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Theology, Negativity and the Death Drive - Slavoj Žižek

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2015 XLII Sigmund Freud Lecture, Vienna

Rowan Williams located the root of religious experience into our (human) “capacity for perversity, addictions, self-sacrifice, self-destruction and a whole range of ‘rationally’ indefensible behaviors” – that is, the very dimension of irreducible self-sabotaging, of the “pursuit of unhappiness” –  and does this capacity not belong into the domain of the death-drive, of the weird overlapping between negativity and inertia that we encounter in a paradigmatic way in Hamlet? Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius when he sees him praying since if he were to do it at that moment, he would not strike at more than what is here, at that X that makes Claudius a king. This is also a problem – maybe even the problem - of revolutionaries: how not only to overturn power, but strike at what is more than mere power as a fact, and thus preventing that the ancient regime will return in a new guise? It is this uncertainty which propels Hamlet to procrastinate the act (of revenge), i.e., to use Hegel’s term, to tarry with the negative. Negativity is usually thought of as a dynamic entity consisting of struggles, cuts, and other modes of negation, but, as Andrew Cutrofello pointed out, what makes Hamlet a unique figure is that it stands for tarrying with the negative: Hamlet treats negativity itself as an expression of the melancholic inertia of being. Perhaps, then, the first move of what one can call “materialist theology” should be to discern this dimension of death-drive in divinity itself.

  • Welcome words by Monika Pessler and Amely Joana Haag
  • Introduction by Victor Mazin

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