Slovenian Death Drive: Notes on a great Jodi Dean essay very relevant to the featherbedding project

(Some notes on Jodi Dean  “Still Dancing: drive as a category of political economy” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Volume Six, Number One)

Dean’s essay on drive, the Lacanian tradition, and contemporary capitalism is particularly relevant. Dean begins with a suggestive image: Charles Price, CEO of Citigroup announces ‘as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance… we’re still dancing.’ This against the background of a subprime mortgage market in free fall and Wall Street’s major firms unending production of collateralized debt obligations. When it was all over, Dean notes, the persistence typified by Price racked up a bill of one trillion dollars. For Dean, such repetition behavior can only be described as a species of what psychoanalysis calls drive. “Drive is a keeping on beyond pleasure, beyond use, beyond desire. In the reflexive turn of the drive, drive’s loop back round itself, activity becomes passivity, stuckness in a circuit…”

Dean hones in on Slavoj Žižek’s elaboration on Lacan’s teachings on drive, using the French psychoanalyst’s revision of the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a guide to new insights on “subjectivity, ideology, and ontology.”

This passage seems key (I’ve added some emphases because I am hard of understanding): “While some theorists focus on the subject of desire, critically interrogating the fantasies that attach it to law, Žižek has opened up the category of drive, confronting what it is that impels us, that invests us in activities or patterns or objects exceeding interest, life, even our own good.”

Dean’s citation of  Lacanian philosopher Adrian Johnston also speaks to the theoretical area I am trying to map: thanks to ‘the death drive,’ Johnston writes, the human individual isn’t entirely enslaved to the tyranny of the pragmatic utilitarian economy of well-being, to a happiness thrust forward by the twin authorities of the pleasure and reality principles.”

Drive, Dean suggests, is central to Žižek’s reading of ideology-as-disavowal, to new readings of speculative philosophy’s ontological tradition; weaving through Hegel and Schelling, Žižek proposes–Dean tells us–death drive as the gap (with its own paradoxical, retroactive form of temporality) between nature and culture: the big Other’s repression of its own founding gesture.

Dean writes: “My interest in this essay is with drive as a category for political economy. The reflexive loops, stuckness, and ruptures of drive manifest themselves in the dynamic of capitalism’s booms and busts.  She quotes Žižek interpolating Marx: “Drive inheres to capitalism at a more fundamental, systemic level: drive is that which propels the whole capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction. We enter the mode of drive the moment the circulation of money as capital becomes ‘an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.’

Dean suggests that drive is particularly apt as a key to “the extreme capitalism of neoliberalism.” Here, I think I might push back against a periodization that neatly separates neoliberalism from earlier tendencies in capitalism away from desire and toward drive; in fact, such an argument may be the whole point of writing about featherbedding and drive.

Dean focuses on reflexivity in finance at three levels: the derivative as a commodity, competition as a circuit, and knowledge as the discourse of the university. Prior to this discussion–which may prove less relevant to our purposes than the proposal at a more general level of drive as a useful category of political economy, Dean engages in a detailed consideration of drive in contrast to desire. That is of great relevance.

“Desire and drive designate relations to jouissance, ways that the subject structures her enjoyment. Desire is always a desire to desire, a desire that can never be filled, a desire for a jouissance or enjoyment that can never be attained. In contrast, drive attains jouissance in the repetitive process of not reaching it. Enjoyment comes from the process itself, not from fulfilling an ultimate goal.

(Super important!) Žižek writes, “In Lacanian terms, one can determine the distinction between individual greed and the striving of capital itself as the difference between desire and drive.”

(note 9)

Individual greed might unlimited, a desire for more… a desire that ultimately can never be met. Desire alone, however, can’t account for the persistence of capitalism.

The fundamental structure of capitalism is a circuit. Capital strives to accumulate, to reproduce itself.  It circulates, ceasing to be capital if this circulation stops.

Žižek also considers the difference between desire and drive via a change in the position and function of objet petit a.

He writes:

Although, in both cases, the link between object and loss is crucial, in the case of the objet a as the object of desire, we have an object which was originally lost,

which coincides with its own loss, which emerges as lost, while, in the case of the objet a as the object of drive, the ‘object’ is directly the loss itself– in the shift  from

desire to drive, we pass from the lost object to loss itself as an object.

That is to say, the weird movement called ‘drive’ is not driven by the ‘impossible’ quest for the lost object; it is a push to directly enact the ‘loss’–the gap, cut, distance–itself.

Drive is a kind of compulsion of force. It’s a force that is shaped, that takes its form and pulsion, from loss. Drive is loss as a force or the force loss exerts on the field of desire.

*We see this force of loss expressed in capitalism as the loss of satisfaction , completion, a capacity to be at rest.

*Absent an end or limit, the process pushes on, in a relentless, nonsensical circuit.

Žižek points out that drive’s compulsive force captures the subject. One has to keep going…

This “has to” shouldn’t be confused with some kind of illusory natural law or inherent economic truth. Rather, it’s the more uncanny force of drive in capitalist dynamics.

An additional feature of drive is its reflexivity, the inclusion of the subject in the scene she observes.This inclusion brings with it an unavoidable (and constitutive) distortion as the

presence or intervention of the subject affects the setting it encounters.

As Žižek emphasizes, the reflexive movement of drive is a loop. One shouldn’t imagine i as a circle or oval, though, but more like a messy spiral. The loop of the drive is an uneven

repetition and return that misses and errs. Stuck in the loop of drive, the subject keeps doing the same thing, trying to get the same result, but rarely really gets it.

Still, the subject gets something, a bit of enjoyment, in the repeated effort of trying. And this nugget of enjoyment is enough of a payoff to keep the subject keeping on, although each moment is a little different.

And why is each movement a little different? Because it comes next, it adds itself and thereby changes the setting of the next circuit.

Drive’s reflexivity thus involves a rather paradoxical causality: the cause results from its own effects.

Marx’s account of the genesis of the capitalist system in Capital provides one of Žižek’s clearest examples: “capitalism reaches the level of self-reproduction once its external

starting conditions are posited as moments of immanent self-development.”

Žižek’s point is that it’s not enough to criticize capitalism as a fantasy of money begetting money. One has to acknowledge the truth of this fantasy, the fact that people believe it, in other words,

the actual effective power of the fantasy in the lives of people. Even those of us who know capitalism doesn’t work nonetheless act as if we did not know this; we believe that others believe that capitalism

will keep on going on and on.

At some point, doing the same thing over and over shifts from order into chaos. Persistent repetition can amplify patterns to the point of overload and collapse, as in the bursting of market

bubbles. The reiterations that fail to respond to changes in their setting themselves change the setting. Here we encounter capitalism’s creative destruction, the centrality of crises to

capitalism’s peculiar persistence. In sum, Žižek’s activation of drive mobilizes the category for political economy as it highlights drive as a compulsive, reflexive circuit that captures the subject

and whose repetitions can intensify to points of destruction and rupture.


Drive as the Real of Capital

Žižek often describes Capital as Real. “The self-propelling circulation of Capital,” he writes, remains more than the ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be

controlled, since it itself controls our activity. . .”

Žižek is not saying that capitalism is an ahistorical, economic force that necessarily exceeds any attempts at regulation. Rather, there is an excess of capitalism that persists through yet beyond its instantiation in production, consumption, and exchange, its ideological manifestations in ideas of the free market, and the mathematical formulae and equations of economists.


Nonetheless, the fiction of competition expresses a truth of capitalism, what people believe, their sense of an unavoidable struggle over goods, resources, and opportunities that are necessarily limited and scarce.

The “winner-take-all” logic of transactions in the contemporary networks of communicative capitalism manifests the truth in the lie of competition. Capitalism doesn’t actually rely on competition, yet we have to describe it this way in order to formulate its effect on us.


Drive is the “third level” linking subjective experience and objective exploitation, the fact that the latter depends on the “objective deception” or lie of the former. Differently put, drive is the name of this reflexive turning back round upon itself or passivity at the core of activity. (NB: which seems, plausibly, like another name for featherbedding)


In Seminar XVII, Lacan associates the change from the discourse of the Master to university discourse with a change in the place of knowledge. In university discourse, which Lacan also views as capitalist discourse, knowledge no longer serves the Master. It is no longer knowledge of what the Master desires. Rather, knowledge occupies the place of the Master. For Lacan, this means that university discourse affirms nothing but knowledge. University discourse is all-knowing not in the sense that it knows everything but in a sense that it is fully comprised of knowing. Only knowing counts. When knowledge is in the position of Master, knowing cannot be mastered. It is Master.

Lacan sees in university discourse a “new tyranny of knowledge.” In its new position, knowledge isn’t knowledge for a purpose, but knowledge as a command: “keep on knowing more and more.” Consequently, the tyranny of knowledge remainders the subject; the subject is at or as a loss. Knowledge isn’t something that a subject assumes; it is a command, a drive, shaped around and through loss. The more knowledge, the greater the loss, and the more extensive becomes the gap between the movement of knowing more and more and the possibility of subjectivizing this knowledge. It’s too complex. Complexity displaces accountability onto knowledge, but knowledge refuses it.

The university discourse provides an apparatus for thinking about drive as a social structure (or drive in terms of a set of discursive positions). It is particularly helpful as a diagram for analyzing the problem of knowledge and accountability in contemporary capitalism. A drive for limitless information confronts persons and things, who cannot subjectivize it, who can basically do nothing other than keep on. They are caught in an endless circuit—not a closed circuit, though, but a circuit that in its movement outward and back can alter, shift, disperse, and branch.


Treating the command to keep on knowing as if challenged the Master also disavows the way this injunction entraps its poor addressee in the circuit of drive: there will never be a knowledge that itself will be cause enough to stop, get out, do something else. Stopping, doing something else, is a matter of will and desire, not drive.


Drive as a category of political economy has repercussions for theorizing capitalism. Its reflexive circuit provides the loop connecting creation and destruction, activity and passivity, freedom and necessity. Reducible neither to natural laws of supply and demand nor empirical policies and practices, capitalism is inextricable from a third dimension, the “vanishing mediator” of the drive wherein the abstract becomes a component of the actual, fantasy formulates a truth, and knowledge is the condition of its own ineffectuality. Capitalism can—and does—destroy itself, but insofar as this destruction is an element of capitalism’s underlying dynamic, it doesn’t provide a way out, a step beyond; it is subsumed in advance as a necessary operation of the system. Communism can’t emerge by itself through the immanent development of capitalism’s own tendencies. A desire for something else has to cut through the “endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction.” Capitalism may produce its own grave-diggers, but its killers have to pull the trigger themselves.

(Note 9 Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times [London: Verso, 2010]), 132.

Some of that text:

Žižek writes about not my favorite writer, Richard Dawkins, and not my favorite topic, memes, but the discussion is useful. Memes, as parasitic, viral agents  can be seen as relevant to capitalism in this way: memes, “misperceived by subjects as means of communication, effectively run the show (they use us to reproduce and multiply themselves)” similarly, capitalism’s productive forces appear to us merely as “means to satisfy our needs and desires” yet effectively run things. The “true aim of the process, its end-in-itself, is the development of the productive forces”; “the satisfaction of our needs and desires is just a means towards that development.”

(an important passage):

“Consequently, we should not say that capitalism is sustained by the selfish greed of individual capitalists, since that greed is itself subordinated to the impersonal striving of capital to reproduce and expand. One is thus almost tempted to say that what we really need is more, not less, enlightened egotism.” (Leaving aside the provocation, the main point here is profound; compare with James Livingston on “who’s at fault?” re: the financial crisis 2007-2008).

(and the really crucial stuff):

“In Lacanian terms, one can determine the distinction between individual greed and the striving of capital itself as the difference between desire and drive.”

Apropos the financial breakdown, Krugman made a perspicuous observation: ‘If we could spin a time machine back to 2004, so that people could ask themselves whether to exercise caution or to follow the herd, most of them would still follow the herd, in spite of knowing that there will be a breakdown.’

This is how capitalism works, this is the material efficiency of capitalist ideology: even when we know how things are, we continue to act upon our false beliefs.

It is here that Deleuze went wrong when he made fun of the standard psychoanalytic reply to the obvious reproach concerning ‘penis-envy’ (‘But who really believes that his mother had a penis and was castrated?’): of course no one directly believes it, for it is our unconscious which does the believing.

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