Death-drive (Todestriebe) is the tendency inherent in all organic things to return to an inorganic state. The concept is part of a dualism developed late in Sigmund Freud’s career consisting of two forces the life-drive (Lebenstriebe) and the death-drive, also known as Eros and Thanatos after the Greek Gods for love and death respectively, which exist in a state of equilibrium (for this reason Freud sometimes referred to it as the ‘Nirvana principle’). According to Freud, the death-drive manifests in the psyche as a tendency toward self-destruction, or more precisely the elimination of tension, which can also be turned outwards, whereby it becomes aggression.
The idea of the death-drive originates, to some degree, with the concept of the compulsion to repeat, which refers to behaviour which cannot be explained by the concept of the pleasure principle. For example, it does not give us pleasure to dwell on a humiliating incident and yet very often we cannot seem to get it out of our head, we keep going over and over it. This being so, Freud reasoned there must be another drive at work besides Eros. Similarly, Freud could not conceive that ambivalence, or aggression, or melancholia could be derived from the pleasure principle either. The death-drive is a highly contested concept in psychoanalysis and there is no agreement as to its coherence or cogency.
Jacques Lacan maintains the concept of the death-drive within his own schematization of the drives, but renders it part of every drive, thus undoing Freud’s dualistic conception of it. Gilles Deleuze rejects it out of hand as ridiculous, while Slavoj Žižek shows in countless works that it is a very useful concept for thinking through many of the inanities of consumer society. The death-drive, which Žižek visualizes as a kind of zombie-drive, is used to explain the empty satisfaction of consumerism, the fact that no matter how much we buy it never extinguishes the urge to buy more.