Freud saw the deliberate reliving of trauma as an attempt by an organism to master stimulus or excitation which disrupts its homeostasis. So the repetition-compulsion does not contradict Freud’s pleasure principle at all. Very primitive biological activity is constituted as a set of “habits,” and these habits annex or incorporate disruptive or traumatic excitations in such a way that neutralizes then — once the primitive, pre-individual and pre-subjective organism gives rise to a conscious ego, the ego comes to experience the mastery of these excitations as “pleasurable.” Thus, habit precedes and gives rise to pleasure; pleasure does not give rise to habit.
So why do we tend to succumb to the illusion that pleasure gives rise to habit, when it is actually the opposite that is true? As Somers-Hall notes: “Once pleasure is no longer related to a passive synthesis [in the form of a primitive, pre-individual, pre-subjective engage in habits in order to preserve itself by effective incorporating, annexing or discharging potentially disruptive or traumatic excitations], but is seen as organized in relation to a principle, we have an active synthesis that relates to an ego. The result of this is that the pleasure principle will now be seen as primary…”.
Concluding, there are two principles. On the one hand, the psyche wants to increase pleasure by reducing the amount of energy within it. This is Freud’s pleasure principle. Second, there is the attempt to “convert unbound energy into bound energy by mastering excitations.” This is the repetition-compulsion or compulsion to repeat, which Freud will describe as being the embodiment of the death drive. Ironically, then, the death drive is intimately bound up with the pleasure principle. Eros and Thanatos both require and depend upon one another to exist.
“At this stage, it is worth noting that by grounding the compulsion to repeat in the original structure of the organism, Freud has opened the possibility of analyzing this compulsion as a basic function of life itself. While the compulsion to repeat can operate in accordance with libido, it can also operate as a tendency of life to return to an earlier stage”(Somers-Hall). So Freud himself:
“At this point we cannot help thinking that we have managed to identify a universal attribute of drives – and perhaps of all organic life – that has not hitherto been clearly recognized or at any rate not explicitly emphasized. A drive might accordingly be seen as a powerful tendency inherent in every living organism to restore a prior state, which prior state the organism was compelled to relinquish due to the disruptive influence of external forces we can see it as a kind of organic elasticity, or, if we prefer, as a manifestation of inertia in organic life.”
But why does Freud think this? There are two assumptions to take into account. First, the organism differentiates itself from the world. In engaging the world, the organism experiences the world as disruptive and traumatic. Next, organisms engage in repetitive habits as a basic constitution of their being and development. Combining these notions, it is clear that development and change is itself inherently traumatic. This produces a tendency for organisms to return to states that are prior and less traumatic, as when we want to regress to the infantile state of the womb where we are, comparatively, less subject to trauma. Freud himself believed that this principle that fish return to their birth place in order to spawn and in the recapitulation theory of embryo development, in which each animal carries within itself the history o its development from more primordial forms of life.
“In fact, this movement is not simply to the earliest forms of life, but to the origin of life itself in the move from the inorganic tot he organic. Thus, the drive to repeat is not simply a drive to return to an earlier form of life, but inf act, a death drive. In this sense, the compulsion to repeat/return and the death drive are equivalent: ‘The goal of all lie is death, or to express it retroactively: the inanimate existed before the animate.’ Freud’s account o the origin of repetition therefore ultimately traces it back to the constitution of life itself. Life can be seen as playing out the relations between two different drives. First, there is the libido, which aims at conserving lie by protecting the organism from external traumas that threaten to destabilize it. This conservation of life is ultimately to be understood as simply making more complex the fundamental drive, the death drive, which seeks to return the organism to its primal state”(Somers-Hall).
The organism is thus born to die. Its death is bound up in itself, rather than merely being the result of external, disruptive factors. The organic seeks to return to the inorganic by its very nature, and ironically, by forces necessary for its very initial constitution. But then why does the organism elect to live at all?
“…death is at first ‘still easy for living matter; the course of life that had to be gone through was probably short, its direction determined by the newly created organisms’ chemical structure.’ Over time, however, the complexity of life means that more and more detours are incorporated between life and death. These drives delay the movement towards death, and so appear to be conservative. They are the ‘guardians of life’ in that they allow the oroganism to perpetuate itself, but in the end, these drives, such as the sexual drives, are ultimately subordinated to the death drive. They are determined by the fact that the organism wants ot chose its own death, rather than succumb to external influences.”
In any event, the point is that Freud’s account of the genesis and disruption of life is characterized by repetition. Thus, Deleuze finds the seeds of his own belief that passive syntheses of material conditions precede and give rise towards the active syntheses seen in Kant’s account of conscious cognition, which imposes its manner of perception upon the world. It becomes increasingly obvious that, as Deleuze points out, Kant’s account of the transcendental preconditions for intelligibility do not pierce to the most basic elements of the organism. Rather than determining the preconditions of possible experience, Deleuze shows how he wants to determine the transcendental ground of actual experience. While he does not characterize the genesis of life in terms of brute repetition-compulsion the way Freud does, Freud’s departure from Kant’s view of the transcendental opens the way for Deleuze’s account of human cognition in terms of intensive fields of pre-individual and pre-subjective individuating processes.
Deleuze proceeds to examine the human organism as it becomes a child. Keep in mind that passive synthesis is seen as involving the binding of disruptions or excitations which the biopsychical system comes to ace. Deleuze notes that the child has a relation to the outside insofar as it binds excitations in passive synthesis, even though there is endogenous excitations in its own movement. Even “walking” entails both endogenously and exogenously produced excitations. The organism is constantly encountering itself and that which is other from within and without. As Deleuze notes, all actions have an object. We are always interacting.
These insights have profound implications for Deleuze’s critique of Kant’s primary of object-interaction as representation. There are ways of interacting with objects that are more basic than that of sensory-cognitive representation. Deleuze will agree that interaction is object-oriented, but he will argue that there are pre-representational interactions with objects which involve the binding of excitations in order to obviate trauma or disruption. Deleuze says that “Active synthesis is defined by a test of reality in an “objectal” relation, and it is precisely according to the reality principle that the ‘ego’ tends to ‘be activated’, to be actively unified, to unite all its small composing and contemplative passive egos, to be topologically distinguished from the Id.”
Freud argues that the reality principle ultimately supplants the reign of the pleasure principle, with the help of the ego, in order to help the organism to thrive and prevent it from seeking pleasure in such a way that threatens its integrity. This is because sometimes we experience excitations which produce a desire for the discharge and equilibrium of these excitations in ways that are potentially dangerous, such as risky sex or drug abuse. The purpose of the reality principle is to prevent individual drives from seeking their satisfaction at the expense of the organism as a whole. It is this reality principle, says Freud, which produces the constitution of the subject capable of representing and of being represented to and by itself:
“We know that the pleasure principle belongs to a primary operational level of the psychic apparatus, and that so far as self-preservation is concerned it is never anything but useless, indeed highly dangerous, given the challenge posed by the external world. Thanks to the influence of the ego’s self-preservation drive it is displaced by the reality principle, which, without abandoning the aim of ultimately achieving pleasure, none the less demands and procures the postponement of gratification, the rejection of sundry opportunities for such gratification, and the temporary toleration of unpleasure on the long and circuitous road to pleasure.”
This leads, as Deleuze argues, to the genesis of the subject capable of active synthesis and active representation. But these are not the only forms of object relation. Deleuze introduces the controversial “virtual object” at this point. To quote Deleuze:
“The child constructs for itself another object, a quite different kind of object, which is a virtual object or centre and which governs and compensates for the progresses and failures of its real activity; it puts several fingers in its mouth, and appraises the whole situation from the point of view of this virtual mother.”
Deleuze sounds quite Lacanian at this point. Ultimately, for Deleuze, the human does not relate to “objects” as such but to signs. Indeed, while he seems to adopt a quasi-Lacanian approach, the Deleuzian understanding of the “sign” precedes that of Lacan’s “signifier.” The signifier, consisting of a link in a chain of full-fledged adult language, is only one example of a “sign,” for Deleuze (and for that matter, Guattari). Smoke from a fire or urine on a tree can function as signs or certain subjects, yet these are clearly pre-linguistic signs. Signs in the form of virtual objects function, Deleuze argues, for the child, in such a way that they offer the child continue opportunity to bind excitations; bindings which are clearly pre-linguistic, insofar as the child begins to do this at a point during which he is clearly not yet capable of employing signifiers in the form of language.
Keep in mind that this binding takes place in the form of a relation to excitations rather than Kantian representations. As Somers-Hall notes:
“This means that the kind of external object that allows for the generation o excitations will be different in kind from the actual objects of representation (just as the heartbeat doesn’t resemble the motion of the heart). Bearing this in mind, we can understand Deleuze’s claim that ‘sucking occurs only in order to provide a virtual object to contemplate in the context of extending the passive synthesis…Here we find a similar situation, since in sucking its thumb, the child is not interested in the actual object it relates to (the thumb), but rather in providing virtual signs for a passive synthesis. Thus, the thumb takes the place of the mother’s breast as providing excitations for the organism. Now, given that passive syntheses do not operate wit representation,s the child does not take the thumb to be the breast, but rather that aspect of the breast which satisfied the original binding process. This aspect is an action, or an image of an action. The thumb therefore provides a series of excitations that can be bound by a sub-representation passive synthesis.”
There are tow kinds of objects. There is the actual object and the virtual object. The virtual object is to be understood, Deleuze argues, as “shreds of pure past.” He describes the virtual object in the following way:
“We see both that the virtuals are deduccted rom the series of reals and that thtey are incorporated in the series of reals. This derivation iplies, first, an isolation or sspension which cfreezes the real in order to extract a pose, an aspect or a part. This isolation, however, is qualitatively: it does not consist simply in subtracting a a part of the real object , since the subtracted part acquires a new nature in functioning as a virtual object.”
Steven Shapiro, in his comparison of the metaphysics of Whitehead and Deleuze, provides this helpful definition of the concept of the virtual:
“The virtual works as a transcendental condition for the actual by providing a sufficient reason for whatever happens. This brings us back to the distinction – or better, the gap – between sufficient reason and ordinary causality. Linear causality, of the sort that physical science traces, is always, and only, a relation among bodies. It is a matter, as Deleuze puts it in The Logic of Sense (1990), of “bodies with their tensions, physical qualities, actions and passions, and the corresponding ‘states of affairs.’ These states of affairs, actions and passions, are determined by the mixtures of bodies. . . all bodies are causes – causes in relation to each other and for each other” (4). Everything in the world is determined by such physical causes; they constitute a necessary condition for every event – but as we have seen, not a sufficient one.”