- A Politics of the Death Drive
Enjoyment and the Death Drive
Joan Copjec (2000) once said of the Freudian Trieb or drive, “of all Freud’s notions, that of the drive has had the least success in attracting supporters; it obliges a kind of rethinking that only the boldest of thinkers would dare to undertake” (p. 279). In his most recent book, Todd McGowan has taken up this challenge with a provocative Lacanian reading of the death drive. His title lays out his message in stark terms: “Enjoying what we don’t have” stakes out a relationship of enjoyment to loss, or to that which we might rather reject, forsake, banish, or foist onto an other. Furthermore, as the subtitle, “The political project of psychoanalysis,” indicates, McGowan attempts to subjectivize the death drive and his book illuminates what this subject, a subject of drive, would entail for politics.
In Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–1960) Jacques Lacan insists that psychoanalysis is not about “prescriptions for or the regulation of what I have called the service of goods” (1986/1992, p. 385). In other words, unlike other forms of therapy, psychoanalysis is not in the business of providing a missing satisfaction. Building upon this point, McGowan notes that in the twenty-five years between Freud’s 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” and his 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, an important difference emerged in Freud’s theory of satisfaction: in the “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” satisfaction is obtained through a discharge of excitation, while in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with the discovery of the death drive, satisfaction is achieved via repetition and return to an original loss (McGowan, 2013, p. 28). This baseline—that we find enjoyment, as distinct from pleasure, in the death drive—underscores McGowan’s entire argument. [End Page 89]
According to McGowan, analysands enter analysis not because they are experiencing dissatisfaction per se, but because they are dissatisfied with their satisfaction, or their satisfaction requires too much psychic effort, “tak[ing] a path that is too circuitous for the satisfaction they obtain” (p. 54). The cure, McGowan suggests, consists in freeing “the subject to find satisfaction through the subject’s symptomatic disruption rather than continuing to view the disruption as the obstacle to the ultimate satisfaction that the subject is constantly missing” (p. 57). McGowan’s counter-intuitive point is that satisfaction resides in the obstacle. In fact, the obstacle, or symptom, is ontological; it is the deadlock or antagonism that gives birth to subjectivity. Seeking to rid oneself of it is impossible because it is the very condition of the emergence of the subject. For McGowan, rather than seeing “the disruptiveness of the symptom as the barrier to a truly satisfying life, the subject must come to grasp this disruptiveness as the source of the subject’s satisfaction…The subject’s failure is its form of success” (p. 56)—failure understood as the various manifestations of loss. The goal of analysis is not to rid the analysand of this disruptiveness (loss) but to change the subject’s relation to it: “The aim of the psychoanalyst—the analyst’s desire—must be to remove the detours that the analysand has placed along the path of the drive in order to allow the analysand to take up completely her or his position in the drive” (p. 55).
According to McGowan, the death drive returns us to the original loss, to the original sacrifice, bringing us as close as we can come to redeeming the original lost object:
Though it seems completely counterintuitive, the subject enjoys the disappearance of its privileged object; it enjoys not having it rather than having it because this experience returns the subject to the initial moment of loss where the subject comes closer to the privileged object than at any other time. Since the object does not exist, one cannot recover it; one can only repeat the process through which it is lost. This fundamental link between enjoyment and loss renders enjoyment difficult to endure. The subject inevitably...