Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Hurt Locker: What is the Death Drive?


Mark Featherstone

I have recently written two papers on the psychoanalytic idea of the death drive and the ways in which it manifests itself in society. In these papers I focus on the war on terror and the ways in which violence, destructiveness, what psychoanalysts call aggressivity, and other perversions such as sadism have become widespread in western society.

My argument in these papers is that although we regard these perversions as horrendous distortions of what it means to be a social being when they occur in events such as a the Baby P case, it should come as no surprise to us that these events happen because our culture is in many ways characterised by violence and sadism. Consider contemporary popular culture. We watch 24, where Jack Bauer tortures people on a regular basis, play Grand Theft Auto, and enjoy torture porn movies, such as the Saw franchise. For the cultural sociologist Henry Giroux, our popular culture provides us with an education in cruelty and creates a general atmosphere where violence and aggression is tolerated and in many cases encouraged. This is not the place, however, to discuss the finer points of Giroux’s theory or enter into age old debates about media effects.

Instead, the reason I start with reference to this work is because it was in the context of having recently written these papers that I viewed Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film The Hurt Locker and recognised that it perfectly captures the idea of the death drive as a social and cultural phenomenon that transforms violence, aggression, and more centrally destructiveness from social pathologies into aspects of a norm or ethical principle of deadly risk to be employed as a guide for living and dying. Moreover, my sense was that The Hurt Locker, a film about bomb disposal in Iraq, could be used to show how psychoanalytic theory could be employed in social analysis to reveal a meta- or socio-psychological condition, on the basis that film condenses these kind of conditions into a text that we create in order to tell ourselves about our own society and culture.

The idea of a link between the psychological condition of the death drive and contemporary society raises some interesting questions. First, we must ask ourselves, how is condition this written into the film and how can psycho-social analysis reveal its presence? Second, we have to think about timing. Why now? What is it about contemporary society that makes the death drive current, since as we will see, Freud saw the death drive as a kind of ahistorical phenomenon, which is somehow hard-wired into humans? However, before we start to answer these questions, let us think about the idea of the death drive.

Freud wrote about the death drive or thanatos in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In his view human psychology is governed by two opposing principles – a life drive (eros) and more fundamentally, a death drive (thanatos). For Freud thanatos emerges because human existence is characterised by trauma. Human birth is traumatic. In Freud’s eyes the newborn experiences birth as a traumatic separation from its mother. This experience is then repeated later in life when the child learns from its father that it will eventually have to leave its mother behind and become an adult in its own right. All of this psycho-sexual trauma means that humans are wounded creatures.

For Freud we are naturally wounded creatures and we spend our lives searching for a sense of completion and peace. But there is no ultimate satisfaction. There is no way to return to the state of peace that we experience before the original moment of trauma, birth. There is no way to return to the womb. In Freud’s view this is why human life is largely characterised by a kind of raging turmoil set on the return to the peace originally experienced in the womb which in his view can only be repeated in one experience, death. Hence the founder of psychoanalysis regarded humans as essentially self-destructive creatures who have evolved various defence mechanisms for staying alive.

The first of these mechanisms is called projection, whereby the desire to destroy oneself is projected onto other people in the shape of what psychoanalysts have come to call aggressivity. But how to control aggressivity, which would essentially transform humanity into a self-destructive species? The answer is society or what Freud calls civilization. Civilization controls our violent impulses and prevents us from killing each other, but only at the cost of limiting our instincts. Society is, therefore, a social control machine.

This is the meaning of Freud’s idea of the life drive or eros. The life drive counter-acts the death drive by re-directing our natural instincts to destruction into social construction and social development. But unfortunately, civilization offers no lasting peace and we are haunted by thanatos. For example, we may seek out peace and completion through religion, which tells us about heaven and the afterlife where the endless desire to find the thing which will complete us no longer exists, and other secular forms that offer ecstatic experience, such as sex, narcotic, and alcohol addiction. All of these forms of addiction numb the pain of life and provide us with the momentary relief Georges Bataille talked about in terms of le petite mort, or the little death, meaning the moment of orgasm, ecstasy, or inebriation, where we lose ourselves, go blank, and descend into nothingness for a short period of time.

The little death is, however, just that, a small death. The limit state of ecstasy is forever balanced by the need to carry on, by the need to persist, by the need to live provided by eros. Eros means that the apocalyptic moment of death is postponed for as long as possible. The apocalypse is, therefore, not now, but rather distributed across life in whatever limit experiences we can manage to cram into our limited time in the world.

This Freudian theory is, of course, perfectly captured by the film, The Hurt Locker, which tells the story of an American bomb disposal expert in Iraq, William James (Jeremy Renner), who takes unnecessary risks and lives for the limit experience. The film clearly shows that he feels most alive when he is closest to death, a condition supported by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who spoke about being-towards-death, and told us that we should live every moment as though it was our last, in order that we might live a full and meaningful life. I think that this much is explicit in the manifest content of the film. However, a deeper, psychoanalytic understanding of the film, requires an interpretation of the latent meaning of the scene of bomb disposal itself that we might talk about through Heideggerian language, being-with-bombs. I use the term being-with-bombs because in Freud’s theory humans live with bombs every day of their lives. We all live with psychological bombs lodged deep in our unconscious minds waiting to explode, turning our lives to rubble. The death drive, the product of the trauma of birth, is, of course, the ultimate unexploded bomb, the bomb that Freud knew could never be defused or disarmed. In Freud’s thought the best we can ever do is to avoid detonation. We can hold our selves, or in Freud’s language our egos, together and keep the death drive in check.

It is this situation, this psychological complex, that is beautifully captured by The Hurt Locker. The psychological complex of the struggle between the life and death drives is perfectly depicted by James’ confrontation with the bomb. The moment when he is most alive, the moment when he is potentially about to die, the moment when he confronts the bomb, is the moment when the life drive meets the death drive and life hangs in the balance.

Should we consider the work of one of Freud’s followers, Melanie Klein, we can reinforce this theory, so that it becomes more than simply a metaphor. For Klein, who wrote about the life and death drives as they play out in child psychology, psychological processes are always embodied processes that we also project onto the world around us. In this respect, the link between the life / death drive complex and bomb detonation is no longer simply a metaphor because the threat of psychological collapse is the threat that the body will be exploded to pieces. Moreover, the fact that the war between the life and death drives is played out in terms of bomb detonation is not simply a metaphorical connection, since it is possible to see the latter social political reality as an expression of a deeper psychological reality in the same way that everything in the world is from a psychoanalytic perspective an expression of human psychological reality.

Following this train of thought, we can consider the meaning of the bomb suit, which the detonation experts wear to protect themselves from blasts. The bomb suit is the Freudian ego, the front stage social self, that defends us against the chaos of the death drive that threatens to blow us to bits. When James dons the bomb suit to confront the bomb he is caught on the line between the life drive, designed to keep us alive by turning us into unified selves, and the death drive, that threatens to blow us to bits, but when he throws the bomb suit away and stands before the bomb with no protection, he puts himself at the mercy of the bomb, the embodiment of the death drive. Herein lies James’ ethic of deadly risk, his attempt to realise Heidegger’s idea, being-towards-death, in what for Freud would be a perverse form, being-with-bombs.

In Freudian / Kleinian terms, the bomb is also a projection of the self because it consists of a hard shell containing powerful explosive material. In light of this process of objectification, the disposal experts’ tinkering with the bomb’s wires and components is really an expression of his attempt to work out his own life / death drive complex through the object that will ultimately decide whether he lives or dies. And should he live, he will confront bombs, different bombs, but essentially the same bomb, over and over again, because the war between eros and thanatos never ends, apart from the moment when we finally succumb to death and thanatos reaches its telos. Freud called this condition which runs through life the compulsion to repeat. Klein talked about it in terms of the vicious circle. Either way, what it means is that the battle between the forces of life and death is always on and will never end so long as humans are alive and continue to be born.

It is an understanding of this fact that gives the film its existential edge. We see James’ attempt to live a normal life. He spends time with his son and his divorced wife, who he tells his friends stuck with him for some reason that he can’t fathom, but he can never leave the bomb behind. So he returns to the front and the war re-starts. At that point the film ends.

What we can see then is that James’ psychological war with himself is played out across the urban war zone of Iraq. The idea of the war zone is crucial here for enabling us answer the vexing question, why now? What is it about our society, the society of risks we might also call the society of the death drive, that makes it more risky and more deadly than previous societies, given that Freud thought that the death drive is a primal human condition?

Essentially the answer to this questions reveals the beauty of The Hurt Locker, which is that it is plays out a deep existential conflict common to all humans in a contemporary scene and manages to suggest that there is something very particular about this contemporary scene that thrusts this deep existential conflict front and centre.

In Freudian theory we know that war, the war in the self, and the projected war with other people, is resolved by society, and the norms and values of society. What we have not mentioned is that these norms and values are only effective because authority, the primary authority of the father figure, is internalised in the form of what Freud called the super-ego. The super-ego, the law in our heads that tells us that you cannot do this, that, or the other, is the authority that keeps us in check and prevents the war from breaking out, holds society together, and ensures that the life drive maintains some semblance of control over the death drive.

What the film illustrates through its depiction of the Iraq war, which symbolises the condition of perma-war that has come to characterise contemporary globalisation, is what psychoanalysts knew in the 1960s, which is that authority is on wane and that the forces of violence and chaos are now, more than ever before, barely contained by civilized social structures. We can see this condition today. Globalisation is a state of barely contained chaos. Is this not what the recent economic collapse was all about? Is this not what the war on terror is all about? Society is a state of barely contained chaos. Is this not what theories of broken Britain are about? Is this not what panics about youth deviance are about? And the self? The contemporary self is in a state of barely contained chaos on the edge of complete breakdown. Is this not what the story of James in The Hurt Locker is really about? Is this not what gives this film its particular resonance?

So all of this is contained in The Hurt Locker, a film that illuminates the chaotic nature of globalisation through its depiction of the Iraq War and the chaotic nature of the self thrust into these chaotic circumstances in the form of a bomb disposal expect who plays out the endless struggle between the life and death drives every time he confronts a bomb in the field. In this way we can see how it is possible to link psychological theory to cultural analysis to form a complex theory that can shed light on the contemporary human condition, a condition that takes in the microscopic level of social psychology and the macroscopic level of globalisation.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Objects of Global Warming?

By Lydia Martens

The mediated world has in recent weeks once again been preoccupied with controversies surrounding global warming. We read the prediction that the Himalayan glaciers will have disappeared by 2035, that 50% of the Netherlands will soon be sea, and that, surprise, surprise, the fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil is financially supporting sceptics of human induced climate change. This is environmental politics with a big “P”, one might say. Meanwhile, scholars in the social sciences, humanities and arts have been asking questions which are equally intriguing, but which do not gain this level of mediated interest.

These are questions which concentrate on the unrelenting progress of interconnected sets of routine practices in everyday life, which demand the use of energy consuming objects and resources in ever greater numbers and intensity. Think for instance about the relatively recent change to daily showering practices, which not only require a good boiler, gas, electricity and plenty of water, a bathroom suite, shower curtain and soft towels to match, not to speak of the collection of plastic bottles containing soaps, body washes, shampoos and the detergent to maintain that shiny sanitised look of the bathroom’s infrastructure itself. Have I forgotten anything?

Routines of cleanliness are part of a larger set of daily routines and systems of organisation that allow those of us living life in the accelerated affluent world to be dual earner families or fast-lane professionals and accommodate the various demands and ideals that such a life encompasses. Thus we fill our homes with computers and other leisure technologies, we keep two or more cars to allow mums, dads and kids to move about, and we accrue airmiles as the latest city-break deal sounds an excellent opportunity to create that all so necessary distance from our harried lives.

The intensification of energy and consumption rich practices in domestic life appears to be an inevitable accompaniment of societal development in our world. It is without doubt greatest in the world’s most affluent societies, resulting in the observation that we would need the capacity of three Earths to support the consumption levels of everyone living on the globe, if all were to consume at the rate ‘we’ do. This is environmental politics with a small “p”, one might say, because such practices are part of the everyday goings on of private domestic life, which, whilst perhaps questioned by those amongst us with an active environmental awareness, are nevertheless hard to change in ways which make a significant impact. Such is the power of routine and social organisation!

On 4 & 5 February, I attended the first international workshop of Objects of Energy Consumption; a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and jointly conducted by researchers at the Deutsches Museum and the Central Institute for the History of Technology at the Technical University in Munich, Germany. The Deutsches Museum was founded over 100 years ago, and is today well known for its specialism: the show-casing of technology and science. Walking to dinner in the evening, I am told by one of the Museum’s researchers that, given it is currently developing future orientated exhibition projects, the museum is not only a place where science and technology are exhibited from a historical perspective. Having said so, Objects of Energy Consumption is focused in the conjunctures between objects and history, using ‘the vast collections of the Deutsches Museum as sources’ to analyse ‘the historical mechanisation of the household from the perspective of consumption, gender and environmental history as well as museum studies’.

Intended to help the multi-disciplinary research team to fine-tune its theoretical and methodological approaches, the workshop brought together experts from different disciplinary traditions to talk about a range of topics. I was invited to provide a sociological input to the discussion, though any analysis that brings together gender, consumption and mundane domestic practice, I argued, necessarily straddles across disciplines to engage with feminist perspectives, history, technology and cultural studies. Domestic mechanisation without doubt constitutes an important facet of a gender-informed and environmental history of consumption, especially that pertaining to the 20th Century, but I suggested that this formed part of a broader enquiry about change and continuity in domestic life, in which the cultural valuation of domestic identities, domestic practices and the home come together. I pointed out that these complexities create challenges for the development of a coherent conceptual framework.

Perhaps the most interesting question for me (though clearly not for the material culture scholars attending the meeting, or, perhaps for those whose interests are more clearly and directly aligned with the environmental impacts of practices) was what the methodological and theoretical advantages are of investigations in which the object forms the central focus of enquiry. Clearly, objects may be seen as the connecting thread between different economic and cultural processes and conjunctures, including design, production, production standards, marketing, retailing, purchase, use, storage, disposal, recycling and display.

Criss-crossing with these are the conventions and configuration of domestic life and the passage of time. Speakers pointed out that objects have agency, for instance, in the sense that they have a physical presence, and, to coin a phrase used by Gudrun K├Ânig from the TU Dortmunt, they may also have a veto right, and speak back. Even so, one of the big methodological challenges facing the project’s researchers will be that the mostly obsolete objects they have selected for special attention are no longer situated in the domestic contexts through which they gained their original purposes and meanings. Another way of saying this is that when objects become objects at an exhibition, their realities and meanings change, posing problems for those who desire to understand the contribution they made to the meaning of domestic life in their various historical contexts.

For further information about the project, have a look at its website @ Also have a look at the current BBC History of the World in 100 Objects interactive website, which is accompanied by a series of downloadable radio programs. See:

Friday, 12 February 2010

Sociology BITES: What is sociology for…?

Sociology BITES: What is sociology for…?
[NB programme is provisional and subject to change]

Keele University, School of Sociology and Criminology are delighted to offer this FREE post-16 conference between 10-3 on March 17th 2010.

The event is sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and is part of the Festival of Social Science which runs between 12th-19th March. The Festival is a national series of events intended to engage the public in the exploration of the social sciences. Our post-16 conference will introduce students to real-world research conducted by Keele’s national and international experts. A mix of different curriculum-relevant sessions will be offered using a range of delivery styles and supporting resources. Sessions will also be supported by experienced Associate Teachers in Sociology.

We appreciate this is short notice for many of you but this is a new opportunity for Keele, which we hope to repeat next year (with more notice!), and external funding was only notified recently. We do hope you will be able to come. Please note however, places will be limited and allocated on a ‘first come first served’ basis. For registration details, please see below.


10-11: Welcome and introduction – Sociology BITES: what is sociology FOR…?

Dr Rebecca Leach and Dr Yvonne Hill
Orientation, outline of the day, sign-up for afternoon workhops

11-12: ‘Meet the Sociologists: Question Time’

An interactive session in which a panel of experts will answer your questions on topical matters with a sociological spin, researching sociology in the real world, studying sociology and what they think sociology is FOR…

12-1: Lunch
Students will be escorted on campus by CRB-cleared mentors
Tutors will attend a free Networking lunch with members of the School of Sociology and Criminology

1-2: Sociology Nibbles…

Workshop options will include the following (programme subject to revision). Students will sign up for one of these in the morning sessions

• The Sheep are Shopping till we all Pop? Dr Rebecca Leach

Baaaa. Branding. It means you’re part of the flock, doesn’t it? This session is a hands-on exploration of the power of the brand. From its role in reflecting group identity and culture, to the power to destroy the planet, sociology NEEDS to understand consumer culture urgently…

• Negotiating the edge: voluntary risk-taking and the risk society Dr James Hardie-Bick

Risk has now become a pervasive feature of everyday life and people are
continuously attacked by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about the risks
they are exposed to in their everyday lives. Evidence of increasing
uncertainty can be found by observing a number of debates in relation to
food, health, crime, children and the environment. According to the
sociologist Ulrich Beck, even terrorism should only be considered the latest
risk in the evolution of the global risk society. But to what extent are
people increasingly worried about risks? If we are living in a risk society,
why do some individuals actively seek out high-risk activities such as
skydiving, base jumping and rock climbing that could result in serious
injury and even death? The overall aim of the session is to introduce you to
recent sociological research on voluntary risk-taking and to consider some
of the main attractions of engaging in these high-risk activities.

• Imagining Perfect Worlds: Why we Need Utopias? Dr Mark Featherstone

Imagine there is no money? Imagine everybody has the same amount of property? Imagine there is no family, no marriage, and no idea of monogamy? Imagine that personal relationships are defined by sexual freedom? What would life be like? Would these ideas make a perfect world, a utopia? Or a nightmare society, a dystopia?

In this session we think about the major utopias in history and the central ideas that make them seem like perfect worlds. In the original utopia, Plato’s Republic, society is defined by economic and sexual equality. There was no private property and no family in Plato’s Republic, because in his view privacy was socially divisive. Unfortunately, the problem with the Republic was that there was no personal freedom, because Plato thought that the majority of people were incapable of thinking for themselves and the society had to be run by philosophers. In other utopias, such as the perfect world designed by the economist Milton Friedman, individual freedom is all that matters and social controls need to be kept to a minimum in order that people can flourish. Although we will focus on various different utopias and different ideas, what these two examples show is that one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia or worst possible world and vice versa. What we will seek to do in this session is think about:
(a) the meaning of utopia and dystopia,
(b) why we need these ideas in society,
(c) the key utopias and central utopian ideas,
(d) what ideas and principles we would make central to our own utopian society.

• How many parents? Stepfamilies and family order Prof Graham Allan

Families are changing in all sorts of ways. One of the big changes has been the growth of different types of stepfamily. In this session we will explore some of the dynamics of stepfamilies and explore in particular the patterning of step-father / step-mother / step-child relationships.

• Crime, Deviance and the Media - the strange case of serial killers Dr Tony Kearon

This workshop will look at the mis-match between representations of serial killers in the media and real serial murder, and explore how the application of sociological imagination could help to explain this puzzle...

• Constructing the Mobile Phone Dr Dana Rosenfeld

Mobile phones: useful social networking tool? Electronic tag managed by your parents? Or evil brain-frying conspiracy? Social problems are socially constructed and in this workshop, you will do just that. A hands-on approach to understanding social constructionism and ‘everyday’ methods of understanding the social, you will use real-life examples to explore the world around you.

• Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the modern world: Dr Jane Parish

From vampires, zombies and werewolves, we appear fascinated with the
supernatural. And yet in the modern world, we are disdainful of what we regard as irrational primitive belief, elevating science and technology to a higher more sophisticated type of knowledge, and prioritising formal religions. So what does our obsession with films such as Twilight and Wolfman tell us? What light can these movies and others throw on contemporary society and the way in which we think about ourselves?

• The Death Penalty – sociological and criminological perspectives Dr Evi Girling
Details to follow

• What makes a racist? Dr Bill Dixon
Details to follow

2-3 Keynote lecture: Prof Richard Sparks (provisional), University of Edinburgh

What is the role of Social Science (sociology, criminology?) in public life?

Author of: Television and the Drama of Crime; Prisons and the Problem of Order; Crime and Social Change in Middle England

Details to follow

3pm Close


The conference is free but students will need to provide their own drinks/snacks/lunch. A number of outlets are available on campus to buy refreshments. Tutors are invited to a lunch hosted by the School of Sociology and Criminology.

Tutors are expected to remain with their students at all times, except when our CRB-cleared mentors escort them around campus at lunchtime.


Please email the following details to
before 5th March 2010

We will then notify you to confirm if you have places by 10th March

Name of tutor:

Position in College/School (eg. Head of Social Sciences):



College & full address:

Number of students requiring places:

Additional staff attending (names and emails please):

Will you require parking facilities? (please list number of cars/minibuses/coaches you will be bringing):

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Re-thinking work and retirement

By Professor Chris Phillipson

Scrapping fixed retirement age (as proposed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Working Better report, Phase 2 launched last week) raises concerns about social justice as well as issues about the purpose of retirement. Higher pension ages are unfair for those from working-class groups whose lower life expectancy means that they draw a pension for a significantly shorter period as compared with those from managerial and professional occupations. Manual workers invariably start work earlier than non-manual groups, leaving those with the longest contribution records receiving fewer benefits at the end of their working life. Raising the retirement age simply compounds this injustice.

Given the demographic challenge, with one in four workers aged 50 plus by 2020, emphasising the value of ‘senior workers’ appears sensible. But we need to avoid a muddled discussion about age discrimination (which it is right to challenge), and retirement from work (which people have a right to enjoy). The real challenge is giving equal priority to security in work and retirement. Key to achieving this will be policies which support the new type of retirement emerging amongst people in their 50s and 60s. To give three examples:

Informal learning is flourishing, illustrated by the growth of the University of the Third Age (U3A). But this needs matching with support from formal providers such as universities and further education colleges. The 21st Century will be a period when those 50 plus embrace different types of educational programmes – to maintain their quality of life as well as to assist continued engagement in the workplace. We need to start encouraging mainstream institutions to respond to this development.

Civic engagement in the form of environmental activism, community volunteering (at home and abroad), and inter-generational mentoring, is the new face of growing old. But this needs recognition in the form of financial support, training and networks that provide encouragement to maintain an ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ form of ageing.

Paid work remains central for many but there are limited opportunities for developing and improving skills acquired over the life course. Taking older workers seriously will require policies which support a ‘culture of lifelong learning’ (with paid educational leave), which spread work more evenly through life (via career breaks), and which assist those with major physical and mental health problems (through strengthening occupational health). Proposals for ‘flexible working’ are fine but there is an acute shortage of good quality jobs able to provide this opportunity.

We need to re-think the balance between work and retirement rather than just increase the pension age. Life after 60 appears to be a problem because of the apparent lack of substance to the roles that supersede or run alongside those associated with paid employment. Conducting a debate about the range of activities we need to support will be an essential starting point for resolving dilemmas in a crucial area for economic and social policy.