The death drive may be the least understood concept in Freud’s work. It is certainly the least widely adopted, in any case among clinical practitioners claiming to practice or be inspired by the psychoanalytic method. It doesn’t help that Freud himself opens Beyond the Pleasure Principle, his most sustained meditation on the subject, by describing it as a work of “far-fetched speculation, which the reader will consider or dismiss according to his individual predilection” (24).
Freud theorizes the death drive as a “drive to inanimacy,” famously declaring that “the aim of all life is death” (38). Yet the death drive is concerned with something other than the death that brings organic life to an end. Unlike an instinct, which is exhausted by the attainment of its aim or object, the drive is unbound, having no object or aim and thus no limit (including death itself)—whence the interminable character of repetition compulsion and the unlimited return of trauma. Against the energetic metaphor that is so often used to describe it, however, Freud reminds us that the death drive has no materiality and cannot be “given” psychically, even in the unconscious, which is why we can speak of it only in speculative or mythical terms. “The theory of the drives,” he writes, “is so to speak our mythology. The drives are mythical entities, magnificent in their indefiniteness” (New 95). It is not surprising, therefore, that many readers of Freud consider the theory of the death drive to be nothing more than a myth: a speculative thesis with no obvious clinical or social application.
Gilles Deleuze, in contrast, understands Freud’s account of the death drive not merely as a description of what he observes in the clinic but as a first-rate foray into “speculative philosophy”: an attempt to locate a “real” that is not given empirically and that therefore demands to be constructed (30). Like Jacques Lacan, who has developed the thesis of the death drive more fully than any other reader of Freud, Deleuze invites us to take seriously the question of construction that inevitably attends any investigation of the drive and its effects.
The essays in the present issue all attempt to construct or reconstruct in different ways the death drive and the traces it leaves in the life of the individual subject and in humanity. The volume opens with translations of previously unpublished work by psychoanalysts Willy Apollon and Lucie Cantin, whose groundbreaking work with psychotics in Québec has allowed them to further develop the clinic of psychoanalysis and to expand our understanding of the drive and its action in human life. Apollon’s original contribution to metapsychology advances a daring speculative thesis about the origin of the death drive, which he attributes to the anxiety that must logically have resulted from the encounter of the “first men” with the “absence at the heart of the address,” or with the Other as such, before they were in possession of the myths and signifiers that would allow them to evoke that experience. He relates this construction to what happens in an individual psychoanalysis, whose efficacy depends upon the analyst’s ability to hold open the place of this absent Other and so provoke the repetition of this anxiety—and, with it, the emergence of new signifiers that will allow the analysand to evoke for the first time an experience that is fundamentally foreign to language. Cantin’s article draws on clinical case material, as well as a number of aesthetic examples, to explore the relationship between the drive and the act. She affirms that the “untreatable” at work in the act is not something to be controlled or contained by an analysis, but is the expression of the impossible “quest” by which we recognize the subject of the unconscious and its singular desire: a quest that might be the ultimate expression of the death drive, which Cantin reminds us is a force of novelty and creation as well as destruction.
The next two contributions take up the relationship between the drive and language. Jeffrey S. Librett argues through a novel semiotic reading of’s Totem and Taboo that the drive is “a point of mutual interference and interpenetration” of the psychic and the somatic, “the place where the body disrupts and invades language and the place where language articulates and disarticulates the organic body” (46). Drawing on Roman Jakobson’s distinction between the metaphoric and metonymic axes of languages, Librett argues that there is a break within language, inasmuch as neither of its two fundamental dimensions can be said to master the whole. This gap is where language opens to the drive, entering into “competition” with itself, a competition implicit in the language of taboo, where the metaphoric identification with the father is supplemented and undercut by a jouissance that returns in and through the prohibition. Daniel Wilson’s essay begins by observing that even as Freud demonstrates that the subject of the unconscious cannot be fully represented in language, he nevertheless remains firm in his belief that it will one day be possible to provide a full scientific explanation for the psyche. In contrast, Lacan insists that there is no possible explanation of the unconscious and that the drive erupts precisely at the “nodal point of a defective knowledge,” attesting to a subject who is driven by the real of a jouissance that cannot be thought. Wilson traces the relationship between this censored jouissance and the feminine, showing how Freud’s conception of the feminine as a dimension of the bisexual constitution that is entirely given over to the drive resurfaces in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as something that cannot be spoken and that language must therefore “pass over in silence.” It is in response to Wittgenstein’s affirmation of the limits of language and its censorship of the feminine, Wilson argues, that Lacan is driven to formulate his own account of the feminine as a real that insists within language.
Finally, the last two contributions explore the relationship between the death drive and novelty, or the way in which the attempt to stage, make visible, or create a new space for the drive has the effect of forcing into the world something that is not otherwise perceptible. My essay revisits the close relationship between the death drive and the perversions, where Freud first identifies its operation. While it is commonplace to identify the death drive with sadistic violence or destruction, I argue that it is actually figured most fully by masochistic ritual and art, which Gilles Deleuze shows to be concerned with a “supersensual” reality (21), and by the fetishist’s positing of the phallic mother. Both are concerned with the construction or presentation of what cannot be seen, a fact that explains the deep affinity of the perversions not only with art and aesthetics but with mathematical and formal constructions. Steven Miller examines the drive that pushes the legendary high-wire walker Philippe Petit to dedicate years of his life to the seemingly impossible quest of traversing a wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which he ultimately accomplished in 1974. While Petit’s quest might seem to be death driven in the most conventional sense of the term—an inane risking of life without purpose or utility—Miller argues that Petit’s act is no mere stunt but a work of art whose beauty makes the audience forget the proximity of death by offering an “aesthetic presentation of limitless freedom.” He reminds us that the death drive is not merely a drive to mortality and inanimacy but is intimately bound up in what is most alive and free in human experience.