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  • The Sacred PartDeconstruction and the Right to Die
  • Scott Cutler Shershow (bio)

Let me ask you this: if everything that ever lived is dead, and everything alive is going to die, where does the sacred part come in?

—George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty


About a so-called “right to die” there is obviously not yet any legal, political, or ethical consensus. But has the very question of such a right been formulated clearly? Despite some half a century of legal decisions, a growing library of scholarly studies across multiple disciplines, and a steady outpouring of polemic from advocacy groups, the debate about a right to die remains marked by contradictions and misrecognitions on every side—if one can even speak of the “sides” of a debate whose warring positions often seem secretly complicit with one another. Something still seems to impede our access to a vexed set of decisions about the end of (human) life—decisions that have [End Page 153] never been easy, and that will not become easy, even when all the common arguments so far brought to them have been deconstructed, assuming such a thing is possible.

In this essay, I approach the contemporary debate about a right to die as a whole, and my focus may, therefore, seem at once too large and too small: too large because I will be summarizing a voluminous debate only selectively and schematically, and too small because I offer no final resolution and, for the most part, refrain from taking sides. My title already takes from my epigram a hint of the comic. It also gives homage to Georges Bataille’s La Part Maudite—the “cursed part” or, as Robert Hurley translates it, The Accursed Share—to invoke the “burst of laughter” with which (in Derrida’s memorable summary), Bataille responds to the very work of philosophy under its privileged name of Hegel. This laughter, which emerges from or perhaps constitutes a certain relation between the finite being and death, seems at once to be the very thing always at stake in this debate, and the very thing that remains entirely un-thought within it. Derrida’s now-celebrated texts, both early and late, often force us to confront a strange relation of incalculability and calculation (or what Bataille termed “general” and “restricted” economy) that emerges in a wide variety of discourse and thought—including, as I suggest here, the debate about a right to die. My title also more distantly echoes a term at the center of another theoretical debate, this one between Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, about the partage: a word that in French can mean both joining and division—as we glimpsed above with par, a noun meaning either “part” or “share.” As J. Hillis Miller memorably suggests, partage might be taken either as “sharing” or as “shearing” (Miller and Hillis 2009, 252). I invoke this term here because death itself, or at least any conceivable way to think a certain “right” to death, is the very instance and limit of partage in each of its senses. Partage thus figures, so to speak, that irreducible spacing of time that makes possible a “sharing of singularities” (Nancy 1993, 70): a sharing that must, accordingly, always involve “at once partition and participation” (Derrida 2005, 45). For any hypothetical right to die, as we shall see, would necessarily involve a certain (social, legal, or political) sharing of the one thing (death) that can never be shared, and a process of division, distribution, and calculation that, however, finally undoes itself by being so shared. [End Page 154]

The whole debate about a right to die often appears to be (to appropriate Derrida’s description of Heidegger’s text) at once “horribly dangerous and wildly funny, certainly grave and a bit comical” (1991, 68). The gravity and danger of this debate are obvious. Perhaps no issue involves so many confusingly entwined political, legal, and theological issues, nor forces so intimate a confrontation with the spatial and temporal limits of bodily life. Today, even to name the thing involved in a so-called “right to die” is to enter a field of controversy. Are we speaking of euthanasia...


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