. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

The Life drive
January 15, 2008, 7:03 am
Filed under: Affect Theory, Detachment theory, Love, psychoanalysis, Theory of this Blog, writing

Mood, a shallow, shadowy rancidity interrupted by adrenalin when needed. Cheery! Fakeness actually works. I started this post right before school started on Jan 7. These first three sentences summarize what’s to follow.


A few posts ago, I asked, “What happens to the life drive when it finds no traction for its optimism?” I learned about the life drive from an essay conversation on trauma between Peggy Phelan and Cathy Caruth, a beautiful thing. (Cultural Values 5, 1 (January 2001): 7-27). Caruth talks about fort/da not just as Freud’s symbolization of the traumatized subject’s attempt to experience affectively what she does not actually have, mastery over loss (the child’s father is away at war; the mother is out of the room). To Caruth, the child’s game with controlling and losing control of the top also demonstrates a drive to sustain life in the face of death. To face and to turn away from death is not to disavow anything, or to drown out contingency and vulnerability with the noise of play and presence, but to become two-faced. To face and turn away from death (vulnerability, contingency, the thinning out of fantasy) makes possible living on without guarantees.

Indeed the main consolation the life drive provides the traumatized subject is its assurance that there are no guarantees, since she otherwise feels bound by the guarantee of the repetition of her impossibility. The life drive offers the possibility of repetition’s interruption (however low the bar–as mere variation, for example, a vacation), of a surprise, an unpredicted affect, within trauma. This suggests the possibility in advance that the subject might, sometime, be detached from the imaginable field of experience now clotted with the desperately predictable activity of affect management.

And yet. Talking to my lonely friends on New Year’s Eve, I was reminded to stay aware that there’s a corollary question to do with another optimism of which traumatic repetition itself can be a ground, shaped by resignation and its corollaries–treading water, not stopping, being around, being homeless, drowning, being detached not as a relation but an enduring condition, the numb whatever of a humming defense. As we know, sometimes a defense represents the last stand of sphincteral control over personality’s mirage of intention.

A few of the people I talked to on New Year’s week were lonely. But they embrace their refusal of optimism about becoming otherwise. One is chronically ill, and has gotten quite fat and short of breath. The other is chronically depressed, and has been digging a hole to nest in righteously. The former’s life shuttles between depression and spectacle. She only overcomes when she’s going to be on display–a high school reunion, a family celebration—events for which she can prepare to be fabulous, and to hold the gaze and center stage.

Until now, anyway: now, she’s giving up even that inclination to interrupt her depression, isolation, and mentalized life. She’s post-fakeness. She says that she has accepted herself, by which she means she embraces expressing her cruelty and disappointment. She tells me that as a feminist I ought to be against fakeness. What I say is that her survival matters: her fakeness produced for her reminders of what the life drive felt like, a grandiosity that relaxed her enough to provide some time for the other pleasures, involving looking around and being curious about things, and being interested in what she saw and, frankly, telling me about it. The reports from her intelligence were always interesting. They didn’t amount to confidence or self-love or trust of others or the world, so it wasn’t everything. But her attentiveness drew her along through life, made the performance of observational intelligence seem like a good, a contribution to things, a call that could get responses.

I’ll talk about the other friend in some other post. But I’ve been thinking about Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, and his rage at the romance of depression that confuses the disease with authenticity and the subject’s dissolution with creativity: and I see this not only in the adolescent and intellectual embrace of depression as higher intelligence and realer realism but also in a massive disrespect for optimism as something that’s somehow unethical.

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