Three Lines of Flight for the Viewing Body

Patricia MacCormack


Becoming Horror

3.1 A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Death
3.2 Regression and Aggression
3.3 Death and Representation
3.4 Forensics are Fun?
3.5 Faciality
3.6 Ethno-Faciality
3.7 The Sacrificial Face
3.8 Death Film: Mondo, Necro and Fakes

3.1 A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Death

In this chapter I am concerned, with the image of death, the presentation and re-presentation within different discourses that death visually presents to a viewing audience, a forensic reader, a film watcher and an observer of social terrorism. Although Freud’s death drive and the death phantasy spoken of by Lacan precede my discussion, my point about death is its phantasmatic image and the complete unavailability both of a knowledge or an expectation of death. Indeed, true to Lacan’s concept of the Real, the subject may phantasize its own subjective idea of death and the relationship death has to the self, only as an idea and therefore not an image of the body in death or the corpse as the body of or as death.  Freud’s theories of the death drive have been pointed out continually as sketchy, exploratory and deliberately suggestive rather than empirical, not in a negative sense but simply due to the revelatory quality of any concept that sees the self-preserving subject propelling itself towards death, ‘driving’ for it as such. [9]   Lacan sees death as the only potential for the subject who cannot ever experience a ‘life’, or only a version of striving towards ‘life’ through language and the symbolic order. Ellie Ragland summarizes Lacan’s concept of the death drive as altering over three theoretical eras. These are 1: Alienation from the world through the symbolic order, therefore constant frustration when drives are not met with Real satisfaction. This comes directly from Freud and is quite a literal interpretation of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ [10] mediated with Lacan’s primary focus on the symbolic order as the only means by which experience occurs. [11] 2: Language as a castrating element, which also castrates the subject’s potential for jouissance (here I use Lacan’s idea of jouissance as meaning ‘life’ or ‘vitalistic drive’, which implies desire/pleasure. Ragland interprets it as Lacan’s direct definition of Freud’s term ‘libido’.) This castration by language is, according to Lacan and explicated by Ragland, the ‘second death’; the death of the subject through the mortification of the physical body by the symbolic order is a form of alienation from any potential jouissance. [12] The psychical subject fears the death of ‘me’ although death only occurs through corporeal derangement. So in a way the subject is already dead and the drive for death is actually a drive for (infantile) life, or a drive for not being already dead, which leads to the third phase. 3. Objects of desire/drive as always lost (fort-da), or about to be lost, which also includes Lacan’s objet petit a. Loss includes an object-ive to be satisfied where satisfaction means loss. Lacan and Ragland point to the implicit void of “language, being and body” [13] which from Lacan I would interpret as a void in body because of ‘language and being’, the already-dead body as such. Ragland claims all drive is apparently because of this void and so the level zero of being is empty, something like a voracious abyss. Drive aimed at ‘filling’ conflicts with Freud’s idea that the body is always hyper-full and needs satisfaction of drive to unleash the permanent tension found in being in order to attain a level state. However Lacan’s lost object is the drive for life, not for a material ‘life’ which may be grasped and attained satisfactorily, thus curing the already dead subject, rather the idea of life is perpetuated and driven towards because of the irrefutable unattainability of the object/permanent satisfaction.

Freud juxtaposes the death drive against the life force, and points out that they stand not diametrically opposed but the drive for death is a drive first for abundance, procreation and development. Death itself, in a negative sense, is more closely aligned with the dead corpse, that is stagnancy, inertia and a cessation of life-drive. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ Freud paraphrases Hartmann by stating “Hartmann does not regard the appearance of a dead body - a dead portion of the living substance - as the criterion of death, but defines death as the ‘termination of individual development’.” [14] Repetition plays an important role in this development because Freud begins by claiming continual repetition constitutes death through stagnation yet later goes on to admit “repetition gives pleasure by reducing tension or conflict.” [15]   Raglan points out the contradictions between the importance of repetition for subjective stability and the vitality of change which also posits itself as necessary in order to avoid death. She states

Yet one cannot satisfy desire for the new  - for change - by repeating the known, for this grounds individuals in something they value above all else: the consistency of the expected. This is the death that drives us all in our daily lives. [16]

Lacan uses the term jouissance instead of the life drive but in the most basic of understandings his idea amounts to one similar to Freud’s. That is, the life drive, the pleasure drive or the desires for jouissance/to desire are all elements which constitute the death drive in psychoanalysis rather than defy it. Desire for jouissance always ends in non-satisfaction and hence ‘little death’ but the drive never stops and never kills and hence the desire for satisfaction continues. If satisfaction was achieved for Lacan this would mean that a) the symbolic order had been broken out of (as in psychosis) and b) attainment of satisfaction would lead directly to death. Pleasure satisfaction equals death, therefore, the drive towards satisfaction that never achieves its aim assures continuance. Ragland points out that “Psychosis is the true death state where jouissance prevails over the law, which is simply the law of exchange.” [17] Death is attainment, which defies the law and hence defies all three of Lacan’s preventatives for satisfaction that constitute his version(s) of the death drive. Laplanche’s reading of the very title of Freud’s death drive essay fits with this idea that satisfaction equals death, he states

The displacement of the term ‘pleasure principle’ should not mislead us: the pleasure principle, insofar as, throughout the text, it is posited as being of a piece with ‘its modification’ as the reality principle, is henceforth situated on the side of constancy. It is ‘its most radical form’ or its ‘beyond’ which, as the Nirvana principle, reasserts the priority towards the tendency towards absolute zero or the ‘death drive’. [18]

By focussing on images of death, both forensic and filmic, I am veering away from any drive towards death by the subject, rather concentrating on the relationship between a viewing audience and an image of death they may be unfamiliar with. I think the image of ‘real’ death and the psychoanalytic drive towards death through desire are very different. Freud’s death drive and Lacan’s explication of the phantasmatic relationship the subject has with her/his own death, imperceivable because the subject is a “superabundance of knowledge” [19] , seems to relish the existence of no image of death. Psychoanalytically death is all about desire for abundance contrasting an absence of being, both of which are explicitly unattainable and henceforth un-image-inable. It is a theoretical death within a defined linear zone, a death in theory. If there is a moment in which to point out the giant fissure between Lacan’s Real and a generic use of the term ‘real’ it is here. Lacan’s Real is the relationship produced by the subject’s consciousness butting up against certain elements outside of it that react against it, the ‘lack of a lack’ being the most quoted definition. It is the unknowable that is outside subjectivity and hence necessarily always and only mediated through it.  The world for a Lacanian subject is all psychical phantasy and no embodiment except the idea one has about one’s own embodiment. This is not suggesting that there is embodiment outside the subject’s own phantasy about it, however there are moments of experience where the body expresses its foreign-ness to subjectivity which elucidate that the subject’s body, though only known through psychical phantasy, is in no way controlled by it. Lacan’s Real may be experienced during one of these moments - from a violent wound, through illness to a stomach rumble. The idea that the Real is ‘outside’ and the subject knows it from the ‘inside’ is not a satisfactory figuration when considering an embodied subject, where the independence of the organs constitutes a facet of the Real. Death is the most Real experience of the real because it occurs when the body succumbs to the Real, or rather, when the subject succumbs to the Real-ness of the body.

Both Lacan and Freud are explicitly talking about a subject, about a phantasmatically wholly psychical person, an idea rather than flesh. I do not wish to suggest that there is an other means by which to know the Real, or that Lacan was incorrect in asserting that reality may only be known through the subject and language. Neither am I saying Lacan’s version of the Real is the only and best way to imagine that which exists outside consciousness, or that in this line of thought consciousness is the primary and perhaps solitary means of being that will be eradicated at the point of death. But by isolating death purely in psychical phantasy, the subject as the idea of the self (precisely that which is eradicated by death) is fiercely protected from and repressive of any fleshly form of death. The flesh that presents itself as a subject-free body is an alien carriage, for Freud, as for Lacan. It is no longer the image of death or representative of death, it is representative of the abjection of the corpse only [20] , and is rarely mentioned except in cases of psychosis (Schreber). [21] This understanding of death is precisely what prevents the subject from being able to ethically consider the death of an other – ‘death’ is defined isomorphically as ‘my death’. In Freud and Lacan discussion of cadavers, of death imagery are overwritten with discussions of psychical demise, of a drive for death where the subject compels itself psychically toward ‘death’, but never an image of death only an absence of being. It is a dilemma that exists almost as a trophy of becoming a whole, mentally healthy individual - that only when we have our subjectivity stable and firmly in place can we fear death, the loss of our finely cultivated subjectivities. The further away we get from infantility and from our bodies the more we fear the loss of our subjective selves, that which keeps us separate from our bodies. This may be one reason why the death drive seems so anti-flesh, so flesh-less.

Following from this argument is Melanie Klein’s idea that the death drive is a part of forming the subject rather than enveloping the subject after it is complete enough to be able to cope with it. Jacqueline Rose, in her use of Klein’s work, states:

If Klein was objected to, it was precisely because she was seen as bringing the death drive under the sway of a subject, as making the death drive constitutive of a subject, who is not yet enough of a subject for death to be mastered or controlled. [22]

‘The subject’ has to exist for the death drive to form as a secondary or tertiary qualification of subject-hood. Covertly, according to Klein and Rose, the ‘death instinct’, a primary function in the terminology of Freud, exists within the infant, evolves with the subject and becomes a drive, as do other instincts of infancy when it is propped up with desire as the subject evolves.

This extremely brief ‘history’ of the concept of death is deliberate because I do not wish to set up too many ideas about death only to have to re-explain why they are not what I wish to focus on. The psychoanalytic field of death and its implicit relationship with the subject is useful in order to talk about death historically, or archaeologically. It is also an interesting  ‘bridging’ discourse; psychoanalysis is a ‘scientific humanism’ or a ‘human science’ that traverses both fields I am most interested in: the visual in film (historically humanistic) and forensic science (archaeological excavator of the body, a knowledge-seeking science). But my main reason for not wishing to utilize psychoanalysis and its traditional explications of death is the very place in which it differs from both the visually aesthetic and the forensic-scientific. Psychoanalysis is concerned with what I would call the ‘invisible’ part of death - the desire for death; the psychical dilemmas caused by death and the actuality of the subject no longer being. I am interested in a desire for visuals of death, representations of corp(se)oreal death and most importantly, the affect of these upon a subject. A death drive perhaps, but one which is entirely different from and could not be further from the ‘reality’ of complete absence of subjectivity. To repeat myself from above I wish to explore the visual because I do not think there is any means by which to know death, no matter how much therapy the subject is willing to go through in order to understand one’s relationship to death. That is all anyone can really ever discuss and is all anyone ever claims to do - discuss the relationship between the self and the (unknowable) idea of death.


[9] See especially the works of William H. Gillespie, In Sinason, Michael D.A., ed. Life, Sex and Death. Selected Writings of William H. Gillespie. The New Library of Psychoanalysis 23. London: Routledge. 1995. Gillespie repeatedly emphasizes the difficulty psychoanalysis has with Freud’s death drive primarily because it was formulated as a theory but never fully explicated.  Ernest Jones thought the death drive antithetical to life force in The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, (3 volumes) London: Hogarth. 1962. Serge LeClaire (1975) A Child is Being Killed: On Primary Narcissism and the Death Drive. Trans. Marie-Claude Hays. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998 and Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, 1993, both express anxieties about the independence of the term ‘death’. Each of these analysts juxtapose the death drive against another term in order to make sense of it as Freud himself did by having the death drive spring from the pleasure principle. In itself the death drive seems not only difficult to define but difficult to make sense of as an isolated drive. The idea that death unto itself is drive enough is rarely entertained and I will use it against other drives and against differing versions of itself later in this chapter. There are also feminist anxieties about the death drive, as well as some anxieties about feminist death drives (I am thinking especially of Klein) which are closer to my own opinions and hence will also be referred to later.

[10] Sigmund Freud, (1920) “Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, 1991, pp. 218-268.

[11] Ragland, 1995, p. 85.

[12] Ibid., p. 86.

[13] Ibid., 1995, p. 87

[14] Freud (1920) 1991, p. 253. From Hartmann, M. Tod und Fortpflanzung. Munich, 1906, p. 29 (publication company not given).  Freud like Lacan seems to observe the changing phases of the death drive. He states “We might suppose that the life instincts or sexual instincts which are active in each cell take the other cells as their object, that they partly neutralize the death instincts (that is the processes set up by them) in those cells and thus preserve their life; while the other cells do the same for them, and still others sacrifice themselves in the performance of this libidinal function.” (1920) 1991, p. 256.

[15] Freud paraphrased in Raglan, 1995, p. 88. The earlier rendering of the annihilative quality of repetition remains the most frequently utilized however, for example in Jaques Lacan; A Feminist Introduction, Elizabeth Grosz describes the death drive: “the compulsion to repeat emerges and threatens to engulf the subject, to reduce it to the inertia of non existence.” 1991, p. 151. The use of repetition in masochism is where this idea becomes most complicated and most useful. In masochism repetition is the most important element, which constitutes the drive to keep going yet never affirms or denies that the satisfaction awaited will always be the same despite the fact the act presumably is. Masochism is pleasure before the act and hence before satisfaction so the death Lacan explicates that arises after satisfaction actually occurs at the moment of satisfaction. Life and vitality are found in the moment of expectation, which would be most usefully satisfied if the satisfaction never actually came. For this reason masochism is about waiting for life, a third death perhaps or a pre-birth. This idea is most clearly expounded in Deleuze, 1989a.

[16] Raglan, 1985, p. 90.

[17] Ibid., p. 104. Exchange here being the exchange of ‘raw’ drive for symbols and ritual, which assures entrance into and prevention of any existence, experience, satisfaction or knowledge outside of the symbolic.

[18] Laplanche, 1993, p. 117.

[19] Lacan, ‘The Subject and the Other; Aphanasis’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 1994, p. 223.

[20] Cf. Kristeva’s comment, where the horror of the abject is a means by which the subject can lose itself by confronting abject matter outside of itself and incorporating it or never fully expelling it, however for Kristeva the corpse remains the most abject of objects. in  Powers of Horror 1982, p. 3, 25 etc.

[21] For example, Freud’s patient President Schreber who believed himself a decomposing corpse was analyzed as someone whose psychical subjective ‘death’, his psychosis, was causing a phantasy of becoming dead or being dead. The imagery of the corpse, of being corpse is not discussed. The President’s flesh is not discussed. Freud, Sigmund. (1910) ‘Schreber’. Trans. Alix and James Strachey edited by James Strachey assisted by Angela Richards and Alan Tyson. Case histories 2 The Pelican Freud Library. Middlesex: Penguin, 1979.

[22] Rose, Jacqueline. 1993, p. 150.