Politics of Death Drive. Dis/Identification, Transgression, War, Workshop 16th – 17th June 2022

In light of the multiple crises of global capitalism and the intensification of imperial wars, the workshop will discuss the current relevance of the psychoanalytic concept of the death drive. At the same time, the problems that have shaped the post-Marxist reception of this concept until today will be examined: social dis/identification, existential transgression, and the metamorphoses of war.

            Freud had introduced the notion of death drive in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle under the impression of the First World War and the nightmares and flashbacks of persons traumatized by war. It is his most speculative, mad, and inconsistent concept with which he begins to unfold his final drive theory organized around life and death tendencies. Scarcely any other Freudian term is more contested; hardly any escalates scientific, ontological, and political speculations about the traumatization of life, the un/productivity of death, and the performativity of the drive in the context of modern power relations further than this one. In a word, the death drive is the conceptual enfant terrible of psycho- and schizoanalysis. From Critical Theory to queer theory, from Marxism to poststructuralism, from affect theory to trauma theory, this notion has fueled controversies that never stopped argueing anew and differently about a politics of the unconscious or the Real about a revolutionary production of desire or schizophrenia against the backdrop of modern power, state violence, or nihilistic desire for submission. Intervening in these debates, the workshop searches for the elements or lines of flight of a politics of death drive and traces its un/possible scenarios.

            Equipped with the concept of death drive, in 1920 Freud revised his assumption that the psychic apparatus is subject to a pleasure principle that aims at the satisfaction and reduction of drive excitations, so that a homeostatic economy of equilibrium is set in motion. The nightmares of persons traumatized by war provided Freud with a first hint of a »beyond« of such a pleasure principle, which would be determined by a surplus of unbound and unconscious forces and would have to be attributed to an uncanny aneconomy in which the unpleasurable incessantly returned. This traumatic neurosis prefigured a compulsion to repeat in which the horror of an event repeatedly breaks through and hammers away at the ego without being able to be translated, »bound«, or symbolized into a meaningful narrative. In the framework of evolutionary-biological considerations, Freud traced this compulsive return to an earlier violation back to the origin of cell membranes. As dead or »burned out« outside of simplest living beings they manifested that death conditions life and that life itself forms only a lacuna in the time of the inorganic. The death drive thus proves to be an ambivalent limit figure that oscillates between an excess of unbound energy and the zero point of the inorganic, between free-flowing excitement and the calcification of being. It becomes obvious at the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle that Freud wants to reintegrate the death drive to an economy of detours and postponements. He tries to keep its deforming violence at a distance and to treat its aneconomy and principlessness as a negative or virtual limit that disturbs the economy as much as it supports it. In this way, even the death drive was put to »work« by taking over the task of supplying unbound energies through its repetitions to the binding. Freud’s reflections on the death drive emerged in a text that was full of inquiring advances and reversals, denials and omissions. It was a fresco that reflected the violence of the questions raised and plunged psychoanalysis itself, together with its conservatisms, its heteronormative and familial fixations, into crisis.

            The workshop will discuss poststructuralist and post-Marxist, deconstructive and Kleinian positions that critically confront this re-economization of the drive’s excessiveness, but without advocating an ideal beyond, a total transgression, a positivist liberation of libido, or diminishing the radical alterity of the death drive. Attempting to map the complicated and extimate position of the drive between body and psyche, self and Other, production and anti-production, capitalism and schizophrenia, the workshop takes into account that debates about the topicality of the death drive are organized around a spectacular shift in perspective or a central divergence: on the one hand, these debates negotiate scenarios of a politics of the Real, of anti-oedipal desiring machines, queer (contra-)sexuality, or polymorphously perverse libido that transgress any ego, any personal identity, any imagined community – including that of the political group or social movement – and invoke an acephalic, schizoid subject or assemblage. These considerations are in constant communication with the legacy of the avant-gardes, the unproductive expenditures as well as with the heritage of leftist and emancipatory projects of liberation. In unfaithful fidelity, these reflections confront the singularity of political departures against the ground of their abandonments, failures, reactionary turns in order to fail once again differently, to fail better. On the other hand, contemporary discussions of the death drive work toward a critique of the global geopolitics of trauma, state and post-state wars, and technologically potentiated killing that characterize colonial and capitalist modernity. This second strand of the debate asks what mechanisms of nationalist and racist hatred, patriarchal violence, exploitation of the poor, pleasure in subjugating others, and immunization from their mourning underlie these geopolitics.

            The first case discusses the death instinct affirmatively and existentially, the second critically. The first elevates it to the performative model of all drives, marked by excess and surplus satisfaction, interruption, and disjunctive synthesis. Death here is a creative force of de-formation, of transformation, of connection without bond. In some approaches it is conceived negatively or subtractively, in others positively or intensely. This first tendency’s critical intervention is to ask whether and how the excessiveness of the drive can be separated from commodification and neoliberal self-stylization, from creative adaptation and repressive desublimation, but also how it can interrupt its own reactionary or authoritarian turns. How can another repetition be engendered within repetition? On the other hand, in the second strand of the debate, the death drive is identified with a content. Aggression, cruelty and destructiveness are elevated to its »representative« or »representation«. Such discussions debate the modern logics of exploitation, annihilation, and war at the nexus of reactionary identifications and abstract domination, social delirium and war. Concomitantly, these debates struggle with Freud’s cultural pessimisms and negative anthropologies, his father-centric mythologizations of killing, and his impolitical ideas of an educational dictatorship that would exercise the reason of the few over the drives of the many.

            The workshop attempts to think in the interstices of the different poststructuralist and post-Marxist death drive theories and to deliberate on their differences. In a zig-zag, it will look for the connections between approaches as diverse as those of an undead subject of the drive, schizophrenic connections of desire, destructive plasticity, the new international of the wounded, the beyond of cruelty, and warnings against the molecular and molar fascisms of today, in order to reconsider the politics of the death drive in a new and different way. This also begs the question of how – with which thinking or in which acts of thinking – the death drive can be conceived at all, and how speaking and thinking will change in the process.


Meeting-ID: 810 1466 6921 Kenncode: 802454

Cultural Philosophy / Philosophy of Cultures. The Faculty of Social and Cultural Sciences.

The workshop is organized by Katja Diefenbach, Till Hahn, Jenny Kellner, Philipp Linstädter and Rebekka Wilkens.

Thursday, 16th June 2022

15:30 – 15:45 Introduction

15:45 – 17:00 Monique David-Ménard
Death drive: metaphysical entity, clinical reality or political evidence?
Chair: Katja Diefenbach

The notion of death drive is a controversial one, both in psychoanalysis and outside of it in cultural theory. In fact, many analysts (e.g. Winnicott, Zaltzmann), as well as many philosophers (e.g. Deleuze) consider it to be a useless notion. In their perspective, we only need a concept of repetition and not the supposedly biological and speculative notion Freud had coined. By contrast, in politics the death drive appears evident in the phenomenon of hate and especially in war. Silent and impossible to isolate from sexual drives, when it structures the subject of desire, the death drive is often seen as a metaphysical entity responsible for all kinds of destructions. How can we think the paradoxical status and the ambiguities of such a hypothesis: the death drive is the cause of destruction but also a resource of many creations?

Monique David-Ménard has a dual career, as a professor of philosophy and a practicing psychoanalyst. As the Director of the Centre d’études du vivant (2005-2011), she established the research field »Gender and Sexualities« at the University Paris-Diderot. She has published numerous books and articles in continental philosophy, among others La Vie sociale des choses. L’animisme et les objets (Edition du Bord de l’Eau, 2020), Éloge des hasards dans la vie sexuelle (Hermann, 2011), Deleuze et la psychanalyse (P.U.F., 2005).

Coffee break

17:30 – 18:45 Eckardt Lindner
From spectral pasts to inorganic futures. On the temporal politics of the death drive
Chair: tba

Freud’s spectral archeology of the death drive marks it as the compulsion of the organism to repeat its traumatic origins in the inorganic. It is a demand to assimilate an exorbitant death, which cannot be bound by the living but presents itself paradoxically as its very condition. The impossibility for the organism to recover its condition introduces a radical temporal linearity, which for Freud can only appear as the haunting of an inassimilable excessive trauma insisting within the conservative economy of the organism; as non-dialectical negativity. Deleuze’s critique of Freud’s empirical model of Thanatos (in Difference and Repetition), attempts to undo this binding and instate the death drive in its proper transcendental function as the pure empty form of time; as nonconceptual positivity.
The paper will use this temporal typology of the death drive to map various political uses of Thanatos in contemporary discourse (including accelerationism, New Materialism and psychoanalysis) and will question their implications and possibilities for current political struggles.

Eckardt Lindner is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Vienna and Webster Private University Vienna. His research focuses on contemporary French philosophy, Critical Theory and Non-Philosophy. He is currently working on the philosophies and politics of exhaustion. Forthcoming in 2022 are: Inorganic Life. Deleuze’s Aberrant Vitalism and Post-Vitalism. Life and Passivity.

19:00 – 20:15 Oxana Timofeeva
The death drive of the Empire
Chair: Jenny Kellner

Starting from the dialectics of an empty self, or abstract personality, and the phantasmatic figure of the Lord of the world, which, in the 6th chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel presents as the »state of legality«, the paper will analyse the logic of empires not only as political entities, but also as forms of consciousness, and address fascism as a specific form of imperialism – more specifically, as its death drive.

Oxana Timofeeva teaches contemporary philosophy in Saint Petersburg; she is a member of the artistic collective »Chto Delat« (»What is to be done«), and the author of books Solar Politics (Polity, 2022), How to Love a Homeland (Kayfa ta, 2020), History of Animals (Bloomsbury 2018), This is not That (in Russian, Ivan Limbakh Publishing House, 2022), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (in Russian, New Literary Observer, 2009), and other writings.


Friday, 17th June 2022

09:45 – 10:00 Introduction

10:00 – 11:15 Hannah Proctor
»The coming to life of inorganic substance«: on life, death and the inorganic
Chair: Till Hahn

This paper will take the strange speculative fourth chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as the starting point for a comparative discussion of Freud’s seminal text with British Kleinian psychoanalyst Hanna Segal’s essay on the threat of nuclear war: »Silence is the real crime« (1987). The traumatic dreams of patients who had fought in »the terrible war which has just ended« prompted Freud to rethink the relationship between pleasure and the compulsion to repeat, leading him to posit the existence of the death drive. Segal, writing during the Cold War, analysed instead the psychic impact of a possible future war so destructive it could only be conceived of as an »unimaginable void«. Freud’s scientific detour turns to the origins of life, while Segal contemplates life’s possible end in terms that also provide insights into the current climate crisis. Segal invoked her clinical experience working with destructive and self-destructive individuals as evidence of the possibility of quelling destructive forces on a social level, the possibility of mobilising »our life forces
against the destructive powers.« Circling themes of destruction and preservation, annihilation and survival, death and life, denial and acceptance, ends and beginnings, the external and the internal, the social and the psychological – this paper will ask what happens when the death drive is thought in relation to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Hannah Proctor is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Her first monograph Psychologies in Revolution: Alexander Luria’s ›Romantic Science‹ and Soviet Social History was published in the Palgrave Macmillan series Mental Health in Historical Perspective and she is now working on completing Burnout: On the Psychological Toll of Political Struggle, forthcoming from Verso. She is web/reviews editor of History of the Human Sciences, a member of the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy and a contributing editor at Parapraxis.

11:30 – 12:45 Marc Rölli
Learning to rethink war
Chair: Andrea Allerkamp

Can philosophy contribute something to the understanding of the new constellations of war, most recently the war in Ukraine? Are we really dealing with a turning point in time (»Zeitenwende«) – and if so, how can we grasp it more precisely? Freud’s concept of the death drive offers some possibilities to rethink the common »realistic« or »idealistic« conceptions of war. But these possibilities can only be seized if they are concretized in terms of a theory of power relations. How exactly do the powers of death and life relate to each other in the present?

Marc Rölli is professor of philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig. He works on the history of anthropology and its decolonial critique, in the area of social and political philosophy with a focus on epistemological and power-theoretical issues, design and art theory, pragmatism, phenomenology and structuralism. His recent publications include Anthropologie dekolonisieren (Campus, 2021), Macht der Wiederholung (Turia + Kant, 2019), Immanent denken (Turia + Kant, 2018) and Gilles Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).


14:15 – 15:30 Alexander García Düttmann
Beyond beyond. Can there be more than one?
Chair: Philipp Linstädter

Freud, in a famous letter addressed to Albert Einstein, suggests that war, in which the death drive manifests itself outwardly as destructive violence, may be unavoidable though pacifism remains deeply and organically entrenched in so-called civilised beings. Seventy years on, Jacques Derrida takes up the contents of this letter and tries to conceive of a beyond that lies even beyond the beyond in which the death drive situates itself when referred to the principle of pleasure. It is only in relation to this other beyond, more beyond than the beyond of cruelty, destructive violence, and death, that pacifism may be justified, Derrida claims. But can there be two forms of beyondness, two forms of »aneconomy«, if beyondness is to resist, or excede, its appropriation and reinscription into an »economy« of peace and war?

Alexander García Düttmann teaches philosophy at the University of the Arts in Berlin. His most recent book publications include In Praise of Youth (Diaphanes, 2021) and The Hopeless (August, 2022). His translation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s book Cruor was published in Germany in May 2022 (Diaphanes). In 2017, his edition of a lecture course on theory and practice that Jacques Derrida held in the mid 1970s was released with Éditions Galilée in Paris. In 2019, he acted in Albert Serra’s film Liberté.

Coffee break

16:00 – 17:30 Samo Tomšič & Katja Diefenbach
Wasting politics. Death drive and its farewell in Deleuze and Lacan
Chair: Rebekka Wilkens

Freud’s concept of the death drive sparked controversies and divided the psychoanalytic community ever since its introduction in 1920. However, the concept obtained its full fame in post-Marxist philosophy, which used it for sketching out a politics of the unconscious. Without a doubt, this was due to Lacan’s and Deleuze’s affirmative return to the disputed notion. While today’s »conflict of interpretations« revolving around the death drive still draws from both Lacanian and Deleuzian sources, a symptomatic development remains rather unacknowledged: Soon after they proposed their influential readings, Lacan and Deleuze dropped the death drive from their conceptual arsenal. Starting from De Certeau’s remarks on the relationship between mysticism, psychoanalysis and torture, the joint presentation examines the reasons for this disappearance of a concept, and which other notions and problems replaced or displaced it. The paper attempts to shed new light on the Lacan-Deleuze controversy, initiated in 1972 through the publication of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and Lacan’s crypted response in his Seminar Encore. What can we think through this controversy and which divergent figures of radical politics emerge in its frame?

Samo Tomšič is visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg and research associate at the Humboldt University Berlin. He obtained his PhD from University of Ljubljana, slovenia. His research areas comprise political philosophy, history and theory of psychoanalysis, continental philosophy and epistemology. Recent publications include The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan (Verso, 2015) and The Labour of Enjoyment. Toward a Critique of Libidinal Economy (August, 2019/2021).

Katja Diefenbach is professor of cultural philosophy at the European University (Frankfurt/O.) and member of the publishing collective b_books (Berlin). Her research areas include 20th century French philosophy, Spinoza research, Postcolonial and Gender Studies as well as decolonial readings of Western philosophy and its history. Besides numerous articles in these research areas her publications comprise Spekulativer Materialismus. Spinoza in der postmarxistischen Philosophie (Turia + Kant, 2018) and Encountering Althusser. Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought (Bloomsbury, 2013; ed. with S. Farris, G. Kirn, P. Thomas).

Organized by Katja Diefenbach, Till Hahn, Jenny Kellner, Philipp Linstädter and Rebekka Wilkens.

This is primarily an in-person-event in Frankfurt. A link for online attendance will be provided at


Cultural Philosophy/ Philosophy of Cultures. The Faculty of Social and Cultural Sciences.