- Death Drive and Ego RigidityReflections on Benjamin Fong’s
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016
Benjamin Fong’s book Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (2016) is centered on an innovative reading of the psychic force known as the death drive, the enigmatic concept that Freud placed at the heart of his project with the publication of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920. Fong articulates an original, fascinating, and brilliantly written account of psychic life as organized around three distinct concepts: the death drive, the drive to mastery, and aggressivity. More precisely, he develops an enticing critical narrative around an old yet far from exhausted conversation, the one between Marx’s theories of capital’s contradictions and Freud’s theories of the psyche’s contradictions (with the latter occupying a far more central position in this book than the former). The mediators of this exchange are the Frankfurt School critical theorists, particularly Theodor Adorno, whose work, it is argued, stages an encounter between these sets of contradictions. Fong draws inspiration from the persuasion that much remains to be told about the sociohistorical contextualization of psychoanalytic drive theory, especially now that Freud’s metapsychology would seem to have reoffered itself for critical revision.
Quickly bypassing Freud’s early somatic understanding of drive as “patently absurd,” Fong begins by assessing Freud’s ruminations on the same topic between 1915 (“Instincts and Their Vicissitudes”) and the new psychic architecture uncovered in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)—the book in which Freud turns around the assumption that [End Page 199] human beings strive toward the pursuit of pleasure by stating, instead, that such pursuit is conditioned by a more elementary drive toward self-destruction. Fong’s initial interest can be said to lie in the dialectical character of Freud’s “revolution.” Drawing mostly on the work of the German psychoanalyst and philosopher Hans Loewald, Fong convincingly argues that the key to Freud’s mature drive theory lies in grasping how the human psyche is conceptualized as dialectically (thus inextricably) embedded in its environment, with the drives being psychic forces shaped by their relentless interchange with the social context. By the same token, the psyche is understood not as opposed to the pressure of the drives but instead as composed of conflictual elements embodying the drives themselves in their intrapsychic connections. In this respect, Fong compellingly argues for a “drive narrative” in which the acquisition and formation of the drives mirrors the historical development of social formations. Against social constructionism, however, which since Foucault understands human psychology as a reflection of larger discursive shifts in contextually embedded power relations, Fong reads Freud’s death drive as a transhistorical state of intrapsychic antagonism affecting all human beings, insofar as it is organized around a unique relationship with the environment, where mastery and dependency are constantly (re)negotiated. The argument here is that the drive to mastery, undertheorized in Freudian studies, is, essentially, a drive to individuation and self-protection, while the death drive strives for the opposite scenario, namely to eliminate the self/other distinction. The former is about the differentiation between self and other, the latter about their confusion.
In Part I of the book (“Dream”’), Fong does an excellent job at contextualizing Freud’s drive theory within the highly skeptical psychoanalytic community of his time. Through a meticulous reading of the “wildest” and most puzzling claims contained in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, while also engaging with other key Freudian texts such as “The Economic Problem of Masochism” (1924), the author detangles the terminological and conceptual knots of Freud’s metapsychology to show how the death drive and the drive to mastery compose an entirely novel dual narrative attempting to explain how the organic emerges out of the inorganic. Key to Fong’s argument is his view, borrowed from Loewald and developed in Part II (“Interpretation”), that the starting point from which id, ego, and external reality emerge [End Page 200] for the infant is not the inner tension that Freud names the death drive but what Loewald calls “primordial density,” a state...