While the term ‘trauma’ was originally used in medicine to denote a wound to the tissues of the body, it has more recently come to refer to the wounding impact of a shocking and overwhelming event on the mind or psyche. Trauma is a phenomenon that ruptures – rather than enters – consciousness; it is a failed experience that cannot be cognitively assimilated at the time of its arrival. Instead, the impact of trauma manifests belatedly in intrusive symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks and other repetitive phenomena that have been classified under the rubric of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (ptsd).
This chapter draws on the theoretical insights of Sigmund Freud, Cathy Caruth, and Jean Laplanche to explicate the dual temporal structure of trauma. I contend that the locus of trauma can neither be posited in the event that brought on the traumatic symptoms, nor can it be situated in the traumatic symptoms that follow. Drawing on the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit, I argue that the complex temporality of trauma is a missed encounter that manifests belatedly – so that which occurs too soon paradoxically occurs too late. Instead of privileging the past at the expense of the present (or future), or the present (or future) at the expense of the past, I argue that these extremes are caught up in a reciprocal and dialogic exchange. Accordingly, the past assumes a belated impact on the present and the present retroactively modifies the event of the past. Consequently, trauma bears just as much weight on the present and the future as it does on the past.