8 Aug 2015

Somers-Hall, (2.10), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘2.10 Freud’s First Synthesis (96–8/119–22, 111–14/136–40)’, summary

Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos and other distracting mistakes. Somers-Hall is abbreviated SH and Difference and Repetition as DR.]

Summary of

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition:
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Part 1
A Guide to the Text


Chapter 2. Repetition for Itself

2.10 Freud’s First Synthesis (96–8/119–22, 111–14/136–40)

Very brief summary:

The first synthesis is habitual contraction. For Freud, an organic system habitually contracts surplus, stability-threatening external excitations into itself so that the pleasure principle can effectively neutralize them by incorporating them safely into the system’s workings. The first synthesis in Freud, then, is passive, since it is a mechanism operating independently of an active ego that seeks pleasure. It is also an expression of the death drive. This is because the compulsion to repeat wants to preserve the system by keeping it in its current state of homeostasis. But all the while, it is naturally evolving away from its current state. Thus it is tending backward in evolution, toward its inorganic, non-living origins.

Brief summary:
In Freud’s model, an organic system has a relatively ordered dynamics, which can be disrupted by an excess of external excitations. One way it deals with this threatening excess is to habitually contract it into the system, which then has its ways of minimizing its destructive influence. [For example, if we suffer a trauma, we have an excess of disruptive excitation in our systems. Then we relive it for example repeatedly in our dreams, which use associations to distribute it relatively safely throughout the rest of our psyche]. This tendency to incorporate the surplus energy habitually is the compulsion to repeat and as well the libido. The pleasure principle is the tendency of the system to take that already contacted surplus energy and to manage it. The more it can be minimized or kept under control, the more pleasure we feel. However, the more it disrupts the system, the more unpleasure we experience. Thus the pleasure principle must be understood as distinct from the compulsion to repeat, since they are performing different actions. This can explain why it is we repeat traumas even though they are unpleasant; for, the compulsion to repeat them does not operate according to the pleasure principle. It is merely a mechanical feature of the organic system, and it is like the first passive synthesis of contracted habit. The contraction habit is a self-preservation drive, but it is a variation on the death drive. This is because the compulsion to repeat is an expression of a movement away from evolution toward the creature’s inorganic evolutionary origins.



Deleuze claims that Freud’s concern in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is not examining the exceptions to the pleasure principle but rather in determining “the conditions under which pleasure effectively becomes a principle” (SH 85, qtg DR 96/120). We previously discussed an organizing principle of the psyche in Freud’s account, which tries to maintain stasis of excitation [and prior to that we saw Kant’s transcendental ego as providing the unity of experience and thought.] Deleuze thinks that “prior to the organising principle of the ego” there is already a “biopsychical life” that is “a field of individuation in which differences in intensity are distributed here and there [Ça et là] in the form of excitations” (85 qtg DR 96/119). These levels of excitation will vary over time, and pleasure would be understood as a process operating in this system (85). Deleuze equates the here and there [ça et là] with Freud’s id [Ça]. Although this equation is problematic, it also helps us pose this sections key question, namely, “how does pleasure cease to be a process in order to become a principle that organises the life of the unconscious?” (85). [I do not completely grasp what SH says next. Perhaps the ideas are like this. If we assumed there was a subject, we can say that the subject gives value to pleasure, and on the basis of this value, the subject organizes their psychic life and behavior. But if we remove that subject, then there is nothing to give value to pleasure in the first place, and thus there would be no reason to pursue it. So if, like Freud and Deleuze, we remove that pre-given subject, we need to explain how a psychic system comes to organize itself in such a way that it maximizes pleasure, when that pleasure is of no greater value than displeasure. Let me quote.]

Now, in spite of the problematic nature of the argument, it does seem like a reasonable equation, and it allows us to raise the key question of this section, which is, how does pleasure cease to be a process in order to become a principle that organises the life of the unconscious? An answer such as ‘pleasure is pleasing’ is tautologous, and misses the point. If we try, as Freud has, to give an account of pleasure that does not already presuppose the existence of a subject who values it, then we have to be able to account for how this value gets attached to this particular biological process in the first place. That is, how a (value neutral) process becomes a principle of organisation and action.

When we receive an excitation, our consciousness recognizes that something happened, and it is stored into memory.  Freud claims that “it is not possible within a given system for something both to enter consciousness and also to leave a memory trace’ (Freud 2003a: 64)” (SH 85d). SH explains that

The reason for this is that if traces of excitation remained in consciousness, then they would prevent the system from registering | new excitations. We therefore need to see the processes of memory and consciousness as operating within two parallel systems, much as habit and memory were different in kind in the first account of the three syntheses.

SH continues “We can begin with the most primitive form of life, an ‘undifferentiated vesicle of irritable matter’ (Freud 2003a: 65)” (SH 86) [but I do not understand what such a being would be. Would a single celled organism be such a thing? If so, is it not internally differentiated? If not, what simpler life-form is there?] As this creature is affected by external stimuli, “its nature changes so that it is able to transmit them without its elements changing” which for Freud is the origin of consciousness (86). [I am not sure what it would mean to transmit the shocks without changing its nature. I suppose it is something like nervous signals and reflexes, but I am only guessing. I also do not understand very well the next part. The idea is that as these simple organisms evolve, they channel the excessive excitations to the inorganic, namely, the to skull. I do not understand that, since I would think the signals go to the brain and not the skull, and thus not to something inorganic. And, in even higher creatures the stimulations are further processed by separating out the perceptual aspects, which are the particular senses. It is still unclear for me. Is the idea that simpler organisms just have a simple kind of signal that means physical impact, and thus only have touch, and higher organisms have more senses?] “As the system evolves, it develops protection against excessive stimulation from the outside by partially reverting to the inorganic (the skull), and, in higher creatures, by separating off the perceptual aspects further (the development of particular senses)” (86). This model allows Freud to explain many of psychoanalysis’ most important findings. Also, excitations can come from within. Now, shocks from the outside can be reduced by a barrier [I am not sure what that is. I do not know if the barrier is something we discussed already, like repression (which does not seem like a barrier since it is dealing with the trauma from an external shock that already entered the system and did its damage), or if it is a new idea, like a sort of desensitization or something like closing the eyes when light is too bright.] But there are no such barriers for internal traumas. So, “Traumas which affect the organism from the inside therefore have a far greater role within the economy of the organism than those which affect it from the outside” (86). Also, projection occurs when the organism interprets an internal trauma as originating from the outside (86).

In Freud’s account, we have trauma when there is surplus excitation that cannot be incorporated into the system. The organism might manage by channeling that energy into the system, thereby destabilizing it and creating unpleasure. This is a case where the pleasure principle does not explain the psyche’s workings. One example is war trauma. [The idea seems to be that the patient relives the traumatic experience, since its energy cannot be eliminated, so it is recycled. But because it is rechanneled into the system, that is a way to master it.]

In cases of trauma or pain, Freud claims, rather than seeking to maintain the lowest possible level of psychic energy, the organism may attempt to stabilise the psychic system by suspending the pleasure principle, and instead annex the free flowing energy into the system of the psyche. This means that the pleasure principle does not always govern the operations of the psyche. This process of annexing energy from the outside can explain some of the situations where it appears as if the pleasure principle has been contravened. In the case of severe trauma, the system experiences unpleasure in order to retain its overall integrity. War trauma, for instance, would be a retrospective attempt to master the phenomena in question, that is, to assert control over them. Now, in the case of war trauma, this attempt to master and bind energy within the system leads | to the repetition of past experiences which lead to unpleasure on the part of the subject. Freud therefore claims that such compulsions to repeat simply cannot be understood according to the pleasure principle. (86-87).

In order for the pleasure principle to operate, there needs to be a way for excess energy to be systematically channeled rather than randomly jumping about (87). [I will quote this part, since I am not sure I got it right.]

Prior to the application of the pleasure principle, there needs to be some process of binding or annexation of excitation so that excitations can have ‘systematic resolution’, rather than arbitrarily traversing the life of the organism. So some kind of integration or organisation is necessary for us to be able to relate pleasure to a principle. Freud himself makes this point as follows [The following up to citation is Freud quotation]:

As the drive-impulses all act on our unconscious systems, it is scarcely a new departure to assert that they follow the primary process, and it is also no very great step to identify the primary psychic process with Breuer’s ‘free-flowing’ cathexis, and the secondary one with his ‘annexed’ or ‘tonic’ cathexis. This would then mean that it was the task of the higher echelons of the psychic apparatus to annex excitations originating from the drives and reaching it via the primary process. Any failure of this annexion process would bring about a dysfunction analogous to traumatic neurosis. Only when the annexion has taken place would the pleasure principle (or, once the latter has been duly modified, the reality principle) be able to assert its dominion unhindered. In the meantime, however, the psychic apparatus’s other task of controlling or annexing the excitation would be very much to the fore – not, it is true, in opposition to the pleasure principle, but independently of it, and to some extent quite heedless of it. (Freud 2003a: 74–5)

The pleasure principle therefore rests on the integration of excitations that are originally unbound.
(SH 87)

SH then notes some parallels with the first synthesis of time. Recall how “a contraction of impressions led to the constitution of a subject” (87). Here the free flowing energy is contracted into the system, which is productive of the subject. [I am not sure I understand the point SH here makes about signs, so I will quote:]

Deleuze’s point is also that as the self is constituted by the integration or contraction of excitations, it simply is these excitations. This gives us the reason why Deleuze calls these contracting egos ‘narcissistic’. What they relate to is, in a sense, themselves, or an image of themselves, in the form of the excitations | that they bind. The movement of binding therefore finds satisfaction in a narcissistic relation to its own image. In this sense, the fact that the egos constituted by the binding process are narcissistic parallels the way in which the selves that were contracted habits in the first synthesis of time related not to objects, but to signs. So just as a heartbeat appears as a sign in our world that doesn’t resemble the movement of the heart itself, the binding of excitations constitutes egos that do not relate directly to objects, but to images of themselves.


[I am not sure about the next point, but the reasoning seems to be like the following. The psychic system habitually contracts surplus energy into its workings. On this basis pleasure is possible, since this brings more balance to the system, even though in another sense it is somewhat disruptive to it.] “It is not the case that pleasure gives rise to habit, therefore, in the sense that we might talk of repeating something enjoyable, but rather it is the existence of habits that leads to pleasure” (89). [The next point seems to be something like the following. Freud’s model places a basic mechanical operation as the basis for pleasure. In this sense, it is a passive synthesis, since it is not an ego who favors pleasure and on that basis organizes the surplus excitations.]

In the discussion of habit, Deleuze claimed that habit was only conceived of as reproduction when it was incorporated into a mathematicised ‘temporal space’ by the imagination. Similarly here, it is only by relating pleasure to the past and the future and by instituting the pleasure principle that we are able to see pleasure as operating prior to habit. That is, by talking about ‘pleasure in general’, we introduce the ‘idea of pleasure’. Once pleasure is no longer related to a passive synthesis, but is seen as organised in relation to a principle, we have an active synthesis that relates to an ego. The result of this is that the pleasure principle will now be seen as primary, since without some kind of external organising principle, it is impossible to explain how indifferent processes can form a coherent system, and how individual excitations can be related to one another (how habits are formed). One final thing to note is that binding and the pleasure principle relate to different objects. Binding operates on free excitations in order to enable the pleasure principle to relate them together into a system.

[The final point made above is that we need to distinguish two different things: 1) the passively synthetic binding operation that incorporates the surplus energy into the system, and 2) the pleasure principle, which aims to reduce the quantity of energy within the system. The pleasure principle only deals with the surplus energy once it has been incorporated into the system, and thus it is not the pleasure principle which is responsible for those contractions in the first place. But it is not entirely clear to me at this point what the pleasure principle does with the surplus energy that has been incorporated. At any rate, the compulsion to repeat is the binding operation, which is also for Freud the death drive. We later learn why.]

There are therefore two principles operative within the psyche. The first is to increase pleasure within the psychic apparatus by reducing the quantity of energy within it. This is the pleasure principle. The second is a principle that attempts to convert unbound energy into bound energy by mastering excitations. This is the compulsion to repeat, which will become the death drive. Freud’s claim is that it is only once excitations have been annexed by the psyche that the pleasure principle can become operative.

So, Freud grounds the compulsion to repeat in the organism’s basic, original structure. This means the compulsion can be analyzed as a “basic function of life itself” (88d), perhaps in the sense of a mechanical operation of the organism that is not fundamentality tied to higher order cognitions or to an active ego. [The next part is a bit complicated. It would be convenient to simplify it. Perhaps we can say the following. (But please check the quotation that follows to get the complete account.) Were the organism to allow its system to further become disorganized by surplus excitations, it would be more able to evolve as a creature, since it would be mutating or self-varying. But since it wants to minimize disruption, it is tending toward a prior state in its evolution. (Yet, it is not clear to me why staying in the same stage is understood as going backward a step. Perhaps this is because its forward movement is already set in motion.) The next point is that evolution is the development from the inorganic to the organic. Thus the tendency to find stasis through repetition, that is, through the habitual contractive incorporation of surplus energy into the system, is the death drive. For, it is the drive to go toward the inorganic evolutionary origins. Thus we have two drives, the drive to repeat, which preserves the organism, and the death drive, which wants the organism to become more inorganic. Since their aims are different, they are not the same drive, but the libido is a variation on the death drive.]

While the compulsion to repeat can operate in accordance with the | libido, it can also operate as a tendency of life to return to an earlier stage. Freud characterises this tendency to return in the following terms [the following up to citation is Freud quotation]:

At this point we cannot help thinking that we have managed to identify a universal attribute of drives – and perhaps of all organic life – that has not hitherto been clearly recognized, or at any rate not explicitly emphasized. A drive might accordingly be seen as a powerful tendency inherent in every living organism to restore a prior state, which prior state the organism was compelled to relinquish due to the disruptive influence of external forces; we can see it as a kind of organic elasticity, or, if we prefer, as a manifestation of inertia in organic life. (Freud 2003a: 76)

What leads Freud to this conclusion? Central to this conception are, I think, two primary assumptions in the account we have been looking at so far. The first is that the organism is defined essentially as closed off from the world. Organic life’s engagement with the world is seen as essentially traumatic and disruptive for Freud. Second, there is the belief that organisms, in their particular development, tend to repeat their development as a species. If we combine these two assumptions, then we have the claim that change (and hence development) is traumatic, and therefore generates a tendency for the organism to return to a prior, less traumatic state. Now, Freud claims that this movement can be seen in the fact that fish, when spawning, return not simply to their own birthplace, but also ‘to the previous domain of their species, which, in the course of time, they have exchanged for others’ (Freud 2003a: 77). Here the second claim, the recapitulation theory of embryo development, comes into play, as each animal carries with it the history of its development from the simplest forms of life. In fact, this movement is not simply to the earliest forms of life, but to the origin of life itself in the move from the inorganic to the organic. Thus, the drive to repeat is not simply a drive to return to an earlier form of life, but in fact, a death drive. In this sense, the compulsion to repeat/return and the death drive are equivalent: ‘The goal of all life is death, or to express it retroactively: the inanimate existed before the animate’ (Freud 2003a: 78). Freud’s account of the origin of repetition therefore ultimately traces it back to the constitution of consciousness itself. Life can be seen as playing out the relations between two different drives. First, there is the libido, which aims at conserving life by protecting the organism from external traumas that threaten to destabilise it. This conservation of life is ultimately to be understood as simply making more complex the more fundamental drive, the death drive, which seeks to return the organism to its primal state.

SH notes a key feature of Freud’s account. Since the organism wants to move back toward its inorganic origins, its death is not always to be attributed merely to external forces. SH then addresses the question, if life wants to dissolve into the inorganic, why do life forms exist at all? [The answer is not entirely clear to me, but it seems to be saying that the death drive remains dominant, but is channeled through more life preserving drives. The reasoning why I do not quite grasp, so please read the following quotation. Perhaps SH is saying that the simplest life forms in early evolution lived and died quickly, as we would expect from them having a death drive and also a primitive self-sustenance system. It is only because of some accidental structural feature of their chemical make-up that there is a delay between birth and death. Then, the creature evolves more complicated chemical structures which further that delay. It is still not clear why those self-sustaining structures would develop if the death drive aims to minimize them. Perhaps it is all an accident of evolution.]

Well, death is at first ‘still easy for living matter; the course of life that had to be gone through was probably short, its direction determined by the newly created organism’s chemical structure’ (Freud 2003a: 78–9). Over time, however, the complexity of life means that more and more detours are incorporated between life and death. These drives delay the movement towards death, and so appear to be conservative. They are the ‘guardians of life’ in that they allow the organism to perpetuate itself, but in the end, these drives, such as the sexual drives, are ultimately subordinated to the death drive. They are determined by the fact that the organism wants to choose its own death, rather than succumb to external influences.

[SH’s concluding point seems to be that because of the death drive, there is repetition in the organic system. And so this is like Deleuze’s notion of the eternal return as a repetition of difference. But for Freud, what is repeating is a similar sort of action in an extending chain of moments, where for Deleuze what repeats is intensive difference.]

In essence, this death drive plays the same role that the eternal return plays in Deleuze’s account. The ground of Freud’s account is here characterised as a mode of repetition. Once again, however, we can see that rather than repetition being conceived of as a field of intensive difference, it is here understood as an extensive, physical structure, much as time was equated with passive extension in Kant’s philosophy. As we shall see, Deleuze will retain the structure of the death drive, but instead understand death in terms of a field of intensive difference. Before turning to Deleuze’s account of the third synthesis as the death drive, we need to briefly look at the second synthesis.



Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994/London: Continuum, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund (2003a), ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, London: Penguin Books, 43–102.



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