Derrida and the Death Penalty: The Question of Cruelty

By Trumbull, Robert | Philosophy Today, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Derrida and the Death Penalty: The Question of Cruelty


Trumbull, Robert, Philosophy Today


In his late work on inherited political concepts, Jacques Derrida's attention became increasingly focused on the deconstructive critique of sovereignty, and he suggested more than once that psychoanalysis represents a key site where the deconstruction of sovereignty is possible. Across his writings in this period, Derrida argued that the principle of sovereignty invoked by the modern, secular nation-state in fact has its roots in a fundamentally theological logic, the uncritical, and wholly deconstructible, concept of a unitary, autonomous sovereign who, in the end, resembles a kind of God. This same logic governs the concept of individual sovereignty, Derrida suggests. Accordingly, in the texts we have from this period, Derrida repeatedly indicates that psychoanalysis marks one of the places where the critique of sovereignty is in some sense already underway. As he put it in his most sustained treatment of this theme, an address to the States General of Psychoanalysis in 2000 (published in English as "Psychoanalysis Searches the States of Its Soul: The Impossible Beyond of a Sovereign Cruelty"), the principle of sovereignty ultimately stands for "the autonomy and omnipotence of the subject-individual or state-freedom, egological will, conscious intentionality."1 The notion of sovereignty therefore includes a whole set of concepts that psychoanalysis, from the very beginning, begins to put into question. The thought of the unconscious, Derrida notes here and elsewhere, is, after all, precisely the thought of what undermines and disrupts 'the autonomy and omnipotence of the subject' and 'egological will.' Viewed from this perspective, psychoanalysis would be a theory and a practice that essentially devotes itself to the idea that there is something that undercuts individual sovereignty: namely, the presence of another system in the psyche that determines human thought and action from a place entirely beyond conscious intentionality. What drives human thought and action, on this view, is in fact something fundamentally incompatible with consciousness. Thus, in "Psychoanalysis Searches," Derrida locates the critique of sovereignty at the very heart of the psychoanalytic revolution. "The first gesture of psychoanalysis," he writes, "will have been to explain this sovereignty, to give an account of its ineluctability while aiming to deconstruct its genealogy" (WA, 244). And from the other side, the philosophical deconstruction of sovereignty can be understood, he suggests in Rogues, as one way of "tak[ing] into account within politics what psychoanalysis once called the unconscious."2

If deconstruction attempts to take into account what the unconscious does to politics, and to the classical notion of sovereignty, this is in part because, as Derrida makes quite clear in "Psychoanalysis Searches," psychoanalysis itself has remained remarkably silent on this question. In short, the institution of psychoanalysis has failed to take up the critique of sovereignty that issues from its own most fundamental insight. More precisely, we could say that it has not yet thought through the ramifications of its very first gesture, whereby it analyzes, and thus begins to deconstruct, the fictional character of sovereignty. That is, it has not yet managed to think through how this insight impacts prevailing concepts and practices in the crucial fields of ethics, law, and politics. Hence psychoanalysis's fundamentally confused state, as Derrida terms it, its 'soul-searching' state, on questions of ethics and politics. The problem, for Derrida, quite simply, is that "psychoanalysis has not yet undertaken and thus still less succeeded in thinking, penetrating, and changing the axioms of the ethical, the juridical, and the political" (WA, 244). And to this extent, he suggests, it remains unable to think what is happening today in the world, precisely in those places "where the most traumatic . . . the most cruel events of our day are being produced," where the "phantasm" of sovereignty, as Derrida will call it, drives the exercise of sovereign power (WA, 244). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Derrida and the Death Penalty: The Question of Cruelty
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.