Judith Butler reviews Derrida’s death penalty lectures (1999-2000) in the LRB, generally following him through and expanding nicely on his reading of Freud and Nietzsche on cruelty, then wondering if Derrida accepts too much, simply put, Freud’s views on the death drive:
Derrida’s move to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive has a certain intellectual appeal, resting as it does on a dialectical inversion by which those who oppose the death penalty are implicated in its cruelty, especially when they prefer forms of imprisonment. (At one point he generalises from the case of abolitionism, remarking on ‘the hypocrisy that animates and agitates the defenders of just causes’.) Here is a rejoinder. Derrida’s position implies that the only route to an abolitionist position is through the violent suppression of the aggressive impulse, a redoubling of aggression that is now conveyed and amplified by moral instruments.
A quibble would be that in the lectures Derrida does discuss another avenue out of the impasses of the congruence of the abolitionist and death penalty proponent positions (not just locking one into the cruel logic of aggression to fight aggression), but his emphasis on what is shared by both sides is not just in terms of cruelty but in terms of a political theology concerning the sacredness of life. It’s through a critique of the the latter that he describes a post-deconstructive abolitionism underwritten by a thinking of finitude, a point I quickly discuss in my own review and which, I think, would dovetail quite well with Butler’s own writings on precariousness.