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.