The Death Drive: Psychoanalysis and Self-Destruction
“The aim of all life,” observed Sigmund Freud in 1920, “is death.” A century later, the so-called Death Drive remains perhaps the most controversial, misunderstood, and ominously relevant of all the intellectual legacies of Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud first formulated the idea of a Death Drive (or Death Instinct) to grapple with nightmares both figurative and literal: the carnage of World War I, which represented a bloody rebuttal of the European Enlightenment project; and the symptoms of shell-shocked war veterans, whose acute suffering undermined prior psychoanalytic assumptions about the mind’s reflexive pursuit of pleasure. The theory of the Death Drive not only compelled Freud to radically overturn his own doctrines, fragmenting contemporary psychoanalysis into a series of bitter quarrels, but also became a generative flashpoint for subsequent decades of psychoanalysts, philosophers, artists, and social critics. But what is the Death Drive? Are humans prone to self-destruction, both individually and collectively? And, regardless, does the concept still have value descriptively and philosophically, as a way of understanding tendencies in modern history and contemporary life?
In this course, we will explore the origins, peregrinations, and contemporary relevance of the Death Drive. Starting with Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we will contextualize the theory’s emergence within the context of Freud’s revised drive theory and his clinical encounters with those suffering from what we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We will then track the various adoptions, reconfigurations, and rejections of the concept by psychoanalytic theorists like Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, André Green, and Jacques Lacan, and unpack its relation to their accounts of obsessional behavior, sadism, masochism, aggression, and suicidality. At the same time, we will explore how the Death Drive concept has catalyzed provocative new ways of looking at political and cultural phenomena, from the rise and durable appeal of fascism to the pleasures and dissatisfactions of consumer capitalism to the norms of patriarchal reproduction to the ruthless decimation of the natural world. Studying texts and films by Norman Brown, Marguerite Duras, Klaus Theweleit, Pat Barker, Lee Edelman, Benjamin Fong, David Cronenberg, Byung-Chul Han, Frank Wilderson, and others, we will ask: can a theory of the Death Drive help explain our present moment? Are its implications invariably pessimistic? Or, paradoxically, might it illuminate the possibility of new solidarities and future scenarios beyond either compulsive repetition or the terminally grim? This class is open to all and presumes no prior familiarity with psychoanalysis.
Course ScheduleSunday, 3:00-6:00pm EST
November 21 — December 19, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Sunday, November 28th.