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Number 9: Winter 2013

From Leakage to Slippage: The Question of Trauma In Psychosis

Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130


If you are a painter, you know how important a good primer is. A low-quality primer will reportedly fail to seal the canvas properly, leading the paint to leak through over time. As a result, your painting will not withstand the passage of time. If you are a psychotic painter, the harmful effects of a bad primer might apply to you in more than one way for, unbeknownst to you, you are subject to another kind of ruinous leakage, one that also pertains to some form of primer deficiency. One of the striking features of psychosis indeed, along with the failure of the mechanisms of repression–and that is, in fact, not unrelated–is arguably the fact that the unconscious as such does not exist as a fully differentiated, sealed-off domain. Following Freud’s first topography more specifically, the basic partition between the unconscious system, on the one hand, and the preconscious/conscious system, on the other hand–a partition which is, in fact, constitutive of the topography itself–is fundamentally faulty. But if I were to share this insight with a psychotic painter, I would undoubtedly be wasting the painter’s time because this metaphor, like all metaphors, is radically unavailable to a psychotic perspective. The possibility of double entendre, of any metaphorical dimension can indeed be said to be barred in psychosis, as the foreclosed metaphor of the defective primer ironically encapsulates.

The primer deficiency at fault, more specifically, is a primal process, one that Freud refers to as primal repression and which he holds as constitutive of the unconscious. This is where, I believe, things have gone wrong for the pychotic, in this mythical moment when the unconscious comes to be as a distinct psychic domain. Three key-terms involved according to Freud: fixation (which he also refers to as inscription, perhaps a clearer term in this context), anticathexis (in fact, the sole mechanism operating in primal repression, as Freud insists [1915b: 181]) and trauma. Freud is talking about a mythical trauma here, naturally, a hypothetical first cause, just as mythical as the primal split that it entails. Exogenous at first, trauma thus seems to be what sets the whole thing in motion: something breaks through the external barrier, the emergence of a breach–therefore of a difference–triggering a process of inscription/fixation. This is how Freud puts it: “We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychic (ideational) representative of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the drive remains attached to it” (1915a: 148). Two difficulties we need to address in this account: a logical one and a terminological one.