DEATH DRIVE I: FREUD. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology (Part 3)


Welcome to Lecture 14 of Alenka Zupancic’s What Is Sex? This lecture will focus on Part 3 of Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology. The subsection for this chapter is titled “Death Drive I: Freud”.

In this subsection we will cover four major topics:

  1. Death drive as theoretical construction site
  2. Freud’s logic of the death drive as the aim of life
  3. From duality of drives to monistic drive
  4. Sexuality and the death drive: excess and lack

Starting with the death drive as a theoretical construction site. We can see that from the introduction of the death drive, starting with Sigmund Freud, to the exploration of the concept in figures like Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, the concept of the death drive has continued to evolve and change its meaning, lacking any signal anchor for philosophical exploration.

Here to quote Zupančič (1):

“Freud speculating on the possible origins of what he will call the death drive: “The attributes of life were at some time evoked in inanimate matter by the action of a force of whose nature we can form no conception… The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct (Drive) came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state.” This “instinct”, or drive, to regain the supposed original homeostatic, tensionless state, is what he will call the death drive.  And here is Žižek on the death drive: “Death drive means precisely that the most radical tendency of a living organism is to maintain a state of tension, to avoid final “relaxation” in obtaining a state of full homeostasis. “Death drive” as “beyond the pleasure principle” is the very insistence of an organism on endlessly repeating the state of tension.”

What Zupančič is trying to capture in this quote, representing Freud’s original understanding of death drive, to Žižek’s exploration of death drive, is to articulate the paradox in the conceptualization of death drive. Whereas Freud seems to point toward death drive as a desire for a tensionless state, inanimate matter/death, referencing a theory of the origin of life itself, and the way life cancels itself out for an inanimate state; to Žižek’s conception of death drive, which paradoxically seems to capture an opposite notion: death drive as maintaining a state of tension, endlessly repeating the same thing.

Again referencing the paradox explicit in the Freudian and Žižekian notion of death drive. On the one hand, Freud, signalling death drive as a desire for a primordial, original, tensionless state; to the Zizekian death drive, as a persistent repetitive state of tension. What is the logical connection between the two? How can Žižek justify a conceptual exploration of the death drive on the maintenance and deepening of a state of tension?

To understand how this jump took place, first we have to understand that Freud’s understanding of death drive, was principally a deconstruction of the vitalist notions of life, like Henri Bergson’s theory of elan vital. For Freud, there was no grounding of life itself, but rather grounded in death, in its own cancellation or annihilation. Lacan, in his return to Freud, takes this as a clue, that death drive is the very seat of the sexual energies, the very seat of the life drive. Thus, Lacan concludes that we are not dealing with a dualistic split between life and death drive, but rather a primacy to the death drive, a type of impossibility of the one, in the reality or the real of death.

Zupančič then asks us to reconsider the full explanation of Freud’s death drive (2):

“Consider this long and most intriguing passage from “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”: “If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons — becomes inorganic once again — then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones.” [/] The attributes of life were at some time evoked in inanimate matter by the action of a force of whose nature we can form no conception… The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state. It was still an easy matter at that time for a living substance to die; the course of its life was probably only a brief one, whose direction was determined by the chemical structure of the young life. For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated detours before reaching its aim of death. These circuitous paths to death, faithfully kept to by the conservative instincts, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life.””

To summarise Freud’s ideas on death drive:

  1. Life dies for internal, not external, reasons (once we get rid of external factors, we face a self-mediated death)
  2. Life attempts to reduce or eliminate the tension produced by its own emergence (life is suffering, the wish to never be born)
  3. External complications make it harder and harder to die as evolution unfolds (the conserved instinct)

To repeat the three axioms of death drive, or the logic of the death drive:

  1. Everything living dies
  2. Death is caused internally
  3. Death is the fundamental aim

Here we get the dualism of the conservative instincts and the progressive instincts, the instincts of the death drive (conservative), and the instincts of the life drive (progressive). In Freud, dualism favours death as primary, and life instincts as secondary. The reason why the conservative instincts are primary is because they are paving the pathway of death, and the reason the progressive instincts are secondary, is because they have no life substance of their own, they are merely reactions to the complications of the environment, which have to in turn be sublated by instinct to the pathway of death.

In this way the conservative instincts represent the “tiredness/fatigue” of life. They have to deal with death because death is still far away. Conservative instincts are not “fun to do”, they are not something one “wants to do”, but rather something one “has to do”, to mediate one’s own death. Whereas progressive instincts, which give the appearance of a joy for life (elan vital), are actually ways to ward off external death, ways of introducing novelty to avoid the possibility of an outside intrusion onto a process that needs to be self-mediated.

To represent this idea in another quote from Freud (3):

“Life is a circuitous route to death, and conservative instincts are the pavement of this route, they are one with it, indistinguishable from it.”

Here in this representation you see that life’s goal or aim is death, but due to external disturbances, life has to innovate/change, life has to alter its pathway, and then, the conservative instinct will sublate this novelty, and can literally be understood as the temporality of death (i.e. “the pavement of this route, indistinguishable from it”).

To quote Zupancic again (4):

“Freud is more than explicit on this point: “Seen in this light, the theoretical importance of the instincts of self-preservation, of self-assertion and of mastery greatly diminishes.  They are component instincts whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself.” According to this perspective, instincts of self-preservation do not — even temporarily — change life’s fundamental goal (death), they simply introduce a temporality into it. And the mode of this temporality is essentially repetition. Conservative instincts repeat acquired/established paths of life, unless they are forced (for external reasons) to change them; in which case they then tend to repeat those modified paths, and this is what we wrongly perceive as instincts impelling toward change, development, and the production of new forms. Nothing is impelling this kind of change — there is no drive to it.”

To summarize this quote:

  1. Conservation of habits is the temporality of death (first order of repetition)
  2. The new in-itself has no internal motivation/drive, only the necessity to avoid external death

We ask ourselves: What is life? Counter to the vitalists:

  1. Life has no positive ground or source of its own (i.e. vitalism, elan vital)
  2. Life happens to inanimate matter due to an inherent contradiction of inanimate matter (e.g. increasing complexity of inanimate matter)
  3. Life becomes structured by perversions, strange pleasures, tics of the inanimate (which are in turn, the desire for death, the old way of being)

Now we can think of Freud’s famous “pleasure principle” in context of death drive, related to the process of the emergence of life as a far-from-equilibrium system. According to Freud, the death drive is the striving for a homeostatic equilibrium. Thus the pleasure principle is aligned with the death drive, since pleasure equals a release from tension. In other words, as life emerges, an unpleasurable tension builds up in the life world. The inanimate matter, which becomes living matter, becomes far-from-equilibrium, and these systems are structured by tension. These tensions are experienced-perceived by the living organism as unpleasurable. So the pleasure principle here is a counter-motion to this unpleasure. The pleasure principle equals a release of tension/a relaxation from life. Ultimately, the idea here is that the pleasure principle is striving for a total end of tension. We may call this the “nirvana principle” or “total relaxation” (death itself).

We can see here why Lacan reasoned that the pleasure principle and the death drive were the same thing. The life force found its truth in the death force. That the appearance of dualism was masking a deeper negative monism. Quoting Zupančič (5):

“Freud (re) affirms his conviction concerning the primary character of what he named “the pleasure principle”: “In the theory of psycho-analysis we have no hesitation in assuming that the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle. We believe, that is to say, that the course of those events is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and that it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension, that is, with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure… We have decided to relate pleasure and unpleasure to the quantity of excitation that is present in the mind but is not in any way “bound”; and to relate them in such a manner that unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” It is clear from this passage that “the pleasure principle” for Freud does not refer to any kind of hedonistic searching and striving for pleasure, actively looking for gratification and satisfaction, but basically to seeking relief (from tension and excitation), to the “lowering of tension”, in an attempt to reach a homeostatic state.”

Here the main points that are worth repeating, include:

  1. The mind/mental thoughts are governed by the pleasure principle (emerging in tension with life and the world)
  2. Unbound excitation emerges in unpleasure; bound excitation equals diminished pleasure (which can be framed as a “binding problem”; i.e. “there is no big other”)
  3. Pleasure principle is seeking relief from tension/excitation (lowering of tension > searching for more pleasure)

Now Zupančič goes further, linking the pleasure principle to the death drive, and the reality principle to the life drive. First the link of pleasure principle to death drive (6):

“the “pleasure principle”, with its homeostatic tendency is actually a mental equivalent of what appears later on in Freud’s speculations as the fundamental tendency of all life to return to the inanimate, and hence to reduce the tension induced (in inanimate matter) by the emergence of life.”

Second, the link of reality principle to the life drive (7):

““[The reality] principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure.” […] [T]he reality principle is not opposed to the pleasure principle, but functions as its circuitous prolongation. There is strictly speaking no “beyond the pleasure principle” to be discerned here.”

Now that Zupančič has attempted to convince us that the pleasure/reality principle point towards a monistic negativity, coupled with an internal self-mediated death and life’s prolongation due to complications in the external environment, she asks us to once again consider again sexuality or eros. In short: does sex break out of the circle of life’s attempt to return to death? When we are thinking about eros in-itself, there is a way in which it thrives on excitement/tension, opening an “endless” continuation of life, reproduces or embraces “alterity” (difference, otherness), and embodying an “anti-fatigue” with an independent/lawless logic of perpetual motion.

In the traditional split between eros as life, and thanatos as death, eros is on the side of species-being without ground except its “potential immortality” (endless striving); whereas thanatos is on the side of the individual organism, which is in some sense already dead, doomed to death (as we have covered in great depth above).

To complicate this dualism, Zupančič suggests that:

  1. Life instincts cannot subsume sexuality
  2. No principle or law explains sexuality
  3. Sex involves “split, repetition, surplus satisfaction, constant pressure”

In this way we see Zupančič points to the idea that what is involved the potential immortality of our species-being, involves the opposite of homeostasis or relaxation (the mediation of a sexual pressure).

This brings us to one of the most important divisions in psychoanalysis, the division between Freud and Jung on a theory of sexuality. For Freud, sexuality is partial and de-substantialized, meaning it cannot be whole, totalized as complete. Sexuality is a non-substantial grounding, as we have covered, it has no base. For Jung, sexuality is holistic and substantial, meaning that it is a neutral totality, that is famously, in-itself non-sexual, containing all the drives that once can identify with, as a type of big other.

To quote Zupančič (8):

“This is precisely what was at stake in [Freud’s] split with Jung, this desexualization of the libido in terms of a neutral primary substance, subsequently divided between different drives which are all part of this “great whole” called the libido, and basically constituting two (complementary) principles… Freud’s fundamental move, on the other hand, was to desubstantialize sexuality: the sexual is not a principle to be properly described and circumscribed, it is the very impossibility of its own circumscription or delimitation. It can neither be completely separated from biological, organic needs and functions (since it originates within their realm, it starts off by inhabiting them), nor can it be simply reduced to them. The sexual is not a separate principle or domain of human life, and this is why it can inhabit all the domains of human life. Ultimately, it is nothing but the inherent contradiction of “life”, which in turn loses its self-evident character.”

In other words, the sexual is the omnipresent impossibility, in Freud, that can never be escaped or avoided. Sexuality has to be lived with in contradiction, which is, again, the central thesis of this book, What Is Sex?

Zupančič thus points to the idea that Freud’s dualism, between life and death drives, can be mediated to the logic of a monistic singularity of constant tension, rather than homeostatic equilibrium. This tension/antagonism on the level of the species-being rises this analysis over the psychoanalysis of an individual’s inevitable death. Here Freud’s own theory appears limited by the very grounding of psychoanalysis. When we extend analysis to the species-being, the death of the individual is replaced by the immortality of the species-being.

In Lacanian analysis, this monistic singularity of tension finds expression in the lawless partial object, nominated as objet petit a, an object holding the subject’s love and hate (another split).

To quote Zupančič on the monistic singularity (9):

“Reaffirming his central thesis about the sexual “nature’ of the libido as such, Freud, in his last part of his essay, thus works with the hypothesis that there are only sexual drives — Almost imperceptibly, the perspective has thus (again) shifted dramatically. From the monism of the death drive (qua pleasure principle) we move to the dualism of Eros and Thanatos (that is, of sexual drives and death drives), and from there to the monism of sexual drives. [/] In what sense can we say that this now implies a “monism” not of substance, but of a split or an obstacle that prevents substance from being-one? First of all, sexual drives are no longer simply viewed as life drives, because they repeat or reproduce the very split between life and death; with sexual drives death is inherent to life, conditioning its perpetuation (and — in brief — this negativity [this “minus”] inherent to life becomes the very site of psychic life — insofar as the latter is coextensive with the unconscious).”

To summarise some of the most important points:

  1. Zupancic is forwarding the idea of monism as split/obstacle (preventing life from being one, death inherent to sexuality)
  2. Sex drives are not life drives but the split between life/death and the site of the psyche itself (thus we reach the truth of the psyche in both death and the split between life/death)

The consequence, is that sexuation involves death, to be a sexual being is to also be a being of death. To be a sexual being, one must internalize loss, one must internalize that death is inevitability. This moves death from the final goal of life, to the inherent negativity and the internal presupposition of life. Thus, death is something to be used, to be worked with actively, by the sexual being. The truth of one’s psyche is at this very locus as split.

Now to the Lacanian death drive. Zupančič gives a summary of five important points to consider when thinking Lacan’s own hypothesis of death drive:

  1. Instincts repeat acquired/established life paths (conservative)
  2. New/different repetition emerges within this repetition as surplus
  3. Surplus causes internal tension and pressure which repeats
  4. New repetition represents an off-shoot of an additional drive
  5. Objective representation of negativity inherent to signifying order

The overall point is that, in the Lacanian universe, there is no objective truth as substantial other (e.g. God, Nature), but rather objective truth as negativity. This negativity is both ahistorical (always present in the symbolic order), and historical (taking on a unique expression within each symbolic order).

This takes us back to psychoanalysis in the Lacanian variety. For Lacan, the objective negativity of each subject manifests in a drive and its partial object, on the level of the oral, anal, genital, gaze, voice and smell. Each of these figures as partial objects capture a surplus satisfaction operating in the very gap/loss of the thing. In other words, if in the Lacanian universe there is a monistic negativity, an objective representation of death, the partial object of the subject, the surplus satisfaction that emerges on top of the conservative instinct, is the singular representation of death for that subject.

A good example of his these partial drives emerges from, and also become decoupled from, their organic needs, can be found in the difference between eating and gluttony, or reproduction and masturbation. Gluttony and masturbation operate for the enjoyment of the drive, not for the service of organic need. Here death drive as repetition within repetition can be described as a singular force that:

  1. Raises tension (disequilibrium)
  2. Works against life (organic need)
  3. Reproduces itself for itself (drive)
  4. Circulates a negativity (primal repression)
  5. Is the embodiment of negativity

Here with the classical Freudian model of the psyche, structured as it is by super-ego, ego, and id. The super-ego operates in the positive order of being, reifying social appearances, where we do get the formation of a big other, God or Nature. The ego, operates on the basic survival of the individual organism, and identifying with the conservative instincts. Whereas the id is the pure negativity of the drive itself, redoubled repetition in the lack in being. The truth of the psyche flips from its search for an identity in the super-ego, qua positive order of being; to the truth of the missing phallus and the embodiment of this negativity.

Now let us finally return to Freud’s own definition of death drive (10):

“component instincts whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself.”

Zupančič proposes a modification of this original definition (11):

“Death drive, in our meaning of the term, could be described precisely as establishing (and driving) the ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent to the organism itself. […] Yet it cannot be described in terms of destructive tendencies that want (us) to return to the inanimate, but precisely as constituting alternative paths to death (from those immanent in the organism itself). We could say: the death drive is what makes it possible for us to die differently. And perhaps in the end this is what matters, and what breaks out from the fatigue of life: not the capacity to live forever, but the capacity to die differently. We could even paraphrase the famous Beckettian line and formulate the motto of the death drive as follows: Die again, die better!

The modification includes a crucial notion that death drive is not an attempt to return to a homeostatic balance or destructive annihilation, but something that helps us explore different pathways to death, other than purely natural pathways. The death drive, or coming to the truth of the psyche in the negativity of the id, is helping us to die differently. This notion is incredibly important in countering the idea that the human subject wants to live forever in a techno-scientific sense. The phrase die again, die better becomes Zupancic motto for the death drive, which helps the subject die in a different way.

Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology.  p. 94.

(2) ibid. p. 95.

(3) ibid. p. 96.

(4) ibid. p. 96-97.

(5) ibid. p. 97-98.

(6) ibid. p. 98.

(7) ibid. p. 98-99.

(8) ibid. p. 100.

(9) ibid. p. 101.

(10) ibid. p. 105.


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