Welcome to lecture 15 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we are covering Part 4 of Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology. You can find this part under the subheading “Trauma Outside Experience”.

Zupančič starts this section by re-introducing us to one of the core aspects of Freud’s thesis in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, namely that the beyond of the pleasure principle is a compulsion to repeat a traumatic incident. Examples that Freud gives in the book, include:

  • A benefactor beyond abandoned by proteges
  • A man whose friendships end in betrayal
  • A man who elevates someone to high authority only to overthrow that authority
  • A lover whose affairs pass through the same stages with the same outcomes

What all of these examples have in common, is that they are actions aiming towards pleasure, but end in a repetitive unpleasure. They end, in fact, in increasing the trauma and tension that an individual experiences in their life.

This is a paradox for Freud. The paradox is precisely found in the contradiction with the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle can be defined, simply, as a desire to lower tension with pleasure, and to avoid unpleasure. One can easily think about the logic of this motion, and even the universality of this principle.

However, the events which Freud previously identified as a “beyond” of the pleasure principle, present a challenge to the pleasure principle. Namely: why would an individual be compelled to repeat particularly traumatic incidents? Why would an individual seek unpleasure and a seemingly unnecessary tension?

To quote Zupančič (1):

“This is Freud’s explanation: what we find at the origin of repetition is a repression of a traumatic event — repetition appears at the place of remembering; one repeats something one cannot remember. Repetition is thus fundamentally the repetition (in different “disguises”) of a concrete, originally traumatic event or experience. Although Freud preserved the basic outline of this explanation, he also saw that it nevertheless leaves several problems and questions unanswered, and he kept returning to these questions. Practically all interesting and productive readings of Freud on this issue emphasize the necessity of another turn which complicates the schema above and puts repetition in a new perspective. Despite some important differences, these readings all agree on one point, which has recently been made again by Ray Brassier in the context of his age on negativity and nihilism: what the compulsion to repeat repeats is not some traumatic and hence repressed experience, but something which could never register as an experience to begin with. The trauma which is being repeated is outside the horizon of experience (and is, rather, constitutive of it). This emphasis is absolutely crucial: the trauma is real, but not experienced. And this shifts the debate from the usual framework, which is mostly consumed by the question (or alternative) of the real versus the imagined (fantasized); that is, by the distinction between material reality and psychic reality (fantasy).”

The important points here include:

  • The idea that repetitions begins as a response to an impossible traumatic event
  • The compulsion to repeat unpleasure is to repeat something that cannot be experienced
  • Finally, that trauma is a real non-experience that paradoxically allows for experience

Here are two representations that capture this difference:

The first figure on the left displays traumatic repetitions that are attempting to recapture/remember a real traumatic experience. Classical examples include a child watching their parents have sex, or a violent attack disrupting one’s own bodily functioning, and so forth.

The second figure on the right displays traumatic repetitions that are attempting to recapture/remember a real traumatic non-experience. Here we might be able to think about birth itself. Is not birth itself not something necessarily experienced, but the precondition for experience?

Here to quote from Zupančič (2):

“The separation between the organic inside and the inorganic outside is thus achieved at the price of the death of part of the primitive organism itself.”

This suggests that in order for life to become life (e.g. “autopoietic”, a boundary zone between inside/outside), requires that there be a type of death, a death, not of an organism, but of the non-all, a type of free-floating non-experience. The death drive is what repeats this trauma of the birth of an individual. Individual experience appears on the painful precondition that the non-all dies.

Here the classical binary between life and death drive, what we know as the Freudian metaphysics, is here problematized in a post-Freudian psychoanalysis, where death is required to found life. Thus, death is actually primary as a type of negative monism, where the life drive is secondary, epiphenomenal. We do not have a balanced dualistic tension. Rather, the death drive has a fundamental nature. In this way, life cannot simply repeat pleasure and avoid unpleasure, lowering tension in the process. Life has to attempt to repeat an impossible experience, which generates even more tension. One possible way to conceive this includes the idea that the further an organism can experience death before actual death, the deeper its possibilities for individuation, the deeper its possibilities to become different, something the world has never known.

Here we get a representation of Zupančič’s idea that the death drive should be understood as the desire to “die differently” then the destiny of organic individuation. This should be opposed to the traditional notions of immortality as the endless/spurious continuation of life. Death drive is something that emerges internal to life as its own impossibility, that repeats as an obsessional compulsion. In other words, the strange thing about the death drive, is that life has nowhere to return except to that which it never had, and which is nevertheless experienced as a loss. This is the very strange temporality of the death drive.

To repeat Ray Brassier’s model of death drive, it can be equated to a trauma trace without experience, and the repetition of this trauma is an attempt to bind the impossible excess. The binding is impossible since it would involve the actual death of the actual organism.

Zupancic’s questions for this model include:

  1. Is death drive associated with repetition?
  2. How does primordial trauma appear as unbound excess requiring repetition of unpleasant experiences?

In order to start answering these questions, Zupancic points towards both Lacan and Deleuze, who both developed interesting and complicated divergences and convergences, vis-a-vis the Freudian ontology of death drive. With both of these pointing towards, we are getting a necessary foreshadowing of the next part of Object-Disoriented Ontology.

In this lecture, we covered four major points:

  1. Freud’s compulsion to repeat traumatic experience (death drive)
  2. Death drive as trauma within experience/without experience
  3. Origins of organic individuation (death)
  4. Theoretical problems interpreting death drive (Lacan, Deleuze)

Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 4 – Object-Disoriented Ontology.  p. 107.

(2) ibid. p. 108.


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