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Deferred Action

DEFERRED ACTION

This notion is important to any understanding of the psychoanalytic conception of time. It implies a complex and reciprocal relationship between a significant event and its later reinvestment with meaning, a rein-vestment that lends it a new psychic efficacy.

It was the French reading and translation of Freud that brought out the import of "nachträglich " and "Nachträglichkeit," terms which had not hitherto been consistently translated into either French or English.

The index of Freud's Gesammelte Werke has no entry for either nachträglich or Nachträglichkeit, and perusal of the indexes of the works of Freud's chief successors garners similarly negative results. It was Jacques Lacan who first drew attention to this notion, defining it in a precise if narrow way (1953, p. 48). Lacan did not consider the broader implications of the concept of Nachträglichkeit in Freud's work, concerning himself solely with its occurrence in connection with the "Wolf Man" case (1918b [1914]) and ignoring its use in the 1895-1900 period. It fell to Jean-Bertrand Pontalis and Jean Laplanche to point up the overall importance of the concept, first in "Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality" (1964) and then in The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1967).

First let us consider Freud's view. He used the terms "nachträglich " and "Nachträglichkeit " over a good part of his working lifefrom the period, in fact, of his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, through The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), "Little Hans" (1909b), the "Wolf Man" case, and even well beyond. It is thus possible to trace the development of this idea in the general context of his work. It never achieved sufficient conceptual substance, however, for Freud to dedicate an entire paper to it.

The earliest development of the notion may be seen in Freud's letters to Fliess. The adjective "nachträglich," part of German common usage, is employed by Freud in several ways. In the first place, it has the simple meaning of "additional" or "secondary"; and hence, in a temporal sense, of "later." A second use implies movement from past time in the direction of the future, while a third implies the opposite, a movement from the future towards the past. The second use, meaning movement from past to future, is very much bound up with the seduction theory: it implies that something is deposited in the individual that will be reactivated later, thus becoming active only at a "second moment." It is in this regard that the notion of Nachträglichkeit is closely correlated with another constant of Freudian thought, the idea that there are always two moments in the constitution of a psychic trauma: that of the event which leaves its trace and that of the event's later revival by an internal factor. It is thus easy to understand how the idea of afterwardsness emerged in parallel with the seduction theory, even if it survived the abandonment of that theory. It should be pointed out that for Freud the seduction theory did not contradict a determinism according to which the past governs the present.

Freud never thought that the temporal direction could be reversed. The analogy of a time-bomb serves well here: the initial memory is like a time-bomb set off by a delayed-action mechanism; there is no suggestion of retroactivity. On the other hand, there are a number of passages in Freud where the inverse process occurs, where things are perceived on the first occasion, then understood retroactively. Such passages are relatively few, however.

The fact is that whenever Freud had a choice between a deterministic account proceeding from the past towards the future and a retrospective or hermeneutic conception proceeding from the present in the direction of the past, he almost invariably opted for the former. Thus in his letter to Fliess of October 3, 1897, after recounting an episode in his self-analysis, he makes the following comment: "A severe critic might say of all this that it was retrogressively phantasied and not progressively determined. Experimenta cruces would have to decide against him" (SE 3, p. 263).

So things are not simple. As much as we might wish to find in Freud a dualperhaps even a contradictoryapplication of the concept of Nachträglichkeit, what we actually find is a highly deterministic one.

Much the same goes for Freud's theoretical confrontation with Carl Jung: in defending his view of the reality of the "real" primal scene, Freud made a number of concessions but never wavered in his conviction that what comes before determines what comes after. The Freudian idea of Nachträglichkeit may by no means be conflated with the Jungian notion of Zurückphantasieren (retrospective fantasizing).

To what extent can the concept of afterwardsness enable us to transcend the alternative between, on the one hand, a determinist view that places the entire burden of psychic causality on events of the remotest past, and, on the other hand, a so-called hermeneutic, or even narrativist, approach that reverses the arrow of time, so to speak, and focuses on "resignifications," or reinvestments with meaning, effected afterwards, whether in life or during psychoanalytic treatment? When things are framed in this way, it seems impossible to resolve the polarity between childhood events, events pure and simple, and the moment when they are retrieved as meaning, within a history. Yet a way out of this cul-de-sac presents itself if we consider that the childhood event is itself pregnant with meaningnot on the psychophysiological level, but on the level of the interhuman relationship. Even if all our attention is focused on the retroactive temporal direction, it cannot be overlooked that when someone reinterprets their past, that past can never be strictly factual, cannot be a concrete, untransformed "given." On the contrary, it must contain in immanent fashion something earlier still: a message from the other. A purely hermeneutic approach, meaning that each person interprets their past on the basis of their present, is therefore untenable, for, already deposited in the past, is something that cries out to be deciphered, namely a message from the other person.

Instead of considering only the bipolar temporal vector connecting the child with the adult that the child has become, we need to add a third term, external to the subject, which is the message emanating from the other adult, a message which is imposed on the child and which the child must translate. Indeed it is the idea of "translation" so understood that may be expected to cast a new light on the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit.

Jean Laplanche

See also: Adolescence; Deferred action and trauma; General theory of seduction; Incompleteness; Infantile, the; Latency period; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Proton-Pseudos; Puberty; Repression; Seduction scenes; Trauma.

Bibliography

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes. (Marie Bonaparte et al., Ed., Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey, Trans.) London: Imago, 1954; partial revised tr. in SE,3.

Lacan, Jacques. (2004). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. InÉcrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink, and Russell Grigg, Trans.) New York: Norton. (Original work published 1953)

Laplanche, Jean. (1976). Life and death in psychoanalysis. (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1970)

. (1998). Temporalité et traduction. In Le Primat de l'autre. Paris: Flammarion.

Laplanche, Jean. (1999). Notes on afterwardsness. In Essays on otherness. (John Fletcher, Ed., and Luke Thurston, Philip Slotkin, and Leslie Hill, Trans.) London, New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1998)

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1968 [1964]). Fantasy and the origins of sexuality. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 1-18.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1974 [1967]). The language of psycho-analysis. (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.) London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis; New York: Norton.

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