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Number 9: Winter 2013

Whose Drive Is It Anyway? Aristotle and Freud on Tragedy and Trauma

Barry Watt

This is the point, in trying to understand better the confrontation of the subject’s drives with the other’s drives, to return to the distinction between accidental and structural trauma. In the mythical, structural trauma of individual pre-history, the trauma of infantile sexuality, the infant is born into a world the contours of which they find are already shaped by others. The place ascribed to the infant by their parents, as well as the awakening of their drives has, then, to be reconciled. However, just as the subject’s postpartum place is already delineated for them, it is likewise their parents who initially engender their drives – as per Freud’s famous descriptions of the sexualised nature of the nursing and weaning of infancy. The drives, just like the fate of the tragedians, then, originate outside the subject. In such a picture, it is not at all clear whether it continues to make sense to distinguish individuated drives and identities belonging to particular, separate subjects. Because of the imparting to the infant of their drives from outside them, the distinction between ‘their’ drives and the ‘parents’ is blurred, even though over the course of time the infant will adopt the drives imparted to them as their own. The pre-individualised circuitry of the drives muddles the distinction between subjects, as such necessitating a disposal of notions of the self-differentiated subject of grammar or the holistic inviolable self of humanism for something far more Nietzschean: a heterogeneous field of drives, where the ‘subject’ is only a fiction, a linguistic sheaf artificially arresting the ceaseless circuitry of the drives in static grammatical punctuations: ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘them’, ‘us’.

Trauma is especially privileged for illustrating the dissolution of identity. Within the clinical literature, this is most evocatively rendered by Ferenczi, in his description of childhood sexual abuse as the ‘confusion of tongues between tenderness and passion’. Ferenczi describes how, in such cases, it can often be noted that despite the appalling advantage perpetrators take of victims, the victim’s passive role in the scenario can veil a more organising position that, if it does not so much as solicit continued maltreatment, at least contributes to shaping circumstances that increase the likelihood of future abuse and re-traumatisation by the child’s misrecognition of their place, and the place of their abusers, within an abusive scenario. Ferenczi’s account might be approached as one of how the drives are warped by an archaic masochism, a warping that fuzzes identity boundaries between subjects. This masochistic response to traumatic situations, where the drives are redirected upon the subject is, as Freud first ponders in ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism’, and Ferenczi later extends, related to unconscious guilt – to a tension, that is, among the ego and the super-ego – which, in turn, is connected to a repressed wish for punishment and a passive sexual stance by the introjection of the figure of the abuser and the assumption of the abuser’s guilt as their own.