The Death Penalty: Vol. I 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Peggy Kamuf.
Chicago, 328 pp., £24.50, January 2014, 978 0 226 14432 0
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‘Whence comes​ this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’

In the first volume of The Death Penalty, Derrida considers the jus talionis, the principle of equivalence according to which a relation is set up ‘between the crime and the punishment, between the injury and the price to be paid’. Debt, in On the Genealogy of Morals, gives Nietzsche a way of understanding how ‘the “consciousness of guilt”, “bad conscience”’ came into the world. Earlier he laments ‘that whole sombre thing called reflection’, in which the self becomes its own object of relentless scrutiny and self-punishment. If one wants to keep a promise, one must burn memory into the will, submit to – or submit oneself to – a reign of terror in the name of morality, administer pain to oneself in order to ensure one’s continuity and calculability through time. If I am to be moral and keep my promises, I will remember what I promised and remain the same ‘I’ who first uttered that promise, resisting any circumstances that might alter its continuity through time, never dozing when wakefulness is needed. The promise takes on another meaning in Nietzsche when what I have promised is precisely to repay a debt, a promise by which I enter into, and become bound by, a certain kind of contract. What I have apparently burned into the will, or had burned there, is a promise to remember and repay that debt, to realise the promise within a calculable period of time, and so to become a calculable creature. I can be counted on to count the time and count up the money to make the repayment: that accountability is the promise. I can count on myself, and others can count on me. If I prove capable of making a contract, I can receive a loan and be relied on to pay it back with interest, so that the lender can accumulate wealth from my debt in a predictable way. And if I default, the law will intervene to protect his interest in the interest he exacts from me.

Nietzsche asks how debt and restitution became the primary framework for conceptualising criminality and punishment. Tracking the persistence of Roman law in 19th-century German jurisprudence, he argues that any injury is conceptualised as a debt, and every punishment understood as a payment. Hence the field of suffering is pervasively economised, and the contract becomes the salient model for human exchange. According to Nietzsche, all manner of injury is now modelled on the creditor-debtor relation. As injury comes to be conceived as payment in default, the psyche develops a penitentiary logic. The psychic form that payment takes is guilt, understood as a kind of perpetual payment, the debt never finally discharged. Punishment thus becomes a form of subjectivation: in punishing the criminal for having inflicted an injury/incurred a debt, a subject is formed who punishes her or himself for having failed to be calculable. And if she or he had proven to be calculable, would no injury have occurred? Not quite, for the only way to become a promising and calculable animal, according to Nietzsche, is precisely by inflicting injury on oneself, burning a memory into the will such that the memory burns time and again, every time the promise is broken and all the time until the promise is fulfilled.

Guilt becomes the psychic modality of the debtor who can neither quit nor fulfil the contract. What, then, is the psychic modality of the creditor? Nietzsche remarks on those Roman laws that allowed for debtors to be dismembered by their creditors or their legal proxies. Derrida continues the thought:

The creditor is granted a psychic reimbursement … Instead of a thing, instead of something or someone, he will be given some pleasure, some enjoyment [jouissance], a feeling of well-being or greater well-being (Wohlgefuehl), he will be given a pleasure that consists in the voluptuous pleasure of causing the other to suffer … ‘faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire,’ that is, of doing harm for the pleasure of it … In place of some equivalent, something or someone, one grants in return, as payment, the pleasure of doing violence (Genuss in der Vergewaltigung).

And though Derrida accepts the translation of Vergewaltigung as ‘violence’ (usually Gewalt), it is also the German word for ‘rape’, raising the problem of whether it is possible to distinguish between sexualised and desexualised forms of destructiveness in forms of legal punishment. Indeed, the move to cast injury as a debt that requires restitution produces both guilt and sadism: the debtor becomes the one who is always paying in a situation in which nothing can finally be paid off; the creditor is always punishing, and always enjoying that apparently infinite task. The idea of equivalence, introduced first by jus talionis, allows one thing to substitute for one another by way of restitution. The point, though, seems not really to become whole again, but to profit and punish more joyfully for an indefinite period of time. Keeping his parts circulating is what brings the creditor his pleasure, and punishing debts, establishing them as unpayable, opens up a potentially infinite future for sadistic delight. The prison is established on the model of social debt, so that sentencing becomes a way of regulating, and extending, the time of debt.

For Nietzsche, and in this Derrida follows him closely, legal punishment, apart from serving its stated purposes, maintains a furtive vocation in which sadism operates through the terms of both law and morality. Nietzsche found that cruelty – indeed, ‘festive cruelty’ – pervaded these two domains. This is explicit in Bentham’s reflections on punishment, but it can also be found operating in a more subtle fashion in Kant’s categorical imperative, which, Nietzsche claimed, ‘reeks of [reicht nach] cruelty’. When Kant justifies the death penalty on the basis of the categorical imperative, he demonstrates the Nietzschean point that cruelty can be, and is, masked as morality, and that the pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be, and is, rationalised as moral duty. Presaging Lacan’s ‘Kant avec Sade’, Nietzsche seeks to expose the joyous cruelty of Kant’s morality. Derrida takes it all a step further, figuring Meursault, the absurdist murderer in Camus’s L’Etranger, as a paradigmatic Kantian:

If I know why I kill, I think I am right to kill and this reason that I give myself is a reason that one must be able to argue for rationally with the help of universalisable principles. I kill someone, and I know why, because I think that it is necessary, that it is just, that whoever found himself in my place would have to do the same, that the other is guilty towards me, has wronged me or will wrong me and so forth … given that the crime is meaningful, deliberate, calculated, premeditated, goal-oriented, it belongs to the order of penal justice and is no longer dissociable from a condemnation to death, from a properly penal act. At that point, the distinction between vengeance and justice becomes precarious.

But Nietzsche also writes something more, namely that commercial contracts model the social contract, which requires that humans undergo an internalisation of their aggressive drives. What is internalised or, indeed, repressed by entering into the social contract is ‘hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction’. This internalisation can operate as sublimation, giving rise to the soul, the entire inner world, bad conscience and guilt – everything that makes man interesting. The development of this capacity comes at a very high price, what some would call neurosis, and what Nietzsche describes as that ‘serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace’. The social contract, which requires the subject to forfeit the option of acting aggressively and destructively, produces a psychic formation in which the subject pummels her or himself and thereby risks becoming her or his own executioner.

Can those who oppose the death penalty escape cruelty? Nietzsche intimates that cruelty may well be primary. It can be repressed, which is a way of turning cruelty on oneself, or directed towards others in some moralised version, for example by preferring imprisonment to the death penalty (protracted cruelty, that is, over immediate death). The prohibition on aggressive action is an aggressive attack on aggression which paradoxically preserves, or redoubles, aggression even as it seeks its eradication. No one can finally do away with it. ‘The figure of abolition,’ Derrida writes, ‘is that of a death of the death penalty.’

Derrida turns​ to Freud’s reflections on aggression and the death drive in order to pursue this broader question about cruelty. Beyond the Pleasure Principle calls into question the exclusive operation of the pleasure principle as the organising principle of psychic life. Are there modes of destructiveness that can’t be explained by the pleasure principle? The death drive emerges as a way of explaining repetition compulsions that fail to establish any kind of sustainable mastery. They appeared to Freud first as part of ‘war neurosis’ and were set apart from forms of neurosis organised by wish-fulfilment. These forms of compulsive repetition were not in search of gratification: they were unwanted repetitions that wore down the ego. Derrida is frank: ‘At issue is a diagnosis of a cruelty that has no contrary because it is originary.’ This dialectical inversion characteristic of bad conscience – the redoubling of aggression in the effort to establish its opposite – proves important for Derrida’s approach to the death penalty and to abolitionism.

For Derrida, those who oppose the death penalty – as he did – are caught up in the same problem as those who are for it, but why? Are abolitionists perhaps seeking to eradicate the death drive – the ‘hostility to life’, as Derrida puts it, that is ‘inherent to life itself’? Is that their furtive purpose? ‘Surpassing cruelty by an apparent non-cruelty,’ he continues, ‘would be merely a surpassing in cruelty, a surfeit of cruelty.’ He notes that Robespierre changed his mind from opposing to affirming the death penalty in the space of two years, depending on what seemed more useful to him – whether he feared for his own life or wished for the death of his opponents. Those who oppose the death penalty, such as Beccaria and sometimes Bentham, seem to prefer a long, drawn-out form of cruel imprisonment, which raises the question: which camp in this debate stands for the more humane form of punishment? Wary of forms of aggression disguised as benevolence, Derrida asks whether some abolitionists are committed to other forms of cruelty that are masked by elegant moral formulations, ones that rationalise prolonging the time of cruelty and the tenure of sadistic delight.

Just as Nietzsche found Kant’s categorical imperative to be soaked in blood, so Freud thought that the Christian dictum ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ was pretty much impossible to realise. Why should my neighbour love me? he asks. And why should I love my neighbour? ‘It is very probable that my neighbour, when he is enjoined to love me as himself, will answer exactly as I have done and will repel me for the same reasons.’ Freud suggests that we can only really love those we know and that it is absurd to ask us to love the rest of humankind: hostility seems a more reasonable default position.

What seems to be at stake here is neither a random attitude of hostility nor even an occasional propensity towards cruelty, but the broader problem of the death drive. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle and then in Civilisation and Its Discontents, written ten years later, in 1930, Freud writes about a kind of destructiveness that seeks to dismantle social forms constructed on the basis of aim-inhibited social bonds, such as family, community and nation. He remarks on several occasions, in particular when considering the ambivalence constitutive of love, that the pleasure principle and the death drive work in tandem, but they should be distinguished nonetheless in terms of their final aims. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud makes two inverse kinds of claim about the relationship between pleasure and the death drive: first, he gives the example of sadism, in which the death drive ‘enters the service of the sexual function’; second, just pages later, ‘the pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts,’ which are ‘especially on guard against increases of stimulation from within, which would make the task of living more difficult’. So each can be at the service of the other, which means that neither is necessarily primary. The death drive leads us towards death, in a circuitous return to the inorganic that militates against a progressive sense of time, repeatedly taking apart the social relations we build and returning us to a state of quiescence. So the two drives – or principles, if you prefer – seem to meet up again in this final quiescence in which all that is built is undone, scattered, returning the fading ego to an inorganic condition in which the organism is relieved of all excitation.

We know that civilisation produces unhappiness because social norms demand that we not act on all the desires on the docket for gratification. Ideally, aim-inhibited social bonds create communities, and the sublimation of immediate desires creates artworks or institutions or works like Freud’s. But the other problem with civilisation is that it seems actively to dismantle what it has built, to destroy what one brings into being and to attack those one loves; it takes aim at its own creations and attachments, pursuing a furtive vocation – repetitive, unknowing – that works in a contrary direction to its forward-oriented tasks and all conceits of progress. Freud ends Civilisation and Its Discontents, remarking that civilisation runs the risk of being undone by its own aggression, going so far as to voice his anxiety about the prospect of extermination.

A brief passage in the book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

Derrida rehearses Baudelaire’s criticism of Hugo’s abolitionism in ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’ (1829), in which the argument is made that the death penalty should be opposed because the right to life is absolute. Abolitionism in defence of an absolute right to life is, for Baudelaire, as Derrida reminds us, ‘doubly guilty’: it clings to animal existence and abandons the human. The passion of those who oppose the death penalty is guilty, he remarks, ‘because they are afraid for their own skins, because they feel guilty and their tremulations are a confession; they confess, with the symptom of their abolitionism as it were, that they want to save their lives, that they tremble for themselves because … unconsciously, they feel guilty of a mortal sin.’ So the passion against the punishment is articulated by those who are guilty not for what they do, but for what they wish they did not wish – to do away with someone. But also because they fear losing their own lives, so formulate their position not from principle, but from fear of being done away with by another: ‘I want to abolish the death penalty because I am afraid of being condemned.’

Derrida’s move to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive has a certain intellectual appeal, resting as it does on a dialectical inversion by which those who oppose the death penalty are implicated in its cruelty, especially when they prefer forms of imprisonment. (At one point he generalises from the case of abolitionism, remarking on ‘the hypocrisy that animates and agitates the defenders of just causes’.) Here is a rejoinder. Derrida’s position implies that the only route to an abolitionist position is through the violent suppression of the aggressive impulse, a redoubling of aggression that is now conveyed and amplified by moral instruments. But given that aggression can be interrupted by more relational orientations, why wouldn’t opposition to the death penalty emerge from those? The pleasure principle intervenes to derail aggression time and again, and I have noted already that for Freud the death drive can be brought within the service of the pleasure principle, and that pleasure can serve the purpose of creating and reproducing social bonds. In the context of preserved social bonds, aggression can become agonism, or it can be strictly contained within the rules of a game: a sadomasochistic sexual scene, for example, or some other rule-bound activity.

But there is a more general argument to be made, concerning Freud’s idea of emotional ambivalence. This idea is there early on in his interpretations of Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams; it gets a chapter in Totem and Taboo and is central to the explanation of melancholia in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. After 1920, it is recast as a mode of entanglement between the pleasure principle and the death drive. There is no overcoming ambivalence in love, since we are always at risk of destroying what we are most attached to and vulnerable to being destroyed by those on whom we are most dependent. According to this later model, Oedipus doesn’t necessarily kill the father in order to have the mother (that would be to posit wish-fulfilment as the final aim of all murderous wishes); he could be moved by various unconscious motives in killing the father, and sexual gratification may or may not be among them.

So the problem with Derrida’s dialectical inversion is that it relies on the death drive, or its principal exponent, aggression, as the only motive operating in the scene. What ethical decisions emerge from the ambivalent situation of wanting someone to die and at the same time wanting them to live, and even wanting both things with equal intensity, but at different levels of consciousness? Ambivalence isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy. I am a hypocrite if, however furtively, I want someone to die, or am possessed by a murderous wish even as I cloak that wish in a moral argument, say, against the death penalty. I am a hypocrite only if there is a wish I pretend I do not have, but in fact do. In the condition of ambivalence, however, there are at least two wishes at work, two true motives struggling to coexist despite their incompatibility. What then works against the inner demand that someone pay for a crime with his or her life? Is it only when we might enjoy inflicting further pain on the criminal that we wish she or he would live? Or are there other reasons why we might want them to live? Are there, even within the terms of psychoanalysis, reasons for wanting to keep the other alive that do not primarily rely on our wish to continue torturing that other, even when it isn’t someone in particular, but an anonymous other or the general population?

To answer that question, we have also to ask whether there are social relations outside the terms of debt and payment, relations that might be understood as being outside capital, or outside the psychic and moral terms by which injury-cum-debt authorises incarceration and the death penalty. This is already to move from a drive theory to an account of relationality, but that doesn’t mean we can dispense so easily with the problem of destructiveness. After all, when Freud posits Eros and Thanatos as two separate principles, as drives which belong to the figural language available to him, he is trying to take account of ambivalence. Eros may well be defined as building social bonds through sublimation, but love, we should remember, is also constituted by ambivalence. This is the very point from which Melanie Klein departs, suggesting that the ambivalence of all human bonds is the basis of an ethical demand to preserve precisely the life it is in one’s power, and sometimes also in one’s interest, to destroy.

‘The power of love – which is the manifestation of the forces which tend to preserve life – is there in the baby as well as the destructive impulses,’ Klein writes in ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’. The fantasy of destroying becomes coupled with the fear of losing those on whom one is absolutely dependent. To do away with the one on whom I depend for food and shelter and survival is to imperil my own existence. The ‘fear of losing’ emerges time and again in Klein: ‘There is … in the unconscious mind a tendency to give [the mother] up, which is counteracted by the urgent desire to keep her for ever.’ This form of ambivalence emerges developmentally as an emotional bind when individuation isn’t complete. But since individuation is never complete, and dependency never really overcome, a broader ethical dilemma emerges: how not to destroy the other or others whom I need in order to live. It isn’t a matter of calculating that destroying them would probably be a bad idea. Rather, it is a matter of recognising that dependency fundamentally defines us: it is something I never quite outgrow, no matter how old and how individuated I may seem. And it isn’t that you and I are the same; rather, it is that we invariably lean towards and on each other, and it is impossible to think about either of us without the other. If I seek to preserve your life, it is not only because it is in my self-interest to do so, or because I have wagered that it will bring about better consequences for me. It is because I am already tied to you in a social bond without which this ‘I’ cannot be thought. So, what implications does the thesis of emotional ambivalence in love have for thinking about alternatives to the death penalty and for legal violence more generally? Is there a way to move beyond the dialectical relation between the punishment of the death penalty and the life sentence?

Following​ Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’, Derrida underscores the toxic intimacy between crime and its legal remedy. The law distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate forms of the death penalty, establishing the procedures by which that distinction is made. It also establishes the grounds on which the state can inflict deadly violence either in war or through such legal instruments as the death penalty. The death penalty, for Derrida, considered as a form of legal violence, closes down the distinction between justice and vengeance: justice becomes the moralised form that vengeance assumes.

It’s striking that this view is held in common by Derrida and the activist and scholar Angela Davis. Both called for the retrial or release of Mumia Abu-Jamal (a political prisoner sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a policeman: his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole in 2012), arguing that his overarching ‘crime’ was his affiliation with the Black Panthers. Davis understands the alternative between the death sentence and imprisonment as dialectical:

As important as it may be to abolish the death penalty, we should be conscious of the way the contemporary campaign against capital punishment has a propensity to recapitulate the very historical patterns that led to the emergence of the prison as a dominant form of punishment. The death penalty has coexisted with the prison, though imprisonment was supposed to serve as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment. This is a major dichotomy. A critical engagement with this dichotomy would involve taking seriously the possibility of linking the goal of death penalty abolitionism with strategies for prison abolition.

Like Davis, Derrida understands that the death penalty and imprisonment are hardly opposites, but form two modalities of an economy of vengeance. When the state kills, and justifies doing so, it enacts vengeance through its reasoning process; legal violence becomes no different from non-legal violence, except that now the state performs the act and supplies its justification. But for Davis, the task is to move beyond vengeance. Her mentor was at one time Herbert Marcuse, who in Eros and Civilisation, his rejoinder to Civilisation and Its Discontents, suggested that Eros might be expanded to create forms of community that would counter the force of Thanatos, or the death drive augmented under capitalism. He referred to the surplus aggression created under capitalism, and suggested that Freud was describing a very specific social organisation of aggression, not a pre-social death drive. He also thought that revolutionary energy, as it were, could be marshalled against repressive institutions, among them capitalism and the family. There is no drive theory in Davis’s work, as far as I know: both sexuality and aggression are socially organised. At the same time, however, there is a clear understanding that political resistance has both to build and destroy. There is no way of getting round that double demand. Davis calls for the abolition not only of the death penalty but of the institution and industry of imprisonment. The negation of exploitative and violent institutions makes use of destructiveness, but also seeks to establish and strengthen social bonds through repair and ‘restorative justice’ rather than vengeance and retribution.

If we stay within the problem of cruelty’s relation to the death drive, we may wonder to what extent the death drive, or aggression, can be fully directed by conscious political programmes such as those proposed by Davis, and whether there is always an excess to destructiveness that can’t quite be controlled or explained by the social organisation of life. The important question here seems to be whether social bonds should be understood within the framework of civilisation, or in some other way. As Freud makes clear in Civilisation and Its Discontents, civilisation will hardly save us: the moral face of civilisation, after all, is vengeance, and prisons are its exemplary institutions. In their place, Davis imagines communities that focus on healing and repair, on forms of responsibility that forge new social bonds for those who may have broken them. These bonds would be explicitly anti-capitalist, and would put an end to racist forms of exploitation. She insists that in the United States, both prisons and the death penalty have to be understood as part of the legacy of slavery, given that the disproportionate number of people in prison and on death row in the US are black or Latino men and, increasingly, black or Latino women. (The NAACP reports that African Americans ‘now constitute nearly a million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58 per cent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.’ Those numbers have increased in recent years. In the US today more than three thousand people are on death row, all of them poor, and most of them African American or Latino.) Davis also argues that love and forgiveness must be pursued as alternatives to retribution. This is not to imply that there is no destructiveness in this picture, but that it takes the form of ‘negating’ prisons, whose form of destructiveness damages life that ought properly to be repaired and even restored to a broader social world.

Are we really so far from the death drive here? What if we understand the death drive not only as manifested within the individual psyche, or in terms of group psychology, but as something that takes hold of institutions and guides their aims, sometimes with furtive tenacity? The call for an end to imprisonment and to prisons may not be possible, or practical, but it establishes a perspective from which we can see the way that legal remedy is engaged in cruelty. To call for an end to cruelty is to call for the destruction of the institutions of cruelty; the only question that remains is whether it would be possible to control the destructive effects that would follow from the deinstitutionalisation of criminals. The fact is that the destructive consequences of acts that seek to destroy destruction can’t be fully known in advance. This is, perhaps, where Freud on the unconscious operation of the death drive seems to have the last word, indicating a future of destruction whose exact contours we can’t know, but about which we can only feel anxiety.

For Davis, abolitionism refers to the demand to abolish both the death penalty and prisons, but also to the abolition of slavery, which remains a global phenomenon, active not only in the sweatshops of the developing world but also in coerced agrarian work in the US. Prisons too continue the legacy of slavery, acting now as the institutional mechanism by which a disproportionate number of people of colour are deprived of citizenship. The fact that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of colour implies that it is a way of regulating citizenship by other means and, in the case of the death penalty, concentrating state power over questions of life and death that differentially affect minority populations. Yet this power is not simply or exclusively sovereign. With the idea of a demographics of the condemned, we enter the terrain that Achille Mbembe has called ‘necropolitics’. That security companies have taken over the public administration of prisons in the US, the UK and elsewhere exposes the link between who is owned, who is put out of play, whose unpayable economic or social debt now defines who they are – and who profits. ‘The people’, the public, are established as those who must be protected from the criminal class, producing one class of people whose lives are worth preserving, and another whose lives can be easily lost or destroyed.

Does debt forgiveness enter into this picture? What would be its psychic equivalent? Would it perhaps be the operation of ‘pardon’ as a deinstitutionalising force, including the deinstitutionalisation of sovereignty and the death penalty? Derrida’s reflections on ‘pardon’ were the focus of his seminar in 1997-99, directly preceding his seminar on the death penalty. One question raised was whether forgiveness and pardon must be figured as sovereign acts, or can be ways of deconstituting established forms of sovereignty. Is there a way to conceptualise forgiveness and pardon as forms of institutional life, perhaps as the driving force that undertakes the deinstitutionalisation of both the prison and the death penalty? Perhaps the opposition to the death penalty has to be linked with an opposition to forms of induced precarity both inside and outside the prison, in order to expose the various different mechanisms for destroying life, and to find ways, however conflicted and ambivalent, of preserving lives that would otherwise be lost.

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Vol. 36 No. 15 · 31 July 2014

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson

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