Marguerite La Caze (Ed.): Phenomenology and Forgiveness

Phenomenology and Forgiveness Book Cover Phenomenology and Forgiveness
Marguerite La Caze (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback $39.95 / £24.95
248

Reviewed by: Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Marguerite La Caze’s aim as editor of the volume, Phenomenology and Forgiveness (2018), is to enhance phenomenology by investigating ways that it could examine forgiveness as an experience (La Caze 2018, vii). Forgiveness, she claims, has become an increasingly important issue in philosophy given recent developments such as the global reconciliation commissions in South Africa and the Solomon Islands (vii). Moreover, La Caze believes that phenomenologists can offer insightful analyses of first-person experiences of forgiveness, not least because many of them have struggled intensely with the issue of forgiveness themselves (e.g. Husserl, Sartre and Stein) (vii).

Two key aspects inform the approach to phenomenology adopted in this volume. First, the volume features an open-ended, comprehensive view of phenomenology that La Caze terms “wild phenomenology”; this view explains why thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology (e.g. Jankélévitch, Camus, Arendt and Derrida) have also been included (x). Second, the volume features “critical phenomenology”, continuing a tradition established by philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and developed by more contemporary thinkers like Matthew Ratcliffe, Havi Carel and Jill Stauffer (La Caze 2018, xiv; Murphy 2018, 199). While adherents of critical phenomenology retain phenomenology’s traditional emphasis on first-person experience, they also diverge from its emphasis on subjectivity by focusing instead on intersubjectivity (Murphy 2018, 199). Here, La Caze refers to Lisa Guenther’s notion that critical phenomenology is not simply a theory but a “practice of liberation”; that is, it conceives of phenomenology as a philosophy that is constantly transforming, and which, in turn, transforms the world (Guenther 2017, 203, cited in La Caze 2018, xiv). Hence, contrary to the common view that phenomenology is purely “descriptive” (Murphy 2018, 199), this volume insightfully demonstrates how it has real-world application through its capacity to inform and motivate action. The volume has a facilitative tripartite structure encompassing: (1) “Experiences of forgiveness”, (2) “Paradoxes of forgiveness”, and (3) “Ethics and politics of forgiveness”. Before evaluating the volume further, I will discuss the key claims posited by the writers of each section. 

  1. Experiences of Forgiveness

The writers of section one reveal how the complexities of forgiveness are accentuated when it is examined in terms of the lived experiences of individuals and collectivities. They also reveal how the specificity of these experiences may prompt us to question those conventional notions of morality and religion that are intended to have universal application. In chapter one, Shannon Hoff examines what constitutes a morally “good” action in relation to Hegel’s account of conscience, confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit (Hoff 2018, 4). According to her interpretation, this complex issue of moral action is staged as a confrontation between a moral agent who performs what she considers a “good” act and a judge who assesses its morality (or lack thereof) (4). Importantly, this confrontation embodies a necessary contradiction. Theoretically-speaking, applying moral standards is meant to be universal, unambiguous and objective (7). However, in actuality, realising a moral law through action is necessarily performed from a biased standpoint because a specific agent must devise her own understanding of this law in a highly distinctive situation (4-5). In this situation, both the agent and judge are human and thus imperfect; lacking omniscience, they can only view things from their own perspectives, perspectives that are necessarily shaped by their own experiences, projects and interests (4-6). Rather than self-righteously reproaching an agent for her biased standpoint, Hoff argues that we should assess an action’s moral value through intersubjective means, that is, by simultaneously empathising with others’ situations and being open to their criticisms, and vice versa (15).

Importantly, Hoff offers valuable insights into how Hegel’s account of forgiveness can be applied to tackle controversial political issues. Her analysis is particularly relevant to a political environment increasingly characterised firstly by “intersectionality” (17), wherein multifaceted and often conflicting notions of identity render pursuing justice even more complex. Secondly, the political terrain has also been significantly altered by the rise of social media (12), whereby the “public naming and shaming” that occur, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram often only permit a reductive response to complex political issues. Consequently, productive public discourse is stifled; one is either praised or condemned for supporting or dismissing a viewpoint. By contrast, Hoff demonstrates how one could respond constructively to sensitive socio-political issues like adopting another’s perceived oppression as one’s own cause (12). She provides the example of a Westerner (e.g. a “middle-class, white, Canadian man”) combatting what he perceives as the mistreatment of women in a manifestly different cultural environment (e.g. a “specific, conservative, Muslim culture”) (11). Hoff claims that such an individual’s desire to perform a “good” act should neither be ridiculed nor dismissed (8 and 14), for instance, by claiming that he is not equipped to help just because he is neither Muslim nor a woman. Rather, she argues that we should view his pursuit in a positive light as his chance for further education, self-interrogation and change; ideally, he would seek to learn more about the other’s situation (from the other) and critique his own actions based on any newly-acquired knowledge (14).

In chapter two, Nicolas De Warren explores how Arendt’s phenomenological approach to forgiveness emphasises its temporal, intersubjective and ontological dimensions (De Warren 2018, 25). Understanding Arendt’s conception of forgiveness, de Warren claims, requires an understanding of how it is bound up with two other key concepts in her philosophy: “natality” and “plurality” (25). Forgiveness, for Arendt, firstly entails plurality because the act of forgiving requires at least two people (the forgiver and the forgiven); one cannot forgive one’s own act of harming the other (33). Secondly, Arendt grounds her concept of natality in the interrelated notions of “respect” and “distance” (37-38). For De Warren, Arendt’s emphasis on respect means that she thereby departs from traditional moral or religious conceptions of forgiveness. Rather than emphasising conventional concepts like “salvation, charity” and “intimacy”, Arendt highlights the gap that respect (re)institutes in the self-other relationship that allows the other (whom one has forgiven) to appear “unequal to her appearance” (38-39, emphasis in original). That is, the other is thereupon presented as different from her past self; her identity no longer coincides with her misdeed/s (34). This reinstitution of distance, de Warren claims, is essential to natality as it allows the self-other relationship to begin anew; the other reacquires her “agency” and capacity for action, aspects she effectively gave up by doing us wrong (33-34 and 39). By thus freeing us (or in Arendt’s terms, “redeeming us”) from the immutability of the past, forgiveness brings about the “re-temporaliz[ation]” of interpersonal relationships (25-26, 30 and 34). As will become apparent, many writers in the volume also draw explicitly or implicitly on this concept of forgiveness as renewal; indeed, Arendt’s philosophy seems to form the volume’s undercurrent. 

In chapter three, Simone Drichel draws on Emmanuel Levinas‘ writings to explore how forgiveness is experienced during and after trauma. Drichel finds it curious that forgiveness does not feature more prominently in Levinas‘ philosophy, given its relevance to his account of “traumatic subject constitution” in more mature works like Otherwise than Being (Drichel 2018, 43-44). Importantly, she challenges what she views as Levinas‘ “‘counter-intuitive’” claim in his notion of “ethical relationality” that one’s “vulnerable exposure” to others is always experienced as a “‘good trauma’” (44 and 55). Indeed, Levinas even suggests that this vulnerability should be embraced instead of dreaded or evaded (46). In her challenge to Levinas, Drichel investigates the links between his later idea of the “traumatic force of the il y a” (in Otherwise than Being) and psychoanalytic accounts of trauma (44 and 52). While acknowledging that Levinas himself was unsympathetic towards psychoanalysis, she also argues that there are key similarities between Levinas’ conception of the “il y a” and the psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott’s conception of “early infantile traumatization” (50-51). In both notions, Drichel claims, the reaction to trauma is a “flight into monadic existence” or a defence mechanism that the individual employs to protect herself against trauma (52).

Such a reaction, Drichel claims, is problematic because it is damaging to both ethics and relationality. By fleeing into a state of “invulnerability”, the traumatised individual thereby becomes insusceptible to the other’s “ethical demand”, rendering her effectively “‘ethically impaired’” (50 and 52, emphasis in original). Drichel argues that this “unethical ‘inversion’” undermines Levinas‘ ethical framework and is thus something to which he should have paid more attention (52-53). To increase its robustness, Drichel suggests that Levinas‘ trauma-based ethics needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic interpretation of trauma’s devastating impact (51). She draws on the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi and the Austrian author and Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry’s suggestions that forgiveness is only possible through restoring ethical relationality, that is, by restoring the self’s capacity and willingness to leave its fortress of invulnerability and be rendered vulnerable to the other once again (54-57). As with Arendt, forgiveness for Drichel thus involves the renewal and transformation of the self-other relationship, which she conceives broadly as reinstituting an “ethical” relation with the “world of others” (58). Moreover, for Drichel, this willingness to re-experience vulnerability in turn relies on the community’s establishment of a secure, “‘holding environment’” around the individual (an expression she borrows from Winnicott) which tempers the sense of isolation that follows the traumatic event (45 and 55).

In chapter four, Peter Banki takes up this theme of trauma by examining how a devastating event like the Holocaust can dramatically change one’s views of forgiveness. To do this, Banki investigates the contradiction between Vladimir Jankélévitch’s position on forgiveness in Forgiveness (Le Pardon) (1967) and his later work, Pardonner? (1971), a contradiction acknowledged by Jankélévitch himself (Banki 2018, 66 and 72). In his earlier work Forgiveness, Jankélévitch argues for a “hyperbolical ethics of forgiveness” based on love, whereby even the unforgivable must be forgiven (66). However, later in Pardonner?, Jankélévitch claims instead that the unforgivable cannot be forgiven; indeed, for him, the mass murder of Jews (the Shoah) marked forgiveness’ demise (72). Banki, however, does not view this contradiction as a weakness of Jankélévitch’s philosophy, claiming instead that it is an appropriate response to the “hyper-ethical” nature of the Holocaust (66). The inhumane crimes of the Shoah cannot be forgiven because neither proportionate punishments nor specific offenders can be attributed to them (73).

For Banki, if forgiveness can be said to be found in such circumstances, it involves acknowledging Jankélévitch’s contradiction for what it is rather than trying to resolve it (66). This form of forgiveness, Banki suggests, is apparent in Jankélévitch’s decision to reject a young German’s invitation to visit him in Germany (74-75). In his letter, the German expressed feelings of accountability for the events of the Holocaust but challenged the idea that he himself was guilty for crimes he had not committed (74). Partly responsible for Jankélévitch’s refusal of the invitation was his radical view that virtually all Germans and Austrians were “Nazi perpetrators and collaborators” (72). Banki approves of Derrida’s interpretation of Jankélévitch’s refusal as the confrontation between two conflicting discourses: the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, whereby the unforgivable (e.g. mass murder) ultimately cannot be forgiven (75).

Interestingly, Banki also takes Jankélévitch’s thought even further by claiming that, in the context of forgiveness, lesser and more mundane wrongdoings can be viewed in the same way as inhumane crimes like the Shoah (77). This is because any wrongdoing cannot be entirely forgiven; a trace of the unforgivable will always remain. This leads Banki to the radical conclusion that forgiveness does not exist and may have never existed (77). In saying this, Banki’s reading of Jankélévitch departs from religious accounts of forgiveness (e.g. the Judeo-Christian account) which assume that forgiveness occurs whenever it is undertaken in the spirit of good will and magnanimity (77). Banki’s suggestion that forgiveness may have never existed is perhaps the most radical view of forgiveness or unforgiveness presented in the volume. While Banki does suggest that an “impure forgiveness” based in Jankélévitch’s thought may yet be created in the future, he does not really expand on what this might look like (77). His chapter thus ends with a promising suggestion for future research.

  1. Paradoxes of Forgiveness

The writers of section two take up the previous notion of contradiction as their overall theme when exploring collective forgiveness, self-forgiveness and the role of forgiveness in politics (or lack thereof). In chapter five, Gaëlle Fiasse demonstrates how Paul Ricoeur’s account of forgiveness, for example, in Memory, History and Forgetting, displays interesting points of similarity and difference to/from Derrida, Jankélévitch and Arendt’s (Fiasse 2018, 85 and 88). Like certain aspects of Jankélévitch and Derrida’s philosophies, Ricoeur conceives of forgiveness as an “unconditional gift” of love (91). As Fiasse explains it, Ricoeur’s innovative conception of forgiveness is represented by the intersection of two asymmetrical axes, with the asymmetrical aspect implying that a wrongdoing does not automatically imply forgiveness of it. The upper and lower poles of the vertical axis are occupied by the unconditional gift of forgiveness and the “depth of the fault of the wrongdoer”, respectively (87). Influenced by Jankélévitch, Ricoeur begins his account with the gravity of the misdeed rather than the unconditional gift of forgiveness to emphasise the magnitude of the wrongdoing and the need for the wrongdoer to be held accountable for his/her unjust actions (88). Moreover, like Arendt, forgiveness, for Ricoeur, implies a renewal of the self-other relationship through the reinstitution of agency and action to the wrongdoer (90).

On the one hand, Fiasse acknowledges Ricoeur’s claim that forgiveness can only be realised between people rather than political and juridical institutions (87 and 92). (In my later discussion of chapter seven, I will show that this specific view of Ricoeur’s is also shared by Edith Stein.) On the other hand, Fiasse also posits that the above-mentioned institutions may play a larger role in Ricoeur’s own philosophy than he sometimes suggests through his notion of the “incognito” (an expression she borrows from Klaus Kodalle) or “spirit of forgiveness” (87 and 93). She highlights how, in these institutions, the “incognito” of forgiveness tempers the violence involved in punishments, for instance, by allowing the wrongdoer a fair trial and access to rehabilitation, and also facilitates the resumption of regular interpersonal relationships voided of hatred and vengeance (87, 93 and 95). In emphasising this possibility of renewal, Ricoeur, Fiasse claims, thereby departs from Derrida’s belief that forgiveness is unattainable (85 and 87).

In chapter six, Jennifer Ang explores this key theme of renewal from the perspectives of both forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Like Banki, she investigates how experiencing a traumatic event like the Holocaust can prompt a serious reconsideration of one’s position on forgiveness. To do this, Ang draws on the Italian-Jewish writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”, a notion she applies to challenge the supposedly clear-cut distinction between “innocent” victims and “morally reprehensible” collaborators under totalitarian regimes like Nazism (Ang 2018, 103). Levi, Ang claims, questions one’s right to morally condemn collaborators if one has not lived through the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Accounting for Levi’s disapproval of hasty moral condemnation, Ang is not interested in whether we could or should forgive the Nazis or collaborators. Rather, she uses key concepts in Sartre’s phenomenology such as bad faith, shame and guilt to explore how individuals responded to morally ambivalent situations during World War II (103).

Ang attributes different types of “bad faith” to different types of Holocaust collaborators, depending on the type and degree of their “collaboration, complicity and compromises” (108). Active collaborators who held privileged positions like the president of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rombowski, were in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they could act with absolute freedom, that is, completely unconstrained by their facticity (105-106). Ang claims that these collaborators engaged in self-deception; despite recognising that they were accountable for their immoral decisions, they chose to believe that they could not have acted otherwise (106). Turning to the other extreme, Ang claims that Holocaust survivors like Levi who were severely plagued by guilt and shame were also in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they were fully defined by their facticity, of which their past choices were a large part (106 and 108). They also mistakenly believed that those who died by suicide or other causes during the Holocaust were better and more courageous people than themselves (108 and 113). Recovery for these tormented survivors, Ang argues, entails realising that their past does not fully define them because they had been thrown into a “gray zone” wherein any decision would have been morally ambiguous (112). Acknowledging this would allow these survivors to reconfigure their perception of themselves at the end of the Other’s “look”; they would gradually be able to release their feelings of self-hatred and project themselves towards an open future (109-12). Viewed from this reconfigured perspective, survival, Ang suggests, could be perceived not as shameful but rather as an act of defiance against the anti-Semite’s machinations (113).

In chapter seven, Antonio Calcagno explores Edith Stein’s social ontology, redirecting the reader’s attention from how individuals experience forgiveness/self-forgiveness to the phenomenon of collective forgiveness (Calcagno 2018, 118). On the one hand, Stein concurs with Max Scheler that collective responsibility and forgiveness are possible (117). On the other hand, Stein disagrees with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person” whereby individual members “identify” and merge with each other to form a “super-individual”; these members genuinely “feel themselves as one person” (117 and 121). According to Calcagno, understanding Stein’s position on collective forgiveness requires understanding her distinction between two types of sociality: society and community (118). Societies are formed when their members come together to attain a specific objective whereas communities are characterised by a more potent lived experience of sociality whereby people are connected by a “shared sense or meaning”, such as grieving over a mutual friend’s passing (119-20 and 126). While acknowledging that forgiveness in a community can be similarly conceived as a shared sense or meaning, Stein, like Ricoeur, maintains that acts of extending and receiving forgiveness can only transpire between individuals, not groups (118). What prevents Stein from agreeing with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person”, Calcagno suggests, is her “strong sense of individuation” (121). This in turn arises from her view that the combination of “body [and affect], psyche and spirit” that is expressed in an individual’s “personality” is idiosyncratic to that individual (121), thereby implying the impossibility of attributing a singular combination of traits to multiple unique individuals.

Calcagno’s innovative move here is extending Stein’s account to consider how forgiveness can also feature within a society as a common goal (124). He provides the example of the Canadian government’s commitment to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This involved formulating, accepting and adhering to, the recommendations set forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which was responsible for investigating injustices within the residential school system (124-25). As my imminent discussion of chapter eight will demonstrate, Geoffrey Adelsberg, by contrast, views the Canadian government’s attempt at reconciliation with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, Calcagno’s overall suggestion about forgiveness’ role in a society highlights forgiveness’ potential contribution to socio-political change and thus warrants further investigation.

In chapter eight, Adelsberg’s analysis of forgiveness revolves around a real-world event, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota (Adelsberg 2018, 131). Adelsberg uses this event as a case study to support his claim that causing enduring harm to others is damaging to, and defeats the purpose of, appeals for forgiveness. During the protests, a group of military veterans represented by Wes Clark, Jr., requested forgiveness for past injustices caused by settler colonialism in the Oceti Sakowin Territory (131). On the one hand, Adelsberg acknowledges the positive aspects of this request; it was a gesture of respect towards the natives and constituted the first steps towards showing regret and accountability for the settlers’ unjust actions (133 and 138). On the other hand, Adelsberg claims that Clark’s appeal for forgiveness ultimately fell short of its aim to renew the relationship between both parties (131-32). Justifying this claim, he refers to Glen Coulthard’s critique of the Canadian politics of reconciliation, drawing especially on Coulthard’s claim that the discourses of transitional justice had been misused therein. According to Coulthard, such discourses had been wrongfully mobilised to forgive past injustices rather than to recognise the devastating truth of present and continuing wrongdoings (134). Applying similar criticisms to the Standing Rock protests, Adelsberg claims that current issues like land rights, Native sovereignty and self-governance have been similarly overlooked (131 and 134). Taking a phenomenological perspective, Adelsberg concludes that Clark failed to achieve a “renewed moral relationship” between the parties because he neither recognised the gravity of continuing wrongs nor sought collective ways to rectify them (132).

Adelsberg makes his second main criticism of Clark by drawing on Leanne Simpson’s critique of Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation (138). Like the figure of Trudeau depicted in Simpson’s critique, Clark’s response, Adelsberg claims, failed to transcend a “gestural politics of juxtaposition”; that is, his appeal for forgiveness attained its significance mainly because it embodied a different and improved approach to reconciliation and forgiveness from the past (138-39). For Adelsberg, this entails that Clark’s message lacked real-world effect. It did little to advance the movement towards taking collective responsibility for injustices because Clark was not sanctioned by his peers to deliver his message of forgiveness; the views he expressed were thus mainly limited to his own (132 and 139-40).

  1. Ethics and Politics of Forgiveness

Further exploring themes already introduced in the volume, the writers of section three examine the role of forgiveness in morally and politically ambivalent situations created under totalitarian rule. In chapter nine, Matthew Sharpe examines Camus’ notion of forgiveness in works written after L’Homme Revolté (1951) that were influenced by the events of World War II (Sharpe 2018, 149). Sharpe identifies three key features of Camus‘ account of forgiveness in these later works: (1) an emphasis on self-forgiveness, (2) the separation of forgiveness from notions of both “absolute innocence” and “objective guilt” or “original sin”, and (3) the important role of forgiveness in establishing and sustaining cohesion amongst people (160-61). Like Ang and Banki’s analyses, Sharpe’s interpretation of Camus features the perspective that the inhumane world created by totalitarian regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia significantly reconfigured how thinkers perceived forgiveness (153 and 155). In Camus’ own view, totalitarianism “institutes a world without innocents, and without innocence”, thereby rendering forgiveness impossible (153).

In chapter ten, David Brennan investigates how Václav Havel’s views of forgiveness were developed against the background of the turbulent post-Communist period in Czechoslovakia and were informed by his phenomenological conception of political morality (Brennan 2018, 166). Prior to its downfall in 1989, the Communist Government employed informants to uncover possible dissidence amongst its citizens to secure maximum control (165). Havel, a dissident himself, became President in 1990 and thus had to address the challenging issue of collaborators, some of whom had severely mistreated their fellow citizens (166 and 170-71). Brennan focuses on the ambivalence of Havel’s response to the collaborators. While Havel denounced the witch-hunt provoked by the newly instituted “lustration act” (1991), he nevertheless did not stop the “public naming and shaming” of those who had committed severe wrongdoings (170-71). According to Brennan, this is because Havel recognised that those who had been mistreated deserved justice and that he could therefore not mandate all citizens to forgive the collaborators (174). Nevertheless, influenced by Arendt, Havel was keenly aware of the centrality of forgiveness to renewal, both for individuals and within the wider political domain (170 and 173-75).

Havel’s inclusion of forgiveness in his response to the dilemma was heavily criticised by some (166 and 172). Brennan claims that Havel’s response was firstly influenced by his mentor, Jan Patočka’s notion of “living in truth”, that is, ensuring that our actions are governed by our relationships with, and accountability to, other humans rather than political exigencies. Under this view, politics is not the main determinant of action, but rather one consideration among many (167). Secondly, Havel, Brennan claims, was influenced by Tomáš Masaryk’s humanist philosophy and thus believed that morality could not be separated from politics (167-68). Accordingly, Havel was sceptical of passing hasty “guilty” or “not guilty” judgements on collaborators who had been placed in a morally compromising position by the government (169). Lastly, Brennan astutely points out that both Arendt and Havel recognised that many wrongdoings were committed unconsciously because collaboration was so deeply embedded within social relationships that it was hard to detect (174-75). Like Ang’s interpretation of Levi, then, Brennan’s analysis of Havel also raises the issue of whether one could be required to request forgiveness for wrongdoings over which one had little awareness and control.  

In chapter eleven, Karen Pagani, like Hoff, contextualises her Heideggerian analysis of collective, political forgiveness within the rise of information technology and social media (Pagani 2018, 181). Central to this development for Pagani is the ability for anyone to engage in public discourse, however informed their opinions may be (181-82). Pagani does not critique this development due to her belief that public discourse on political forgiveness must admit a diversity of views from various disciplines (182-83). Although recognising the challenge of trying to achieve agreement in this discourse, she, like political theorists such as Donald Shriver, stresses the need to establish “shared, conciliatory narratives” (181-82).

Pagani’s account nicely complements Ang’s analysis of individual self-forgiveness by demonstrating how self-forgiveness can also be collective. Pagani draws on Heidegger’s notions of “care, resoluteness, and the call of conscience” in Part II of Being and Time (1927) to explore the place of “self-reflexive ‘forgiveness’” in Dasein’s existence (181 and 190). Dasein, she claims, forgives itself when it accepts that it had diverged and will continue to diverge from its authentic self by being influenced by the “they-self” (190). Self-forgiveness is necessary to Dasein’s existence because Dasein can neither completely divorce itself from the world where the “they” reside nor remain permanently in an authentic state. For Pagani, forgiveness in Heidegger’s philosophy thus constitutes the path by which Dasein transitions between the “I-self” and the “they-self” (190). To advance her argument, Pagani extends this notion of self-forgiveness to the Dasein of a collectivity, arguing that a group of individuals can also be deceived by the “they-self” (191). Linking collective self-forgiveness to politics, Pagani, like other writers in the volume, emphasises renewal, which she conceives as the generation of new collectivities through the process of reconciliation (193).

In chapter twelve, Ann Murphy departs from the approach of other writers in the volume by not performing a phenomenological analysis of how forgiveness is experienced but concentrating instead on how forgiveness could enhance the phenomenological method (Murphy 2018, 197). While acknowledging the common view that the phenomenological method is primarily descriptive, Murphy is nevertheless more interested in how it could be carried out in a critical, “ameliorative” spirit to support and thereby advance ethical and political endeavours (197). Murphy begins her analysis by reminding us that even Edmund Husserl’s writings adopted this critical, ethical and political approach because he perceived the crisis in the European sciences as a wider “crisis of humanity” (197-98). Husserl, Murphy claims, thus endowed phenomenology with a “redemptive” power, an aspect shared by notions of restorative justice and forgiveness (198). Moreover, like Arendt, redemption for Husserl is achieved through renewal, which he conceives as critically examining the past to enhance the future (198).

For Murphy, the more contemporary practice of critical phenomenology draws further on this redemptive or “restorative spirit” that often remains concealed in phenomenology (199). Murphy claims that analysing shame as a “philosophical mood” is key to understanding how forgiveness can bring out phenomenology’s ameliorative potential (201-202). Drawing on the work of Michèle le Doeuff, Judith Butler and Levinas, she argues that philosophy’s shame stems from its misguided attempts to reject other disciplines by maintaining the illusion that it is the superior discipline (201-202). Furthermore, central to the redemptive potential of philosophical shame is its “ambivalence”; philosophy can either try to remain self-contained or it can engage in a constructive self-critique that acknowledges the merit of other disciplines (202). Influenced by Robert Bernasconi, Murphy concludes the volume on the hopeful note that this ameliorative approach will project phenomenology into an open future (204 and 206-207).

I conclude with some overall evaluative remarks about the volume that have been derived from the critical overview presented above. First, given its adoption of the “wild phenomenology” approach, this volume might be of more interest to readers with a similarly broad and open-ended understanding of phenomenology rather than those with a stricter understanding. Being sympathetic to the volume’s approach, I believe that the addition of thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology, especially Arendt and Derrida, produces an intricate, dialogical and consequently enriched discussion of forgiveness.

Second, while the volume covers both theory and practice (La Caze 2018, xv), its focus on critical phenomenology effectively highlights the practical implications of the phenomenological method in terms of how ideas of forgiveness are exemplified in, and can be applied to, real-world situations. Adelsberg’s phenomenological analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is a case in point. While critical phenomenology may not appeal to those interested in a primarily theoretical discussion of phenomenological ideas, I believe that this “practical” emphasis makes the volume highly accessible and engaging and provides promising openings for future research. (See, for example, my earlier comments on Banki and Calcagno’s chapters.)

Third, the volume offers important philosophical insights into the complexities of forgiveness by combining diverse and sometimes conflicting views of similar types or modes of forgiveness such as individual and collective forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Diverse views of the same real-world events (e.g. the Holocaust and Canada’s attempts at reconciliation) are also provided, highlighting that there is rarely a clear-cut answer to how and when forgiveness might be given or not given. Indeed, the inclusion of an entire section on the “paradoxes of forgiveness” demonstrates La Caze’s appreciation of forgiveness’ complexities and nuances.

Lastly, despite the diversity of perspectives presented, continuity is maintained throughout the volume because central themes like trauma, conflict, renewal and futurity are regularly revisited. The choice of these themes is commendable in two main ways. First, and related to point three above, the writers’ analyses of trauma and conflict remind us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept by directing our attention to situations where forgiveness’ limits are tested. Second, the focus on renewal and futurity highlights the important point that forgiveness is rarely an end in itself; rather, it is a pathway towards revitalised relationships and socio-political advancement. Overall, the volume provides an insightful, nuanced and frank exploration of forgiveness and was a pleasure to read.

References: 

La Caze, Marguerite. 2018. “Introduction: Situating Forgiveness within Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, vii-xxii. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Hoff, Shannon. 2018. “The Right and the Righteous: Hegel on Confession, Forgiveness, and the Necessary Imperfection of Political Action.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 3-24. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

De Warren, Nicolas. 2018. “For the Love of the World: Redemption and Forgiveness in Arendt.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 25-42. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Drichel, Simone. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 43-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Banki, Peter. 2018. “Hyper-Ethical Forgiveness and the Inexpiable.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 65-82. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Fiasse, Gaëlle. 2018. “Forgiveness in Ricoeur.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 85-102. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Ang, Jennifer. 2018. “Self-Forgiveness in the Gray Zone.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 103-16. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Calcagno, Antonio. 2018. “Can a Community Forgive? Edith Stein on the Lived Experience of Communal Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 117-30. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Adelsberg, Geoffrey. 2018. “Collective Forgiveness in the Context of Ongoing Harms.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 131-46. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Sharpe, Matthew. 2018. “Camus and Forgiveness: After the Fall.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 149-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Brennan, David. 2018. “Václav Havel’s Call for Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 165-80. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Pagani, Karen A. 2018. “Toward a Heideggerian Approach to the Problem of Political Forgiveness, or the Dignity of a Question.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 181-96. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Murphy, Ann. V. 2018. “Phenomenology, Crisis, and Repair.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 197-208. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Jacques Derrida: The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II

The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II Book Cover The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II
The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida. First volume translated by Peggy Kamuf. Second volume translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg
University of Chicago Press
2013, 2017
Paperback
312, 304

Reviewed by: Jack Robert Coopey (University of St Andrews)

 

This was necessary at least to the extent that so- called capital punishment puts into play, in the imminence of an irreversible sanction, along with what appears to be held to be unpardonable, the concepts of sovereignty (of the State or the head of State — right of life and death over the citizen), of the right to pardon, etc.[i]

 

The seminars given in (1999-2000) by Derrida on the Death Penalty resemble Foucault’s later work in the College de France lectures in their constant investigation of the consequences and components of the death penalty which through Derrida’s careful unfolding analysis reveals severe political and social implications in his deconstruction. The seminars fall into the same category of post-phenomenological philosophy in investigating the main canonical texts and thinkers of the history of Western philosophy in order to critique the historical present on the concept of death penalty. In addition to this, Derrida implicates the death penalty in questions of sovereignty and the economy, and the ways in which the spilling of the blood of a state’s citizens involves a certain economy of conceptual content as well as concrete, financial implications. It seems that the context of these seminars within Derrida’s thought may have been firstly overshadowed by his immanent death in 2004, in conjunction with his previous text The Gift of Death (1995) which is his other serious consideration of religion and the political. Additionally, it appears that in his supposedly late political phase, that the death penalty in light of globalization of the 1990’s revealed a means by which to understand the neo-liberal, state of exception worldwide. The seminars simultaneously reveal a hidden part of Derrida that has not seen before, but the question whether these analyses of the death penalty are a repetition of various concepts mentioned throughout earlier works in his corpus is a haunting aspect of deconstruction and Derrida himself. The question of life over death involves the who, what and how in a primarily ontic or ontological question of how life itself is governed by the laws of death penalties and criminality. Although it is evident, that alongside a widespread critique of Derrida, is simultaneously his ability to analyse concepts at an intricate, fruitful and insightful ways, however it may seem these seminars merely reproduce Derrida’s methodology and ideas themselves. To put it more clearly, whilst Derrida did not explicitly write about the death penalty other than these two volumes, the questions of sovereignty, economy and cruelty can be seen as synonymous with the slogans of deconstruction such as the trace, difference and the spectre. Derrida in the first volume examines the ‚canonical texts‘ and the ‚canonical examples‘ involving the death penalty, being Socrates, Jesus, Hallaj, Joan of Arc, Locke, Kant, Hugo and the Bible. Derrida summarises the conceptual significance of these questions:

Three problematic concepts dominated our questioning through the texts and examples we studied: sovereignty, exception, and cruelty. Another guiding question: why have abolitionism or condemnation of the death penalty, in its very principle, (almost) never, to date, found a properly philosophical place in the architectonic of a great philosophical discourse as such? How are we to interpret this highly significant fact?[ii]

Therefore, alike to Derrida’s other work the question of the repressed, hidden and concealed is revealed in the question of the death penalty and punishment in general. Derrida also highlights the phenomenological status of the unforgivable in relation to capital punishment, which not only involves has juridical and political dimensions but also in the ’stakes of its abolishment‘ possessing implications for a theorization of globalization or Derrida’s term mondialisation. In addition, to this question of globalization the ‚history of its visibility‘, the ‚public character‘ and its ‚representation in the arts of theatre, painting, photography, cinema and literature‘ are also key to Derrida’s investigation of the metaphysics of the death penality. In the first session, Derrida begins the question of the death penalty in the form of a ‚judicial decision‘ in the form of the Other, which will inevitably tie into the question of sovereignty itself:

It is indeed of an end, but of an end decided, by a verdict, of an end decreed by a judicial decree [arrêtée par un arrêt de justice], it is of a decided end that decidedly we are going to talk endlessly, but of an end decided by the other, which is not necessarily, a priori, the case of every end and every death, assuming at least, as concerns the decision this time, as concerns the essence of the decision, that it is ever decided otherwise than by the other. And assuming that the decision of which we are getting ready to speak, the death penalty, is not the very archetype of decision. Assuming, then, that anyone ever makes a decision that is his or hers, for himself or herself, his or her own proper decision. […] The death penalty, as the sovereign decision of a power, reminds us perhaps, before anything else, that a sovereign decision is always the other’s.[iii]

In this sense, Derrida’s analysis will analyse the dynamics by which the sovereign will enact a judicial decree in a sphere or spectacle of visibility. These analyses bear resemblance to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as well as his later work on the shift from pre-modern sovereignty necessitating a form of visibility in order to be enacted to be seen by the sovereign themselves as well as the governed. This shift from a democratic modernity to a neoliberal regime of invisible power and marketization is where Foucault and Derrida meet here. As Derrida remarks: “The state must and wants to see die the condemned one”.[iv] Derrida then shifts like Foucault to analysing Plato’s texts such as the Apology to analyse what shape sovereignty takes, and what form of judicial decree is made against Socrates and the eventual decisionism which results in Socrates‘ death. These analyses of the earlier Greek demonstrations of sovereignty will provide an allegory for Derrida’s deconstruction of the United States and their stance on death penalty and the globalized state of exception they declared within Derrida’s time.

The Apology says it explicitly (24b–c): the kategoria, the accusation lodged against Socrates, is to have done the wrong, to have been guilty, to have committed the injustice (adikein) of corrupting the youth and of (or for) having ceased to honor (nomizein) the gods (theous) of the city or the gods honored by the city — and especially of having substituted for them not simply new gods, as the translations often say, but new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina); and daimonia are doubtless often gods, divinities, but also sometimes, as in Homer, inferior gods or revenants, the souls of the dead; and the text does indeed make the distinction between gods and demons: Socrates did not honor the gods (theous) of the city and he introduced new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina).[v]

The next aspect which Derrida analyses is the paradox of the abolition or the maintaining of the death penalty in ‚democratic modernity‘ which he refers to as the present political situation globally. Derrida sees this paradox operating between the right to kill in war of a nation state and as a democratic state, and the maintaining of the death penalty which almost acts like a kind of state of exception. The paradox or contradiction between maintaining a supposedly democratic state in Ancient Athens and the United States whilst permitting the murder of foreigns and its own citizens under certain exceptions to the rule is where Derrida reveals this conceptual impasse and insightful paralell to the democratic modernity we inhabit. Perhaps one question Derrida raises here, is how we can better construct a more democratic ‚democracy to come‘ in Derrida’s messianism without this exception to the rule, however to what extent democracies can exist without exceptions to rules is perhaps not a possibility.

Even in nation-states that have abolished the death penalty, an abolition of the death penalty that is in no way equivalent to the abolition of the right to kill, for example, in war, well, these several nation- states of democratic modernity that have abolished the death penalty keep a sovereign right over the life of citizens whom they can send to war to kill or be killed in a space that is radically foreign to the space of internal legality, of the civil law where the death penalty may be either maintained or abolished.[vi]

Just like in Foucault, Derrida wishes to understand how the ancient origins of the death penalty in his analysis of Socrates’s trial then grounds and organises the rationality behind the democratic modernity which permits death penalty still in particular nation-states. Derrida’s commentary follows a historical account from the Apology onwards towards the onset of the Enlightenment, most explicit in the work of Kant who for Derrida explicates a rationality of justifying the death penalty as a law of man as opposed to beasts who commit crimes and resorts to a brutal, ’natural life‘.

Here, in a logic that we will continue to find up to Kant and many others, but in Kant par excellence, access to the death penalty is an access to the dignity of human reason, and to the dignity of a man who, unlike beasts, is a subject of the law who raises himself above natural life. That is why, in this logic, in the logos of this syllogos, the death penalty marks the access to what is proper to man and to the dignity of reason or of human logos and nomos. All of this, death included, supposedly testifies to the rationality of laws (logos and nomos) and not to natural or bestial savagery, with the consequence that even if the one condemned to death is deprived of life or of the right to life, he or she has the right to rights and, thus, in a certain way to honor and to a burial place.[vii]

Thus, Derrida argues that in Kant there is a systematic account of how the death penalty in fact is above the natural law of killing, in that in its act of justice and rectifying the law of human beings is in fact, a product of reason. The death penalty is viewed by Kant as a object that is above the natural law, but is a means of restoring the natural law without descending into natural or bestial savagery as a result. As a result of these preliminary analyses, Derrida moves into the core of the death penalty which similarly to Foucault’s lectures realises the theological dimension to how decisions of life and decisions of death are mediated by a onto-theological basis. Derrida even goes as far to say that:

[…] it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history and this horizon of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico- political. An enormous history, the whole history that at the moment we are only touching on or glimpsing. It is not even certain that the concept of history and the concept of horizon resist a deconstruction of the scaffolding of these scaffolds. By scaffolding, I mean the construction, the architecture to be deconstructed, as well as the speculation, the calculation, the market, but also the speculative idealism that provides its supports. History, the concept of history is perhaps linked, in its very possibility, in its scaffolding, to the Abrahamic and above all the Christian history of sovereignty, and thus of the possibility of the death penalty as theologico- political violence. Deconstruction is perhaps always, ultimately, through the deconstruction of carno-phallogocentrism, the deconstruction of this historical scaffolding of the death penalty, of the history of this scaffold or of history as scaffolding of this scaffold. Deconstruction, what is called by that name, is perhaps, perhaps the deconstruction of the death penalty, of the logocentric, logonomocentric scaffolding in which the death penalty is inscribed or prescribed. The concept of theologico- political violence is still confused, obscure, rather undifferentiated (despite the hyphen we see being clearly and undeniably inscribed in the four great examples, in the four great paradigmatic “cases” that I have just so quickly evoked: trial with thematic religious content and execution, putting to death by a state- political agency, law itself, the juridical, beginning with the “judgments” and the code of Exodus, the juridical, then, always assuring the mediation between the theological and the political); this relatively crude but already sufficiently determined concept of the theologico- political, the theologico- juridico- political will demand from us an interminable analysis. […] One would then ask oneself: “What is the theologico- political?” And the answer would take shape thus: the theologico- political is a system, an apparatus of sovereignty in which the death penalty is necessarily inscribed. There is theologico- political wherever there is death penalty.[viii]

It was necessary to quote Derrida at length here given the immense amount of explication he makes in these conceptual movements. Foucault in his analyses in the Will to Know (1971) College de France lecture similarly analyses the history of sovereignty as a moment of theological significance primarily because there is a moment of miraculous exception, in which knowledge is founded and the sovereign is the one who firstly found the knowledge, and then controls the dissemination of this knowledge and its operations. In a concise metaphor, Derrida even draws the parallel of the telos of deconstruction in itself, that it is necessary in its ability to deconstruct the literal scaffolding of the death penalty and its executions themselves. The next point which Derrida gracefully moves onto, is the linkage between what he calls ‚literature and death‘ which specifically refers to the works of literature that are produced about and concerning death, but also how literature for Derrida constitutes a direct European ‚contestation of the death penalty‘. For Derrida then, the pen and the scaffold are at odds with one another, in that literature or the ‚right‘ to literature constitutes a freedom of public assembly that not only is against the barbarism of the death penalty but that literature in this way is against death, and the right to death that any supposed historical sovereign possesses. Derrida explains the dialectic between:

[…] “literature and death,” “literature and the right to death,” or the trail of countless literary or poetic works that put crime and punishment, and that punishment called the death penalty, to work or on stage. […] if the history of the general possibility, of the largest territory of the general conditions of possibility of epic, poetic, or belle-lettristic productions (not of literature in the strict and modern sense) supposes or goes hand in hand with the legitimacy or the legality of the death penalty, well then, on the contrary, the short, strict, and modern history of the institution named literature in Europe over the last three or four centuries is contemporary with and indissociable from a contestation of the death penalty, an abolitionist struggle that, to be sure, is uneven, heterogeneous, discontinuous, but irreversible and tending toward the worldwide as conjoined history, once again, of literature and rights, and of the right to literature.[ix]

Derrida moves onto the onto-theological dimension of the death penalty and its relation to the sovereign, through the concept of the exception. The primary thinker Derrida is referencing here is Carl Schmitt and the state of exception which foregoes the possibility of suspending the rule of law to save the ultimate state of law. This parallel is synonymous with Derrida’s reading of Kant discussed before in which Kant sees the death penalty as a means of sustaining the rationality of human beings by providing death in a rational, ordered logic without returning to natural or bestial savagery.

What is an exception? More than once, last year, we insisted on the character of absolute exception that pardon must maintain, a pardon worthy of the name, a pardon that is always unforeseeable and irreducible to statement as well as to contract, to determinative judgment, to the law, therefore, a pardon always outside the law, always heterogeneous to order, to norm, to rule, or to calculation, to the rule of calculation, to economic as well as juridical calculation. Every pardon worthy of that name, if there ever is any, must be exceptional, should be exceptional, that is in short the law of the pardon: it must be lawless and exceptional, above the laws or outside the laws. The question then remains: what is an exception? Can one pose this question? Is there an essence of exception, an adequate concept of this supposed essence? One may have one’s doubts, and yet we commonly use this word, as if it had an assured semantic unity. We regularly act as if we know what an exception is or, likewise, what an exception is not, as if we had a valid criterion with which to identify an exception or the exceptionality of an exception, the rule, in short, of the exception, the rule for discerning between the exceptional <and> the non- exceptional — which seems, however, absurd or a contradiction in terms. And yet, people commonly speak of the exception, the exception to the rule, the exception that confirms the rule; there is even a law or laws of exception, exceptional tribunals, and so forth.[x]

For Derrida, the exception represents a form of messianic moment that is invisible and unpredictable. The law as well as the exception following Benjamin and the onto-theological view of the founding of sovereignty and violence are a momentality which is heterogeneous to itself and unforeseeable. Derrida deconstructs using questions about the essence of an exception and to what extent there is an exception of exceptionality, if there is a rule to the exception, how can we then distinguish between the exception and a non-exception? Derrida argues that the common intuition is that the exception is an exception to the rule, so it appears with the Schmittian dynamic of the state of exception, and furthermore developed in Agamben’s homo sacer, that the state of exception is itself a contradiction, which in its essence actually permits its existentiality, insomuch as a momentality is only a momentality distinguished from eternity as a diffraction within eternity itself and not without. Similarly, this paradox of the exception also resembles the contradiction of our democratic modernity and the impenitence of the death penalty within it, and to what extent can we work to undo these types of logic, as no exception to the rule, Derrida merely gestures but remains silent. As a bridge from the exception, Derrida then wishes to push into a Wittgensteinian sphere of the problem of the inexpressibility of pain as a form of leap of faith, such that suffering from cruelty is also a form of exception itself.

Our two questions then became: what is cruelty? And what is the exception? Does one have the right to ask the question, what is? with respect to them? With respect to them, which is to say, for us, with respect to that which links them here indissociably, irreversibly, namely, what we call the death penalty, the question, itself enigmatic, of the death penalty. To think the tie between cruelty and exception, one would have to set out from this exceptionally cruel thing that is the death penalty. Before even letting ourselves be pursued by this question, by the machinic and armed apparatus of these questions that descend on us even before we have asked them (What is and what does cruelty mean? What is and what does exception mean?), allow me on this date to mark precisely, and without convention, in what way they are questions of the millennium and questions of the century, questions of the historic passage at which we have arrived. […] But also because we are at a unique moment in this history, at a moment when, often while basing itself on an equivocal thinking of cruelty (the reference, on the one hand, to red blood and, on the other hand, to the radical malice of evil for evil’s sake, of the “making suffer just to make suffer,” which are two very distinct semantic features of what is called cruelty) […].[xi]

Thus, the death penalty is the exception to the utmost of cruelties in Derrida’s argument. Like Foucault’s shift from the ancient conceptions of the death penalty, Derrida also wishes to emphasize the relevance of these metaphysical debates on the present of communication technologies and the present struggles of abolition. This movement from the Ancients to our technologized present is already at work in Heidegger and through Foucault’s later work, in the ways that technologies are sustaining catastrophic logics of exception.

We are going to continue today — but differently, changing our references and rhythm a little — with what we began to elaborate last time by interweaving the two motifs or the two logics of cruelty on the one hand and sovereign exception on the other, all the while analyzing the current situation in the ongoing struggle for abolition, with the role of new media (Internet, etc.) and the strategy of texts on human rights, the right to life, and on the theological origins of the concepts of modern politics, notably of sovereignty (with reference to Schmitt). The history of law and the history of so- called communications technologies, the joint history of the juridical or judicial machine and of the informative or informational machine were and remain, then, the irreducible element of our questioning.[xii]

Derrida then links these questions of the exception, cruelty and the death penalty to how technologies inform and disseminate these modes of sovereignty. Additionally, Derrida argues for the abolition of the death penalty in analysing the economy of the death penalty, particularly in regards to the economics behind the penal system in the United states. In Volume II he elaborates and goes over previously established material but extends his analysis to the question of pain and concludes on the concept of blood in order to draw conclusions on his analysis of the death penalty to allegorize an abolitionism against seeing the red sight of blood.

When I declare, if I come to you and say, without declaiming, “I’m in pain [je souffre],” “I am suffering [je souffre]” in my soul or in my body, in particular when I murmur “I am suffering” in my psyche, without so- called physical distress, assuming this is possible, a purely psychical distress, well then, what is it I am saying to you in the same breath? Do you understand me? What do you understand? You hear what I am saying, of course, but do you understand me? Do you understand the meaning of these words “I am suffering”? Perhaps, then, I should clarify and sharpen the meaning of my question and change my vocabulary a little in order to make you understand where I’m going, in order to entrust you with my strategy when I declare without declaiming that “I am suffering.” It is certainly not in order to awaken your compassion, this you have surely understood, but, as a teacher, to lead you, pedagogically, to the question that I want you to hear [entendre]. If I tell you or if I think “I am suffering” in my soul and cruelly so, then it is because I have what is called peine [pain, penalty]. There it is, there’s the word: it has been let loose, and it remains loose. Je peine [I’m at pains] and j’ai de la peine [I’m in pain]; je suis peine [I’m pained]. What peine are we talking about? What does peine mean? This peine [pain, penalty], does it come from me or from the other, ultimately? What is its cause? And who is its cause? Does it ever come only from me, this so- called peine? Does it always come from the other, and from the outside? Or are things more convoluted, and precisely painful (penibles, peinlich), because of this? I pass from one language to another in order to problematize, in order to draw your attention to the semantic problem that opens up between the painful [pénible] of the peine and the penal [pénal] of the peine, between the painful of the pain and the painful of the penalty.[xiii]

In conclusion, we can read the two volumes as a death penalty for Derrida as assigned by Derrida himself. The two volumes should be understood within the context of Derrida’s later political phase as an investigation into the history of the death of penalty to critique the contemporary discourses of death penalty in the United States and worldwide. Furthermore, Derrida uses the concept of the death penalty in order to explore the state of exception, cruelty and sovereignty that the United States also has subsumed over the globalized world since its ascension to a superpower post World War Two. The impossibility of the Other to understand the pain of another is another way of Derrida attempting to voice the pain and injustice of the death penalty. The relation between the concept and blood is for Derrida in understanding how the blood of the death penalty can be conceived in order to advocate its abolitionism. Derrida in this sense, hopes to never see the red of blood return, only to disappear, but regrettably Derrida disappeared only three years after the last seminar only to return as a spectre of thought to haunt the history of philosophy, hopefully eternally, ever to return as a name that changed thought or how thinking thinks.

How to conceive, how to conceive of it, the relation between the concept and blood? How to conceive of blood? Can blood be conceived? And how might a concept bleed, how might it, this concept, lead to an effusion [epanchement] of blood? Whether it comes to concepts or blood, we are thus a long way from being done with the impermeable [l’etanche]. We are a long way, a very long way, from being done — will we ever be done? — staunching the flow [d’etancher]. No doubt you remember that this word, impermeable [etanche], the impermeable [l’etanche], retained us briefly in passing last time. What does staunching [étancher] mean? We were present at the scene of the hemorrhaging, if not the hemophilia, of the wound and the bleeding to be staunched, of the effusion of blood to be staunched (by draining, suturing, ligaturing, stricturing, closing the wound, binding). The scenography of hemography, the hemoscenography, seemed to us to demand a certain privilege, a certain prerogative, even if water and tears could also be seen figuring among the liquidities to be staunched. Among the liquid bodies produced or secreted by the body itself — water, tears, blood, to which one would have to add milk or sperm — we felt called upon by the death penalty to see red, to see the red of blood return or disappear.[xiv]


[i]               Derrida Jacques (trans. Peggy Kamuf) (eds.) (Geoffrey Bennington, Marc Crepon, Thomas Dutoit), The Death Penalty, Volume I, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2014), p. xiv.

[ii]              Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

[iii]             Ibid., First Session, December 8, 1999, p.1.

[iv]             Ibid., p.2.

[v]              Ibid., p.5.

[vi]             Ibid.

[vii]            Ibid., p. 8.

[viii]           Ibid., p. 23.

[ix]             Ibid., First Session, December 8th, 1999, p. 30.

[x]              Ibid., Second Session, December 15th, 1999, p. 69.

[xi]             Ibid., Third Session, January 12th, 2000, p. 69.

[xii]            Ibid., Fourth Session, January 19th, 2000, Right to Life, Right to Death, p. 69.

[xiii]           Ibid., Volume II, Second Session, December 13th, 2000, p. 29.

[xiv]          Ibid., Volume II, Ninth Session, March 21st, 2001, p. 214.