Plasticity and Elasticity in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Catherine Malabou
diacritics, Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 2007, pp. 78-86 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/dia.0.0038

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the concept of time that Freud is looking for beyond the pleasure principle thus coincides with the notion of a preorganic temporality. they seek to return to inanimate matter [38]. . that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’” [38]. 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.Plasticity and Elasticity in FrEud’s Beyond the Pleasure PrinciPle catherine MalaBou if there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. it can only be a certain time.] . “a certain time” also means a determined category of time. which would shake its mastery. the first paragraph of chapter one. which in a way surrounds the pleasure principle and goes beyond it as. it can only be a certain category or concept of time. inorganic matter is both past and future. . that the course of [. this “earlier state of things” “must then be an old state of things. This moment precedes the emergence of life. . “One group of instincts. again. consequently. the time of materiality would be prior to the time of pleasure. “In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state” [38]. 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. more elementary than the pleasure principle. and that it takes a direction 78 diacritics 37. the most originary moment. it is the last stage of matter before it becomes animate. an initial form which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return [. it can only be a certain moment of time.4: 78–85 . if there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. the other group seeks “to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has [. the earliest. We must not forget that “death is a late acquisition of organisms” [Beyond the Pleasure Principle 47]. the time of materiality would then characterize for Freud the temporal mode of being of the nonliving and the nondying. “rushes forward” inorganic matter toward life [41]. . . The very first moment is the last moment of inorganic matter. How can that be? Freud reminds us. in the very beginning of the text. the moment of time that Freud is looking for beyond the pleasure principle appears to be the very first.] abandoned” [36]. its past and its future. its before and its after. or of what Freud calls the living substance. Freud writes in chapter 5. The very first moment is not the beginning but comes just before the beginning of life and death. this pre. We believe. looking backwards.] events is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension [unlustvolle spannung]. it is both the past and future of life and death. it returns to it when it dies. it precedes also the emergence of death.and postorganic temporality is structured by the dual rhythm of life drives and death drive. “a certain time” means first of all a particular moment. If there is anything beyond the pleasure principle. which appears as a postorganic temporality as well. that is to say. . if every living being departs from that age of inorganic matter. there would thus be something more primitive.

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

this destructive meaning of plasticity is also present in Freud’s characterization of psychic life. and with the deadly mechanism of the compulsion to repeat. which is apparently close to it but functions in reality as its opposite. in reality. although it is to the same materials that the whole series of transformations has applied. once abandoned. “What are called mental diseases inevitably produces an impression in the layman that intellectual and mental life have been destroyed. second. We will see that these two meanings are strongly linked with one another. being at once capable of receiving and of giving form. the essence of mental disease lies in a return to earlier states of affective life and functioning” [thoughts for the times 285–86]. We must remember that “plasticity” generally describes the nature of that which is plastic. Paradoxically. 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. But we know that plasticity also means the power to annihilate develop these issues. as though all later developments had been annulled or undone. the earlier mental stage may not have manifested itself for years. the concept of elasticity. which characterizes the relationship between matter and form in psychic life. in the fullest meaning of the word. here succession also involves co-existence. the permanence of form and the impossibility to forget appear to be specific means of destruction of this same form. But the primitive stages can always be re-established. i will examine Freud’s concept of plasticity. and indeed the only one. If it is true that a conservative instinct exists in the psyche which tends to restore an earlier state of things. with the tendency to restore an earlier state of things. then the status of the plasticity of psychic life is properly undecidable. 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. in which Freud declares: 80 . 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. in thoughts for the times on War and death. Freud states that in the development of the mind. the psychic matter cannot go back to its previous state. i will show that this concept is constantly threatened by another. the inorganic passivity of matter before it came to life. the impossibility of oblivion coincides with the inability to change. cannot be reached again. the destruction only applies to later acquisitions and developments. 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). Once formed. that is. “every earlier stage persists alongside the later stage which has arisen from it. We remember this passage from Beyond the Pleasure Principle. First of all. the “extraordinary plasticity of mental developments” is thus linked with the permanence of the form. plasticity designates the fluidity of the libido. imperishable” [thoughts for the times 285–86]. “Plastic” is the name of an explosive material. the primitive mind is. this extraordinary plasticity of mental developments is not unrestricted as regards directions. 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. plasticity characterizes for Freud the fact that psychic life is indestructible. that is why this liveliness is also the mask of mental disease. the psyche is plastic to the extent that it can receive the imprint and impose this earlier form upon the most recent developments.

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. we find the same thing. 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. by flight of imagination. in civilization and its discontents he shows that all possible comparisons between the psyche and other cases of developments are faulty. between life and death. those instincts are therefore bound to give a deceptive appearance of being forces tending towards change and progress. suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity. that is. . Our attempt seems to be an idle game” [civilization and its discontents 18–19]. [19–20] the time of materiality.” But this comparison is not satisfactory. trace the outline of the child’s bone. [. The plasticity of mental life is first compared with the past of the city of Rome. but it itself has disappeared. between the emergence and the destruction of form. vitality and passivity coincide in time—not in space. “Let us. in the marrow-bones of the grown man i can. that is to say. the time of materiality.” Organic life strangely suffers from the same defect as architecture: space is the privileged metaphor for its developments. if conditions remained the same. but is no longer present in itself. 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. whilst in fact they are merely seeking to reach an ancient goal by paths alike old and new. But the plasticity of mental life implies an unpicturable state of things in which emergence and preservation. Preservation is thus the mark of vitality as well as the characteristic of inorganic passivity.” says Freud. having lengthened and thickened until it has attained its definitive form. the embryo cannot be discovered in the adult. The fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside of the final form possible. too. The earlier phases of development are in no sense still preserved. cannot be represented in “spatial terms.” Freud goes on. cannot be represented in “pictorial terms. 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 [. diacritics / winter 2007 81 . “there is clearly no point in spinning our phantasy further.the elementary living entity would from its very beginning have had no wish to change. it is true. between life and death. life and inertia. . 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.” 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. the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue. . can we think of another kind of representation. it would do no more than constantly repeat the same course of life. is there a way to set up a proper representative model for this temporality? if pictorial representation is not satisfactory.] 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. the “extraordinary plasticity of mental developments” thus suspends the psyche between life and death. [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.] .” “But here. “for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd.

of form? and again. There is finally no plastic work of the death drive. as we recall. death is without form. in the form of perversion. two kinds of processes are constantly at work in living substance.” he says. of a death instinct in sadism. at the very moment when he defines the plasticity of mental life as a coexistence of life and death. It means that life forms its own destruction. one constructive or assimilatory and the other destructive or dissimilatory. But Freud does not succeed in characterizing the proper—the temporal—form of the death drive. however. “if such an 82 . if we read Beyond the Pleasure Principle carefully. this impossibility to characterize the form of the death drive constitutes the main objection against its existence. a form. The organism fashions or forms its own death.” For the moment. creates forms. instead of a fascinating face-to-face between creative plasticity and destructive plasticity. he introduces a distinction between plasticity and elasticity which breaches this undecidability or this coexistence. as an undecidable state between life and death. that the profound meaning of the death drive is that death is immanent to life. which do not exceed the realm of the pleasure principle. the death drive is said to be “a kind of organic elasticity.” that is to say. 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. He fails because he is led insidiously to dissociate this simultaneity. contradictorily with what he is looking for. in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He tries to find what he calls an “example. an elastic material is able to return to its initial form after undergoing a deformation. operating in contrary directions. there may be an elasticity of inorganic matter. That is why Freud affirms that “the organism only wishes to die in its own fashion” [39]. the death drive is “elastic. [. and it is also clear that he fails on that point. it can make itself independent and can. but it is attained only as the result of a formative process: the process of repetition. that is of life drives.” the destructive tendency. he invokes Hering’s theory.] We venture to recognize in these two directions taken by the vital processes the activity of our two instinctual impulses. we discover that only the life drives are eventually said to be plastic. Form means life. 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. a pure opposition between plasticity and elasticity. the death drive destroys them. we have a disappointing contrast between plasticity and elasticity. what is said to be imperishable in psychic life is the permanence of form. Hering’s theory. we can only prove the existence of erotic drives. in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. “we recognized the presence of a sadistic component in the sexual instinct. Elasticity is thus opposed to plasticity to the extent that a plastic material retains the imprint and thereby resists endless polymorphism. Eros. life and death lose their similarity. . or. not the absence of form. Freud states. or the life drive. But Freud does not succeed in bringing to light the actual form of this temporal and material coincidence. Freud never uses the words “plastic” or “plasticity” to characterize the work of the death drive. the life instincts and the death instincts” [49]. dominate an individual’s entire sexual activity” [53–54]. and the restoration of an earlier state of things are eventually driven out of the field of plasticity. life drives and death drive are two plastic tendencies that coincide in time. the expression of inertia inherent in organic life” [36]. 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. the compulsion to repeat. But instead of bringing into play the two opposite meanings of plasticity within the same phenomenon—the permanence of form—Freud sets to work. as we know. “according to E. “From the very first. . to put it in another way.

Freud concludes: diacritics / winter 2007 83 . and elasticity on the other hand. Freud is clearly not satisfied with this “example. these metaphors help us understand that a healthy libido has the power to fix and solidify itself in cathexis. It is often presented as a substance that is neither liquid nor solid but something in between. they still belong to the pleasure principle and express “the familiar ambivalence of love and hate in erotic life” [54]. the plastic coincidence between creation and destruction of form. “Fluid” or. The libido is sometimes compared to a river: “die libido ist wie ein strom” [A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis 59]. Plasticity is a medium state between elasticity—the impossibility of preserving a form—and rigidity—the excess of attachment to a form. 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. as an illustration of this state of things we may think of an amoeba [Protoplasmatierchen]. Freud uses the metaphor of protoplasmic liquid. However. The first is encountered in the Wolf Man’s case. At other times. whose viscous substance [zählflüssige Substanz] puts out pseudopodia. the plasticity of the libido thus designates the double ability to cling to the object and to abandon it. “plastic” are terms often used by Freud to characterize this type of amazing materiality. which is a little thicker than sheer water. Here too appears the same inexplicable and insidious splitting of plasticity into plasticity and elasticity. it becomes impossible to prove that there is anything beyond the pleasure principle.assumption as this is permissible. 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. the characterization of the death drive as “elastic” deprives it of its plastic power and of its capacity to resist the pleasure principle. 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]. in this sense. Both adhesiveness and elasticity constitute major obstacles to therapy. [139] again. The libido is defined as an energy of strange material consistency. sadism and masochism ultimately are and can only be forms of pleasure. the second case. this is an important and fundamental psychological pecularity. 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. is evoked in analysis terminable and interminable. concerning the elasticity of the libido. but that it may easily give up previous objects and move to new ones. if we are not able to prove that the destruction of form has and is a form. then we have met the demand that we should produce an example of a death instinct” [54]. precisely. if form is always on the side of Eros and of pleasure. a healthy libido has to situate itself between two nonplastic excesses—“adhesiveness [Klebrigkeit]. in A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis. ability to fixation [Fähigkeit zur Fixierung]”—on the one hand. Freud writes: For complete health it is essential that the libido should not lose this full mobility [Beweglichkeit].” Sadism and masochism are still derived from love and proceed from the transformation of love into hatred. 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].

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

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

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