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  • Abolition, Phallocentrism, and the Mondialisation of PsychoanalysisA Review of Derrida’s Psychoanalytic Argument in The Death Penalty: Volume II
  • Ryan Gustafson (bio)

At issue here is a history of reason and the mutation that something like psychoanalysis might inscribe in it—which is not an irrationality but perhaps another reason, another putting into play [mise en jeu] of reason.

—Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty: Volume II

Jacques Derrida concludes the fifth session of his recently published seminar, The Death Penalty: Volume II, by articulating a wish he has for the future of psychoanalysis: “I would not want my irony on the subject of the worldwide-ization [mondialisation] of psychoanalysis to lead to misunderstanding,” he writes, clarifying that he believes one ought to “hope for the worldwide-ization of psychoanalysis, however uncertain, obscure, and indirect its paths” (2017, 134). In order to understand what Derrida means by the phrase “worldwide-ization of psychoanalysis,” as well as how his wish for it is relevant to his late writings on capital punishment, it is important to note that the apparent ambivalence about psychoanalysis that he refers to in the first part of this passage is a reference to an earlier moment during the session, when he had made a joke about the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik’s own somewhat utopian hopes for the analytic movement. Specifically, in The Compulsion to Confess: On the Psychoanalysis of Crime and Punishment, Reik had argued that psychoanalysis can—and one day should—replace punishment worldwide as the social institution responsible for addressing [End Page 129] criminality. As Derrida traces throughout the seminar, Reik claims that psychoanalytic knowledge entails a critique of the two prevailing paradigms in the philosophy of law that have been employed to justify punishment in general and the death penalty in particular: deterrence and retribution. Notably, although Derrida seems to accept at face value Reik’s skepticism about punishment’s effectiveness as a deterrent—according to Reik, psychoanalysis has shown that the prohibition of an act does not so much deter as it unconsciously incites its transgression—his attitude toward Reik’s critique of retributive theory is much more complicated. Derrida’s emphasis on Reik’s engagement with retributive theory is understandable given the overarching goal of his seminars on the death penalty: the development of a properly philosophical—and for Derrida that means rationally principled as opposed to merely utilitarian—basis for abolitionist discourse. For unlike theories of deterrence, which argue for or against punishment on utilitarian grounds, retributive theorists claim to justify punishment by appealing to pure reason alone; as such, for Derrida, the logic underlying the retributive justification for punishment in particular must be deconstructed if a principled abolitionism is to be possible.1 Such theorists, beginning with Kant, had argued that even if punishment were an empirically demonstrable deterrent or socially valuable, it would still be immoral—that is, at odds with pure practical reason—to punish a person by appealing to these reasons, since in so doing one would be treating the criminal not as a human person but rather as a means to some desirable social outcome. By contrast, since Kant maintains that human beings qua rational are ends in themselves, he claims that the only legitimate motive for punishment is that of honoring the rationality of the wrongdoer; in fact, he argues that all members of a human community, including even the criminal, are honor-bound by their rational vocation to sanction crime with punishment, independently of any question of what empirical good or ill might come of it. Moreover, Kant claims that the quality and quantity of this rational punishment should be calculated to equal the crime it [End Page 130] sanctions; such a calculation is possible, he argues, insofar as the maxim underlying any criminal act can be shown to recoil upon the criminal, analytically entailing a punishment that is corollary to the crime. Thus, in the case of the death penalty, Kant argues that the murderer wills his or her own death.2 From Reik’s psychoanalytic perspective, however, this Kantian logic is nothing more than primitive sadism intellectualized, and its supposedly disinterested rationale for capital punishment is in fact structured by a disavowal...


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