Skip to content

An Interview with Prof. Peggy Kamuf

By Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

In this interview, Prof. Peggy Kamuf, Marion Frances Chevalier Professor of French and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California and renowned Derrida scholar and translator, speaks to Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha for the special issue of Café Dissensus on Death Penalty. 

Café Dissensus: Prof. Kamuf, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to Café Dissensus for this special issue on Death Penalty. Firstly, I would congratulate you for your great job in translating Derrida`s Death Penalty Seminars in the English language. These Seminars, held in the late nineties have already been published in the French language but the translation project that you and other Derrida Scholars undertook have provided us excellent posthumous translation of some of Derrida`s seminal texts such as Beast and the Sovereign and now The Death Penalty Seminar Volume 1. Would you like to share with us something on this grand translation project?

Prof. Peggy Kamuf: It was conceived in tandem with the project to publish the seminars in their original French, which Geoff Bennington and I have also been involved in from the start.  The University of Chicago Press agreed to take on the series of translations under our co-editorship.  You’re right that these are “grand” projects because they have in view first to edit and then to translate all of Derrida’s teaching lectures—his “seminars” as they came to be called—which he gave every year for more than forty years. The first French volume appeared in 2008 and so far three more have been published. We have tried to keep pace and bring out our translations within a year of the French original. From the beginning, the work on the translation has been intensely collaborative, not only between Geoff and me, but with a group of four other highly regarded translators of Derrida. We have sought to make the translations of the seminars as strong as possible by spending a week every July going over drafts together, line by line. Each year we have also asked younger Derrida scholars and a number of graduate students to join in on this collective experience. Because this will be an ongoing project for a very long time yet, we hope that some of these younger translators will want to take over responsibility for the project once we’re gone.  

CD: You have been consistently writing on death penalty and Derrida and the current special issue of the Oxford Literary Review which you edited is also devoted to Death Sentences. As a Derrida scholar, translator and editor, what do you think, makes Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminar so engaging and crucial?

PK: I believe it is because Derrida is himself seeking, from one seminar session to the next, the terms of a necessary and rigorous opposition to capital punishment. As he observes, no philosopher in the tradition he has inherited – essentially the Western metaphysical tradition from Plato to Heidegger – has left a model of argument made, qua philosophy, against the death penalty, which is really rather remarkable when you think about it. For such models, he has to turn to writers like Beccaria, Hugo, and Camus, but their abolitionist arguments do not hold up well under the pressure of his deconstructive readings. I am not implying at all that Derrida here keeps his own opposition to the death penalty in abeyance until he can put a solid philosophical argument under it; rather, it is that he undertakes to think the necessity of this opposition for any “I” that is confronted with the thing called capital punishment or death penalty. And who is not confronted with it, if not in that name, its legal name, then under other guises of more-or-less sanctioned killing, from wars and drone strikes to abortions and animal slaughterhouses? Derrida doesn’t let us lose sight of this other vanishing horizon for any dreamed-of universal abolition of death penalties. Finally, I would say that if this seminar is, in your word, “crucial,” then that’s because its readers may very well have to decide what to do with their own newly elaborated abolitionist convictions. 

CD: Derrida traced the origin of capital punishment to Christianity or to theology and he even went to the extent of saying that Deconstruction is actually the deconstruction of Death Penalty. Would you like to throw some light on this theological root of Death Penalty and also on why did Derrida confer such an importance on this absolutist form of penology?

PK: It is not a theological root but rather of the order of what Derrida calls the theologico-political. This hyphenated term designates, in his analysis, the mutual reliance of theology and politics. Together, the two regimes share the discourse of sovereignty; divine omnipotence buttresses the temporal power that in turn enforces religious law, and so forth. In the first session of the seminar, Derrida makes plain that he intends to examine the death penalty as something like the hyphen of the theologico-political: it articulates them together, while providing a scaffold on which the theologico-political asserts itself in full view. (As for its being a specifically Christian configuration of theology or politics, Derrida does not, of course, make that claim, even if many of his readings here draw out Christian themes.) This is where one can understand most clearly a clear difference between Derrida’s analysis of death penalty and Foucault’s history of the becoming-invisible of modern punishment. By Derrida’s account, the execution of a death penalty is always public; it takes place in a public space, which may be a virtual or cinematic one, but the act is necessarily recorded for a witness, be it only the executioner, and in any case by the state that puts to death. Beyond that, and although Derrida does not expressly point this out, the Foucault-inspired displacement of ideology by the bio-political appears in a more critical light when contrasted with Derrida’s notion of the theologico-political, which continues to take account of the structures and institutions that shape or enable belief. For it turns out that, in Derrida’s estimation, the death penalty goes on living, so to speak, on the force of a belief, although not necessarily a theologically grounded one. He calls this belief a phantasm, employing this psychoanalytically charged designation for an imaginary scenario that fulfills a desire, often an unconscious desire. What this strange desire might be in the case of the death penalty phantasmis patiently worked out over the course of these pages. But I don’t want to cut off this response before flagging the reference and reliance in Derrida’s thinking here on psychoanalysis (which makes for another contrast with Foucault or Agamben). The second volume of The Death Penalty, which will be published in French next year, makes this even more patent with long sessions devoted to readings of texts by Freud and Reich. 

CD: I know that it is virtually impossible to summarize, but how does Derrida justify the abolition of Death Penalty, or in other words, what are the philosophical grounds to abolish capital punishment, a form of punishment which is still legitimized in a big way even in America?

PK: Yes, well, as I said above, Derrida uncovers these “philosophical grounds” patiently, slowly and in the end they are perhaps neither philosophical nor grounds (I have argued this elsewhere, in an essay for the Oxford Literary Review issue you mentioned). You’re right that it’s difficult to summarize, but let’s just say that this “justification” of the abolitionist stance is tied to the way we are led to hear and understand the phrase “the heart of the other,” which is made to resonate at the center, or at the heart, of the phenomenon of capital punishment. In this phrase, Derrida discerns one of those invaginated figures he has often exploited, that is, the figure of an outside inside the inside, which introduces alterity into the heart of the selfsame subject. If the heart of my heart is the other’s, then I receive my life from the other and my life hangs upon his/hers/its. It is thus in my interest to do what I can to disrupt and dismantle the other’s death penalty as my own. One of the breakthroughs or at least unorthodox features of Derrida’s argument is that it does not claim its own distinterestedness, as both pro- and anti-death penalty positions have been constrained to do at least since Kant denied “interest” any valid place in rational judgment. But alongside this argument from the heart, so to speak, Derrida unfurls an analysis of the phantasm that drives capital executions, which he identifies as the phantasm that would, if only it could, fulfill the desire to put an end to finitude by calculating the event of (the other’s) death. If one is persuaded by that analysis, and I believe it is very persuasive, then it becomes even more imperative to refuse the phantasm.

CD: In his earlier works, such as Force of Law and Plato’s Pharmacy, Derrida did engage with the issue of law and sovereignty and subsequently when he takes up the death penalty issue, he once again confronts the same question of law and its force of legitimization. Can we say, therefore, that Derrida has been thinking of these fundamental questions of power, state legitimacy and law right from the beginning and, therefore, when some critics talk of an ethical turn in later Derrida, they completely miss the point?

PK: Certainly the two texts you mention—but one could cite many other early works—engage frontally with questions of law, power, legitimacy, and so forth. But it’s interesting that the explicit issue of sovereignty arises only in Derrida’s late works, notably the final two years of his seminar, titled The Beast and the Sovereign. One of the fascinating things about working on all of these seminars is to see how the yearly topics emerged. Thus, one can see the way the two Death Penalty seminars, between 1999 and 2001, given their consistent concern with the theologico-political, prepared or primed the focus on sovereignty in the following years devoted to The Beast and the Sovereign, just as the issue of the death penalty arose out of the preceding two-year focus on forgiveness in the 1997-1999 seminar titled Perjury and Pardon. This is because the death penalty situates the determination, by the state or the society, of an unforgivable act and this notion of an unforgivable is the touchstone, Derrida insists, for any thinking of forgiveness. But yes, I would agree that one is missing the point when one speaks of some ethical or political “turn” in Derrida’s thought. More precisely, one is missing the way in which his writings, since at least 1967 if not before, remain unsettled as to their scope, pertinence, and reference. As a result, attempts to periodize Derrida’s thought run aground because they rely on a linear, unidirectional chronology that has to fail to account for the way a past may be modified, revised, or reinterpreted by a future. For me, the extraordinary thing is to be able to reread Voice and Phenomena or Of Grammatology, both published in 1967, in the transformative light of, for example, The Beast and the Sovereign or The Death Penalty seminars. It makes you realize once again that chronology is just a species of what is called in French a “garde-fou,” a guardrail that directs thinking into familiar ruts. But one could also see a large irony in the allegation of an ethical/political “turn” in Derrida’s thought. If one considers how the harshest critics of deconstruction began right away to hold it responsible for what they saw as the runaway and disastrous “politicization” of scholarly discourses of all sorts, then certainly it’s ironic that many of those supposedly politicized actors are unable to recognize these same implications in early deconstructive writings. I don’t imagine this will be the last irony affecting the reception of this work, which continues to be transformed by a future to which it has always been open. 

CD: Derrida, while deliberating on the death penalty, distinguished Law (droit) from Justice, saying that the latter is non-deconstructable, while ‘droit’ or law that justifies death penalty provides enough room for deconstruction, in other words, justice is deconstruction. Could you please throw some light on this much needed deconstruction of Law?

PK: The distinction is that between conditional, historical law or laws, on the one hand, and a justice that is without conditions, unconditional. It’s actually in another, earlier text, “Force of Law” (1989) that Derrida most clearly works out this distinction. He indeed affirms there that “deconstruction is justice” (rather than the other way around). But he also insists that the differentiated terms remain in a necessary relation. Law must let itself be guided by justice, by an idea of the unconditional demand for justice. Without this opened appeal to justice, law becomes unjust, ruthless force. And it is in this opening to the unconditional that law is deconstructible. But at the same time, in order to inspire or induce conditional laws, justice must let itself be limited or even perverted by actual, historical regimes of law, for otherwise it would be wholly without effect and just a useless word. Derrida carries out similar analyses of other terms such as hospitality, gift, and forgiveness, which all likewise turn on the distinction between their conditional and unconditional senses. The first refers to the order of the possible, phenomenal, experiential, or even empirical. The second to the order of what Derrida calls the im-possible, that is, of what exceeds the possible experience of any “I.” This is why, for example, Derrida affirms that justice never presents itself; it is never a present phenomenon. Its time, as Hamlet puts it, is “out of joint.”

CD: You have written a brilliant piece titled, “The Dawn of the Seminar” on why death penalties are always carried out in the dawn and while explaining that you observed , “Not yet day, … dawn marks the liminal space into which a decision cuts—tranche.” Please explain for us this interesting observation on timing the death penalty always in the dawn, before the day break, before people could see.

PK: In the brief essay you refer to, I’m indeed interested in the association Derrida underscores between dawn and capital punishment, although certainly he doesn’t claim that executions always take place at dawn. Dawn has many connotations, of course. For one, there is the sense of beginning, of dawning. The seminar itself begins by staging its own discourse as one that takes place at dawn.  Derrida writes, “It is dawn, now, we are at dawn. In the first light of dawn” (1). In that sense, execution at dawn is a figure that crosses beginning with ending. There is also the sense of the day’s promise of light or enlightenment. Derrida pays attention throughout the seminar to modern abolitionist discourse, which in Europe at least grew out of the Enlightenment. But less metaphorically, dawn is a half-light, a twilight during which one cannot see very well, as you remark. The death penalty can be thought to reside in this liminal space between full visibility and invisible darkness. The distance Derrida takes from Foucault’s thesis of the becoming-invisible or internal of punishment, which I mentioned above, is also reflected perhaps in this recurrent figure of dawn. Which reminds me of an anecdote to which Derrida doesn’t allude. The last public execution in France took place in June 1939. Because of a miscalculation, it was light enough by the time the guillotine blade dropped that photographers and even a cameraman filming clandestinely were able to capture images that were quickly published in newspapers and magazines. Subsequent to this unwanted publicity, executions took place in the courtyards of French prisons before select witnesses rather than in the public square.

CD: In the same essay where you discussed the dawn as the time for execution, you also referred to the theologico-political root of death penalty, in part quoting Derrida : ‘One would then ask oneself: “What is the theologico-political?”’ And the answer would take shape thus: the theologico-political is a system, an apparatus of sovereignty in which the death penalty is necessarily inscribed. There is theologico-political wherever there is death penalty…’ The trace of the death penalty, in other words, stands in that doubtful half-light of dawn, the dawn of sovereignty.” – This is indeed a remarkable observation on the inner workings of the institution called law and its theologico-political root. Kindly elaborate on this.

PK: To what I’ve already said about this, I’ll just add that the relation being worked out is not one that roots the death penalty in the theologico-political state. That would merely confirm the apparently logical order into which a certain common sense already inserts the relation: first there is the state, from which is born, so to speak, capital punishment as an instrument of its power. But Derrida pointedly aims at a different understanding. If you pick up the passage quoted in your question a little earlier, we find that he writes this: “we must not suppose that we already know what ‘theologico-political’ means and that we have then only to apply this general concept to a particular case or phenomenon named ‘death penalty.’  No. Perhaps one must do just the reverse. One must perhaps proceed in the opposite direction, that is, attempt to think the theologico-political in its possibility beginning from the death penalty. One would then ask oneself: ‘What is the theologico-political?’, etc.’ (23). So, if you follow this reversal of direction, you see that this long inquiry into the death penalty and the struggle for its abolition has also been undertaken as a way of asking “What is the theologico-political?” That’s why I said a moment ago that the death penalty is here something like the scaffold or stage on which the theologico-political asserts itself in full view. This would also illuminate the manner in which this seminar led Derrida to follow it with his seminar on sovereignty, The Beast and the Sovereign.

CD: You have also discussed at length in one of your essays, published in the Southern Journal of Philosophy, titled, “Protocol: Death Penalty Addiction” on the use of lethal drugs in the US as a means to execute a convict and you also revealed how the drugs are stored to preempt the companies stopping the production of such drugs under tremendous pressure from activist groups. In fact, your paper on this clearly demonstrates how death sentences in America were hastened to meet the availability of killer drugs. Now this really sounds horrible and nothing can be more criminal than this, here justice and law are being predetermined by the expiry dates of the lethal injection drugs, rather than by the real exercise of proper trail. Does it not clearly testify that law itself can be so unlawful and therefore the closure of law is to be deconstructed all the time?

PK: Yes, no doubt. However, I know of only one incident of the sort you mention. In the essay you refer to I cite it as one of the many symptoms of what I call ‘death penalty addiction’ in the US. I’m not just playing with that phrase but also posing in all seriousness the question: “What if the death penalty were a drug?” Specifically, what if it were an anaesthetic? You refer to “killer drugs” but in fact the drug that, as of 2009, became unavailable to US penal authorities (in circumstances that I detail) was the anaesthetic sodium thiopental, the first-part of the three-drug protocol used in executions throughout the country. Sodium thiopental is supposed to anaesthetize the “patient” before s/he can be killed by the other two drugs, the “killer drugs.” What is currently occurring within the complex apparatus of the death penalty in the US as it undergoes withdrawal from its painkilling anaesthetic, all of this is riveting, especially in the light of Derrida’s seminar. Of course, he was writing in 1999, a decade or so before any of the specific symptoms I track in this essay. But a major thread through the seminar involves what he calls an “anaesthesial logic” or an “anaesthesial argument.” The evolution of death penalty technology and technique, he shows, has been driven in the West, at least since the end of the eighteenth century, by this logic or this argument, which basically says that capital executions ought to be painless, anaesthetized. Or in the language adopted in 1791 with the eighth amendment to the US Constitution, they must not be “cruel and unusual.” The lethal three-drug protocol, now thrown into such turmoil, was devised essentially as a response to this constitutional imperative regarding punishment in general, after it had been ruled that prior methods of execution in the US (electric chair, gas chamber, hanging) were indeed cruel and/or unusual and therefore unconstitutional, i.e., illegal. So one of the things that riveted me was to see how the death penalty in the US has begun to unravel—or deconstruct—along the axis of its own anaesthesial logic, how it has run into the contradiction of its guiding idea, which is the idea of a death “painlessly” administered to the other.

May I just add, in case it is not clear, that what has also riveted me to the task of updating Derrida’s analyses with these later “data” are the encouraging signs that the death penalty in the US is indeed in its death throes. One does whatever one can to hasten that.

CD: Finally, how do you see Derrida`s Death Penalty Seminars succeeding to create an impact on the existing discursive practices of Law? In other words, what are the philosophical ramifications of the death penalty seminars?

PK: As I mentioned earlier, Derrida remarked on the absence in his own tradition of rigorously philosophical arguments against capital punishment. The seminar thus seems to have taken up a challenge to elaborate such an argument. And yet, it proceeds in anything but a conventional, philosophical manner. Does this mean that Derrida has simply avoided his own challenge, or rather, that he has shown how philosophy as such must undergo mutation in order to confront the question of the death penalty without alibi? I believe the “philosophical ramifications” of these seminars will be measured in terms of this mutating, deconstructing figure of a philosophy of pure reason. Because nothing is more coldly calculating, more reasoned and even more “philosophically” defensible than the execution of a death penalty (cf. Kant, who called capital punishment “the categorical imperative of penal law”), a thinking that would make headway against all the justifications for the practice has also to engage with the limits of calculating reason.

Prof. Kamuf, thank you so much for talking to Café Dissensus and for sharing with us in detail, matters related to Derrida and the Death penalty. We would congratulate you once again for such a grand translation project that foregrounds through this translation such an important issue which has global impacts. In that way, the translation of the death penalty seminar is historic.

Pic-credit: Here

Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha ( teaches in SKB University, Purulia, India.

This piece on Cafe Dissensus is protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus, we will retain the exclusive copyright for a period of 30 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus. Re-publishing articles from Cafe Dissensus in other magazines and newspapers without permission will amount to copyright violation and the publisher is liable to prosecution.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Anindya, this is a great interview! For me, this part sums up the argument for abolishing death penalty: “You’re right that it’s difficult to summarize, but let’s just say that this “justification” of the abolitionist stance is tied to the way we are led to hear and understand the phrase “the heart of the other,” which is made to resonate at the center, or at the heart, of the phenomenon of capital punishment. In this phrase, Derrida discerns one of those invaginated figures he has often exploited, that is, the figure of an outside inside the inside, which introduces alterity into the heart of the selfsame subject. If the heart of my heart is the other’s, then I receive my life from the other and my life hangs upon his/hers/its. It is thus in my interest to do what I can to disrupt and dismantle the other’s death penalty as my own.”

    This is the heart of Derrida’s ethical position be it in his enumeration of hospitality or here for forgiveness. When we recognize the ‘other’ in our own self, we are bound to recognize that annihilating the ‘other’ is an annihilation of a part of the self.

    Congrats again, for such a nuanced interview!

    January 8, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: