Death as a Penalty and the Fantasy of Instant Death

Law and Critique 27 (2):137-149 (2016)

Kelly Oliver
Vanderbilt University
In this essay I take up the question of how death can be a penalty, given that each of us will eventually die. I argue that capital punishment in the United States rests on contradictory demands for painless death delivered humanely through pharmaceuticals and yet denies the accused the possibility of natural death. The death penalty must be at once humane and punishing. Analyzing what we mean by ‘botched’ executions, along with the language of the Supreme Court in upholding lethal injection as a humane application of the death penalty, I argue that the fantasy of instant death is at the heart of the tension between death as painless and death as penalty. In the end, I turn to Derrida’s Death Penalty Seminar Volume One, particularly his discussion of Kant’s defence of the capital punishment, and the pivotal role of time in his discussion. Finally, I suggest that the fantasies of instantaneous death and our technological mastery of it result in the fantasy of the ‘good’ punishing death.
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DOI 10.1007/s10978-016-9181-4
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