Freud's Drive: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film (Book Review)

Author:  De Lauretis, Teresa 
Publisher:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Reviewed By:  Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith, PhD, January 2011, pp. 208

This remarkable book by the well-known semiologist Teresa de Lauretis begins with an introduction that looks at the past, but also at the present and the future. The main thesis of the book rehabilitates the Freudian theory of the death drive, a theory that is hardly accepted by mainstream psychoanalytic circles. But so many other themes and hypotheses are included in Freud's Drive that the book demands careful reading. The author discusses the Freudian theory of drives, with long quotations revised from the Standard Edition. She also spans from the present time to mythical time and illustrates the transitions from Freud's thinking to issues debated today.

The overall aim of Freud's Drive is "to reflect on the relevance of Freud's theory of drives for the history of…our present" (p. 1). The dualism of the life drive and the death drive is part of Freud's legacy; however, here we have a revisionist view of the Freudian theory as put forth by Jean Laplanche, the gist of which is to take a deeper look at the death drive. It is symptomatic of our times—times marked by interminable wars. Written at this particular moment in time, the book is an indication of de Lauretis's ability to understand the present.

One surprise is the fact that Freud's classic work Inhibition, Symptom, Anxiety is not mentioned, as it would have shed light on de Lauretis's theory of trauma. Even so, Freud's theory on trauma is rightly considered here as being "an internal 'foreign body'…acting there like a computer virus in a database" (p.7). Trauma reveals how the role of the unconscious installs a duality that is impossible to avoid. De Lauretis defends Freud's theories notwithstanding his ubiquitous ambiguities and his persistent biologism. At the same time she is attentive to other psychoanalytic sources that clarify Freud's ideas.

Freud's Drive is written in the language of semiotics where text and signifiers call for the inclusion of some major historical personalities who help in making psychoanalytic theories better understood. Michel Foucault is mentioned, but also Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan. In Chapter Two the author focuses on Foucault, who famously reduces the Freudian drives to power relations. Foucault is openly anti-Freudian in that he does not recognize the existence of unconscious drives. For Foucault "sexuality is constructed" (p.40); so much so that he considers Freud's theories of the drives as his last bastion to be protected against the dangers of a free sexuality. Freud is a naturalist, a positivist of sorts, who takes sexuality literally, whereas Foucault presents us with a theory of power and sexuality in the footsteps of Nietzsche. Although their terminologies are opposed, de Lauretis writes: "Far from being mutually exclusive, Foucault's and Freud's theories are both necessary to articulate the psychosocial phenomenon of sexuality in its complexity …only together can they outline a materialist theory of the sexual subject" (p.43). It is the old dilemma: nature against culture. Freud is a biologist and Foucault is a cultural determinist for whom the unconscious is not a thematizable entity; as a concept it is not needed to understand sexuality or even the world at large. Yet Freud recognizes the social conventions of civilization, and for him too "There is nothing innate in sexuality as such" (p.45). This is an interesting but debatable conclusion that allows de Lauretis to compare Freud and Foucault without completely rejecting either.

In fact Foucault's "somato-power" is similar, for de Lauretis, to Freud's drive. She says incisively: "It is only insofar as we are bodies that we can become subjects, and conversely, only insofar as we become subjects that we acquire a sexed and raced body" (p.53). With this conclusion the author proceeds to discuss the role of the drives according to Freud and Laplanche, particularly in the latter's Life and Death in Psychoanalysis.

Chapter Three, entitled "The Queer Space of the Drive," explores why Freud calls the drive "a frontier concept." Paradoxical as it may sound, the drive is partially mental and partially somatic. In this in-between territory many things can happen, and one of them is the fading of the subject. Following this train of thought, de Lauretis extends Freud's theory of the drive to cultural objects, such as literary texts and films, and introduces the transition from abstraction (Freud's theories) to concreteness so as to emphasize the cultural milieu in which we are living. Film narratives confirm the social constructions and the ideological trends that make them a combination of fantasies, desires, and identifications. Spectators are caught up in a web of images, often subliminal, thanks to which multiple codes present to them different interpretations.

The chapter opens with the statement that "The theory of drives has been possibly the most contested area in the whole of psychoanalytic theory, and the main point of contestation is the location of the drive" (p.58). Moreover, the theory of the drives is incomplete, as Freud himself admitted. As to Laplanche, he theorizes that the infant body is traumatized by the "unmasterable excitation" due to the maternal care of the infant, who has neither ego nor language, so that "sexuality is an effect of primal seduction" (p.53). From this repression the unconscious and a body-ego, which is both social and psychic, are born.

According to Laplanche sexuality is not innate, it comes from the other and takes the place of unconscious fantasies long before language and the formation of the ego. The newborn is born prematurely as Lodewijk Bolk thesis of foetalization states, and it is therefore at the mercy of the other, of messages to which the infant cannot give meaning; these messages are therefore repressed to form the unconscious. For Laplanche, de Lauretis writes, "psychoanalysis is a practice of translation" from the drive to psychic entity (p. 65). The drive is indeed a psychic entity and not, as in Freud, a somatic process.

The mind is in a virtual space, not really localized. The drives therefore are in a no-man's-land, like in a buffer zone, between the mental and the somatic. The drive is a trope in de Lauretis's language, thus it is the most ambiguous of Freud's terms. Laplanche is less materialistic than Freud, who de Lauretis calls an old-fashioned materialist, not radical enough, who, after having dissociated the drive from the biological and the physiological, returns to the biological.

Freud's biologism is evident when he states that the living organism really "wants" to die. According to de Lauretis, Eros and the death drive are tropes caught in a paradoxical situation. Still, the idea of the death drive is a "radical intuition," which for Laplanche is "a theoretical exigency" explaining compulsion (p.77). For him, theorizing the death drive is a structural necessity on Freud's part, considering his biologism, even though the drive does not stand for the death of the physical organism: Laplanche's anti-biologism places the death drive—the result of repression—in the psychic domain.

Ultimately, Laplanche thinks that there is only one sexual drive that manifests itself as death drive and Eros, and de Lauretis sees the role of the drive as a consequence of Laplanche's theory of the traumatic. For de Lauretis the transition from trauma to the primary process is a form of writing, and the death drive is a virtual space that "suspends the certainty of cognition." She writes: "My reading of Freud's drive offers no programme [sic], no ethical position, no polemic, only queer figures of passing in the uninhabited space between mind and matter" (p.87).

While keeping in mind this program, de Lauretis explores the topos of death in Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood and in David Cronenberg's film eXistenZ—the novel was written in 1936; the film released in 1999. The film speaks in the present tense in terms of virtual reality and biotechnology. De Lauretis dwells on it in order to "recover Freud's persistent doubt about the inhuman that hunts human reality." EXistenZ, named after a virtual reality game, is an allegory of creative destruction in which Eros and the death drive (which are not biological entities) go hand in hand. The director, who clearly has a taste for the horrid and catastrophic narrative, makes clear that the film is a series of violent metamorphoses filled with "the exceptional, the abnormal, the abject" (p.91). The new becomes the norm, but creativity is linked to death and destruction—an idea shared by psychoanalysis. This is a film that shows that the organic is really something artificial.

A summary of Cronenberg's film would demand a long description; suffice to say that the inorganic technology and the protagonists form "a game within a game within a game," a mirror construction (p.104). Sexuality for both Freud and Cronenberg is "a function of fantasy, not one of anatomy or biology" (p. 107) to the point that in this film erotic fantasies are repeated death wishes, so that the film has no real end and leaves the door open to endless repetition. De Lauretis speaks here of "a drive towards the inorganic." Her thesis is perhaps too strong; yet the material body has lost its relevance and nature too has become artificial, with the consequence that reality is virtual, no longer material.

These considerations bring the author to touch upon economic theories and politics. In fact, de Lauretis draws a parallel between Freud and the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who discusses creative destruction in an economy that shows a cyclic tendency toward crisis and then recovery. By extension, she adds: "Freud's…somber theory of psychic tendency towards the inorganic may also be relevant to our current technological environment and perhaps useful to read new cultural products such as gender, sexuality and their representations" (p.99).

This line of reasoning leads to the fifth and last chapter of the book in which de Lauretis gives a Freudian interpretation of Barnes's Nightwood. The book narrates an interminable, discontinuous and intertextual dark journey where literature and psychoanalysis go hand in hand to explicate a common set of tropes. For Freud, literature and the arts in general were objects of study, useful to unravel and confirm his own ideas about the unconscious. However, this is not de Lauretis's belief. She sees a common, deeper ground linking Freud and literature. She writes: "It is my contention that the influence of literary form…is responsible for Freud's conception of the psyche as text" (p.117). And a text is an open book. This is pure Derrida, and it is surprising that not once does de Lauretis mention Derrida's idea that everything is text.

De Lauretis sees a coincidence in the fact that Nightwood was written in the historically traumatic 1920s, the same decade in which Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). She speculates that Barnes knew of Freud's theory of the psyche, since her book shows an "homology between psyche and text with regard to their formal modes of operation: primary and secondary processes in the psyche, rhetoric and grammar (or narrative) in the text" (p.129). The psyche itself is a text. The reason de Lauretis chooses Nightwood is because it confirms her thesis that sexuality is trauma and enigma, both death drive and life drive. Nightwood is more than a narrative, it is filled with lengthy monologues written in a figural and obscure, archaic style.

The novel narrates the relationship between two women, Nora and Robin, that ends in a disaster caused by jealousy. Here the night is a literary topos, a primal fantasy that brings traumatic sexuality and abject degradation; the night is a topos that cannot be controlled, repressed or regulated. The disorder of the night is put into evidence, and through it Nora will recognize "the power of the past." Nightwood ends in a shocking and enigmatic way—in high drama, due to the "radical alterity of the night." Robin is caught in a lurid and obscene scene with a dog that shows that her drive is uncontrolled because of her "unachieved symbolization" (p.137). But the cause of the trauma cannot be identified. We know only its effects. Robin is a creature of the night close to animality; inhuman, beyond meaning. The nihilism of Nightwood corresponds to the silence of the death drive.

Freud's Drive ends with some considerations about fiction that "exists in the mode of nonreferentiality as dreams and fantasies do, in a space akin to what Freud names psychic reality. What fiction is to literature, fantasy is to psychic reality" (p.146). De Lauretis adds: "The interweaving of rhetoric and grammar (narrative) in the writing of a text" makes the figuration of literary writing "the nearest approximation to the agency of the unconscious, while narrative construction is the work of the conscious ego." Her thesis is that there is an affinity between the nonhuman structures of language (phonemes, morphemes) and the freedom of language when it facilitates "the irruption of the primary process" (p.147). However, this freedom is caught in the "unfreedom" of the unconscious. De Lauretis claims that there is a "coimplication of psychoanalysis and literature evident in Freud's work, in the founding moment of psychoanalysis" (ibidem). This is de Lauretis's strong thesis, similar to her thesis that language is nonhuman, even though to speak and to write is the prerogative of being human.

Given the present state of the world, which is trauma itself, reading Barnes's Nightwood now helps us to understand where and why we find ourselves in what could be called, without exaggeration, an epochal predicament.


Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1992.

------. Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 1961.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Freud and the Scene of Writing. In Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Foucault, Michel. Dits et écrits. 1954-1988. Edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald. 4 volumes. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

------. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated and Edited by James Strachey. 24 volumes. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.

Jackobson, Roman and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton, 1956.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock, 1977.

------. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Pyscho-analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Scheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.

Laplanche, Jean. Essays on Otherness. Edited by John Fletcher. London: Routledge, 1999.

------. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore, MD. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

------. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Translated by David Macey. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989.


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