Death Drive

The death drive defined by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan does not describe literal death, but death within the symbolic order. After having rejected the symbolic order composed of language, conceptualization and categorization, however, the subject persists. Slavoj Zizek describes this existence as a living death: those who continue after refuting the symbolic order are essentially undead. And this mode of existence gives form to destruction – death in form – so that those subjects who come back to life after rejecting the symbolic universe come back anew; they are no longer the subjects who were part of the symbolic order.

This obscene continuation of life, a mockery of the symbolic order itself, is nonetheless still within the symbolic order, according to Lacan. But now the agent derives pleasure from pain: he or she has gone past the pleasure principle, the notion that people seek pleasure and avoid pain, inherent in the symbolic order. Thus, suffering or pain is now the means through which one experiences pleasure. The subject enjoys being rejected by the symbolic order, enjoys refusing the enjoyment offered within the symbolic order. For example, a subject who rejects capitalism will enjoy having less; a loner who has rejected companionship will enjoy his or her isolation. In essence, the symbolic order is resuscitated and reversed to satisfy the perverse – or negative – nature of the undead subject.

So the subject does not completely escape the symbolic order, he or she recreates it to satisfy an undying urge to continue: dead but alive; living yet dead. In other words, the death drive is obsessession with continuation, not death itself, which is why it is the continuation that is important in conceptualizing the death drive: it is not the cessation of life but its continuation in the form of death. Because, at the core of all motivation, of all movement, is nothing. Therefore, when the symbolic order is destroyed, the nothingness of existence simply creates another one to honor the ceaseless drive to continue.

The death drive is a fate worse than death because even if the subject wants to, he or she cannot die, since the drive’s process is impersonal. One is an eternal slave to endless movement, to continuation, and is thus passively immortal. And the symbolic order, and subsequently the subject him or herself, is constructed around this emptiness of motion, which is the void.

But, as the eternal void in motion, the death drive is also the breeding ground for all subjectivity and the symbolic order itself. So, at the end, the disintegrating symbolic order and subject meet their beginning: the nothingness in which all was and will be created. Therefore, there was nothing before there was something, literally, and this active nothing is the death drive.