In the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, afterwardsness is a ‘mode of belated understanding or retroactive attribution of [meaning] to earlier events… [from the German word] ‘Nachträglichkeit,’ translated as ‘deferred action, retroaction, après-coup, afterwardsness.’ As summarized by another scholar, ‘In one sense, Freud’s theory of deferred action can be simply stated: memory is reprinted, so to speak, in accordance with later experience.’

Closely related for Freud to deferred action was ‘deferred obedience’: again, ‘a deferred effect…a ‘deferred obedience’ under the influence of repression.’ Thus for instance Freud explored the different phases of a man’s infantile attitude to his father: ‘As long as his father was alive it showed itself in unmitigated rebelliousness and open discord, but immediately after his death it took the form of a neurosis based on abject submission and deferred obedience to him.’ In ‘Totem and Taboo’ he generalized the principle and ‘depicted the social contract also as based on posthumous obedience to the father’s authority’ — offset at times by its converse, occasional Carnival-like licence such as ‘the memorial festival of the totem meal, in which the restrictions of deferred obedience no longer held.’

The concept initially appeared in Freud’s writings in the 1890s in the commonsense form of the German adjective-adverb ‘afterwards’ or ‘deferred.’ In the unfinished and unpublished ‘A Project for a Scientific Psychology’ of 1895, ‘a memory is repressed which has only become a trauma after the event.’ However the ‘theory of deferred action had already been [publicly] put forward by ‘Freud in the Studies on Hysteria’ (1895),’ and in a paper of 1896 ‘he elaborates on the idea of deferred action: the pathogenic effect of a traumatic event occurring in childhood…[manifesting] retrospectively when the child reaches a subsequent phase of sexual development.’

The same idea would feature prominently a couple of decades later in his study of the ‘Wolf Man’: ‘The effects of the scene were deferred, but…had the same effect as though it were a recent experience.’ ‘Thus although he never offered a definition, much less a general theory, of the notion of deferred action, it was indisputably looked on by Freud as part of his conceptual equipment.’

It has been suggested that it was psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who brought the term back from obscurity after Freud’s death — his translation in the French language as the ‘après-coup’ fits into the context of his ‘return to Freud’ (‘rapport de Rome,’ 1953) — and certainly French psychoanalysis has since taken the lead in its explication. Lacan himself claimed in his Seminar that ‘the real implication of the nachträglich, for example, has been ignored, though it was there all the time and had only to be picked up’, while writing in ‘Ecrits’ of ‘Deferred action’ (Nachtrag), to rescue another of these terms from the facility into which they have since fallen…they were unheard of at that time.’

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