Deferred Action and Trauma

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Freud called upon the notions of deferred action and of trauma to account for how time and causality are organized in a mental life that he conceived of as permeated by sexuality. He argued that an impression inconsequential on its face but unintegrated into the flow of life by reason of its sexual character left mnemic traces that could be reactivated by later events in the history of the individual. Only then, retroactively, would it acquire a meaning capable of affecting psychic organization.

In his earliest thinking, Freud observed that certain childhood experiences left mnemic traces of an active albeit unconscious nature. These operated like internal "foreign bodies," and getting rid of them required that they be made conscious and "abreacted" (discharged by being revealed to the analyst). Such traces were always related to a seduction in early childhood that had not been fully comprehended at the time.

Freud quickly abandoned this theory and replaced it with that of "deferred action" (Nachträglichkeit ), according to which the child first receives impressions that have an exciting effect, but not a traumatic one, for the child is still sexually undeveloped. When a particular experience occurring after puberty recalls the earlier one by virtue of some resemblance, the individual reinterprets the early event, which thus acquires a force that it never had initially.

Before long, however, Freud discovered infantile sexuality and could then no longer ground deferred action in a sexual life that developed in two phases. He therefore stipulated that all childhood experiences left a residue, a mnemic trace, which cried out to be reinterpreted and would be reinterpreted at a later time. This residue or trace always had a sexual character. Freud developed this theory in his account of the "wolf man" case (1918b [1914]). As a two-year-old child, the patient had witnessed his parents engaged in sex without experiencing anything more than an impression of strangeness; only at the age of four did he construct his primal-scene fantasy as a way of accounting for the original perception.

The theory of deferred action is one of the keys to Freud's metapsychological system. It effectively addresses both the sexual nature of repressed memories and the manner in which time and memory work within the psyche. In Freud's view, our pastour whole past from birth onis responsible for what we later become, but there is a sense, too, in which what we become alters what we once were: the present transforms, translates, remolds a past that is still present in us. The individual has contact with the past at every instant of life, but is unable to apprehend that past, which is forever emerging only to be retranslated instantly into other terms.

The notion of deferred action must not, however, be confused with a cognitivist view of how memories are transformed. The cognitivist view sees memories as being reorganized and simplified in natural ways, like material objects moving away from an observer, for example. For psychoanalysis, each moment lived by an individual, if it has a sexual aspect, is experienced as enigmatic, as bearing a residue that poses a question. Such a moment may resonate with a past event with nothing special about it, save for an ever so slightly unsatisfactory and unexplained dimension, which the psyche now remobilizes as desire.

Like the unconscious, and like desire, deferred action is capable of utterly disrupting an individual's spontaneously created idea of himself in relation to the outside world and to other people. For one, it explodes the notion of causality: not only is the individual unable to relate his actions in life to his conscious will, not only is he always disappointed when he obtains what he thought he wanted, because his desire is never satisfied thereby, but also he can never succeed in explaining the present in terms of the past. What went before is never past: it is always present, always ungraspable, always needing to be worked through.

Deferred action is usually associated with trauma. The sight of cruelty can thus be traumatic if it reactivates an infantile sadistic occurrence dating from an early time when cruelty was not disturbing. Likewise, a rape may be traumatic if it revives an infantile sexual wish that was left pending and never erased. Deferred action is also closely tied to repression. If certain later experiences and wishes need to be repressed, it is because at the moment of their occurrence they acquire a strength out of proportion to the circumstances, for they are reinforced by the power of hitherto unassimilated past experiences. The representation of the object of desire then has to be repressed, because, between the first and the second experience, regulatory and prohibitory superstructures have been set up.

Psychoanalysts are divided on how much importance to give to the idea of deferred action. For some, this mechanism comes into play only during a second phase. They believe that some early infantile experiences are traumatizing in themselves and require the deployment of mechanisms more radical than repression, such as splitting or foreclosure. Analysts with this view strive to elicit the memory of such experiences by means of the regression that the analytic situation allows. Pioneers of this approach include Sándor Ferenczi, Wilfred R. Bion, and Donald W. Winnicott.

In contrast, some consider this orientation a simplification of psychoanalysis. In this school of thought, psychical trauma of any kind should not be treated as a quasi-physical event of external origin, imposed by reality. In their eyes, such a trauma is inseparable from deferred action, which they place at the center of a mental life shot through with and determined by sexuality. What the young child seeks, but cannot obtain, is the mother, and later the fathernot in respect of what they give, but in respect of what they withhold, what they hide, namely their unconscious wishes. The disparity in sexual maturity between the child and the adult means that whatever the child receives (nourishment, caresses, rebukes) is received in a way that is enigmatic, and hence disturbing, to some degree. The fact is that for the adult, the child is not just a child but also the object whereby the adult gratifies his or her desire. Hence the enigmatic quality to what is given to the child.

It was Jacques Lacan who first reasserted the importance of Freud's concept of deferred action, and Jean Laplanche made it a key concept in his theoretical work.

Odile Lesourne

See also: Deferred action/afterwardness; Sexual trauma; Trauma


Freud, Sigmund. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17, 1-122.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1, 281-387.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1893a). On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena: Preliminary communication. SE, 2, 1-17.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink, and Russell Grigg, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1956)

Laplanche, Jean (1989). New foundations for psychoanalysis (David Macey, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. (Original work published 1987)

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Deferred Action and Trauma

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