Mauro Senatore’s first book in English, Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida, is a compact and ambitious reading of a significant portion of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work from his earliest writings on Husserl to unpublished seminars from the 1970s and 1980s. Divided into 5 chapters (2 on Platonism and 3 on Hegelianism), Senatore’s book aims to provide “a systematic elaboration of how Derrida develops the Husserlian concept of genesis through a critical engagement with Plato’s and Hegel’s legacies as well as with the biological thought of his time” (xii). Indeed, if the chapters’ explicit focus are on Derrida’s on-going engagement with Platonic and Hegelian accounts of genesis, life, transmission and inheritance, the book’s toile de fond is no doubt the place of Derrida’s thought in larger debates and developments in contemporary biology and the life sciences more generally. By reading Derrida in light of the transformations that took place in these scientific fields—a shift, broadly speaking, from the genetic paradigm to the post-genetic or epigenetic paradigm—Senatore makes a convincing case that Derrida’s writings constitute nothing less than a significant contribution, “nonphilosophical and nonpreformationist,” to a “post-genetic interrogation of life” (xii). The stakes of this reading are high, since, if Senatore is correct, it would perhaps make Catharine Malabou’s abandonment of the Derridean language of writing premature and unnecessary. What Derrida will have meant by writing and programme, for example, as early as 1967 in De la grammatologie where he already speaks of biological writing and the biological pro-gramme[i], would in fact be quite close to what Malabou will call plasticity in reference to contemporary neuroscience.[ii]
In many ways, the center of gravity around which Senatore’s book turns is the recent wave of interest that Derrida scholars[iii] have taken in Derrida’s unpublished 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort[iv], which in turn makes clear the connection between deconstruction and the life sciences proposed by Senatore, since Derrida devotes a substantial portion of his seminar to discussing the French biologist François Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant[v] as well as the work of Georges Canguilhem. Senatore, with this seminar in mind, reads the Derridean notions of writing, dissemination, trace, etc. as responding to the latent teleological and metaphysical presuppositions that still structured the philosophical musings of biologists such as Jacob. But if Derrida shows how the then recent discoveries in genetics seem only to be a repetition of biological preformationism, this time without a divine creator—and thus of philosophical teleology more generally—, he also attempts to show how the contradictions and aporias in the biological text point necessarily beyond themselves to a new thinking of life, one more in line with the work of the biophysicist Henri Atlan who emphasizes the necessity of living beings not to simply repeat pre-inscribed genetic instructions, but to be submitted to the “aleatory perturbations” of the organism’s environment (xii).
Though a fair amount of attention has been recently given to Derrida’s engagement with mathematics and the formal sciences[vi], Senatore’s book opens up new debates and will certainly path the way for future research trajectories that seek to re-inscribe Derrida’s thought in larger historical and scientific contexts, thus avoiding the typical readings of Derrida that made his work a staple in English and Comparative Literature departments. It is perhaps not even an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift—if not at least a renaissance (to which Senatore’s book no doubt belongs)—in critical studies on the work of Jacques Derrida. Beginning with Martin Hägglund’s influential Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, 2008) and even continuing into the field of intellectual history with Edward Baring’s The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, 2011), as commentators have come to insist more and more upon the authentically philosophical nature of Derrida’s project.
Indispensable to this philosophical revival of Derrida is of course the meticulous editing and translation of Derrida’s seminars of which Senatore avails himself. This in turn has given scholars access to Derrida’s teaching as a philosophy instructor where he was often tasked with preparing young students for the competitive agrégation de philosophie. This meant that it was Derrida’s job to prepare students to work through the major philosophical problems of the Western tradition as treated by this tradition’s classical figures. Deconstruction was, it must be said, indebted to these close-readings of canonical texts that are to this day central to French philosophical training. In other words, Derrida is being read more widely as making original contributions to philosophy and no longer merely to literary theory[vii], where deconstruction was seen as one possible grid of literary analysis among others (psychoanalytic criticism, historicism, etc.), or, more generally, as an interpretive method applicable to any field whatsoever (i.e. deconstruction and architecture, deconstruction and legal theory, etc.). Indeed, this new turn in Derrida scholarship is making it quite clear that deconstruction does not consist simply in one possible hermeneutic strategy or analytic framework, nor is it a purely negative or critical project, but rather it uncovers and names in some sense the very movement of Being itself, the quasi-ontological conditions of possibility of all beings, the minimal and necessary structure of meaning and experience as such.
Senatore, rightly, does not shy away from such bold claims and asserts this at the outset: “I argue that Derrida conceives of the inscription-seed as the minimal structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis. This structure constitutes the element of a geneticism of sense in general—that is, of an analysis that accounts for the genesis of the discourse as well as of the living” (2). But this is not all. Derrida’s originality, according to Senatore’s account, is that this account of genesis in general is strictly “post-genetic,” by which he means that it is a thinking of genesis that is non-teleological and therefore breaks with the model wherein arche and telos coincide, the latter being simply an outgrowth of a potentiality present in the former. If the philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond—albeit a particular reading of Hegel that has been largely discredited today[viii]—conceived of genesis as essentially the internal playing-out of instructions or a programme present already at the origin (a conception that is mirrored in the biological discourses from preformationism to modern geneticism whereby an organism is nothing other than the result of a set of pre-determined instructions transmitted from one generation to another), a post-genetic theory of genesis that takes seriously the irreducibility of the movement of necessary externalization that defines all beings. Indeed, it is Derrida’s contention that a kind of spontaneous Hegelianism was present throughout Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant. Yet Derrida’s engagement with the life sciences is not simply critical and destructive, but also seeks to to elaborate another thinking of life beyond the opposition life/death. Derrida in turn prepares the ground for the elaboration of a post-genetic thinking of life or what Derrida will come to call “life death”, one that anticipates more recent developments in biological epigenesis.
And yet while reading Senatore’s book, as well as Derrida’s seminar itself[ix], it is unclear how Derrida conceives of the relationship between philosophy and science. At certain moments, one gets the impression that Derrida is suggesting that philosophy, in particular deconstruction, can itself theorize certain objects and structures before the biological and life sciences, that is, that it anticipates discoveries and theoretical developments in various scientific fields. This would appear to make deconstruction a kind of science[x]—or a non-philosophical science? At other moments, it appears that the textual structure that necessarily conditions the life sciences as well as any being whatsoever, renders scientific objectivity both possible and impossible. Deconstruction, insofar as it is attuned to the particularities of the trace structure of beings in general, would be a paradoxical non-science of this most general condition of scientificity as such. Or put differently, and this is Senatore’s claim, it is indeed possible to generalize the notion of dissemination that unconsciously guides the text of biology into a quasi-transcendental structure that accounts for all genesis, “from biological to cultural genesis” (2). And in other moments still, Derrida’s position seems to be close to Althusser’s position in his 1967 lecture course Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants, where he explicitly takes up the biological theories of Jacob’s partner, Jacques Monod, in order to argue that there is a salvageable materialist tendency in Monod’s otherwise idealist discourse and that it is the text of philosophy to intervene politically within the scientists to help eliminate unquestioned ideological intrusions that hinder the practice of scientists. But what Althusser takes issue with is precisely Monod’s attempt to generalize his biological findings in order to explain genesis in general. Derrida, for his part, writes in the sixth session of his seminar:
The activity of the scientist, science, the text of genetic science as a whole are determined as products of their object, if you will, products of the life they are studying, textual products of the text they are translating or deciphering or whose procedures of deciphering they are deciphering. And this, which appears as a limit to objectivity, is also—by virtue of the structural law according to which a message can only be translated by the very products of its own translation—the condition of scientificity, in this domain, of the effectuation of science (and of all the sciences).[xi]
Not surprisingly, this session begins with a reference to Gödel, since once we see textuality as a general structure, a paradox of self-reference immediately arises wherein the biological text studied by the life sciences (the genetic code or inscriptions) necessarily refers to other texts, to a text without a non-textual outside. And it is the paradoxical structure of textuality all the way down, so to speak, that seems to legitimate deconstruction’s capacity to outstrip the sciences, if not at the very least, guide their future researches into the textuality that they necessarily study, and which moreover conditions their object of study, but which the science’s fail to thematize. All of this by way of introduction not to delegitimate Derrida’s project, or Senatore’s remarkable interpretation of it, but rather as serious questions and challenges to attempting to think the relationship between philosophy and science from within a transcendental or post-phenomenological framework.
Senatore’s book begins with an introductory chapter that proposes a reading of Derrida’s 1963 essay “Force and Signification”, in particular, a passage where Derrida refers to the Leibnizian scene of divine creation wherein God necessarily brings about the existence of the best possible world. This will then be linked to the more or less contemporaneous translation and commentary that Derrida published on Husserl’s late manuscript The Origin of Geometry. What Derrida develops across both works is a rethinking of genesis that is fundamentally different from what Senatore, following Derrida, calls the logos spermatikos whose biological analog is preformationism, the doctrine according to which an organism develops out of an initial germ which contains already in itself that which it will only later become. Derrida argues, as is now well-known, that meaning or sense cannot be seen as pre-existing the act of inscription, and, in turn, that the moment of inscription should not merely be seen as an external, secondary, and empirical accident, but rather, as an essential condition of possibility for meaning in general. It is in Husserl’s late writings where Derrida finds the basic structure of a rigorously non-theological and non-classical thinking of genesis. Here, meaning must await its inscription, and does not precede the act of writing. Ideality is thus a result of the process that writing names, “only writing permits the full accomplishment of the ideal objectivity of ideality by unbinding the latter from an actual subjectivity in general” (9). And so if ideality is only produced in some sense retrospectively after the event of writing, genesis must be conceived of as a fundamentally creative and productive, and not as an act of revelation of some pre-existing meaning or essence. Since nothing precedes inscription, there is strictly speaking no ideality without writing. This understanding of a generalized writing, as Derrida will later call it, is what Senatore calls “the most general geneticism” whereby writing is conceived as “the structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis” (14). With Husserl’s account of writing in mind, Senatore turns to the structuralism espoused by Jean Rousset in his reading of Proust, the main subject of Derrida’s “Force and Signification.” It is clear in what way structuralism will necessarily presuppose and repeat the classical scene of Leibnizian creation, which is itself analogous to biological preformationism. The structure of which the work is an expression seems to suggest that literary work is nothing but the fully developed form of what was once a germ latent in the structure itself. In the same way, Leibniz’s God moves from essence to existence, inscribing the former in the latter, and in so doing avoids what Derrida calls the anguish of writing, that is, the necessity of essence being produced not before the act of creation, but only in and by way of the genesis of existence itself. Derrida writes, “the metaphysics implicit in all structuralism, or in every structuralist proposition…always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book, and considers itself deprived of the essential when this simultaneity is not accessible” (19-20). Put differently, the classical notion of genesis makes meaning the result of internal transmission, rather than meaning having to necessarily be constituted as the result of passing through an essential moment of exteriority in the act of writing taken in a general sense, a movement that in turn erases the “externality” of this process of exteriorization.
Senatore then turns to Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” in the first of two chapters on Platonism in order to differentiate Derrida’s notion of dissemination from the Platonic theory of genesis. Like Leibniz’s scene of divine creation, Platonism “tends to annihilate what Derrida identifies as its anagrammatic structure—namely, the site of the concatenation of forms, of the tropic and syntactical movements, which precede and render possible the concatenation or movement of Platonism itself as well as of philosophy in general” (26). Reading Derrida’s famous essay alongside the recently published seminar on Heidegger from 1964-65 Senatore insists upon the necessity of refusing to “tell stories”, that is, to assimilate being and Beings and to nominate one particular being to be the cause or ontic explanation of the origin of beings. Indeed, the early sessions of Derrida’s lecture course are devoted to investigating what he calls “ontic metaphors” and the necessity to think with them—what is needed most of all is not that we simply abandon these metaphors, as if that were possible, but rather think their necessity and introduce new ones into philosophical discourse. The discussion of metaphoricity brings Senatore to a discussion of the notion of a living logos in Plato’s text. Despite Plato’s attempt to describe the genesis of the logos without recourse to an ontic metaphor, the origin of logos is nevertheless inscribed in the zoological and biological metaphor of generation—Plato is necessarily forced to think speech’s difference from writing as the result of the former’s having a father, that is, its being accompanied or even chaperoned by the direct source of its emission. Whereas writing is orphaned, a dead letter left to circulate without the possibility of response and responsibility, the voice is a living logos that can answer directly and respond to all inquiries addressed to it. Senatore writes, “This suggests once more that the structure of the logos constitutes a metaphor borrowed from a certain understanding of the living and thus that the relation to its father (the noble birth, the body proper, etc.) hinges on a genetic and zoological explanation” (34). But Derrida’s argument is stronger: it is not simply that Plato appeals to the metaphor of paternity and biological generation to explain the origin of the logos in the voice of the speaker, but rather that the casual order of determination is precisely relational. The existence of logos produces the familial relation and not the other way around such that “the concepts of the living and of the zoological process of generation are grounded on the concept of logos and on the relationship between the logos and its subject respectively” (35). Now this conception wherein the logos is the logic of the living is precisely what Derrida seeks to rethink. Indeed, the problem is less that metaphors were imported into the text of philosophy whereas they should be ideally left out of it, but rather that the chosen metaphor makes the production of living logos in speech into a general theory of genesis. Turning to later sections of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Senatore convincingly shows that what Derrida sought to uncover was the irreducibility of writing or the anagrammatic structure of the text is itself an even more general geneticism. This is how we should understand Derrida’s famous interpretation of the signifier pharmakon: its inscription in Plato’s text makes it the untranslatable site of a condensation of multiple, contradictory meanings that are necessarily obscured in the moment of translation. Senatore quoting Derrida writes, “The effect of such a translation is most importantly to destroy what we will later call Plato’s anagrammatic writing…and, in the end, quit simply of the very textuality of the translated text” (37). Platonism is then the attempt to suppress the effects of the written trace, which necessarily carries with it these possible deviations and disseminations, “the irreducible synthesis of grammatical concatenations and stories that make up the grapheme pharmakon constitues the very element of Platonism, the vigil from which it wishes to dissociate itself” (37). We see again that writing, the process of inscription itself, cannot be seen as a derivative or secondary moment in the production of meaning, as if we passed simply from intention to expression in language, but rather meaning is the effect produced by writing. And since writing is taken as the general condition of the production of meaning this means that it necessarily carries within itself, from the very start, the irreducible possibility of its going astray as its essential possibility. Logos spermatikos and logos-zoon are then both attempts by Platonism to neutralize the necessary and aleatory effects of writing, which are in fact the minimal conditions of possibility of all beings: “…the grapheme-seed is the element of linguistics, zoology, politics, and thus of all regional discourses” (44).
Senatore’s second chapter on Platonism turns to a reading of the Derridean notion of khora as developed in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Timaeus. Senatore here makes extensive use of Derrida’s unpublished seminars from 1970-71 (Theory of Philosophical Discourse: Conditions for the Inscription of the Text of Political Philosophy—The Example of Materialism) and 1985-86 (Comparative Literature and Philosophy: Nationality and Philosophical Nationalism). What is at stake is pushing this previously elaborated thinking of writing to its extreme by considering its implications for the notion of origin. It is a question of going beyond the opposition of paradigm/copy or father/son to what precedes and makes possible oppositionality as such. Philosophy, as Derrida suggests in the 1970-71 seminar, deals exclusively with the oppositional, but is not able to think what makes oppositions possible in the first instance. But khora names the very condition of these oppositions in general, the very possibility or opening for beings. Quoting Derrida’s unpublished seminar we read, “Being absolutely figurable, the receptacle escapes all figures, it does not let itself be captured by any figure and necessarily exceeds the trope or the representation that are intended for it [qu’on lui destine]” (60). Senatore will then connect this to Derrida’s final essay on khora wherein the originary opening and receptivity that this Platonic notion is meant to designate is thematized as the minimal condition for understanding history: history is possible only on the basis of the originary openness that khora names, that is, the empirical succession of events that we call history, wherein all thing come to be called historical, presupposes precisely this originary opening and condition of possibility, this formlessness that gives form. And it is here that Senatore suggests that Derrida discovers in Plato’s text a thinking of history irreducible to Platonism. We are no longer thinking in terms of generational succession, of direct and risk-free intergenerational transmission, but rather thinking on the basis of something—though certainly not a being— pre-originary, or as Derrida writes “before and outside all generation” (67). This thinking of the pre-originary, as Derrida understands it, is both the unthought of philosophy, what cannot be thought in the discourse of philosophy, but also philosophy’s necessary excessiveness: “Khora withdraws from the field of philosophy, as meta-philosophical necessity that remains unheard-of or is removed, that bears within itself another thinking of history, the only thinking of the concept and historicity of history” (68).
In the final three chapters Senatore moves on to discuss Hegelianism, that is, Hegel’s philosophical considered as the most radical attempt to think through the textuality of philosophical language that Platonism had denied in order to constitute itself as philosophical discourse (69). Now, according to Derrida in his 1969-70 seminar, his goal is to call “into question what constitutes the essence and telos of philosophy, that is, holding [tenir] the most general discourse, and thus the most independent one, in relation to which particular discourses (determinate domains) would be hierarchically ordered” (70). In other words, it will be an attempt to show the impossibility of philosophy constituting itself as a completely originary and independent discourse, that is to say, one which makes no recourse to metaphoricity or language imported from other discourses. This will in turn make possible a criticism of philosophy as the most general discourse whose task it is to order regional discourses and produce “the sense of sciences” (73). In this way, the concept of life and life of the concept in Hegel repeat the Platonic logos-zoon, which makes not biological reproduction the foundation of all transmission and generation, but rather biological reproduction is understood on the basis of the philosophical logos spermatikos wherein life is understood as “the generation of consciousness and thus as the nonmetaphorical and originary relation between the father and the logos-zoon, as the removal of the mother, self-reproduction, etc.” (73-4). To affirm against this position the Derridean thinking of dissemination or the anagrammatic structure of writing is tantamount to “pointing to a minimal structure (or an element) that would be diffracted into the transcendental signification and the natural one, and thus would remain behind their difference” (79). To think the textuality of the text is thus what Hegel gets closest to doing—after all Hegel is declared in De la grammatologie the last thinker of the book and the first thinker of writing[xii]—when reflecting upon the speculative nature of the German language, that is, its ability to think with words whose meanings are antithetical. Hegel would then be the first philosopher to consciously accept and affirm the anagrammatic structure that Plato repressed when faced with signifiers such as pharmakon. Aufhebung, for example, is the metaphorical hinge that binds the concept of life and life of the concept together, but what Hegel precisely risks is reducing the generation of life to the generation of the concept and consciousness, in turn repeating the Platonic structure: “the process of Aufhebung, which he [Derrida] understands as the scheme of the organization as well as the development of the Hegelian system, accounts for the solution of the equivocity of philosophical language” (88). In other words, the speculative identity that the signifier Aufhebung establishes between life, concept, and consciousness reduces the irreducible equivocity of language as inscription, of the anagrammatic structure of writing, or the textuality of the text.
Turning to Hegel’s explicit usage of the term germ (der Same), from which the book gets it title, Senatore focuses on Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s natural images and metaphors. It is again the speculative identity between life and concept that allows Hegel to see the movement of the concept as analogous to the development of life from seed to organism that then goes onto produce more seeds. The seed alienates itself in the process of its very development only to return to itself. Hegel’s system functions by building larger and more comprehensive accounts of this same developmental process since spirit too is self-reproducing and returns to itself as shown in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This discussion continues to include Hegel’s image of the family tree and the book of life, in various texts such as The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate and Reason in History. Again, what is at stake is the apparent covering-over by Hegel of his discovery of an irreducible difference, a remainder or excess, that cannot be included into the movement of the concept-life. Senatore goes on to discuss Derrida’s treatment of this issue in the opening text of Dissemination, which questions the role of the preface as traditionally understood. Derrida’s most experimental writing practices were developed in this period as the unorthodox opening “preface” of Dissemination bears many relations to the form and content of Derrida’s Glas that would be published two year later following the contemporaneous seminar La Famille de Hegel. If the traditional preface is intended to prepare the reader for what is to come, to make the future present at the outset, Derrida’s text is meant to draw attention to the work of dissemination as an irreducible or minimal structure as such. Senatore writes: “Dissemination is the name given to a project that he [Derrida] has started elaborating in “Force and Signification…and further developed in Of Grammatology, where he thinks of writing as the general structure of genesis and thus as the element [or minimal structure] of history and life” (132-33). Dissemination is thus what cannot be appropriated in the self-movement of the concept or life since it is the latter’s irreducible condition of possibility. Meaning, as Derrida discovered in Husserl, thus cannot be signaled or indicated in advance (by a preface or pre-text), but must awaits its moment of empirical inscription or embodiment as an “irreducible delay” that Hegel describes as an “external necessity” (121). The preface is then the attempt made by philosopher’s to suture this originary structure of delay that is immanent and necessary to the unfolding of the concept, an attempt to reduce this essential “out-of-jointness” by making the sense of what is to come present in the present, that is, at the origin.
The preface to Hegel’s Science of Logic perfectly encapsulates this tension: it both does not proclaim in advance what is to come, since logic, for Hegel, can only emerge at the end of the text and cannot be seen as an empty formal method that is discovered at the outset and applied throughout. Yet this admission makes the preface itself superfluous in some sense since it is external to the work itself and is excluded from the immanent unfolding of the concept, that is, from the logic itself. But Derrida wants to read this double status of the preface as being itself a figure of the structure of genesis in general, as that element that resists being folded into the logic of the text itself, and yet is structurally necessarily. This discussion leads Senatore to directly address Derrida’s reading of François Jacob’s La Logique du vivant from the unpublished seminar La Vie la mort. Indeed, Derrida’s “Outworking, Prefacing” is thus the “protocol for a non-Hegelian and non-genetic understanding of genesis” (135). Jacob addresses directly, by way of Claude Bernard, the way in which modern biology has reconciled the contradiction between scientific explanation and teleology: the notion of “genetic programme” allows Jacob and other modern biologists to think the developmental logic of an organism as it follows out genetic instructions inscribed in itself. Heredity viewed as a coded program in chemical sequences dissolves the paradox. But for Derrida, this is not the problem. Whether divine creator or genetic inscriptions, both appeal to and are determined by the logos spermatikos insofar as modern biology posits a preformationism without intention. In other words, dissemination, inscription, anagrammatic writing and textuality are once again repressed.
Senatore’s book then quickly concludes by turning to Derrida’s writings on philosophy, philosophical education, and teaching, which were written during a time when educational and pedagogical reforms were being proposed in France. But in the provocative final pages, Senatore analyses Derrida’s reading of Marx in an unpublished GREPH seminar where it is suggested that ideology is produced necessarily as a result of the originality of sexual difference and thus belongs to the “space of biological and natural life” and not to the superstructure as Marxists have typically held (144).
I began this review by suggesting that what makes Senatore’s book so valuable is its insistence on Derrida’s thinking of a general or minimal structure of genesis, and that recent scholarship on Derrida, which is of a very high quality, also has been seeking to reclaim Derrida as an authentic philosopher against the many decades he was appropriated as a literary theorist and critic, a post-modern or post-structuralist thinker of the insuppressible play of meaning and language or who celebrates the absence of universals or essences. Indeed, I think these new readings are not only correct, but necessary. They find in Derrida a strong and essential thinking of what is necessary, or, a thought of the necessary minimal structures and conditions for the existence and experience of beings as such. Senatore’s claim is that Derrida thinks a general or minimal theory of genesis as such, one that accounts for the genesis of anything whatsoever, from cultural products to biological organisms. Yet throughout Senatore insists on the “nonphilosophical”[xiii] nature of Derrida’s deconstruction insofar as it is non-genetic or breaks with the classical idealist conception of the logos spermatikos. But what precisely is nonphilosophical about uncovering an absolutely general condition to which all beings are necessarily submitted? Or making clear this minimal element that is presupposed not only in all previous philosophical discourses, but also in all scientific discourses? Even if this condition is paradoxical, self-effacing, or never fully present. This strikes me as a quite typical gesture of transcendental philosophy, which is constantly seeking more and more minimal, but absolutely necessary structures, that all beings (cultural, biological, or otherwise) conform to in all cases. Recent French thinkers have even pushed this further, for example, Michel Henry, who claims that the supposedly originary difference of someone like Derrida or Deleuze in fact presupposes an even more originary identity or presence that he calls “life.” At the same time, however, Senatore quotes from unpublished seminars where Derrida seems acutely aware of this problem and criticizes philosophers for attempting to organize and hierarchize all other discourses in an attempt to theorize the meaning of sciences in general. Indeed, this was the general problematic of phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger that Derrida was steeped in and in many way ways continues and radicalizes. This, as I understand it, is Derrida’s insight in his La via la mort seminar, namely, that the biological sciences must come to terms with a necessary condition-obstacle, namely writing, that they at once unknowingly theorize (since they had just begun to speak of a “genetic code”) and yet fail to thematize as such for if they were to do so their investigations would have to be fundamentally altered to account for the irreducibility of the trace structure. Only deconstruction provides such an insight and can think science’s unthought conditions of possibility-impossibility.
But there is another philosophical tradition that runs counter to the one that Derrida deconstructs most often, namely, materialism. Rarely does Derrida engage in-depth with Machiavelli, Spinoza, Althusser[xiv], not to mention Marx, Engels, and Lenin and other canonical “Marxist philosophers.” Derrida himself admitted to not understanding Spinoza[xv] and Warren Montag has argued that this supposed distance covers what is in fact an extreme proximity.[xvi] In other words, my hunch is that precisely what Senatore calls the “nonphilosophical” is what, in other circles, simply gets called materialism or to be more precise, and borrowing an expression from Althusser, aleatory materialism. Indeed, Althusser had proposed, in his innovative reading of Marx and Spinoza, as early as 1966 (if not earlier), a renewed materialist conception of the “encounter” [“théorie de la rencontre”] or of “conjunction” [théorie de la “conjunction”] that is fundamentally different from the genetic theory of genesis.[xvii] This thought of a non-genetic genesis was also at work in Machiavelli and Spinoza, Freud too, when he theorized the overdetermination of dream elements. And Althusser will later seek to establish an entire “underground current” of thinkers who belong to this materialist tradition.
None of this is to suggest that Senatore is unaware of these issues. On the contrary, I take it that Senatore is in fact pushing Derrida in the direction of productive encounter with thinkers like Althusser and philosophical materialism more generally. And this potential encounter to come is perhaps the one best suited for re-thinking the relationship between philosophy and science, that is, to break with the tradition that Derrida has identified according to which it is the task of philosophy to make sense of the sciences for them or to assign to them their ultimate meaning. But to what extent does this effort in Derrida remain restricted, if not stifled, by his Husserlian inheritance? Or by transcendental philosophy more generally? These are questions that I hope will spur further consideration and future philosophical inquiry and Derrida’s inclusion in these debates is highly anticipated.
[i] De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), pg. 19
[ii] See in particular Malabou’s 2005 book La plasticité au soir de l’écriture (Éditions Léo Scheer) as well as her 2004 Que faire de notre cerveau? (Bayard) and more recently Ontologie de l’accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice (Léo Scheer, 2009), Avant demain. Épigenèse et rationalité (PUF, 2009) and Métamorphoses de l’intelligence: Que faire de leur cerveau bleu? (PUF, 2017).
[iii] I have in mind not only Senatore himself, but also Francesco Vitale, whose 2018 book Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences (SUNY) was translated by Senatore, but also the work of Dawne McCance who is preparing a book on this seminar and has been publicly lecturing on it for some time now.
[iv] The Derrida Seminars Translation Project, consisting mainly of Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Elizabeth Rottenberg, David Wills, Michael Naas, and Pascale-Anne Brault, has published translations of Derrida’s final two seminars The Beast and the Sovereign and The Death Penalty, as well as an early seminar on Heidegger and an 1970s seminar Theory and Practice. The English language translation team is also now in charge of preparing the French manuscripts for publication, which will mean a faster rate of publication in both French and English. The La vie la mort seminar will soon be published in French by Éditions du Seuil in the new series “Bibliothèque Derrida”, having been edited scrupulously by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf. The English translation has already been completed by Brault and Michael Naas and is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.
[v] François Jacob, it will be remembered, along with Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, won the nobel prize for medicine in 1965 and wrote La Logique du vivant as a kind of vulgarisation of his award-winning discoveries. Monod will do the same in his book Le Hasard et la Nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne.
[vi] See, most recently, Paul M. Livingston’s excellent book The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012) or Christopher Norris’ Derrida, Badiou, and the Formal Imperative (Bloomsbury, 2014).
[vii] The major early philosophical reading is no doubt Rudolph Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Gasché explicitly writes in the opening pages, “Indeed, Derrida’s inquiry into the limits philosophy is an investigation into the conditions of possibility and impossibility of a type of discourse and questioning that he recognizes as absolutely indispensable” (2).
[viii] For example, in the work of Slavoj Zizek, Adrian Johnston, Frank Ruda, Rebecca Comay, and others.
[ix] The author of the present review had the honor of working on the translation of the first half of this seminar with the Derrida Seminars Translation Project in July 2017.
[x] Indeed, this paradoxical quasi-scientific character, or non-philosophical scientific character of deconstruction was precisely Derrida’s discovery in reading Husserl, namely, that phenomenology is necessarily led to posit writing as the most minimal condition for the historical transmission of ideal meaning, but in so doing, is forced to study a non-present “object”, that is to say, one that puts into question the very notion of objectivity as such. Derrida reiterates this logic in the beginning of the section “De la grammatologie comme une science positive”, where he suggests that the possibility of grammatology being a science, a science of writing or traces, rests upon its own impossibility since it would shake or make tremble (ébranler) the very concept of science itself (see page 109).
[xi] My translation.
[xii] De la grammatologie, pg. 41. This quotation is preceded by the claim that Hegel, despite appearing as, in some sense, the metaphysical teleological thinker par excellence, he is “also the thinker of irreducible difference.”
[xiii] Senatore uses this language on pages xii, 57, 63, 69, and 143.
[xiv] The recent publication in French and forthcoming translation of Derrida’s 1976-77 Théorie et pratique seminar certainly changes this. But for as much as Derrida engages with Althusser here, the seminar ultimately turns on a reading of Heidegger and the question of techne.
[xv] “Dialogue entre Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe et Jean-Luc Nancy.” Rue Descartes 2006/2 (no. 52), pg. 95.
[xvi] “Immanence, Transcendence, and the Trace: Derrida Between Levinas and Spinoza.” Badmidbar: a Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2, Autumn 2011.
[xvii] See Althusser’s text from September 1966 “Sur la genèse”, where he explicitly attacks the genetic theory of genesis where the result is contained “en germe” in the origin. Available through décalages:
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.