Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for February, 2013

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Sigmund Freud



Freud, S. (2004). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Second ed., pp. 431-437). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.



The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation

—Jonathan Larson, Rent



Although Sigmund Freud received medical training as a student of psychiatry, he initially had an interest in philosophy and was likely influenced by his mentor Franz Brentano as he popularized psychoanalysis and the concept of the unconscious. Setting this path in motion, Freud studied with Jean-Martin Charcot, a noted neurologist who was also interested in mesmerism and hypnosis, which were popular at the end of the 19th century.  After working with Charcot, Freud modeled himself after Josef Breuer and began to use hypnosis in his practice and eventually came across a patient named Anna O., who allowed Freud to develop core tenants of psychoanalysis as he worked with her to uncover repressed trauma through a process that would later be called “the talking cure” (i.e., patients were placed into a relaxed state and encouraged to free associate). Although psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor in clinical practice—being displaced by schools of cognitive-behavioral therapy and neuroscience—it continues to assert influence in areas like film studies and the humanities. Largely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud’s thinking would go on to influence philosophers like Jacques Lacan (who maintained a clinical approach and Slavoj Žižek, fields like psychoanalytic feminism, and the vernacular of popular culture (e.g., id, ego, etc.).


This work revises Freud’s earlier thoughts regarding the pleasure principle (i.e., Eros), which is associated with the id and the desire to seek enjoyment and to avoid pain. Here a distinction should be made between Freud’s use of the terms “drive” (Gr. trieb) and “instinct” (Gr. instinkt):  instinct referred to an animalistic or base force that is essential to the functioning of an organism while a drive is not essential for survival and tends to cause erratic or unanticipated behavior in an individual. Thus, libido as a term that refers to the life instinct/force (i.e., the will to live) is differentiated from Eros, which refers to the desire to create life.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is often cited for producing the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos (although it should be noted that Freud himself did not use the term in the work and “Thanatos” is attributed to psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, a follower of Freud). In contrast to Eros, which is the desire to create life, Thanatos can be characterized by the desire for extinction.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud notes a series of stories in which he observes individuals who seem compelled to repeat a particular incident although the event itself does not appear to provide any source of pleasure. Forced to reconsider the id/ego binary that was established by the pleasure/reality principles, Freud worked to expand his theory so that it could account for cases of trauma, repression, and the play of children.

The excerpt in Literary Theory is from the second and third sections (of six) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and focuses on Freud’s thoughts concerning child’s play and repetition. Freud describes a situation in which a young child would throw a toy into the corner while uttering an approximation of the German word for “gone” (Gr. fort) and then “here” (Gr. da) upon recovering the toy. Freud suggests that the boy concocts the game in response to his separation from his mother:  by reenacting a traumatic situation the boy is able to take control and assert an active role in the proceedings. Freud makes several caveats here, noting that the child may be playing the game in order to benefit from some other unseen source of pleasure (in this case the pleasure principle would still apply) and that children furthermore tend to repeat things that they observe in life. Freud’s anecdote with the child also illustrates that although the pleasure principle and the death drive might be operating in opposition to each other, their presence is not mutually exclusive as pleasure could be experienced en route to the restoration of a balanced mental state.[1]

In contrast to the example introduced in Section II, in Section III Freud focuses on cases that have no origin in pleasure and are yet repeated.[2] Section III of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is more directly applicable to psychoanalysis (as is Section I’s discussion of trauma) with its mention of repression:  in this section Freud suggests that, in a process analogous to that of the child in Section II, patients are driven to repeat repressed thoughts until they are mastered and extinguished. In line with psychoanalysis’ overarching position, individuals are also not able to articulate the reasons for why they repeat their behavior (and, in fact, may not even be aware that they are doing so). Characterized by the term transference (i.e., the displacement of feelings onto other targets), Freud would also suggest that this process could be expanded beyond patients to the populace at large. In addition, Freud notes that the repressed thoughts are not themselves the issue here, suggesting that we should instead consider how the ego constrains and tries to protect our psyche through repression.

For additional information on the repetition compulsion, see Freud’s Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (1914).

[1] See “It is clear that the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses. That, however, is unpleasure of a kind we have already considered and does not contradict the pleasure principle:  unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other.” (434-435)

[2] “None of these things can have produced pleasure in the past…but no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led instead only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressur of a compulsion.” (435)

Cinematic Life

“My aim then is to trace the history of this reconfiguration of the body through scientific techniques of motion recording and analysis—techniques that were used to put forth a model of the body as a dynamic, distinctly living and moving, system.”

Lisa Cartwright, 4

One of the themes emergent in Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body:  Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture is the way in which the ideas of Science, the cinematic, and Life are intertwined. Reading through Cartwright, I found myself continually referring back to a core set of questions:  How is life represented visually? By whom and why? How does the visual construction of life go on to influence popular understandings of the concept?

Although Cartwright decides to focus on the cinematic—a term that has less to do with actual film than a mode of seeing, observing, and projecting—I found myself thinking through how similar functions are performed by science/speculative fiction, natural history museums,  and science journalism as interfaces between scientific communities and the public. For me, the power of these spaces is very much tied to the way in which they allow Life to be visualized and, in so doing, influence the way(s) in which Life can be imagined.

Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes or comprises “life” at any given moment in history—which, I would venture, is not quite the same thing as the notion of being “alive”—has long been tied to what Science has been able to see. In an article for the digital magazine Aeon, Phillip Ball wrote the following about the impact of the microscope in early modern culture:

The 17th-century philosopher Robert Hooke echoed [Aristotole’s] wonder at nature’s invisible intricacy. It was his book, Micrographia (1665), that put microscopy on the map. Crucially, Hooke’s volume was not merely descriptive:  it included large, gorgeous engravings of what he saw through the lens, skilfully prepared by his own hand. The power of these illustrations was impossible to resist. Here were fantastical gardens discovered in mould, snowflakes like fronds of living ice and, most shockingly, insects such as fleas got up in articulated armour like lobsters, and a fly that gazes into the lens with 14,000 little eyes, arranged in perfect order on two hemispheres.

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Although Hooke is a fascinating figure, Ball’s anecdote gestures toward the way in which the visual representation of life forms a key link between the observations of the scientist and the communication of those ideas to others.

Extending Cartwright’s analysis of graphic representations of life, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture has elected to represent life in visual media. One branch, I think, is aligned with immersive media and the trend for medical visualizations to become increasingly interactive. Recalling the ways in which the moving image challenged thinking based on microscopy and photography, it seems prudent to consider whether understandings of life will again be reconfigured in the age of 3-D and real-time.

For me, however, it is another form of life’s visual representation that presents a more pervasive and potentially insidious change:  linked with the rise in the “quantified self” that has been mentioned in class, concepts of Life have come to be increasingly characterized, not in terms of motion, but in terms of data streams.

IBM’s “Data Baby” (2010)

Sprint’s “I Am Unlimited” (2012)

I will admit to being particularly upset at the way in which the Sprint ad suggests that “the human experience” can be fully represented by pixels but I do think that it makes a rather interesting visual connection between essences of life and data. On one level, the commercial is fairly upfront about its message to sell consumers on a “truly” unlimited data plan but, watching the ad, I couldn’t help but think about Kara Keeling’s invocation of Deleuze in The Witch’s Flight. Here Deleuze speaks to an analytical framework that attempts to identify the dual manifestations of illusion within the cinematic.

The political challenge for filmmakers, according to Deleuze’s analysis, is to reveal that which has been hidden in the image by rediscovering “everything that has been removed to make [the image] interesting” or by “suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything.” (18)

Detail of artery from Gray's Anatomy

Detail of artery from Gray’s Anatomy

There is a certainly a reductive quality in the Sprint ad that simplifies the ambiguous concept of Life down into (less vague?) data. If we ascribe to Deleuze, this process of removal is a restrictive political act that, I think, ultimately constricts the way in which concepts of life can be imagined. Yet, instead of immediately blaming the practice—which seems analogous to the illustrations used in texts like Gray’s Anatomy to help young medical students learn about the body—it seems far more sensible to interrogate why we choose to augment or depress the representation of life in the first place.



Jacques Derrida

It would have been difficult for [Joseph] Priestly, contemplating that tenacious sprig of mint in the lab on Bansinghall Street, to perceive that a Kuhnian revolution was at hand, not just because the concept didn’t exist yet, but more important because there was no ‘dominant paradigm’ for him to overturn. The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate:  the world was filled with stuff—people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint—and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff

—Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, 66


Derrida, J. (1968). Différance. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Philosophie, 73-101.


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was the founder of “deconstruction,” a way of criticizing not only both literary and philosophical texts but also political institutions. Derrida entered college (École Normale) at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age:  Deleuze, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, Barthes, and Marin. Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Ricœur, Blanchot, and Levinas were also still alive. Derrida was largely influenced by Nietzche, Hidegger, and Saussure and, in turn, influenced Irigaray, Cixous, Deleuze, and Lyotard.


The term deconstruction signifies certain strategies for reading and writing texts. The term was introduced into philosophical literature in 1967, with the publication of three texts by Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology (1974), Writing and Difference (1978), and Speech and Phenomena (1973). Derrida and deconstruction are routinely associated with postmodernism, although like Deleuze and Foucault, he does not use the term and would resist affiliation with “-isms” of any sort. Of the three books from 1967, Of Grammatology is the more comprehensive in laying out the background for deconstruction as a way of reading modern theories of language, especially structuralism, and Heidegger’s meditations on the non-presence of being. It also sets out Derrida’s difference with Heidegger over Nietzsche.

Just as in the essay “On the Question of Being” (Heidegger 1998, 291-322) Heidegger sees fit to cross out the word “being,” leaving it visible, nevertheless, under the mark, Derrida takes the closure of metaphysics to be its “erasure,” where it does not entirely disappear, but remains inscribed as one side of a difference, and where the mark of deletion is itself a trace of the difference that joins and separates this mark and what it crosses out. Derrida calls this joining and separating of signs différance (Derrida 1974, 23), a device that can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French. The “a” is a written mark that differentiates independently of the voice, the privileged medium of metaphysics. In this sense, différance as the spacing of difference, as archi-writing, would be the gram of grammatology. However, as Derrida remarks: “There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin” (Derrida 1974, 63). Instead, there is only the marking of the trace of difference, that is, deconstruction.

For Derrida, written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions. As Derrida famously remarks, “there is no outside-text” (Derrida 1974, 158), that is, the text includes the difference between any “inside” or “outside.” A text, then, is not a book, and does not, strictly speaking, have an author. On the contrary, the name of the author is a signifier linked with others, and there is no master signifier (such as the phallus in Lacan) present or even absent in a text. This goes for the term “différance” as well, which can only serve as a supplement for the productive spacing between signs. Therefore, Derrida insists that “différance is literally neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982, 3). Instead, it can only be marked as a wandering play of differences that is both a spacing of signifiers in relation to one another and a deferral of meaning or presence when they are read.


Derrida illustrates one key concept of différance by drawing the reader’s attention to the word itself. Juxtaposing the French word différer (“to differ”) with the Greek word diapherein, Derrida reinforces the dual nature of différance as noted earlier in “Différance.” Diapherein, Derrida writes, refers to the common meaning of difference, indicating that two things are dissimilar; this form of difference for Derrida can be conceptualized as a sort of horizontal/spatial relationship as two things must necessarily exist simultaneously (albeit in different spaces). To this Derrida adds in a dimension of time through his reading of différance as a verb that can also indicate a deferral—on the most basic level, this implies a single thing at two points in time.

Difference, for Derrida, does not imply “separate,” however as différance speaks to a way in which difference contains an element of sameness:  in order to compare things (a necessary positioning that must occur before difference can be established), there must be a dimension on which they are comparable. As example, the American expression “It’s like comparing apples to oranges” is often used to suggest widely disparate elements but Derrida might point out that both objects belong to a number of similar categories (e.g., fruit, round, edible, etc.) and thus the very establishment of difference in one respect serves to reinforce sameness in another.

Abstracting the apple and orange example, Derrida referred to the system of connections between objects of difference as an assemblage. It is important to note that Derrida did not view this construction as a static system but rather, in a nod to Saussure and the infinite chain of meanings formed as signs became signifiers for other signs, urged readers to consider that the configuration of the assemblage was always in flux. Derrida cites Saussure on page 285 of Literary Theory to put forth the idea that “in language there are only differences” but, perhaps more significant, is Saussure’s reminder that “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither idea nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.”

Drawing upon Hegel, différance, then, is what makes presentation (i.e., distinction) possible for Derrida, as things are only brought into being through difference and, as such, identity is always based in a thing’s relationship to other things and concepts like authenticity do not apply. To help clarify this concept we can return to the apple and orange example noted earlier:  in order for an “apple” and an “orange” to exist, Derrida argues that we must first determine that a difference exists between that which we would then call an apple or an orange. This difference does not merely refer to the creation of separate words but instead that these two things are in fact different enough to be separated from each other. As suggested by the epigraph to this summary, difference/différance is an inherent part of classification/order and stands in contrast to nothingness.

Finally, one conclusion draws from Saussure is that “the signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself” (285). Consequentially, although it might be difficult to grasp initially, Derrida also argues that différance is not a concept or a word that itself exists inside of the assemblage.

[1] Adapted from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[2] Adapted from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Deconstruction is not directly mentioned in “Différance” but the concept is important to an understanding of différance and Derrida.

Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling

Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling

Stanley Fish




Fish, S. (1967). Surprised by Sin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.




Fish is associated with the concept of “interpretive communities,” a concept that suggests that a reader’s response to a given text is shaped by subjective experience. Although Fish would argue that no single reading of a text exists, the concept of interpretive communities suggests that, based on experience, a particular reading of a text is likely to be more salient than others. In the case of Milton, Fish often points to the way in which a reader is influenced by Christianity.


Although trained as a medievalist, Fish had no formal training in Milton studies when he began teaching a course in the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. Fish’s book, Surprised by Sin, was important in the field of Milton studies as it attempted to reconcile the divide that had formed between schools of thought that venerated Milton (e.g., William Blake and Percy Shelley) and those that disparaged him (e.g., T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis) by suggesting that the difficulty that readers experienced when reading the poem was not evidence of a failing on the part of the author but rather a strategy by Milton to help the reader better grasp the subject matter.[1]




In “Not So Much a Teaching as an Intangling,” an excerpt from his book Surprised by Sin, Fish utilizes a reader-centered approach in order to argue that Milton’s diction in Paradise Lost was designed to arouse a measure of self-examination on the part of the reader that could be traced back to dissonance between expectation and experience on the part of the reader. Here we begin to see a strategy that juxtaposes the successes/failures of the poem with those of its author—a contrast to Formalism and Structuralism which would not have directly engaged with such issues. In particular, Fish focuses on a rereading of the way in which Milton’s poem seems to qualify itself, arguing such an action is not a weakness of Milton but instead a deliberate effort on the part of the author to dislocate the reader and cause him or her to question an initial reading or interpretation.


As example, Fish introduces lines 292-294 of Book I in order to illustrate the way in which a reader’s initial understanding might be subsequently challenged:


His spear, to equal which the tallest Pine

Hewn on Norwegian Hills to be the Mast

Of some great Ammiral,[2] were but a wand.


Fish writes that a reader’s instinct here is to compare a spear and a pine in terms of their physical similarities as objects and, while this is one way in which to understand a notion of “equal,” it is not, ultimately what Milton intends. Presented with the rather unique problem of navigating between concreteness and grandeur, Fish writes that Milton structures his words this way so that “we are relieved of the necessity of believing the image true, but permitted to retain the solidity it offers our straining imaginations” (201).


One point of criticism here is that although Fish advocates for interpretative communities and a viewpoint grounded in readers’ responses to texts, Fish’s analysis gestures toward acceptance of a singular reaction that resolves the elements of Milton into a particular understanding of the text. Fish, then, is focused on readers but does not go so far as to allow for multiple readings/responses that would appear in postmodernism and suffers criticism by individuals like philosopher Martha Nussbaum who comments on the tendency of Fish to resist conflict in his analysis. Additionally, of particular note is the way in which the ideal reader evidences a Christian sensibility, which is only relevant if one is considering the likely audience for Milton’s poem when he initially wrote it.[3]


Fish’s larger point with this example, however, is to suggest that Milton’s aim is to gesture toward a reality that is beyond the range of normal human experience and perception. Fish argues that traditional similes are tied to a time and a place and that the subject matter of Milton’s poem exists outside of these boundaries, which means that the reader’s sense of lack or inadequacy is crucial for Fish as it speaks to the emotions that Adam and Eve experienced as they sought something just outside of their grasp.


In his analysis Fish also attempts to develop a distinction between two types of argumentation in Paradise Lost:  rhetorical and logical. Aligning the first with Satan and the latter with God, Fish seems to create an either/or binary that is particularly focused on displaying the inadequacies of the reader for reasons previously discussed. On page 209 Fish writes:


“The reader who fails repeatedly before the pressures of the poem soon realizes that his difficulty proves its major assertions—the fact of the Fall, and his own (that is Adam’s) responsibility for it, and the subsequent woes of the human situation…The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays again the weakness of Adam, and his inability to avoid repeating that fall throughout indicates the extent to which Adam’s lapse has made the reassertion of right reason impossible.”


Although Fish argues for the productivity of the self-realization that results from a confrontation with one’s failings, the underlying assumption here is that rhetoric is present to mislead the reader. It is, however, unclear whether Milton himself would have supported a similar opposition between rhetoric and logic as his writings in Of Education seem to indicate that both were intended to be used in conjunction with one another.

[1] Milton’s poem has also been traditionally polarizing with battle lines being drawn around how one responded to the depiction of Satan.

[2] Interestingly, provides the following definition:  An obsolete form of admiral. “The mast of some great ammiral” –Milton.

[3] See, for example, “And [Milton’s} readers who share this Christian view of history will be prepared to make the connection that exists potentially in the detail of the narrative” (208).

Until It’s Vegas Everywhere We Are

Olds and Milner RatIn 1954, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner conducted a landmark experiment in the field of Behaviorism:  implanting electrodes into rats, Olds and Milner allowed the animals to stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains via a lever. Depressing the control up to 700 times a day, the allure of the stimulation was so strong that, given a choice between pleasure and food, rats eventually died from exhaustion.

Initial reactions to this scenario often include a measure of shock and disbelief as individuals try to make sense of what they observe. Why would an animal literally pleasure itself to death? Although we as humans—and supposed exemplars of rationality—might make different choices in a similar situation, the lesson to learn from the Olds and Milner study is that the pursuit of pleasure can be a powerful influence on our lives.

Click BaitThe continued resonance of the Olds and Milner experiment is perhaps most evident in the appearance of “click bait.” Typically relying on provocative visual elements (e.g., a headline and/or image), the concept of click bait adopts strategies and logics gleaned from advertising as it employs old models that form a direct correlation between value and number of views. Inhabiting a space at the intersection of attention, pleasure, and economic forces, the concept of click bait represents an interesting object of inquiry as we read about notions of visibility.

Click bait does not invite us to linger, to savor, or to contemplate; click bait entreats us to look but not to see or to imagine, encapsulating Nicholas Mirzoeff’s understanding of visuality as a force that is determined to impose a singular unified vision of the world on multiple levels. Take online slideshows as an example of notorious forms of click bait that rob us of the ability to curate our own collections and to develop our own connections between things. Visual displays such as these provide tangible examples of Mirzoeff’s position that visuality operates through classifying, ordering, and naturalizing—an assertion that offers a certain amount of overlap with the role that language plays in our experiences as it mediates the transformation from sensation into perception. Here, the price that we pay for a brief moment of pleasure is the loss of our imagination—we not only dampen our ability to see other realities but fundamentally inhibit our ability to believe that they can even exist. Click bait represents an entity that screams for our attention, offering a fleeing moment of pleasure in exchange for the opportunity to subvert our vision to its purposes as it directs us where to look.

Wrestling with these very notions of sight and seeing, Kanye West’s music video for “All of the Lights” speaks to the way in which stimulation and novelty has become increasingly integrated into the everyday experience of urbanized individuals.

The first viewing of West’s video is often difficult as viewers are confronted with frenetic visuals that invoke the light-filled cityscapes of Tokyo, Times Square, and Las Vegas. And yet, what strikes me is just how readily one becomes attuned to a display that boasts a prominent seizure warning.[1] What does this suggest about the way in which we have been trained to respond to visual stimuli in general and to incessant calls for our attention in particular? Or, perhaps more frighteningly, just how quickly we can habituate ourselves into unseeing.

“All of the Lights” is an interesting cultural artifact for me because it also wrestles with these notions of seeing and being seen through the lyrics of the song itself:  concerned with the attempts of a parolee to see his daughter (and for his daughter to see him), the song (unwittingly) builds upon Mirzoeff’s position on the relatedness between autonomy and sight.[2] And yet the song goes further as it calls attention to situations that cultural outsiders might willfully refrain from seeing. “Turn up the lights in here, baby / Extra bright, I want y’all to see this,” the song implores as it endeavors to realize Mirzoeff’s suggestion that visuality be countered through the presentation of alternate forms of realism. Additionally, the sequence pays homage to the opening credits for Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, a movie that plays with perspective and perception, continually reminding us to pay attention to the fact that we are paying attention.[3]

This sort of critical self-reflection is, as Cathy Davidson notes in her book Now You See It, a helpful reminder that we have been trained to pay attention to particular facets of the world—mistakenly inferring that these elements constitute the world in its entirety—at the expense of others. Davidson points to the structural and systematic ways in which we are socialized to pay attention to, and thus value, particular objects, ideas, and actions over others. From family, to school, to politics, institutions shape what is worthy of attention and therefore what are values are; attention, then, is not just about what we see but also how we see it.

Chris Tokuhama

[1] Although difficult to watch in its entirety, Enter the Void’s title sequence is particularly memorable for the way in which it disrupts the viewing process and dislocates the viewer as foreshadowing for the experience that follows.

[2] On page 25 of The Right to Look Mizroeff writes, “By the same token, the right to look is never individual:  my right to look depends on your recognition of me, and vice versa.”

[3] Similarly, I think that the opening scenes of American Horror Story:  Asylum ( perform a similar function, which ties into the season’s overall theme of truth/reality. The thing that the show makes evident is the way in which our interaction with the world is intimately tied to our perception of it.