In search of the lost future

The ‘classical’ view of trauma is that [i] it is based on experiences which cannot be assimilated, made sense of, by the individual; and [ii] originates in the (early) past of the individual.  Of course, such a traumatic experience need not occur in infancy or childhood; Freud himself recognised that some psychopathologies (the ‘actual neuroses’) were the result of trauma in the here and now.  His classic example was that of the railway accident, but now we would include car and plane crashes, acts of terrorism, rape, genocide………the list goes on and on.

However, the concept of Nachträglichkeit calls both these assumptions into question.  And furthermore, I would argue that this does not just apply to individual life histories, but to history in general.   However, before attempting to broaden out the scope of Nachträglichkeit it might be helpful to explore in more detail the rather peculiar notion that I had already touched on that trauma emanates from the future, rather than the past.

The past and the future correspond precisely to one another. And not any old how – not in the sense that you might believe that analysis indicates, namely from the past to the future. On the contrary, precisely in analysis, because its technique works, it happens in the right order – from the future to the past. You may think that you are engaged in looking for the patient’s past in a dustbin, whereas on the contrary, it is a function of the fact that the patient has a future that you can move in the regressive sense.1

As Alexander Williams notes in his in paper on Lacan and time, and particularly in his commentary on this quote from Seminar I, Lacan does not view analysis as ‘a simple case of reconstructing and reconfiguring the past and future in the present’.2 In this sense, Lacan is contra Augustine, for whom there was only the now.  If analysis was ‘simply’ a case of reconstruction and reconfiguration then Nachträglichkeit would in many senses simply be the ‘wisdom of hindsight’

One of the strange ironies of the ‘classical’ view of trauma, which I’ve touched on previously, is that, in an almost perverse way, it can bring ‘comfort’ to the individual who has been subjected to trauma – and often to those around them as well.  This is because ‘suddenly it (their psychopathology) all makes sense’; in other words the subject’s history has meaning, even if this meaning is that they suffered terrible abuse as a child.

But the idea of Nachträglichkeit effectively completely undermines this idea, because the subject’s history is no longer defined in terms of what happened in the (fictional) past, but rather in terms of how that ‘past’ is constructed from the future.  Furthermore, it is not a case of ‘suddenly it all makes sense’, but rather that it’s precisely the ‘making sense’ that constructs the trauma in the first place; and in doing so, the subject comes to realise what they always already will have been, which is a matter of their relation to/in the Real.  The ‘trauma’ is precisely the realisation by the subject that they are Other than they thought they were; a thought which is based around an imaginary construction of identity.

How does this idea of trauma relate to history in general?  In other words, can the concept of Nachträglichkeit be applied in any other context other than that of the psychical history of the human subject?  Previously I have looked at the proposition which argues that ‘history’ as we normally understand, i.e. that as defined by professional historians, is different from that of the history as understood by psychoanalysts.  However, my conclusion was that this is a false dichotomy, because it is based on the (false) assumption that the history of the professional historian is an account of ‘how it actually was’, of ‘historical facts’, whereas the histories that emerge in psychoanalysis are more an account of how individual subjects construct their past within the dynamics of the analytic relationship.

The reality is, however, that all history is a construction; but a construction of what?  In one sense, the answer is simple: ‘the past’; but what does this mean.? As we have already seen, ‘the past’ is a slippery concept and, according to Zachary Schiffman, only appeared in the Renaissance.  And one thing that becomes clear in Schiffman’s argument is that, in many ways, ‘the past’ represents something lost.  For Augustine, this was the loss was represented by a separation from God – albeit a loss that would be rectified at the end of time.  For the Renaissance scholars, the loss was represented by antiquity and the wisdom of the ancients.  In more recent time, this loss seems to have become something more abstract and is often represented by a loss of ‘nationhood’, ‘national identity’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘the good old days’, ‘the 1950s’, etc.

In other versions, the loss is more nuanced; think for example of the idea of the ‘socialist utopia’, which is supposedly just over the horizon (but for some reason ever receding), or even of the idea of ‘progress’ itself, which is also orientated towards a future horizon.  These last two examples appear to represent a break with the notion of ‘the past’ as the subject of history, but ironically they also seem to be a return to an eschatological concept of history.  In other words, at some (undefined) point in the future history will end and there will be a realisation of the City of God in some form (secular or otherwise).

Another way to look at this is to argue that human history is essentially a state of incompleteness, of lack; in fact, that the whole notion of loss is predicated on such a lack.  Something is lacking, therefore it must have been lost.  Of course, this implies that ‘it’ was there originally, before it was ‘lost’, ‘stolen’, ‘cut off’.  And, of course, this equates with Lacan’s concept of the objet a, the lost object par excellence.  But the strange thing about the objet a, in all its incarnations, is that it only becomes recognised at the moment of its disappearance.  In other words, the fantasy of the lost object is constructed to ‘explain’ this sense of lack in the subject.

At the same time, though, there is always a nagging sense that this ‘lost’ object is not quite as lost as it is supposed to, which (paradoxically perhaps) gives rise to anxiety.  In other words, anxiety is not related to the fear that something might be lost – which, of course, it always already is; but rather that the ‘lost’ object may be about to ‘return’.   And this perhaps highlights one of the paradoxes of history, especially in its (quasi) eschatological form: that its end must never actually be realised, that the ‘lost’ object must never return.  In other words, the Real must not be made flesh, because if it is then, literally, all hell will break loose.

But where does the notion of trauma fit in to all this?  If we go back to the notion that trauma is not the absence of meaning but rather, through the process of Nachträglichkeit , the subject’s realisation of their relation to the Real, then the trauma of history is precisely the realisation that the meaning of history is Other than we think it is.  This applies particularly to the idea of history as a narrative of never-ending ‘progress’.  Rather, history appears to be an unending succession of attempts to fulfil itself, with predictable and usually devastating consequences.

  1. Lacan, J. 1988. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.157 []
  2. Williams, A. 2013. Forward Into the Past: The Past, Present and Future  in Jacques Lacan. Stet. (Stet #3),pp.1–14. []