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Number 9: Winter 2013

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

Barry Watt

The inequality of power relations in accidental trauma will already have been met by the subject, although of course under usual circumstances not in an abusive or exploitative fashion. In the original structural trauma, of which subsequent accidental traumas are echoes, there is an asymmetry of power relations: whilst the drives of both the parents and the infant are mutually engaged with one another and indistinct, it remains the case that the drives of the parents are a stronger current and the infant is, more or less, at their mercy. As psychoanalytic writers like Jessica Benjamin have detailed however, the exchange between infant and parents is malleable and amenable to dialectisation: the positions of active and passive, agent and object are more fluidly revisable; the drives of the other do not merely engage a passive monadic object. The extent of the infant’s ability to mould the nursing situation will depend upon the strength of masochistic potentiality, how this has impacted upon identity formation, as well as the provisions made by the parents to allow the infant to accomplish the task of adopting an agentive stance.

Unlike structural trauma however, accidentally traumatic situations are usually hugely lacking in fluidity, entailing that the subject is the recipient of the other’s drives from a position of helplessness. Considerations of masochistic predisposition are, then, mostly irrelevant at the time of an incident. But this does not entail that masochism is redundant; on the contrary, I would suggest just the opposite. Masochism is, nonetheless, still helpful in explaining why it is not the case that the most traumatised patients readily correspond to those who have been involved in the most excessively horrific or violent incidents. If the subject has reached later life with strong masochistic currents and a concomitant punitive super-ego, the corresponding unconscious guilt attending to an unconscious wish for punishment and passivity might reasonably be expected to exacerbate trauma symptoms. The subject will be disposed to route the destructive death drives back upon themselves, aggravating the agonisingly repetitious nature of symptoms experienced in accidental trauma.