowledge undercut itself, was gnawing steadily  at his own innards; Freud,  sturdily, beefily confident, never applying the acid of his own ideas to those ideas themselves, never adapting the devaluing explanations which he applied to others to his own central positions, his values barely shaken when their foundations were removed, untroubled by or unaware of the circularity of his own reasoning…

…Nietzsche ended in madness, which has a certain fittingness and dignity in one who had undercut the bases of rationality and hence of any defensible criteria of sanity.  Freud died clinically sane, with confidence undiminished, and evidently allowing himself wilder speculations.
To return to the original question, to Freud’s speculations and his new friends’ metaphysical claims: are ideas really that powerful?  In order to have that power they need some agent to act in the real world – science needs technology to change our landscape, both natural and social.  Without that, without some physical carrier, they remain just ideas; words on a simple page.

Freud is often seen as the revolutionary thinker of the 20th century, a new Darwin, a biologist of the mind, as one writer once called him.  In retrospect it would appear he was neither – though he did have profound effects, a good example of how we much separate out the quality of the thought from the quantity of the influence.  For instead of looking forward to the biological reduction of the mind to the body, he reinforces the older view that the mind was a separate entity.  We see this even with his views on the unconscious, which, if we read him carefully, is for him clearly part of the rational mind.

But what if we go back to Erichsen and his belief that trauma was something physical; in its causes, but also in some of its effects.  From this theory we could speculate that part of our mind, even our very thoughts, are physical in origin.  Think of David Hume who calls our imagination, the organising facility in the mind, an instinct; and there’s Noam Chomsky and his bio-linguistic model, and its idea that there are mental organs, which grow in the brain.  If we follow this reasoning if would appear that much of what contributes to our conscious thought may well go on in our bodies… Think of Eliot linking creativity to a kind of illness; which I take to be, based on my own personal experiences, a description of physical, not psychical, processes.

We think with our bodies; which is perhaps our real unconscious.  And when they surface in our minds, to become ideas or concepts, it is only then that the rational, conscious mind takes over.  Thus our thoughts are made both of mind and body; though how exactly this is done, is another story…  Will we ever know its end?  For Fassin and Rechtman raise the other fundamental problem: how is it possible to have ideas that appear to relate to nothing but themselves?  Thus the biology of the mind needs to explained, but also the metaphysical quality of ideas; of how they can be self-contained and self referential.  Or, as Francis Bacon once wrote, how can we create our theories like a spider spins its web?

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