Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Phantasmatics: Sovereignty and the Image of Death in Derrida's First Death Penalty Seminar

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Phantasmatics: Sovereignty and the Image of Death in Derrida's First Death Penalty Seminar

Article excerpt

Ever since the camera was invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.

--Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Death has long been theorized as structurally intrinsic to temporal and ontological considerations of photography--Susan Sontag: "All photographs are memento mori" (Photography 15); Roland Barthes: "Death is the eidos of [the] Photograph" (15); Andre Bazin: photography "embalms time" (14). But photography also registers real, physical deaths in all their concrete historical specificity. Crucially, the image of death focuses questions concerning the role of photography in the formation of the juridical-political authority of state power, while at the same time serving as a locus of critical resistance in revolutionary politics. The critical force of these questions is amplified by the proliferating figures of death circulating in the increasingly virtual space of contemporary media. (1) The image of death--specifically the photographic image of capital punishment--thus serves as the impetus for the following reflections on sovereignty and the spectacle of visibility that structures the dramaturgy of the first of Jacques Derrida's Death Penalty seminars.

Delivered between 1999 and 2001 at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and subsequently for an American audience at the University of California, Irvine, the first Death Penalty seminar considers the history and horizon of sovereignty, which, as construed under the lineage of thinking inherited from theologico-political modernity, "presents itself, represents itself as the right to decree and to execute a death penalty. Or to pardon arbitrarily, sovereignly" (22). "State sovereignty," says Derrida in conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, "defines itself by the power of life and death over subjects. And therefore by the right of exception, by the right to raise itself, if one may say, above the law" (144). A principled abolition of the death penalty hinges on a radical questioning of the theological and political foundations of sovereign power, which, Derrida argues, remain uncontested--de facto if not de jure--in the history of philosophy.

During the course of the first seminar Derrida will argue that this concept of sovereignty is a phantasm, a kind of specular illusion that involves a slippage or projection, as Michael Naas explains, between two disparate modalities: that of the as if of "speculative fiction" and the as such of "inflexible law" (188). Sovereign power turns on the phantasmatic belief that one can master an objective instant of death clearly divided against life in the clear-cut conceptual opposition of Life/Death. In turn, this presupposes an unexamined conception of death that is our philosophical inheritance. This "pre-comprehension" is presumed "more or less explicitly" by all the great thinkers of death (Death 237): from Plato, who describes philosophy as a calmative that prepares the citizen for death (and who incidentally in [section]386b of The Republic indicts the tragedians' deathly images for inducing fear and thus threatening a properly human relation to death), through the most "radical" and "deconstructive phenomenologies" of Levinas and Heidegger, the great thinker of being-toward-death. In each case, sovereignty is construed by way of a relation to death that has long served as the fulcrum of speculative thought. To philosophize, according to the old injunction bearing us back to ancient Greece, is to learn to die, where learning assumes a capacity or ability on the part of a subject to master an objective limit, "be it of an ungraspable instant that is reduced to the blade of a knife or the stigme of a point" (239) that divides the living polis from the community of the dead.

Exhorting us to take up the project of deconstructing the phantasmatic delimitation of death, Derrida aims to dismantle the fantasy of control over an objective instant of death along with the "speculative scaffolding" (Derrida and Roudinesco 148) of the guillotine--an apparatus said to share with photography a certain temporal "metonymy of the instantaneous" ("Barthes" 61). …

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