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The Death Penalty, Volume I

In this newest installment in Chicago’s series of Jacques Derrida’s seminars, the renowned philosopher attempts one of his most ambitious goals: the first truly philosophical argument against the death penalty. While much has been written against the death penalty, Derrida contends that Western philosophy is massively, if not always overtly, complicit with a logic in which a sovereign state has the right to take a life. Haunted by this notion, he turns to the key places where such logic has been established—and to the place it has been most effectively challenged: literature.

With his signature genius and patient yet dazzling readings of an impressive breadth of texts, Derrida examines everything from the Bible to Plato to Camus to Jean Genet, with special attention to Kant and post–World War II juridical texts, to draw the landscape of death penalty discourses. Keeping clearly in view the death rows and execution chambers of the United States, he shows how arguments surrounding cruel and unusual punishment depend on what he calls an “anesthesial logic,” which has also driven the development of death penalty technology from the French guillotine to lethal injection. Confronting a demand for philosophical rigor, he pursues provocative analyses of the shortcomings of abolitionist discourse. Above all, he argues that the death penalty and its attendant technologies are products of a desire to put an end to one of the most fundamental qualities of our finite existence: the radical uncertainty of when we will die.
Arriving at a critical juncture in history—especially in the United States, one of the last Christian-inspired democracies to resist abolition—The Death Penalty is both a timely response to an important ethical debate and a timeless addition to Derrida’s esteemed body of work. 


“Those who attended Derrida’s seminars and saw him ‘live’ will have been struck by the contrast between his reputation as a “notoriously difficult philosopher” (to quote The New York Times obituary) and the articulate, focused presentation on display in his classroom. His commentaries on the nuances of a single sentence or word were legendary for their length and intricacy, but he never failed to foreground the fundamental stakes of the debates at hand and the central questions motivating the analysis. The result was a rare combination of erudition, argumentative dexterity, and a style of interpretation that made it clear that the real master in the room was the text at hand. . . . What is certain is that this Death Penalty volume offers a rich, innovative approach to a confounding topic. One can only hope that it will be broadly read and debated.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

"The translation of the seminars, appositely enough, is itself the product, we are informed, of the 'Derrida Seminars Translation project workshops,' and it is both elegant and, insofar as its subject’s allusive and associative style permits, remarkably unequivocal."

Critical Inquiry

"In his lectures on the death penalty Jacques Derrida argues the surprising thesis that ‘no philosophical system as such has ever been able rationally to oppose the death penalty’. And he also entertains a second thesis that juridical execution undergirds the legal system. In his support for abolitionism, Derrida participates in ‘philosophy’ without quite belonging there. In fact, he maintains that juridical execution comes into sharper focus only when we pass from philosophy to theology."

Kevin Hart | Studies in Christian Ethics

Table of Contents

Foreword to the English Edition
General Introduction to the French Edition
Editorial Note

First Session, December 8, 1999
First Session, December 8, 1999 (continued)
Second Session, December 15, 1999
Third Session, January 12, 2000
Fourth Session, January 19, 2000
Fifth Session, January 26, 2000
Sixth Session, February 2, 2000
Seventh Session, February 9, 2000
Eighth Session, February 23, 2000
Ninth Session, March 1/8, 2000
Tenth Session, March 15, 2000
Eleventh Session, March 22, 2000

Index of Names

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