Judith Butler: "On Cruelty" from LRB
This review essay, close to the lecture Butler gave in Vienna in May, 2014--simultaneously broadcast into 4 overfilled university halls--makes a contribution to discussions among activists and intellectuals on the death penalty. One must be careful, for the argument is tortuous: a strong critique of theories and activism on the issue is first historically situated, before the author's own intervention unfolds. (This somewhat "classical" philosophical move which requires close reading is, however, not the preferred method of writing taught in mainstream academe. On the contrary, complexity is more often than not disparaged precisely by academic guardians of privilege.)
Thus, while the first part of the essay insightfully articulates Derrida's criticism of death penalty abolitionists and activists more generally, Butler's own position is offered in the second half as a "rejoinder" to Derrida's "dialectical inversion." Surprisingly coupling Derrida with Angela Davis, a fascinating argument for abolitionism passes through the death drive, deflecting the age-old yet still repeated objection against justice on the basis of the inevitability of human aggression.
Sample quotations/juicy bits:
"Presaging Lacan’s ‘Kant avec Sade’, Nietzsche seeks to expose the joyous cruelty of Kant’s morality."
"Just as Nietzsche found Kant’s categorical imperative to be soaked in
blood, so Freud thought that the Christian dictum ‘love thy neighbour as
thyself’ was pretty much impossible to realise."
"The death drive leads us towards death, in a circuitous return to the
inorganic that militates against a progressive sense of time, repeatedly
taking apart the social relations we build and returning us to a state
"In the context of preserved social bonds, aggression can become
agonism, or it can be strictly contained within the rules of a game:
a sadomasochistic sexual scene, for example, or some other rule-bound
--Be careful dears, this one is rich and tricky! Note that sadomasochism is an admirable example of preserving social bonds, and rules are used to play out aggression into dissolution!
"Ambivalence isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy."
"Rather, it is a matter of
recognising that dependency fundamentally defines us: it is
something I never quite outgrow, no matter how old and how
individuated I may seem. And it isn’t that you and I are the same;
rather, it is that we invariably lean towards and on each other, and
it is impossible to think about either of us without the other. If I seek to preserve your life, it is not only because it is in
my self-interest to do so, or because I have wagered that it will
bring about better consequences for me. It is because I am already
tied to you in a social bond without which this ‘I’ cannot be