Every Drive a Death Drive: Notes on Schizophrenia and Desiring-Machines

The death drive for Lacan isn’t a return to a primal inorganicity but a constant circling around an unattainable lack; it produces repetition. But this also means that, in Freud’s own terms, every drive is a death drive.

This is to say that, for Lacan: every drive pursues its own extinction; every drive involves the repetition of this pursuit; every drive is an attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle, where enjoyment is experienced as suffering. 

What’s important for Lacan, however, contra Freud, is that the death drive has nothing to do with biology, making it cultural rather than natural. Deleuze and Guattari complicate this relation even further — it’s not a case of culture versus nature but of capitalism,  and separating culture from nature in that context is a fool’s errand. Capitalism thrives because it transgresses the divide.

This is why Deleuze and Guattari necessarily make desire machinic — you can’t distinguish the organ-machine of the human body from the “actual” machines of capital. As far as capitalism is concerned, there is no difference anyway. 

But that conflation of distinctions is also central to their symptomatology of schizophrenia, introducing one of Anti-Oedipus‘s most famous lines early on: “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic on the analyst’s couch.”

There’s a paradox here. Schizophrenia is a human pathology to be cured, so that we can better function under capitalism (or so Foucault would argue), but for Deleuze and Guattari schizophrenia seems to be a pathology of capitalism itself. What is an illness for us is capitalism’s primary mode of operation. So why attempt to suppress the schizophrenic when schizophrenics arguably understand the (symbolic) nature of the world far more intuitively than the so-called healthy-minded? 

As they write of Lenz, the titular character in Georg Buchner’s novella-fragment — a man out for a walk in a surreal world but a world that he is nonetheless one with — his “walk outdoors is different from the moments when Lenz finds himself closeted with his pastor, who forces him to situate himself socially, in relationship to the God of established religion, in relationship to his father, to his mother.” But to be situated socially is only to drive a wedge between Lenz and the world that feels so immediately accessible to him. As Buchner writes of Lenz out on his stroll: “he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.” What is pitched to us as a well-travelled route towards understanding is, to the schizophrenic, a torturous detour. 

This isn’t to privilege insanity over reason, but to perhaps complicated the relationship between reason and understanding. Ergo, to better understand the schizophrenic is to better understand our own relation to a capitalist system.

In seeing nature as the schizophrenic does, as a process of production — which is almost like saying, to see nature capitalistically — then Lacan’s distinction between nature and culture becomes yet another imposition. Of course, Lacan is right to say that every drive is a death drive, but he retains a hold on Oedipus. His work is, like psychoanalysis as a whole, arguably concerned with origins above all else. And Deleuze and Guattari make a joke about this later on, asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg. But an egg is a BwO — a plane of consistency. It is a body all mixed up and indistinguishable, unformed, unmoulded. The chicken is a chicken, inserted into its own socio-symbolic milieu. An egg becomes a chicken, of course, but the chicken remains capable of producing that BwO again. And so, the best way to understand the chicken / egg paradox is schizophrenically. There is no difference. There is only a traversal by the BwO into the symbolic order.

Oedipus is representative of this traversal. Oedipus is the primal figure of this disorientating thrust into the world of the socio-symbolic, and so, if Deleuze and Guattari are to privilege the worldview of the schizophrenic, they have to be anti-Oedipus. 

But again, this isn’t some wholly irrational pursuit. In undoing the distinction between man and nature — producing a Homo natura, as they put it — is, or should be, “the principal concern of a materialist psychiatry”. And this makes their project innately Spinozistic, surely — Spinoza who puts forward a heretical and supposedly atheistic view of the world that nonetheless views production as Deleuze and Guattari do — as nature naturing, which we discussed when talking about the body without organs.

Here it is worth emphasising that, although Deleuze and Guattari are obviously informed by an understanding of schizophrenia as a clinical pathology, they are extending it into its own critical apparatus. This is what happens when they insist that “schizophrenia is the universe of productive and reproductive desiring-machines”. Schizophrenia is not a pathology attributed passively to the mentally ill, but an active critical framework through which we can interrogate the world anew — or, if not anew, at least afresh, as we’ll see . 

This too is a Spinozist maneuver, in the sense that Spinoza argues in his Ethics, “if we form a clear and distinct idea of an emotion itself, this idea will not be distinguished from the emotion itself insofar as it is related to the mind alone … Therefore the better we know an emotion, the more it is placed within our abilities and less passive the mind is in relation to it.” And this emphasis on an emotion as an idea is importance here. Deleuze and Guattari write that Oedipus also “is not a state of desire and the drives, it is an idea, nothing but an idea that repression inspires in us concerning desire; not even a compromise, but an idea in the service of repression, its propaganda, or its propagation.”

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