Courtesy of Apple Books

February 1, 2024

Elfbar Ideology: Reimagining the Death Drive

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Slavoj Zizek, a proponent of Jacques Lacan, describes the psychoanalytic concept of the death drive as “the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy.” Plainly, the death drive is that tendency for rational beings to engage in self-destructive behaviors as a refusal of mortality. A medieval footsoldier will charge into certain death with the reassurance that God waits in the afterlife. The people of Gaza now stand their ground in the face of bombardment with that same reassurance. This is an archaic instantiation of death drive ideology to those that live in the contemporary West, in the heart of empire.

But mortality transcends time and place. We will die, yes, no matter our contemporary life expectancy or the pace of economic development. Misguided futurists will tell you that immortality is in technological reach; this is in itself symptomatic of death drive, structured by a technocratic ideology rather than religion. In a largely agnostic society that places the image of Steve Jobs on the pedestal once held by God, this is how we reject the repercussions of our self-sabotage.

This generation may be defined by vice: drunk driving, drug dependence and dignified depression. It is one so conscious of matters of justice, equity, etc. that it endorses self-destructive behaviors in that externally-destructive behaviors have become off-limits. How else do we explain the proliferation of therapy-talk in toxic relationships? By that I mean, “It isn’t fair to you if I’m unhappy in this partnership, therefore I should sleep with other people,” and so on. We must frame our actions such that they are intended for the betterment of others, not ourselves. I can destroy my own life but not harm another’s, rightly so. I am right, then, by Zoomer ideology, to wither away by nicotine addiction and alcoholism. It is my problem and no one else’s. Then the only hope becomes the sharing of wellbeing: A mother says, “I hate to see you like this, please get better for me.” My problem becomes hers and, altogether, the orthodox Gen Z should find this argument compelling. 

This is the curious case of the disposable vape. A TikTok from this past November shares concern with the effect of American consumption on labor conditions in the Congo. The poster realizes that she has been reusing the same electronics for years — save, the ELFBAR. “The only thing I know how to do,” she says, “is quit vaping. And it’s saving me, essentially … but I’m going to quit vaping for Congo.” Succinctly: “I’m a real life fiend for nicotine; I can’t fiend for this shit.”

What does it mean for our generation that we can be saved from our vices only when they tangentially threaten somebody thousands of miles away? It means hope, I think. It is the modus operandi of the revolutionary: “I will lay down my life for the struggle, for my fellow man.” Only, with this iteration of the death drive, it really means, “I will save my life for my fellow man.” To save oneself becomes the self-sabotage that Zizek credits to the libido. I will be far from the first to identify Generation Z as the new vanguard of socio-political disturbance. You have heard it, seen it, time and time again in anti-capitalist demonstrations against oil subsidies and the genocide in Gaza and the West Bank. It starts with quitting the vape; it ends with the implosion of neoliberalism. 

Derek Hook writes of Zizek: “He provides an intimation of a broader theme, namely, that of resistance to historicization, or, more forcefully put, the ostensibly a-historical nature of the death drive.” This is where we depart from Zizek and return to the traditional psychoanalytic; the death drive is deeply periodical, it changes with context. Just as quickly as it has affirmed self-destructive behaviors for our generation, it will come to affirm a spirit of mutual benefit. Once, the death drive enabled reactionary religious fervor. Soon, it will spell the end of the reactionary plurality. 
Just skim Cenk Uygur’s new book, Justice Is Coming. Not only is this generation more anti-capitalist than not, Uygur believes that it is likely to remain so for our lifetime. He finds that while political attitudes are highly malleable in youth, those attitudes overwhelmingly tend to rigidify in adulthood. With a great portion of Gen Z and younger Millennials now approaching that age, it appears unlikely that the train will halt. Yes, Cenk, justice is coming – let us thank our vices.

Eric Han is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].