Extracts from an interview with François Sauvagnat about his collection Le trauma psychique, aspects cliniques, éthiques et politiques (Anthropos, 2007), published on the blog for Journées 44 of the ECF, Être Mère, but conducted a year earlier at J43, Trauma (November 2013, Paris).


J43: In the book you edited, [whose title translates as] Psychic Trauma: Clinical, Ethical and Political Aspects, you give an account of the current paradigms of trauma. … What about ethics? Is there a connection with what you developed in the 1980s and 1990s as the historical specificity of Freudian ethics?

F.S.: … what I highlighted nearly thirty years ago is the way Freud situates himself in an objection to the “evolutionist” ethic, an ethic whose echoes in today’s French-speaking world are, we know, attenuated. On the other hand, in the Anglo-Saxon space, this type of notion is much more brutal and has functioned in various forms over the last century and a half, notably in the form of “social Darwinism”, which is still very active. What is interesting is that this notion of an Other radically likely to produce trauma is certainly fundamental for Freud, and that it goes far beyond the question of “neurotica”, that is to say, whether or not the subject was “really” abused in his childhood; Freud constantly hesitates between the notion that yes, there has been a bad encounter, and the notion that the subject has somehow composed his own traumatization without his knowledge; moreover, in the first sketch of the fundamental fantasy, he opposes the hysterical, always traumatized, and the obsessive, always traumatizing in his “magical thinking”. But there is also in Freud the notion of inevitable trauma, quite close to what he says of the anankè, based on Multatuli. Hence the notion that the ethics always arise in Freud from the trauma, and the fact that for him, the term somehow gives up corresponding to a victimization, especially when he takes it up again to describe the death drive. So there is a range of possibilities, from “victimization” to the notion that life is merely a postponement of a more fundamental tendency toward death.


J43: You devote a chapter to the notion of stress, situating it historically, and you have even translated an article by Hans Selye.

F.S.: It was particularly indispensable; this notion has never really been made explicit, and it is omnipresent: it constitutes a constant counterpoint to psychoanalytical work on trauma, and it was indispensable to show its major articulations. The first point is that, thanks to the discovery of epinephrine by Jokichi Takemine in 1894, we come to think of a mode of bodily functioning which, contrary to what had been formulated before, does not come under the central nervous system, but under the hormonal system, directly activating the sympathetic system, responsible for a functioning which favours the musculature at the expense of the visceral zones, the subject, in a situation of danger, becoming instantaneously capable of responding to the alternative “fight or flight”. The first phase is constituted by the work of Cannon, a military doctor who experimented during the First World War on cats in a situation of danger, which provoked the famous “adrenaline rush” boosting the sympathetic system in a few seconds. Then comes the work of Selye, who really imposes the notion of stress, by insisting no longer on the increase of the combative capacity, but on its collapse, that is to say that in Selye, “stress” is understood above all from the perspective of “distress”. This is a rather different perspective from that of European work––be it the variety of psychoanalytical work or even Kurt Goldstein’s “catastrophic reaction”, which Lacan evokes in his seminar on anxiety (Seminar X), for example. The question is posed on the level of an evolutionism marked out by McDougal: for them the real modern subject is a soldier, whose body is somehow liberated from its visceral part, reduced to a warlike behaviour, and the question is to know how long the “adrenaline discharge” will allow him to hold out before decompensation. It is indeed Selye who made the term “stress” so popular, he explicitly assumes it, he in fact claims to base the modern subject on this notion, presented as physiological.

J43: So we have a maximum contradiction between the notion of stress and that of trauma?

F.S.: Indeed, the subject of trauma is unquestionably the Freudian subject, nourished by authors such as Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Wedekind, Dostoevsky, but also Nestroy, a comic author who is, for example, quoted in counterpoint to E.T.A. Hoffmann in Freud’s The Uncanny. It is the subject of the sublime, but in the very particular sense that Vischer gave to this term. Selye’s subject is the struggle for life, and one is preoccupied with the moment when the subject will crack; it is a Faulknerian figure at best, but more generally it is the subject “put under tension” of performance.

At the same time, there have been psychoanalytical readings of stress: Lacan in his article on migraines criticized the non-deterministic nature of the theory; Spitz uses the term to discuss hospitalism; Devereux makes it one of the components of neurotic symptomatology. A curiously determining moment in the USA was the criticism made by the Rochester School’s George Engel, a psychosomatic specialist who, taking up Spitz’s work, distinguished between stress determined by an “external attack” (“hyper-arousal”) and stress determined by a lack of support (“hypo-arousal”) in cases of major psychosomatic disorders in children, which he called “helplessness /hopelessness”.

There is thus a double movement: on the one hand, it is assumed that the real subject, the one that really matters, is the subject of an “adrenaline rush”; and on the other hand, the theory of acquired despair provides an answer to the question of the limits of this “powerful” subject, which has been formulated locally in terms of “learning theory”. The result was twofold: on the one hand, a man named Martin Seligman, who imported the notion of acquired despair into “theories of learning” in psychology, developed a “positive psychology”, which consists in fighting by all means against the risk of “learning despair” and “learning optimism” through “values”. A theme that, culturally, was bound to please, and guarantees Seligman’s local popularity. On the other hand, it had two consequences in military techniques. Firstly, the so-called SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) techniques for hardening elite troops used the strengthening of “fragile points” to help soldiers placed in extreme conditions, but in addition, when it came to the “fight against terrorism”, to create new forms of psychological manipulation to “turn” prisoners, to make them confess which terrorist attacks were going to be committed, etc. This theory was used on the basis of religious and anthropological data to destroy the “initial models” of “enemy combatants” (in addition to the techniques of torture “leaving no traces”), and this led to Abu Ghraib: the idea was to provoke an “acquired impotence”, according to techniques developed by a student of Seligman.

J43: So we go from stress theory to positive psychology … to military techniques of hardness or torture?

F.S.: There have been other applications, for example in human relations, when it was a question of changing the “corporate culture” (in this case, changing a public company into a private company); this process of change is conceived by some of these practitioners as having to proceed from a renunciation of supposedly routine models “learned” previously before the subject “learns” “successful” models. And for this, apparently without them being fully aware of what they were doing––these are environments where people are very anxious to imitate American models and where the level of information is often fragmented––it seemed necessary to them to provoke an “acquired impotence”, some of the catastrophic results of which, notably suicides in the workplace, have been reported in the media in France.

J43: You also mention certain psychopathological syndromes where the notion of trauma is prevalent.

F.S.: Yes, it so happens that I particularly explored one of the major “epidemics” facilitated by the DSM IV, the Munchausen by Proxy epidemic. At least three other epidemics are suspected to have been caused by the inadequacies of DSM IV: the “autistic spectrum”, bipolar disorder and attention-hyperactivity disorder seem to have been quite simply determined by a broadening of the criteria compared to DSM III (which in turn had caused the formidable “epidemic of multiple personalities”), and one could probably add conduct disorder. In the case of Munchausen by Proxy, the category is “fake disorder”. Whereas Munchausen is a lesion provoked and secretly maintained by the subject, Munchausen by Proxy is “real” traumatization, where a mother secretly provokes, by poisoning, various manipulations, etc., an apparently inexplicable illness in her child. This is an area which combines three difficulties: it attacks the notion of the “good mother”; it targets areas where medical knowledge is, by definition, called into question (for example, in cases of sudden infant death syndrome); it also tends to call into question the competence of the carers, giving rise to the phenomena of panic. Two women, who were named “Mother of the Year” for the heroic way they had treated their child, who was particularly ill, were congratulated by the First Lady of the USA and then found themselves behind bars the following year as the result of an accusation arising from Munchausen by Proxy. In England, several thousand people were convicted (with prison sentences and placement of children) before a respected local “expert” (who had been unwise enough to have a lawyer convicted for Munchausen by Proxy) was asked to account for his diagnosis. His conceptions then suddenly appeared so inadequate and the attempt at a “psychological profile” proposed in parallel by American authors appeared so baroque that it was publicly disavowed, causing a huge scandal, with several hundred cases having to be retried, compensation paid, etc. Not to mention the cases in which there are cross-accusations: the hospital accuses a mother, the mother accuses the hospital, the hospital turns against the practitioner, etc.



Translated by Janet Haney

Full interview in French available online.

Communique from the NLS President, Bernard Seynhaeve, here.