it returns to it when it dies. The very first moment is the last moment of inorganic matter. they seek to return to inanimate matter [38]. . the time of materiality would then characterize for Freud the temporal mode of being of the nonliving and the nondying. more elementary than the pleasure principle. in the very beginning of the text. “a certain time” means first of all a particular moment. the earliest. if every living being departs from that age of inorganic matter. . “In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state” [38]. there would thus be something more primitive. The very first moment is not the beginning but comes just before the beginning of life and death. which appears as a postorganic temporality as well. which would shake its mastery. consequently. it is the last stage of matter before it becomes animate.and postorganic temporality is structured by the dual rhythm of life drives and death drive. inorganic matter is both past and future. Freud writes in chapter 5. We believe.Plasticity and Elasticity in FrEud’s Beyond the Pleasure PrinciPle catherine MalaBou if there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’” [38]. the most originary moment. it can only be a certain moment of time. this “earlier state of things” “must then be an old state of things. “rushes forward” inorganic matter toward life [41]. it can only be a certain category or concept of time. that is to say. which in a way surrounds the pleasure principle and goes beyond it as. it is both the past and future of life and death. the concept of time that Freud is looking for beyond the pleasure principle thus coincides with the notion of a preorganic temporality. and that it takes a direction 78 diacritics 37. the other group seeks “to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has [. . “a certain time” also means a determined category of time. looking backwards. How can that be? Freud reminds us. this pre. an initial form which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return [.] . . “One group of instincts.4: 78–85 .] events is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension [unlustvolle spannung]. We must not forget that “death is a late acquisition of organisms” [Beyond the Pleasure Principle 47]. the moment of time that Freud is looking for beyond the pleasure principle appears to be the very first. If there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. . its before and its after. if there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. it precedes also the emergence of death. that “in the theory of psycho-analysis we have no hesitation in assuming that the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle.] abandoned” [36]. the first paragraph of chapter one. it can only be a certain time. or of what Freud calls the living substance. again. the time of materiality would be prior to the time of pleasure. that the course of [. This moment precedes the emergence of life. . its past and its future. if we are to take as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and.

rather. not the image of endangered life. not the situation of a being-toward-death faced with her fragility. such situations are not irreducible to pleasure. We may reduce the different characteristics of this compulsion to one. Freud would certainly have considered that the existential analysis developed in Being and time would perhaps be able to supersede metaphysics. after all. i mean a state of being which is neither life nor death but their very similarity. or is it still. life and death themselves. in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. that these dreams are helping to carry out another task. “[i]f a compulsion to repeat does operate in the mind. which must be accomplished before the dominance of the pleasure principle can even begin. always dominated by it? diacritics / winter 2007 79 . says Freud. the time of materiality is the time of repetition. in this sense. and other accidents involving a risk to life. Freud says. What goes beyond the pleasure principle as the originary temporality is not the temporality of dasein but the pure neutrality of inorganic matter. Freud writes: “A condition has long been known and described which occurs after several mechanical concussions. the temporality of finitude. at the same time. and what its relation is to the pleasure principle. the psychic apparatus seeks to maintain its quantity of excitation at a level as low. we have hitherto ascribed dominance (herrschaft) over the course of the processes of excitation in mental life” [23]. these dreams no longer bring back the hallucinatory satisfaction of desire. the accident and the situation of fright tend to repeat themselves mostly in dreams. Freud articulates the first and to my knowledge a unique concept of time in all Western thought in which the very notions of origin and end.” which takes place before the pleasure principle and goes beyond it. is characterized as the compulsion to repeat. we should be glad to know something about it. a dream that reproduces a situation of violent unpleasure clearly escapes the pleasure principle. it seems that we are not allowed to speak of a “beyond” of the pleasure principle. What goes beyond and what comes back through to the compulsion to repeat is not the threat of death. such is the time of inorganic materiality. present. and future are merely referred to inorganic matter. of past.such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension—that is. to learn what functions it corresponds to. The temporality of the soul. this “more primitive element. under what condition it can step forward (hervortritt). . despite Freud’s insistence. as possible. Once again. a situation from which he wakes up in another fright” [13]. it has been given the name of ‘traumatic neuroses’” [12]. railway disasters. What threatens the mastery of the pleasure principle in such neuroses is the compulsion to repeat. or at least as constant. this regulation of psychic tension is said to be the fundamental law of the psyche. they reproduce the traumatic situation. Does this form resist the pleasure principle. such experiences would be irreducible to the pleasure principle. is nevertheless independent of it and seems to be more primitive than the purpose of gaining pleasure and avoiding unpleasure” [32]. the question i would like to address here is whether Freud succeeds in bringing to light the specific form of this material time. would be derived only from this primitive material time. the temporality of existence. . though it does not contradict the pleasure principle. “We may assume. By pure neutrality. They would definitely be secondary. subordinated to it? is there eventually anything beyond the pleasure principle. Freud admits that one objection to the mastery of the pleasure principle has to be taken seriously: an objection concerning the existence of unpleasant traumatic experiences that may be caused by an external threat or danger. to which. or is matter. they thus afford us a view of a function of the mental apparatus which. whatever its form. in traumatic neuroses. but not pleasure. which is underscored all through the text: what goes beyond always tends to come back. with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure” [7]. “now dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident. .

being at once capable of receiving and of giving form. We remember this passage from Beyond the Pleasure Principle. i will examine Freud’s concept of plasticity. once abandoned. the impossibility of oblivion coincides with the inability to change. First of all. but none the less it is so far present that it may at any time again become the mode of expression of the forces in the mind. imperishable” [thoughts for the times 285–86]. the permanence of form and the impossibility to forget appear to be specific means of destruction of this same form. the inorganic passivity of matter before it came to life. with the tendency to restore an earlier state of things. here succession also involves co-existence. the essence of mental disease lies in a return to earlier states of affective life and functioning” [thoughts for the times 285–86]. But the primitive stages can always be re-established. in thoughts for the times on War and death. that is why this liveliness is also the mask of mental disease. as though all later developments had been annulled or undone. it may be described as a special capacity for involution—for regression—since it may well happen that a later and higher state of development. second. plasticity characterizes for Freud the fact that psychic life is indestructible. i will show that this concept is constantly threatened by another. Freud states that in the development of the mind. We will see that these two meanings are strongly linked with one another. this extraordinary plasticity of mental developments is not unrestricted as regards directions. the destruction only applies to later acquisitions and developments. the “extraordinary plasticity of mental developments” is thus linked with the permanence of the form. plasticity designates the fluidity of the libido. “every earlier stage persists alongside the later stage which has arisen from it. the earlier mental stage may not have manifested itself for years. the psychic matter cannot go back to its previous state. Plasticity may be used to describe the crystallization of form as well as the destruction of all form (as suggested by the term plastic explosive for a bomb). then the status of the plasticity of psychic life is properly undecidable. “Plastic” is the name of an explosive material. in which Freud declares: 80 . in reality. We must remember that “plasticity” generally describes the nature of that which is plastic. the primitive mind is. and with the deadly mechanism of the compulsion to repeat. the psyche is plastic to the extent that it can receive the imprint and impose this earlier form upon the most recent developments. Once formed. If it is true that a conservative instinct exists in the psyche which tends to restore an earlier state of things. the concept of elasticity. in the fullest meaning of the word. which is apparently close to it but functions in reality as its opposite. But we know that plasticity also means the power to annihilate form. Paradoxically. that is.to develop these issues. another version of the previously asked question—is there finally anything beyond the pleasure principle?—might then be: is the time of materiality plastic or elastic? Let’s first point out two distinguishing features of the Freudian concept of plasticity. which characterizes the relationship between matter and form in psychic life. cannot be reached again. and indeed the only one. this destructive meaning of plasticity is also present in Freud’s characterization of psychic life. although it is to the same materials that the whole series of transformations has applied. “What are called mental diseases inevitably produces an impression in the layman that intellectual and mental life have been destroyed. the impossibility of erasure or disappearance in mental life expresses equally the liveliness of the trace as well as the inertia proper to the death drive.

[19–20] the time of materiality.] Every modification which is thus imposed upon the course of the organism’s life is accepted by the conservative organic instinct and stored up for further repetition. “for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd. but is no longer present in itself. in the marrow-bones of the grown man i can. having lengthened and thickened until it has attained its definitive form.” Organic life strangely suffers from the same defect as architecture: space is the privileged metaphor for its developments. suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity. “there is clearly no point in spinning our phantasy further.” “But here. that is. this simultaneity between the two meanings of plasticity—the creation of form and the destruction of form—is the main characteristic of the time of materiality which goes beyond the pleasure principle. in which nothing that has come one into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one [. the embryo cannot be discovered in the adult. those instincts are therefore bound to give a deceptive appearance of being forces tending towards change and progress. [38] to say that the primitive mind is imperishable means that the originary form of the psyche both resists death and is the very expression of death. the “extraordinary plasticity of mental developments” thus suspends the psyche between life and death.” But this comparison is not satisfactory. the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue. . it would do no more than constantly repeat the same course of life.] . “Let us. it is true. [. can we think of another kind of representation. is there a way to set up a proper representative model for this temporality? if pictorial representation is not satisfactory. cannot be represented in “spatial terms. . by flight of imagination. The earlier phases of development are in no sense still preserved. whilst in fact they are merely seeking to reach an ancient goal by paths alike old and new. if conditions remained the same. But the plasticity of mental life implies an unpicturable state of things in which emergence and preservation. life and inertia. the time of materiality.” Freud goes on. Our attempt seems to be an idle game” [civilization and its discontents 18–19]. But what is the form of this in-between state itself? What is the form of this matter? Perhaps Freud seeks to answer this question throughout his work. . if we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents. diacritics / winter 2007 81 . between the emergence and the destruction of form. cannot be represented in “pictorial terms. between life and death. but it itself has disappeared. . The fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside of the final form possible. in civilization and its discontents he shows that all possible comparisons between the psyche and other cases of developments are faulty. vitality and passivity coincide in time—not in space. we find the same thing. The plasticity of mental life is first compared with the past of the city of Rome.the elementary living entity would from its very beginning have had no wish to change. Preservation is thus the mark of vitality as well as the characteristic of inorganic passivity. they have been absorbed into the later phases for which they have supplied the material. and that we are not in a position to represent this phenomenon in pictorial terms. between life and death. too.” says Freud. that is to say.” the same thing occurs with the comparison of the plasticity of mental life with the plasticity of “the body of an animal or a human being. trace the outline of the child’s bone.

Freud never uses the words “plastic” or “plasticity” to characterize the work of the death drive. what is said to be imperishable in psychic life is the permanence of form.” the destructive tendency. this impossibility to characterize the form of the death drive constitutes the main objection against its existence. two kinds of processes are constantly at work in living substance. life drives and death drive are two plastic tendencies that coincide in time. that the profound meaning of the death drive is that death is immanent to life. “if such an 82 . But Freud does not succeed in bringing to light the actual form of this temporal and material coincidence. life and death lose their similarity. . He fails because he is led insidiously to dissociate this simultaneity. he invokes Hering’s theory. instead of a fascinating face-to-face between creative plasticity and destructive plasticity. what is the form of the simultaneity of life and death? it is clear that Freud is looking for a kind of form which would be neither architectural nor organic. “according to E.” he says. “we recognized the presence of a sadistic component in the sexual instinct. a form. as an undecidable state between life and death. which do not exceed the realm of the pleasure principle. operating in contrary directions. He tries to find what he calls an “example. if we read Beyond the Pleasure Principle carefully. or the life drive.of form? and again. Elasticity is thus opposed to plasticity to the extent that a plastic material retains the imprint and thereby resists endless polymorphism. that is of life drives. in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Eros. of a death instinct in sadism. creates forms. as we recall. “From the very first. we can only prove the existence of erotic drives. the death drive destroys them. death is without form. as we know. contradictorily with what he is looking for. the expression of inertia inherent in organic life” [36]. in the form of perversion. in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But Freud does not succeed in characterizing the proper—the temporal—form of the death drive. it can make itself independent and can. and it is also clear that he fails on that point. The form of the sadistic instinct when it “separates from” the life drives or when it “has undergone no mitigation or intermixture” may be considered as the possible form of the death drive. or. dominate an individual’s entire sexual activity” [53–54]. The organism fashions or forms its own death. There is finally no plastic work of the death drive. to put it in another way. there may be an elasticity of inorganic matter. the life instincts and the death instincts” [49].] We venture to recognize in these two directions taken by the vital processes the activity of our two instinctual impulses. an elastic material is able to return to its initial form after undergoing a deformation. It means that life forms its own destruction. and the restoration of an earlier state of things are eventually driven out of the field of plasticity. at the very moment when he defines the plasticity of mental life as a coexistence of life and death. however. But instead of bringing into play the two opposite meanings of plasticity within the same phenomenon—the permanence of form—Freud sets to work.” For the moment. we have a disappointing contrast between plasticity and elasticity. a pure opposition between plasticity and elasticity. Form means life. the compulsion to repeat. Freud states. but it is attained only as the result of a formative process: the process of repetition. one constructive or assimilatory and the other destructive or dissimilatory. Freud is well aware of that when he writes: “the difficulty remains that psychoanalysis has not enabled us hitherto to point to any instincts [or drives] other than the libidinal ones.” that is to say. we discover that only the life drives are eventually said to be plastic. . the death drive is said to be “a kind of organic elasticity. Hering’s theory. the death drive is “elastic. not the absence of form. he introduces a distinction between plasticity and elasticity which breaches this undecidability or this coexistence. [. That is why Freud affirms that “the organism only wishes to die in its own fashion” [39].

concerning the elasticity of the libido. as an illustration of this state of things we may think of an amoeba [Protoplasmatierchen]. Freud is clearly not satisfied with this “example.assumption as this is permissible. and elasticity on the other hand. the plasticity of the libido thus designates the double ability to cling to the object and to abandon it. Freud uses the metaphor of protoplasmic liquid.” Sadism and masochism are still derived from love and proceed from the transformation of love into hatred. Freud writes: For complete health it is essential that the libido should not lose this full mobility [Beweglichkeit]. The first is encountered in the Wolf Man’s case. Because he introduces a nonplastic element in his definition of the plasticity of mental life—elasticity—Freud ruins the possibility of thinking what he precisely wishes to think. Freud concludes: diacritics / winter 2007 83 . it becomes impossible to prove that there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. Let’s turn to the second main signification of the Freudian concept of plasticity in order to clarify this difficulty: the fluidity of the libido. Freud says: “Any position of the libido which he had once taken up was obstinately defended by him from fear of what he would lose by giving it up and from distrust of the probability of a complete substitute being afforded by the new position that was in view. the second case. “Fluid” or. is evoked in analysis terminable and interminable. the plastic coincidence between creation and destruction of form. Plasticity is a medium state between elasticity—the impossibility of preserving a form—and rigidity—the excess of attachment to a form. a healthy libido has to situate itself between two nonplastic excesses—“adhesiveness [Klebrigkeit]. then we have met the demand that we should produce an example of a death instinct” [54]. if form is always on the side of Eros and of pleasure. Here too appears the same inexplicable and insidious splitting of plasticity into plasticity and elasticity. in A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis. It is often presented as a substance that is neither liquid nor solid but something in between. [139] again. “plastic” are terms often used by Freud to characterize this type of amazing materiality. The libido is defined as an energy of strange material consistency. Both adhesiveness and elasticity constitute major obstacles to therapy. precisely. At other times. if we are not able to prove that the destruction of form has and is a form. the characterization of the death drive as “elastic” deprives it of its plastic power and of its capacity to resist the pleasure principle. sadism and masochism ultimately are and can only be forms of pleasure. they still belong to the pleasure principle and express “the familiar ambivalence of love and hate in erotic life” [54]. elongations into which the substance of the body extends but which can be retracted at any time so that the form [die Form] of the protoplasmic mass is restored [wieder hergestellt wird]. this is an important and fundamental psychological pecularity. which is a little thicker than sheer water. these metaphors help us understand that a healthy libido has the power to fix and solidify itself in cathexis. in this sense. However. whose viscous substance [zählflüssige Substanz] puts out pseudopodia. ability to fixation [Fähigkeit zur Fixierung]”—on the one hand. The libido is sometimes compared to a river: “die libido ist wie ein strom” [A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis 59]. which i described in my three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905) as a susceptibility to “fixation” [From the history of an infantile neurosis 115]. but that it may easily give up previous objects and move to new ones.

in whom the libido seems particularly mobile. the difference between the two types is comparable to the one felt by a sculptor.” [241] it appears that plasticity can only characterize the good shape of the form. . adhesiveness. this concept can only mean the creation of form. and some others are not. we must make use of the concept of an entropy. there is no plastic work of negativity. to return to the very first moment. of plasticity. which opposes the undoing of what has already occurred. or boundary. . abandoning its former ones in exchange for them.] than the destructive instincts” [44–45]. Plasticity means health. destruction of objects. the tendency to restore a previous state of things. .] so that in considering the conversion of psychical energy no less than of physical. they cannot make up their minds to detach libidinal cathexes from one object and displace them onto another. . unfortunately. there are some people. Freud dissociates once again the unity of the concept of plasticity. like prime numbers. soon gone. . some individuals are plastic. loss of vitality. as destructive forms. in this second type the results of analysis often turn out to be very impermanent: the new cathexes are soon given up once more. if i may say so. Elasticity appears as the natural limit. it also loses its plasticity. the intermediary state between life and death that Freud is looking for dissolves itself in what appears to be a poor opposition between life and death. Freud asserts that the degree of psychic plasticity varies from one individual to another and that we can’t explain the origin of this variability.] pertinacity or susceptibility in fixations” [three essays on sexuality 242]. . . who retain this mental plasticity far beyond the usual age-limit. as soon as the libido loses the right measure between attachment and detachment. [. not of having worked in clay. the ability to cling to a form without getting destroyed by it. as it were. and that is that mobility of the mental cathexes is a quality which shows striking diminution with the advance of age. another example of the natural elastic limits of plasticity is the problem of age. Freud writes: Great mobility or sluggishness of libidinal cathexes [. remains inexplicable. and we have an impression. . one meets with the opposite type of person too.the processes which the treatment sets in motion [in certain subjects] are so much slower than in other people because. in the ego and the id. it enters readily upon the new cathexes suggested by analysis. but of having written on water. erotic activity. 84 . apparently. not further divisible.] they are. it is given by nature. [From the history of an infantile neurosis 115] Entropy (entropia in Greek signifies the return to an original state) is clearly not plastic. and others who lose it very prematurely. according to whether he works in hard stone or soft clay. in the words of the proverb: “soon got. it depends on “a psychical factor of unknown origin [. [. We only know one thing about them. although we can discover no special reason for this cathectic loyalty. the vitality and the suppleness of attachments—in other words. Freud can state in the end that “the erotic instincts appear to be altogether more plastic [. repeated impossibility of loving are analyzed in terms of tenacity. The destructive instincts are not plastic at all. . Once again. however. this has given us one of the indications of the limits within which psycho-analytic treatment is effective. A mysterious natural elasticity contaminates the plasticity of life. We understand why. they never appear as negative plastic tendencies. deprived of its form.] are special characteristics which attach to many normal people. . or elasticity. in the end.

we are told that this activity of binding does not finally oppose the pleasure principle. We recall that Freud insists upon the impossibility of representing the plasticity of psychic life in spatial or pictorial terms. the form of Eros. alan Bass. trans. it can only be tamed in the end by the good plasticity of pleasure. thoughts for the times on War and death (1915). Ed. diacritics / winter 2007 85 . there is no beyond of the pleasure principle.” Because binding prepares the work of the pleasure principle. SE 21: 57–145. the psychoanalyst is compared to a sculptor. the operation of binding is also very close to an artistic practice.” Binding is an operation which transforms the free traumatic energy into a quiescent energy. a nonpicturable one—which would be the form of the destruction of all forms—Freud turns to another spatial model. SE 23: 209–53. Freud shows that the compulsion to repeat is a tendency that binds the excess of energy threatening the psyche. second in its bound form. i would like to insist upon the ambiguity of the compulsion to repeat in Freud. SE 7: 125–245. at the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. the standard edition of the complete Psychological Works of sigmund Freud. the repetition compulsion is that of pleasure itself. for want of its own form. but this does not imply the suspension of the pleasure principle [62]. Binding can cause displeasure. it rather occurs “in its service. binding] occurs on behalf of the pleasure principle” [62]. On the contrary. 259–409. analysis terminable and interminable (1937). ________ . a spatial nonplastic model—elasticity. only elasticity binding itself. 1987. ________ . it gives the elastic destructive energy a form. ________ . 24 vols. SE 17: 1–122. civilization and its discontents (1930). SE 19: 1–66. it depends on it. [SE] ________ . London: Hogarth. On the one hand. SE 17: 135–44. that is. there is only pleasure binding itself” [402]. the ego and the id. the patient to a plastic material. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. in this sense. in conclusion. ________ . James Strachey. WOrKs citEd derrida.’” the Postcard. chicago: U of Chicago P. There is no plasticity. sigmund. as derrida writes in “to speculate—On ‘Freud. it opens the way for it. SE 18: 1–64. 1953–74. for want of plasticity. the “transformation [the transformation of energy. Instead of finding a nonartistic kind of form.We can perhaps explain Freud’s failure to bring to light the form of material time by his inability to think of a plasticity which would go beyond the archetype of the plastic arts. only pleasure which occurs twice: once in the form of mobile energy. From the history of an infantile neurosis (1918). In other texts. Freud. A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis (1917). the understanding of plasticity as an aesthetic category remains pregnant throughout Freud’s work. ________ . in the last chapter. ________ .’” “there is no beyond of the pleasure principle. “to speculate—On ‘Freud. the libido is compared to a painting ink. says Freud. He nevertheless continues to describe plasticity in spatial and pictorial terms. three essays on sexuality. Jacques. “Binding is a preparatory act which introduces and assures [sichert] the dominance of the pleasure principle. it consists in shaping. the plastic materiality of time and the plastic metaphor of this materiality remain to be found. The figures of sadism and masochism come from literature. molding the scattered energy to unify and gather it. SE 14: 273–300. We can represent the work of elasticity—but not the contradictory work of plasticity—in space. ________ . a noncreative form. it appears as opposed to the pleasure principle but.