In the work of Slavoj Žižek
Desire and drive are two closely interconnected concepts that run throughout Žižek’s oeuvre, relating to all of his major concerns: psychoanalysis, philosophy and politics. They do most obviously relate to psychoanalysis, of course, and much of Žižek’s discussion of them could be quite unproblematically described as the interpretation of Jacques Lacan’s work on them. But it is precisely by relating desire and drive in the psychoanalytic tradition to fundamental problems in both philosophy and politics that much of Žižek’s theoretical power and originality emerge. It is, in a way, “the big obsession of my entire work”, as he told Glyn Daly, to read “the Freudian notion of death drive with what in German idealism is rendered thematic as self-relating negativity” (CŽ: 61).
Desire, according to Lacan, is always the desire of the Other, which means that it is a fundamentally intersubjective phenomenon and has a rather elusive character. It is different from mere biological need (thirst, hunger, cold) in that it cannot easily be satisfied. Indeed, strictly speaking, it cannot be satisfied at all. What we desire are, namely, not just objects, like drinks, clothes or bodies, but the objet a, which is really not an object (in the sense of Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy) at all, but the object-cause of desire, that is, that which makes us desire concrete stupid objects like drinks, clothes or bodies. The objet a is the lost object, which we are looking for in everything and everyone around us: where is that which will make me “whole” again after entering language and a world of unpredictable surroundings, in which immediate and harmonious satisfaction is no longer possible?
What I desire is the Other’s desire, meaning that I want the Other to desire me, and therefore I try to guess what the Other wants from me – what I could do to make the Other desire me. The things that I desire, my tastes, wishes, choices, are thus directly informed by what (I imagine) the Other desires. I wear these shoes, because I suspect that the Other would like (me to like) them. In The Plague of Fantasies, Žižek makes use of a little anecdote told by Freud to illustrate this intersubjective character of desire. One night, Freud noticed that his little daughter Anna was apparently fantasizing about strawberries and ice cream in her sleep. If desire was merely a biological urge, one could reasonably say that, in her dream, she was articulating that she was hungry or that she was longing for the sweet taste of the berries. Žižek’s interpretation is entirely different: while the little girl was eating her treat during that day, she was most probably noticing her parents’ happiness in watching her enjoying, “so what the fantasy of eating a strawberry cake is really about is her attempt to form an identity (of the one who fully enjoys eating a cake given by the parents) that would satisfy her parents, would make her the object of their desire” (PF: 9).
Becoming a subject thus entails learning how to desire, and precisely because the objet a always evades us, we continue to learn how to desire throughout our lives. (Maybe they love me, when I am enjoying strawberries, but did I do it right this time? And can I be sure that they will continue loving me for that?) The capitalist economy, of course, thrives immensely on this metonymic logic of desire, where no meaning is ultimately fixed and every satisfaction is always provisional. Commercials instruct us how to desire, and every time we purchase some commodity, we sense that it is not “it”, anyway – and that we should therefore buy more stuff .
If that was all, however, becoming a subject would not be all that traumatic. The fantasized symbiotic state before castration might not be within our reach, but we could get some enjoyment out of objects and signs of love here and there, and, although a bit neurotically, always on the look- out for new forms of approval, we could probably learn how to get it more or less right and live relatively stable lives within the safe confines of fantasy. This picture, however, is too easily attained. It is in a way a sterile version of desire and of the objet a – what it lacks is precisely the dimension of the drive. Unlike much philosophical theory on ethical formation and language acquisition, Žižek finds one of his main interests not in the gradual transition from helpless infant to a competent (moral) agent, but in the fundamental impossibility of this transition; in the lack (of meaning) that it always leaves behind. The imposition of the symbolic order creates not only the perpetual question “What do they want from me?”, but also questions like “How did we get into this mess? And how do I get out again?” The symbolic order does not provide any justification of its existence (other than the signifier as such), and this lack, in a quite literal sense, cannot even be directly addressed – since we have only the language of the symbolic order itself to address it with.
Drive is the subject’s answer to this fundamental impasse. It is not a repressed “natural urge” that must be domesticized, but on the contrary the most radical result of domestication itself. Much of the contemporary philosophy of formation and linguistic normativity (virtue ethics, Hegelian pragmatism, etc.) therefore entirely fails to recognize the crucial element in Žižek’s grasp of human subjectivity: the “night of the world”, the madness of the transition from biology to culture. Human beings are not well-behaved animals that have gradually learned how to suppress their animal instincts, but much rather sexualized animals that have become sexualized by virtue of entering the domain of second nature. Therefore, “the ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never ‘just life’: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things” (LN: 499).