Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours
Thus, signal anxiety is anticipatory anxiety looking out for the danger that it might (again) get overwhelmed; as such it is a reaction as a consequence of a confrontation with an earlier traumatic situation. Anxiety is preferable to trauma since it is on a more manageable scale. Freud sees in this something like an immunological function: ‘the ego subjects itself to anxiety as a sort of inoculation, submitting to a slight attack of the illness in order to escape its full strength’ (ibid, p.162). By mobilising the traumatic past in the present it prepares itself in order to avoid trauma in the (immediate) future. Anxiety is thus conceived as an important part of a protective/defensive organisation on the part of the ego. However, anxiety itself is experienced as Unlust (unpleasure) and can be defended against – either through inhibition which cuts short any action that might risk the confrontation with danger, or symptom formation which binds the energy aroused through anxiety whilst repressing the perception of the danger situation, linked as it is to the manifestation of the drives. ‘Symptom-formation, then, does in fact put an end to the danger-situation’ through a course of action that amounts to ‘an attempt at flight from an instinctual danger’ [Triebgefahr] (ibid, p.145). Whilst it can appear that Freud had now identified separation as the main danger to the child it is the ‘inner’ threat arising from the drives which takes priority since he believes that object loss or the threat of castration is a response by the other to the unacceptable libidinal wishes.
Having ultimately rejected Rank’s suggestion that birth trauma itself was at the root of all anxiety as well as the idea that anxiety was, in the last (existentialist) analysis, a fear of death Freud did not feel he could finally answer the question of an ultimate cause of anxiety. As we saw above he finds himself at the limits of what can be said in this respect. However, the link he establishes with trauma places this impossibility of symbolic representation at the heart of the problem: trauma is, after all, that which overwhelms the ego’s capacity for mental elaboration and— one might say precisely for that reason—it always shocks the ego. Signal anxiety is the attempt to prepare the psyche for that which cannot be prepared for; it is an attempt to anticipate what cannot be anticipated, since whatever ‘it’ is failed to become adequately represented. ‘It’ is not an object, a something that we (can) fear, but it is not a nothing either.
At the end of ‘Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety’ Freud summarises three factors that render the human being vulnerable to neurosis: first, the infant’s prematurity at birth and the high degree of helplessness and hence dependence on (m)others which persists over a life time in a need for love; second, the hiatus in sexual development during the latency period which leaves the developing ego vulnerable to the infantile libidinal demands of the id; and third, the imperfection of the psychic apparatus due to its division between ego and id. This latter division is constituted as a response to external pressure: the psyche turns against an aspect of itself but remains insufficiently protected from its demands. ‘The poor ego’ owes its existence to this precarious position and maintains itself only by means – and at the price – of anxiety. What is at stake is not the life of the organism as such; rather, an excess of internal excitation threatens the unity of the ego.