Freud considers psychoanalysis to be an even more wounding blow than Darwin’s recognition of human beings as descended from the animal kingdom. Elaborating on Freud, in his first two seminars (1953–1955) Jacques Lacan insists on humans’ failure in “natural” adaptation. According to Lacan, there is a constitutive biological discord between human beings and their natural environment. This view of relationships between humans and their environments directly contradicts the Darwinian teleological assumption of a natural consistency and human superiority. For Lacan, the symbolic becomes a second nature or human pseudo-environment that distinguishes humans from other animals. This symbolic pseudo-environment is characterized by “a very particular insistence”[i], the compulsion to repeat, which makes it anti-vital and disrupts the idea of life as balance. As Lacan has it in his second seminar, “the dimension discovered by analysis is the opposite of anything which progresses through adaptation, through approximation, it is something which proceeds by leaps, in jumps”.[ii] Slavoj Žižek summarizes Lacan’s perspective on humans as death-driven beings in the following way:
“We should bear in mind the basic anti-Darwinian lesson of psychoanalysis repeatedly emphasized by Lacan: man’s radical and fundamental dis-adaptation, mal-adaptation, to his environs. At its most radical, “being-human” consists in an “uncoupling” from immersion in one’s environs, in following a certain automatism which ignores the demands of adaptation—this is what the “death drive” ultimately amounts to […] the “death drive” as a self-sabotaging structure represents […] a behavior uncoupled from the utilitarian-survivalist attitude.”[iii]
In Seminar VIII, Lacan continues to insist that the death drive is what evolutionary thinking is unable to comprehend, a “paradox it seems to me quite insoluble in the evolutionary perspective”.[iv] He explicitly contrasts the psychoanalytic to the evolutionary perspective because the latter, unlike the former, does not incorporate ruptures. In contrast to the theory of evolution, psychoanalysis makes it possible “to return to these elisions, to show the gaps which the whole theory of evolution leaves open in so far as it always tends to cover up, to facilitate the understandableness of our experience, to reopen these gaps is something which to me seems essential”.[v] In this respect, Lacan’s main critique is the evolutionary perception of the human as the cumulative result of progress deprived of gaps, as the “flower of consciousness at the end of an evolution”.[vi] Lacanian thinkers tend to inherit such an understanding of the death drive as a rupture from the natural order. It is this rupture that supposedly establishes human beings as such.
Following Lacan’s legacy, when the theory of evolution is evoked as a target for criticism by psychoanalytic thinkers, it is normally presented with the accent on its positive bias as being continuous and devoid of constitutive gaps, that is, as the process in which stages progressively follow one another and serve the purpose of adaptation, improvement, and other kinds of gradual betterment. Psychoanalytic thinkers rightfully tend to equate the theory of evolution with theology, and on this basis oppose their thinking to it. They would criticize the theory of evolution as ultimately employing a naturalized teleology and establishing the progressive continuity between less developed and more developed species, as well as between humanity and animality (natura non facit saltus).
Todd McGowan asserts that from the perspective of psychoanalysis the problem with evolution concerns its complete reduction of existence to adaptation: “For psychoanalysis, the untruth of evolution resides in precisely the other direction: it fails to leave a place for the disruptions in the forward movement of life. Far from being undermined by having too many gaps, evolutionary theory presents us with the illusion of an entirely natural history, a history without breaks”.[vii] Accordingly, in the evolutionary perspective human consciousness is reduced to natural advancement and fails to be seen as constituted by the rupture in nature. From this, McGowan concludes that the theory of evolution—because of its inability to consider gaps—is not attuned to incorporate the death drive. McGowan, in a similar way to other psychoanalytic thinkers, tends to see this deathlike break as being tied to the emergence of the subject, and therefore as “unnatural.” He writes, “subjectivity emerges through a break, through a moment in which death is injected into life and thereby throws life off its course”.[viii] Elaborating on Lacan, psychoanalytic thinkers tend to comprehend human beings as a rupture with the continuity of nature, and in this respect, as an embodiment of the death drive. The psychoanalytic concept of the death drive is predominantly conceptualized as an exclusively human phenomenon, as it is reduced to human subjectivity. However, McGowan also suggests that to connect psychoanalytic and evolutionary perspectives, a conception similar to that of the psychoanalytic gap must be included in evolution: “If we can reconcile psychoanalytic thought with evolutionary theory, the latter must incorporate some conception of a break in the flow of life”.[ix] He guesses that there must be something disruptive in the evolution itself that allows for this luck, “a fundamental gap in the evolutionary process must have already been there”.[x]
In conventional Lacanian accounts of human nature, a human is a death-driven creature, that is, a corruption or failure to be a proper animal. What constitutes a human is seen as compensation for this lack. Human animals compensate for their missing part, their lack of instincts and natural adaptation, making up for this lack with the establishment of symbolic environment. This view solves the evolutionary problem of direct continuity between animal and human, since what constitutes a human is an irreducible gap between them, a break with nature. But the problem with such a psychoanalytic interpretation is that although it preserves continuity for the rest of nature, it still implies a proper natural animal, an organic creature with no ruptures, adapted and in harmony with nature. It also suggests that there is something in humans themselves that is natural, that humans are established upon the rupture from the initially natural, healthy animalistic version of themselves. In humans, instincts (that secure a utilitarian-survivalist attitude) are replaced by drives, they are perverted in contrast to the pre-culture state of animality. With this, one might conclude that Lacan preserves the idea of naturality and teleological evolution with no ruptures for the rest of nature.[xi]
Alenka Zupančič recognizes that in their conventional interpretation, the Freudian-Lacanian move beyond teleology preserves the idea of the exclusivity of humankind.[xii] Zupančič maintains that in its conventional interpretation, Lacan’s thinking is not deprived of the idea of human exception, which he employs when understanding humans as constituted by rupture from the natural order. The death drive understood as an inherent deviation is what constitutes in Zupančič’s view the “(psychoanalytic) carrier of the ‘human exemption’” (Ibid.: 92). This Lacanian, healthy version of an animal is in Zupančič’s words, a “complementariness of needs and their satisfaction; whereas the non-existence of such principle is the prerogative of man”.[xiii]
Even considering a psychoanalytic distinction between adapted animals and dis-adapted death-driven humans, ultimately both animals and humans are seen here as adapted, but the latter are considered as adapted in a special compensatory way, as sick animals forced to creatively compensate for their pathology. Viewed from this psychoanalytic perspective, humans are pathological creatures, but this pathology is also implicitly understood in conventional psychoanalysis as a triumphant adaptation. Human symbolic readaptation, in Chiesa’s summary can be seen as re-naturalization of the maladapted nature of Homo sapiens.[xiv] Humans are adapted, but in a pathological way, we might say in a way of developing a bad coping mechanism to compensate for the absence of normal animal adaptation. As long as nature is understood as an adaptive process, humans as re-naturalized animals are still seen as partaking in it.
The conventional interpretation of the Freudian-Lacanian account of human maladaptation/ readaptation and the death drive as a specifically human-establishing faculty relies on theological presuppositions. Although negatively, it reestablishes human superiority, even though this superiority is negative. Such a psychoanalytic view of human exclusivity is similar to what Russian folk psychology describes with the term koroleva govna (lit. “the queen of shit”). The queen of shit is someone who excessively trash-talks herself and her appearance (such as saying that she is the ugliest and the stupidest person). Through this self-humiliation, she asserts her exclusivity and her (negative) superiority; she is the best at being the worst. One might claim that the queen of shit employs a conventionally understood Hegelian dialectical methodology, she negates positive characteristics to establish a positive-negative synthesis and attain the title of “Your Shitty Highness” (which is a great life hack, by the way). This echoes Žižek’s evocation of Martin Luther’s suggestion of humans’ excremental identity. Luther suggests that “man is like divine shit, he fell out of God’s anus”.[xv] Žižek further wonders if “we can, of course, pursue the question of the deep crises that pushed Luther toward his new theology” [xvi]—it looks like Russian folk psychology has a diagnosis for this. Such self-abasement and reduction of the human to a miserable excremental entity allows them to sustain their shitty, but nonetheless exceptional status. This mixture of self-contempt and self-deification is what still defines the current trends in both the evolutionary and psychoanalytic inspired self-perceptions of humans. Reflecting on the Darwinian and Freudian blow to humanity’s self-love, Adrian Johnston brings up Pascal’s claim: “Man’s greatness comes from knowing that he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched”.[xvii] Pascal’s logic suggests paradoxical superiority: humans are superior because they know they are not. By the very dethronement of the human species, conventionally understood psychoanalysis negatively reinscribes them into their special place. In an analogous manner, depressive realism paradoxically supports the realization of human insignificance to become the negative affirmation of human superiority.
Recent endeavors in both evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis push their intention of anti-humanism and anti-vitalism further, while both are moving through the articulation and eradication of their own theo-theological assumptions. After exposing Lacan for limiting constitutive incompleteness only to humans and rejecting it for other animals and the rest of nature, Zupančič offers another, more radical and contra conventional reading of Lacan. In such a reading, she relies on Žižek’s stance of the incomplete constitution of reality from which follows that as reality as such is incomplete, it involves ruptures and fundamental non-coincidence: not only human animal but reality as such is incomplete, deviation is original not only in the case of human beings. The natural norm (for example, biological law) is secondary to nature’s incomplete ontological constitution; it is one of its forms. In line with Žižek’s ontologically incomplete constitution of reality, Zupančič claims that nature does have laws (in the scientific sense), but its lawfulness (the positive order of nature) is “nothing else but the very structuration (and solution) of its own inner antagonism (‘chaos’) […] the very form of this ‘chaos’”.[xviii] Because the inner antagonism is constitutive, no structuration can suspend or overcome it. Nature is chaotic, with no harmony or balance at its core. The harmony and coherent narrative are not merely a product of our wishful imagination, but rather a by-product and a constellation of this chaos. One could add to this line of thought that humanity is not an exception since nature as such is a rupture from itself, a crack within itself, in its own endlessly “sick” pathological version. While it is true that a human is a rupture from nature and from itself, the same can be said to be true for any other living organism, such as a rat or a virus. Just like humans, they are not a result of accumulative adaptations and embodiments of the utilitarian-survivalist pattern, but rather death-driven, permanently mutating contingent structurations of nature.
Nature exists in its deviated version, for it is a permanently “sick” version of itself. Formations of nature are, rather, deviations from its deviations or a sickness of its sickness, with no positive (dialectizable) outcome into health and harmony.
*The above text is an excerpt from Reshe J., “The Death Drive of Evolution (From the Perspective of Depressive Realism)” Stasis. 2021. Vol.11. No.1., pp. 156-180.
[i] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis [1954-1955]. New York: Norton, 1988, p. 61.
[ii] Ibid., p. 86.
[iii] Žižek, Slavoj, The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, p. 231.
[iv] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VIII: The transference, Gallagher, 1960–1961, p. 87.
[v] Ibid., p. 86–87.
[vi] Ibid., p. 86.
[vii] McGowan, Todd, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, p. 241.
[xi] Zupančič, Alenka, What is Sex? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 91.
[xiv] Chiesa, Lorenzo, “The World of Desire: Lacan between evolutionary biology and psychoanalytic theory.” Filozofski Vestnik [Philosophical journal], 2009, 30.2: p. 83–112.
[xv] Žižek, Slavoj, The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, p. 187.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 187.
[xvii] Blaise Pascal, quoted in Johnston, Adrian, and Catherine Malabou, Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 83.
[xviii] Zupančič, Alenka, “Human Animal”, NLO, 2019, 158.4.