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Smoke your brains out: Death drive as interpretive framework for compulsive consumption acts


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  • 1. Smoke your brains out: Death drive as interpretive framework for compulsiveconsumption acts38thAnnual Macromarketing conference, Toronto, Canada 4-7 June 2013George Rossolatos, University of Kassel theoretical constructs of death drive and repetition compulsion, as laid out in Freud’sBeyond the Pleasure Principle, constitute speculative milestones in psychoanalytictheory. Despite the abundant criticisms that have been voiced against the validity ofthese constructs from post-Freudian psychoanalysts, their interpretive value has beenendorsed by scholars from a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and the socialssciences, with Lacan ranking prominently among them. The scope and aim of this paperis not to address the multifaceted implications of these key constructs in the widercontext of Freudian psychoanalysis, but to highlight their interpretive value in makingsense of compulsive consumption experiences, such as smoking. This endeavorhopefully responds to Laplanche and Pontalis’ (1973) call for anchoring the constructs inconcrete phenomena, it is oriented towards charting a smooth, non-linear and non-striated consumptive space (in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms), certainly not in a clinicalcontext and far from being intent on ascribing a ‘pathological’ tag. To this end, I ambriefly canvassing the key tenets that underlie the constructs of death drive andrepetition compulsion, within the theoretical contours of Beyond the Pleasure Principle,as well as Lacan’s appropriation and qualification of these constructs in the context ofhis call for a return to Freud. In parallel, I am pointing out how the constructs may beapplied as an interpretive backdrop for making sense of the consumptive phenomenonof smoking, which may be used as a theoretical adjunct in ethnographic studies (i.e.participant observation) or with view to formulating research hypotheses that may befurther explored through, for example, in-depth interviews.The notion of death drive1, as a primordial force underpinning the very dialecticbetween Eros and Thanatos, was propounded by Freud in one of his seminal later1In line with Lacan, I am employing the term death drive, rather than death instinct, but I amretaining the term death instinct in direct quotations of existing translations of Freud’s originaltexts: “Trieb and instinct have nothing in common; the discord becomes so impossible at onepoint that the implications of a sentence cannot be carried through by translating Triebhaft by
  • 2. period essays, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). “The death instinct makes thedestructive tendency, as revealed for example in sado-masochism, into an irreducibledatum; it is furthermore the chosen expression of the most fundamental principle orpsychical functioning” (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 102). The construct was recruitedwith view to tentatively accounting for destructive impulses that mitigate the pleasureprinciple and that may not be attributed to the reality principle. The death drive wasoperationalized primarily in biological terms, since Freud was grappling at that time withissues of legitimacy of his psychoanalytic school amidst a community of scholars thatfavored naturalistic explanatory perspectives to the formation of psychic phenomena. Aswill be shown, Lacan’s later appropriation of the concept, which was filtered throughHegelian phenomenological idealism and Heidegger’s existential analytic, dislocated theconcept from its biological contours, an interpretive twist that was ingrained in Freud’soriginal account.The death drive emerged in Freud’s argumentation about the causes behind theformation of traumatic neuroses. “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations fromoutside which are powerful enough to break through the [my note: ego’s] protectiveshield” (ibid.: 3732). Excessive levels of ‘excitation’ from the external environment causedispleasure, in line with the pleasure principle. The instinctual tendency towards themaximization of one’s pleasure, as Freud argues, is mitigated by the confrontation of theego with the reality principle or circumstances that lie beyond one’s control and impactadversely on the satisfaction of a pleasure-driven organism. But the reality principle isnot sufficient in accounting for all phenomena, where the pleasure principle iscompromised. “There can be no doubt, however, that the replacement of the pleasureprinciple by the reality principle can only be made responsible for a small number and byno means the most intense or unpleasurable experiences” (ibid.: 3717). In order toaccount for such highly intensive instances, in which the reality principle may notaccount for how the pleasure principle is compromised, Freud sought recourse to themode of formation of traumatic neurosis. Traumatic neurosis, in Freudian theory,emerges as a result of an intensely lived accidental experience, such as inflicting awound during a war.The lack of anticipation of the lived experience that gives rise to a trauma,according to Freud, is responsible for the inability to frame a traumatic experience ininstinctual […] the word Trieb is much more revealing of urgency than the word instinctual. Triebgives you a kick in the arse, my friends, quite different from so-called instinct” (Lacan 1998: 49)
  • 3. terms of either anxiety or fear. At the same time, by virtue of the intensity of theexperience, the ego is not capable of tackling and framing it in an adequate manner.Moreover, there is no isomorphism between the intensity of a traumatic experience andthe recollection of the event of the lived experience or the original encounter between anintense and threatening to the homeostasis of the ego stimulus and its encapsulation bythe defense mechanism of the ego. The original event that gives rise to its memory isalways already incommensurably recollected. As Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) put it“the compulsion to repeat is an ungovernable process originating in the unconscious. Asa result of its action, the subject deliberately places himself in distressing situations,thereby repeating an old experience, but he does not recall this prototype”. “Thecompulsion to repeat must be ascribed to the unconscious repressed” (Freud 1920:3724). The original traumatic event surfaces beneath the level of conscious recollectionin the form of a repetition compulsion and hence its symptoms bear considerablesimilarity, but are not necessarily reducible to, neurotic phenomena.But how is the pleasure principle related to the death drive? Freud addresses thisrelationship through the paradoxical concurrence of a double movement, viz. theexperiencing of pleasure and displeasure at the same time, insofar as the repeatedtraumatic event (even if it surfaces in different manifestations that are obliquely linked tothe original event that may have caused them remotely) yields displeasure, asexperienced by the system of the ego, but also satisfies the demand of the unconscious:“unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other” (ibid.: 3725).What is the event or the (even obliquely alluded to) object of repetition in acompulsively repeated event? “Enough is left unexplained to justify the hypothesis of acompulsion to repeat- something that seems more primitive, more elementary, moreinstinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides” (ibid.: 3727). Freudprogressively distances his argumentation from concrete events that may haveinstigated the formation of a trauma by opening up the ‘thing’ that obliquely caused(whence stems Freud’s stylistic convention that favors the use of italics) the formation ofa trauma to a locus originarius in terms of a primordial instinctual impulse: “It seems,then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of thingswhich the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of externaldisturbing forces: that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, theexpression of the inertia inherent in organic life” (ibid.: 3739). This being-towards-inertia(as a de-ontologized reading of Heidegger’s Being-towards-death as a condition of
  • 4. Dasein’s possibility for ec-sistence) constitutes the death drive. “The pleasure principleseems actually to serve the death instincts” (ibid.: 3762).In these terms, if the inorganic functions as a causa finalis that guides psychic lifeand by implication the death drive as the silently working underpinning of the pleasureprinciple in a mixed pleasurable/unpleasurable consumptive act, such as smoking, thendeath is the key consumption driver behind smoking. This would probably sound tosomeone not versed in psychoanalytic discourse as being tantamount to claiming that asmoker actively seeks his suicide by smoking. This is a crucial area wherepsychoanalytic theoretical constructs may be employed for adding interpretive depth toobserved consumptive phenomena. The consuming subject is not making a consciouschoice of smoking in this instance (at least regarding the smokers segment in a roughlydefined smokers vs non-smokers market). Rather, it is the unconscious that places ademand on the smoker, who engages in a consumptive act that is self-destructive(literally). A prominent consumption occasion for tobacco products further corroboratesthe interpretive value of the death drive. This consumption occasion is smoking inwaiting rooms or in specially designated areas in airports, while awaiting a flight’sdeparture. Freud’s contention that unconscious processes are extratemporal is a crucialaspect of the ‘thing’ that surfaces in compulsive repetition. Freud conceives oftemporality allegedly in Kantian terms, as a pure form of intuition. By implication, onemay argue, either unconscious processes are atemporal or they are of another temporalorder than time as a pure form of intuition and as part of the machinery of Reason (inKantian terms). For the sake of the argument, let us adopt the first prong of the aboveanalytical divide, viz. that the unconscious has no time. This point of view (all ontologicaland dialectical issues of temporality aside) at least coheres with the quasi-biologicalconception of ‘death’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as inorganic life (which, certainly,may be contested by reading Freud’s sparse remarks about the relationship between‘mental life’ and the inorganic as sublated teleological substrate of inner psychicworkings). Let us, thus, retain argumentation at the level of death as biologicalphenomenon. A waiting predicament essentially freezes time in anticipation of what is tocome. If what is always already imminent in an anticipatory predicament as latent andatemporal substrate is the death drive, then smoking while waiting may be conceived ofas an inscription of the inorganic in life and hence as lending credence to Freud’s claimabout the double movement of dis/satisfaction in the face of compulsively repetitive acts,such as smoking. “This time of pure duration is the time of the pure object: the object
  • 5. defined by nothing more than its duration” (Forrester 1990: 171). Waiting at an airport,while smoking, is thus a perfect example of how the death drive in fact conditions an (un)pleasurable consumption experience, such as smoking.Lacan’s ontologization of the death drive (and its relationship to inextricablylinked concepts, such as repetition compulsion) opened up new interpretive ground. Theconcept was tackled multifariously in various phases of the deployment of Lacan’sthinking. In line with Freud’s tying up the death drive with an unforeseen and absolutelyrandom encounter, Lacan contended in the Four Fundamental Concepts ofPsychoanalysis (Seminar XI) that the Real is equivalent to the return of what persists inthe automaton and what is repeated in the signs. The repetitive act of smoking as anautomatic repetition of the fort/da game that attracts and repels at the same time what isthreatening and desirable at the same stroke, evokes the original trauma of the subject’ssplit and its entry in the order of the symbolic by virtue of that traumatic moment thatresides foundationally in absentia, in another time, a time that suspends time in the actof repetition. “Repetition first appears in a form that is not clear, that is not self-evident,like a reproduction, or a making present, in act” (Lacan 1998: 50). Lacan’s incorporationof repetition in his tripartite Symbolic-Real-Imaginary orders system (let us recall that, forLacan, roughly speaking, the same psychic phenomena may be viewed at the sametime from different angles based on the order from which they are addressed) and hispositing that what is essentially repeated in every act is always already a relationalencounter with the order of the Real (an act that he emphasized and capitalized quaAct), affords to elucidate what is repeated in the automatically repetitive consumptive actof smoking, viz. the Act of the encounter with the order of the Real. As symbolic(conventionalized) act, the consumptive act of smoking evokes the inorganic substratumof life, primarily in two ways: (i) as a simulacral ‘freezing’ in time of the random andelusive encounter with the Real by inscribing the encounter in an automatic act (thefort/da movement of a smoker’s hand that orients the cigarette in and out of the mouth)(ii) as the manifestation of the Real’s demand for being (impossibly) manifested in theSymbolic as a latent death-wish engraved in the unconscious endorsement of the self-destructive effects of smoking. Thus, Lacan’s dictum from Seminar II “the death drive isnothing but the mask of the symbolic order” (“l’instinct de mort n’est que le masque del’ordre symbolique” [SIl, 375].- in Cloro 2002)] may also be read the other way round, the symbolic order’s being nothing else, but the mask of the death drive. The notionof the Act (with capital A) of repetition as encounter with the Real behind an act of
  • 6. symbolic consumption, as was put forward in Lacan’s later Seminar XI, affords tolegitimate this parallel inverse reading.The syntagmatic ordering of the consumptive act of smoking may be furthercomplemented by the opening and closing of the mouth, which may be reduced to thesame principle of the encapsulation (or ‘freezing’ and enshrinement, preservation) in anautomatic act of the fleeting encounter with the elusive order of the Real. “What goes outfrom the mouth comes back to the mouth, and is exhausted in that pleasure that I havejust called, by reference to the usual terms, the pleasure of the mouth” (Lacan 1998:167-168). Behind what Lacan calls the ‘pleasure of the mouth’ lies the threat of theinhaled smoke. The unconsciously repeated death drive is masked in the pleasurableact of smoking or the Act of the death drive is enacted in the consumptive act ofsmoking.ReferencesCloro, J.P. (2002). Le vocabulaire de Lacan. Paris: Ellipses.Forrester, J. (1990). The seductions of psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan and Derrida.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. In Freud, S., Collected Works, IvanSmith 2006, pp. 3715-3762.Lacan, J. (1998). Seminar XI: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. NewYork: W.W.Norton.Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.B. (1973). The Language of psychoanalysis. London:Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.