The death drive in 4th & 18th May 1960 : Notes from the Seminar VII Reading Group of 10th May 2014

by Julia Evans on May 10, 2014

These notes were probably started after the Seminar VII Reading Group meeting on the 10th May 2014. They were refound in August 2017, & published. At this distance, they appear to be the start of an exploration of the death drive in Seminar VII : 18th May 1960. Further comment may appear, if time permits.


Julia Evans

Quotations from

Seminar VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis: 1959-1960: from 18th November 1959 : Jacques Lacan : See here

Seminar VII : 18th May 1960 : p236 of Denis Porter’s translation

The tragedy of Antigone especially appealed to Hegel because he saw the clear opposition there between the discourse of the family and that of the state. But in my opinion things are much less clear.

As far as we are concerned, we find in the discourse of the community, of the general good, the effects of a scientific discourse in which we see revealed the first time the power of the signifier as such. That question is our very own. As far as we are concerned, the question raised is subsumed beneath the order of thought that I am trying to present to you here.

The sudden, prodigious development of the power of the signifier, of the discourse that emerged from the little letters of mathematics and that is distinct from all previously existing discourses, becomes an additional alienation. In what way? Insofar as it is a discourse that by reason of its structure forgets nothing. That is why it is different from the discourse of primary memorization, which carries on inside us without our knowledge, different from the memorising discourse of the unconscious whose centre is absent, whose place is identified through the phrase “he didn’t know,” that is precisely the sign of that fundamental omission in which the subject is situated. At a certain moment in time, man learned to emit and place the discourse of mathematics in circulation, in the real as well as in the world, and that discourse cannot function unless nothing is forgotten. It only takes a little signifying chain to begin to function based on this principle, for things to move forward as if they were functioning by themselves. So much so that we even wonder if the discourse of physics, as engendered by the omnipotence of the signifier, will reach the point of the integration of nature or its disintegration.

This fact strangely complicates the problem of our desire, even if it is doubtless no more than one of its phases. Let us just say that, as far as the man who is talking to you is concerned, it is there that one finds the revelation of the decisive and original character of the place where human desire is situated in the relationship of man to the signifier. Should this relationship be destroyed?

I take it that you might have heard in the report we had on the contribution of one of Freud’s disciples – an open-minded and cultured man, but not exactly a genius – that it is in that direction that the question of the meaning of the death drive lies. It is insofar as this question is tied to history that the problem is raised. It is a question of the here and now, and not ad aeternum. It is because the movement of desire is in the process of crossing the line of a kind of unveiling that the advent of the Freudian notion of the death drive is meaningful for us. The question is raised at the level of the relationship of the human being to the signifier as such, to the extent that at the level of the signifier every cycle of being may be called into question, including life in its movement of loss and return.

4th May 1960 : p211 of Denis Porter’s translation : This is to schematise what you heard last time in Mr Kaufmann’s very full and helpful summary of the work of Bernfeld and Feitelberg; it brought out the three stages at which the death drive is articulated. At the level of material systems considered to be inanimate – and, therefore, including that which involves material organisation within living organisms – the operation of an irreversible tendency that proceeds in the direction of the advent of a terminal state of equilibrium is, properly speaking, something that in energetics is known as entropy. That is the first meaning that can be given to the death drive in Freud. Is that what is in fact, involved?

Bernfeld and Feitelberg’s text adds something particularly relevant to Freud’s on the subject of the difference introduced by a living structure. In inanimate physical systems the dimensions of intensity and extension involved in the formula of energetics are homogeneous. According to Bernfeld living organisations as such are distinguished by the element of structure – in Goldstein’s sense of the structure of an organism – that causes the two poles of the equation to become heterogeneous. That is posited at the elementary level between the nucleus and the cytoplasm as well as at the level of superior organisms between the neurological apparatus and the rest of the structure. That heterogeneity is responsible for the conflict at the level of the living structure from the beginning.

It is at this point that Bernfeld says, “I will stop here.” According to him, what one find in the drive as articulated by Freud is a general tendency of all systems to return to a state of equilibrium insofar as they are subject to the energetic equation. That may be called an instinct, as the orthodox Freudian, Bernfeld, expresses it, but it isn’t what we psychoanalysts designate as the drive in our discourse.

The drive as such, insofar, as it is then a destructive drive, has to be beyond the instinct to return to the state of equilibrium of the inanimate sphere. What can it be if it is not a direct will to destruction, if I may put it like that by way of illustration?

If everything that is immanent or implicit in the chain of natural events may be considered as subject to the so-called death drive, it is only because there is a signifying chain. Freud’s thought in this matter requires that what is involved be articulated as a destruction drive, given that it challenges everything that exists. But it is also a will to create from zero, a will to begin again.

Relevant texts:

Seminar VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis: 1959-1960: Jacques Lacan or here

Pierre Kaufmann’s Commentary on Sigfried Bernfeld & Sergei Feitelberg’s Death Drive & Entropy : Seminar VII, 27th April 1960, p204-205 : Notes towards Reading Group of 22nd February 2014 by Julia Evans on February 2, 2014 : See here

Commentary on Sigfried Bernfeld’s & Sergei Feitelberg’s Death Drive : Seminar VII, 27th April 1960 : Pierre Kaufmann by Julia Evans on April 27, 1960 : See here

The Principle of Entropy and the Death Instinct (Der Entropiesatz und der Todestrieb) : 1931 : Sigfried Bernfeld & Sergei Feitelberg : See here

Bemerkungen über Sublimierung (Observations on Sublimation): 1922 : Siegfried Bernfeld : See here


Julia Evans

Practicing Lacanian Psychoanalyst, Earl’s Court, London


Further posts:

Reading Seminar VII : here

Translation Working Group here

Of the clinic : here

By Sigmund Freud here

Notes on texts by Sigmund Freud : here

By Jacques Lacan here

Notes on texts by Jacques Lacan here