The death drive is a psychoanalytic concept I’m very interested in. I’m always on the lookout for other people who have useful ways of describing what the death drive is and what it does.
Recently, in The Weired the Eerie by Mark Fisher I found a section where Fisher focuses (as many people do) on Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), because that is where Freud first struggles to articulate a sensical explanation of his patient’s seemingly senseless ways of destroying themselves.
Freud describes the death drive in terms of just this ambivalent attraction towards what is unpleasurable. It is Lacan and his followers who have drawn out the strange geometries of the death drive, the way in which desire perpetuates itself by always missing its official object of satisfaction (p.31)
Freud’s later invocation of a dualistic struggle between Thanatos and Eros can be read as a retreat from the forbidding monism of “Beyond The Pleasure Principle”, which argues that all life is merely a route to death. What is called organic life is actually a kind of folding of the inorganic.
But the inorganic is not the passive, inert counterpart to an allegedly self-propelling life; on the contrary, it possesses its own agency. There is a death drive, which in its most radical formulation is not a drive towards death, but a drive of death. The inorganic is the impersonal pilot of everything, including that which seems to be personal and organic. Seen from the perspective of Thanatos, we ourselves become an exemplary case of the eerie: there is an agency at work in us (the unconscious, the death drive), but it is not where or what we expected it to be.
But this is not the whole story. The point here is not that we are the blind slaves of the death drive, but, if we are not, it is because of an equally impersonal process: science, which consists in part of discovering and analysing the very processes that Freud calls Thanatos. The figure of the Radical Enlightenment scientist, then, is someone who understands the Thanatoidal nature of their own impulses, but who — precisely because they understand this — offers some possibility of escape from them.
I read this as a very good description of the ways that the death drive haunts everyone. Most of the time we are able to tune the haunting influence of the death drive out, but in psychoanalysis one of the things that might be done is tuning into the haunting messages the death drive is sending.
Citation info: Fisher, Mark. (2017). The Weird and the Eerie (pp. 31, 84-85). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.