8 Aug 2015

Somers-Hall, (2.12), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘2.12 Freud’s Third Synthesis: The Death Drive (110–14/135–40)’, 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

2.12 Freud’s Third Synthesis: The Death Drive (110–14/135–40)

Brief summary:
Freud’s death drive tends toward a supposed prior pre-evolutionary state when the organism was inanimate matter. So it is a material repetition. Deleuze disagrees. The compulsion to repeat is a variation on the death drive, since they both tend toward a past status. This harkening back to the past is achieved by creating and repeatedly re-experiencing a virtual object, which substitutes for an external object that was once experienced but is now lacking. However, as there never was an actual experience where the virtual object fully supplied the person’s needs, it is not harkening back to an actual event but rather to the pure past in general. So for Deleuze, the death drive results in a spiritual rather than a material repetition. There is another difference between these two thinkers’ views on the death drive. Death for Freud is a personal loss. For Deleuze, this death is the instability and temporariness of identity in pure self-variational “intensive” becoming. Here, the organism is in a constant state of vital dying, since by means of its self-variation it is adapting, evolving, and self-perpetuating under new guises.



[The third synthesis will provide the foundation for repetition. This foundation cannot be based on the mere fact that the same thing has come forth again, since this presupposes that repetition is possible rather than explaining how it is possible. In Freud, that repetition is based on the fact there is a death instinct which drives the organism back to a more original state of inanimate matter. So the foundation for the repetition is not that the prior inanimate state repeats, but rather there there is always in the organism a drive back toward it, even though it is not immediately attained. The problem Deleuze has with this notion of the death drive as the basis for repetition is that what is being repeated is not the pure past in general but rather is a supposed actual evolutionary past. In that sense, it is a material repetition. Now recall that the death drive’s aim is to regress the evolutionary state of the organism, and that the compulsion to repeat and the pleasure principle are variations of this drive, and they want to prevent evolution and are thus striving backward evolutionarily toward a prior state of homeostasis. Also recall that one way the organism maintains this homeostasis is by creating virtual objects that act as substitutes when actual objects are needed but lacking. Deleuze says that since there never was a past event when the substitute actually satisfied the need the way the actual object did, that it is not harkening back to an actual past event but rather merely harkens back to the pure past in general. In that sense, perhaps, it is a spiritual rather than a material repetition. So the problem Deleuze has with Freud’s account of the death drive is that it confuses this pure past of the virtual object with some supposed actual past, when in fact the death drive aims for the pure virtual past in general. Let me quote this paragraph, as I may have interpreted it incorrectly:]

The question which opens up the third synthesis is as follows: ‘Do the disguises found in the work of dreams or symptoms – condensation, displacement, dramatisation – rediscover while attenuating a bare, brute repetition (repetition of the Same)?’ (DR 16/18–19). That is, given that we need to find a foundation for repetition, is this foundation going to be a kind of repetition which is different in kind from empirical repetition? A foundation for repetition that simply rests on another bare repetition will be inadequate, since rather than explaining repetition, it will presuppose it. Deleuze’s claim is going to be that underlying repetition for Freud is a material repetition, rather than a spiritual repetition [the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

Even beyond the pleasure principle, the form of a bare repetition persists, since Freud interprets the death instinct as a tendency to return to the state of inanimate matter, one which upholds the model of a wholly physical or material repetition. (DR 17/19)

Now, what is interesting about this claim is that Deleuze is not here rejecting the death instinct, but rather claiming that the error is with Freud’s interpretation of it. Deleuze makes the claim that the virtual and actual objects ‘inevitably become confused, the pure past thereby assuming the status of a former present, albeit mythical, and reconstituting the illusion it was supposed to denounce, resuscitating the illusion of an original and a derived, of an identity in the origin, and a resemblance in the derived’ (DR 109/135). This illusion, therefore, is that the origin of the compulsion to repeat is in an actual, albeit potentially mythical event. Once we succumb to this illusion, it is a short step to positing a Freudian death drive. For Deleuze, the retention of the death drive will be premised on a reinterpretation of what death amounts to. For Freud, death is understood in terms of a material repetition. Deleuze is instead | going to understand death in terms of the other category of repetition, spiritual repetition.

[The next paragraph is also a bit complicated. Perhaps it can be simplified in the following way. The death drive tries to move the organic system back to a simpler inorganic state. Because it is acting upon the system, it is an active synthesis. But this death that is sought is one that is experienceable by a self. Deleuze notes that there is another sort of death that is impersonal. Let me quote again to be sure we have this right:]

In fact, Deleuze here introduces the same distinction that has been running through Chapter 2 between active synthesis and passive synthesis. Now, the parallel isn’t perfect here, but death within the Freudian model is a principle that operates in relation to a synthesis of undifferentiated elements. It comes into play at the point at which these elements become organised as something separate from them and active in its own right (it is a principle over and above that which it is a principle of). The death drive in Freud’s terms thus operates according to an active synthesis. As with Deleuze’s discussions throughout this chapter, we will find that as well as the active synthesis, there is a passive synthesis that underlies it. Thus, Deleuze writes as follows[the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

Blanchot rightly suggests that death has two aspects. One is personal, concerning the I or the ego, something which I can encounter in a struggle or meet at a limit, or in any case, encounter in a present which causes everything to pass. The other is strangely impersonal, with no relation to ‘me’, neither present nor past but always coming, the source of an incessant multiple adventure in a persistent question. (DR 112/138)

Freud’s model is clearly closer to the first of these forms of death, although it is somewhat broader than Freud’s own case. This first model of death is not simply ‘the model of an indifferent inanimate matter to which the living would return’ (DR 112/137), and there is an open question of whether Deleuze is here making a deeper point about ‘this death [that] always comes from without, even at the moment when it constitutes the most personal possibility, from the past, even at the moment when it is most present’ (DR 113/138).
(SH 95)

[The next paragraph is also a bit tricky. It seems this other kind of death is to be understood as a sort of pure becoming where identities never hold and thus where selves are in a perpetual state of dying, since they are always under intensive self-variation. Because this is how organisms evolve and adapt, it is vital, and thus this sort of death is inherent to life in its activity of thriving. Again I should quote to be sure we have it right:]

So what is the true nature of death? Well, we saw that the third synthesis of time in the case of Zarathustra was represented by Zarathustra’s death. Deleuze’s discussion of Freud also sees death as ‘a pure form – the empty form of time’ (DR 112/137). Death therefore refers us to the field of intensities of Chapter 1, it is ‘the state of free differences when they are no longer subject to the form imposed upon them by an I or an ego’ (DR 113/138). So, the real notion of death is in fact the collapse of a given structure in the face of some kind of pure becoming. In this sense, death is a perpetual drive that destabilises identities, and makes transition possible: ‘The experience of death is the most common of occurrences in the unconscious, precisely because it occurs in life and | for life, in every passage or becoming, in every intensity as passage or becoming’ (AO 330/363). Life is therefore pervaded with death, to the extent that it is run through with experiences which destabilise the structure of the organism, and the identity of the ego. For Deleuze, therefore, there is something equivalent to the death drive, but this does not operate according to an entropic principle as we find in Freud’s model. Structures are not destabilised through a drive to return to a state where there is no energy in the system, but rather through the emergence of intensities into the field of representation. The death drive does not operate according to a principle, but simply is the manifestation of intensive difference into the realm of the unconscious (‘this energy does not serve Thanatos, it constitutes him’ [DR 113/139]). This leads to a reversal of our understanding of death. Since intensive death is a part of life (the destabilising of identities), our ‘death’ in this sense is coextensive with life: ‘it finally ceases to die since it ends up dying, in the reality of a last instant that fixes it in this way as an I, all the while undoing the intensity, carrying it back to the zero that envelops it’ (AO 330–1/363).
(SH 95-96)

Thus Deleuze’s understanding of death is [vitalist and] not “entropic” like Freud’s (96). [I do not quite grasp SH’s final point, so I need to quote it.]

So the final question is, why do we repeat that which we cannot represent? Earlier, Deleuze has stated that ‘the present is the repeater, the past is repetition itself, and the future is that which is repeated’ (DR 94/117). It is therefore the field of intensive difference which expresses itself in the present. Now, as this is different in kind from representation, it cannot occur within the field of representation as it is in itself. In this sense, the intensities which constitute us express themselves throughout our lives in a variety of contexts ‘in disguise’. When we are dealing with intensive difference, therefore, ‘the path it traces is invisible and becomes visible only in reverse, to the extent that it is travelled over and covered by the phenomena it induces in the system’ (DR 119–20/146).
(SH 96)

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.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia I, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977/London: Continuum, 2004.




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