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Schizo-analyzing Death Sentences: Death, Territory, Capital

By Saswat Samay Das 

The Epistemic Prison House: Performance as Territory

Any fresh attempt to critique death sentences must be accompanied by a brief confessional note on the problematics of our epistemic positioning. Indeed, the question at this juncture is why does our preferred dwelling in “the intellectual force field” sometime seem like a forced choice that we are made to exercise or as a punishment that some transcendental agency has inflicted on us even after the existent critical discourses have made us realize that our “dwelling” in this field is almost inevitable? This is because this field demands a “mad machinic performance” from us. It is a performance that not only loses sight of what the Agambenians might call “impotent productivity”, the kind that Gandhian Satyagraha stood for, but also ensures that we remain prisoners of it. Indeed, like prisoners’ attempt to perform their best in the back-breaking redemptive labor that the prison regimen subjects them to, we work towards maximizing the potential of this performance we are governed by. In fact, this field demands a constant bending or stretching backwards, and sometimes, if required, a sustained dedicated crawling on all fours into the distant past in quest for those critical tools discarded by the current times as defunct or malfunctioning, especially when it comes to the question of setting a neo-reference point or normatical ground for the “de-differential futural.” However, the question is what this constant bending backwards and forwards, this too often frantic retreat of ours into time folds, an act that we assume that a prisoner commonly performs only to be held captive by that specific time pattern that he finds nauseous even after his release from his “bare-life” state and the spilt disjuncted march into the futural which one is expected to engineer in this force field, mimicking once again both the “chiasmic time-pattern”, and that equally grounded ironic forward march of the prisoners burdened by guilt has yielded so far. 

Death sentences or punishment in this sense unleashes a severe indictment of current immanent workings of capitalism or what Deleuze and Guattari call “the civilized capitalist machine.” However, before we turn to find out what role death sentences or punishments play in capitalist democracies and how they serve as the means to understand that the capitalist democracies in their current state are yet to inscribe on its plane the “Spinozean immanent vitalism”, the substance needed for that final leap towards becoming in the truest sense as emancipatory as the capital, we must attempt a parallel critique of death and punishments in general as remnants of modern despotic abstractions.

Death Sentences as Modern Despotic Abstractions

Eliot in his Four Quartets: Dry Salvages had, in a manner reminiscent of that taxonomical modernist temper, offered a contextually relevant insight into death. Eliot’s words – “At the time of death – that is the one action that shall fructify in the lives of others” – rushed towards metaphysical closure as it made death a moment of fecundity, fullness, plentitude and teleological performativity and almost simultaneously trapped it in that dualistic binaric relation that since the beginning of civilization death was thought to have with life and in particular with the life of modern times, which we are often prompted to view as, stultified, fractal, impotent.

At the same time, Eliot made death a moment that brought about that final rupture with the time-fold. Death was an apocalyptic moment, a moment outside time. The touch of death, as one might say, was what made life an alien shore, a faraway land, an alterity like the very death itself. That the manner in which Eliot positioned death as the only moment of action, of fructification, of arriving at a phase of dialectical reconciliation with otherness stood foursquare with the temper of his times which in every sense was viewed as bringing about cataclysmic changes in the form of a radical departure from the sensibilities of previous ages deserves attention. However, at the same time we must not fail to indicate that the notion of death that Eliot finally stayed with, despite for a moment swerving towards making death tantamount to that act of renewal that every moment stages, was in epistemic terms non-Heideggerian—this is interesting because Heidegger’s Being and Time was published during that time. In other words, death, as Eliot viewed it, was a productive moment in what then existed, and still exists, in mythic imagination as the promiseral transcendental life. This was a life that encounter with death engineered.

And it is Eliot’s conviction that the law-makers around the world subject to reiterational defamiliarization as they direct the hangman to tighten the noose around an accused neck. Ironically, in the legal documents, death, contrary to the way it figured in Eliot’s Four Quartets and equally at variance with the way our ancient texts perceived it, to which Eliot shall remain indebted in his writings, figures as an ominous arrivant, as an uncanny, almost diabolic force, which devastatingly ejects us out of the life-world, from every meaningful intersubjective debate, and which replaces performative life with that still, passive life, where the networks of social production stand arrested. In fact, it is the populist imagination of death, evident within those populist artworks – imaginative sketches, cartoon networks and comics that feed our nascent pre-mature imagination – as a hooded figure with a rope or an axe or, more precisely the way folk tales in India have captured it since time immemorial, as that cruel parting shot which the frightful, towering figure of Yama, the lord of death riding an equally frightful buffalo delivers, that makes it qualify as a matchless vindictive stroke within the existent logic of retribution: “a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye.”

And it is to this imagination that the judges turn to while delivering death sentences as much as the directors of films such as Final Destination. Death occurs in both narratives as a catastrophe, as a disturbing morbid presence, as an abysmal dark tunnel, that forever extinguishes the light that life stands tantamount to. In fact, it is this imagination that dawns on the public while they demand speedy execution of death sentences. And this imagination is the reason why we in the world are unable to abolish death sentences despite our best efforts to do so and that people wish to have their revenges, a logic that made Kill-Bill series Quentin Tarantino’s best work. Death in that sense appeals to our primordial instincts, instincts that turn us without our knowing into Shylocks intent upon extracting that pound of flesh even from the bodies of those who have inadvertently wronged us, and even offer foundational impetus for what Sister Souljah, an American hip-hop generation author, tweeted one of the old issues of Time Magazine “two wrongs us does not make a right, but it does make things even.” Indeed, had death existed in people’s imagination the way Eliot depicted it or the way Don Delillo depicts it in his White Noise as “life’s very own”, as some sort of breather life takes before it works towards maximizing its potential or as a space that we everyday step into or an inevitable encounter that we have each time we gain a new perspective, death sentences would have been at the vanishing point. This is because if revenge is what we aim for there is hardly any point in dramatizing what we so greedily strive for in order to meet life with renewed desires, a brief retreat or momentary lapse into what Zizek calls the “blank-space” to make a fresh beginning.  

Death and Capital

However, this is not the only reason why we still have death sentences. Rather death sentences and punishment are chosen by the capitalist machines to run effectively. They are viewed by Deleuze as a spell of “anti-production” engineered by the capitalist societies to check the capital from flooding the socius. Death sentences, as far as critiquing the existing world-order from that immanent Deleuzean angle is concerned, can be viewed as those acts of stupidity or recurrent spells of immobility, which both sustain and make up that gigantic enterprise of anti-production, of which the state, the army, and the police collectively form an indisputable integral component. If we choose to go by Deleuze, these apparatuses of anti-production happen to be the anchors or more precisely “lumps” on the surface of capitalism. It is through them that capitalism ties down desire and both sadly and ironically betrays the tendencies of the despotic machine that it replaces. We must quote Deleuze here:

The apparatus of anti production, on the one hand, is capable of realizing capitalism’s supreme goal, which is to produce in large aggregates, to introduce lack where is always too much, by effecting the absorption of overabundant resources. On the other hand, it alone doubles the capital and the flow of knowledge with a capital and an equivalent flow of stupidity that effects an absorption and realization, and that ensures the integration of groups and individual into the system.

However, that is not the only point. In fact, both death sentences and punishments, integral units of state mechanism as they are, are checks the capitalist system imposes on itself in order to re-territorialize while the flow of capital that capitalism remains dedicated to even during financial crises intends to keep us in a state of de-territorialization, a state of continued emancipation. So, what is needed at this hour is graduating to the state of capital, with no boundary beyond itself, while giving an emphatic burial to that sudden rush towards neo-territoriality which abruptly seizes and interpellates our natural capitalistic state to positions of fixity. But then is it really possible to graduate to this stage? In Deleuzean universe, diagnosing or schizoanalyzing is tantamount to living in an empowered state, with a vantage point to decode what systems over codes to nurture them-selves. So what do we eventually learn to decode from that Deleuzean vantage point. We learn that since death punishments only offer us means to arrive at a differential life within life or that, if we go by Eliot, they exist as the only productive moment of action in our degenerative life or that at best they are, in fact, acts of stupidity that a system imposes on itself in order to territorialize, it should indeed have no place in that retributional logic that we have so far refined, graduating from gallows to electric chairs and painless lethal injections. And as someone tweeted in those networked spaces in which we linger, aren’t death sentences redundant since we know now with an unequalled vehemence that nature is vindictive and the devastation and death, which flash floods, earth quake and famine, cause is nothing but nature’s way of exposing its immanent design, of avenging mankind for the wrongs they do to it?

Pic-credit: Here

Saswat Samay Das is Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Kharagpur. His current research engages with Giles Deleuze’s philosophy.

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.

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