Choose life: some notes on Lacan’s death drive

I found this lecture from the excellent Derek Hook extremely helpful for understanding how Lacan reconceived the classical Freudian sense of the death drive, which it should be noted was originally proposed by Sabina Spielrein. I’m interested in this topic for a number of reasons, not least of all the compulsive elements of digital agency (“Post. Post. Post. Click. Click. Click” as Jodi Dean once put) and how we conceive of the interplay between psychic and social factors in trajectories of media use over time.

I loosely understand the concept as the drive towards ‘existence without tension’ expressed in a compulsion to repeat beyond the reality principle which regulates our groping towards satisfactions. As Brian O’Conner describes it in the paper I’ve taken that phrase comes from: “Whereas the death drive aims at dissolution, the life drive both preserves the entity and seeks to augment and strengthen it”. O’Conner explains how what unites the disparate phenomena grouped together in a loosely conceptualised notion orientated towards clinical experience is that “each of them involves some kind of receding from a certain kind of developmental phase: namely, the ego’s successful implementation of the reality principle through which it secures its own self-preservation”. In this sense the death drive exists in opposition to the impulse towards self-preservation, manifested across a whole range of self-regulative behaviours. It tracks a fundamental antagonism within our psyche:

One implication of this is that the id opposes the work of the ego: it does not want the ego to maintain its realistic withholding of pleasure, a withholding of the organism’s preferred tensionless state. In one sense this is the traditional picture of the ego as
master, but Freud adds to that by claiming that the ego does not set the agenda: it may seek to control the id, but it may also act out the “id’s will… as if it were its own” (SE XIX: 25). This is because what the id wills belongs to the organism, and it may be
that the ego mistakenly takes what it wills as motivated purely by its own perceptions or judgments.

https://researchrepository.ucd.ie/rest/bitstreams/29151/retrieve

If I understand correctly this leaves two outlets for pleasure: the fundamental pleasure of libido which threatens the ego and the pleasure made possible when the ego is swamped by pleasure. There is acting in pursuit of a pleasure but there is also surrendering to pleasure, releasing the tension which comes from self-regulation by subordinating the ego to libido. There is a tension inherent in the psyche reflecting how the reality principle regulates our pursuit of pleasure to support self-preservation; there are ascetic pleasures to be found in self-mastery, deferral, postponement etc but a second-order pleasure to be found in the surrender of that impulse and the tensions it generates within ourselves e.g. the guilt which emerges from failing to regulate in a normatively expected way and the crushing expectations which inevitably result from our socialised existence. The ‘death’ in the death drive is “is the tensionlessness that is achieved when the ego no longer cares about what it is supposed to be, do, have or be perceived as” as O’Conner puts it.

I rewatched the Trainspotting films earlier this week and there’s something of this expressed in Mark Renton’s rejection of the paltry and fleeting pleasures which come from a life lived in accordance with the reality principle:

If I understand Derek Hook’s reading correctly then jouissance is the concept through which Lacan tries to get beyond the Freudian dichotomy of death drive and life drive, as well as the biologistic framing of tension. Hook stresses Freud’s interest in repetition, in which a subject involuntary repeats and returns to something traumatic without being able to work through it or move beyond it. This often involves the repeated attempt to find something which has been lost in these past encounters, in the process reproducing unpleasurable situations. This is crucial for clinical work because of the frequency with which people find themselves gripped by compulsions and self-sabotage attempts to move beyond this repetition.

Hook explains how Lacan recasts repetition as a symbolic rather than biological notion. Rather than death drive being a biological response to socialised pressures (a desperate lunge towards a tensionless existence free of self-regulative pressures and normative baggage) it mediates between nature and culture without being fully attributable to either. Lacan casts repetition in terms of our being locked into the symbolic and the manner in which symbolic processes speak over us as an ego saturated by language and constructed through us. This rests on a machinic conception of the symbolic as something productive with its own momentum operating through us rather than being used by us. The symbolic overwrites our experience, swamping the immediacy of our perception in chains of signification and connotation. The words come before the things they describe, saturated with meanings carried from the past which cannot be straightforwardly attributed to the intention of any particular agent.

The Freudian dichotomy of death/life drives suggests the possibility of a balance between them. It treats these as things with stable relations between them, rather than as an incapacity within drive itself. We treat this failure as an intrusion from outside, a positive intrusion which can be responded to emotionally and morally, affirming the fantasy that life should unfold smoothly and would were it not for the intrusive elements in our environment. It follows from this that to understand the death drive necessitates understanding drive itself because the former represents the insufficiency and propensity to failure inherent in the latter.

For Lacan all drives are potentially death drives because the inclination to push, exceed and swamp to a self-defeating degree are inherent in desire itself. This means we no longer emphasise the ‘death’ because what we are talking about are the drives which characterise the investments, motivations and commitments of human beings; we can talk of death drives when they are pushed towards some sort of excess beyond the limits of common sense, well being and self-preservation.

There’s a discordance between the biological body and the drives with bodies: we get pleasure from things which aren’t good for the body. This means there’s a tendency towards ‘ontological derailment’, being ‘out of joint’, inherent in libido itself because the pleasures we experience inherently lead themselves to being pursued to excess. There’s the possibility for self-destruction inherent in any pleasure, as well as a pleasure which can be taken in self-destruction, with Hook citing the example of morbidly picking at a a scab so that it won’t heal. In fact self-destructive acts entail a mode of enjoyment in the sense that there’s something which moves the subject to act in this way. It’s important to stress that drive is not a property of the subject but something which acts through the subject and in which they are caught up.

The point Hook makes towards the end of this lecture suggests there’s the possibility of a radical transformative process enabled by the death drive. The death drive invested subject can emerge as something fundamentally different. He doesn’t entirely explain this point but, as with so much in the last few months, it makes me think of Nick Cave’s sense of the terrible devastating opportunities that bring transformation

Here are the remaining six parts of the lecture. There were a couple of other videos I enjoyed while going down this psychoanalytical rabbit hole today. I’ve been thinking a lot about Objet petit a recently, explained by Hook as the positivisation in the Other of the lack within myself.

Screenshot from the video above
Screenshot from the video above

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