Back to contents
Number 9: Winter 2013

Trauma and the Ghost Dance of Psychoanalytic Practice

Brid Greally

Historically, trauma has played a key role in the development of psychoanalysis. The dilemmas which trauma  presents in relation to memory and identity have from the beginnings of psychoanalysis spurred on attempts to address the role of the event in sexual abuse, the role of fantasy in oedipal conflict, the compulsiveness of repetition and the death drive. Since the 1970s, identity politics including feminism and post-colonial studies have drawn on the diagnosis of trauma in order to understand oppression. The Yale School of Trauma Studies, influenced by post-structuralism, has attempted to address the effects of the Holocaust. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association, in their revised edition of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) installed a break with psychoanalysis and created the new illness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which focused solely on the external event (APA 1980).

In a discussion of the viability of psychoanalytic practice I intend, through an engagement with some of the threads of post-colonialism and feminism, to explore the challenge which trauma presents to clinical practice and the controversies that trauma raises in realising a psychoanalytic understanding of oppression. Wendy Brown (1995) in a sympathetic yet critical engagement with feminism, is concerned with how an emphasis on the injured self and trauma seeks to justify interventions of the state in the name of freedom. She is concerned with the unintended consequences that have arisen when feminism has turned to the state to redress male dominance. She is troubled by how toxic resentments can parade as radical critique if feminism draws solely on grievances to legitimate its claims.  The over use of trauma is in danger of creating a ‘wound culture’ where oppression gets reduced to an individual engagement with a therapeutic process. A similar criticism has been made of the appropriateness of the use of trauma counsellors in non-Western areas of political conflict (Craps 2014).

I have situated the pervasiveness of discourses on trauma within questions pertaining to the loss of psychoanalytic practice in the public sector. The embrace of the NICE guidelines produces what could be described as a ‘haunting’.  It involves the valorisation of knowledge, surveillance and objectivity and is an example of what Irigaray would call the Male Imaginary (Greally 2013). Drawing on some interventions of feminism and post-colonialism, I will attempt to address the potential of theories of trauma to realise a psychoanalytic understanding of oppression and to deconstruct the turn to positivism as an attempt to occlude oppression. I will also explore the tensions involved in the clinical challenges that trauma poses for psychoanalytic practice and how to address anxieties beyond those generated by the fantasy of self sufficiency of the modern sovereign subject.