Benjamin Fong, "Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism" (Columbia UP, 2016)


Benjamin Fong’s Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 2016) revitalizes two oft’ maligned psychoanalytic concepts, the death drive and the drive to mastery, and makes lively and thoroughgoing use of both to revisit arguments about the power of the culture industry and how we might resist its narcotizing allure. For instance, we know Facebook is the devil, offering us relief from real strife via impotent political engagement; like prisoners in solitary we write on its wall. We know Netflix is a platform for product placement that we pay for, meanwhile losing track of our myriad subscriptions. We know we ought to think twice before inhaling the contents of either yet we simply cannot seem to stop ourselves. What gives? This--our compliant involvement with what promises to decrease our power and increase our alienation—is an old Frankfurt School obsession and query. Fong attempts to explain our complicity by using Freud altogether differently than his forebears. (Fong has been a member of the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry which, having turned ghosts into ancestors, strikes me as the closest thing we have to a contemporary version of the Institut fur Sozialforschung going today, although I believe most of its members are American born.) He reminds us that the Frankfurt School ignored the death drive. In fact, the Freud engaged by the Frankfurt School appears to have stopped writing around 1919. (It is very odd to think that they did not absorb and make use of Beyond The Pleasure Principle, forget Civilization and Its Discontents.) I admit I found myself wondering if Freud’s conclusions about man as wolf to man, the impossibility of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and our desire to go out as we came in, were simply too bleak even for Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse? Of course, the death drive is tough for politics: how to organize people to fight for what is just if, at the end of the day, they simply seek the cessation of tension, and furthermore, are compulsively drawn to repeat their worst experiences? Freud’s thinking after 1920 can be read as offering a devastating critique of neoliberal “just do it” life with its appeals to progress and perfectibility. And Fong puts this Freud to great use. Attempting to construct a way out of being subsumed by the culture industry, with its promise of ruin, Fong champions a reappraisal of the super-ego as a friendly presence. He borrows from Hans Loewald, who argued for the super-ego as being future oriented, and harboring a hopeful fantasy, like a kind parent, about the fate of the ego over time. Fong also engages the thinking of Jacques Lacan, and with his help, tries to answer a question derived from a debate between Freud and Wilhelm Reich, about “where does the misery come from?” (Thanks to Jacqueline Rose for bringing this question to all of our attention). He develops a new theory (!) about aggressivity that locates it as arising neither solely from within nor from without. Interestingly, he does not rely on Laplanche to make his argument. That said, mastery as a concept scares me. Can “the master’s tools,” to paraphrase Audre Lorde, “dismantle the master’s house?” Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development did come to mind as I read, and I was left at times feeling a bit like one of Carol Gilligan’s adolescent girls, putting my feet, talk about returning to the primordial ooze, into the shoes of another. Then there is Freud’s idea that women lack sufficient super-egos. Following this logic, it is not too strange to ask if women can exercise mastery? And finally, what about Kerry James Marshall’s evocative and resonant use of the word, albeit spelled differently (Mastry), to refer to both slavery, the slave master, and the lives of those who survived it and his aftermath? Mastery is not a neutral word. Nevertheless, Fong’s idea that a life without mastery may not be a life worth living--where we cannot resist returning to the “primordial density” from which we once emerged, a space with no self and no other where we make judgments without judging and lack the capacity for delay and therefore the capacity to think--has traction. At a moment when both religious fundamentalism and the culture industry have us under their sway—or perhaps better put, have us on the nod, it comes as no surprise that Fong’s next book will be about drugs in the history of capitalism.
Tracy D. Morgan is a psychoanalyst and the founding editor of NBiP. Write to her at

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Tracy Morgan

Tracy D. Morgan: Psychoanalyst, LCSW-R, M.Phil., Editor, New Books in Psychoanalysis.

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