climate change and the death drive 2

An obvious model for understanding the self-destructive behaviour we are inflicting upon ourselves by damaging our environment is the death driveThe psychoanalytic theory of the drive has been invoked, in the past, outside the narrowly defined domain of psychoanalysis, to understand cultural productions like the Chapman Brothers’ Disaster of War (Tate 1993), Hell (White Cube 1992), and Fucking Hell (White Cube 1999). We need to understand that climate damage is a cultural production, it is a form of process art. It is a product of our culture alongside our other arts and our most hallowed institutions. It is the product of our enduring work (collective) and our daily labour (individual). It produces things that have a life span and that take up space. They can be displayed as objects of contemplation the way we display artwork. I am thinking of soya bean fields where there once had been rainforests, thousands of one ton blocks of carbon per year stacked in the desert like Judd Boxes, floating islands of plastic in the Pacific, sky charts decorated with ozone holes, the pantheon of extinct animals arranged in Cornell Boxes. These are the products of our culture that constitute our civilisation as much as are our artworks. It is of no consequence to their status as cultural productions that they were not commissioned by the Popes of Rome [think: the Sistine Ceiling]. Climate change lies in the space beyond the moral and ethical codes that we construct collectively; it abandons itself to the pure self-abasing pleasure of pain. Only, unlike the work of the Chapmans, no glass box contains climate change and the destruction it inflicts upon our bodies and minds, there is no formal argument, no Reiner de Graafian box [see Architectural Review October 2017], no Miesian refinement and civility. Only stuff everywhere.

Chapman_Hell1[Jake and Dinos Chapman, Fucking Hell in a glass box, taken from CultNation Tuesday 03 October 2017]

In Freud’s oppositional thought, for which see Beyond the pleasure principle (1920) , the drive is presented as a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death and destruction. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud puts forward another reading of the drive as a dialectic between individual and civilisation > civilisation which is the locus of the collective in all its forms – life creativity construction particularity and universality – versus the individual which is the locus of a form of repetition that undoes all that is civilisation and all that it stands for. Our moral and ethical codes are collective constructions of civilisation. This distinction between individual collective is not unrelated to Arendt’s distinction, in The Human Condition (1958), between labour and work [labour is what is consumed by daily life and work produces the surplus that constitutes a civilisation, a distinction that comes ultimately from Marx’s idea of the surplus that produces capital]. The psychoanalytic theory of the drive, provides a model for thinking our complicity in environmental damage and the related issue of the relation of individual to collective. In a nutshell, it is the rampant success of the individual and the failure of the collective.

Holm, Transformation 2017 25 Aug 17 copy.001-001

[Image from Jennifer Lavers (University of Tasmania and RSPB, 2016) of a curated beach taken from The Guardian Sunday 01 October 2017]

The theory of the drive goes something like this. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud argues that civilisation imposes a framework upon subjects that reins in their wilder impulses. In Vitruvius, this is, in effect, the dispersed state of man before he discovers architecture, each person an independent solipsist. Without the civilisation that draws us together and frustrates our baser wandersome drives, we would spend our whole time fighting and fucking. He contrasts the collective condition of civilisation with the drives of the individual which are inherently destructive of civilisation. Civilisation… may help us to understand the different roles of the individual and the collective in climate damage. Let us make a wager, let us contrast individual greed vs collective good. The theory of the drive thus bridges the gap between the person and the group and helps us understand it. Neoliberal thinking exploits this difference, focusing on the individual and treating each one of us as a commodity (human capital) and an entrepreneur (cost centre, agent of more commodities). Commodity capitalism solicits our greed, it addresses each human at the level of the individual, with a product.

[Note: The treatment of the drive in the terms of individual/collective takes it into the territory of political theory. In his book, A Grammar of the Multitude (2004) Paolo Virno delineates multitude from public. The multitude is the figure of the many in political discourse. Frank Lloyd Wright called it mob and mobocracy. We distinguish the collective from the multitude because the collective is an entity, a form of totality, that has not relinquished its many-ness. It is the multitude that is bound by the inter-subjective network of social forms and relations without becoming the imaginary unity referred by politicians as the public as in that scapegoat mantra the public has spoken.]

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud argues that the drive is a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the psychical forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death dispersal and destruction. The opposing drives toward love and death, pleasure and pain, construction and destruction, inhabit all people, and exist in an oppositional form that does not lead to any form of synthesis (Hegelian or otherwise). It may help us to understand that construction and destruction are inherent to each other, to understand the opposition, in other words, as a form of co-habitation. The economist and political scientist, Joseph Schumpeter described the process of capitalism as a form of creative destruction (Schumpeter’s gale).

In ‘The Drives and Their Vicissitudes’ (1915) [translated by Strachey as ‘The Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, which conflates Freud’s distinction between animal instinct which is biological and drive which is cultural], Freud describes the drive as a repetitive process that inheres in each person at the level of the individual psychical organism. It underlies all our shared symbolic activity [Lacan’s category], chief among which is language, but which includes all the arts, the social political and economic ceremonies and institutions that organise collective life. Freud describes the drive as a stimulus response mechanism that resides at the threshold between the body and the mind. It has 4 components: object, aim, thrust, and site. The sites are on the body [erogenous zones].

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964) Lacan makes clear – contra Strachey – that  the drive is a symbolic entity with no basis in biology. The drive resides in the language and the spiritual life of humans, not in their bodies. He argues that the drive is a montage of elements (Freud’s 4 components), there is no biological necessity for the fact that they conjoin, they simply do as a matter of reason. He argues that all drives are death drives, all drives lead to death because it is the property of language, through which the drives work, to replace the object. We use language because the object is absent. Language – with is what humans do – is corrosive, the flow of signifiers that constitute language will wear down the world and crowd out reality.

Why is it significant to invoke the death drive in respect to climate change? Why is it not intellectual navel gazing and point scoring by theorists who have nothing better to do than spread doom and gloom in lefty newspapers by re-frying obscure idea systems? Firstly, psychoanalysis is pitilessly evidenced based. It may have a difficult relation to science because it follows a linguistic or semantic logic (a logical logic) rather than a cause-and-effect logic, but psychoanalytic theory is the condensation of countless hours of observation of what individuals say about themselves and what civilisation says about itself through its collective myths and productions. To poach a term from the social sciences, it is ground up theory (ground up or groundup?). To relate environmental damage to the death drive is to say that environmental damage in its myriad forms maps onto a universal template for what it is to be human. It is to be human to wrestle with constructive and destructive pressures, to be constituted of these oppositional impulses. In the terms of the death drive, it is to be human to be individual. It is to be individual to regard civilisation-building as arduous and difficult to sustain when what we would really rather do tonight is what we did last night, flub out in front of the telly. It is to be individual to want, despite our better selves (our collective selves) to want Bexit and Trump. Psychoanalysis is a rigorously empirical discipline and it may provide the narratives to help us understand our existential predicament. It may help us to humanise our selves in this predicament.

I put psychoanalysis forward as an example of myth-making, although it may not be the best/only example. The old language of psychoanalysis – the language that comes from Freudian analysis – is a resolutely humanist and non-instrumental narrative. In this regard, it finds a companion in the old language of architecture, as the form of humanism. It is pitted against the forms and languages of contemporary deregulated capitalism, which is so much chatter of a voracious expansionist narcissistic ego that sees itself reflected everywhere in the world and knows not its inside.


If this work has value, it is because it will help us think anew and in different ways about the existential problems confronting us. Understanding is the key to change. Avoidance is the key to repeating the same pathologies over and over again. Classical Psychoanalysis, like classical Greek Tragedy, has given us great narratives to live and die by. We need new narratives because we need narratives that correspond to the truth of our time. We need narratives that help us to recognise and understand the bad times that we live in, so that we stop playing the language game of avoidance and denial. The narratives of progress, and in particular, the upbeat spin placed upon that narrative by the neo-liberal marketing culture that talks about everything as if it were the latest best product and that seems to have permeated almost every aspect of collective life from education to health care, have had their go and failed. If the future is so bright, why do I hurt so bad? If you greet me with a smile and a hand shake, why do I feel a knife in my kidneys? If my student experience is so important, then why am I treated as if I were a commodity? There is nothing worse than living in an environment where the narrative does not match the reality we experience. The Scottish psychoanalyst R.D. Laing reckoned it was the families with counter-truth narratives that produced psychotic children. There is nothing worse for our individual and collective health and well-being than a narrative that does not give us the linguistic tools for unpacking the condition we live in.


climate change and the death drive 1

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1963; Greenpeace was founded in 1971. We have been knowingly damaging our environment for three generations. Each year the damage is rediscovered under a new name and we respond as if we have been hit by a new crisis.

We need new narratives for combating climate change. The narrative of science and the acquisition of knowledge has failed to halt the damage we are inflicting upon the environment. In the simplest possible terms, this narrative is no longer realistic. It does not match the reality of climate change, the reality that we are the cause of this damage.

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Here is a line of inquiry:

1. We could stop climate change tomorrow if we wanted [in what sense of want? where is this want? in who/what does it reside?].

2. Climate change constitutes a form of self-harm [we are an integral part of the environment we are damaging].

3. Which suggests new models for understanding environmental damage, drawn from the domain of psychoanalytic theory and practice.

In this context, climate science, as necessary as it is, is a displacement activity from acting on environmental damage, a way of looking outward when we should be looking inward.

A displacement activity is a defence of the ego > the ego defends itself against the truth of our nature [the ego has a traumatic relation to the truth] by looking to pin the blame elsewhere.

It is aided and abetted by other defences of the ego well known to psychoanalysis: a form of knowing/not knowing [in the social sciences – cognitive dissonance] and a form of repetition [what I call the repetition of the new]. Both of these defences are ways of avoiding our complicity in damage to the environment.

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As The Guardian reported (‘38 million pieces of plastic waste found on uninhabited South Pacific island’, Monday 15 May 2017, accessed Sunday 01 October 2017), when Dr. Jennifer Lavers (University of Tasmania) surveyed Henderson Island with a team of marine scientists in 2015 they were surprised to find the beaches covered in plastic debris. An estimated 17.6 tonnes; 38 million pieces. Henderson Island is a tiny atoll in the Pitcairn Group, one of the most remote places on earth. This image taken from the Guardian article, is from Lavers’ report, published by the RSPB (UK). See Figure 33 ‘Enormous quantities of plastic debris on North-East Beach, Henderson Island’ in Lavers, J.L., McClelland, G.T.W., MacKinnon, L., Bond, A.L., Oppel, S., Donaldson, A.H., Duffield, N.D., Forrest, A.K., Havery, S.J, O’Keefe, S., Skinner, A., Torr, N., and Warren, P., Henderson Island expedition report: May-November 2015. RSPB Research Report 57 (RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL. 2016).

An obvious model for environmental damage is the psychoanalytic theory of the drive, the death drive.  In Freud’s oppositional thought, Beyond the pleasure principle (1920) , the drive is a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death and destruction. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud puts forward another reading of the drive as a dialectic between individual and collective > the collective which is the locus of civilisation in all its forms – life creativity construction particularity and universality – versus the individual which is the locus of a form of repetition that undoes all that is civilisation and all that it stands for. This is not unrelated to Arendt’s distinction, in The Human Condition (1958), between work and labor [work produces the surplus that constitutes a civilisation and labour is consumed by daily life]. The psychoanalytic theory of the drive, provides a model for thinking our complicity in environmental damage and the related issue of the relation of individual to collective. There is however, a bigger picture.

If we are going to stop damaging our selves and our environment, we are going to need two things:

1. new forms of community, new collective platforms for community building, and

2. new shared or collective narratives.

We need – in other words – new shared narratives and new shared spaces that uncouple us from the positivist narratives of scientific progress, the model of entrepreneurship that is the template for all forms of labour nowadays, and the mendacious cheerfulness of commodity capitalism which addresses our desire at the level of individual want and never at the level of collective construction [unconscious desire]. Science is a good model for the collective, with its universal methods and dissemination, but the scientific narrative of the acquisition of knowledge is not helping us stop damaging the environment. Perhaps we need narratives of renunciation. We need collective narratives and collective platforms for sharing them because if we are going to have to renounce something, something in our nature, our avarice, our expansionism, perhaps even some of our wealth,  it will need to be renounced collectively. No one will willingly give up something unless everyone does.

We need new narratives because we need to know how to do good in a world where we keep doing bad.

We need narratives that will humanise us in this condition of repeated failure.

Narratives that will allow us to address and understand failure so that we do not go on repeating it.

Narratives that will allow us to forgive ourselves and others for the damage we are doing.

We need climate change research that looks at the stories that have stayed with us, that has withstood the test of generations, and that we continue to find ourselves reflected in. We probably need to look at myth and myth-making [psychoanalysis is a form of myth-making]. We probably need to look to classical tragedy. The climate scientist is the tragic hero, doing something that is at one and the same time necessary but doomed to failure.

We don’t know how narratives are born. We don’t know how myths are made. We don’t know where the Zeitgeist comes from. Except that they are collective.

A footnote on research:

It is time to renounce dubious measureables and start thinking again. This knowledge will come from the art&design [including architecture] and literature communities, for these are the creative communities where synthesis occurs. It will not come from the social sciences because the social sciences are mired in dubious measureables [sic]. It is in art&design and architecture that we find the two principal media or environments for collective platforms: digital space and city space. Both are collective, both are constructed. These two environments offer the most possibility for collective action. We need research that puts these two practices in direct action with each other. They are also the key places where collective action is most undermined – think of current disinformational ‘separatist’ politics and squanderous development outside our cities.

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I love the smell of napalm in the morning invokes at one and the same time, a certain form of domestic bliss [coffee] and our wanton destruction of the environment. We need to understand how they are conjoined. We want this [clean air, clear water, green land] but we want that more [beach holiday, second car, avocados from overseas]. Coppola’s film may have been intended to work through the traumatic effects on the American psyche of the Vietnam War, for which a generation of Americans are indebted, but the humour of Bill Kilgor’s quip, uttered with such conviction, continues to resonate with the truth.




the multitude >< the field of the Other


Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut.

Three configurations of the group – three innovations – three (forms of ‘associative life’):

1. the individual – fire – (brownian movement)

2. the multitude – speech – (the field of the Other)

3. the people – building – (an armory, an exoskeleton, architecture is the first discourse)

The individual becomes a multitude when it enters the associative life of language. The multitude becomes a people when it builds a wall around itself, when it publicly (re)presents itself as architecture. Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut is an analogy for the formation of the nation state (by nation state we mean a power structure that puts itself in dialogue with an imaginary entity called the body politic).

In Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut, language and architecture are born together in fire. In his originary state, primitive man wanders alone in the forest. Imagine a kind of Brownian movement: each person exists alone, save for unmotivated chance encounters. A forest fire raises the statistic likelihood of chance encounters by driving these originary solipsists out of the forest and into a clearing where they gather around the remainders of the fire. Once so gathered, they decide that they ought to speak to each other. Hence the birth of language. Once speaking, they cooperate to build the first building.

This parable says something about the role of fire, which first presents itself as a danger, and subsequently an opportunity. It also underscores the opportunistic character of the primitive. There is no particular drive to speak or to build. Nor does the hand of god (or fate or destiny) drive progress. The primitive – like that contemporary persona, the slacker – is simply riding along on the flow of life, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.

I would like to put Vitruvius’ account of the primitive together with the concept of the multitude as it is deployed in political discourse as a model for resistance to national and global power structures. The concept of the multitude was first mooted by Machiavelli, developed by Spinoza, hated by Hobbes. In Vitruvius, language and architecture are born together, but not simultaneously. First language then architecture. The fear of fire drives individuals together, which makes language possible, and language makes architecture possible. In the shift from speaking to building, from language to architecture, there is a shift in how the group is configured. This change is mirrored in political discourse by the shift from multitude to people. In Grammar of the Multitude (2004), Paolo Virno argues that political discourse distinguishes the people (champion, Hobbes) from the multitude (Spinoza). These are competing ways to invoke ‘associative life’. The birth of the modern nation state was made possible by the ascending concept of the people. Virno argues that modern political discourse may have run its course and it is time to reintroduce the political concept of the multitude. Whereas the people are the counterpart to the sovereign state, there can be no social contract between the state and the multitude.

‘I maintain that the concept of “multitude”, as opposed to the more familiar concept of “people”, is a crucial tool for every careful analysis of the contemporary public sphere. [It is a middle term.] One must keep in mind that the choice between “people” and “multitude” was at the heart of the practical [political] controversies… of the seventeenth century [the foundation of the modern centralised nation state]. These two competing concepts,… played a primary role in the definition of the political-social categories of the modern era. It was the notion of “people” which prevailed. “Multitude” is the losing term… In describing the forms of associative life and of the public spirit of the newly constituted great States, one no longer spoke of multitude, but of people. But we need to ask whether, today,… this once defeated notion is not displaying extraordinary vitality, thus taking its dramatic revenge.’ p21 [with my ‘intrusions’ in brackets]

I am attempting to understand the social conditions of the production of architecture on the basis of categories and concepts drawn from political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, which are in turn drawn from linguistics. In order to understand clearly how architecture functions in respect to the social order of the individual, contemporary architectural production demands this depth of specialist analysis. Anything less fails to penetrate a cluster of self-serving political and spatial illusions.

We want to return architecture’s account of itself to its ground in individuals. In Vitruvius, the group is not a given, but undergoes a transformation between forest, fire, language, and architecture. The question is how to maintain a practice of architecture and the constitution of the group without constituting a unity. Driving this is a notion that we can restore the link between architecture and subjectivity, or what is the substantially the same, between architecture and production. How to have a collective discourse of the multitude that does not go to the fictional unity of the people? How to aestheticise the multitude without appealing to wholeness and unity. Lets wager, we can do this via the psychoanalytic concept of the field of the Other (about which, more later), in other words, the linguistic, architectural, cultural codes that bind us.

‘In order to name, with a unifying term, the forms of life and the linguistic games which characterize this era, I have used the notion of the “multitude”. This notion, the polar opposite of that of “people”, is defined by a complex of breaks, landslides, and innovations which I have tried to point out…: the life of the stranger… experienced as an ordinary condition; the prevalence of “common places” in discourse over “special places”; the publicness of the intellect…; activity without end (virtuosity); the centrality of the principle of individualism; the relation with the possible… (opportunism);… idle talk.’p97

Breaks Landslides Innovations – I read the multitude in the unmotivated opportunism that characterises the people in Vitruvius story. The multitude appears not simply as a polar opposite of people, as in Virno’s text, but as a middle term between people and individual. It is the murky surface from whence the individual and the people emerge and into which they return. What constitute the multitude as a multitude, without making them over as a people, what binds them without becoming a totalising unity, is language. It is not discourse per se, but the pre-condition for discourse that makes discourse possible. Let me therefore go one step further: what constitutes the multitude is the field of the Other. I borrow the field of the Other from Lacanian discourse. In its initial enunciation, this term is primarily linguistic (psycho-analysis is concerned with speech); in its development it encompasses all the symbolic codes of contemporary life, from language, to the law, to white dresses at weddings. The field of the Other is the field within which architecture is practiced. The field of the Other is a way to theorise the multitude without totalizing and unifying it. It is a way to treat the empirical reality of individuals, a reality founded in biology as much as subjectivity, as the collective that it is, without losing site of the multitude. And without defaulting to the political fantasy of a unified body politic which the state has to posit as its reflection, its reflective other.

‘In the multitude there is the full historical, phenomenological, empirical display of the ontological condition of the human animal: biological artlessness, the indefinite or potential character of its existence, lack of a determined environment, the linguistic intellect as a compensation for the shortage of specialised instincts.’ pp97-8

‘The multitude is this: a fundamental biological configuration which becomes a historically determined way of being, ontology revealing itself phenomenologically.’ p98

The individual becomes motivated when it enters into the associative life constituted by the field of the Other. The field of Other is the reality of codes that motivate and shape our actions, rather than the imaginary groups to which we identify. Desire is a function of language and other social codes. Desire flows through the individual and from one individual to another to form the multitude of individual desires of desiring individuals. When it manifests spatially, the individual finds itself literally immersed in desire. In this regard, Deleuze+Guattari (Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia) recognised the affinity between Freud and Marx: in their respective texts, the world is a continuous flow of libido (Freud) and capital (Marx). The multitude is a flow and the function of flows.

Where to go from here? We need to understand more fully the spatiality of the multitude. We need to trace our Vitruvian progression, individual-multitude-people, through Aureli’s distinction between the figured City and contemporary processes of Urbanisation. We need to find a third term between City and Urbanisation.

Paolo Virno A Grammar of the Multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life (New York: Semiotext(e) 2004). Cf. also, ‘Multitude’ Wikipedia at                                                                                                     Vitruvius, On Architecture or The Ten Books of Architecture (New York: Dover, 1960). This woodcut from the Cesare Cesariano Italian edition (Como, 1521) the first translation of Vitruvius’ De Architectura out of Latin.

human >< nature


We can ask, what is the subject of architecture, or perhaps more fundamentally, the subject of space? What positions does space, theorized as a system, leave open for filling with subjects and objects? How do we understand this subject – does it have components or form or internal relations? This may be a new, less ontologically loaded, way of approaching the question of human nature. This blog will go from self to Other, from human nature to nature. This blog will begin with the problem of the subject, and it will end with a consideration of the environment. It will attempt to articulate, or at least point in the direction of, the environment. How do we position ourselves in nature with our human-ness? How do we recuperate our originary wildness? If it has an instrumental value, it will be for thinking a new humanism, a humanism for addressing the environmental problems of our world.

We will go from subject to environment:

1. from individual to habitat (social habitat or Other, spatial habitat or environment)

2. from the problem of the subject of architecture (what is the subject of architecture + what sort of architecture has a subject) to our problem of habitat destruction and the sustainability of our environment

Frontispiece to Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’Architecture (1753/1755) showing an image of the primitive hut by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen