Back of Beyond: Anxiety and the Birth of the Future

By Marder, Elissa | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Back of Beyond: Anxiety and the Birth of the Future


Marder, Elissa, Philosophy Today


The trauma remains traumatizing and incurable because it comes from the future. For the virtual can also traumatize. Trauma takes places when one is wounded by a wound that has not yet taken place, in an effective fashion, in a way other than by the sign of its announcement. Its temporalization proceeds from the to-come.

Jacques Derrida, Rogues

Prologue (Beyond the Pleasure Principle)

Beyond the Pleasure Principle ( 1920) is often thought to be Freud's most philosophical work.1 It is not then surprising, that philosophers have devoted so much critical attention to it. As Jacques Derrida points out in his famous reading of Beyond in The Post Card, Freud's most ambitious metapsychological work attempts to ground psychoanalysis philosophically while refusing to acknowledging its debt to philosophy.2 Many psychoanalysts, however, (particularly Americans) have regarded this book of "philosophy" as a bizarre aberration in Freud's thinking and have excluded it from the accepted canon of psychoanalysis. One of the reasons that philosophers have found the book so interesting is that it offers a radical account of trauma and temporality in the form of the so-called repetition compulsion. Cathy Caruth's important work on trauma, largely derived from a close reading of Freud's description of the belated temporality of the repetition compulsion, has helped inspire a new field of trauma studies and has contributed to Beyond the Pleasure Principle's becoming the principal point of reference for many recent readers of Freud.3

As most readers of Beyond know well, Freud introduces his description of trauma by telling a story. The story that Freud tells is about how some people suffer terrible illnesses (what is now known as PTSD or post traumatic stress syndrome) after surviving war, railway disasters, and other near-death experiences. Surprisingly, however, Freud uses these stories of near-death experiences in order to argue that the illnesses suffered are not caused by the actual threat of death, but rather by the element of surprise itself. People become traumatized, Freud claims, not because they have a close encounter with death, but because they become overwhelmed by fright produced by their encounter with an experience for which they are not prepared. Freud is adamant on this point: trauma cannot be directly correlated to an external threat to life no matter how real the threat may be. Rather, trauma is caused by a rupture in the experience of time itself caused by the state of fright. The repetition compulsion that accompanies trauma is an automatic, uncontrollable, and belated attempt to repair the rift in time caused by the unpreparedness of fright. Because the psyche is overwhelmed by fright, it misses the very experience that provoked the fright. The repetition of the experience is an attempt to prevent the missed event from having happened in the past by preparing for its future happening.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud defines the specific nature of trauma by comparing it to other potential affective responses to situations of danger. He writes:

"Fright" [Schreck], "fear" [Furcht], and "anxiety" [Angst] are improperly used as synonymous expressions; they are in fact capable of clear distinction in their relation to danger. "Anxiety" describes a particular state of expecting the danger or of preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. "Fear" requires a definite object of which to be afraid. "Fright," however, is the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into a danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise. I do not think that anxiety can produce a traumatic neurosis. There is something about anxiety that protects its subject against fright and so against fright-neuroses. (SE, XVIII, 12-13)

According to Freud here, all three terms (fright, fear, and anxiety) describe possible responses to a given situation of danger. …

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