Law and Critique

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 171–186 | Cite as

Mastery Over the Time of the Other: The Death Penalty and Life in Prison Without Parole

  • Amy Swiffen


Derrida’s seminar on the death penalty is a deconstructive reading of the debate over the abolition of the death penalty beginning in eighteenth century Europe. The main imperative of the reading is to address the limits of abolitionist discourses, which historically have been based on natural law conceptions of the right to life. Derrida’s interest in undertaking such a reading is to develop an abolitionist argument that would hold up in principle against the death penalty. However, in this paper I take Derrida’s insights into the meaning of the death penalty to explore what they reveal about political sovereignty, and in particular its relation to violence. The paper begins by addressing several relevant moments in Derrida’s reading of texts on both sides of the death penalty debate and shows how the arguments are each limited by some ‘unavowed’ interest that conditions the fundamental principles upon which they are based (Derrida, in Death penalty, Volume I. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 142; 2014). These unavowed interests relate to what Derrida describes as the ‘compromise’ on the question of cruelty in the context of the death penalty. Based on these readings, the paper develops a concept of the death penalty defined as a relation to time, specifically, a relation of mastery over the time of the life of the other. It then connects this concept to Derrida’s analysis of political sovereignty found in Rogues (2005) and ‘Force of Law’ (2002) to make two arguments. First, the conception of the death penalty as a relation to time redefines so-called ‘death penalty alternatives’, such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as manifestations of the death penalty through other means; and, second, changes in the appearance of the death penalty reflect changes in the institution of political sovereignty, and in turn the status of the state.


Jacques Derrida Death penalty Life in prison without parole Sovereignty Time 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada

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