The Drives: Freud vs. Zizek (rough work up of an idea)

July 4, 2008

In his paper on narcissism, Freud describes the movement of object-libido and ego-libido as an “antithesis” (SE 14, 76), an antithesis which is the “corollary to an original hypothesis which distinguished between sexual instincts and ego instincts” (77). These of course get re-labled as Eros and Thanatos, love and death drives (the latter sometimes attributed to the Id, other times to the Ego… I haven’t settled that question for myself yet.. the closest I’ve come is that the Ego, of course, comes from the Id… But I need to re-read The Ego and the ID). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud notes that these two would be indistiquishable in most cases, which is why he didn’t see the death drive for so long. This is an echo of a comment he makes in “On Narcissism,” where he writes “that a real happy love corresponds to the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished.” The observation I want to make on all this is that here the drives appear as Kantian antinomies: the two exist as antithetical and cannot be reconciled with each other; they merely reach a point where they “cannot be distinguished,” not one in which they dissolve into each other. Hence the “Battle of the giants” in Civilations and its Discontents – two forces rage ceaselessly within us, never to be reconciled.

Further, Freud notes in his encyclopedia entry on the libido theory that the “sexual instinct turns out to be of a highly composite nature and is liable to disintegrate once more into its component instincts” (SE ?, 256). That is, the sexual drive is really just made up of the oral, anal and phallic drives, coming together as one in the genital stage.

Lacan rejects the notion of the genital stage and the stage theory of development altogether, developing the idea that the component drives are instead oral, anal, scopic and invocatory.

Directly against Freud’s assertion in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that the death drive is the desire to return to the zero state, the desire to return to a homeostatic leveling, Zizek asserts that “the Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life tension” (Parallax… 62). Instead, the drives are fixation upon an object: “ ‘drive’ is this fixation itself in which resides the ‘death’ dimension of every drive” (62). That is, the death drive does not exist as a drive unto itself and in opposition to a sexual drive, but is immanent to each component/sex drive. I think that it’s here that we see Z’s (and Lacan’s?) Hegelian influence coming through – in place of an antinomy, we get one side of the equation proving to be the undermining of the other. The ‘death instinct’ was for Freud ‘indistinguishable from the sexual instinct’ because it was the sexual instinct pushed beyond a certain limit.

(In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari seem to maintain a version of this antinomy of drive, but putting its differing functioning down to the ‘collective assemblage’ from which it comes. If it comes from an oedipalized one, the death drive plays out as self-destruction; in a non-oedipalized situation destruction plays out as creation – the destruction of institutions rather than the individual.)

What we get is also a move from a homeostatic universe to one that has a hole (and not a lack) at its core. That’s why Zizek goes on about there being ‘something in place of nothing’: there’s something out of balance, the mythical organ of the libido (the lamella, a.k.a. Odradek) is an undead, immortal thing has attached itself to us and made us human by putting us off balance. And this ‘inhuman’ pulsion is not the push towards the end of the universe (i.e. it’s not nihilism) but the move towards the freedom of the Act (the universe is not closed; we can act against what seems to be fate without bringing an end to all life…).

This, in part, explains why Zizek describes Capitalism as drive: Once generalized commodity production is in place, capital attaches itself to existing means of production and disturbs people’s established rhythms:

One of the consequences of the appearance and progressive generalization of commodity production is that labour itself begins to take on regular and measurable characteristics; in other words, it ceases to be an activity tied to the rhythms of nature and according with man’s physiological rhythms (Ernest Mandel, An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, 21).

What form does capital take in precapitalist society? It is basically usury capital and merchant or commercial capital. The passage from precapitalist society into capitalist society is characterized by the penetration of capital into the sphere of production. The capitalist mode of production, the first form of social organizationin which capital is not limited to the sole role of an intermediart and exploiter of non-capitalist forms of production. In the capitalist mode of production, capital takes over the means of production and penetrates directly into production itself, (Ibid.41).

Marx discovered that the commodity form was the basis of capitalism, and its apex was money. It is this object on which capital as drive is fixated, as Z lays out in the first 2 chapters of SOI. And so, if capital is drive, then the destruction of capital is immanent to it; that is, the ‘death’ aspect of that drive comes from within.

And Z’s project is to inspect the vicissitudes that prevent that death dimension from bringing that end.


3 Responses to “The Drives: Freud vs. Zizek (rough work up of an idea)”

  1. The Thing said

    Not sure if I’m adding much that’s new or useful here, but…

    My understanding of “the Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life tension” is that it relates to Zizek’s basic dismissal of Freud’s opposition between life and death drives. He accuses Freud of being too Jungian here, imagining a universe with properly consititued primal opposites: yin yang, masculine feminine, good evil, etc… (this, of course, fits with your assertion that Z is introducing Hegel: the opposed principles are not wholly constituted subspecies of a neutral universal container, but respective failed attempts to resolve the deadlock of the universal. Or… the universal develops into a deadlock and its subspecies negates it and turns it into something else, which leaves us with two subspecies, one of which IS the universal)

    It seems to me Z wants to replace the life/death drive opposition with two other oppositions:

    1) the opposition between a) the pleasure principle (the functional deployment of unpleasurable tension and pleasurable release as the tools for survivial – hunger leads to eating which relieves hunger, pain leads to rest which releives pain, arousal leads to copulation which relieves arousal…) and b) the death drive (the non-funcitonal striving after excessive tension which is enjoyable precisely insofar as it is unpleasurable – hunger as fasting for spiritual purification, pain as sadomasochistic sexual enjoyment, arousal as the tantric postponement of orgasm…)


    2) the opposition between a) desire (the striving after an imaginary lost object, the ‘filling of the lack’ with various ultimately disappointing substitutes, even the effort to ‘keep the lack open’) and b) drive (the rejection, cutting free of – and here I get a bit fuzzy – imaginary attachments? A different kind of attachment which is not to a lost object, but to the very stupid object in the real?)

    This latter opposition is the one I’m a bit stuck with at the moment, although it doesn’t seem to be the main concern of your post. Z says there is both “a drive beyond fantasy,” (Tick 288) AND “a desire that remains even after we have traversed our fundamental fantasy” (Tick 286). The latter will be the desire of the anlayst (whatever the f that is) and the former is the ‘good’ drive on this side of the thin, almost imperceptible line (ditto). I’m trying to work out the relationship between the two.

    But, in terms of capitalism (and I always feel on slightly shaky ground here), does your idea about Zizek’s aim with regard to capitalism as drive relate to either a) the traversing of the fundamental fantasy of capitalism (“the disavowed unconscious fantasy of the mysterious self-generating moevment of capital” Parallax 60) or b) the loss of politics proper and the rise of the post-political technocratic negotiation of interests?


  2. battleofthegiants said

    I kinda thought that desire and drive were antinomies, and that death drive was the breaking of the deadlock. Hence the “ ‘drive’ is this fixation itself in which resides the ‘death’ dimension of every drive”. That is, you’re either in desire-land or drive-land, and neither is the solution to the deadlock. It’s this drive that still gains pleasure from failure. Only when the drive tips across ‘the line’ into death drive do you break out of enjoyment.

    Whereas Capital is drive, the incessant creation of stuff and the attachment to money, the breaking of capital is to find the ‘death drive’ immanent to it, the negation that resides within it… the universal subject, the proletariat. This would mean the end of the object to which Capitalism is attached (money), the end of exploitation, and social structures as they currently exist.

    I’ve never grasped the desire of the analyst business. My inkling is that the ‘desire that remains’ is the sinthome, the symptom that will never go away, that left over once one traverses the fantasy.

    The problem with applying this to the Capitalism is that the symptom of Capitalism, that which is to be identified with, is the working class (I think). But it won’t survive a revolution – that is, the category of class is supposed to disappear. Where Z separates ‘Working Class’ and ‘Proletariat’, this means that ‘the proletariat’ as universal subject would survive, but I don’t think it stands as ‘sinthome’. I think that in place of a sinthome Zizek suggests Bartleby as the remainder – the negation that remains in the open after the revolution happens (rather than a hidden, forcibly forgotten founding-violence that would serve as a SuperEgo supplement).

    Then again, maybe Z doesn’t hold that the working class is the sinthome of capitalism…

    Maybe the ‘means of production’ would fill that space – It is ‘dead labour’ that would still exist after a revolution, but the social matrix (the relations of production) and the political space would be completely changed…

    So I guess I was talking about both a) ‘traversing ‘ commodity fetishism which would also mean b) breaking through the post-political.

    Fuck, that’s rambly. We need to meet again soon so we can talk about shit like this.


  3. battleofthegiants said

    I was thinking about the oppositions you suggested, and it seems to me they fit the (desire/drive) – (Death drive) division I think is in Zizek’s death drive.

    The second division you talk about I think is that between filling the gap with various objects, and attachment as such. Perhaps the difference is the nature of this gap: Z intimates a difference between “lack” and “hole”, and I think it’s that each of these is at a different register – one imaginary the other symbolic…

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