The death drive as a will to create from zero, to begin again

I found this incredibly thought provoking from Richard Seymour as a reflection on the possibility of hope in a time of crisis. It suggests we need to move through despair because there is no way around it, but that on the other side we can find a hope grounded in a coming to terms with groundlessness. There is no saviour who will rescue us, no conditions which can underwrite certainty but simply the brute fact of our existence in this world, at this time, facing the conditions which we do:

Yet there is also what John Berger called, in reference to Palestinians struggling against great odds, “undefeated despair”. This is hope as a form of non-capitulation. There is in this despair a pocket of joy, achievable only after having passed through the labour of the negative. This necessitates what the psychosocial theorist Derek Hook calls a “restructuring of jouissance”, wherein we get beyond our anxiety and self-protection, and the temptation to lower our horizons and merely bargain for survival out of fear of change and its consequences.

The psychoanalyst Daniel José Gaztimbide, author of A People’s History of Psychoanalysis, describes how this can happen. “The way it comes up with many clients,” he says, “is getting to a place of, ‘well, given that we’re screwed in all of these conceivable ways, what would you want to do? Not, what do you have to do to survive, or appease the Other, but what would you just want?” On the precipice of death, “where all you’re left with is your own desire”, you’re prepared to risk everything for a tomorrow that may not come.

This is where liberation meets the death-drive. We tend to think of the death-drive as a reactionary tendency that manifests, in ecological terms, primarily as climate denialism. In his reflections on Fanon’s “zone of non-being”, however, the psychoanalyst Derek Hook gives it an entirely different valence. The death-drive, he notes, is not a death wish. It is just, as Mari Ruti put it, “drive in its purest form”. The drive that spins regardless of the body’s need for survival. The drive that makes Antigone defy human law in the name of a superior divine law, knowing that by disobeying Creon she risks mortal punishment: being buried alive in a tomb. The drive that pushes Steve Biko into struggle with the apartheid regime, knowing that it tortures people like him to death: “You are either alive or you are dead, and when you are dead, you don’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing”.

The death-drive is, as Jacques Lacan put it, a “desperate affirmation of life”, a “will to create from zero, to begin again”. It isn’t a death wish, but as Hook puts it, a “death-bound subjectivity”.

As someone preoccupied with endings and ‘fresh starts’ to an extent I’ve often regarded as pathological, it’s left me with a sense that there’s something positive expressed in this impulse even if the behavioural outcomes are often negative in practice. It also introduced me to the work of Derek Hook who has a fascinating YouTube channel:

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