Ghosts vs Zombies: Desire, Drive and Capitalism
29 March 2023
In the search for satisfaction in an unsatisfying world, it is tempting to connect psychoanalysis to the occult and to other forms of spirituality. In some cases, this may serve to mystify the precision and specificity of psychoanalysis as a practice and as a theoretical framework. Nevertheless, the imagery and metaphors that emerge from fantasies of the supernatural offer a means of understanding human desire and its sociopolitical implications in a way that pure, non-dialectical ‘reasoning’ cannot. Whilst zombies serve as a metaphor for unregulated capitalist drive, ghosts confront us with the difficulty of desire in all its contradictions, echoing the impetus of psychoanalysis itself.
Ghosts are ambivalent. They are twilight beings - half living, half dead. A ghost is the presence of an absence, it both exists and doesn’t exist. Such a vacillating state of being is reflective of the polyvalent way that human’s want things, the nature of human desire itself. Most importantly in psychoanalysis: the concept of drive.
In Deceit, Desire and the Novel René Girard tells a parable that nicely delineates the process of drive:
A man sets out to discover a treasure he believes is hidden under a stone; he turns over stone after stone but finds nothing. He grows tired of such a futile undertaking but the treasure is too precious for him to give up. So he begins to look for a stone which is too heavy to lift—he places all his hopes in that stone and he will waste all his remaining strength on it.
The parable expresses the repetitious nature of drive. A contingent failure in the pursuit of a treasured thing leads the searcher to unknowingly shift his libidinal energy from the treasure to that which prevents him from accessing the treasure. The barrier that the searcher comes up against — perhaps in a different guise each time — is the haunting of the failure to access the treasured object in the first place.
We are inhabited by our failures. But this haunting serves a purpose. It animates our very being, it inflames our desire. It allows for a fantasy to continue to exist: the idea that the original object might have made us transcendentally happier. This is a critical insight of Lacanian thought: to be desiring subjects, we need something out of reach. Without this absent original object we couldn’t function as desiring subjects. We need its presence and its absence: we are happiest with it, but without it.
The present-absentness of ghosts confronts us with the existence of this drive. An interesting cultural example can be found in David Lowery's 2017 film A Ghost Story. In the film, a house is haunted by a single ghost through years of human tenants. Young families, hipster couples and pontificating party hosts take it in turns to dwell in the house, each in turn haunted by the repeated appearance of the ghost. The ghost’s cycle of return, his centuries-long repetitive existence, is driven by a contingent frustration of his own: the fact that historically he failed to discover what was written on a note left by his wife in the wall of the house when she left it after he, in his physical incarnation as a human, passed away. This single unreachable meaning engenders his desire to endlessly return. As soon as he reads the message, his very being evaporates. He was sustained by this desire, like Girard’s man faced with the unliftable stone, and requires it for the functioning of his disembodied subjectivity.
Psychoanalytically speaking, we can say that while ordinary desire seeks its overcoming in an object, drive seeks the failure itself. Everyday desire seeks its end in getting something: a cup of coffee for energy, a sandwich for sustenance, a holiday, a car, a bath at the end of the end of the day. While desire operates on the level of consciousness, drive is unconscious and seeks the repetition of failure.
Desire is utilitarian, functioning as part of what Freud called the pleasure principal. Drive, on the other hand, is ‘beyond the pleasure principal’. It is what separates us from animals and is a relic of our initial marking with lack, the very thing that makes us humans that are able to speak, think and feel.
But drive, the unconscious addressing of our lack, can also cause great suffering. It is continually eating despite being full. It is the need to accrue more wealth than we could ever possibly spend in our lifetime. It is working 70 hours a week when 30 would do. It is exercising excessively and never knowing when to stop.
None of these things, of course, are in our best interest. Instead, they are what happens when drive is co-opted by capitalism and begins to operate in the capitalist mode. We might even say that capitalism is a psychic and libidinal nexus that emerges from this distorted form of desire. Like a zombie, the capitalist accrues, destroying himself for the promise of an eventual comfort that will never come.
There is perhaps a solution. If the capitalist zombie endlessly accrues to its own detriment, the ghost allows us to accept our position in relation to our drives. We cannot overcome our lack and we cannot overcome our distorted ways of wanting things, but by bringing them to the level of consciousness we can lower the stakes. In his 2013 book Enjoying What we Don’t Have, Todd McGowan recognizes that we would be entirely void and non-desiring without these contingent missings of otherwise not magical things. In his recent Enjoyment Left and Right, McGowan politicizes the point to argue that drive in capitalism is orientated towards expansion, not universality, whereas a universalist society would involve ‘the recognition that contradiction is necessary and enjoyable, not an obstacle to be avoided’. Capitalism cannot attain this because it needs us to accrue like zombies, but it is haunted by the threat of this realization.
We must not let us desires pass us by, but we also must not believe that achieving our fantasies is where we will find true happiness. Understanding that we find enjoyment in the not getting, that it is the not getting itself that gives us meaning — however bittersweet — we can lower the stakes on our process of drive and exchange the rollercoaster of pain and disappointment for something more reasonable: ordinary unhappiness.