Excess, Trauma and Helplessness

Excess—from the Latin excessus, from excedere ‘go out, surpass’—is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable”. The notion of an amount implies a quantitative factor not reducible to representation.

The notion of investment is at the core of Freud’s understanding of psychic functioning. From his ‘Project’ (1950 [1895]), written in 1895 but published after his death, to the Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938), Freud attempts to map the links between the somatic and the psychic. Already in Studies of Hysteria (1895), trauma is conceived of as an overwhelming event that breaches the subject’s protective shield, with catastrophic results for the mind. The topographical model of the mind traced the vicissitudes of the relationship between drives and representations; the paradigm for this phase of psychoanalysis was The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), with its distinctions between manifest and latent content and the rules of primary process.

In 1920, however, Freud postulated the existence of a drive that does not correspond to any representation but is expressed through the repetition compulsion. The structural model of the mind instituted a close relationship between the id and the soma. The id is described as “chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations” (1933, p. 73). The psychoanalytic work becomes concerned with how the experience of the infantile traumatic past in its unmetabolizable aspects is repeated in the consulting room. If the drives are at the root of psychical activity, this “implies that something is basically in excess, an overload charge on the mind, linked with the bodily exigencies of the drives whose derivatives have to be sent back to the unconscious.

If dreams provide a paradigm for the topographical model of the mind, the act in the analytic process is the paradigm for the structural model (André Green), governed by the compulsion to repeat that which has not reached representation. What is traumatic is un- absorbable by representation and inaccessible to symbolization.

In several of her papers, Perelberg underscores the implications for a theory of technique: the analyst’s role is not one of interpreting what “is already there” in the mind of the patient but, rather, one of inaugurating the symbolic domain and the world of representations (see Perelberg, 1997 p. 73). There is an emphasis on the quantitative factor, not reducible to the domain of phantasies. The process of elaboration and working through in an analysis takes place through a complex pathway of bringing together affect, representation, sensorial and somatic experiences, dreams, associations, and enactments as they are gathered and given meaning après-coup through analytic work.

Key Publications:

Perelberg, R.J. (1997) “To be or not to be-here: A woman’s denial of time and memory”.  In Raphael-Leff, J. and Perelberg, R.J. (Eds.) Female Experience: Four British Women Analysts on Work with Women. London: The Anna Freud Centre, 2008

Perelberg, R.J. (2003). Full and Empty Spaces in the Analytic Process. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 84:579-592.

Perelberg, R.J. (2015). Excess, Trauma and Helplessness: Repetitions and Transformations. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 96:1453-1476.