Aurélien Djian’s monography with the title Husserl et l’horizon comme problème sets out to render a systematic account of the concept of the horizon in the framework of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. It seeks to both show in what sense the horizon is crucial to such a transcendental phenomenology, which according to Djian is necessarily a constitutive phenomenology, and to describe the historical development of the horizon in its interplay with the general framework of this transcendental phenomenology. In this way the unity, the particularity and the importance of this concept in constitutive phenomenology will appear.
The work, published in 2021, is built upon the author’s doctoral thesis from 2017 with the title L’Horizon comme Problème. Within his doctoral thesis Dijan also refers to the concepts of horizon in Heidegger, Gadamer and French Phenomenology (Levinas, Henry, Marion), while the focus of this monography lies exclusively on Husserl. The relevance of such a study, analyzing exclusively Husserl’s understanding of the horizon, stems, as Djian notes in the introduction, from the general lack of large-scale systematic works attempting to understand the Husserlian horizon. The only exception Djian mentions is Salius Geniušas‘ The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology. Djian characterizes Geniušas’ book as one that attempts to show the compatibility between the Husserlian and the hermeneutic horizon, thus distinguishing it from his own endeavor. However, there is indeed one more systematic work on Husserl’s concept of the horizon to be found – namely, Roberto Walton’s Intencionalidad y Horizonticidad („Intentionality and Horizonality“). Most probably, Djian was unaware of this study as it was published in Spanish and has not been translated yet. Nonetheless, Djian’s work constitutes a long-needed complementation to the still underresearched topic of Husserl’s concept of the horizon, even without referring to Walton’s book.
As a whole, the book is divided in two parts: While the first part is dedicated to the first appearance of the concept of the horizon in Husserl’s writings, even independent of the term `horizon´ itself, and its subsequent generalization, the second part of the book investigates different interactions between the emergence of the horizon and several phenomenological operations, such as the phenomenological reduction, the eidetic variation and the intentional analysis. The two focal points of this study, the emergence of the concept of the horizon and its consequences regarding the main operations in phenomenology, allow Djian to reasonably and systematically limit the scope of the investigation: Within the introduction to the second part Dijan himself points out the need of further analyses, concerning every specific horizon that corresponds to each of the different constitutive correlations, that remain excluded from this study.
The author presents his main thesis in the introduction: Namely, that the concept of the horizon plays a central role in Husserl’s constitutive phenomenology, as it is necessary for the constitution of a synthetical unity of sense in a manifoldness (Djian speaks of multiplicité, the original Husserlian term is Mannigfaltigkeit) of consciousness. To characterize this constitutive phenomenology that implies the need for the horizon, Dijan takes the concept of phenomenon to be key, understanding phenomenology hence as „a universal eidetic science of the correlations of the phenomenon“ (16). As he acknowledges, such a conception of phenomenology excludes Husserl’s work before the so-called transcendental turn, marked by the systematic introduction of the phenomenological reduction and first developed publicly and systematically in The Idea of Phenomenology from 1907. That is, Djian presents the concept of the horizon as central to Husserl’s constitutive phenomenology, and its hypothetical role in any prior phenomenology remains excluded from his study.
Accordingly, he depicts to what extent it is possible to speak of a distinctly constitutive phenomenology within the first chapter. To this end, he maps out the central argument of The Idea of Phenomenology, which presents such a constitutive phenomenology for the first time. By means of this, the synthesis of a manifoldness of consciousness can be described, hence constituting the unity of sense of the intentional object. This is then the crucial innovation that will require the concept of the horizon.
However, the term `horizon´ does not appear in The Idea of Phenomenology, nor does it appear in Thing and Space, i.e. the lectures that were introduced by The Idea of Phenomenology. Still, Djian argues in chapter 2 that there are two other terms that already contain the concept of the horizon within Thing and Space: Namely, the concepts of improper apparition [Uneigentliche Erscheinung] and halo [Hof]. The improper apparition refers to the empty intention by which the subject means [meinen; viser] something more than is properly perceived, hence operating the intentional unity of the thing. Such an intentional unity is at the same time a temporal unity, given that this meaning intention includes that which just passed and that which is now to come. The halo, on the other hand, refers to the empty intention that describes the possible, motivated by the empirical types of the correlation between kinesthesia and perception. In this way, both halo and improper apparition are necessary to constitute the actual and possible identity of the thing, and manifest at the same time the surplus of empty intentions that qualifies any external perception as inadequate.
The notion of the horizon itself appears only in Ideas I. This is, however, not the only important event that Dijan describes in the third chapter. Rather, while the concept of the horizon only appeared locally in Thing and Space, as its validity was limited to external perception, that is, to the constitution of the thing, Djian argues that a generalization and a systematization of the horizon can be observed in Ideas I. The generalization consists of the elevation of the horizon to become a universal structure of pure consciousness. How exactly does this elevation manifest itself? First, by means of the horizon of temporality, in which it is the horizon that enables succession and simultaneity; and second, by means of the horizon of inactual (inaktuell; inactuel) intentionality. This leads to the systematization of the horizon, as every non-accomplished intentional lived experience [Erlebnis; vécu] is now grouped under the title `horizon´. In this way, any lived experience can become the horizon of any other cogito, given that they are connected horizonally in the same flux of experience. However, Dijan distinguishes this broader sense of the concept of horizon from a narrower sense, the functional horizon, which is limited to those horizons that belong to the same synthetic unity.
In the second part of the book, stretching from chapter 4 to 6, the author studies the methodological repercussions of such a generalization of the horizon. The first of these repercussions are the diverse interactions between horizon and reduction, studied in three parts in chapter 4. The first argument characterizes the horizon as that which motivates the critique of the Cartesian path to the phenomenological reduction, a critique which results in the psychological path from First Philosophy. Concretely, the problem lies in the horizonally implied habitual validities, which in their totality can be apprehended as the horizon of the world, given that they render a reduction in various steps, as in Ideas I, impossible: for in any partial reduction, some of these natural validities remain functional. Conversely, it is precisely the horizon that makes it possible to become conscious of the totality of my flux of consciousness, and hence to reduce it in its entirety. In a similar manner, the world as horizon is that which is reduced in the path through the lifeworld as developed in the Crisis. Subsequently, turning to the eidetic variation, Djian argues that in its genetic form, as described in Experience and Judgement, it is related in various ways to the horizon: First, the style of the object can only be seized thanks to the horizons that prescribe its system of possible variations. Second, the eidetic variation is an attempt to detach the pure possibilities of the eidos from its co-determining world horizon. Third, to intuit all those possible, but amongst each other incompatible, properties of the eidos is only possible thanks to horizonality.
Chapter 5 tries to establish the relation between horizon and intentional analysis, arguing that it is precisely the horizonal constitution of objectivities that prescribes the need for the intentional analysis. Hence such an intentional analysis, while not yet named as such, would already appear in Ideas I, namely to develop a classification of the sciences. This recognition is subsequently enlarged to also include the shared objective world.
Finally, in chapter 6, Djian argues that it is the generalization of the horizon that challenges the theory of the evidence of reflection from Ideas I. This theory was founded upon the idea that the sphere of consciousness was given adequately and hence apodictically. However, as the horizon is also functional in the case of immanent lived experiences, for they are given in a manifoldness of temporal phases, strictly speaking the sphere of consciousness is inadequately given too. Following the author, this recognition leads Husserl to amend his notion of apodicticity in the Cartesian Meditations: Rather than adequate evidence, it is the impossibility of thinking its non-existence that qualifies something as apodictical. In this way, apodicticity stops being the point of departure and becomes a telos, which is to be reached in infinity after having traversed the transcendental domain and having performed a critique of transcendental knowledge.
It is certainly well-justified to attempt to undertake a study like this: The Husserlian concept of the horizon is clearly underresearched, given its important role in Husserl’s phenomenology. In this context, Djian’s approach to the problematic is indeed reasonable: As within most other investigations of Husserl’s phenomenology, he had to face the impossibility of looking through all Husserlian manuscripts, due to their enormous number. In this sense, to limit the study by focusing on the relation between horizon and constitutive phenomenology was a good choice, and the secondary effects of this constitutive role of the horizon on different key operations of phenomenology are well-suited to underscore the relevance of the horizon. Therefore, Djian’s book has the merit of being a systematic and valuable study of the horizon, even without being all-encompassing.
Furthermore, this book is well-structured and clearly written. All important methodological choices are indicated and justified. In addition, it is easily accessible even to readers that are not very familiar with Husserl, which is by no means obvious: The relevant Husserlian concepts are explained and documented through references to the original texts, a decision that has, at the same time, the disadvantage of sometimes quite lengthy excurses into topics that are scarcely related to the horizon (for example, the precise explanation of how to distinguish pure, descriptive, material essences from all other kinds of essences in chapter 4).
In the context of this close reading of Husserl, one could, however, ask why there is so little discussion of secondary literature in this investigation. How can this approach be justified? First of all, as Djian indicates it himself, there has been comparatively little work on the concept of the horizon in Husserl’s phenomenology. Additionally, the literature that is available and accessible in English is at least included in the bibliography, with the possible exception of the work of Aron Gurwitsch, who mostly develops his own account in The Field of Consciousness, but does make some comments on Husserl too. In any case, the only in-depth discussion in the study relates to Geniušas’ The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology, which without doubt provides the most relevant available commentary.
Before scrutinizing that particular discussion, it is still necessary to examine further how well justified it is to use so little secondary literature: For there is a lot of more general research on Husserl that relates to the different topics addressed by Djian, even without referring specifically to the horizon. For example, Djian does not discuss Kern’s description of the ways into the reduction even though the horizon is identified as one of the factors leading to the abandonment of the Cartesian path. A possible answer could be that, as Djian indicates, the work is meant to be an internal study of the horizon; that is, a study limited to the way the concept develops in Husserl’s own thought. This justifies the exclusion of other philosophers that have worked on their own concept of the horizon. But it remains questionable if this legitimizes Djian’s preference of a close reading of Husserl, as opposed to an examination of secondary literature dedicated to Husserl: For of course, those approaches are not exclusive to one another. A further disadvantage of this omission of most of the secondary literature is a presentation of Husserl’s thought as too unambiguous: Rather than opening the space for different possible interpretations of Husserl and the reasons that led him to change his conceptual framework, Djian imposes the impression that everything relevant has been explained and that his is the only possible understanding; even though Djian’s reading of Husserl is reasonable, and I generally support it, it would have been preferable to show what issues are more or less contested within the relevant literature.
With regards to Djian’s discussion of Geniušas, there remain several issues. Djian is correct in giving it a prominent position, since Geniušas’ study is the only other attempt of an extended and systematic understanding of Husserl’s concept of the horizon that is accessible in English: Hence he discusses Geniušas‘ approach in both the introduction and the conclusion, in addition to a small content-related discussion at the end of chapter 3.
In the introduction, Djian mostly aims to show in which way his approach differs from Geniušas‘, so as to prove the relevance of his study. Djian claims here that the aim of Geniušas is to demonstrate the compatibility of the Husserlian and the hermeneutic horizon, as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method. He continues to argue that Geniušas‘ account is thus based on the introduction of a problem that actually remains extrinsic to Husserl’s phenomenology; in contrast, Djian’s own account would have the merit of investigating the question of the horizon intrinsically. This argumentation is continued in the conclusion of the book: There, Geniušas‘ supposed thesis, namely that hermeneutic and Husserlian horizon are compatible, is refuted. According to Djian, this is because the horizon in Husserl’s account depends on the framework of constitutive phenomenology, while Gadamer relegates the importance of any subjectivity. Djian concludes that Geniušas is only able to confirm his thesis because he assimilates the Husserlian horizon to the hermeneutical one, hence „only discovering in Husserl what one has put there“ (277).
This strong critique goes far beyond the necessity of justifying the difference of his own approach in regard to Geniušas‘ study. In addition, in my opinion, Djian’s account seems to misrepresent Geniušas argumentation. While it is true that Geniušas refers to Gadamer and the hermeneutic horizon, particularly to justify the relevance of his study, he does so in a reasonably critical manner: In Geniušas’ book, Gadamer is introduced because he is part of the general philosophical context in which the horizon appears. In addition, Geniušas attempts to put the Husserlian and the hermeneutic horizon in dialogue. This dialogue, mostly carried out in chapter 9 of The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology, confronts Husserl’s transcendental and genetic concept of the horizon with Gadamer’s, to finally not only distinguish them but to show how hermeneutics could be enriched by considering subjectivity, for in this way it would become possible to account for the origins of the horizons. In this way, instead of assimilating Husserl’s concept of the horizon to Gadamer’s, Geniušas is pointing out the specificity of the Husserlian horizon to criticize the narrowness of the hermeneutic concept. Now, it is true that following Geniušas, the specificity of Husserl’s horizon goes beyond its constitutive function for intentional objects: He argues that the horizon can only be understood properly as a genetic phenomenon and mostly aims at showing the crucial significance of the world-horizon, which he distinguishes from the horizons of objects. But such a thesis is not necessarily incompatible with Djian’s own project, and a direct discussion of these claims would have been very interesting – however, they remain unthematized, as Geniušas work is set aside too quickly. Similarly, both Geniušas and Djian put forward their own theses on the antecedents that led Husserl to the development of the concept of the horizon: As we have seen, Djian tries to show that the concept is already present in Thing and Space, while Geniušas traces its seeds back to the problem of indexicality in the Logical Investigations. This issue, too, is not addressed or discussed by Djian.
There is only one question of content which Djian does discuss in detail with Geniušas: Namely, how to interpret Husserl’s distinction between background and horizon in the case of the arithmetic world in §28 of Ideas I. Here, Djian quotes Geniušas as saying that Husserl does not provide an explanation of this distinction, in order to argue that this is why Geniušas introduces the extrinsic, “hermeneutic“ concept of the limit to establish a distinction between horizon and background. Djian then refutes Geniušas’ approach, arguing that „Husserl gives all the indications in this paragraph […] to allow the reader to propose a purely internal explanation of the distinction in question“ (122-123). Namely, he argues that it is the connection (connexion) between the objectivities of a same world – in this case, the arithmetic world – that justifies to speak of a horizon. This is how Djian justifies the distinction from the background which refers to other worlds that are only co-present to the extent that they appear to the same subject, without having any relation to each other if we abstracted from the subject. That is, according to Djian the concept of the horizon at play here is its strict, functional definition.
Now, comparing this argumentation with Geniušas‘, the actual differences between both approaches seem insignificant. When discussing §28 of Ideas I, Geniušas introduces the notion of the horizon as a limit in order to argue that the horizon is what is necessary for an objectivity to appear, while backgrounds and halos can be lost. This is true, as Geniušas argues here, because in Husserl the horizon has to be understood in its constitutive, functional, in its transcendental dimension: The horizon is the structure which co-determines the sense of the objectivity in question, in this case the arithmetic objectivities, and can hence be distinguished from background and halo. Thus, in both commentaries, the specific, functional relation between the arithmetic objectivity in question and its arithmetic world is highlighted in order to justify Husserl’s distinction between horizon and background. However, once more it remains questionable if Djian’s way of representing Geniušas‘ argumentation is reasonable; and additionally, the opportunity for a more interesting discussion of the specific similarities and differences between both approaches is missed again.
Having developed these two major points of critique, the little discussion of secondary literature, and the misleading representation and critique of Geniušas‘ The Origins of the Horizon in Husserls Phenomenology, there persist a few more, less relevant, remarks I would like to make before concluding this review. Rather than evaluating what Djian did write, these remarks point at topics which could have been addressed here in order to enrich the discussion. Therefore, they are in no way direct criticisms of Djian’s text; instead, they aim at showing the possible points of continuation of the study of the Husserlian horizon.
First of all, there is a series of analyses in Djian’s book that are very relevant, but that could have been further developed. This holds true, for example, for the claim in chapter 3 that the horizon as universal structure of pure consciousness makes reflection possible (107). This proposition is only developed very concisely in a footnote, and is not addressed further within chapter 6, which deals with the evidence of the reflection (whilst Roberto Walton dedicates a whole chapter to this question in Intencionalidad y Horizonticidad). Furthermore, it is possible to point out that within chapter 5, the specific mode of operation of the intentional analysis is not fully developed. While the role the horizon plays in the preparation of the intentional analysis becomes clear, it is not shown in detail how the intentional analysis can be understood as a clarification of the horizons. Finally, the very intriguing argument at the end of chapter 6, namely that the horizon works as one of the factors to transform the apodicticity of transcendental knowledge into a telos, could have been developed in more detail and particularly called for a discussion of secondary sources.
One more topic that could have been discussed in more depth is the relation between horizon and Husserl’s theory of intropathy [Einfühlung]. The book touches upon this relation twice: First, in the discussion of the different cases of intentional implication in chapter 4, and second, in the enlargement of the intentional analysis to the shared world at the end of chapter 5. In chapter 4, Djian presents the different cases of intentional implication as described by Husserl in First Philosophy, namely phantasia, memory, expectation, image-consciousness and intropathy, to then argue that the horizonal consciousness is a kind of intentional implication too. He distinguishes it from the other cases by arguing that the intentional implication is always actual [actuel; aktuell], with the exception of horizons and intropathy. Now, to differentiate these two cases, he states that while horizons are susceptible to be fulfilled, the acts of intropathy are not. Later, in chapter 5, the question of the constitution of the alter ego is presented: Djian repeats here that the appresentation of the alter ego is not a synthetic unity in a manifoldness of my lived experiences, and hence is not constituted by means of the horizon; for what is appresented with the other’s lived body is not susceptible to be fulfilled. It is only by implying the potentialities of perceiving the world from there rather than here, that the horizon plays some role in the associative function permitting to understand the alter ego as similar to me, thus enabling its constitution.
One can ask here if it really is that compelling that the constitution of the alter ego is not mediated by the horizon structure. To be sure, the appresented content of the other’s consciousness is indeed not susceptible to fulfilment. But while Husserl does not speak explicitly of horizons in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation (including the parts where he distinguishes the apperception of the thing from the apperception of the other), he does speak of the apperception of the alter ego: And how could the other be apperceived, if not as a unity in a manifoldness of actual and potential lived experiences – only with the particularity, that many of the potential lived experiences can never become actual if the other is to remain other? The point here is not to show that it is indeed necessary to speak of a horizonal apperception of the other; instead, it is enough to raise awareness to the fact that such an interpretation of Husserl seems possible and that Djian’s discussion of the question is not exhaustive.
Finally, there remains one last remark before concluding. The relation between the horizon as a possibly persistent secret link to the world and the two new paths into the phenomenological attitude is well developed in chapter 4 and highly relevant. However, one could have also taken a more critical perspective: For instance, Djian shows correctly how Husserl uses the horizon in the process of the psychological path in First Philosophy in order to be able to seize the totality of the ego’s stream of consciousness, and submit it to the epoché at once. But it remains unclear in Husserl, and equally in Djian, how the risk of still co-functioning hidden validities is averted: for a horizonal seizing of “the universe of all objectivities, which ever had validity for me” (Husserl 2019, 361) seems scarcely enough to discover, reflect on, and abstain from all the possible hidden validities. In a similar fashion, Husserl seems to simply claim the possibility of a universal epoché in the Crisis. Still, Dijans decision to refrain from a discussion of these critical questions is most likely justified by his methodological decision to give an internal account of Husserl’s thought, without adding his own critical perspective.
All in all, Djian’s study constitutes one more, valuable piece in the precise understanding of Husserl’s thought. Notwithstanding the lack of discussion with secondary sources, its analyses are well-justified and help to develop a more comprehensive and accurate notion of Husserl’s concept of the horizon, as well as of its influence on the development of Husserl’s thought. Furthermore, the accuracy of Dijan’s main thesis of the central role of the horizon in constitutive phenomenology can now be estimated: It has become clear, that the horizon is crucial for the constitution of objectivities and thus plays a major role in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, hence underscoring the relevance of the concept for Husserl. However, the strong interpretation of this thesis, namely that Husserl’s concept of the horizon has to be understood as limited to the context of the constitution, excluding any other possible dimensions of the horizon, remains unproven: For such a task, it would have been necessary to discuss the different appearances of the term in different Husserlian texts in more detail to actually show how they all refer back to the constitutive role of the horizon.
Geniusas, Saulius. 2012. The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology. Contributions to Phenomenology 67. Dordrecht: Springer.
Gurwitsch, Aron. 2010. The Field of Consciousness: Theme, Thematic Field, and Margin. ed. Richard M. Zaner. 1st ed., Volume III. The Collected Works of Aron Gurwitsch (1901-1973). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands : Imprint Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 2019. First Philosophy: Lectures 1923/24 and Related Texts from the Manuscripts (1920-1925). transl. Sebastian Luft and Thane M. Naberhaus. Collected Works / Husserl, Edmund, XIV. Dordrecht: Springer.
Walton, Roberto J. 2015. Intencionalidad y Horizonticidad. Bogotá: Aula de Humanidades.
In this eloquently written book, a meaningful dialogue emerges between literature and philosophy, exploring the theoretical complexities and practical implications of the death penalty.
The book is composed of five chapters, an introduction and a conclusion which examine the death penalty as “the ultimate expression of sovereignty” (3). Each chapter develops a thesis that discusses the unavoidable progression of biopolitics into thanatopolitics and necropolitics. Following Aquilina’s argument, if the death penalty is not the exception of a political system that uses the lives of human beings as a way to teach order and respect of the law (biopolitics), but is “the paradigm of punishment itself” (43), then politics is based on death (thanatopolitics) rather than on living human beings. Accordingly, in a society of death, the anonymous νεκρός (nekros), the corpse, is the paradigm of justice, order and fair retribution of resources.
As the author writes:
“The death sentence is what founds the very structure of the law (…). Condemnation to death, as the foundation of human society, always denotes and necessitates a social and collective experience of putting to death” (42-3)
Societal order and well-being are based on the ultimate punishment of ripping human beings of their own identities and revoking the ownership over their own body. Accordingly, the foundation of political justice is based on death rather than life. For this reason, within this political context Aquilina examines what notion of subjectivity, agency and humanity are left to the citizens living in such a society, especially when their life is demanded and stripped off from their identity. To proceed in this analysis Aquilina uses the examples offered in literature from Blanchot to Sophocles, Dostojevski to Shakespear and Kafka. He starts from analyzing the phenomenon of depersonalization triggered by the instant of death, the moment in which it is decided that one’s life is demanded for the good of the State. Even if this life is saved and the condemned person is left free to walk back to life, this life is no longer there to embody them. The human being is reduced to homo phaenomenon, to use Kant’s expression (38), that is, to the shallowest form of being human. Humans of this kind are no longer considered a worthy human being (homo noumenon) capable of participating in rational and moral law, but they are comparable to animals incapable of telling their own story. As Aquilina shows using Heidegger “we die because we live– or rather because we are. (…) Unlike animals we do not simply perish” (45) Our death brings with itself an ontological and existential significance that reveals “its singularity because I die” (46). Human anxiety stems from this awareness. Hence, if the singularity of our death is taken away from us; if we are forced to be animals, our entire existence is at stake. Challenging Heidegger and using Dostojevski (as well as other numerous sources) the author employs the concept of relational death. While for “Heidegger it is incoherent to insist on any sort of relational death (…) because if I do not die then I am not I,” Aquilina believes that the notion of relational death is key to understanding the irreplaceability of our singularity (50). Using Stone, Aquilina insists on the Mit-Sein and sociality in death:
“one dies precisely as one forms these relations with the other, because it is ‘I’, as constituted by my death, that makes such relations. In a part of me dying with the other who becomes a corpse or a thing, it is only a quality of the self that dies, and not the self as a whole self; only a part of one’s psychological, social and ethical self – in Stone’s words, a ‘dimension’, ‘strand’ or ‘part of this person’, a part of one’s narrative or ‘story’ – comes to an end” (58)
As Stone’s words show, no human being is an island. We are all caught in a unique interrelation of meanings and goals that make our life significant. Our life does not end with the end of our life since the significant essence of our being lives on with the relationships that our life has established. As Butler writes:
“It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am. If I lose you [. . .] then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who ‘am’ I, without you?” (95)
Another way in which the author puts it in his third chapter, Missing death, is “living life without life” (63). When I lose the main interlocutor of my life, the main referent of my deeds, then ‘I not only mourn the loss’ but I live without an important part of my life. I am without you. I am without life. The notion of relational death becomes even more crucial during the waiting time of the death penalty. In this life that “whitholds relations as opposed to annulling them”, time, too, becomes relational to our close ones and to the end. In this waiting the naturality of our lives becomes unnatural (as Oliver remarks, 67). From being animal, as in the phenomeninc human being, we become living corpses (nekroi) by law, because of the death penalty, “in suspension between life and death which leaves a mark that is no marker” (Butler, 71). We become living corpses because as the author remarks “it has been introduced death into one’s existence without recognition” (71).
The individuation of the self would be possible through alterity or, as in Levinas, the imperative of alterity, “the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity” (101). Yet, this individuation does not find its place because the alterity is annulled through the death penalty. As Levinas remarks “justice is not a legality regulating human masses” because the judge, who is supposedly the person outside of the conflict, is in the conflict while should be the one who helps us to see the third possible way, to open our eyes to justice and its humanity. In this case, in a society where death penalty is possible, “the third can never save us from the death penalty because sociality is itself the death penalty; we can only survive without surviving” (105). The author once again concludes that in such a society we live as corpses. We are not horrified by the nothingness of death, as in Heidegger, but by the “condemnation ‘’ that is, becoming a Being which cannot be exited (111).
In such a necropolitical society, autobiography, as well, is impossible (127) because the death kills the authos (the person itself) and its interlocutor, so the only rendition of one’s life can be an “autothanatography (…) a literary realization of never having left this nothingness in the first place” (127). “The literature of the death penalty allows us to view ourselves as subjectless things” (135). The anonymous homo sacer, to use Agamben’s expression (145) is the one who knows the sovereignty of the non-social society. (145). As Agamben shows paraphrased by the author “politics is always a politics of death’ but death ultimately kills even the possibility of necropolitics” (147)
Hence, in this ontological survey of death as a punishment the author describes the progressive loss of our humanity as the political context in which this humanity should thrive becomes more and more constituted by death and its anonymity. No space is ultimately left to the particularity of the human being and its voice.
As a reader, what I missed most is the human being. Given the tragic nature of the topic I wish I had touched more lived experiences or at least mental experiments (the author proposes one at page 127, with the Lazarus phenomenon) that could show what actually means for the human being to live through the practical and theoretical implications of death and death penalty. Yet, half way through the book I found myself reading this book as an open conversation with John, the person to whom the book is dedicated. In this book John–”who survives with me” becomes the interlocutor of a universal experience that touches all of us in different modalities and makes the very essence of who we are.
Another note is about the choice of the title and its content. It is true that the main topic of the book is death penalty but this latter becomes an opportunity to reflect on the larger theme of death and its ramifications in the constitution of our present life. Hence, while reading I wondered, is this a book about an ontology of death or about an ontology of death as a penalty? At page 157 the author proposes a title that I found more descriptive but probably less effective than this one “The ontological ramifications of death penalty.”
In conclusion, I recommend this book to everyone who wants to dive into this theme for personal needs or those who are moved by scholarly purposes and are in need to build a robust bibliography on it. In fact, the concluding chapter at page 153-4 proposes a very interesting list of readings on the topic and more directions that could be taken to explore the theme from a philosophical and fictional point of view.
In its complexity this book adds an important voice on the death penalty. Maybe in continuity with Foucault, its major contribution is to help people think in depth on the theoretical and practical consequences of living in a country that accepts the death penalty as a capital punishment.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York and London: Harper and Row, 2008.
Levinas, Emmanuel. ‘Dying For . . .’. In Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, 207–18. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Stone, Alison. ‘Natality and Mortality: Rethinking Death with Cavarero’. Continental Philosophy Review 43, no. 3 (2010): 353–72.
Stone, Alison. ‘The Relationality of Death’. In On the Feminist Philosophy of Gillian Howie: Materialism and Mortality, edited by Victoria Browne and Daniel Whistler. Bloomsbury, 2016.