Furman and Finitude
Forthcoming, Kelly Oliver & Stephanie Straub, eds., Deconstructing the Death Penalty/Derrida's Seminars and the New Abolitionism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018)
19 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2017
Date Written: November 16, 2017
Martin Heidegger's ontological interpretation of death as the possibility of an impossibility - Dasein's (Being-There's) not-being-there - had been a repeated object of Jacques Derrida's critique prior to the Death Penalty Seminar he delivered in 1999 and 2000, and he returned to it again in the Seminar, although only briefly. His primary goal lay elsewhere, in an investigation into the conceptual structure supporting capital punishment with the practical aim of its eventual abolition. Nevertheless, a critique of Heidegger's existential analysis lies at the center of the seminar's intention.
In this essay, expanding on that insight, I first present Derrida’s notion that it is the phenomenon of the death penalty, not Heidegger's ontological analysis, that best expresses our precomprehension of the meaning of death. Next, I explain the central paradox of contemporary abolitionist discourse that Derrida confronts in the seminar: the fact that the fundamental values supporting abolitionists' philosophical arguments lie equally on the side of the death penalty. I then develop Derrida's resolution of this paradox by drawing out his deconstruction of Heidegger's analytic of death (what I call Derrida's "quasi-existential analysis"), and place this deconstruction in relation to Derrida's other writings on law more generally and to the United States Supreme Court's current death penalty jurisprudence. I conclude by suggesting that, notwithstanding the weight of its theoretical apparatus, his resolution of the paradox is best understood in terms of praxis, specifically, the legal defense of capital cases.
Keywords: Derrida, Death Penalty, Capital Punishment, Heidegger, Finitude, Furman, Woodson
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation