Rudolf Bernet, Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Sarah Allen tr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2020; 391 pages. ISBN: 978-0810142337.

Reviewed by Joshua Royles, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Rudolf Bernet’s Force, Drive, Desire establishes psychoanalysis that is informed by the speculation on desire in Aristotle, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. As if tracing the development of desire throughout the history of philosophy was not ambitious enough, Bernet also incorporates psychoanalysis’s insights on the drive into this tradition, particularly Lacan’s amendments to Freud. This viewing of philosophy and psychoanalysis through each other’s lenses may not seem ground-breaking; for instance, Žižek has undertaken similar efforts in countless works. Even Bernet’s French subtitle—Une autre philosophie de la psychanalyse (Another philosophy of psychoanalysis)—labels the book one among many on the subject. However, the work is more original than its author claims, due to its wide-ranging scope, level of detail, and clear justification for studying philosophy alongside psychoanalysis.

In the introduction, Bernet explains how philosophy and psychoanalysis are mutually beneficial: philosophy prevents psychoanalysis from drifting towards naturalism, while psychoanalysis allows philosophy to understand the drive’s dangerous compulsion to repeat. Furthermore, psychoanalysis “has much to learn from philosophy, and even classical metaphysics, when it comes to the ontological dimension of the drive, that is, the drive as a mode of being of a living being who experiences its life in the form of a tense expectation.” (11) The drive is tense, because it is simultaneously negative and sterile, a lifeless repetition of the same, and positive and productive, a source of intense variation and movement. Thus, for Bernet, the drive is “the positivity of a negativity (that is, the effectiveness of a non-realization) and the negativity of a positivity (that is, the restraint or inhibition of an actual power).” (5)

Bernet invokes Aristotle’s concepts of potentiality and actuality to explain this drive tension and how a virtual pressing force striving for actualization with all its might enacts change. (27) According to Aristotle, movement is possible through a contraction that inhibits growth while facilitating the gathering of force and momentum. This obstacle appears in various forms:

From the presence of a lack or the absence of a force, to the sometimes complementary and sometimes conflictual relations between different drive forces, to the multiple forms of a resistance that opposes the disinhibition of a tension, and even to a holding back of power from enactment. (20)

This presence of an absence is what psychoanalysis attempts to grapple with. Bernet maintains that it is also what is at stake in the history of metaphysics; however, Freud mostly ignored their shared object of inquiry due to his confessed aversion to philosophy. (9)

Bernet reconstructs this tradition linearly, though he pairs Heidegger with Aristotle in the first chapter to emphasize the drive’s tension and ambivalence:

The dynamic and unstable character of the drives that animate the life movements of living beings, the deep ambivalence between activity and passivity in these drives, opposing or contrary drives and impotent drives, the finitude of all human drive force, and the sometimes painful choices to be made between holding drives back and gratifying them through action. (22)

The drive is not simply positive or negative, movement or rest, freedom or enchainment, closure or disclosure, but the holding together of opposites. Heidegger’s understanding of finitude demonstrates this ambivalence of the drive. For Heidegger, there are infinitely more possibilities than can be actualized. Hence “life is marked by a lack of actualization that is at the same time a richness of as yet unused or unrealized potentialities. This is why the potentiality that underlies the actual life of living beings is simultaneously a ‘force’ and a weakness, a ‘capability’ and an impotence.” (24) All force, then, immanently contains an obstacle or counterforce. (37) The drive does not appear when realized; rather, as the pressure that builds in deferred actualization, since “it is in impediment, and not in realization, that forces become most pressing.” (39)

Here marks Bernet’s shift from Aristotle to Lacan, desire to drive. Potency does not desire satisfaction or actuality; instead, it desires the obstacle it continually dashes up against, preventing the closure of the openness of possibility, thus any final realization. (175) In short, potency desires itself: it is the desire of desire. “The drive, much like desire,” then, “can thus be thought of as concerned with preserving itself as drive than with ‘emptying itself’ of its tension in a ‘fulfillment’ of its striving.” (43) The aim of the drive, for Lacan, is not to finally reach its desired object but rather to misencounter it, prolonging the search indefinitely.

Bernet describes a similar dynamic in Leibniz, where the driving force presses ever closer to perfection that, as finite, cannot be reached. Leibniz’s active force has a passive correlate: “A ‘resistance’ that weighs on all finite substance and holds it back from the immediate and unlimited realization of all its powers of action.” (48) Movement arises from this antagonism of forces; however, it can only occur with a shift in powers: “For a body to actually move or change itself, this static equilibrium between its active and passive forces has to be broken and the dynamic endeavor of its active force has to overcome the laziness of the passive forces.” (60) The passive force does not vanish, though, since its inhibition subsides long enough to be overcome by the active force. A lethargy remains to struggle against the active force. So, while the active force momentarily prevails over the passive, it “should never hope to one day get rid of it.” (62) Bernet associates Leibniz’s imperfectible finite substance to Lacan’s lack of being: “Human drives and desire are already shaped by a ‘disquiet’ that no satisfaction or attachment to an object will succeed in quieting.” (69) Incompleteness, however, is not simply a curse; for it is to this “imperfection that human existence owes its openness towards an indefinite progress and perfecting.” (74) Hence dissatisfaction facilitates satisfaction indirectly in the shift from desire to drive, “particular desires into indefinite desires, that is, into desires of desire.” (77)

In the following chapter, Bernet compares this pure desire detached from any determinate object to Schopenhauer’s will. The will, “lacking both a graspable object and a fixed goal that could put an end to its circular path, becomes a purely formal will, a will to will or a drive to be driven.” (191) Bernet argues that the will differs from Leibniz’s force because it is asubjective and irrational, “characterized by blindness, ignorance, indetermination, unavoidable dissatisfaction, and confinement in a sterile and destructive repetition.” (88) Since Schopenhauer’s will is aimless, it does not press ever closer towards perfection but “wants nothing more, in the end, than to affirm and conserve itself as it already is, that is ‘in-itself.’” (92) “The will-in-itself,” therefore, “does nothing but will, and it wills above all else to realize itself.” (112) Thus, any attempt to realize the will in a particular act is tragically bound for dissatisfaction, since its true aim is to continue willing, engendering further desires. Only the disinterested genius, according to Schopenhauer, can escape desire’s torturous wheel as an impartial spectator who no longer wants anything. (125) Bernet argues, though, that the genius’s lack of wanting does not free them from desiring, for the will “wants nothing at all—except to indefinitely prolong the mechanism of its own repetition.” (203) Bernet advocates instead for a compromise between the conflicting tendencies of wanting to reduce all tension to zero and maintaining a relentless repetition smothering all creativity and difference. Since drive tension cannot be discharged, nor the compulsion to repeat avoided, Bernet’s solution is the partial sublimation of drives through the subject’s immersion in art.

The book concludes by considering some possible remedies to “calm” the inescapable tension in drive-based, desiring subjects. This analysis begins with a chapter on Husserl’s distinction between lived and material bodies. (232) Although fascinating, the discussion seems out of place, deviating from Bernet’s main argument. However, he recovers the previous thread in the final chapter in place of a formal conclusion. While the book’s most lucid and lively chapter, it does not adequately summarize the entirety of Bernet’s drawn-out argument. A separate conclusion would greatly benefit the reader. Instead, the chapter is a critique of Schopenhauer’s “theoretical spectator,” which inadequately dealt with the drive tension, in favour of Nietzsche’s tragic spectator and Lacan’s spectated spectator.

For Bernet, Nietzsche and Lacan’s methods of drive sublimation offer an appropriate compromise “situated between wanting and renouncing.” (303) Nietzsche is concerned with how “art itself constitutes an interpretation of vital and creative forces,” not with the subject’s interpretation or creation of art; for drives create while “the artist and art lovers are mere vessels,” effects, or expressions. (312) The tension between the forces of Apollo “protecting and calming things down” and Dionysus, who “wounds and carries away,” gives birth to artistic expression. (313) Sublimation occurs not with the victory of either force; rather, in the spectacle of these forces wrestling that creates art, which the spectator can subsequently lose themselves in. The subject, therefore, “annihilates itself in the work of art; it transforms itself into a work of art by identifying with the drive forces of which this work is a singular expression.” (316) Sublimation, for Nietzsche, is not an exclusive disjunction or choice, but a positive affirmation and conjunction of opposing forces. The subject thus “frees” themselves from the drive by diving into its currents and surrendering “to the joy of surfing on the waves of artistic drives,” not by swimming against them. (320)

To complement Nietzsche’s fused spectator, Bernet employs Lacan’s split spectator. Lacan maintains—through the example of trompe-l’oeil paintings designed to trick and trap the eye of its viewer—that perception is a drive process exhibiting a “fascination for something that escapes its grasp.” (323) Like in Nietzsche, the work of art decentres the subject: “The picture’s gaze dispossesses the perceiving subject of its sovereignty by showing that before it sees, it is always already seen.” (324) According to Lacan, the desire to see is “pacified” by the painting’s tricks because, as a desire of desire, what it wants is deception itself, to be fooled in order to resume its search. Such purposeful deception soothes the drive, because it “satisfies” desire in a round-about way, “momentarily suspending its frantic flow.” (332) The reaction to trickery is not anger, as one would expect, but the joy of circumventing the drive.

Bernet’s work has made a clear contribution to psychoanalysis and Continental philosophy. The book strikes a delicate balance with its broad strokes synthesizing large swaths of the philosophical and psychoanalytical traditions while still accurately paying close attention to the intricate details. Because of this—and despite its at times challenging terminology—I would recommend the book to beginners and experts alike. It serves as an introductory text to philosophy and psychoanalysis without sacrificing relevance to specialists. Its unique versatility and reach make this work not just “another philosophy of psychoanalysis” but an original undertaking. However, the book is not without shortcomings; its cast has two glaring omissions. The first is Spinoza: any book that begins with striving and ends with joy is incomplete without his inclusion. Bernet himself admits as much, expressing regret for not having enough room to deal with Spinoza. (6) The second is Deleuze, whom Bernet thought relevant enough to quote as epigraphs at the beginning of many chapters, but not enough to seriously engage in the text. These omissions were tactical, not (as Bernet alludes) logistical, since space could have been made by cutting the off-topic chapter on Husserl and one of the duplicated chapters on Freud. Deleuze and Spinoza were therefore excluded because their positive notions of desire would undermine Bernet’s argument hinging on the positivity of a negative, the inhibition of Lacanian desire combined with the unrestrained flow of Nietzsche’s joyous subject. Including Deleuze and Spinoza, who are naturally aligned with Nietzsche, would have tipped the scales, resulting in a more positive conception of desire, ultimately contradicting Bernet’s emphasis on restraint and disjunction over boundless affirmation, relation, and joy.