Beyond Technicity: On Violence and Otherness
For two decades — and certainly since the bloody attacks in London, Paris, and Brussels, among others — on the old continent and elsewhere, people have the impression that violence has increased worldwide. Even though leading scientists claim that humankind is constantly improving (life expectancy has increased, environmental awareness ameliorates, etc.), it seems that there is more violence than there was roughly two centuries ago. However, the question is whether this impression is justified or not.
According to some, including linguist Steven Pinker (2012) and historian Ian Morris (2014), it is in fact not the case that violence is on the rise. It may be that we believe ourselves to be living in the cruelest of times, yet that impression lacks solid ground. Moreover, according to both Pinker and Morris, the fact that there is such an impression has everything to do with the fact that there are fewer and fewer acts of violence. It is precisely because our living environment has become safer that we have become more sensitive to everything that relates to violence, whether it actually ‘is’ violence or not. This is what has ultimately led to the misconception that violence is on the rise. Although this explanation seems plausible, it nevertheless raises many (especially methodological) questions. Is it possible, for example, to make scientifically reliable statements on this subject, given that we know that acts of violence are now being recorded more frequently than in the past?
Although there is great disagreement among scientists concerning the question of whether violence has increased or decreased, there is no doubt that the scientific interest in violence has increased considerably in recent years. This is not only the case in disciplines such as history, sociology, and psychology, but also in philosophy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and specifically since the pioneering work of, among others, Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel, thinking about violence has a firm footing in philosophy. This increase in the philosophy of violence applies to different domains within philosophy. For example, in analytical philosophy, Robert Audi focuses on analyzing the concept of violence, whereas in normative ethics, thinkers such as Michael Walzer work within the ancient tradition of Just War Theory. And with regards to the tradition of continental philosophy, it is clear that, for example, (post)structuralists reflect upon the relationship between power and violence, and that phenomenologists focus on the experience of violence.
If we zoom in on the phenomenological tradition, we see that violence has also become an important topic there. In this context, we are, of course, thinking primarily of the works by Jacques Derrida and Jan Patočka, but more recent authors within that tradition are also considering this subject matter. Take, for example, the volume The Phenomenologies of Violence (2014) by Michael Staudigl and two studies by James Dodd: Phenomenology and Violence (2009) and Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach (2017). Within this line of thought we must also situate the last study of Leonard Lawlor (Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University): From Violence to Speaking Out. Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, in a beautiful edition published by Edinburgh University Press.
It would come as no surprise if, in the future, this study was to become one of the most influential philosophical contributions on violence. There are several reasons for this: not only because the author’s profound knowledge of the subject is evident, but also because of his original approach. The point of departure of Lawlors’ study are two phenomena that, at first sight, have little to do with each other but which, it is argued, have the same ground structure. The first phenomenon is the contemporary late-modern variant of capitalism, namely neoliberalism. Lawlor argues that neoliberalism is primarily characterised by the fact that all subjects and all objects acquire a kind of value in order to be exchangeable. The author emphasizes not so much the economic logic behind this, but the regime that lies behind that logic: everything is comparable to each other, so everything falls under the name of the One. This logic is not limited to the West alone, however, but spreads to all corners of the world. Capitalism oppresses all local lifestyles and rituals, making them a commodity on the global free market. Today’s capitalism can therefore be described, following Lawlor, as the globalisation of commodification.
The second phenomenon from which the author begins his study is likewise a form of violence that, however, takes place on a more individual level and is always physical. In this category, Lawlor primarily gives the example of hate crimes committed by Einzalgängers, whereby an individual indiscriminately kills passing civilians in a public space, and finally kills himself (in an act of murder-suicide). Of course, the countless (often religiously inspired) suicide attacks in which a perpetrator inflates himself with the aim of killing as many innocent people as possible, also fits into this category. The logic behind these murders is crystal clear, according to Lawlor: anyone who has a different way of thinking from the murderer (usually atheists or other believers) must disappear from the globe. This form of violence is characterised by globalisation. The shootings and suicide attacks do not only occur in the West and North, but also in the East and South; they are furthermore not only carried out in the name of Christianity or Islam, as we know, there are also Jewish or Buddhist inspired terrorist attacks. In short, just as neoliberalism is all-encompassing, physical violence is both total and limitless.
Many scholars believe that there is a causal link between the two phenomena. The physical violence, such as religiously inspired suicide terrorists, is a reaction to the violence of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the same scholars also stress that although these two phenomena are causally linked, they differ fundamentally in ontological terms. Lawlor distinguishes himself from these scholars, first of all because he does not make any statements about a possible causal connection. This is actually not particularly surprising, since making such empirically verifiable claims is not the task of the philosopher, but of the social scientist. More importantly (and philosophically more relevant) is that Lawlor argues that the ground structure of both phenomena is clearly the same. Broadly speaking, one can argue that both fall under the primacy of the One, which means that, in both cases, the other is radically ignored, or worse still: destroyed. Or to put it in Heidegger’s jargon (which is virtually absent from Lawlor’s study, although traces of the German philosopher’s ideas can be clearly sensed therein): both neoliberalism and physical violence are the cruel expression of (a platonic-inspired) onto-theology. However, on the other hand and following Lawlor, we must not lose sight of the differences between the two kinds of violence that suppress the other. While capitalism is displacing the other by expressing everything in economic value and thus making it interchangeable, suicide bombers will kill anyone who does not like their dogmatic view of the world.
Both phenomena are referred to by Lawlor, after Derrida’s famous expression, as examples of “the problem of the worst violence”. Before we expand upon this topic, I first reflect on Lawlor’s understanding of globalisation. Globalisation, in its common use, connotes a certain levelling of intercultural differences. The author shares this deeply rooted belief, but never explains why we should accept it. This assumption is striking, not only because it is the starting point of the study, but also, and above all, because it is not at all certain that this claim is as justified as it appears to be. Slavoi Žižek (2004), for example, argues convincingly that globalisation is characterised by the opposite; namely by the opening-up of the Other. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Lawlor is correct. In that case, is it justifiable to state, as Lawlor does, that the neoliberal hegemony is nothing other than violence? Indeed, the author believes that the failure to respect the otherness of the other — of the face, to employ Lévinas’ term — also means that violence is done to this other. If Lawlor does not understand ‘violence’ here in a metaphorical sense — and that is something we can take for granted, given the structure of the study — then the author allows the meaning of ‘violence’ in this context to fit in with the etymology of the word. One of the original meanings of the Latin violare was “crossing a moral border”. This assimilation of violence and violation is not further justified by the author. This is also striking, because violence and violation do not necessarily encapsulate each other. For example, it is clear that most but not all forms of violence imply the transgression of a moral border. A building company can destroy a building by means of explosives in order that the construction of a new building may begin in its place. Likewise, it is common in various fight sports to “play hard”, to tackle or kick, for example, a member of the opposite team in order to win. In both cases, we speak of violence without exceeding the limit of what is permissible. Conversely, of course, it is not the case that “violation” means that an act of violence was committed. Lying, for example, is usually interpreted as an act that is morally reprehensible, while we do not typically understand it is a form of violence.
After emphasizing the ontological similarity between neoliberalism and physical violence (shootings, religious terror, etc.), Lawlor makes a new step in his line of argument. With this step, the author addresses the transcendental level, in the Kantian sense of the word. After all, Lawlor aims to explore the conditions of possibility of experience, more specifically, the experience that a subject has of himself and of the way that subject experiences the other. Lawlor explains that the two phenomena mentioned earlier (neoliberalism and physical violence) are both a reaction to the transcendental structure he exposes. This is, at the very least, a surprising statement especially as most researchers look primarily at psychological and socio-economic factors to explain violence. Let us therefore focus on the transcendental part of the study, a part with which the author, who previously published intriguing studies such as The Implication of Immanence and This is not Sufficient, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most prominent scholars in continental philosophy.
The starting point of Lawlor’s transcendental research, about which the author is explicit, coincides with the phenomenological reduction, which breaks down into two steps. First, the scientific attitude, and second, the natural attitude is replaced, meaning that any belief in the existence of the world that exists independently of experience is given up. When all external assumptions are suspended, phenomenology ultimately collides with consciousness; that is to say, we end up with the most fundamental level of auto-affection and internal monologue. More importantly, however — Lawlor clearly indicates that he owes much to countless phenomenological and Bergsonian thinkers — this auto-affection is not absolute. The reason is that it is marked by the movement of time. How should we understand this?
When we state that Lawlor’s study is based on earlier research, we mean that the author is very clearly on the Derridean trail². More specifically, he refers to the ingenious analysis of time consciousness in La Voix et le phénomène from 1967. This earlier study highlights the two following aspects of time consciousnesses: On the one hand, this analysis shows that experience in the present always differs from the past. There is a gap between the present and the past and we clash with alteration. This means, according to Lawlor, that the movement of time can be described as an event (here, Lawlor employs fashionable terminology, it seems, somewhat indiscriminately). Lawlor’s remark about “events” is all the more compelling since his study does not seek any connection with recent work on “the event”, and also because he uses “event” here in a very broad sense: not every alteration has an eventful character. On the other hand, we also know that the present can be remembered and thus be repeated, so that it installs the expectation that the same will also take place in the future. In short, besides difference there is always also repetition, to speak with Deleuze. Or, in the vocabulary of Lévinas (who, incidentally, is as good as absent in Lawlor’s study): the movement of time must be understood in terms of le même and l’autre.
This double structure is the ontological foundation for both the experience that the subject has of himself and for the experience that the same subject has of another person. First, looking at self-experience, we must ask ourselves whether we really hear ourselves talking when we speak to ourselves. According to a long tradition in phenomenological research, we must answer this question negatively, which means that every auto-affect is less pure than one usually assumes and is always hetero-affective. Lawlor endorses these findings, as we read in the following passage (which illustrates the clear and sometimes evocative style of Lawlor): “In other words, we must unlearn how to hear badly, hearing only oneself, and learn to hear better, so that we hear those others inside of us. The essential fact that the sphere of interior life is not strictly my own implies, positively, that there are others within me.” (282) This ambivalence between sameness and otherness also characterizes interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, I am involved in a performance that is inextricably linked to the signifier “man”, which I employ every time I meet a member of the species of man, whereby I immediately recognize living beings that are human beings as such. It is precisely this representation that gives the interpersonal relationship a repetitive character, and thus also ensures continuity. Lacan, with whom Lawlor himself does not enter into discussion, would argue that the relationship with the other has an imaginary meaning in this context, and is the result of an identification with the overall image of the other. On the other hand, the relationship with the other can never be completely homogenised, so that the other never fully merges into the image we have of the other, and so that the other inevitability is permeated by strangeness and otherness. In this context, Lacan would speak of le réel; Lévinas has taken that dimension into account when he talks about the distinction between le visage on the one hand and la face on the other.
The fact that the homogeneity of the other is always partially cancelled by heterogenization is violent, according to Lawlor. More specifically, he refers in this context to ‘transcendental violence’. Once again, we can raise the question that we have already asked (especially because Lawlor himself remains completely silent on this): why, precisely, is the heterogenization of homogeneity a form of violence? Although it may be the case that the abolition of equality is regrettable, it does not necessarily mean that it is violent. There are, in fact, many things that we would prefer to see continue to exist, without describing them as violence. Moreover, Lawlor seems to forget that ‘violence’ is a normative concept. It brings together deeds that may not all appear to be unjustified at second glance (because of utilitarian considerations) but, at the very least, those deeds are prima facie morally wrong because they stem from the intention to inflict harm. However, my question to Lawlor is this: how can we describe a transcendental given (the heterogenization of the homogeneous) as violent given that it inevitably occurs and, more importantly, since such heterogenization does not result from an intention? This transcendental violence, in addition to the two forms of ‘worst violence’, is the third violence that Lawlor distinguishes. Apart from the fact that he never explains why he understands these things as violence, he also never explicitly indicates his definition of transcendental violence, and what exactly the differences and similarities are between the three forms of violence. These lacunae are extremely puzzling for a philosophical book, the title of which suggests that it is primarily about violence.
This critical note to Lawlor, however, does not change the author’s original position in the debate on violence, especially in the philosophical debate. The central thesis of his book is that both forms of violence must be understood as reactive phenomena, a position that runs counter to the thinking of a number of prominent thinkers. Freud, for example, in his writings on war and violence (think of the famous correspondence with Einstein, published as “Why war?”) argues that the propensity for violence is in human nature, which means that it regularly comes to the surface and must then be satisfied. Such a view, which can also be found in Georges Bataille, among others, is interesting because violence is understood as the expression of a force, and therefore as an active fact. Lawlor goes against this by claiming that the violence to which he refers is rather an answer to another prior fact. More specifically, he defends the proposition that the two forms of violence are a reaction to fundamental violence. Or better formulated: both forms of violence are a reaction to the inability to deal with transcendental violence, more specifically the fact that the self-experience and experience of the other person are not only a matter of repetition and togetherness, but also of difference and otherness. However, Lawlor rightly emphasises that we must not lose sight of the differences in the way in which both forms of violence specifically deal with this inability. For example, if we look first at the hate crimes and religious terror, according to Lawlor, this is based on the fact that the subject’s identity has always been marked by differences. Terror, understood here as the radical destruction of any radical other thing, is an attempt to destroy the other person who has always been part of me. Second, if we focus on the violence of neoliberalism, on the other hand, we see that this violence is trying to reduce the other’s ‘differentness’, to homogenise the other. In Lacan’s vocabulary: neoliberalism brings the other into the register of the imaginary.
That Lawlor understands violence as a reactive phenomenon implies that his study is less distant from other non-philosophical studies on the same subject than might be expected. Indeed, the author claims that the violence is a consequence of the subject’s inability to deal with the fundamental element of difference. This means that Lawlor tries to understand violence from a causative, and therefore scientific, point of view: the inability is the cause of the violence because without it there would be no violence. The formal structure of this reasoning is identical to what researchers in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology claim: X (think of a mental disorder or socio-economic situation) is the cause of violence because without X there, would be no violence. Moreover, can we not speak of a similarity in terms of content? For while the inability does have to do with a transcendental given, that inability is of course a psychological fact, so that Lawlor is not at all far away from, for example, psychologists who claim that certain forms of violence are related to an unprocessed past or a somewhat untenable mental situation. For these similarities alone, it is quite striking that Lawlor makes no reference in his study to other scientific research on violence.
Yet even if the author had made such references, the reader could nonetheless raise at least two interrelated questions. First, what exactly is the gap in the existing debate that Lawlor wants to fill with his study? Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear why precisely the statement proposed by Lawlor is plausible. Although he may claim that the violence, namely the homogenisation of the other, is a reaction to the inability to deal with the other, nowhere is there any detailed argument as to why we should adopt this explanation. For the author, it seems sufficient that there is a similarity between the two facts (physical violence and neoliberalism on the one hand, and transcendental violence, on the other hand) to conclude that there is also a causal connection. This is not enough, however, because there are many things that chronologically follow each other, without a causal connection.
If, however, Lawlor’s thesis proves to be true, it is not at all surprising that a particular solution is linked to the problem of violence. If violence does indeed intend to deal with difference, then Lawlor’s cognitive solution could signal a shift in philosophical thought since his is a solution that indicates a paradigmatic shift in a Kuhnian sense (with the help, according to Lawlor, of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida). Lawlor explains: “If we want to reduce the impulses that drive the hate criminal, the suicide bombers and the hegemony of the economic genre, we need a new way of thinking, or, more precisely, a new way of writing and speaking.” (3) This solution, which one could say can be formulated in Heideggerian terms as ‘a thinking beyond technicity’, sounds particularly attractive. But, as mentioned above, the effectiveness depends entirely on the accuracy of the explanation behind it. As a reader, it is precisely at this point that we are simultaneously slightly disappointed and yet still looking forward to Lawlors’ new study; perhaps even more so, since it is quite possible that the validity of the author’s thesis may well emerge in that new book, which, as outlined in the book’s introduction, will be about peace.
Derrida, Jacques (1967). La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Dodd, James (2009). Phenomenology and Violence. New York; Routledge.
Dood, James (2017). Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach. New York: Routledge.
Morris, Ian (2014). War! What Is Is Good For?. London: Profile Books.
Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Staudigl, Michael (Ed.) (2014). The Phenomenologies of Violence. Leiden: Brill.
Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Plaidoyer en faveur de l’intolérance. Paris: Climats.
Jacques Derrida presented these seminars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, improvising their translation when presenting abroad at New York University and the University of California, Irvine, between 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. The English translations of these seminars come directly from Derrida’s typed notes and are rigorous, including footnotes transcribing comments added by Derrida during the presentation of his lectures as well as reproducing his own private marginal notes.
While these two sets of seminars first and foremost deal with the question of the death penalty, the two volumes approach the principal enquiry from perceptibly different angles, and include several instances of (nonetheless relevant) digression that characterises Derrida’s style. Indeed, within these same seminars, there are conjured some surprising questions of literature, euthanasia, alterity, age, the heart, sexuality, grief, suicide, psychoanalysis, the animal, and deconstruction itself, alongside more expected discussion around law, justice, religion, history, politics, spectacle, sovereignty, cruelty, blood, murder and death.
The simplest way of describing the somewhat disparate interests of the two sets would be to say that, while the first volume is concerned with understanding what the death penalty is, the second explores what the death penalty means. This is not to say that the same questions are not repeatedly posed and transposed throughout both volumes, as most exemplified by Derrida’s chief interest in thinking with and through talk of abolition or retention and towards further unveiling the gestures of deconstruction, ‘becoming or revealing itself finally as that which finds itself grappling, in order to deconstruct it, with […] the strange and stupefying and shocking fact that never, but never, it turns out, has any philosophical discourse as such, in the system of its properly philosophical argument, opposed the principle, I repeat, the principle, of the death penalty’ (DPII, 2). While Derrida is himself against the death penalty, as he once clearly states, his main task is ‘to think otherwise the interest there could be in standing up against the death penalty and in universally abolishing the death penalty’ (DPI, 254). In fact, by the end of the last seminar one finds that Derrida, typically, has not provided a singular or conclusive position against the thoughts of that strongest advocate of the death penalty—Immanuel Kant.
He does, however, offer seminal insights and openings by which one might position oneself beyond arguments of, for instance, life imprisonment as opposed to the effect of criminal deterrence. Such arguments, Derrida points out, operate from within the death penalty’s own modality rather than interrogate its rationality; as such, even arguments against the death penalty are ultimately subsumed or enslaved within its logic. The death penalty seems inescapable; it seems to ‘[hide] a nonunifiable multiplicity of concepts and questions’, a ‘collective experience of putting to death’ (DPII, 18). Derrida, in fact, situates the death penalty at the heart of human sociality, quoting Kant in (at least partial) agreement: ‘The mere idea of a civil constitution among human beings carries with it the concept of punitive justice belonging to the supreme authority’ (first quoted DPII, 134).[i]
Being ‘at the origin of the social contract or the contract of the nation-state, at the origin of any sovereignty, any community, or any genealogy, any people’, that which kills us, then, is what lets us live (DPI, 20-1). Moreover, in its entrenchment in law and society, it stands to reason that the penalty is at the heart, also, of economics, and this Derrida meditates at length through common phrases such as “to pay with one’s life”, “cost him his life”, “risk one’s neck” or “the value of life”. These are words belonging to the economy of the talionic law (jus talionis), at its most extreme an economy of death, and more shall be said on this later.
In light of this troubling twist—it is the death penalty that allows us to live—Derrida examines throughout this idea of the penalty at the heart of law (going as far back as to the trial of Socrates) and with it, necessarily, this figure of ‘supreme authority’ and the logic of the exception. To this end, he repeatedly engages with contemporary political situations such as the case of Buffet and Bontems, the unwillingness or even inability of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights to outlaw the death penalty, and, at length, the rather strange case of the United States—this both through an analysis of its history, so closely tied to the penalty, as well as through more tangential approaches, such as reading Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Even in the US’s temporary abolition of the death penalty (1972-77), Derrida says, ‘the court did not rule on the principle of the death sentence, but on the cruelty of its execution’ (DPI, 53). This is, perhaps, the point that he wishes to make most clear throughout the seminars: that there can be no law, nor society, without punishment as epitomised by the principle of the death penalty. This is why he claims that ‘it will always be vain to conclude that the universal abolition of the death penalty, if it comes about one day, means the effective end of any death penalty’, and, as such, ‘even when the death penalty […] will have been purely and simply, absolutely and unconditionally, abolished on earth [sic.], it will survive: there will still be some death penalty’ (DPI, 282-3).
Thus, we see Derrida’s second point: the death penalty is not only what is proper to law—‘the right to law [le droit au droit], the right to the violence of law’ (DPII, 48)—but also what goes beyond it. In its position as the foundation and birth of every law, every society, it also outside such laws and societies. It persists throughout both peace and wartime—however difficult it is, Derrida remarks, to properly distinguish between the two. Justice, then, is not what employs the death penalty, but rather it is the other way around. Keeping this in mind, one recalls the cases of King Charles I or Louis XVI, whom Derrida also talks about (especially of the latter, of course): the death penalty is not only that which the sovereign can wield, but also that which ends him.
Sovereignty is, in fact, one of the main concepts in question here. It is interesting, especially in light of Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics with which Derrida briefly engages, that, following the above understanding, presidency (and with it democracy) is viewed as a continuation of sovereign rule. Following commentary on Georges Pompidou and the 2000 American election (George W. Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader), Derrida talks of how this modern ‘sovereign known as “President”’ points to ‘something like a contradiction internal sovereignty: unconditional sovereignty is conditional’—here, the votes of a society given form by the death penalty. (DPII, 1, 57). In the French Revolution, where the death penalty made itself clearly known as what persists even in the suspension of law, that condition was the very physicality of the king, the body natural, which the guillotine severed.
When, however, the death penalty is utilised as a tool of law, one is indeed at the mercy of ‘he who decides the exception’ (first quoted DPI, 83).[ii] It is safe to say that Derrida here leaves Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty uncontested, and similarly critiques the problematic of the exception (in continuation from the previous seminars, Perjury and Pardon) as the location from which order is maintained precisely because it is in opposition to the general law. Connecting back to the idea that the death penalty is what allows us to live on, Derrida explains ‘how this logic [of the exception], which is that of absolute sovereignty and the self-preservation of the political body, [authorizes] the absolute maintenance, even though or because it is exceptional, of the death penalty, in the name of the self-preservation of the sociopolitical body’ (DPI, 86). Sovereignty thus not only constitutes the penalty but is constituted by it: ‘the question of the death penalty,’ Derrida says, ‘is a question of the different ways the state has of affirming its sovereignty by disposing of the life of certain subjects’ (DPII, 19). This, in turn, is an affirmation utilised in the face of defiance—and here Derrida thinks with Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’—a challenge to the very figure of the sovereign: ‘The great criminal is […] the sovereign exception of one who has been able to defy and contest the monopolization of violence by law’; ultimately, what can be seen in ‘the one condemned to death [is] an absolute, almost sovereign power’ (DPII, 46). In the case of the death penalty, it would also be true, therefore, to say that the exception decides itself.
Derrida presents another way of understanding the exception: as miracle. ‘The exceptional situation, that is, the criterion of sovereignty […] is the same thing as what are called miracles in religion. It’s the same structure: a pure decision’ (DPII, 249). Throughout these seminars especially, Derrida upholds that one cannot understand the order of the political without understanding how it is interwoven with the religious. This point is frequently made through Political Theology, either overtly or in the seminars’ subtext, and serves to highlight the theologico-political role of the sovereign as underlined throughout. Derrida in fact reminds us how it is often through religion that the death penalty is sustained (namely Christianity, and occasional comments are indeed made on what is arguably the most prevalent figure of those condemned to death, Jesus). The death penalty found its first manifestation in human society as an implement not of human law but of the divine.
This is how the essence of sovereign power, as political but first of all theologico-political power, presents itself, represents itself as the right to decree and to execute a death penalty. Or to pardon arbitrarily, sovereignly. If one wants to ask oneself “What is the death penalty?” or “What is the essence and meaning of the death penalty?” it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico-political. (DPI, 22-23).
This is perhaps best taken up in Derrida’s overall discussion of the US. The consequences of religion as shaded into US law and vice versa—one aspect of which being their culmination into a vague concept called the right to life—at times confound Derrida. Speaking of abortion, for instance, he says: ‘It is always in the name of the right to life that these militants (most often Christian) claim to be fighting, and often violently […]. The fact that sociologically, statistically, historically, these militants are most often, notably in the United States, […] in favour of the death penalty […] is but one of the signs we have to interrogate’ (DPI, 121).
It was earlier stated that Derrida wanted to move away from arguments of abolition and retention, but this is not to say that such arguments were ignored. He does, in fact, continually interrogate the theologico-political matrix, at work in the US and elsewhere, through the writings of those living in states where the death penalty—in its most naked form, as legal punishment—is still at work. Aside from discussing more general arguments, Derrida also looks to specific thinkers such as Victor Hugo (Writings on the Death Penalty and his 1832 preface to The Last Day of a Condemned Man), Albert Camus (‘Reflections on the Guillotine’), Mumia Abu-Jamal (Live from Death Row), and several others (the most familiar names would be, perhaps, Locke, Rousseau, Sophocles, Diderot, Montesquieu, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Montaigne—the list goes on).
All this amounts to nothing short of a spectacle, albeit one that is not always visible; despite the ‘optimistic and teleological [global] tendency’ towards abolition, the show goes on (DPI, 136). This is the reason Derrida chooses to use the term “death penalty” throughout the seminars and not “capital punishment”. The latter phrase connotes the head principally, and one must keep in mind that ‘[w]ithin the legal procedure of execution, putting to death has not always involved attacking the head, decapitating, practicing decollation, hanging or strangulation of the condemned one, or again by a firing squad aiming at the condemned one’s face’ (DPI, 41). Furthermore, this phrase brings to the forefront the very idea of method, which of course connotes also the diverse histories of execution, cultures and religions, technologies, theatricalities.
Hence, “death penalty”, unlike “capital punishment”, goes some way towards revealing the increasing invisibility of the penalty. Following Foucault’s theories of both the spectacle and despectacularization (the latter with some divergence, namely in terms of what Derrida terms the virtual), Derrida attempts to peer into the (in)visibility of the penalty, from the crowds around the guillotine or town hangings to the electric chair and the lethal injection, in order to look at what he calls a history of blood, and the change ‘from the moment that one loses the visibility of literal blood, the visible literality of blood’ (DPII, 261). He goes on: ‘No history of the death penalty will be possible without a history of blood’ (and here Derrida points out the homonyms sans sang), and in this light he muses whether, in the same way that the guillotine was viewed as a humanitarian advancement, this might also be the case with the disappearance of blood—a ‘humanization’, ‘humanism’, and ‘humanitarianism’ of the death penalty (DPI, 191-2). Whenever this history of blood is brought to light, the subsequent points made by Derrida regard, much more often than not, the machine and the mechanistic, calling into question the concepts of progressivism and care (for the condemned individual) so closely associated with the death penalty—a surprising association, as Derrida evidences in several seminars, with something so barbaric and of which the sole purpose is the eradication of the individual. The process of erasure of the death penalty’s visibility, Derrida warns, should therefore not be taken as some gradual fulfilment of the abolitionist’s goal; visibility is erased only because the death penalty is so unmovingly entrenched within human society that it is itself a part of the progressions, technological or otherwise, of the ages.
This move from the public to the private space, even to the secret space (and the fact that crime is most often done secretly is not irrelevant, as Derrida muses), prompts him to explore the psychoanalytic concepts in which the penalty is shrouded, an endeavour undertaken mostly within the second volume. The conscious and the secrets of the unconscious is here read mainly through Theodor Reik, one of Sigmund Freud’s first students and who writes in his name. Apart from repeatedly commenting on this delegation of power through the act of writing in someone’s name (writing in blood, perhaps), Derrida brings in Reik primarily for his Freudian argument against the death penalty (in The Compulsion to Confess; this in lieu of Freud, who never directly wrote about the death penalty).
Reik traces the progress of punishment—from a death penalty of retaliation and vengeance to one of protection, deterrence and prevention—and suggests a further possible path of progress: that of ‘the complete elimination of [criminal, judicial] punishment’ (DPII, 130). Realising that punishment is nonetheless integral to society, Reik advocates self-punishment, a taking on of our collective unconscious guilt, formulated as that which, ‘far from succeeding the crime, […] precedes it from the most archaic formation of the unconscious’, a guilt which ‘always refers back to an Oedipal situation’ (DPII, 12, 181). In psychoanalysis, then, all crime is at origin sexual. Ultimately, what Reik proposes amounts to ‘the psychoanalytic treatment of society as a whole’, ‘a worldwide autoanalytic treatment’ that deals with the foreign nature of forgiveness in the unconscious—foreign, Reik and Freud say, as are the ideas of caution, gratefulness or death itself (DPII, 132-33).
Though never stating it clearly as such, Derrida presents Reik’s ideas as compelling, and deserving of lengthy rumination, but ultimately unconvincing. On the aptness of Reik’s position within the history of thought of the death penalty, Derrida is also unsure: ‘I wouldn’t say either yes or no’ (DPII, 183). Such thinking, Derrida points out (and which, in fairness, Reik’s writings also deliberately evidence to some degree), follows a direct trajectory from the talionic law and its ‘interests and calculations’, the economy of punishment and death (DPI, 140). It is a law of obvious Greek and biblical proportions, but its rationality is epitomised through Kant, whose thought, callous as it is, remains improperly understood or else only weakly rebutted (and hence the very real need for these seminars, through which Derrida offers a diversity of counter-thoughts).
Though Reik acknowledges the theories of the talion, he seems to underestimate or at least under-represent the Kantian theory of law and ‘its reference to talionic law as pure rational principle and categorical imperative’ (DPII, 180). Derrida makes clear how Kant is already there before Reik on auto-punishment, and this, for Kant, by no means circumvents the necessity and even inevitability of the death penalty. In trying to understand ‘the extraordinary rationality but also the stupid uselessness of this Kantian logic […] as rigorous as it is absurd’, Derrida begins by underscoring Kant’s conception of the dual nature of man—the homo noumenon (the rational aspect) and the homo phaenomenon (man’s empirical life, as governed by Euclidian and Newtonian laws)—and Kant’s idea that, when condemned to death, it is the noumenon that punishes itself, condemning the phaenomenon to death conjointly with the ultimate figure of rational morality, the sovereign (DPI, 127).
Despite bringing in anti-rationalist arguments—chief among them those made by Cesare Beccaria, whose writings can be read as highlighting some of the problems one can already see with Kant’s division, and who attempts to disassociate the exception from the sovereignty of law—the ‘extraordinary rationality’ of the penalty perseveres. Further complication is added in Kant’s distinction between the two kinds of punishment: poena forensis (punishment delivered from the outside, by a judge or executioner) and poena naturalis (when the criminal spontaneously suffers from the crime, such as in the case of bankruptcy as a result of vice; self-punishment). Derrida strongly questions the rigour of this divide between the forensis and the naturalis, doubtful of whether there is ever pure auto-punishment or pure hetero-punishment (to use his terms), but even here Kant seems to have arrived already.
For Kant, the death penalty ‘must not serve any purpose, and it must take place even if it does not serve any purpose’, this because punishment ‘can never be decreed as a means to promote an end’, but solely as an end in itself, inflicted because the criminal ‘has made himself guilty of a crime’ (DPII, 39). This is what makes the death penalty a categorical imperative, and any idea of deterrence, social security, revenge or utility becomes merely subsequent or even completely irrelevant. Thus the death penalty—the poena forensis—is neither useful nor socially necessary, but must be maintained on the basis that it gives the human being—the noumenon—dignity and honor. The death penalty, in Kant, works in two directions: as both self- and external-punishment, working with the porousness of auto- and hetero-punishment.
In consequence, added to Kant’s strict defence of the figure of the sovereign (as his comments on the Revolution, for instance, make most lucid), there is also a counter-logic here which Derrida identifies: ‘To put to death a guilty citizen according to law and justice is in no way, according to Kant, to dispose sovereignly of his body’ (DPII, 42). In this framework, the rational aspect of man must comply with the idea that putting a human being to death is to respect the fact that it is a human being, a respect for the innate personality of man, which ‘makes every human being what he or she is, human, and thus a rational subject of law’, even if the criminal has forsaken their civil personality (DPII, 90). To abolish the death penalty would be to outlaw justice, and it is only moral justice that makes us human. To do away with the death penalty would be, to use a term with which Derrida credits Kant for its appearance in philosophy, a crime against humanity. Once again, the seminars revolve around the revolutions of the guillotine: the death penalty kills us only so that we may live; the death penalty kills us only so that we may be us, human.
Taking his cue from a response penned by Kant in his 1798 edition of Doctrine of Right—where Kant outlines the crimes and appropriate punishments for rape and pederasty (castration) and bestiality (social exclusion)—Derrida points out several times how one never quite hears, in the tones above, of condemning the animal to death. A deconstruction of this line between human and animal, more specifically human death and animal death, seems to be suggested by Derrida as one possible way forward through this deeply anthropocentric rationality which would, in turn, create a space for a possible radical rethinking of the death penalty itself (here one begins to see the reasoning behind Derrida’s choice for the following and last seminar at the École: The Beast and the Sovereign).
This possible radical rethinking is more than a rethinking of all the above concepts, but furthermore a rethinking of death itself. Derrida asks, not exactly rhetorically: ‘must one start out from the question of the death penalty […] in order to pose the question of death in general?’ (DPI, 238). This question—one the ‘great thinkers of death never seriously spoke and which they no doubt held to be a circumscribable and relatively dependant, secondary question’—he answers in the affirmative, stating that ‘if there was one thing, one word to deconstruct, it is indeed what is called death’ (DPI, 237, 240). It must here be noted, however, that at this and other instances where a “deconstruction of death” is meditated, it is not taken up by Derrida, in part because of his main concerns in the seminars as recounted here and also because this would mean undertaking a “deconstruction of life itself”.
Derrida, however, does constantly think of death itself and what the death penalty unearths of this thought at the horizon of thought. One particular examination is of our way of being-towards-death (and Martin Heidegger is obviously here invoked, albeit only mentioned infrequently in the seminars), and the question of whether being condemned to death in some way alters our relationship with our death. This Derrida attempts to characterise through a distinction between being “condemned to die”, as we all are, and being “condemned to death”, where one is afforded a ‘calculable knowledge’ of one’s own time of death, knowing ‘in all certitude […] that the hour of [their] death is fixed, by others, by a third party, at a certain day, a certain hour, a certain second’ (DPI, 218). However, just like all border lines and divisions, this is a porous distinction: the case of terminal illness comes uncomfortably close to breaching it, and so does the ‘paradigm of the fatwa [such as the one unleased on Rushdie] [which] complicates all the more the question’ of condemnation and the human being’s relation to death (DPII, 197). Another question of death asked by the penalty, perhaps slightly less academic but all the more hard-hitting for it, is the following one which Derrida asks his audience:
If, given that I am in any case, like every living being, condemned to die, if not condemned to death, if, condemned to dying sooner or later, like everyone else, I had the choice between, on the one hand, dying at such and such an age, tomorrow or later today, of natural causes, as the result of an automobile accident or an illness (like almost everyone, in fact), and, on the other hand, of dying at another age, later, the day after tomorrow, in a year, ten years, twenty years, in a prison, because I will have been sentenced to death by capital punishment (the guillotine, the electric chair, lethal injection, hanging, the gas chamber), what would I choose, what age would I choose for my death?
As one can see, these seminars are vast in scope and ambitious in thought, in constant dialogue with the thinkers above. There are yet others that have not been mentioned here: the literature of Shakespeare, Genet, Baudelaire; the philosophies of Blanchot, Levinas, Marx, Descartes, and Hegel; the political theology of Donoso Cortés, the linguistic studies of Émile Benveniste, and the theories of Charles Darwin. The seminars also include frequent strands that Derrida transparently cuts short, having no time to devote to these thoughts the perseverance they deserve. While some of these are then taken up in The Beast and The Sovereign and elsewhere in his later works, these seminars deserve a close reading on the merits of both what Derrida said and what he leaves unsaid.
[i] Kant, Immanuel. ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’. In Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 497.
[ii] Carl Schmitt. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 5.
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.
[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.
On the evening of February 5, 1988, at the University of Heidelberg, three of the major and most influential figures of the 20th-century philosophy met in Heidelberg before a large audience. Fifty five years before, in the same lecture hall, Martin Heidegger, as Rector of the University of Freiburg, had given a speech that would be part of the firsts steps towards a running sore, “a wound in thought itself” [c’est une blessure de la pensée] in Maurice Blanchot’s words[i], a proper caesura, entitled “Das Universität im neue Reich” [The University in the New Reich]. Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg-Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, three unquestionable distinguished Heidegger’s interpreters, came together that February of 1988 for over two days to discuss the philosophical and political implications of Martin Heidegger’s thought and legacy, under a Gadamer’s sign of hospitality: the encounter took place in the common linguistic territory of the French language. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference, edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, and translated into English by Jeff Effort, collects the fruitful dialogues between these three thinkers and their exchanges with the audience during this unforgettable debate officially entitled “Heidegger: Portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée” [Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought].
Days after the conference, once the text of the public debate was ready, Derrida, Gadamer, Lacoue-Labarthe, but also, Calle-Gruber—who was in charge of the presentation—and Reiner Wiehl—president of the session—, all of them, agreed to defer the publication[ii]. Those were unquiet days: only a year before had been published the “spectacular” book by Víctor Farías, Heidegger et le nazisme[iii] (1987) and, by the time of the Heidelberg Conference—partially motivated by the whirlwind generated by the Farías’ book—the media focus was as never before concentrated on Heidegger’s documented Nazism (which was already known from the 1960s, provided by Guido Schneeberger[iv], as Gadamer remembers[v]). Both Lacoue-Labarthe[vi] and Gadamer[vii], as it is well known, had largely discussed Farías provocative book, and had considered that was written not without recourse to misrepresentations and malicious omissions. Farías also devoted himself to denounce not only Heidegger Nazism but the so-called “heideggerianism”, especially what he understood as its French decline: Jean Beaufret and Jacques Derrida, both unfairly associated to Robert Faurisson and his revisionist-negationist theories regarding the non existence of gas chambers in the nazi concentration camps. Thus, the gadamerian decision that the conference be delivered in French, besides representing an act of generosity, acquires a new meaning.
Derrida, Gadamer and Lacoue-Labarthe faced in this conference the complexities of the discussion on a shared ground, each resorting to their own considerations while attempting to set up a dialogue (despite the manifest intention, at least from Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, of not giving a full account of their own most well-known published texts). To begin, Lacoue-Labarthe invoked his thesis on the confrontation, “the inmense debate”, that Heidegger, after the rectorship at Freiburg, would have started with what National Socialism meant in the history of the West, through the calling of art into question and the deconstruction of Western aesthetics, that is to say, the understanding of the essence of tékhne [viii]. One of the central thesis of Lacoue-Labarthe, that is present in his participation in the conference, is that the question of art occupies a nodal place in Heidegger’s self-interpretation of the enigma of his own political commitment, since it would constitute his self-confrontation with National Socialism, his own Auseinandersetzung subsequent to the experience of the Rectorship. After 1934, Heidegger introduces poetry and the poet figure as the main references for the reflection on the German identity and, in this way, Nietzsche’s previous dominant influence begins its decline to give way to the new hero: Hölderlin. The terms in which the myth and the tragedy would be thus later understood will not be those of the great German mimetic dream of Greece proper to nazi Wagnero-Nietzscheanism, but those of Dichtung, Sprache and Sage, which, in turn, overflow the aesthetic determination of the poetic.
Gadamer, contributed to the conference with both his irreplaceable reflections and testimonies, but also reopening the interrupted conversation started in April 1981 at the Paris Goethe Institute with Jacques Derrida. Therefore, Gadamer’s intervention was focused, on one hand, in its testimony value, maybe because the questions of the audience had conducted him too much in this way. In this respect, “surprise” and “shock” are the recurrent adjectives he used for describing what was then in 1933 his reaction to Heidegger’s Rectorship chair acceptation, indissociable of the latter’s public nazi commitment, specially when he had seemed to Gadamer politically much closer to National-Bolshevikism[ix] (which, in the eyes of Gadamer, as political Movement, had not a biologicist discourse). The main hypothesis of Gadamer is that Heidegger really believed for a moment that the nazi revolution was the possibility of a true spiritual renovation, but once he understood Nazism had become not more than a “decadent revolution”, it was for him no more his revolution, he felt no responsible at all for anything. And that would explain his great ambiguities: first of all, his silence. But also the responsibility with respect to the great number of colleagues and students who followed him in his political decision together with the disturbing contradiction of writing contemporary on the “forgetting of being”, the predominance of technics and the devastating consequences of the industrial revolution.[x] On the other hand, Gadamer presented a critical point of view of Heidegger’s path to the “fragmentation of metaphysical conceptualization by means of this force he exerted against words”[xi], that involved a similar consideration regarding to Derrida, and that allowed Gadamer to understand himself closer to Paul Celan and his sense of fragmentation.
Derrida, for its part, during the conference superbly questioned Heidegger’s own questions and avoidances, as well as the meaning of legacy and responsibility. He asserted—by way of an improvised and risky hypothesis, later shared by Lacoue-Labarthe and Gadamer—that Martin Heidegger’s silence, his unforgivable silence in the face of the barbaric horror of Nazi extermination, is the legacy that has bequeathed us. In Derrida’s words:
What I am saying here is very risky, and I risk it as a hypothesis, while asking you to accompany me in this risk. […] with a phrase spoken in the direction of an easy consensus, Heidegger woul have closed the matter. […] I believe that if he had let himself go for a statement, let’s say, of immediate moral reaction, or of a declaration of horror, or of non- forgiveness—a declaration that would not itself be a work of thought at the level of all that he had already thought—, well, perhaps we would feel more easily spared the work that we have to do today: because we have to do this work. That is what we have inherited.[xii]
This hypothesis is, ultimately, the beginning of a response, an answer to the question of responsibility of thought. On the one hand, improvisation would be a kind of responsibility by means of risking a disarmed speech.[xiii] On the other hand, to be heir to a legacy supposes always a response, the act of responding for not only a call not chosen, but also one that comes before oneself[xiv]. This is the call that Farías book wanted to mute, the path this book tried to close by doing a “case closed” out of the Heidegger nazi commitment. For this commitment was not in 1988 nor now something someone can put into question. Heidegger’s Nazism is indisputable. But to be heir to a legacy in the sense Derrida expressed it means a response to the dogmatic question where Faría’s book seem to lead: “is it posible yet to read Heidegger?”.
Somehow, today the 1988 scenario recurs. The publication for the first time of the Heidelberg Conference in 2014, in its French first edition[xv], concurrent with the beginning of the publication of the Schwartze Hefte in Germany, revealed a “dislocation” [décalage], as Jean-Luc Nancy has said[xvi], which comes not only from the very root of the problem itself, the relationship between Martin Heidegger and his political commitment with Nazism, but also from the mediatic racket generated by the very publication of the Schwartze Hefte themselves.
The process, begun in 2014, of the gradual publication of the Schwartze Hefte, which are loaded with resounding anti-Semitic expressions (that occupy a new and important place in the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, although are not the only elements of these books), challenges us today to think, demands pronouncements and explanations, in a climate of opportunism, confusion, obscurantism and controversy as it was that of the late eighties. Once again, the mass media (but not only the media) raise a false alternative that may be summarized as it follows: “If he was a great philosopher, then he was not a Nazi; if he was a Nazi, then he has not been a great philosopher”[xvii]. Thus, the task would be enormous for the heirs: none other than the terrifying and valuable mandate to think what Heidegger did not think, to say what he was not able to say[xviii], namely, the affinities and common roots among his thought, the essence of the West and Nazism; the subject of Nazism by itself; the basis for his National-Socialist engagement.
Nowadays, the publication of the Schwartze Hefte came to dispel the silence, but did not liquidate the task. In any case, today there is no way to avoid the inevitable. As Donatella Di Cesare said:
Even the stereotype of the philosopher lying in an impolitic conformity seems totally unmotivated. Heidegger was by no means a “conformist” and in the Black Notebooks—as in other works of the thirties—appears a politically radical philosopher. It will therefore be necessary to rewrite the chapter “Heidegger and politics” which promises to be much more complex than what has been assumed so far[xix].
That chapter today is beginning to be rewritten, little by little. To be sure, Donatella Di Cesare and Peter Trawny[xx]—editor of the Schwarze Hefte, published by Klostermann—provide today the most penetrating and accurate analysis on Heidegger’s anti-Semitism (although each one from a different point of view). In particular, in direct relation to one of the main reflections that the publication of the Heidelberg Conference brings up, Di Cesare dedicated half of his Heidegger & Sons. Eredità e futuro di un filosofo (2015) to face the problem of Heidegger’s legacy. Two paths seem to be shaped in the face of the intellectual inheritance of the German thinker. On the one hand, “orthodoxy”, which either denies or trivializes the status of Heidegger’s political statements, reacts with loyal impotence, marginalizing texts, problems, even people. On the other hand, a spectacular parade of pamphleteer whistleblowers sets out to hunt down the “Heideggerians”, suspected subscribers of any action or omission of Heidegger. Of course, these are false options that take us to just a single alternative: refusing to think. For, as Di Cesare affirms, “an inheritance is never something that can be either fully received or, on the contrary, totally refuted”[xxi]. We are heirs, whether we want it or not; that means having to learn to be both faithful and unfaithful[xxii]. Reading Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference will not dissipate the new questions that the publication of the Schwartze Hefte opened, but may give us both a vision of a path that must be understood as well as an understanding of some initial conclusions of three major philosophers that should be necessary overcome if we are really willing to confront once again to the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger’s thought.
Blanchot, Maurice. “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980).
Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).
Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016).
Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014).
Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015).
[i] Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), 43. Originally in Blanchot, Maurice, “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980), 81.
[ii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016), xiii.
[iii] Farías, Víctor. Heidegger et le nazisme (Paris: Verdier, 1987).
[iv] Schneeberger, Guido. Nachlese zu Heidegger (Bern: Suhr, 1962).
[v] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 63.
[vi] “Sur le livre de Victor Farias, Heidegger et le nazisme”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. La fiction du politique: Heidegger, lart et la politique (París: Christian Bourgois,  1998), 173-188. The text resumes with some modifications an article appeared in the Journal Littéraire: “Le procès Heidegger”, Le Journal Littéraire, no. 2: 115-117, December 1987-January 1988.
[vii] Published originally as “Zurück von Syrakus?”, in Die Heidegger-Kontroverse, ed. Jürg Altwegg (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1988), 176-79; later was published in French in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 22-28, 1988, translated by Geneviève Carcopino. It was also translated into English as “Back from Syracuse?,” trans. John McCumber, Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 427-30. The English version of Gadamer’s text was included in the edition here reviewed.
[viii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 37-38.
[ix] Ibid., 64-75.
[x] Ibid., 11-12.
[xi] Ibid., 41.
[xii] Ibid., 35-36.
[xiii] Ibid., 16.
[xiv] Ibid., 65-68.
[xv] Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Mireille Calle-Gruber. La conférence de Heidelberg, 1988: Heidegger, portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée (Paris: Lignes, 2014).
[xvi] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, vii.
[xvii] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014), 3. All Di Cesare’s translations by Facundo Bey.
[xviii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 35.
[xix] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015), 79.
[xx] Trawny, Peter. Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, 2015).
[xxi] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33.
[xxii] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33-34.
What appears at the frontier of Geoffrey Bennington’s works is an apparent insight and clarity of expression that is able to manifest itself despite the complexities in which its ideas and conceptions are embedded. And Bennington’s newest book Kant on the Frontier, Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth is no exemption to this rule, as a scholar who continues to prove vital in the fallout of Derrida and the debris of pessimism that follows his work. Any given reader of Bennington would perhaps encounter his work at a differing frontier, the present frontier in which I encountered his work was his biography/autobiography of Derrida, in which alike to the photo of himself and Derrida, seems that Bennington himself albeit pushing the frontier onwards from Derrida’ demarcation, alike to Hegel’s Owl of Minerva cannot outstep the shadow of his friend, companion and predecessor. That is not to say that, his ability to uncover the marginal, the foreclosed, and the frontier in this latest publication is not by any margin less than a feat of remarkable scholarship on Kant and the shameable hidden aspects of his thought at the frontier so to speak of given Kant readership. For that in itself is a formidable task judged by its own merit.
The central argument of the text concerns the ‘slogan’ “the end is the end”,[i] in which Bennington will examine various parts of Kant’s corpus in order to demonstrate a thinking-through of Derrida’s statement of la différance infinie est finie or the infinite difference is finite. The primary focus will be the teleological schema that haunts Kant’s corpus and examine the ways in which supposedly infinite differences or metaphysical distinctions between history and politics primarily, are indeed finite in the analogies Kant draws between the two frontiers of thought in his philosophy. The second consequence of Bennington’s formidable reading of Kant’s teleology is that the book does not present an “Idea in the Kantian sense”,[ii] such that the epigram of the end is the end cannot promise ideas but only diremption, in that can provide a new way of understanding of how we read philosophical works, but does not present new ideas for new philosophical works. Bennington’s text concerns itself with the form of reading of these works, not necessarily with the content. Another remarkable ability of Bennington is to seamlessly weave in thinkers and ideas into apparent disruptive readings, so he proposes a reading of Frege as an interstice to elaborate that “the concept of ‘concept is teleological”[iii].
The second core argument of Bennington’s text is that philosophy itself represses readings such it wants to only deal with the supposed ‘ideas’ of philosophy which are somehow divorced by the act of reading and even by the question of reading itself. Perhaps in one way or another this is the mode by which philosophy can operate only with the ideas of philosophy itself, ideas are only produced through a repression of reading, and a theory of reading cannot reproduce ideas. Additionally Bennington claims that philosophy’s best theory of reading is hermeneutics and fulfilled in deconstruction, however this claim being anything less than contentious will be the mark in which we will judge his deconstruction of Kant in, through and beyond the concept of the frontier. The final point in the preface before we enter into the body of the text, Bennington sets up an apparent disruptive analogy between the political implications of an interrupted teleology and the implications of reading philosophical works, and Kant’s ‘point of heterogeniety’ is what justifies a deconstructive reading of a Kantian critique in order to do away with the historicist reading of moral and political issues which Bennington sees as predominant in humanities discipline. Bennington then addresses the neglected nature of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement, insomuch as Bennington claims that “Darwinism provided an answer to the at least apparent natural purposiveness that Kant is trying to understand”.[iv] Bennington’s main claim in investigating this aspect of Kant is to emphasize that teleological thought is not as easily abandoned in regards to nature and mechanism as once imagined. Bennington argues that even extreme forms of Neo-Darwinism with severe forms of evolutionism are bound up with teleologism. and through their own internal logic defeat themselves. One example Bennington describes is how Kant’s prescription of a natural law that gives birth to the human animal which then in turn is able to escape the natural ends of the former law. Bennington surmises this contradictory nature of teleological schema succinctly.
Either way we are faced with a structure of end- setting that interrupts the process leading up to it and demands analysis of its internal interruptions and impossibilities, the more radically so now that it seems likely to many that that end- setting interruptive of natural processes (a currently fashionable name for which is the Anthropocene) really might be tending toward the End.[v]
The next section after the Preface moves from an apparently modest, marginal investigation of Kant’s teleology to a bigger more daring exposition by Bennington in the succeeding part of the book which is entitled ‘Preliminary.’ Bennington proclaims that: “If the point here were to do metaphysics (again), my claim, which would then be extraordinarily immodest, would be that “frontier” is nothing less than the primary philosophical concept and the origin of all others”.[vi] Somewhat repudiating Derrida’s project and simultaneously pushing on his deconstructive method, this third aspect of Bennington’s argument will be the ultimate in determining whether he succeeds in fails in convincing his readers of the primacy of the concept of the frontier both within philosophy and its theories of readings of philosophical works. The key distinction Bennington wishes to construct is that whilst an understanding of the concept of the concept is an impossibility without the concept of the frontier, each concept insomuch as it is a concept requires a frontier in order to delimit itself from others. However, he furthermore suggests that the concept of the frontier by this very definition cannot be defined itself. Now, whether as Bennington claims that “all philosophical concepts rest on a nonconceptual (nonphilosophical) ground that philosophy is incapable of thinking”,[vii] and secondly that if there are no philosophical concepts apropos, then we would need a concept of the frontier to delineate which concepts we were analysing, but as put to us prior to this claim, the concept of the frontier does not exist. In conclusion, the concept of the frontier is thus, a kind of interrupted teleological, a concept of concepts which itself cannot be identified but is teleological in its nature to describe concepts. Now, it remains to be seen whether this apparent parry and dance of conceptual meandering is a truly reasonable, philosophical or conceptual discovery and Bennington’s promised investigation of Kant will prove or disprove this. The concept of the frontier Bennington will use to evaluate whether philosophy itself from the outside from an origin or point of conceptualization is a possibility, and secondly whether philosophy itself is purely just history of philosophy rather than philosophy autonomously. Perhaps given these series of contentious claims that Bennington has set himself up for a fall in reducing philosophy and history to a singular concept which is primarily not at the heart of Derrida nor his kin, deconstruction. Furthermore, any reduction to a singular concept to answer all multiplicities is a beckoning problem to any philosopher. The frontier, which Bennington then posits as almost synonymous with Being[viii] is perhaps also allergic to Adorno’s critique of Heidegger’s reduction of the history of metaphysics as the history of being as self-defeating, insomuch as utilizing the concept of the frontier to reduce philosophy to the concept of the frontier is merely a sort of intellectual posturing, or in Hegel’s terms, a bad infinity. In one sense, the demarcation of Being could be said to be a type of frontier, in so much as you in a strictly phenomenological sense, with the name of Being and its metaphysical and conceptual baggage begin to build walls, delimitations, boundaries and frontiers. However, we should permit Bennington at least the courtesy of hearing his voice speak till its last breath in order to begin investigating the extent to which his sudden discovery of a new concept at the heart of all things perhaps should be listened to after all. Additionally to these high orders Bennington has placed on himself within the concept of the frontier, he claims that it “is literally everywhere”,[ix] he notes the concepts of différend and différance as an evident allusion to his predecessors Lyotard and Derrida however distinguishing his own coinage. Bennington even goes further to argue that the word itself as well as the concept of the frontier is simultaneously both its reference and referent at the same time. He elaborates in a more general sense that metaphysics itself is no longer possible in the traditional sense, such that any practice of metaphysics so called only refers to the objects and things themselves, but that teleological practice is no longer possible because of its disruptive nature. In a sudden turn of tradition and ideas, Bennington then moves to a ‘polemical’ reading of Gottlob Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik in order to begin demonstrating the profundity of his concept of the frontier. He quotes Frege in that “[t]he concept must have a sharp boundary [der Begriff muss Scharf begrenzt sein]”,[x] which is interesting linguistically primarily because of the usage of grenzen or boundaries, frontiers, borders which Frege uses in which Bennington is evidently, immediately interested in for his own conceptual production. The use of Frege only crosses a few pages bolstering its polemical nature, however Bennington reverts back to his spectre of Derrida revealing more clarity on the nature of the frontier.
As Jacques Derrida has taught us, the foundation of an institution, its very institution, the institution of the institution, including the institution of a science, and even of a science of logic, cannot be understood by that institution, can only be violent with respect to that institution. What I am trying to show here is that the frontier is the enduring (uncrossable) trace of that violent institution of the institution in general, and that this violence marks all concepts with the trace of a constitutive nonconceptuality.[xi]
Bennington goes on to claim that Frege by committing to the distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung lends itself to a failure of his own frontier of the concept of concepts. If as Derrida suggests, the relation between the poetical and the philosophical is what forces to philosophy to think,[xii] similar to the conclusion of Heidegger insomuch as new poetry is needed to reinvigorate thinking once more, perhaps Bennington’s fascination with the frontier is aligned to this goal also. Transitioning to the sphere of political philosophy, Bennington openly admits that the frontier does not amount to much,[xiii] however he claims that such concepts as the State are defined, delimited and demarcated by a frontier which the singular object is posited and then analysed as a fact of the world. This last part of an auxilliary argument in the Prolegomena section of the text is one in which Bennington claims that the frontier is in fact a ‘primary problem of political philosophy’ and that it “cannot be resolved dialectically”,[xiv] because of its ‘absolute exteriority’ but perhaps we shall see that it is in fact Bennington’s concept of the frontier that will never be crossed. Now, we shall return to the main bodies of the text itself after the long and precise previous sections named Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena in turn. The central focus from Aristotle to Kant will be the concept of the state of nature, and what each philosopher in turns coins as a natural community which then gives rise to a community seemingly outside and beyond that natural law basis. However, Bennington puts forth that natural frontiers would only be shores, rivers, mountains,[xv] and then the frontier of the State would rise later on the basis of these previous forms of frontiers, but the play Bennington is enforcing is thus to question these apparent frontiers in Aristotle and Kant. The linkage between the demarcation of the frontier and violence is furthermore explored in conjunction with the concept of the polis, speech, zoon politikon and the state of nature in Aristotle and Kant.[xvi] However, the key point for Bennington is that violence is first needed for the separation of the natural law from the State, or from the natural community to the polis, and then within this context of violence[xvii] the drawing of a frontier is a further representative act of violence, and contracts further violence in the form of jealousy, mockery, revenge, threat, warfare.[xviii]
For the problem that is tormenting these texts of Aristotle as much as those of Kant depends on the very structure (or the nature) of the frontier itself: If we cross the frontier between nature and right by nature, by necessity and natural force, we remain short of the frontier, on the side of nature, while claiming to cross it. If, however, we cross the frontier out of duty, we do not really cross it, because we were already on the other side, in right, just when we were supposed not to be there yet. The frontier between nature and right, then, does not really exist, even if there is this frontier. The nonlinear dynamics of these relations between nature and its others—physis and nomos, necessity and obligation, violence and peace, the always- already but yet never accomplished crossing of the frontier that separates these opposing terms—is precisely what we are here calling “nature,” some paradoxical consequences of which we are just beginning to see.[xix]
In this lengthy quote, it is clear what Bennington is advocating, attempting to highlight the apparent tensions and contradictions between the natural and beyond in Aristotle and Kant. However, to what extent does this supposed contradiction actually mean in regards to how Aristotle conceived of the difference between the natural community and the polis? And the same to what extent did Kant really think and construct a difference between a state of nature and state of law? Bennington explains that politics will continue eternally attempting to solve the problems of sovereignty, legislation, the forms of government, suffrage, and private property.[xx] In the case of Ancient Greece, the singular Greek polis once established out of the relations of husband to wife, master to slave and individual to city polis, will soon come to realize that their ‘circle’ is surrounded by other circles, and so the frontiers are forever expanded outwards from nature to law, to nature again, and further onwards to law. By setting up the tensions in Aristotle leading to Kant, Bennington wishes to set up the paradoxes of the “cosmopolitan situation of perpetual peace”,[xxi] which the circles of the polis which Aristotle describes build into Kant’s internationalist state of many nation-states interacting in a wider circle altogether. However Bennington wishes to highlight how the perpetual peace in Kant is none other than death, such that the only real solution to peace between international states is only when all of “Kant’s frontiers and distinctions are threatened in the very tracing of their line, and that the definition of critique itself will not survive unscathed”.[xxii] Bennington by deconstructing Kant’s theory of perpetual peace he then moves onto the much favoured other element of Kant which is known and marked out in philosophy, Kant’s critical moment or his mode of critique. Bennington lays more suspicion on Kant in his theory of critique in that alike to the temporal, teleological interruptive nature of perpetual peace, Kant’s critique suffers from the same temporal lapse. Bennington elucidates that:
in Kant the critical moment to the doctrinal moment (and indeed everyone does prefer that) but that, as the doctrinal moment only ever arrives as the death of the critical moment, it never truly arrives, which would leave us forever in the good critical tension? But then we would no longer really understand what critique means, as the concept of critique in Kant draws its content from its teleological determination with regard to doctrine. No critique without doctrine. Without doctrine, no critical step.[xxiii]
As outlined in his Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena the interruptive nature of teleology itself even enters into Bennington’s text in the form of a section called Interlude: The Guiding Thread (on Philosophical Reading) in which he will interject the basis of his own reading just performed in the previous section. He again refers to his polemic to philosophy in that it represses theories of reading primarily because of its primary mode of understanding its ideas of reading through hermeneutics, and that philosophy prefers to merely discuss ideas of thought rather than the philosophical readings. The problem of how to read philosophy, a philosopher, a philosophical text, a philosophical proposition, a philosophical concept is problematized by Bennington.[xxiv]
Interestingly enough, Bennington refers to Pascal and his “reader who goes too fast or too slowly, often in an uncomprehending disarray that does not stop me reading, but which puts me undeniably ill at ease”,[xxv] and coincidently one wonders whether Bennington’s text on the frontier is not reading in this way, but written in this very manner. He is therefore right in his offering of Hegel that the form of the text constructs the principle, thread and backbone of the ideas supposedly embedded within and outside the text in order to define its frontier to borrow Bennington’s concept, one believes that Derrida called it a parergon. Bennington continues, “Which is why, reading Hegel, one becomes a Hegelian (the text here is in principle already the institution of its own reading, already its own quasi- tautological saturating interpretation)”.[xxvi] Then one wonders, what is the institution of Bennington’s reading? The usage of prefaces, interludes and interjections demonstrate the frontier itself at work, in that when one reads a philosophical text one hopes to begin at the beginning perhaps at the first critique of Kant, then moves onto later texts in the next chapters divided by frontiers of titles, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, gaps in between the words one reads here, then back out into the ideas of critique, perpetual peace, Kant and into philosophy itself. Perhaps as Bennington himself suggests that one cannot do without the history of philosophy nor read the new,[xxvii] then his reading of Aristotle and Kant are both a classical reading and a new reading seemingly melded together in an undeniably fascinating combination proving the plasticity of philosophical reading whether it focuses on the ideas and represses theories of reading, or bases itself on a theory of reading and neglects the ideas, but one wonders whether both possibilities, or potentialities are in fact possible or an actuality? Bennington concludes on Kant by outlining that the frontier “can be said to be nature, violence, warfare, radical evil, contingency, but also providence, critique, or peace”.[xxviii] However, it is the same here as well as Adorno’s critique of Husserl in his book Metacritique in that phenomenology promises to be dealing with the essence of things by pervading all forms of metaphysical constraints and systems. However, just as Adorno thought that by using the term Being as the sole reduction of Western philosophy did not in fact lead to an overturning of Western metaphysics but a facile self-evidency, that in fact by designating the word Being as a concept in fact, leads to its own meaninglessness and loss of any conceptuality. Additionally, what in fact are Bennington’s contents of his own frontier? Again, as his Preface demonstrated perhaps he can evade such a question in that the frontier itself is not a concept or an idea by itself, but one wonders what is bracketed out of Bennington’s text. The part of the argument in his investigation of Kant is attempting to frame the question of politics in Kant,Bennington’s point can be summarized in that Kant never directly or explicitly addresses the question of politics, it is located in the interstices of the frontier between the “Architectonic of the first Critique, nor in the preface to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, nor in the introduction to the third Critique”.[xxix] Bennington puts this point in a form of dialogue, in that politics in Kant’s complete series of his system, never addresses the question of politics and yet his system concerns politics.
So to the question “Where is politics?” we reply (because Kant does not reply): On the frontier, or, rather, in the frontier, in the transitional spaces, between the great divisions of the system. As politics in Kant’s descriptions depends on a remainder of violent nature inscribed along frontiers, a remainder that cosmopolitanism does not absorb, politics will be inscribed […].[xxx]
However, Bennington does in fact identify where the frontier of Kant actually resides. He locates it in the Kantian mode of judgement, in which Kant is able to unite several disparate spheres, modes and spaces of thought within his grand architectonic system. It would seem then, that whilst Bennington at the beginning of his book and his analysis of Kant, the frontier did not seem apparent but more or less structured Kant’s reasoning in his system. Now it is revealed that Kant’s frontier is in fact, the faculty of judgement which can unite his thought.
We still do not know what a frontier is, or even what its nature is, except to be of nature. And we could even say that just that is the frontier: not knowing. We trace frontiers in order to know, but we will know nothing of the frontier itself. Kant is less interested in knowledge per se, pace the neo- Kantians, than in its frontier, where knowledge fails. If there were in Kant a faculty of the frontier, it would clearly be the faculty of judgment. The success of the operation might be disputed, but the aim of the third Critique seems clear enough: that of throwing a bridge over the abyss that has opened between the world of experience and the world of freedom, between speculative and practical reason. The abyss is, it would seem, again what we are here calling the frontier, in a peculiarly exacerbated or exasperated form. But judgment would be the faculty allowing it to be crossed, or at least allowing the two sides to be joined. Judgment would then be reason itself being rational, the pure faculty of relations that are both singular and analogous.[xxxi]
After concluding on the frontier of Kant as the faculty of judgement, Bennington deliberately jumps to Hegel’s critique of Kant into trying to “sublate contingency into necessity, without simply erasing the place of the contingency thus sublated”.[xxxii] Bennington’s sudden interruptive teleological of Hegel into his commentary on Kant is again representative of his concept of the frontier, demonstrating another frontier of Kant, be it in this case, a version of Kant as a part of Hegel’s critique of Kant himself. Bennington seems to make Hegel’s frontier the sublation of Kant’s frontier which may prove hugely problematic. Hegel’s supposed sublation is problematized by Bennington in that the end will never come, in terms of history or art such that the end is already implicit in the beginning.[xxxiii] Bennington summarizes the study of Kant in terms of two doctrines, firstly the doctrine of critique in which critique is lost in its employment, such that in its immanence it loses its immanent ability in a loss of temporality.
But what our halt around Kant will have taught us is that there are only halts and in them a certain spirit of critique that begins to be lost as soon as it becomes critique (i.e., once it is carried out in anticipation of a doctrine to come). This critical position of critique, this crisis of critique, obliges it to have quite different relations to the tradition than those entertained by Kant himself. So we have not tried to read Kant in a Kantian way (as will have been noticed), while nonetheless claiming to read Kant. Reading him, we clearly take a step outside what philosophers call “philosophy,” because philosophy in that sense is the refusal, in principle, of reading.[xxxiv]
Bennington concludes in his Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction that we must read philosophical works in a literary way to push the frontiers of our understandings and the frontiers of that thinker’s thought.[xxxv] As mentioned prior to in earlier sections, Bennington uses Derrida’s polemic of literature that it forces philosophy to think, and that the boundaries between philosophy and literature are in fact literary frontiers, such that they are mediated by philosophies of reading, not just the ideas and systems of thought of philosophy. In conclusion, one gets the formidable impression from Bennington’s latest text on the frontier, that it serves as a frontier itself as opposed to a content-filled space in between project, and that as one reads this text one should expect the next texts to come as further boundaries to Bennington’s post-deconstructive, Derridean work.
Does this mean that “analogy” is the proper name of what we are trying to articulate here? Certainly not, because there can be no propriety of analogy. The ana-logos always remains to one side of the logos, bordering or lining it without letting itself be comprehended by it, or letting itself be comprehended solely as its Grenze, which immediately relaunches the whole machinery. Reason, exposed by Kant according to a certain ana-logics of logic, speaks itself and loses itself not in the empty space beyond the frontier but at the frontier itself as pure analogy. But one senses that analogy can never be pure, as it is purely a placing in relation. Like the frontier as such, analogy as such is nothing, and so there is analogy only in a dispersion of uncontrollable, in(de)terminable singularities, always in the now of the event of the frontier. Analogy is only ever analogical, relaunches itself indefinitely as the unlimited limit of thought or as the pure relation of thought and language. The frontier, as Aristotle knew, is infinite, interminable, a term without term. Kant never finishes tracing it, putting a term to it, limiting himself to bounds, bound to limits. This is his cross, his passion, that gives rise to a reading that I cannot say is either literary or philosophical, that really starts I know not where, and finds its end I know not how.[xxxvi]
[i] Bennington Geoffrey, Preface to the English Edition in Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics and the Ends of the Earth, Fordham University Press, (New York, 2017), p. ix.
[iv] Ibid., p. x.
[vi] Ibid., Preliminary p. xiii.
[viii] Ibid., p. xiv.
[ix] Ibid., p. xv.
[x] Ibid., Prolegomena p. xix.
[xi] Ibid., p. xxv.
[xii] Ibid., p. xxvi.
[xiii] Ibid., p. xxviii.
[xv] Ibid., The End of Nature, p. 2.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 3.
[xix] Ibid., p. 27..
[xx] Ibid., The Return of Nature p. 28
[xxi] Ibid., p. 62.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 84.
[xxiv] Ibid., Interlude: The Guiding Thread (On Philosophical Reading) p. 85.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 92
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 99.
[xxviii] Ibid., p. 107.
[xxix] Ibid., 4. Radical Nature, p. 109.
[xxxi] Ibid., 5. The Abyss of Judgement, p. 144.
[xxxii] Ibid., Finis p. 199.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 203.
[xxxv] Ibid., Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction (Grenze and Schranke), p. 205.
[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 223.