In the busy holiday rush of December 2019, a 27-year-old UPS driver named Frank Ordóñez, who had the day off, volunteered to cover a shift for his friend. On his route delivering packages through the suburbs of Miramar, Florida, Ordóñez was carjacked and held at gunpoint by two men who had just robbed and shot up a nearby jewelry store. The police were hot on their heels, and a car chase ensued. Audiences watched on TV, the footage broadcast live by news helicopters, as the big brown van turned onto Interstate 75, Ordóñez still inside.
The chase proceeded for twenty miles. When rush-hour traffic slowed to a crawl, police representing three separate departments leapt from their vehicles and swarmed in. Bobbing and weaving for cover behind the cars of terrified commuters, they exchanged fire with the carjackers, ultimately surrounding and emptying their weapons into the UPS van. Nineteen officers let off some 200 rounds. In minutes, both carjackers were dead, as were Ordóñez and a 70-year-old bystander named Richard Cutshaw.
Within hours of Ordóñez’s death, his employer released a statement thanking the police for their role in killing him. “We are deeply saddened to learn a UPS service provider was a victim of this senseless act of violence,” ran the company’s statement that evening. “We extend our condolences to the family and friends of our employee and the other innocent victims involved in the incident. We appreciate law enforcement’s service and will cooperate with the authorities as they continue the investigation.”1
For those with the stomach to read it closely today, two things in the statement jump out. First is the oddity of naming as a “senseless act of violence” what the entire world could watch and see as an engagement initiated by police, who acted without any apparent efforts at hostage negotiation, and who undertook an assault that was less standard operating procedure than it was a real-life staging of a set-piece from some action movie blockbuster. Second is the work done by “service” in UPS’s statement, a generic noun which is not coincidentally also how US citizens are enjoined to formulaically pay homage to American troops. What service did Ordóñez provide? He distributed packages for UPS’s customers. What service did law enforcement perform? Well, they ensured that the thieves would not get away with their stolen diamonds, that UPS would get its truck back, albeit somewhat perforated, and that, after some unpleasantness and delay, traffic on I-75 would return to its usual state. In other words, they restored “order,” bringing things back to “normal” insofar as commerce could flow once more and consumer goods could be exchanged again without fear of interruption by the violence of illegitimate actors (i.e., not the police). The wheels of American life, figurative and literal, could turn once more, with all the efficiency and rationality of the market itself, and any “senselessness” lay in the brief madness that interrupted their spin and, lamentably, led to some unfortunate people, who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, going about their business or just doing their jobs, getting ground up in the gears more bloodily and publicly than usual.
Something else jumps out two years later. By December 2019, it now appears, COVID-19 had already arrived in the US, carried, it seems, via the same networks of travel, connection, and commerce of which highways like I-75 form just one tiny, terrestrial node.2 As the New Year turned, the virus spread, and within months a full pandemic raged. As lockdowns and quarantines proliferated, delivery workers of all sorts—UPS, USPS, FedEx, Amazon, and more—were pushed to the breaking point and beyond. Labeled “essential” even though they received little or no support or protective gear, they ran goods of all sorts to people, people who were either obliged from necessity—or had the good fortune—to remain inside. Together with legions of new gig workers who ferried take-out and groceries and home goods, they provided products to consumers whose needs and whims did not abate just because consumption now meant superadded risk to those who served them. Do we not ourselves also face risks?, some of those better-off consumers doubtless asked themselves, as they sanitized packages before opening. Still, they may have thought, perhaps best to tip a little more. Or maybe not, since times are so hard. And besides, How much can any one person do? Starting anywhere would mean changing everything. And of course such people could not just do without all these things, because where would that lead? And as experts and pundits and politicians incessantly reminded everyone, You Have to Have an Economy. Of course, that “You” is really just a figure of speech, deploying the second person pronoun to underscore what the speaker perceives as a universal necessity, almost a law of nature. “You” Have to Have an Economy, even if you personally aren’t alive to see and participate in it. The Economy must abide, even if you yourself perish. It’s nothing personal, you must understand.
“They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague!” So remarked Sigmund Freud, famously, to Carl Jung in 1909, as the boat carrying the two men arrived at New York.3 Freud was mystified by the enthusiasm with which contemporary Americans greeted him. Did they not realize he and his disciple were vectors of contagion, bringing to the North American continent all the ambivalence and disquieting insights of Freud’s theories of unconscious life? Freud, to be sure, did not care much for the United States of America, although he treated plenty of individual Americans in his clinic with characteristic compassion. They could be helped, their illusions dispelled, and their neuroses alleviated. But the country itself was another matter. “America is a mistake,” he pronounced, “a gigantic mistake it is true, but nonetheless a mistake.”4 Even as he disdained “American methods” of on-the-nose, broad-brush, pop-cultural critiques, Freud made clear that, for him, the United States was a nation misbegotten and only getting worse.5 While pious Americans espoused doctrines of exceptional national destiny and a singular, chosen relationship to divine favor, Freud felt the US was in fact a place where everyone ultimately just worshipped money. He slept poorly there—dreaming, he told Jung, of “prostitutes”—and a campfire steak in the Adirondacks gave him a dire case of what he called “American colitis.”6 But distresses to Freud’s metabolisms, psychic and digestive, aside, one wonders if he might not have found in the US a case study in what would prove to be his most controversial idea, an idea which would also resolve his confusion over why Americans might actually be pretty copacetic, even welcoming, towards plagues of all kinds. This idea is what he came to call the death drive.
Written precisely a century before the plague year of 2020, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle is many things—a clinical examination of the “war neuroses” (what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a revision of his own theory of mind and his account of human motivation, and a plangent reflection, however oblique, on the failure of the European Enlightenment project. But the feature that most scandalized Freud’s contemporaries, and that still befuddles his interpreters today, is the idea of a death drive (Todestrieb), a self-consciously mythical and hard-to-pin-down concept that straddles biology, psychology, and what could be called a kind of entropics of culture. Unlike our drives to reproduce, to connect, and to survive, which Freud variously associates with dynamics of fusion, creation, and sustenance, the death drive is visible in aggressiveness, in physical violence, self-destruction, and self-sabotage. Whereas in his earlier theory of mind Freud saw the psyche as fundamentally oriented towards pleasure, the satisfaction of various desires, and the discharge of built-up unpleasant feelings, what he saw in World War I and its aftermath led him to imagine a force within the psyche that seemed preoccupied with pleasure’s opposite. Earlier, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud had famously argued that dreams, as the “guardians of sleep,” were all about “wish fulfillment,” which is to say that they satisfy the conflicts and repressed desires of our waking lives while disguising them just enough to let us rest. Your day job would be untenable if you could not look at your boss and his tacky desktop tchotchkes without experiencing intrusive thoughts about murdering him. Instead, much as you must grit your teeth, hunker down, and toil in your cubicle, your mental apparatus must clock in and work to repress those impulses. But all this demands energy, and you and your mental apparatus need to let loose sometime. Thus, much as your body refreshes itself while you sleep, your psychic apparatus takes advantage of your nighttime paralysis to discharge and satisfy those impulses in ways that are sufficiently disguised to keep you from waking up in horror. And so, instead of dreams about braining your boss with his stapler (which would be hard to sleep through), you find yourself attending an oddly cheery funeral-slash-office mixer and then driving off into the sunset in a sports car that sure does look a lot like his. You awake, and even if you do feel just a little weird, you and your psychic apparatus are well enough rested to head off to work and do the whole thing all over again. Such are the “hallucinatory satisfactions” of dreaming, per the pleasure principle. But the dreams of the traumatized, Freud realized, are not like this. Instead of satisfying the day’s repressed wishes through symbolic disguise, their psychic apparatus returns, time and again, to the scene of some trauma, which it reproduces with mimetic exactitude. In bed at night in a sanitarium for the shell-shocked in Klagenfurt or Camden, you are suddenly back at the Somme, choking on gas, watching your buddy get blown to bits all over again, and again, and again. Instead of awaking in the morning well-rested, your dreams, those erstwhile “guardians of sleep,” now jolt you up, screaming. What pleasure could there be in this?
Some subsequent interpreters of Freud (most notably Jonathan Lear) have argued that trauma nightmares are the exception that proves the rule of the pleasure principle, artifacts of a “damaged” or “shocked” psychic apparatus.7 And Freud himself seemed to tarry with this possibility, suggesting that the “compulsion to repeat” in such dreams was in fact the mind’s effort, albeit stalled out, to “master” the traumatic experience, to somehow make it pleasurable through the fact of repetition. But Freud also ventured something more radical, pushing for something further, something beyond (jenseits) the pleasure principle itself: a countervailing tendency to go back and repeat no matter the psychic cost, an imperative almost inhuman in its indifference to pleasure or even life itself. He dubbed this the “death drive” and saw it as operative not just in pathological conditions that manifested on his couch, but in the most basic building blocks of biology, putting it right alongside—and over and against—the instincts for self-preservation and reproduction. If the primary outputs of the sexual drive were, for Freud, the fostering of bonds between people, sublimation into creativity and the arts, and, in the mode of sexual reproduction, the production of new life, the terrain of the death drive is about severing ties, breaking things to pieces, and even suicide. And rather than being oriented towards change, or situated towards the present or the future, the death drive is oriented, viciously, towards stasis and the restoration of a kind of deadened past. It encompasses, he wrote, “[t]he expression of the inertia inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life.”8 Put simply: The death drive is expressed in a kind of tragic drama wherein change is less preferable or even less imaginable than staying the same, even if the status quo is lethal, all the way to the bitterest of ends. Quickened and most visible in the wake of trauma, the death drive is more broadly the desperate, terminal need to return to an anterior state prior to any loss, prior to any trauma, prior even to life itself. It is the ineluctable siren’s call of a “normal” that never existed in the first place—or rather, a normality that is inseparable from the death and ruin which that normality itself produced.
Perhaps more than any other psychoanalytic concept, the death drive offends certain basic pieties of American life. We pride ourselves, after all, on progress, on “service” with a smile, and on staying upbeat. We are in many respects still the nation that welcomed Freud on his one visit stateside with such wild cheeriness, even as he brought us “the plague.” As a paradigmatic master of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (in Paul Ricoeur’s memorable phrase), Freud doubtless was thinking of plagues qua the painful self-awareness and attention to taboo subjects that had won him and psychoanalysis more generally so much public opprobrium in Europe.9 But looking back at 2020, when Freud’s words seem all the more prescient, we might justifiably wonder if Americans are in fact fairly copacetic with literal plagues, and that the real thing we don’t like is just being made to think or do too much about them. Which is also to say that Freud was more right than even he knew.
For much of the world, and the US in particular, 2020 was an object lesson—and exercise—in the death drive. To see this, a certain clarification is in order. Even as US media have hyperbolized facile talk of “crime waves,” it is undeniable that 2020 saw marked increases in both homicide and overdose rates (although not suicides).10 But we would be mistaken to see the death drive as something that can be perceived clearly in such empirical case data. This challenge is why most psychoanalysts—like most people—have found the death drive too strange, too outlandish to take seriously. Among those few who do, psychoanalysts like Otto Kernberg have stressed that, in clinical settings and with discrete individuals, the death drive is rarely if ever encountered in a “pure” mode, but is instead always mixed with something else.11 The person who seems compelled to end all their therapeutic relationships in aggressive blowouts, the person who piles up acts of self-sabotage until their careers implode, the person who gambles through bankruptcy after bankruptcy—these behaviors all unfold on multiple levels of symbolism, and require that a person navigate complex human interactions and institutions with various degrees of sophistication and intentionality. The person who cuts off therapy at a key juncture is possibly participating in a transferential enactment; the one who frustrates their own career success may be expressing ambivalence about their profession and sense of worthiness; the one who gambles themselves into ruin may be deriving masochistic pleasure from squandering an inheritance or family savings, and so on. Which is all to say that such acts are never only about self-destruction, but are also relational symptoms, and sometimes even communications. Kernberg in particular suggests that the closest that most clinicians may come to seeing the death drive as such at work in an individual are cases of profound, near psychotic disturbance and apparently inexorable commitments to self-harm: the person who destroys internal organs by drinking household chemicals and, even after being committed to an inpatient ward, somehow finds rat poison and eats that, too. But even such grisly self-destruction is saturated with meaning—they chose these means of self-harm, not others.
Another way of putting the point succinctly is that pretty much everything people do to themselves and to the people around them is of necessity personal. This means more than just the fact that care and aggression towards self and others implies feelings, needs, and life stories that we can only ever feel and express in a first-person mode. Contra the injunctions of the New Testament, Freud was fond of observing, we do not actually ever love “the neighbor” as an abstraction. As he saw it, we can only ever have specific relationships with specific other people, and those relationships, like our own attitudes towards ourselves, are steeped in ambivalence. For Freud, talk of universal love cheapens the former while flattening the latter.12 Saying that self-destruction and the destruction of others are personal affairs reflects the basic psychoanalytic understanding that transformations of love and hate are simultaneously present in all of our attachments. Rather than being opposites of one another, love and hate intertwine as the elemental threads from which all human relationships are woven. Freud rejected the command to “love thy neighbor as thyself” in no small part precisely because it proposed an impossible, even cruel, erasure of their elemental coexistence. For as anyone who has survived a divorce or depression knows, the entanglements of love and hate, towards ourselves and others, can suddenly twist like knives, and the annals of civil wars and what passes for civil society abound with examples of neighbors living and dying in the intimate contortions of affection, dependence, and contempt.
As Freud saw, the real opposite of both love and hate is in fact something else altogether: indifference. And here lies the true horror of the death drive: it is an indifferent principle of destruction. Insensate and unsatisfiable, it may well pulse within you, and undo you, but It Does Not Care About You. Your suffering and your symptoms signify; they ramify personally and in your relationships. The death drive, in its indifferent purity, operates on another order of scale entirely, liquidating you and them alike. It may kill you, but It Is Not About You. To be sure, the death drive is present in murder, war, and our desires to dominate, exploit, and destroy. But we betray ourselves when we call such things examples of “inhumanity,” since they are obviously human, all too human. The death drive both gives a name to this paradox and resolves it by suggesting that we exist at the mercy of an entropic principle that is in-the-human yet downright unhuman in the purity of its indifference to humans and human affairs more generally. It is a kind of dark sublime in the shadow of which our activities unfold and dissolve.
Turning again to 2020, the death drive reveals itself in the simple fact that, rather than dramatically change collective behaviors to prevent carnage and save lives, America doubled down on them. COVID merely intensified pre-existing, starkly differential calculi of exposure to premature death, workplace risk, and general immiseration. A nation founded on a continent decimated by settler plagues, cleansed by genocidal war, and fructified by chattel labor unsurprisingly became the same nation where Indigenous peoples, poor people of color, and more recent immigrants from our colonial possessions bore the brunt of COVID at vastly disproportionate rates. By the same token, from the incarcerated to low-wage workers, it was the people already shoved into spaces and consigned to trajectories where, figuratively speaking, they already experienced various kinds of social death, who got hit the hardest. From the very start, even in the first months of the year, the ubiquitous cry for a return to “normal” clearly expressed a demand to return to a status quo of working people to death and otherwise destroying their bodies as the cost of doing business. That the “new normal” meant they might have to die a little quicker was something the rest of us could apparently learn to live with. But not just that: from the dismissal of concerns over childhood infection rates to the casual, matter-of-fact indifference to the deaths of America’s elderly, to the very idea of “herd immunity,” many Americans apparently embraced a fatalism whereby even their own deaths and the deaths of those they loved were more tolerable than having to contemplate the discomfort of social reorganizations that would make life different.
From the first moments of the outbreak in the US right through to the present, the apparently ubiquitous appeal emanating from politicians, media, and more than a few everyday people alike, has been for a “return to normal.” For some—and for politicians especially—returning to “normal” has meant undoing the few protections that were put in place in 2020, from eviction freezes to stimulus checks. In other words, it has meant pushing people back into “normal” precarity, proclaiming the end of a pandemic as though it were over and not still ongoing, as though it had been banished instead of made—as it increasingly appears—endemic. Our inertia was lethal, and it remains lethal, but the need to consume even up to the point that we are ourselves consumed remains non-negotiable. At the close of 2021, some 750,000 Americans have died of COVID, and the dying continues, but still the wheels need to keep turning. Services must be provided, even if that means serving ourselves up, too. With all the indifference of the death drive, capitalism insists on the repetition of the same, no matter what.
Frank Ordóñez has been dead for two years now. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has yet to release its ballistics report clarifying whose bullets, precisely, killed whom. His family has sued the police, but COVID has resulted in delays assembling grand juries and months of court case backlogs. Meanwhile, Florida’s governor has rejected calls to extend unemployment benefits and issued an executive order overruling all local and municipal COVID orders, including mask mandates. His order took effect July 1; as of December 2021, Florida boasts the third-highest COVID death toll of any state in the nation, some 61,000, and its many tourist attractions, amusement parks, and recreational facilities have served as nonpareil hotspots for exporting cases nationwide and beyond. Any idea of arresting our forward momentum, no matter the human cost, has apparently become either unthinkable or impracticable or both. That our headlong rush into a grim future of yet more death has been precipitated by people clamoring for the return to a nostalgic, fantastical past should not be surprising. Nor should we be surprised that the workers who have been described as “essential” are also apparently the most disposable. They were always essential precisely insofar as they were disposable, and the past was “normal” precisely because it depended on the ongoing foreclosure of so many human futures. This is the logic of the death drive, distilled and accelerated, to which we cling all the way to the very bitterest of ends.
- 1. “UPS Mourning Loss Of Driver Frank Ordonez Killed In Miramar Shootout,” CBS Miami. https://miami.cbslocal.com/2019/12/05/ups-mourning-loss-driver-frank-ordonez-killed-miramar-shootout/. ↩
- 2. See, for example: Andrew Liu, “‘Chinese Virus,’ World Market.” N+1, 20 March 2020, https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/chinese-virus-world-market/. ↩
- 3. The precise genealogy of this line is murky and overdetermined, even by the standards of psychoanalytic historiography. Jacques Lacan, in his Écrits, credits Jung as hearing it, but Lacan himself appears to have gotten the story from a book by yet another French analyst, Octave Mannoni. In what is arguably a case study in how psychic reality trumps more empirical varieties, the phrase has since entered the popular imaginary via David Cronenberg’s film, A Dangerous Method (2011). ↩
- 4. Ernest Jones, Free Associations: Memories of a Psychoanalyst (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1990) chapter 9. ↩
- 5. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by Gregory C. Richter (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2015). ↩
- 6. For more on Freud’s visit to the US, whence these and other citations, see: Nathan G. Hale, Freud and the Americans: The Beginnings of Psychoanalysis in the United States, 1876-1917 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971); George Prochnik, “The Porcupine Illusion. Freud’s Prickly Secret,” Cabinet Magazine, no. 26 (Summer 2007), https://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/26/prochnik.php, accessed December 8, 2021; and Ray Cavanaugh, “How Freud’s Only Visit to America Made Him Hate the U.S. for the Rest of His Life,” Mental Floss, May 31, 2017, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/501206/how-freud’s-only-visit-america-made-him-hate-us-rest-his-life, accessed December 9, 2021. ↩
- 7. Jonathan Lear, Freud, 2nd edition (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015), chapter 5. ↩
- 8. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated by James Strachey (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1961), chapter 4. ↩
- 9. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, translated by Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). ↩
10. “Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Up 30% in 2020,” September 7, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2021/20210714.htm, accessed December 13, 2021;
John Gramlich, “What We Know about the Increase in U.S. Murders in 2020,” Pew Research Center, October 27, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/10/27/what-we-know-about-the-increase-in-u-s-murders-in-2020/, accessed December 13, 2021. ↩
- 11. Otto Kernberg, “The Concept of the Death Drive: A Clinical Perspective,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 90, no. 5 (October 2009), 1009–23, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00187.x, accessed December 13, 2021. ↩
- 12. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, chapter 5. ↩