HUMAN, ANIMAL. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology (Part 2)


In this lecture we cover part 2 of Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology, located in the subsection “Human, Animal”.

In this subsection we cover the four following themes:

  • Human as evolutionary and spiritual difference
  • Interpretation of this difference in religious and secular contexts
  • Psychoanalytic concept of the drive as jouissance
  • Ontological consequences of the drive

First the two differences, the evolutionary and spiritual differences. In evolutionary theory, humans are often perceived as different then biological organisms. The reason for this difference is typically located in the use of reason, or our capacity for justification, to use rationality to make sense of ourselves and the world. Or it is located in our capacity for language, our symbolic capacities, our tendency to represent the self and the world with symbols. Finally, it can be located in tool-use, our capacity to manipulate and manufacture objects out of the natural order.

two differences

All of these differences are, from an evolutionary point of view, of great interest to the human difference vis-a-vis biological organisms. However, they do not bring us to the properly spiritual difference. On the level of spirit, the human animal is also characterized by a unique capacity for self-reference, a unique capacity to hold oneself as a spiritual object, to hold oneself as an otherness separate and distinct from nature. This spiritual difference is typically where we find the manifestation of spiritual or religious impulse, and thus the ground for many different metaphysical practices.

Religion/Secular Conceptualization of the Difference

Here conceptualizing this difference we can reflect a Christian and secular model. For the Christian model, the nature of the human animal as self-reference, this nature of the human animal as this capacity for holding oneself as a subjective object, is perceived as something excessive, something which brings an excessive enjoyment (jouissance, to be specific. In the Christian model, this is an untameable excess that needs control, that needs to be subjugated to a higher principle. In Christianity, this higher principle is God.

In the secular model, in contrast, the human animal is not something excessive, but something that is a part of and embedded in a natural chain of causality. The subject is reduced to a lawful subject, abiding by, out of necessity, natural law, with no capacity to alter or change these laws.

These are of course two very different models of the spiritual difference.

Modern Interpretations

In modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, are wrestling with these opposite models of the spiritual difference. Kant, of course, provided a type of universal moral law, which is in some sense a response to the view of humans as an excess of human nature. The moral law, according to Kant, is required as an ethical constraint. The subject must constrain its excessive impulses. The subject must constrain its excessive nature and bring it into line with, a universal morality. This is expressed under the idea of the categorical imperative.

In contrast, Nietzsche wrestles more with a secular model. Of course, for Nietzsche, he is most well known for uttering the statement “God is Dead”, fully embracing a secular universe. But he does not abide to the idea that the human animal is just a lawful subject, obeying out of necessity natural law. For Nietzsche, the human animal is embedded in natural law, but the human animal itself is the lack itself, internal to natural, and thus also the place of potentiality, that could become something other. This void of potential, is where Nietzsche developed the idea of the overman. The overman was the entity that could trans-valuate all values, and remake himself in a new way.

To quote Zupančič on the problem of the human animal in the void (1):

“I would simply like to retain the powerful image of […] culture and morality as taking place at, or as anchored precisely in, this point of ontological incompleteness of being-animal, rather than something that exists for the purposes of “taming” or hiding the wild animal in us.  This is not the image of man as half animal and half something else, but of man as a being the animal part of which is lacking something, and of “humanity” appearing as the dress (disguise) to cover up this lack, this missing part. […] The image suggests something different: veiling, dressing up the missing part, which is to say; inventing/producing “humanity” on and around this void[.]”

Zupančič is here clearly building on the Nietzschean project, of the subject as a void-potential within being, that cannot be reduced to the natural chain of causality, or the lawful subject. Rather, the law, or culture and morality, is something trying to tame and control this void itself, this fact of ontological incompleteness, that the human animal, the something “excessive and wild”, is the very location where new culture and morality can emerge in a re-negotiation, with a new semblance or appearance of being. This void is the location where the human animal dramatizes its being.

To move deeper into this territory, let’s look at the distinction between biological instinct and psychological drive. For psychoanalysis, the psychological drive has to be understood within the context of biological instinct, but cannot be reduced to biological instinct. The psychological drive has an existence that emerges in-and-for-itself. For Zupančič, this psychological drive is (2):

“The plus (what in human is more than animal) takes the place of the less (what in human is less than animal).”

Here this paradoxical reversal of the plus into a minus, is a key metaphysical distinction that appears in psychoanalysis, that is not present in either the religious worldview, which sees the distinction of the human animal as a plus (an excess), and not present in the scientific worldview, where neither the plus nor the minus is articulated, but rather covered up with natural law. Thus, what psychoanalysis seeks to highlight, is in some sense the revolutionary act of paying attention to the very space where, metaphysical and spiritual practices emerge and stabilize themselves.

Here to quote Zupančič (3):

“The concept of the drive (and of its object) is […] something that casts a surprising light on the nature of human need as such: in human beings, any satisfaction of a need allows, in principle, for another satisfaction to occur, which tends to become independent and self-perpetuating in pursuing and reproducing itself.  There is no natural need that is absolutely pure, that is to say, devoid of this surplus element which splits it from within.  Drive can neither be completely separated from biological, organic needs and functions (since it originates within their realm, it starts off by inhabiting them), nor simply reduced to them.”

Here Zupančič is describing the way in which the psychological drive in psychoanalysis is something that has a weird relationship to biology and specifically need, like for example, the need to eat or have sex. The drive is something that simply becomes an autonomous and self-reproducing aim all of its own. This has a weird paradox included into it, which includes the way a biological instinct can be inverted into an absence.

In other words, animals can enjoy eating an apple, or eating whatever it is they are biologically programmed to enjoy, whereas the human animal, due to this weird excess of self-reflectivity, can hold the instinct as it were, as a self-reflective object, and get enjoyment by negating this very command, by enjoying the absence of the instinctual need. To quote Lacan (4):

“If an animal eats regularly, it is clearly because it doesn’t know the enjoyment of hunger.”

This famous quote by Lacan, which should be appreciated by anyone who has experienced the joy that can emerge from fasting, for example. Fasting as absence is something unique to the human spirit, and metaphysical practice. It is holding the biological instinct from a self-reflective distance and getting enjoyment from the negation of its command.

The absence has relevance to Christianity and their model of the human as an excess. This also has relevance to our metaphysical drive, not just thing like eating and having sex, but our very drive for immortality, our being-toward-death. The biological animal is of course finite and mortal: we all die. However, the psychological drive has a type of insistence within it, which is infinite or immortal, like Hegel’s infinite judgement. In psychoanalysis, the death drive itself is the location of human immortality.

Thus, the way human’s experience immortality and infinity, is only possible, paradoxically, based on the limit or the fact that the human being is finite and mortal. Within this recognition that the human being is finite and mortal, the immortal psychological drive can sustain itself as a weird paradoxical absence. This brings us to a relationship, perhaps unexpected, between the phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger, and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Heidegger, death was the limit that reveals human finitude, the fact that all humans die, the fact that all humans are mortal (5). This being-toward-death is the place, in Heidegger, is where you can ground the search for immortality. In synergy, the dimension that appears here for Lacan, is the way in which jouissance appears, and must be understood, as the experiential register grounding immortality. The human animal, gains a weird enjoyment, by dramatizing the different possible relationships its can have with death. We are all going to die, yes, but our negotiation with death, the way we will die, is not determined.

To quote (6):

“The dialog of life and death… becomes dramatic only from the moment when enjoyment intervenes in the equilibrium of life and death. The vital point, the point where… a speaking being emerges is this disturbed relationship to one’s own body which is called jouissance.”

In other words, the way in which we negotiate with death, and our possible relationships to it, is also the place where we have a weird type of enjoyment, an excess of pleasure, not simply eating or having sex, but grounding the way one experiences pleasure in food and sex, in this weird dialogue of life and death.

Again, let’s revisit this model between animal need and metaphysical drive, where Zupančič starts to suggest that the metaphysical is also the political. Here animal need is clearly in line with producing a pleasure, and the metaphysical drive appears as the inverse, a pleasure-in-pain, pleasure-in-absence, pleasure-in-a-certain-not-working, or deviation from the norm, is the very spiritual core of the body, is the very location where the human animal starts to dramatize the possible ways it can die, the possible ways it can express its infinite or immortal judgement.

Here to quote Zupančič (7):

“The declination of life from life does not simply produce death, but the “death drive” as something undead that haunts both life and death.”

By starting to introduce the idea that the death drive is neither life nor death, something which we will cover in greater detail in future lectures, we start to see how the concept of immortality emerges in psychoanalysis. Immortality is not something that we get after we die, or a static utopian heaven, but something that emerges in the tension between life and death, something that emerges in the very impossibility for our spirit to be immortal in the naive sense. This dimension is something political, for Zupančič, something very much alive in our political struggles and conflicts and tensions. But still, this immortality is something left unthought, as if we could be purely rational, as if we could simply negotiate without a structuring by the death drive.

This all has ontological consequences, for Zupančič. In order to dive into these ontological consequences, we have to understand the distinction between these consequences. In model 1 we have the human structured by an instinctual survival force, just like the other animals; with a spiritual exception as metaphysical excess in need of taming and control (religious law, etc.). In model 2, Zupančič suggests, that it is the nature of the drive to be the very symbolic articulation of the impossibility itself. Here there is a clever reversal of the traditional religious understanding. The traditional religious understanding attempts to cover up the impossibility, deadlock, or impasse; psychoanalysis turns this impossibility, deadlock, or impasse into the thing-itself, where immortality is in a mode of becoming. Think of any psychoanalytic session, where the symbolic articulation of impossibility, is the thing-in-itself.

To quote Zupancic (8):

“But one could go even further and radicalize these claims by extending them to “nature” or material reality as such, and suggesting that the deviation from the course of natural laws (or from the norm) is not coextensive with humankind (originating in it), but constitutive for the reality and the norm as such, and synonymous with what Žižek calls the “incomplete ontological constitution of reality.”  The speaking being is neither part of (organic) nature, nor its exception (nor something in between), but its Real (the point of its own impossibility, impasse).  The speaking being is the real existence of an ontological impasse.  So, what is at stake is not that man is distinguished by the declination from nature and its laws; man is not an exception (constituting the whole of the rest of nature), but the point at which nature exists (only) through the inclusion of its own impossibility.”

What this means is that, at least Zupančič is claiming, that nature only gains an existence, only gains a reality, when the speaking being is brought to the awareness of its own impossibility. When nature comes into being, in other words, this coming into being, is something produced, worked through, by the speaking being. The speaking being starts to mobilize this impossibility as its own spiritual drive, as its death drive.

Here revisiting model 1 and 2, we can claim that in the first model, there is an alignment with naive scientific materialism, because what is primary is the physical, chemical and biological laws, and what is secondary is human consciousness and the symbolic order describing what exists out there. However, in model 2, when we take the impossibility that appears in the symbolic order as the thing-in-itself (primary), we have to consider that it is human consciousness and the symbolic order, and the way impossibility emerges internal to this order, where physical, chemical and biological laws articulated and produced, where nature gains an existence from the speaking being.

These ideas bring us to some of the titans of the 20th century: Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze. All these thinkers point in the same direction, towards the idea of the fundamental nature of the death drive. Zupancic is giving credit to Freud for the introduction of the death drive, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but different conceptual examples aligned with this discovery, include Heidegger’s being-toward-death, Lacan’s jouissance, and Deleuze’s clinamen/declination. These are all conceptual examples of how the death drive functions/appears/experienced by the human animal.

To push it even further, she is saying that the key philosophical link, is that new ontologies of nature and the symbolic have to be built around the death drive. In other words, our naive naturalist and symbolic ideas, are to be re-situated around the idea of death as something fundamental, and gives being to nature and the symbolic.

Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology. p. 87.

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid. p. 87-88.

(4) ibid. p. 88.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid. p. 89.

(7) ibid. p. 91.

(8) ibid. p. 93.


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