Modernity and the Political Formations of Death
I am against the death penalty but the issue of its aboli-
tion is not a closed discourse, it's a matter which seeks
itself, which is still looking for itself.
—Jacques Derrida, seminar on Time and the Death
Penalty, University of Trieste, November 16, 2000
To continue seeking in Derrida's epigraphic terms may seem to contradict the telos of an unswerving “road to abolition,” but to continue seeking is, rather, to intimate an open, perhaps a more sinuous, road. Bluntly, selfstyled “modern” political formation both sustains and counters the death penalty, and it does so in a way, along a road, that is antinomic yet constituent of the formation itself. It is the contrary dimensions of the antinomy as they combine in different realized forms that either diminishes the death penalty or sustains it. And even as the antinomy leaves the road to abolition open, it still provides the abolitionary “matter which seeks itself, which is still looking for itself.”1 The antinomy, in short, is generative. We are not dealing here with an aporia. We are not, to adopt its Greek meaning, without a road. Nor are we without the intimation of a terminus, a coming to the “matter which seeks itself.”
The argument for such an intimation proceeds this way. Without some transcendent resolution, a resolution disallowed by modernity, a political formation as a realized form of the antinomy cannot fully accommodate both of its opposed dimensions. One of those dimensions, as we shall see, is a formative force of hyperdeterminacy, of quasi-transcendent self-constitution, a determinacy that would take all possibility