Back from the future: Nachträglichkeit revisited

At one point near the end of the Watchmen graphic novel, and in the film of the same name, Dr Manhattan tells his companion and lover Laurie that he has been blinded by a shower of tachyons that he attributes to a nuclear bomb being detonated by the ‘villain’ of the story, Adrian Veidt.1.  However, the key point to note here is that because tachyons travel faster than light (and physicists are still divided about whether such particles actually exist) the explosion must have occurred in the future.  In other words, the particles were travelling backwards in time and  Dr Manhattan was ‘foreseeing’ a nuclear catastrophe that took place in the future through its tachyon ‘signature’.

Putting aside the online debate as to whether Dr Manhattan was actually blinded at all by such a tachyon shower and whether this could be attributed to a nuclear explosion in the first place, this made me think more about the nature of trauma and its retroactive nature.  As I have argued in a number of posts on this blog, Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is a way to try and conceptualise the retroactive nature of trauma.  According to Freud, childhood sexual experiences and abuse are not registered as traumatic at the time; it is only later on, post-puberty and when another sexualised experience occurs, that the individual is traumatised.  This is because it is only at this later point in time that the subject can fully recognise the nature of the original experience, and in the process of such a recognition becomes traumatised by it.  For this process of recognition to occur, however, there has to be a temporal ‘looping back’ from the later experience to the earlier one; it is not, as some have argued, that the later experience ‘triggers’ an existing memory of an earlier event, but rather that the memory itself is only constructed retroactively.

There is, however, a serious flaw with this way of looking at Nachträglichkeit and the whole concept of retroactive trauma.  Essentially it rests on a conflation of two different notions of time and temporality: the physical and the psychical; or, to put things more simplistically, a conflation of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ time.  The temporality of physics and mathematics is very different from the temporality of psychoanalysis.  In psychoanalysis, time travel is perfectly feasible and happens all the time, because it is based on a continual reconstruction of the past from the present.  In fact, we can go one step further and argue that because the individual is often subjectively experiencing the reconstructed past as if they were actually ‘back in it’, e.g. as a young child, then to all intents and purposes they have travelled back in time.

Except, of course, they haven’t.  And this is where the problem of conflation of language really becomes a problem.   The psychical past is nothing like the past of physics or mathematics.  In fact, in physics and mathematics temporality is to all intents and purpose spatial, hence the concept of space-time.   Therefore, a ‘past’ event can essentially be mapped out as a set of coordinates in the fabric of the space-time continuum, as can a possible ‘future’ event.  In the human psyche, however, ‘the past’ is essentially a symbolic construction, which has nothing whatever to do with a position within the space-time continuum.

This is a critical distinction when it comes to the question of trauma and how this relates to the concept of Nachträglichkeit .   In psychoanalysis, ‘childhood’ is a construction used to develop a narrative or discourse of subjective development, which often uses the concept of ‘stages’ .  A classic example, of course, is Freud’s idea of the anal, oral, phallic, latent and genital stages, which between them cover the lifespan of the human subject.  But these stages have very little, if anything, to do with the actual biological and physical development (and decline) of the human organism.  In fact, one could argue that psychoanalysis owes its very existence to the fact that psyche and soma do not correlate that easily, if at all.  Thus we can have a (biological) fifty year old who is subjectively or psychically a five year old, and so on.

So what does this mean with regards to the concept of retroactive trauma?  According to the ‘standard’ reading of Nachträglichkeit ,  at some point post-puberty the individual has a deeply disturbing experience, which may be sexual, violent or both.  This experience triggers a temporal ‘looping back’ to an earlier experience in the individual’s childhood which constructs the trauma.  But here lies the problem: the notion of a ‘temporal looping back’ is a fiction; or rather, a metaphor.  There is no ‘going back in time’ in any meaningful sense; rather, there is a construction of symbolic chain, a network of signifiers, which creates the illusion of a ‘going back in time’.  Such a network of signifiers creates the narrative of the subject, their history.  Or rather, such a network of signifiers positions the subject within a narrative of subjectivity, and in this particular instance, within a narrative of childhood sexual experience/abuse.  In other words, it actually makes no sense to relate the ‘later’ experience to the ‘earlier’ one in any temporal sense, because temporality does not enter into the equation in the first place.

But trauma certainly does, and this is the problem.   In order to appreciate why, we need to think more closely about the nature of trauma itself.  Trauma is essentially an encounter with the Real, and such an encounter happens in the present, in the here-and-now.  Or does it?  And this brings me back to Dr Manhattan and his tachyon shower.  Remember, the tachyons were the ‘signature’ of an event that had yet to occur, that is, a nuclear blast.  What if we were to look at trauma in the same way?  What if trauma actually came from the future rather than the past?

Now, of course, in one sense this possibility is already contained within the ‘standard’ reading of Nachträglichkeit , in that a ‘later’ event sets up a retroactive signification which results in trauma.  The subject experiences the trauma as if they were ‘back’ in the ‘original’ situation within which the ‘earlier’ event occurred.  Think, for example, of someone who was abused as a young child but for whom at the time, if we are to take the Freud’s idea of Nachträglichkeit  seriously, this was not registered as a traumatic experience.  It is only when a second experience occurs later on, for example, an abusive sexual relationship, or even reading about sexual abuse in the media, that the individual experiences trauma.

But is it actually the case that they experience such trauma as if they were back in the original situation?   One of the critical points here is that the idea of an ‘original’ (traumatic) situation is itself a retroactive construction; it’s an effect of signification.  This is not the same as saying nothing happened at this earlier point; rather, it is simply to say that whatever it was cannot, within the context of the theory of Nachträglichkeit , be described as ‘traumatic’.  But why then is this later experience traumatic for the subject?   Quite simply because , as I mentioned earlier, it represents an encounter with the Real.  Therefore, there is no need, in fact, to invoke the idea of an ‘original’ trauma at all; and in any case, this is not what the theory of Nachträglichkeit , even in its ‘standard’ reading, presupposes.  Rather, the trauma appears as an effect of the retroactive construction of the subject’s history.

So, whichever way you look at it, the trauma is not something that occurs in ‘the past’, but rather in the present. But how can we go from this argument to the the idea that source of the trauma originates from the future?

In order to develop this argument, I need to refer back to a previous post in which I explored Tom Eyers’ idea of the Real as signifiers-in-isolation, as opposed to the Symbolic being a network of signifiers-in-relation.  Let’s suppose for a moment that such signifiers-in-isolation are the psychical equivalent of tachyons.  In other words, they can provide a ‘signature’ of an event that has yet to happen; except in this case ‘yet to happen’ has a different meaning to the one it has in physics.  Rather, it refers to the idea of the unsymbolised, the unrepresented, to the idea of unbeing.

Does this mean, therefore, that we could define the (psychical) ‘future’ as the un-symbolised, just as the psychical ‘past’ could be defined as that which is symbolised, formulated, made into a history?  If so, where does this leave the Real?  In a way it would seem to make perfect sense to equate the future with the Real, because what is the Real if not the unsymbolised, the unformed?  Furthermore,  as I’ve pointed out above, the Real can be thought of as signifiers-in-isolation, which can only symbolise something when they are brought into relation with other signifiers.  So in this sense it would seem that the ‘future’ can indeed be equated with the Real.

However, this is not the only way the ‘future’ is conceptualised, because if it was it would be impossible to make any plans.  This is why the other way to think of the ‘future’ is in terms of an extrapolation of the ‘past’, which has already been symbolised, formulated, historicised.  The problem here, of course, is that this works fine until there is a rupture in the process of extrapolation, which could also be another way to define trauma.  At this point the Symbolic-Imaginary future becomes a Real one.

And going back to Dr Manhattan one more time, that shower of tachyons blinded him from being able to see into the future (which, as some commentators have pointed out, is why Adrian Veidt exploded the nuclear device in the first place).  So using the analogy of signifiers-in-isolation as a form of ‘psychical tachyons’, then we could argue that an eruption of the Real produces a ‘shower’ of signifiers-in-isolation which effectively ‘blind’ us from ‘seeing’ the future in terms of being able to extrapolate the (known) past.  Instead we are confronted with the truly unknown, a fracturing of the Symbolic-Imaginary fabric of the world.  And this of course brings us back to the idea of trauma as a manifestation of the Real.

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  1. ‘The use of the term ‘villain’ being totally ironic in this context bearing in mind the overall plot of Watchmen where the distinction between ‘villain’ and ‘superhero’ is completely blurred.  How, for example, would you characterise Rorschach? []