Saturday, December 4, 2010
On "Binding" (Bindung)
One of Freud’s main ways of discussing trauma is to remark that excitations that are brought on by catastrophe and may cause trauma are “unbound.” The theory of binding [Bindung] goes all the way back to Studies in Hysteria and the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895), in which Freud describes energy as “free” or “bound” (Standard Edition I, 368; Anfängen 457). Freud’s discussion of binding is important to the Project’s elaboration of “quantitative,” material aspects of psychic function. It tries to grasp the material basis of thought in the dynamics of neuronal connections. In the Project, psychic investment results from the quantity and connectedness of thoughts: depth of commitment, and ultimately ego identity itself, is our name for a kind of mental strength in numbers. A cluster of thoughts and affects becomes an egoic “mass” with gravitational force to attract others, while an unbound, “untamed [ungebändigt] mnemic image” is one not yet attached to a mass (SE I, 381; Anfängen 465). Since reified attachments are also problematic, the implicit ideal of the dynamics of attachments is an ego that is neither straitjacketed by its own bindings nor overwhelmed by stimuli inconveniently coming unbound.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud reverts to binding to explain how the excitations brought on by catastrophe destabilize one’s energy system. In his description of the challenge of binding, stimulus threatens the sensitive core of the system. When something “provoke[s] a disturbance on a large scale of the functioning of the organism’s energy,”
there is no longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being flooded with large amounts of stimulus, and another problem arises instead—the problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in and of binding them, in the psychical sense, so that they can then be disposed of. (SE XVIII, 29-30)
Die Überschwemmung des seelischen Apparats mit großen Reizmengen ist nicht mehr hintanzuhalten; es ergibt sich vielmehr eine andere Aufgabe, den Reiz zu bewältigen, die hereingebrochenen Reizmengen psychisch zu binden, um sie dann der Erledigung zuzuführen. (GW XIII, 29)
In suggesting that the unwanted excitation is unbound, Freud does not state that it is unconscious. In fact, breaching the hardened outer layer of the organism, its “protective shield [Reizschutz],” requires interaction with the sensitive cortical core that “is later to become the system cs.” (SE 28 [GW XIII, 26]). Freud’s invented term “Reizschutz,” which straightforwardly enough means “stimulus shield,” indexes the sexual overtone of the stimulation involved, since “schutz” also connotes a prophylactic device. Freud’s future tense--the cortex “is later to become” consciousnsess [“das spätere System Bw”] —reflects a certain blurriness of the entity he imagines, a blurriness that we also see in his frequent reluctance to draw a boundary between consciousness and the preconsciousness that mediates between consciousness and unconsciousness. This passage, however, is blurry because its target is in motion. It tells how the development of the protective shield, by its hardening through “the ceaseless impact [unausgesetztem Anprall] of external stimuli on the surface” (26, GW 25), creates the conditions for an also developing consciousness that could not evolve without the shield. The more the shield is “baked through [durchgebrannt]” (26, GW 25), the more conscious the inner cortex can afford to be: “by its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate--unless, that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the protective shield” (27, GW 27). The core that forms in tandem with the self-sacrificing shield is the ever-evolving “system cs.”; when disastrous stimuli breach the shield and suffuse the “deeper layers [eine gewisse Tiefe]” of the mind, then, those which are responsible for “reception [Reizaufnahme]” (27, GW 25), it can only be the system cs. that is flooded. Until overflow and trauma, the problem is neither unconsciousness nor uneven consciousness, but the difficulty of binding that of which the mind is unwillingly aware.
In the discussion that follows, the system’s reaction to the security breach of the shield assumes that diffusion of energy throughout cs.--“being flooded"--is the worst thing that can happen:
And how shall we expect the mind to react to this invasion? Cathectic energy is summoned from all sides to provide sufficiently high cathexes of energy in the environs of the breach. An “anticathexis” on a grand scale is set up, for whose benefit all the other psychical systems are impoverished, so that the remaining psychical systems are extensively paralysed or reduced. We must endeavor to draw a lesson from examples such as this and use them as a basis for our metapsychological speculations. From the present case, then, we infer that a system which is itself highly cathected is capable of taking up an additional stream of fresh inflowing energy and of converting it into quiescent cathexis, that is of binding it psychically. The higher the system’s own quiescent cathexis, the greater seems to be its binding force; conversely, therefore, the lower its cathexis, the less capacity it will have for taking up inflowing energy and the more violent must be the consequences of such a breach in the protective shield against stimuli. (SE XVIII, 30)
Und was können wir als die Reaktion des Seelenlebens auf diesen Einbruch erwarten? Von allen Seiten her wird die Besetzungsenergie aufgeboten, um in der Umgebung der Einbruchstelle entsprechend hohe Energiebesetzungen zu schaffen. Es wird eine großartige “Gegenbesetzung” hergestellt, zu deren Gunsten alle anderen psychischen Systeme verarmen, so daß eine ausgedehnte Lähmung oder Herabsetzung der sonstigen psychischen Leistung erfolgt. Wir suchen aus solchen Beispielen zu lernen, unsere metapsychologischen Vermutungen an solche Vorbilder anzulehnen. Wir ziehen also aus diesem Verhalten den Schluß, daß ein selbst hochbesetztes System imstande ist, neu hinzukommende strömende Energie aufzunehmen, sie in ruhende Besetzung umzuwandeln, also sie psychisch zu “binden.” Je höher die eigene ruhende Besetzung ist, desto größer wäre auch ihre bindende Kraft; umgekehrt also, je niedriger seine Besetzung ist, desto weniger wird das System für die Aufnahme zuströmender Energie befähigt sein, desto gewaltsamer müssen dann die Folgen eines solchen Durchbruches des Reizschutzes sein. (GW XIII, 30)]
The idea of unbound, suffusing energies is consistent with Freud’s account of trauma as a break-in. But while Freud’s theory of trauma concentrates on unwanted excitation’s subsequent career in the unconscious, from where it makes itself known indirectly by deforming consciousness or appearing in disguises of compromise, the logic of binding insinuates that the unconscious or conscious status of an experience or memory may be less important than the control of its mobility, and that its mobility is greatest when it is conscious.
The sometimes unfortunately free, unfortunately complete nature of conscious thoughts is emphasized by Freud's collaborator Breuer in Studies in Hysteria and carried forward by Freud. Although there may not be a single place where Breuer establishes the distinction between primary and secondary processes, his psychic topography in these pages is sensitive. Breuer discusses what Freud terms the breach of the shield, using the figure of “damage done to the system itself through a break-down of its insulation” (SE II, 199, Studien 177). But what is most interesting for my purposes is his speculation that conscious thoughts and affects are frighteningly free. The power and danger of conscious ideas, he writes, is their aptitude for association, which can bring the brain “into a state of higher facilitation [Zustand höherer Bahnung]” (SE II, 196, Studien 173). In contrast, in sleep “ideas that emerge do not, as in waking life, activate all the ideas which are connected with them”; the deeper the sleep, the more “association is defective and incomplete” (SE II, 193). In sleep we aren't likely to act physically on our thoughts. But “when we are fully awake every act of will initiates the corresponding movement; sense-impressions become conscious perceptions; and ideas are associated with the whole store present in potential consciousness,” reflecting the fact that the conscious brain is “completely . . . traversable [gangbar]” by whatever psychic energy it holds (SE II, 193, Studien 168). The other, advantageous side of conscious thought’s mobility is that “complete” thought, by trending toward motor action, is also likely to lead to discharge. Freud draws on Breuer’s material for his conclusion in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that “resistance . . . to passage [Übergangswiderstand] from one element to another would no longer exist” in the system cs. (SE XVIII, 26; GW XIII, 26), as though consciousness were the Canada of thoughts on the lam. Only unconsciousness, Freud hypothesizes, is scarred by mnemic traces; mnemic traces and conscious thoughts cannot simultaneously exist. There are times when conscious thoughts are worse than scars, however: when damaging, they are active damage.
These worries about the liabilities of consciousness replace the problem of mnemic scarring with a new problem. If conscious thoughts are so easy to release, why panic when the system cs. gets taken by surprise? The concerted action of the system, rushing from “all sides” to contain awareness, implies that it regards comprehensive realization as both a plausible possibility and as the most damaging of outcomes. It’s not hard to see why that might be. While the symptoms of unconscious conflict--displacements, resistances, blanks in memory--are autoimmune effects in which one’s defenses do more than is convenient, but are at least doing something to protect the ego, the ill effects of conscious ruin are more invidious to the extent that they are not defensive at all. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud stresses more the embattled quality of consciousness itself. It is here that he assigns to preconsciousness the role of exploring thoughts before either releasing them to consciousness or cathecting them in a way that would “avoid releasing the unpleasure [Unlustentbindung]” (SE V, 601, GW II, 606). Noting that a secondary process that takes place in preconsciousness raises the possibility of “thought seeking to convey itself into the preconscious so as to be able then to force its way through into consciousness” (SE V, 610; GW II, 615), he goes on to observe that the distinctness of consciousness is by no means pure, and that in fact consciousness is not necessarily an achievement to write home about. In that case, damage done by the breach of the protective shield would be less likely to be compensated by the benefits of consciousness’s access to discharge, and so ameliorated by later actions.
The theory of trauma radicalizes the threat posed by consciousness by focusing on the more-than-maximal moment when overstimulation whites out. By doing so, it proposes that trauma is the residue of too much, not too little consciousness, yet skips over the entire arena of conscious injury, as though the breach were instantly traumatic. Between melancholy defense and traumatic excess, both mainly unconscious, there is little theoretical articulation of what happens after consciousness is stimulated and before its capacity is overrun--even though this territory would seem to be the area that corresponds to suffering.
Image: Lucian Freud, The Painter's Room