Logics of Exception: Sovereignty, Cruelty, Anesthesia, Democracy, Literature

This post originally began as a reply to one of Alberto’s comments and quickly turned into something else: I’m not sure what. Excuse the messiness of the format and the somewhat disarticulated nature of my “thinking out loud.”

It seems to me that Derrida’s reflections on the death penalty in the first part of this seminar that we have been reading, in the particular way he exposes a certain structural logic at stake in the abolitionist and anti-abolitionist stances which has to do with cruelty, belief and interest/disinterest, is ultimately a sideways glance concerning the question of sovereignty as a kind of “special” fiction of onto-theologico-politics. And this is clearest for me in the IX session where he discusses the question of time. The sovereign signature in the body of the law, at its limit, inscribes itself most powerfully when it claims to be able to count, measure or calculate the time of death. The death penalty is, once again, a limit case, and Derrida makes ample use of it through reference to the guillotine and M. Guillotin’s strange marketing strategy (and the question of cruelty rears its ugly head, where the ability to count the time of death becomes an act of charity. Ultimately, death is most ‘uncruel’ in the moment that one is able to distribute death in the blink of an eye [Ausblicken — we again return to the spectacle, fascination, visible, etc, etc]. We see this topic arise in Marías novel, where the character María desperately wants Javier to have a justified reason for his machinations, she wants them to have been done in hot and not cold blood). We should not forget Derrida’s reflection on the telephone, and of the American system of condemning to death wherein there is a last second in which the phone can ring and absolve the person condemned to death even as the chemicals for the lethal injection are passing through the system of tubes through which that death will ultimately be administered (in a timely way). That this moment is subject of the kind of suspense of Hollywood films only adds to Derrida’s insistence on this spectacular, fascinating moment of death, of the countable, calculable moment of death which is part and parcel of his discourse. But these are not his only examples. In his curious discussion of the article about the American scientific community in which one particular scientist comments that “we must deconstruct death”, Derrida mentions, referencing the article, a number of patients who are “brain dead” but whose families refuse to accept them as being “counted” as dead. Of course, the other figure that is responsible for counting the time of death, besides the state and the executioner, is the doctor. It is interesting to see how sovereignty as spectacle, that is, as a metaphysics of presence, of writing that writes itself, and always as the book of all books, is here a kind of performance that must repeat itself in order to keep up appearances, and is of course, as Derrida would have it, never present as such. In a sense — I think we see this much more clearly in the case of the Beast and the Sovereign — sovereignty itself is perhaps the pinnacle of the onto-theologico-political fiction, as that contested (because contestable) site which lays claim to all life, and even to all death, to the decision over that which there is ultimately no decision, that is beyond all calculability, intentionality, decisionism: the decision over life and death (when does one die, Derrida asks, how and to whom does the death actually take place?).

In the X session Derrida lays his cards on the table: if there is to be a critique of the death penalty, he says, it must take place through another conception of interest for life that remains to be defined. Only a finite being can have a future, he claims, and only as a finite being. “My life” — the fact that it is mine and nobody else’s (the question of the proper must be resisted here, because this life passes necessarily through the other, the “my” marks here only the counterpart by which life is constituted as finite i.e. “my death”) — [“my life”] marks the incalculability of death, of that which would claim to be able to mark, time, count and calculate my death [and now Derrida, to clarify the question of the proper, states that this death of “my life” does not belong to “me”, the ‘other’ enters as a fundamental relation to life and its interest]. Many interesting points can be raised here, but to keep with the question of sovereignty and its relationship to the death penalty: would the death penalty, as a sovereign act (or as an act which, in its performance, spectacularly lays claim to sovereignty by inscribing it on the body of its subjects), is it the act which attempts to extinguish all otherness? Indeed, could we not say that, in Derrida, sovereignty, as the attempt to ground the absolute presence of a certain form or style of politico-theology, is always and in every case the attempt to erase ‘otherness’ as that which is ‘to come’, and in the strict sense that Derrida gives the ‘to come’ as the other side of the ‘always already’? And if we are to accept — this is a hypothesis, we don’t have to accept it — that democratic infrapolitics which is the condition of possibility of any democratic politics tout court, maintains an open relationship to this otherness as the ‘to come’, does that not mean that the figure of sovereignty in the modern political tradition, in each and every case, is always the closure of a possible democratic politics? [If this is the case, then it should be noted that it wouldn’t be a case of simply killing the sovereign, the same question over death remains. A different inhabitation, perhaps, within and below the threshold of specularity, of life itself may be what is at stake for Derrida].

I think this relates to our discussion on the connection between democracy and literature, too, as I hope to show through Marías. In an interview in El País, Marías talks about “seven reasons not to write novels” (there are already too many novels, anyone can write a novel, it won’t make you rich, it won’t bring you fame, nor immortality, nor will they flatter the ego, the writer’s life is a solitary one). There is, however, only one reason to write novels. I’ll copy what he writes:

“Earlier, I said that fiction is the most bearable of worlds, because it offers diversion and consolation to those who frequent it, as well as something else: in addition to providing us with a fictional present, it also offers us a possible future reality. And although this has nothing to do with personal immortality, it means that, for every novelist, there is the possibility – infinitesimal, but still a possibility– that what he is writing is both shaping and might even become the future he will never see.”

Literature as the future that one will never see. Derrida writes in Writing and Difference that literature is not about creation but revelation, precisely because if it is legible as writing, it is because it is always within the terrain of the “always already”. Are these “possible future realities”, as fictions, not always already “fictional presents”, and therefore, not always, but just possibly, perhaps, also a different mode of inhabiting that present? Assuming that literature is, as Alberto says, the non-onto-theological, then, is literature (that which we would call literature, one would necessarily have to exclude here, perhaps, many works that have come under the auspice of literature without this precise meaning, but then perhaps the iterability of meaning would ultimately frustrate any attempt to make such delimitations), [is literature] always positioned somewhere between the always-already and the to-come? And does it have a special relationship with the threshold of literacy, legibility and sensibility which opens up to a condition of possibility of the democratic? This question brings us round, of course, to Bram’s notion of illiteracy, and to the idea of haptic inhabitation of thought.


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