derrida’s death penalty seminars

On July 12th of this year I was lucky to attend a seminar at Sussex University given by Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington and Michael Naas, on Jacques Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminars of 1999-2001. Lucky because I didn’t have a clue it was happening until about an hour before when I bumped into a friend in the library who was going, lucky because the three speakers are legends of the discipline, and lucky because they were speaking on a text not yet available. The full papers on which they were speaking will, I believe, be published in the Oxford Literary Review, and so the following will not be an attempt to rewrite those papers for academics far (far, far, far) more eminent and clever than myself, only to share some of what I heard with the hope that it might be interesting. I remember I intended to write this just about straight away, but I got swept away with the dissertation season and an internship with a literary agency in London, and so rather went on hiatus.

In any case I don’t think this will be entirely untimely, especially in the UK, with the recent call for debate on bringing back capital punishment, and the publication of a government e-petition to retain the ban on capital punishment. It is my personal feeling that debate is always welcome over any subject. Incidentally, only a couple of weeks prior to my semi-accidental attendance of this seminar I was having a debate with my dad over whether or not the death penalty was ever justifiable. I was firmly in the negative, while he thought – possibly. Our conclusion (just so that you know that my dad isn’t finally pro-death penalty) was that as long as there is the possibility that an innocent person could be condemned by the state to die, it is not. But it disturbed me that beyond this I was having trouble defending my position. Since the above conclusion will not be enough to satisfy all theoretical death penalty proponents, it is important that those who care about retaining the ban fully understand their own position, that they have coherent and reasoned arguments, and do not rely only on their personal moral inclinations.

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the death penalty apart from the possibility we can never be clear of the possibility of killing an innocent person: its almost certain failure to act as a deterrent, the propagation of inequality in the justice system (since it is almost always the already vulnerable in society who receive the harshest sentencing, at least in the US), and the propagation of a revenge culture. Despite this, there remain a number of people who nevertheless oppose the ban, arguing perhaps that the law-abiding tax-payer should not have to bear the cost of retaining a life-sentence prisoner, that life in prison is too gentle a punishment for those who have committed the most heinous crimes, and indeed the question of deterrence does remain debatable. This is the job of philosophy: to look past subjectivity and sentiment (no matter how noble), and also beyond the practical reasons for our most valued principles. Philosophy concerns itself with the questions, what we are as human beings and, perhaps more importantly, what we want to be. If it digs away at the foundations of our beliefs to uncover their (sometimes) questionable roots, it is only to more firmly establish the structure of our thinking around these most important principles.

This was the intention of Derrida’s death penalty seminars. Michael Naas opened the proceedings by asking why, since the death penalty had been abolished for twenty years in France and was now almost completely abolished in the West, should Derrida devote two years to the question? Another question. Is it possible that after the death penalty has been abolished it might nevertheless somehow remain? It is a question of roots – for Derrida, the Judeo-Christian thought at the roots of the death penalty – and beyond this, in our concept of the human – that remains in our thinking even in a secular age. Derrida argues that this thinking endorses both the death penalty and its abolition, and his seminars will focus on a deconstruction (or criticism) of the abolitionist position, but in order to strengthen this position. What Derrida calls for our thinking to be less theological and more philosophical, not because he is anti-religion but so that our discourse around the death penalty can be more universal. If he is right in saying that no philosopher or philosophy has yet been anti-death penalty, it is because the same discourse that argues against the death penalty argues equally in favour of it. It is a hard position, because if Judeo-Christian thought has marked all discourse and philosophy in the western tradition, then deconstruction is not excluded either. Deconstruction itself will need to be deconstructed.

Michael Naas spoke of the context around the death penalty seminars and the idea that a discussion of the death penalty is a discussion of the possibility and limits of discourse/thought itself. Geoffrey Bennington then turned more concretely to the death penalty. Philosophy concerns itself with logic, with reason. Derrida suggests that Kant’s argument – which is in favour of the death penalty – remains the most rationally sound and coherent position on the death penalty, and is, therefore, the one to be toppled. I am no Kant student so I am afraid all I can do is repeat the thrust of the ideas Bennington spoke of without criticism or analysis. Kant’s argument is based on the Talionic Principle (i.e. ‘an eye for an eye…’). His position that in the interest of human dignity – that of the criminal as well as the law-abider – this is the only measure of justice that will satisfy: it is ‘the best confirmation of human dignity’ we have. (To my understanding,) Derrida will attack on the grounds of an ambiguity between objective (i.e. legal) right versus subjective (i.e. moral) right – a disparity Bennington illustrated with the example of the shipwreck survivor who pushes another off the last piece of wreckage in order to live. Objectively, he is innocent, since the law of necessity will say that we have a right to survive, and the survivor will argue that ‘I would have died otherwise’. Morally, it is rather more ambiguous. Derrida also raises the question, who dictates right? Revolution, he argues, is never ‘right’ – because it is the sovereign who dictates what is ‘right’. If the revolution succeeds, then it is sovereign and it will dictate what is right. Sometimes, the ‘sovereign is the beast, the height is the depth. What is more right is less just’. Again, Derrida has taken us beyond the question of the death penalty. But the death penalty is at the heart of these ideas: it is the death penalty ‘where these problems show up most saliently’.

Peggy Kamuf, in contrast to the other speakers, and rather to my surprise, spoke most prosaically about the death penalty. She asked: What if the death penalty were a drug? What if the death penalty was an anaesthetic?  What if the death penalty was a drug, an anaesthetic called Sodium Thiopental?

She was speaking of the chemical composition of the lethal injection, as it is comprised in the US. Sodium Thiopental (STP) is the primary agent, the anaesthetic component of the cocktail of the lethal injection, and perhaps the centre of the struggle against the death penalty in the US. Without this anaesthetic, the lethal injection would be excruciatingly painful, and since this drug has now become unavailable in the US, because of a ‘raw material availability problem’, the process has, apparently, had to be halted. What is curious is that STP is a generic drug that could in theory be produced by any pharmaceutical company, but because the compositional protocol of the lethal injection are extremely tight, STP is necessary. So why has it become unavailable? Kamuf explained that Haspura, the company that manufactures STP, has moved its production to Italy, where export of the drug for use in capital punishment is Illegal. It seems that the production of STP was not economically worthwhile for Haspura, so, as Kamuf says, it ‘cost them next to nothing to grow a conscience’. STP is illegal to export for use of execution in much of Europe, including the UK, so it seems that the face of the death penalty question is no longer about morality and right – it is about import-export laws, and economics.

This will be an unsatisfactory article for many. It does not offer any answers, but, in fact, only raises more questions (and perhaps questions too abstract for many to stomach) – alas, this is philosophy! My intention was never to close the question or complete the arguments of these thinkers (even if I could), but only to repeat something of what I felt lucky to have the opportunity to hear, and hopefully it will be interesting to some.


Petition to retain the ban on capital punishment:
The Oxford Literary Review:
The Derrida Seminar Translation Project:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s