restricted access The Life Drive of Derrida’s Abolitionism: A Review of The Death Penalty: Volume I
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The Life Drive of Derrida’s Abolitionism
A Review of The Death Penalty: Volume I

… hey, at bottom that’s the dream of deconstruction, a convulsive movement to have done with death, to deconstruct death itself.

—Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty: Volume I


On July 16, 2000—approximately four months after concluding his seminar at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales that was recently published and translated as The Death Penalty: Volume I—Jacques Derrida delivered an address at the States General of Psychoanalysis titled “Psychoanalysis Searches the States of Its Soul: The Impossible Beyond of a Sovereign Cruelty.”

Derrida begins his address by posing a deceptively simple question: What is cruelty? In particular, he observes that although the semantic unity of the word “cruelty” is often presupposed by its usage in ordinary language, the meaning of this term is divided historically between a Latinate tradition (cruor, crudus, crudelitas), which associates cruelty with violence that specifically involves bloodshed, and a Germanic tradition (Grausamkeit), “unrelated to the flow of blood” (2002a, 238), which identifies cruelty with a desire to inflict suffering simply for the pleasure of inflicting suffering.

Speaking before this association of psychoanalysts, Derrida is primarily concerned with addressing the latter sense of the word: [End Page 115] cruelty qua sadism. As Derrida explains, he believes that psychoanalysis is the contemporary discourse that is perhaps best suited to thinking this particular modality of cruelty, insofar as analysts have refused to “reduce it, exclude it, deprive it of sense” (2002a, 240); that is, unlike traditional ethical and theological discourses that have treated such cruelty only to dismiss it as senseless evil—thereby leaving its explanation and amelioration in God’s hands—psychoanalysis has soberly attempted to account for its psychogenesis, as well as the possibility of its mediation. For Derrida, psychoanalytic knowledge is thus indispensable to the thinking of cruelty because analysts have been uniquely responsive to the ethical demand (273) of analyzing it “without alibi” (240). In this regard, Derrida underscores how Freud’s account of aggression, like Nietzsche’s, is distinguished by its willingness to countenance a cruelty without limit—a propensity to aggression that is part and parcel of life as such—that may be vented in more subtle, psychic forms even when it is not consummated in actual bloodshed.

However, for Derrida this privilege of psychoanalytic knowledge also implies a worldly responsibility that this discourse, in its present theoretical and institutional articulation, has largely resisted. As Derrida explains, the analysis of cruelty should become “one of the horizons most proper to psychoanalysis” (2002a, 239), not only with respect to the suffering of its individual patients but also with respect to the “axioms” governing “the ethical, the juridical, and the political,” particularly in “those seismic places where the theological phantasm of sovereignty quakes and where the most traumatic, let us say in a still confused manner the most cruel events of our day are being produced” (244). At several points in his address, Derrida issues such an injunction to psychoanalysis: to analyze the relationship between the value of sovereignty—what he refers to as a “certain onto-theological metaphysics of sovereignty (autonomy and omnipotence of the subject—individual or state …)” (244)—and the cruelty unleashed worldwide in the name of this value. Notably, for Derrida, the leading indicator of psychoanalysis’s failure to have assumed this task is that it has yet to give a sufficient account of [End Page 116] the death penalty. As he observes, with the exception of “a few words that Freud authorized Theodor Reik to sign in his name,” psychoanalysis has yet to treat “the problem of the death penalty, and of sovereignty in general” (262).


With the publication of The Death Penalty: Volume I, we now know that Derrida’s remarks on cruelty and sovereignty in “Psychoanalysis Searches the States of Its Soul” are the distillation of a much more comprehensive analysis of these concepts developed in his teaching lectures. From this point of view, the publication of Derrida’s seminars on the death penalty would seem to call for a reassessment of texts like “Psychoanalysis Searches the States of Its Soul.” Indeed, this is...