Peggy Kamuf on Jacques Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminar

By Arne De BoeverMarch 5, 2014

Peggy Kamuf on Jacques Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminar

AFTER TWO VOLUMES of The Beast and the Sovereign, the University of Chicago Press has now published the first volume of Jacques Derrida’s Death Penalty seminar. The volume covers Derrida’s lectures from early December 1999 until late March 2000 and shows Derrida interrogating the Western philosophical tradition about its treatment of the death penalty, paying special attention to how literature compares to philosophy on this count. Ranging from themes like sovereignty and political theology to cruelty and anesthetics, the course demonstrates once more Derrida’s unique place in the history of philosophy.

In February 2014, LARB Critical Theory/Philosophy section editor Arne De Boever conducted this email interview with Peggy Kamuf, who translated The Death Penalty and is also (with Geoffrey Bennington) the editor of the English translation of Derrida’s seminars.


I wanted to start with a brief question about this publication project: If I understand it correctly, the plan is to publish all of Derrida’s teaching lectures, from 1960 to 2003? How many volumes will the project eventually include?

It is actually more of a wish or a dream at this point, but if it turns out to be possible to publish all this material, then there will be something like 50 volumes. Since publication began in 2009, four volumes have appeared. So you see how far the dream currently is from reality.

Can you talk a bit about how you and the other members of the editorial team arrived at the decision to publish the lectures in French and in English? It sounds like a highly coordinated effort between editors, translators, and presses.

That’s something of an illusion. The original French edition, published by Editions Galilée in Paris, proceeds quite independently of any translation including ours in English, which is as it should be of course. It so happens, however, that Geoff Bennington and myself, who co-edit the translation series at the University of Chicago Press, have also been members of the French editorial team since the beginning. We have thus been able to assure some degree of communication between the two projects, but this has certainly not been an indispensable feature of either of them. The hard decision was whether to publish the lectures at all, since Derrida had indicated on more than one occasion that he preferred they be left unpublished. And yet because he also outlined in print a plan for editing at least a 10-year sequence of the later seminars, from 1983-’93, the matter had to be decided finally by his heirs, his publisher, and a small group of us who were willing and able to do the editorial work.

Interestingly, you’ve decided to publish the lectures in reverse order, starting with Derrida’s last lectures on The Beast and the Sovereign (translated by Bennington) and working your way back to 1960. Why did you choose to proceed in this way?

First of all because the later seminars were, or at least seemed to us, the most pressing. In particular The Beast and the Sovereign had a very strong resonance after September 11, which had occurred just before Derrida began this course of lectures in November 2001, and on which he commented at length. As for the preceding two-year seminar on the death penalty, it was wholly unpublished unlike many other seminars from which Derrida had drawn material to be revised for publication. We wanted to get this material out sooner rather than later. But there was another, more material reason to proceed in this way. After 1985, Derrida began to write directly on a computer, and we were able to access these files, which considerably accelerated the editing process. Before that he had worked on a typewriter, inserting many additions in a handwriting that is quite a challenge to decipher. And the earliest lectures, from 1960-’67, are entirely drafted by hand, and we knew they would be very demanding to transcribe. We have, however, since revised this plan somewhat: while keeping to the reverse chronological order for the period between 1983 and 2003, the series will intersperse other volumes from earlier periods. In fact, the latest volume to appear in French (in October 2013) is a course of lectures from 1964-’65 titled Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. It was transcribed with the help of Marguerite Derrida, who reads her late husband’s handwriting more easily than anyone else. Despite that, there are numerous places where the editor has had to guess at words or acknowledge defeat in a footnote. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable record of Derrida’s earliest sustained engagement with Heidegger’s thought. The translation should appear in our series in 2015.

The topic of the 1999-2000 lectures, the death penalty, is approached in the broader context of an investigation of what Derrida called “Questions of Responsibility.” Can you say a bit more about this broader project: what does it entail, and how does the death penalty seminar fit into it?

The general heading “Questions of Responsibility” under which Derrida conducted all his teaching lectures after 1991 highlights his reflection on what is at stake in the concept of responsibility, which demands that one acknowledge the priority or precedence of another to whom or to which one responds. All of the topics that from year to year he enumerated under this title — for example, testimony or hospitality — share at least this concern with responding to, for, or before another. As for the death penalty seminar, it follows directly from the examination over the previous two years of the concept of forgiveness because it signifies, as Derrida remarks early on in these lectures, “the inexpiable or the unpardonable, the irreversibly unpardoned.” But I think there would be several ways to relate the seminar’s focus to the overarching question of responsibility. As always, Derrida is working with the history of the Western philosophical tradition. What he uncovers is the quite remarkable fact that, throughout this tradition, no rigorously philosophical argument has been passed down against the death penalty. Derrida is asking what this absence or silence signifies but also seeking a principle for the necessary refusal of the death penalty. It’s a matter, then, of having to respond before the death penalty.

The Death Penalty offers a philosophical argument, yes. But like the lectures on The Beast and the Sovereign, and like many of Derrida’s other works, this is also an impressive book of literary analysis — there are extensive readings of Jean Genet, Albert Camus, Victor Hugo, Maurice Blanchot, Charles Baudelaire … How do you think literature fits into Derrida’s argument against the death penalty?

What he remarks is that literary discourse has been able to house abolitionist sentiment ever since at least Victor Hugo’s early novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man in 1829. By literary discourse he means literature in the modern sense, and in the sense we still use it: a mode of writing set apart and protected by law as literature. He calls this the “right to literature,” a right that, in principle, must be granted in a democracy. Elsewhere he has described this as the right to say anything, everything, and nothing at all. It is the right Genet seizes when he writes The Man Condemned to Death, his 66-stanza succès de scandale. So, to answer your question, I would say that Derrida is interested in how literature’s claim to a certain transcendence can fuel a refusal of the death penalty.

And in this, literature differs from philosophy, in his view?

Yes, certainly. But this distinction is not unshakable or undeconstructible, as Derrida would put it. Indeed, one of the things Derrida is up to in these lectures is deconstructing it along the axis of the death penalty. What is the death penalty? How have these two discourses responded to that question? Well, in a certain tradition of philosophy that continues at least up to Kant and Hegel, the death penalty is in Kant’s phrase “the categorical imperative of penal law.” But for abolitionist writers like Hugo and Camus, the death penalty is an abominable, indefensible thing that must be refused, argued against, abolished. Derrida shows a lot of admiration for this abolitionist discourse in its poetic or literary tradition, but he’s also seeking out its weak spots as argument. He reads it, in other words, also as a philosopher.

One of the most striking philosophical readings in the book is Derrida’s discussion of Immanuel Kant, and his support for the death penalty. We find a theme here that runs throughout the book: it’s in the name of life, and in Kant’s case in the name of reason, that the death penalty is supported — as if not supporting it would somehow go against reason or life.

You are right that the reference to Kant is nearly constant throughout the book, which reiterates that Kant’s is the most rigorous defense of the death penalty. So the argument with Kant, the deconstruction, if you will, of this Kantian rigor is, in one sense, key to everything Derrida is trying to do. And yet, he spends little time actually reading Kant, compared to other figures convoked here like Hugo, Camus, Blanchot, or Baudelaire. This seems to be because Kant’s argument comes undone pretty quickly once it is brought front and center almost halfway through the book. This analysis is intricate but toward its conclusion Derrida is led to remark, “the extraordinary rationality but also the stupid uselessness of this Kantian logic.” Kant also defends the death penalty against those who advocated abolition in the name of the sanctity of life, in particular Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 treatise Of Crimes and Punishments had significant influence throughout Europe and beyond, for instance in the nascent US. (Tom Paine was a fervent abolitionist.) For Kant, no law can be founded on the absolute value of phenomenal life, that is, of empirical, subjective, contingent life. He insisted that beyond the value of this life, yours or mine, there is, there must be priceless law and reason. What is interesting is that Derrida too critiques the sanctity-of-life or right-to-life argument of the abolitionists, but from an altogether different angle than Kant’s. Rather than the right to or sanctity of a phenomenal life that is always someone’s, yours or mine, he bids us to acknowledge how every “my-life” is conditioned by the other and the life of the other. And how that affects or should affect any response to the death penalty.

One of the instruments of the “priceless law and reason” you mention is the guillotine, which plays a central role in the book. It’s supposed to be swift, painless, without blood — at least, that was the idea. But Derrida shows that such was not the case. Anesthetics and blood are two central concerns in the book. I think of them under the general heading of what Derrida observes to be one of his central themes: cruelty, central to his work on animals as well.

Today it is largely forgotten that the guillotine was introduced as a more humane, less cruel mode of execution, since it was supposedly painless, anesthetizing. Its invention and then adoption throughout France and the French empire are indeed seen by Derrida as symptomatic of the modern, postrevolutionary death penalty that has evolved according to what he calls “anesthesial logic.” This is particularly apparent in the US, where lethal injection was first introduced in 1977, the year after a de facto four-year moratorium on executions was lifted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia. Typically, lethal injection has administered three drugs, the first of which is an anesthetic. Until 2009, the anesthetic of choice in all the “killing states” including California was sodium thiopental, but it suddenly became very difficult to obtain — legally at least — when the sole US manufacturer moved its production out of the country. This has precipitated a crisis as penal authorities have had to scramble to replace the anesthetic that is supposed to give the whole ordeal at least the appearance of being painless for the one undergoing it. But then just a few weeks ago, a man named Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio using an untested two-drug protocol. It took more than 15 minutes for him to die after injection, and clearly it was not a painless death. There are several other recent episodes like this with the result that death penalty appeals now often focus on questions raised by these hastily devised protocols, often with drugs obtained from shady sources. What’s very interesting, then, is to see how the “anesthesial logic” that Derrida identified in 1999 seems to be causing the US death penalty to seize up and, perhaps even, to enter its death throes.

Perhaps because of the theme of cruelty, I thought this book was very moving. The course opens on a personal note: Derrida talks about the time when he, as a child in Algeria, learned about the death penalty through the newspaper, through a photograph in the newspaper. I also thought the sections about Camus, and the reaction of Camus’s father — a supporter of the death penalty — when he went to see a public execution, were very moving.

Yes, there are many such moments. For me, one of the most unnerving is when Derrida is reflecting on the distinction between being “condemned to die,” which all mortals are, and “condemned to death” by a sentence of capital punishment. As a thought experiment, he says that if he had the choice between being executed at age 75 and dying in his bed at age 74, it would be difficult to choose. When he wrote that he was 69 and would die (in his bed) at age 74. Throughout, he is probing the horror of the experience of awaiting a death calculated by the state to occur on a certain date, in a certain manner, at a certain time and place. He argues that the modern, rationalized death penalty seems to conjure up a calculated limit to the incalculable. By that he means that the whole mechanical, technical, and mediatic apparatus of the death penalty appears to give support to a phantasm of finishing off or putting an end to finitude. Every execution thus becomes potentially a screen on which that phantasm can be projected. The active refusal of such a phantasm is key to the argument Derrida is making against the legal death penalty. It moves the abolitionist position away from untenable grounds it has traditionally tried to stand on, for example, the sanctity of life or the argument against cruelty. A lot of time in the lectures is spent deconstructing these traditional abolitionist arguments.

One other thing that struck me reading this course — and you’ve gestured to it already in several of your answers — is how US-focused it is. Derrida was of course teaching the course in both France and the US. But there’s more to it than that: he repeatedly states in the lectures that his topic, the death penalty, is particularly pertinent to the US and its demographic. Reading the course I wonder if we still think of Derrida too much as a “French” philosopher — he’s almost just as much an “American” philosopher, wouldn’t you say? Focusing on issues that are central to contemporary American life? “America” is certainly a recurring theme in his work.

Yes, it is, but nowhere perhaps as insistently as in The Death Penalty, for reasons that are obvious. As for Derrida being an American or “American” philosopher, I would say no. Which doesn’t mean he is therefore a French or a “French” philosopher. (Although his passport would have said otherwise.) True, he wrote in the language called French, but he also wrote in or with an idiom that would have been his own, all the while treating and translating texts from both other languages (German, Greek, Latin, or English) and other idioms. Insofar as philosophy passes itself down in writing, it has to contend with the problem of couching the universal in a particular language/idiom. The solution cannot be a set of philosophical nationalisms, “American” and “French” or even analytic and continental. On the contrary, philosophy has to suppose the possibility of translation. Either that or, as Hegel tried to show, all philosophers would have to learn to speak German. But is translation indeed possible? Derrida more than once has defined “deconstruction” as “plus d’une langue,” a phrase that English has to translate twice in order to capture the sense of “more than one language” but also “no more of just one language.” You could say that deconstruction is philosophy in the wake of the commandment at Babel to translate what is impossible to translate.

Just one more note on the prevalence of the American example in The Death Penalty: It happens that 1999 — when these lectures began in Paris (then at UC Irvine in 2000 where I first heard them) — was the peak year for executions in the US from 1977 to the present. The line graph of annual executions since 1976 on the Death Penalty Information Center website is startling in this regard: the vertical line representing the 98 executions in 1999 towers over what preceded and what has followed since — for example, 39 executions in 2013. Derrida refers several times to the 1999 statistic, without knowing of course that the trend has peaked and that the numbers would begin a more or less consistent decline that still continues. What I’m remarking about the year 1999 is no doubt a coincidence, yet I think it might also convey the extent to which Derrida is “tuned in” to America and to what is happening there. But we should recall that his engagement with the system, so-called, of American justice goes back at least to his 1971 text on George Jackson and the Soledad brothers. And we’d have to include his writings from the mid-1990s in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose 1982 death sentence was commuted only in 2012. The Death Penalty, moreover, frequently evokes Mumia and his years and years on death row.

Do you feel a special attachment to this course? Is there any particular reason why you chose to translate it?

No, not really. As you know, I work with five colleagues in the Derrida Seminar Translation Project. I was eager to translate what would be one of the early volumes in the project, and they agreed to my tackling this one.

Derrida is notoriously difficult to translate. Did you confront any special challenges in your translation of this course?

There are always challenges on every page. And they are usually quite localized and particular, so it’s hard to generalize. But frankly, if these lectures were easy to translate, I’d be a lot less interested in doing it.

Do you consult regularly with the other members of the translation team while you are translating?

Not regularly, no. But since 2008, we’ve been spending a week every summer in a workshop where we review line by line the translation currently in preparation. This is an intense, even merciless process. It would be hard to find a comparably thorough vetting of the correctness and quality of a translation. Once it is over the translator is left to her- or himself to make final decisions — for better or worse.


Arne De Boever is the LARB Critical Theory/Philosophy section editor.

LARB Contributor

Arne De Boever teaches American Studies in the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, where he also directs the MA Aesthetics and Politics program. He is the author of States of Exception in the Contemporary Novel (2012) and Narrative Care (2013) and editor of Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology (2012) and The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism: Vol. 1 (2013). He edits Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy and the critical theory/philosophy section of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also a member of the boundary 2 collective and an Advisory Editor for the Oxford Literary Review.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!