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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 3-11

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The State of Death

Jonathan Strauss

In reality, there is perhaps a greater distance between old age and youth than there is between decrepitude and death, for here one must not consider death to be something absolute. . . . Death is not armed with a blade, nothing violent accompanies it, life ends by imperceptible nuances. . . . (D. J.)
We dare . . . to assert, on the basis of a knowledge of the structure and properties of the human body and a large number of observations, that death can be cured. (m.)

—Diderot and d'Alembert, Encyclopédie1

But if Man is Action, and if Action is Negativity "appearing" as Death, Man, in his human or speaking existence, is only a more or less deferred death, and one that is conscious of itself.
Therefore: to recognize Discourse philosophically, or to recognize Man as one who speaks, is to accept unambiguously the fact of death and to describe . . . its significance and reach. Now, this is precisely what philosophers before Hegel omitted to do.

—Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel

Death changed in the nineteenth century. The shift probably began during the Enlightenment, when, as Philippe Ariès has argued, people learned for the first time to fear their mortality—not just the terrors and uncertainties of their demise or the anguish over an eventual punishment for their sins, but extinction itself [1: 112-14, 125]. Within the space of a few decades, death became a sheer and unredeemable absence, an unconsolable loss, and a confrontation with pure negativity. During those years, death was transformed from a nuance between different states to an absolute. It became, in itself, infinite and sublime, a nothingness whose discovery, like that of the zero, unleashed unknown and limitless powers. These now had to be grappled with, to be grasped theoretically as well as practically, in both the intimacy of private fears and the communality of public legislation. And once death was recognized as an absolute it could be put to use as one, for both the individual and the social collective.

Hegel, as Kojève taught, was the first to harness the new forces of mortality within an intellectual mechanism worthy of their scope. "Death," he wrote in the preface to the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, ". . . is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength" [19]. This power to grasp one's demise, to confront it and "tarry" with it, was what he called the Subject—at once the isolated unit of humanity confronted by the limits of its mortality and the key to the social orders that [End Page 3] depend on it, in a pragmatic sense. As justice and enfranchisement increasingly rely on the responsibility of single subjects, so does death rise in importance as the final determiner of socially answerable individuality. In this setting, where mortality is the limit of the subject, society becomes a state of death, a collective grounded in the transcendental absolute of a nothingness that intervenes regularly and practically within the events of life.

In such a state, executions are not merely exercises of authority or purgings of unassimilable elements from the social body; they are also, and most significantly, spectacles of the transcendental grounds of the social itself. Here, death is democratic not merely because it is the universal leveler, not simply because it imposes a one hundred percent experience tax on all brackets of the population, but because it produces the uniform units of untransferable humanity, individuals, who at once suffer the obligation to conform to the state and enjoy the, at least theoretical, enfranchisement to transform it. Throughout our days, in the most insignificant details, we feel this mortal isolation organizing our legal relation to our social context, and in each case my death to come draws a line around me, saying: this is you. My metro pass and airline tickets will be valid, my response to the jury duty summons required, and my vote counted, unless I die. It does not matter that I have changed lovers, or...