With regard to Freud’s notion of the death drive, Slavoj Zizek asserts that we humans have “no solution, no escape from it, the thing to do is not to ‘overcome,’ to ‘abolish’ it, but to come to terms with it, to learn to recognize it in its terrifying dimension.”The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek (Introduction)
Antagonism is inherent to our very existence. This is our death drive, and it is a force that compels us to excessively indulge in processes intended for our sustenance. Such excessive indulgence, in turn, poisons our existence and threatens our ability to thrive. Derivative of language and reason, the death drive urges us–convinces us–deceptively, that we must compulsively feed this drive in order to survive, yet in so doing, we hasten our ultimate demise.
This opposition between our evolutionary aptitude for survival and our psychosomatic drive towards destruction is born out of human subjectivity, and from this force springs all of the conflict and trauma innate to the human experience. For these reasons, we cannot expect any pure or perfect societal structure to emerge–not now–not ever! Human systems are corrupt because they are inherently human, powered by the competing interests of self-destructive individuals and collectives. The only way to transcend this problem of collective self-sabotage is by acknowledging and then accepting the antagonisms rooted in human existence. This must be done, first, at the individual level and then within communities. Zizek, in his Introduction to The Sublime Object of Ideology, asserts that any attempt to expel or cover over collective antagonisms results in totalitarian structures. Rather than exterminate the drive, we must acknowledge its impact and learn to work through and around it.
Zizek explains “the aspiration to abolish it [antagonism] is precisely the source of totalitarian temptation: the greatest mass murders and holocausts have always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a New Man without antagonistic tension.” I reflected on this for a while after reading, and while watching my daughter play, an analogy occurred to me. This scenario of a culture attempting, collectively, to abolish antagonisms is similar to a parent attempting to abolish antagonisms between their children–antagonisms inherent to the sibling relationship. The moment a couple conceives their second child, life for the first is irreversibly altered. Thus, the existence of the second child is itself an antagonism for the first. Over the years this antagonism manifests through sibling rivalry–the children compete for favor and attention, and this competition–innate to their relationship as siblings–shapes the behavior of each child. Likewise, it shapes all the respective relationships within the family unit. The existence of siblings perpetually inserts conflict into the collective family.
Parents are driven by a compulsion to either obliterate or to stifle the dissension between their kids. The consequence? The opposition between the siblings not only persists, but it escalates. My brother is five years older than I am, and there are no middle siblings, nor siblings after myself. I always thought my brother resented me for existing. In truth, he did, but only because the experience of resentment is universal to firstborn children. Nevertheless, my mother’s desire to force a fraternal bond served only to exacerbate the tension between us. The antagonism was always going to exist, but since my mom endeavored to force peace, our response was to resist–to rage with even more fervor against one another. We both felt slighted. We both felt the weight of injustice. My mother didn’t want either of us to feel that way, so she tried to impose a sort of judicious equity. It was a lesson in futility for her, no doubt, because every time she thought the scales were balanced, one of us would do something to indicate faulty calibration. Her governance was never going to effectively eradicate our opposition to one another because our opposition to one another derived from the fact that we both exist.
This interpersonal exemplar is a microcosmic manifestation of the complexity of human existence in total. The tension between my brother and myself will never disappear. Could it have been managed better? I think, perhaps. Were my mother able to rest in the discomfort of our emotional expressions, maybe we would have been able to air frustrations in a more constructive manner. Perhaps we could have resolved conflict with expedience, had we the opportunity to address the insecurity scaffolding the distress of our relationship. I believe that this is, in effect, what Zizek is arguing in his Introduction. Culturally, societally, collectively, we will always face opposition because cultures, societies, and collectives are comprised of subjective individuals. Subjective individuals filter their opinions, motivations, and feelings through the lens of their own experiences. Jumbled together, we are just a bunch of wounded animals clambering for survival, programmed with compulsions that thwart this aim, and conflict ensues a hundredfold. We will never eradicate the antagonism that exists between people, groups, societies or nations. How, then, do we co-exist? How, then, do we move forward?
I think that what Zizek advocates is a sort of psychoanalytic diplomacy. This will not solve the world’s problems, but if people, groups, and communities can reflect, embrace discomfort, and navigate the murky waters of acceptance and adaptation, then maybe we can start to, at least, have peaceful conversations that could–potentially–enable a modicum of relief for social injustice or healing for trauma.
Note: I began reading Zizek’s book because I am participating in a book study with Peter Rollins. Click here for more information on Peter and his work–Pyrotheology.