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Guest Editorial – The Rarest of the Rare – Job Vacancy for A Hangman – Any Takers? : Penology after Derrida

By Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

There is no dearth of advocates for capital punishment. If there is a recruitment drive for hangmen, one wonders how many would flock in; perhaps there would be many. Death penalties are of various kinds – state ordained penology, war, ethnic cleansing, mob lynching, fake encounters – but the bottom line is, they are all legitimized murders, or legalized slaughters justified by the populace. The discursive legitimacy of death penalty provides the epistemic force for the continuation of such absolute form of penology as the perfect form of justice. The philosophy of an eye for an eye – the tallion law that allows violence to avenge violence – finds many takers and, in fact, alternative voices are marginalized to hegemonize the discursive logic of death penalty.

Recent demands of the Delhi gang rape protest movement in India and the Shahbag movement in Bangladesh were strongly in favor of death penalty and many countries, including the USA and India (two democracies), are continuing with this practice. Newspaper reports talked of a huge sense of cathartic relief in Bangladesh after the execution of Kader Mollah, the war crime accused. So was the case with the execution of Ajmal Kasab (prime accused in the 26/11 attack) or Afzal Guru (prime accused in the Indian Parliament attack case). Some opinions even went to the extent of saying that India’s national conscience was ultimately satisfied after Kasab’s hanging. While no words are adequate to denounce what Kasab and Kader Mollah or the perpetrators in the Delhi case have done and nothing can take away the barbarity of their crimes, does it legitimize capital punishment as a means of penology?

The latest Amnesty International report on death penalty indicates that there were more than 600 officially confirmed executions throughout the world in 2012 alone (with China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the list). The numbers were virtually the same in 2011. The report makes a case for the abolition of death penalty and it documents countries that supported the United Nations move for its abolition and also the countries that voted against it. The report contains significant empirical investigation that proves that there is no connection with death penalty and the decline in crime rates. Besides, some retired judges of the Indian Supreme court have recently made it public that some decisions of capital punishment might have been wrong. Now these are factual empirical truths which are surely to be taken into consideration while deliberating on death penalty, but there remains a philosophical issue as well and that is no less strong.

Slavoj Zizek has talked of structural violence or systemic violence (invisible violence) being bigger than the visible violence or concrete violence that happens every now and then in this unjust world. The criminal effects of global capital, war crimes, war against terror, bombing of innocent people, chemical weapons, forceful occupation in Palestine and other places, communal pogrom, social Darwinism, mindless plundering of the earth (the list goes on) continue unpunished as they are legitimized as normative acts. The state terrorizes, ghettoizes, and occupies its own citizens, forcing them to live in extreme poverty. This state violence or systemic violence has no borders; it is deterritorialized, decentered and is allowed to happen as the norm. No one questions such invisible structural violence, but pounces on the perpetrators of concrete violence and justifies violence to curb violence. It is an Endgame. But law is treated as sacrosanct and cannot be questioned. Here Derrida, the philosopher, comes to the scene.

Derrida’s Death Penalty seminars have just been translated into English and this issue of Café Dissensus marks this great occasion to widen the debate initiated by Derrida in his seminars. Following Derrida, we need to deconstruct the closures of law and justice. Both notions are to be redefined after Derrida’s excellent exposure of its theologico-political inheritance in the Death Penalty seminars.

Let us begin with exploring the possibility of impossibilities – can we forgive the unforgivable? Can ahimsa (non-violence) be the paradigm of a futural penology-to-come? Law is complicit with violence and, therefore, susceptible to deconstruction, and justice which is not deconstructable underscores the closure/cruelty at the heart of law. In other words, existing laws are premised on the logic of rigid finality, disallowing any room for debate and, therefore, the bounded realm of law needs continuous relook or deconstruction for timely reformulations so that justice which is eternal and indeconstructable/universal can be ensured.

Metaphorically speaking, Death sentences are bizarre imperative sentences whose syntactical tautness inflicts a different grammar of bare life or self-negating ontology that dislodges all questions of compassion, humanity, and forgiveness. The condemned convict is eternally stigmatized, brutalized, and reduced to a beast and his/her human identity is taken away to reduce him into a bare life of mere outcast or the Other (homo sacer), who can be killed. But what remains after the body of the lawless/Beast is (un)lawfully executed, or the D/evil is bodily terminated? What awaits the burial of the dead or the cremation of the executed corpse? Can we imagine what it takes to be a corpse? Once the terminable/already terminated signifier or the convict is taken off the syntactic order of law by law, what are the remnants? Bloody froth coming out of the mouth, mangled/deformed physiognomy, protruding eyes or jutting out tongues, swollen neck, or a charred electrocuted viscera?

The executed law-breaker becomes a corpse after execution and is strangely given a human treatment after the termination is over, but do we allow that human status to the Homo Sacer before it becomes the corpse? Homines sacri has to die to regain its human status, and every time we execute a criminal (state-defined), his criminality is erased and humanity is restored. Let us get back then to the original question, what remains after the execution? The surplus of death? The non-incorporable absence-presence of the convict? The invisible visibility of the criminal or a perpetual rise in crimes? Is purgation/social cleansing complete after the guillotine falls? Or, are what remains the satisfaction of the judiciary, the relief of the Sovereign, the celebration of society and the remainder/excess/surplus/specter of the convict? This question haunts and the hauntology of capital punishment has definitely got a philosophic undercurrent. Is to execute to arrive at a fore-closure or to open the flood gates of philosophy (philosophy of life and governance)?

Death penalty is a drug/sedative and sometimes a tranquilizer or entertainer (there were celebrations in different parts of India after Afzal Guru’s and Ajmal Kasab’s hanging) that normalizes/anaesthetizes state killing in the name of law. When Socrates was administered hemlock, this event was also attended with similar silences or celebrations, but then from the interstices of silent addiction/acceptance may erupt a new voice of the other view. In the bio-political continuum of state repression and disciplinary strategies, where Auschwitzion continues sovereign penology in the four walls of the modern prison, what are the dividing lines between state killing and barbarity? In other words, why and how do we package the gruesome as the normative? How does hanging, electrocution, beheading get robed in the divine?

Jacques Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminars have been posthumously published in English translation in October, 2013 and this makes the issue all the more relevant and important. America is continuing with the practice of death penalty while the European Union has banned it. Derrida has studied into the heart of death penalty and found it to be rooted in a theologico-political ground. God, the King, The State are the executioner of this absolute penalty and therefore any debate on this issue must engage with Derrida’s concept of punishment, forgiveness, and politics/law or the gift of death.

A special issue on this theme also touches upon social activism against death penalty, and war, and war on terror as an extended form of death penalty. Abolition of capital punishment does not mean abolition of punishments, but signifies the exploration of punishments-to-come or futural debates centering around crime, punishment, roots/reasons of crimes, and possible means of redressals.

Derrida would say that forgiveness is to forgive the unforgivable and law must be transcended to think of a law beyond law, a futural law to come premised on clemency, humanity, and justice.

In this issue on death penalty we have widened the debate and have tried to document positions from across the globe, representing views from the USA, Africa, and Asia. We have an interview with Prof. Peggy Kamuf where she is addressing various issues related to Derrida’s philosophical position on death penalty. Bashabi Fraser has captured the horror of death penalty in her poetic words. Some of the contributors have focused on this issue from activist and sociological point of views. There is an anthropological understanding of witch hunt and penology that provides an idea about the barbarity of law and penology. Yet another significant contribution has historicized the issue and traced the genealogy of death penalty in the Indian case.  In other words, this issue attempts to capture the multiple dimensions of death penalty and we hope it will open the debate further. Finally, thanks to all the contributors and to the Editors of Café Dissensus for agreeing to the proposal for an issue on death penalty.

Read on!

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. Give the dog a bad name and hang it; No one saw Billa and Ranga, actually brutalising the children of the navy Commander and throwing their bodied in the bush in Buddha Jayanti Park; the court went by circumstatial evidence. Yahya Khan ordered the soul be seperated from the body which carried the name of Bhutto! Pakistan Judges said, “JI, Husoor”. All these are also cases of the kind described above.

    May 16, 2022

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