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On Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Death Drive, Reality, and Beyond

Last Edited, Feb 03, 2023: I removed some redundant sentences. 💩

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“We are what we are because we have been what we have been.” —Sigmund Freud

Today, I will introduce one of the most famous and influential Freudian concept known as the “Death Drive”, or what many people refer as “repetition compulsion”. I will talk about reality, memories, dreams, and give you a glimpse at what the Lacanian “Real” entails. I will revisit major themes from my previous posts on desire, love, along with insights on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, art, poetry, jokes, and why some people are attracted to the “bad boy” or “bad girl” persona. I will offer insights on the unconscious mind and the laws of society with how it drives human conflicts in world history. I will also show you how Lacanian / Freudian psychoanalysis crosses paths with a few other major field of studies such as Immanuel Kant’s transcendental metaphysics, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Jean Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation, and Freudo-Marxism.

This post was written with the assumption that you read my other psychoanalytic writings (Part I, Part II, and Part III hyperlinked). While I don’t think it is as stylish as Part III which talks about love, a decent chunk of this post are outtakes from it. So don’t be surprised if you see themes in here that are reminiscent to Part III.

Please fasten your seatbelts, as Bobby is about to take you from love and desire, all the way to the darkest side of humanity.💀

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Reality and Real

“Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned parts of their narcissism”.

—Sigmund Freud

In Part I, I introduced the relationship between the split subject who perceives everything in the world like a mirror as they get mediated through the symbolic Other. Subjects and objects functions as mirror reflection to parts of who they are as human beings. For Freud, everyone is a narcissist where we are self-obsessed as we try to satisfy our pleasures (sometimes known as the ego-libido). To love is to become humble and pawn parts of our narcssisism for our beloved. In Lacanian terms, to love someone is to become the split subject where we establish a relationship with our beloved through the mediation of the Other. The act of loving someone is to unconsciously locate our wound or lack (castration; split subjectivity) in the other person where love is not about sameness (our narcssisism and projections), but difference.

Freud once famously asserted that there were three instances in human history which highlighted the humility of humanity, where humans dealt a significant blow to their narcissisms and defeated humanity’s significance in the universe. The first instance was Nicholai Copernicus who, during a time where everyone believed the Earth was at the center of the universe, discovered that it was just a planet orbiting around the Sun which happens to be one star among trillions more. The existence of Earth is insignificant in our cosmos. The second instance was Charles Darwin, who showed us how we are not even that special on Earth, but are simply evolved animals. The third instance was Freud himself (talk about narcissism). Not only are we not special on a planet that is not at the center of the universe, we are not the masters of our conscious mind. As sentient beings, we are controlled by the unconscious mind where we are driven by the pleasure principle and death drive which gives us the urge to compulsively repeat certain behaviors over the course of our lives. Civilization, as Freud said, began when “an angry person cast a word instead of a rock”, where the unconscious mind was born.

In my previous posts, I mentioned how the split subject is always trying to capture something from the Real that always escape their conscious grasp (object a). Such as the man who repeatedly treated his girlfriends in the same way was trying to recapture the way his father treated his mother when he was a child. The effects of being unconscious to what one tries to recapture through transference is due to the influence of the symbolic Other and how it imposes laws onto the split subject. The way speaking subjects are mediated through the discourse of the Other conceals the Real through misrecognitions, censorships, errors, and wishful projections that consciously reveals as our desires which warps our perceptions of reality.

To psychoanalyze is to besiege a fortified castle where one attempts to discover what lies behind the walls that are erected by the Other and our mind’s defensive mechanisms which conceals the Real. The goal is to figure out what the subject unconsciously desires versus what the Other desires from them. It is to figure out the Real of their desires; or the truth of their desires. Ultimately, one can say that psychoanalysis attempts to resolve the analysand’s problems that are found in their unconscious transference(s) that gets mediated through the Other because one must always experience the world through the language of the Other (we must conform to laws of society, etc.). As split subjects, one is always mediated through language where the Real is the point where no symbolic or imagination can represent. While we can use symbolic language to describe the Real or imagine what the Real consists of, the absoluteness of the Real resists both symbolic and imaginary. Lacan once described the Real as “the absence of absence”: the absence of the symbolic and imagination of the word “absence”.

Thus, the first rule of the Real is that you cannot talk about or imagine the Real. The Real is also not the same as our everyday experience of reality. Many people tend to think that reality always appear as they see it. Just as our interpretation of reality and other people can be influenced by our bias, history, and other contextual and temporal frameworks, in psychoanalysis, reality is constructed through the symbolic and imaginary which gets influenced by the Real (i.e. our unconscious desires). No matter how “real” someone thinks they can be (“Get real!”), or how real they think they perceive reality, it is always filtered through the split subject’s symbolic and imaginary relations. And what produces the shapes of the symbolic and imaginary—such as the different narratives which shapes our reality and who we are—is the Real, where object a causes our desires to produce various censored meanings and interpretations of reality. This is why touching the Real can affect how we perceive reality. It is by re-establishing our relationship with the Real which changes the shapes of the symbolic and imaginary (the fantasies, narratives and stories that we use to narrate reality and ourselves). Since the split subject is always mediated through symbolic language and the laws of the Other, reality is never quite Real.

One can perhaps, think of those who believes that the news are fabricated and prefers a reality that they think is more real. While no news are accurate in representing reality, it is often much more comforting for people to stay in their symbolic representation of reality than having it shattered by knowledge that might not always fit their narratives and perspectives. Perhaps those who sees all news as inaccurate news are not much different to those who believes that all news are real. In both cases, the Real is concealed by the symbolic narratives of the individual or the information of the news which produces and influences their perceptions of reality as such. Not only is this where we see interdisciplinary relationships with Jean Baudrillard’s famous ideas on simulation, where reality becomes more real than real, it is also where we see how contemporary media, internet, and other forms of digital mediums becomes a simulation of reality where such mediums functions as the Other that usurps and controls the fantasies of the subject and their perceptions (I wrote about Baudrillard here).

I would like to digress for a moment to offer some contextual background on this Lacanian point of view of the Real (I spoke about this in some of my other posts). The idea that reality is never Real was influenced by the history of philosophy, particularly 18th century German idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was renown for the idea that humans can never know anything in itself. Kant argues that humans can only experience the phenomenon of objects via intuitions of space and time, but never the object in it-self (noumenon). We can only experience the world from our first person perspective where we can never experience from the perspective of water, or the perspective of the other person that we are talking to. While one cannot know anything in-itself, it is through this limit which allow humans to manipulate objects. If I know water is made up of H2O, I can manipulate its properties and produce something else from it. To claim that water consists of H2O is to, in some sense, idealize the properties of water. This procedure is famously known as “transcendental idealism”. In such case, the transcendental subject sets the limits to all human knowledge within various branches of metaphysics and phenomenology for the last two centuries. What I presented here, is one of the most powerful and influential argument found in German idealism where such experience of human subjectivity became one of the greatest mysteries of the mind that even neuroscientists struggle to explain. Human experience is fundamentally finite in that two people may subjectively experience the color of the blue sky differently, even if they both objectively agree that the sky is blue. We can’t know for sure because we can never know anything in itself.

In many ways, the Real and object a resembles the Kantian thing-in-itself where one’s conscious mind can never fully grasp. Such impossibility of knowing anything in-itself is reminiscent to how I introduced the Lacanian mirror stage where everything in the world is a reflection of who we are. The other (person that we talk and relate to) is a reflection of our ego and desires where we often transfer and project past emotions, experiences and meanings onto them (a form of misrecognition). Reality is never quite real in the sense that humans are sometimes caught in their Imaginary (narcissism) where they might, for example, mistake someone’s friendliness as romantic interest as they project their desires onto them.

Finally, Lacan famously points out that, “There is no sexual relationship” partly because we can never know anything in-itself. We are never the other person. This is a more philosophical way where we can talk about why love is about difference which involves our attempts at traversing our own finitude of always getting caught in our own perspective. Another way we can interpret this Lacanian passage is to recognize how sexual difference represents the impossibility of representing the Real. As a result, this produces what our cultures refer as “masculine” and “feminine” identities as symptoms; or as whatever gender people identify as. In psychoanalysis, sexuality is the wound on how the subject gets split. Whereas to love, is to unconsciously locate this split/wound (castration) in the other person.

Metaphor and Metonymy

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”

“The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra.”

—Roland Barthes

Since the split subject always unconsciously conceals the Real through their symbolic, its effects can be witnessed through the subject’s relationship with language which takes position as their perceptive experiences of everything in the world (i.e. we think, interpret, and perceive the world through language where we use words to describe our perceptions and emotions). As a result, it produces the movements of metaphor and metonymy which relates to the ways reality and dreams are experienced by the split subject. Let us together, slowly move through a few small passages by Lacan:

“What is at issue is to refind—in the laws that govern this other scene, which Freud, on the subject of dreams, designates as the scene of the unconscious—the effects that are discovered at the level of the chain of materially unstable elements that constitutes language: effects that are determined by the double play of combination and substitution in the signifier, according to the two axes for generating the signified, metonymy and metaphor; effects that are determinant in instituting the subject.”

To paraphrase, the goal for Lacan, is to find the “other scene” which Freud discovers in the split subject who dreams. Lacan assigns the effects of the unconscious mind within the instabilities of language which mediates the split subject. This instability is witnessed by what Lacan refers as metaphor and metonymy which institutes the split subject (the two terms respectively translates to Freud’s concepts of condensation and displacement). In regards to desire, Lacan writes:

“And the enigmas that desire—with its frenzy mimicking the gulf of infinite and the secret collusion whereby it envelops the pleasure of knowing and of dominating in jouissance—poses for any sort of “natural philosophy” are based on no other derangement of instinct than the fact that it is caught in the rails of metonymy, eternally extending toward the desire for something else. Hence its “perverse” fixation at the very point of suspension of the signifying chain at which the screen-memory is immobilized and the fascinating image of the fetish becomes frozen”.

Here, Lacan points out how desire is constantly deferred through the extension for something else where words and meanings gets displaced (this is similar to my first post where I spoke about the +1 and -1 where lack is always concealed by next words in sentences). These displaced meanings are unconscious to the speaking subject, but is something that the Lacanian analyst tries to identify in the analysand. Our desire for certain things or people in our lives is actually a desire for something/someone else that is unconscious to us who are displaced, warped, and censored by the Other.

Meanwhile, Lacan points out how perversion arises when the split subject fixates on certain objects or signifiers through their screened memories (will get to this later). The idea of perversion relates back to Freud who thinks sexuality is perverse in that parts of it is fetishistic in nature. This is most prominently seen in masculine desire, where men tend to fixate on certain signifiers and objects—such as specific parts of a woman’s body. One part of masculine desire is characterized by fetishism in that they get sexually aroused through symbolic language and signifiers (body parts, pieces of clothing, tattoos, etc.). In order for a man or anyone to declare their love for someone, they must in a certain sense, give up parts of their desires and become feminine. They must pawn parts of their narcissistic object relations (ego-libido) for the person they love. Before we move on, let us take a look at what Lacan writes about metaphor:

Metaphor’s two-stage mechanism is the very mechanism by which symptoms in the analytic sense, are determined. Between the enigmatic signifier of sexual trauma and the term it comes to replace in a current signifying chain, a spark flies that fixes in a symptom—a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element—the signification, that is inaccessible to the conscious subject, by which the symptom may be dissolved”.

Where metonymy and desire displaces meanings and words or objects, metaphor replaces various signifiers for other signifiers; or the replacement of objects for other objects in real life (i.e. the mother for the wife, ex-boyfriend for new boyfriend, etc.). The metaphorical signifier conceals the trauma (Real) which functions as the truth of the split subject’s symptoms (desires) and has the ability to dissolve it. This may sound familiar to Part III on how I pointed out that love has the ability to dissolve our symptoms and halt our repetitive symptoms. This occurance often takes place without the subject realizing it where love gradually changes people. 

All of this comes down to the idea that love is metaphor and desire is metonymy. But while love and desire are two sides of the same coin, it is very common for people to mistake desire as love (lust). We can see this when men sometimes seek for women who appears to have the “bad girl” persona. This happens when the woman is unconsciously displaced from the man’s mother, siblings, past lovers, or someone who took care of them during their early life. In such case, the woman will often signify to the man as pure desire who is ready to “break the rules”, even if it may not be the case on the other end. Such woman may unintentionally arouse and provoke the man’s drives where they might actively mistake their desires as love. In fact, it is also common to have both people who mistakes their desires as love. If Lacan is correct that love is always mutual and that love has nothing to do with sex, perhaps when someone declares their love to the other where they happen to not love them back (or “love” them in the same way), then they have mistaken their desires as love. This is another way we can interpret Lacan that is different from my approach in Part III.

Meanwhile, feminine desire can also function similarly which can be recognized through displacing the image of the woman’s father. This is why some women are attracted to the bad boy—a man who treats the woman opposite to their father (with love and care—hopefully). Just like the bad girl, the bad boy often signifies excitement, fun, and lust, who are adventurous and ready to break the rules. In order for anyone to desire, they must always be with the wrong person where they unconsciously displace their family figures or someone from the past who loved them. If they encounter a person who unconsciously resembles to these figures, it would cause them to not simply desire, but produce the effects of love. Desire must always consist of a certain structure of impossibility that the Other prohibits where the subject can only be partially satisfied which produces its effects—just like people who listens to their favourite songs on repeat (from Part II). Yet, there are many instances where people will have a tendency to satisfy their desires by transgressing the law (i.e. neurotics, which we all are in some ways). Hence the appeal of bad girl or bad boy who appears to be ready to break laws.

This brings up interesting thoughts on how we live in a culture that is obsessed with pornography which often consists of scenes and fantasies that breaks the rules of everyday life. Similar things can be seen in films, video games, literature, all the way to your favourite “reality” TV shows (as Baudrillard might say, the characteristics of pornography is everywhere in our digital world). Reality TV is never real because they perpetuate an ideological fantasy that may usurp and control the viewers where they impose such fantasies onto their own lives (in this sense, reality TV is more real than real; it is a simulation of reality). All of these can be seen as examples of different forms of sublimations where the split subject attempts to turn an inappropriate fantasy, idea, or impulse into something that is socially acceptable so to conform to the laws of the Other. Furthermore, one can also think of dark jokes, sex jokes, racist jokes (any jokes) as common examples of sublimation. When done correctly, sublimations are considered as a healthy way to deal with repressed desires, impulses and trauma. We can think of doctors and nurses who sometimes likes to make dark jokes as a way to relieve their stress from their jobs, where they regularly witness people die.

Nevertheless, we begin to understand what Freud meant when he famously thought how excessive love kills desire, and excessive desire kills love. In the former case, the other person unconsciously resembles to the lover as someone they cannot desire due to love transference and the effects of the Other who prohibits them via laws. In other words, their partner unconsciously resembles too closely to their family figures, or someone who they used to love (where they can no longer be together). This is also one of the reasons why Lacan refers to love as a form of suicide because it diminishes our desires. In some cases, it may even be the case where one person declares their love for the other, where the other person stops desiring them altogether. It is also why love is not about our desires (the ego-libido; Imaginary), but the other person (which relates to the Symbolic Other). Love often arrives when we least expect it; whereas our desires will lead us to look for love in the wrong places.

In the latter case where excessive desire kills love, the split subject’s desire displaces the family figures or whoever loved them in the past onto their partner who may come to represent the movement of pure desire which produces the effects of lust. In such case, love is not suicidal, but gets caught in the subject’s own narcssisism (the Imaginary relationship with their ego-libido). This is where we see things in dating cultures where people “hook-up”, have “flings”, or where they have relationships where they keep things at the level of light fun where they serve their own desires and pleasures. In summary, one either loves the other that unconsciously resembles someone from their past, or one loves someone as they love themselves (narcissism).

The way the split subject relates to the other person is always unconsciously influenced by past relationships due to transference. Yet, since the subject must always pass through the symbolic Other, real love must overcome the individual’s narcissistic tendencies and their desire to satisfy their ego-libido. The conscious recognition of love appears to the split subject as difference (a surprise) due to the effects of their desires and wishful projection that warps, censors, and distance their views of the other person when they first meet them—just like the relationship between reality and Real. Love is not a relationship between two narcissists serving their own pleasures. Love is a form of care and support for the other person. It is about who cleans the toilet and does the dishes. Regardless, in all cases, most relationships is about finding the right balance between the two—which is to love and desire in a healthy way.

Unless the person went through a successful analysis, unconscious transferences that the split subject projects onto their partner are often traumatic and unresolved. Most people will encounter obstacles in their relationships due to transferences from their past relationships with their parents and old partners. The problems between two lovers is the problem of transference on how each individual repeatedly transfers unresolved past experiences and traumas onto the other. It is similar to a person who is in an abusive relationship where their partner repeatedly treats them in the same way over and over again. To be sure, the psychoanalyst’s job does not involve solving the analysand’s relationship issues because they are not a couples therapist. Instead, their job is to dissolve the symptoms of the analysand and resolve their unconscious transferences that they repeatedly and unconsciously project onto their partner. At the end of a successful analysis, the analysand does not need to be told how they should treat their partner correctly (whereas your average therapist will help you set up a plan and tells you to do this or that). Once their unconscious transferences are resolved, the split subject will automatically treat their partner correctly.

Above all else, the metaphorical movement of love is the source for poetic effect (art, poetry, music, etc.). Love is creativity in the making where new metaphors and meanings are produced through the experience of lack or nonmeaning that we locate in the other. Love gives rise to foreignness (otherness) and new possibilities—just like the event of an apple that fell on Newton’s head, or the random encounter of someone who shakes your world. Love is a construction of something new that is original and innovative. It is not a simple reproduction or simulation of the past. We can also conceive of this creativity as how people resolve their differences in a relationship, or how they compromise for each other which produces new ways to live (hence, love is what makes relationships work). Over time, love between two people becomes a work of art where they produce a new life and truth together.

In my last post, you may notice how I intentionally used metaphorical examples through replacement of different examples. I also metaphorically replaced love for infinity which happens to be the theme of the entire piece. Such movement of love is also recognized when Lacan famously proclaimed his “return to Freud” who ended up producing a new school of psychoanalytic thought. Love marks the excess or impossibility of symbolic language which is represented through the experience of lack. As Lacan would say, love is a pebble laughing in the sun!

Dreams, Memories, and Reality

“We never wake up; desire sustain dreams”
—Jacques Lacan

What I’ve been trying to show you is how transference consists of movements between metaphors (love) and metonymy (desire). This weave between metaphor and metonymy is produced by the mediation of the split subject through the Other who imposes laws, prohibition, and censorship. As a result, metaphor and metonymy are symptom formations that is found through the split subject’s articulation of the Other’s language. Such symptoms does not simply affect how we desire, love, and perceive reality, it also affects our dreams. Just as the one who loves experiences the Real of their desires without the tragic dimension, dreamers also at certain points of their dreams, closes in on the Real.

When one dreams, the split subject attempts to satisfy their unconscious desires where its contents are presented as metaphors and metonymy. A good example that some people might relate to is when they have strange dream scenarios that has to do with washrooms, toilets, and water, only for them to wake up realizing that they have to use the washroom. Dreams will often present and conceal our unconscious desires through metaphors and metonymy because our mind is always censored by the symbolic Other. Our mind naturally protects and resists the symbolization and imagination of the Real by concealing it through language. Hence, it is important for Freud that one must interpret dreams during the subject’s waking state and besiege the fortified castle. The Lacanian Real is concealed behind all the nonsensical symbolic metaphors and metonymic movements found within the dream and in our everyday lives because once again, the Other prohibits, filters and censors the split subject who dreams. This is why the things we dream about are not what they appear to be.

Perhaps many of us can recall a time where we woke up from our dreams due to something weird or horror that happened in it—something that you cannot comprehend, interpret, and produce meaning out of in a waking state. It is almost as if your mind runs into a brick wall that resists symbolization and imagination. Well! It is the moment when we jolt awake where we briefly experience the effects of the Real. It represents the traumatic point where your consciousness can no longer comprehend what is happening through the imaginary and symbolic. Your mind’s defensive mechanism kicks in and wakes you up before you experience the Real at full force. As a result, you may sometimes wake up with anxiety due to some horror that happened in the dream (you experience anxiety when you get too close to the Real or object a). The Real resists symbolization and imagination which snaps you awake. And it is because we can longer process the Real in our dreams where we wake up to face “reality”—a reality that is always mediated by the Other via metaphor and metonymy. Simply put, humans face reality because we always fail to confront the Real(ity) of our dreams. We wake up from our dreams just so we can continue dreaming in reality.

Something similar occurs through the way humans recall their childhood memories. In a famous essay called “Screened Memories”, Freud talks about how our childhood memories are often distorted due to defensive mechanisms and the condition of denial. Freud believes that no one really forgets anything in their lives. Our unconscious mind records and stores every living moment as one is always thinking where they do not think they are thinking. Through the discourse of the Other, certain memories and thoughts are permitted to surface into the subject’s consciousness which allows them to recall such memories and articulate it in various ways (the subject gets filtered through the Other). It turns out that memories are also always concealed and distorted through metaphor and metonymy.

Freud uses the mystic writing pad as an example on how memories between our consciousness and unconscious mind works. The mystic writing pad is a children’s toy where a piece of plastic covers a large piece of wax underneath. The child can inscribe markings on the top layer, and once it gets replaced, the writing pad becomes cleared, yet its previous writings are indented in the wax underneath. Over time, more inscriptions (memories) are written and overwritten on this piece of wax (unconscious), yet cannot be accessed by the top layer (consciousness).

The mystic writing pad is important if you are interested in deconstruction because this is where Jacques Derrida talks about the relationship between writing and the unconscious mind in a famous book called Writing and Difference (found in the essay, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”). In it, Derrida argues that writing takes position as our perception before perception can take position as itself where we perceive reality through writing (or language; symbolic). In other words, writing supplements our natural perceptions (like culture supplementing nature which I spoke about in a post found here). There is always a system of knowledge that is written over our perceptions which determines how we interpret reality through—in Lacanian terms—the symbolic and imaginary. This is where we arrive at one of the major intersections between deconstruction and psychoanalysis where the two disciplines are often considered as opposition to each other while also having many striking similarities. One can for example, think of the relationship between how signifiers are constantly displaced and replaced versus how meaning is always produced through the movement of spacetime and differance within the discourse of deconstruction (I introduced Derrida’s major ideas here).

Death Drive and Repetition Compulsion

“The goal of all life is death.”
—Sigmund Freud

In a famous and controversial essay called, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud discovers the death drive through one of his patient who repeatedly dreams about their traumatic experiences from the past (PTSD). As mentioned earlier, it is thought that dreams are a way for the subject to unconsciously satisfy their unattainable and repressed desires so to achieve pleasure (precisely, “the pleasure principle”). Due to our mind’s defensive mechanisms and the discourse of the Other, the contents of the dreams are never what they appear to be. We don’t exactly know what desires we are satisfying because the repressed material is concealed underneath the contents of the dream through metaphor and metonymy—just like how lack is concealed underneath our everyday spoken language (I spoke about this in Part I). But if dreams are a way for the subject to satisfy their repressed desires, why would people dream of their traumatic experiences if it caused them so much pain and suffering? If the contents of our dream is never what they appear to be, could there be an even deeper point of trauma that the split subject cannot perceive (i.e. the Real)? Or could their dreams happen to be much closer to the Real than others? This is where Freud discovers that pain and suffering, in some ways, satisfies our desire for pleasure. It is where we get into sadism and masochism.

Most people associate S&M with kinky things where people enjoy giving and receiving pain in some sexual way. In reality, the themes of S&M is much more broad that can be found at the fundamental level of both sex and death drive. Not only do humans live according to the pleasure principle (i.e. happiness, etc.), Freud thinks humans also unconsciously desire to self-destruct and inflict pain on themselves through their unconscious urge to repeat certain behaviors. Think of our example of the man who unknowingly treats all his girlfriends in the exact same way from my last post (Part III). Did it occur to him that, while he may not consciously enjoy breaking up and treating his girlfriends in whatever way he did, does he unconsciously achieve satisfaction by inflicting pain onto himself by breaking up with them? Is this why he repeats such behaviors? We can also see this in people who are prone to uncontrollable negative thought patterns, where they continuously inflict pain on themselves (often found in people with depression where they don’t have control over them). While modern treatments of such experience involves things like Cognitive Behavior Therapy that attempts to halt these thought patterns, in psychoanalysis, these thoughts are sometimes related to sadism and masochism and the unconscious attempts to satisfy the split subject’s pleasure drives through pain and suffering. 

There was a real patient of a woman who enjoyed sleeping with many men only when she got really drunk (if I remember correctly, this patient was from Bruce Fink, a Lacanian analyst). Through psychoanalysis, she discovered that her symptoms was an attempt at recapturing her childhood experience where her father sexually abused her every time he was drunk. Why would anyone want to unconsciously recapture such traumatic experience in their adult life? While most people do not wish to repeat such harmful symptoms during their conscious state and would seek for help, perhaps the reason why they cannot control these repetitive symptoms is because they are not the masters of their conscious mind—just like the person with uncontrollable negative thoughts. In other words, and as disturbing as this may sound, they unconsciously enjoy repeating these symptoms because it causes them suffering which partially satisfies the pleasure principle.

While we may unconsciously repeat many things in our lives, we often enjoy our symptoms even if it causes us pain and may lead to our deaths. Moreover, these examples also shows us how love transference can involve unpleasant traumatic experiences from the past which causes people to experience pain and suffering over and over again. The analyst’s job is to interrupt these repetitive symptoms and create healthier patterns and transferences between their conscious and unconscious mind. We can also put this in context with my last post: why do we take risks to be in love when it may lead to suffering either through overcoming differences or separation? As Freud once famously said, “we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love”. Yet, many of us will often choose to love, even if it may end up hurting us badly.

Think of people who smokes knowing that it might give them cancer and kill them, or people who excessively drinks knowing how bad it is for their body. Or someone who knowingly increases his sugar intake despite their diabetes. Think of the players in Squid Game who willingly joins the game while knowing that they will likely die. Or the person who commits infidelity knowing that they will lose the person they love most. In order to desire, there must always be a form of impossibility that is produced by the symbolic law. What difference is there between the Squid Game players, the person who buys lottery tickets, and the social climber who wishes to achieve the American dream? All of their desires carries a certain form of impossibility of breaking the laws of normalcy and becoming obscenely rich, achieving infinite pleasures and having high social status (it consists of the same fundamental principles to people who desires the “bad boy” or “bad girl”). There is always a certain form of impossibility which produces their desires that they want to transgress. The desire for overcoming the Other is one of the symptoms of an obsessional neurotic where they produce healthy or unhealthy unconscious sublimations and transferences. 

An interesting way to understand the symptoms of an obsessional neurotic is to think of a man who cheats on their wife. While the neurotic man may think they are consciously in love with the woman who they are having an affair with, they may actually be unconsciously obsessed with overcoming the structure of symbolic law and censorship so to have infinite pleasures or desires with many women (this example is also applicable in reverse).

Essentially, neuroticism involves human attempts to stay in control and keep themselves above the law and the Other at bay—even if the latter is always already here at full force. As a result, the subject produces a fantasy that sustains their desires and conscious beliefs that they are above the law who are in conscious control. It can sometimes be seen in people who tries to hide parts of themselves from the Other due to their insecurities or low-self esteem. One can even think of people who can never stop making inappropriate jokes as part of their unconscious attempts at remaining above the Other’s impositions. While everyone is a neurotic, the goal is to find healthier ways to sublimate these symptoms and desires of the split subject and turn them into something that is socially acceptable, so to speak.

Kant once famously spoke of a scenario where if a man was given a chance to satisfy his desires with the woman of his dreams at the expense of his life, the man would turn it down. After all, if one dies, their desires would end forever. It would make no logical sense that the man would choose to satisfy his desires which leads to his death over following the law which seeks to regulate it—the law which castrates and splits him, producing repression, denials, sublimations and deferral of his desires. Following this scenario, Lacan famously propose the opposite: if a man was given an opportunity to sleep with the woman of his dreams, he will take up on the offer despite his death. Is this what happens with the players who takes part in the squid games? Or the person who has diabetes but continues to have excessive sugar intake? 

These are some pedagogical examples of the dialectics of desire and how humans always, in some ways, attempts to override the law due to their repetition compulsions, even if it leads to unhealthy habits, suffering, and their death. Ultimately, it is through these repetitions where we see the death drive in action.

The Libidinal Economy, Desire, and its Radical Overcoming

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” —Sigmund Freud

The term “Libidinal economy” was most famously used by a French philosopher named Francois Lyotard who published a book with the same name. Such term however, is often thought to be derived from Freud. In general, the term refers to the incorporations of psychoanalytic thought with contemporary economics. The libidinal economy suggests how every economic exchange of consumer goods is an exchange and satisfaction of our pleasures, fetishes, and desires (this is where we get into ideas such as “micro-politics of desire” that Giles Deleuze is famous for). Yet, humans satisfy their desires without reaching its goal because the laws of society (Other) prohibits us from fully being satisfied. As a result, it leads to endless consumerism and content consumption (think of events like Christmas where people go on a consumer frenzy). Our society’s establishment of laws is to regulate our desires while human frustrations might make them transgress these regulations so to satisfy themselves.

Freud believed that deep down, humans don’t really want freedom. The moment humans establish laws so to produce equality and liberty in society (whatever this implies), human unconscious arises which creates all sorts of necrotic tendencies, compulsions, violence, and mental illnesses where they are forced to repress some of their personal desires that the law may prohibit. Freud takes on the position where humans are constantly at war between the laws that they produce in society, versus their animal instincts and desires that they unknowingly repress into their unconscious mind.

Despite all the idealizations of freedom that people fight for in the political arena, our society is perhaps, not as free as what most people think—even if we consciously perceive that we are free to do what we want. The question of freedom isn’t so much about people who can desire what they want in society. Rather, it is about why we desire for the things that we do in society and what makes us desire for such things (this is where we get into things like social control). For one must not forget that, our desire is the Other’s desire. The imposition of the Other is always already unconsciously at work in our minds through language, laws, and censorship which are reinforced by society and other people around us. In this sense, freedom becomes an impossible task and oppression had already existed since the beginning of human civilization, when an angry person casted a word instead of a rock.

This leads to ideas that we can see within the discourse of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the (in)famous inventors of communism and socialism who were well known for their critique on capitalism (a four volume book called, Capital; or Das Kapital in German). Marx saw how, while capitalism appears to be a free market economy, it is actually authoritarianism in disguise where the world is controlled by rich corporations, oligarchs and governments that has the power to influence other countries (known as globalization), manipulate and control people through media, politics, and exploitation of workers. And that ultimately, these corporations has the ability to avoid and take advantage of labour laws from their country by outsourcing production in poorer and less restricted countries. After all, contemporary capitalism is about making as much profit as possible in the most efficient and cost effective way—even if it may involve marketing manipulation, dishonesty, replacing workers with machines, slipping between the laws and exploiting / killing others so to maintain their power and control over them.

Recall when I spoke of how masculine desire often consists of a fetishistic dimension where people would fetishize various body parts. This idea is also used similarly under the context of “Fetish commodity”, a well known Marxist idea where people buy and consume products while fetishizing various social dimensions of it—such as its relationships with certain ideologies; like how a Louis Vuitton purse signifies wealth and social status (in sociology, this is called conspicuous consumption). In other instances, one buys an iPhone or MacBook while forgetting how many of these products are produced by exploiting poor labour wages from other countries. I won’t talk too much about fetish commodity today, but what I wish to point out is how society forces us into a structure (Other) where it teaches us how and what to desire, where everything is about self-interest—even in relationships. Everything is about myself and my happiness and pleasure. One can even say that society teaches us how to be narcissists, selfish, and ego-centric, which leads people into all sorts of mental illnesses.

Adam Smith who pioneered modern economics once famously wrote about the “invisible hand” and how a free market economy prevails when every individual within its system are serving themselves. By doing so, they would “invisibly” benefit society via generating and stimulating the economy. But is this always the case? Does serving ourselves result in serving others and benefit them? It wasn’t until centuries later where Lacanians and Freudo-Marxists took to humorously recoin the term as the “invisible hand job”—a way to criticize our hedonistic and self-serving, self-obsessed world where people think they are serving others, even when they are serving their self interests, political gains, and pleasures. Perhaps serving ourselves in society might not always benefit others around us after all. Yet, we are always caught in a society where we are forced to serve ourselves where we may exploit its structures and transgress the law and harm other people—just like the person who cheats on their partner; or the person who desires someone who is ready to break the laws.

Due to human desire who may inevitably transgress the laws in all sorts of ways, is it possible to establish a utopian society where everyone is equal? Was Freud right that humans always have a tendency to break laws and self destruct through their repetition compulsions? Is there such thing as perpetual peace? Perhaps the reason why communism had always failed was because Marx never considered the problem of human desire (or human nature). And it is for this reason which led Freud to allude to how communism will never work, as he recites the famous Latin phrase, “Homo homini lupus”: a man is a wolf to another man (from his famous book called, Civilization and its Discontents). Freud believed that humans always had a tendency to exploit laws and do all sorts of evil things to their neighbors for the sake of their desires and pleasures when they are given the opportunity. This can be seen during the darkest times in human history, where the madness of humanity and their neuroticisms are revealed in some of the most violent and grotesque ways (i.e. genocide, colonialism, slavery, war crimes, murder, mass rape, etc.).

Perhaps one of the things that Freud also tried to suggest is how there can never be a communist society where people would “live according to their needs” as Marx would say. There is always something left to desire, something left to transgress where our desires may one day get the best of us. Yet, while in this post, we have explored many negative ways humans transgresses the law, Lacan also saw how certain forms of transgressions are necessary in society and within the individual in order for real changes to occur (the ethical question is how these transgressions are achieved). One can perhaps, think of such transgressions as some of humanity’s greatest revolutions and protests where they tried to produce real changes in society. It is reminiscent to the function of love, where one discovers new possibilities and produces a truth as they attempt to assign new symbolic meanings that takes the place of what was previously there (precisely, the function of metaphor).

Last time, I spoke of how love can turn selfish into selfless. If love can dissolve our symptoms where we pawn or give up parts of our narcissisms for the other person which makes us humble, could love be the antidote to the problems we have in our world today? At its height, love shows us that it has the ability to traverse across some of the greatest differences between people and halt their repetitive symptoms. For where there is love, there is less desire; and where there is pure desire, there is less love. If society teaches us how to desire, love will not only interrupt our repetition compulsions, it may allow us to produce something new in our lives, where we discover new ways to desire and love like never before. Thus perhaps, what we need most is a revolution of love that surprises the world. 

At the fundamental level, we can begin to see the significance on how repetition and desire takes over our lives without us realizing. We can perhaps, start to see how someone who enjoys listening to their favourite songs repeatedly can resemble so closely to major events in human history. Just as Freud and Lacan saw how humans have a tendency to repeat certain behaviors who transfers past experiences onto the present, Marx, while referencing G.W.F. Hegel, once famously pointed out how “world historical facts and personages always happen twice”. This famous passage originates from a book called Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where Marx compares Napoleon III who failed to imitate his uncle, the Napoleon that everyone knows from the French Revolution. One way we can interpret this passage is Marx’s suggestion that those who are involved in revolutionary changes and transgressions of society are often trapped and haunted by ideologies and events from their past (i.e. Napoleon III haunted by his uncle). In this sense, history always had a tendency to repeat in various ways, as people gets haunted by their past memories and transferences. It is just like the man who treated his girlfriends in the same ways due his transference from how his father treated his mother during his early life. It also resembles to all the failures of communism in different countries that took place in the last century.

In the same way that love has the ability to interrupt our repetition compulsions, perhaps the idea of communism was Marx’s attempt at halting the repetition of history and people’s tendency to get haunted by their past. Perhaps Marx invented communism out of love in hopes for a better world, even if it failed miserably every time humans tried it (i.e. Soviet Union, China, and North Korea). To be sure, communism failed not because its system is flawed (unlike what most people think, government does not exist in textbook communism, hence the absence of totalitarianism). Communism repeatedly failed because it is too perfect. Whereas humans are imperfect who are always subject to their neuroticisms, desires, anxieties, and frustrations, where they may break the law in all sorts of unhealthy and harmful ways. This is where we get into renown dialogues that took place between Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy on what it means to be part of a community, or to truly be “communal”—as in communism.

Above all, historical repetition can be found through the countless rise and fall of empires and the endless cycles of peace and war. This can be witnessed at grand scales through the events of World War I and World War II, where the latter was haunted by the former. Agreeing with Hegel’s thoughts that history would reoccur in different ways, Marx famously adds onto his words:

“…History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

And the possibility of its overcoming?
Precisely, through love itself.