Some leftover thoughts on Derrida’s Death Penalty Lectures

I submitted my review for Berfois on Derrida’s 1999-2000 lectures on the death penalty. For reasons of keeping the review as accessible as possible for a broader readership, I had to leave out certain discussions.

1. First, I wasn’t able to take up or challenge Derrida’s claim that no one “philosophically” has genuinely countered the death penalty. On the one hand this claim is straightforward: he thinks Western metaphysics is structured in part by a sacrificial politics and that even opponents of the death penalty use this logic. As such a truly philosophical answer to the death penalty would require—wait for it!–a deconstruction of this logic. But I find the claim off putting. One, it reveals a limitation of Derrida’s, taken over from Heidegger, that I’ll just call philosophical determinism: everything historical is reducible to a problem in Western philosophy. Moreover, Derrida himself would be the first to question–you see this with his treatment of Victor Hugo–the distinctions between literature and philosophy, rhetoric and philosophy, thus I’m not sure what a “genuine philosophical response” would mean in his vocabulary. Again, I’m overall sympathetic to the claim, but it would have been better bolstered, in any case, by looking at the very many contemporary philosophers who are against the death penalty–and showing their implication in this system, not just Hugo and Camus, for example.

2. There is a real missed opportunity in engagement with Foucault. He works from just the first pages of Discipline and Punish (1973) and it’s clear from the introduction that at least one student had presented on it as well. As is well known, Derrida and Foucault’s relationship was tepid at best, with Derrida arguing in places that Foucault tended to see discontinuities in history and thus put a Platonic hold over them. But as I argue in the State of Sovereignty, the lecture courses reveal a much more “deconstructive” Foucault–that is, he pulls threads of interlocking genealogies all overlapping at the same time, not one after the other, or some such. In any case, this lack of engagement means two things:

a. Derrida doesn’t take up what is obviously the major claim of Discipline and Punish, namely that there is a marked shift from the era of Damiens the regicide (which Derrida discusses) to disciplinary societies, that is, non-juridical modes of power. Inasmuch as Derrida focuses only on sovereignty and the death penalty, for example, he can be said to be locked into seeing power and politics only through the juridical, let alone other forms of power Foucault delineates.

b. Now a lecture courses can only do certain things–one can’t teach everything. It’s true that Derrida does take up what Foucault calls “biopolitics,” and I have my notes put together to work their different sets of claims together. And it’s true that Derrida wrote consistently about the machinic and techniques from his very first works. But his whole focus on showing the political theology inherent in the writers he reads (and reads well, as expected) means he doesn’t do much with what he calls a “history of techniques” or even the “technics of transcendence” (145). The story of the death penalty in the U.S. and its modern difference is not just an adherence to a certain political theology, which I’m willing to accept, but the medicalization, that is, biopoliticization, of it. This is the difference, say, between Damiens the Regicide and the imposition of lethal injection. Derrida writes well about the “anesthetics” of the death penalty–how it is an anesthetic for both those witnessing the execution and those undergoing it. Again, a confrontation with what Foucault on the notion of apparatuses of power would have added much here, not least so that Derrida could formulate his reason for certain sources (most often philosophical) over others.

3. There’s much to be written by someone on Derrida’s claim that if one is given the death penalty one has a “right to rights,” which obviously is strikingly similar to Arendt’s “right to have rights” from the Origins of Totalitarianism. (He does mention Arendt in passing concerning her favoring of Eichmann’s execution.) In any case they are very close on this point, though of course Derrida’s point is ironic: you have right to have rights at the very moment you are being put to death. (If you didn’t have these right to have rights, then the state need not have gone through the juridical process.)

4. While there’s much more to say, the most intriguing part of the book is when Derrida attempts to make his own quasi-normative claim against the death penalty–something like a post-deconstructive claim against that would borrow from the political theology he identifies. In the 10th session, over just a few short pages, Derrida argues that the death penalty is an attempt to master death and ultimately finitude–to mark the exact time of death and thus to put an end to any questions over what counts as life and what counts as death. In short it robs the being who is put to death of an incalculable future where the time of death is unknowable, down to the calculation of its instant–thus robbing him or her of his or her finitude. It’s here the Derrida could have mentioned the theological God-like, infinite power this would be, except it is, for Derrida, a phantasm, since only the finite being can be put to death in the first place.

In any case it’s a rich text and the sections on Kant are the best. I have said that I think Foucault’s lectures opened up a “new” Foucault–one that was less polemical and hardened into place as his published books suggested (at least to me). I think this work–more than the previous published lectures from 2001-2 and 2002-3–show that there’s much more to Derrida to be seen.

(I also say this because on the side, I’ve been reading his early 64-5 lecture course Heidegger la Question de l’Être et l’Histoire, which is a great early work setting up his lifelong reading of Heidegger. It is also the text you wish you could have when teaching Of Grammatology–it shows how he reads Heidegger [he sticks to the intro from Being and Time for a long time, so it’s quite accessible] and hints at the import of language for him, all the stuff I have to discuss before letting students dip in.)


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