Notes on the death drive

Yesterday in the DAAD seminar led by Eric Santner that I’ve been participating in, we talked about Triebe und Triebschicksale and Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Prof. Santner emphasized the fact that the concept of “drive” is more the name of a problem than a solution and the fact that the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself. As we turned to the (bizarre!) sections of the text that deal with speculative cellular biology, I shared that I had found it somehow funny that Freud pictured the first living being coming into existence and experiencing it as a huge imposition: “This sucks! I want to go back to being primordial soup!” But once you start down that road, it seems as though there’s no reason not to push the point further. Perhaps consistent matter resented its condition and wanted to go back to being indeterminate quarks, for instance. Then Prof. Santner had a brilliant and hilarious insight: the idea that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could be put forward not as an occasion of wonder, but as a complaint.

It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome. Zizek of course puts this refusal forward as the only possible ground of political change, and it seems that there is justification in Freud’s text insofar as he associates the death drive with the Wiederholungszwang or repetition compulsion that pushes neurotic patients to relive the painful experience that has (mis)shaped them — but it’s all in order ultimately to refuse that particular vicious cycle and shape themselves differently.

I wonder if we can make a connection to the Heideggerian being-toward-death here. What drives Heidegger to investigate the phenomenon of death, at least in my reading, is not so much that death is the “end” and therefore “completion” of a human life, but rather that death as such is a potentiality that always necessarily remains potential, that can never be actualized. After all, once “my” death occurs, “I” no longer exist. The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with. Being-toward-death is his way of articulating and grasping that potentiality so as to get a complete grasp of Dasein’s peculiar mode of being (as actuality and potentiality). Just as with Freud’s death drive, the emphasis on death as such may be partially misleading or distracting, but there’s a moment of truth insofar as “death” names a radical negativity in human life. For both Freud and Heidegger, then, it would be this negativity that gives us access to the potentiality to do something other than our automatic daily routines of neurosis or everydayness.

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12 Responses to “Notes on the death drive”

  1. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    When I was a grad student in theology at Villanova, I wrote a paper on death in Freud and Heidegger (who I studied when doing my phil degree at Memphis) for my Christology course. For both authors, it seems that death–death drive–being-toward-death mark that which gives rise to other possibilities being able to be actualized. It’s the backdrop against which/the condition for the possibility for which possibilities show themselves. It’s unclear to me why “the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself” or why you claim that “It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome.” The part about overcoming and repetition compulsion seem to be linked with the life drive and pleasure principle rather than the death drive. In other words, the “persistent refusal” is the organism’s response to the drive toward death rather than constitutive of the death drive itself. Given that I have the intuition to say “yes” to your post in general, I fear that I might be misreading you on this particular point.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad I’m not the first to have seen this connection. When I’m talking about refusal, I’m talking about the death drive is a way of refusing the whole regime of activity overseen by the pleasure and reality principles — not the refusal of death (i.e., the attempt to avoid death), which would just be the pleasure/reality principles themselves. The reason the term “death” is problematic is that it’s so counterintuitive and invites misreading — so that you’d think Freud is saying every organism has an inherent compulsion toward suicide or that Heidegger is thinking in terms of death as the last moment that completes the sequence of moments in your life and lets it be viewed as a whole. Both of those are very common misinterpretations.

  3. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    (I agree that those are both bad readings of F&H.) I’m not sure I agree with this: “the death drive is a way of refusing the whole regime of activity overseen by the pleasure and reality principles.” This would seem to make the death drive subsequent rather than antecedent–the latter being the claim of F&H. The DD/B-T-D is a condition for the possibility of rather than being constituted by the pleasure/reality principles. If it is a way of refusing, which I think that it is, it is only a secondary function of the DD.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I understand your objections now. Once we’re in the pleasure/reality principle regime, though, the DD expresses itself as a refusal.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (In case it’s not clear: I agree with you that the death drive is primordial.)

  6. nonmanifestation Says:

    Some of Heidegger’s claims about death in the “poetry” essays from the 50’s confirm your interpretation: man dies constantly, animals don’t die. Clearly he’s not talking about the biological end of life or even the narrative completion of a biography.

  7. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Jolly good!

  8. nathaniel drake carlson Says:

    ‘The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with.’

    Could you explain a little bit more as to why this is.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What part in specific do you need explained?

  10. nathaniel drake carlson Says:

    Specifically why “classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with” this.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Because Heidegger believes that for them, the “beings” par excellence are inanimate objects, or things that are unchanging.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Think of how Parmenides argues that Being must completely exclude all change. A being whose very nature includes openness to unforeseen potential, like Dasein, is going to be hard to make sense of within that kind of ontology.


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