The Death Penalty, Sovereignty and Abolition

Lisa Guenther, currently a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in so-called Ontario, Canada, deconstructs the state’s right to kill or let live within settler-colonial & racial capitalist social relations. We also discuss abolitionist forms of relationality that interrupt sovereignty’s hold on life and social death.

Image credit: Lethal Injection by Ken Reams .

Subscribe via iTunes | Subscribe via RSS |Download the MP3

Click here to display the episode transcript

Alejo: My name is Alejo, here with Kaif Syed, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio: an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Today we speak with Lisa Guenther, an abolitionist and critical phenomenologist. Currently she is a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in so-called Ontario, Canada and has written extensively about the death penalty and social ‘death, such as in her 2013 book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives’, and most recently in co-edited volume titled ‘Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration’. Welcome Lisa and thank you for joining us.

Lisa Guenther: Thank you Alejo. It’s lovely to be here.

Alejo: Let’s begin by contextualizing your theoretical practice and political practice. You’ve written extensively about the death penalty and have also facilitated discussion groups with people on death row in the so-called United States. Can you share with us how you became interested in abolition? Also, I understand that very recently Don Johnson, one of the people on death row that was part of this discussion group that you facilitated, was executed by the state of Tennessee. Our condolences to you and to those that, that were close to Don, as well.

Lisa Guenther: Yeah. So I guess to provide a context for that work: I am originally from Canada and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007, again, teaching philosophy, at Vanderbilt University. And when I arrived here in Tennessee, the first thing that struck me was just the way that race and class are spatially distributed in the city in terms of who goes where, who lives where, where the wealth is and where the poverty is concentrated. And I was very fortunate in my second semester teaching here, to spend a month attending an intensive graduate seminar by Angela Davis. She was here as a visiting scholar and she taught an intensive graduate seminar on slavery that began with the 13th Amendment. So it began with the exception built into the abolition of slavery for the enslavement of people who have been “duly convicted of a crime”.

And so living in Tennessee and trying to make sense of where I had landed and then working through the readings that Angela Davis assigned for this seminar and being in conversation with her on her own work on prison abolition opened up to me a perspective both on my everyday life in this place now called the United States and also on my practice of philosophy. And so this is what set me on the path of becoming a prison abolitionist and also eventually becoming involved in discussions and conversations with people who are currently and formerly incarcerated. And so one place where I have had many conversations with people who are incarcerated is at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here in Nashville. And that’s where I met Don Johnson, who was executed just last week. It’s hard to talk about because I’m still processing his loss. But, um, I guess if I begin by talking about when I first met Don, that would help to provide a little bit of context for both the political work and the kind of more theoretical work that I´ve done on the death penalty.

Back in 2011, a really wonderful prison chaplain named Jeannie Alexander who is a prison abolitionist and an activist, created the opportunity for me to come into the prison and to facilitate a philosophy discussion group with men on death row. And Don Johnson was one of those men who were about 15 men on death row who came to that first meeting and also about five graduate students from Vanderbilt who were permitted by the prison to come in and to gather with these people on death row to just see what we could do together, what we could talk about and how we could build solidarity that reached across the prison walls. So we began this weekly discussion group, which is still continuing at Riverbend –it’s called R.E.A.C.H. Coalition and R.E.A.C.H. stands for both the verb of reaching in from the community outside of the prison, through the prison walls, and also reaching out from the community inside the prison into the state that holds them captive, and it also stands for a reciprocal education and community healing.

Our practice of reciprocal education was rooted in the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton and our practice of community healing was really rooted in both principles and practices of restorative justice and transformative justice. And so on that very first day when I came into the prison to meet the men who are in unit two, which is the death row unit, I remember meeting Don among many other people and Don was very quiet and he listened to everything very attentively and very curiously, but he didn’t say very much. And a few weeks into our meetings, he came up to me after our session and he said, ¨”I just got a letter from my daughter and she’s coming to visit me for the very first time”. And he was really excited, but he was also really nervous because, as he explained to me, his daughter was also the daughter of his victim.

So he had murdered his wife. And their daughter, his adopted daughter –Connie’s daughter– grew up without a mother and without a father because of the violence that he inflicted on Connie. And so he wasn’t sure what he was going to say to his daughter when they met, but he was full of hope for that meeting. And they did meet she, he told me later that she was very angry with him and that she wanted to tell him how his act of violence had affected her life in horrible ways, in ways of irreversible loss. But the meeting also ended with her saying that she could no longer carry this hate around with her and that that was beginning to destroy her. So what began in that meeting was a relationship that unfolded over the next decade or so, almost decade, to the point where Cynthia, Dawn’s daughter, advocated very strongly for his clemency and also against the death penalty with other people who had been on death row and were no longer there, were in the community.

It was just very, very difficult, but also very beautiful in some ways, to gather on the grounds of the prison to honor Don´s life and to build solidarity with the people who are still in cages in Riverbend, both on death row and beyond.

Alejo: Thank you for sharing that.

Kaif Syed: So we wanted to ask you about one of the key concepts in the western philosophical tradition sovereignty. Very briefly, can you tell us why it is still an important and debated concept and how it helps us think about the relationship between politics and death, that is: not only the relationship between politics and the death penalty, but of social death more generally.

Lisa Guenther: My thoughts about sovereignty are really complicated right now because over the last few years I’ve really focused on trying to learn about the connections between settler colonialism and the carceral colonial state. And so indigenous sovereignty, the meaning of the word sovereignty in indigenous sovereignty, is very different the way I had been thinking about sovereignty before. And especially the way I’d been thinking about sovereignty in relation to the death penalty. So if we’re thinking about the sort of sovereign power that empowers a state to kill one of its own citizens –and this is not the sense of sovereignty that indigenous nations are claiming as a route of their power and resurgence and self-determination– so I’ll just focus on the sense of sovereignty claimed by the carceral colonial state. Sovereign power in the sense of state power to kill or to let live is a power that scholars like Foucault and Derrida have analyzed as a power at the foundation of the state.

Lisa Guenther: What does ´the state´ mean? To be a state is to have the power of the legitimate authority to use violence and to construct a legal apparatus to justify that violence as justice. A lot of the thorny issues that I’ve tried to work through with respect to, not just the death penalty, but also mass incarceration and the hyper incarceration of people of color, people with disabilities, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, is just how to analyze and disentangle this state violence. Or: how to connect state violence to interpersonal violence and the structural violence of racism, poverty, colonialism, and the gender binary.

Kaif Syed: So in your recently-published essay in the co-edited volume Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, you engage with Jacques Derrida´s deconstruction of sovereignty. More specifically, with the series of seminars Derrida gave while he was in the United States, titled “The Death Penalty”. One of your claims is that Derrida does not seem to account for the quite different quote unquote political structure of Sovereignty in the United States, given that the history of slavery and racial capitalism both continue to shape the practice of state execution. Derrida wrote a letter of support to Mumia Abu Jamal in the 1990s and cites his case a few times in the seminars. However, you make a point to not merely criticize Derrida for these oversights and inconsistencies, but the think the logic of the death penalty, especially interest indemnity and property in relation to prison abolitionists and what you call critical race theorists. Can you tell us more about this nexus of interest, indemnity and property and how it plays out in the death penalty and discussions of its abolition?

Lisa Guenther: One way to understand sovereignty as the power to kill or let live is both the power of the state to kill its citizens as a form of punishment as and as a form of punishment that anchors and kind of marks the horizon of all other forms of punishment. But often we forget that sovereignty also includes the power to let live or the power of mercy. And one of the things that I think Derrida´s work on the death penalty is really valuable for, is in reminding us that even when the state pardons someone or decides not to punish someone, not to use violence against them, that is still an act of sovereignty. It is still an affirmation of the sense in which it is the state who decides who lives and who will be allowed to die. And so this is part of the basis of Derrida’s deconstruction of death penalty abolition rhetoric that calls for mercy and calls for love and calls for pardon as a departure from the state violence of killing or punishing through execution. And Derrida´s deconstruction of what seems to be an opposition between states that execute and activists who call for the end of executions and for mercy, for pardon, is that if the conversation stays at that level, then the whole concentration of power in the state to kill or to let live remains unquestioned.

Lisa Guenther: One of the things that I was wanting to interrogate more critically about Derrida’s work on sovereignty and the death penalty is that he’s writing very much out of a European intellectual tradition. And yet he’s giving these death penalty lectures in the United States, and he’s clearly wanting to make his analysis relevant to the place where he is speaking. And so he, in in ways that I think are incomplete, he makes several references to the fact that the United States is exceptional as a democracy that continues to practice execution, state execution. And that that there’s also a racial dimension to the practice of state execution in the United States, that people who are convicted of killing white people are much more likely to get the death penalty than people who have been convicted of killing people of color. He doesn’t, I mean, he talks about the racialization of the state violence of execution, but he actually doesn’t get to that level of detail through an engagement with the “Baldus study”, which was part of a supreme court case McCleskey v. Kemp, which found that there was systemic racial discrimination in who ended up getting the death penalty and which homicide cases ended up becoming capital cases.

Lisa Guenther: So Derrida´s analysis of race in relation to the death penalty is very superficial. And part of that superficiality is I think a Eurocentric account of sovereignty as well. Where Derrida does not –in that essay at least– really think through the ways in which, in the United States, state sovereignty is connected to popular sovereignty, to the sovereignty of the people, and that this has been racialized in very particular ways. And so the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, basically deputized any white citizen to assume police powers to return escaped slaves to their owners as if this were a form of theft, that slaves were stealing the property of slave owners by taking themselves away from the site of slavery.

Lisa Guenther: And so by failing to kind of make the connection between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty and the connection between sovereignty and whiteness in particular, and citizenship and whiteness, I think Derrida misses some really important aspects of the particular violence that constitutes state execution. And he also misses really important aspects of abolition movements, which are not –if we think about death penalty abolition in the context of prison abolition as I think we must, then, abolition movements are not led by large by white bourgeois people who have liberal principles of human dignity and the sanctity of life. Rather, prison abolition movements and abolition movements in this broader sense that includes the abolition of slavery, are led by people of color who have a much different analysis of the extent and the depth of sovereignty that includes the racialization of sovereignty and it’s popularization in this sort of deputizing of white people, not just in the past, but also in an ongoing way. To both use interpersonal violence against people of color and indigenous people, and also to appeal to state protection and state violence to affirm their capacity to defend themselves and to defend whiteness as property with lethal force.

Alejo: Yeah. I wanted to actually just follow up on that. So there’s these sort of two concepts of sovereignty you´re working with; one which seems problematic for you because it does not help us account for, as it were, the ways in which the practices of sovereignty play out in the United States for instance, though not only. But before we go there, I wanted to kind of just inhabit a little bit this question of: what is the problem with the death penalty as such, for Derrida and for you as well? So on the one hand you have these discourses that affirm the sanctity of life as some abstract concept of human dignity and so on, but that’s not quite the problem with the death penalty. So the challenges for abolitionists is how do we, on the one hand, make the case for another form of life that does not involve the sovereign right to punish, but also to lay out mercy, as you’re saying. Right? Which also preserves the sovereign´s right.

So what is the problem for Derrida? The problem is, in a way, about finitude, right? Which is the possibility of there being a future –of a future that is still to come– of the incalculability of life. So if the abolition of the death penalty would actually imply that, then what we’re talking about is the impossibility of the incalculability of the instantof death. In the death penalty machine that we call prisons, today, that moment of incalculability is sort of nullified, right? So the disposability of certain forms of life, particularly black and brown life, the calculable warehousing and premature death in those populations is an instance of that — which is also the other side of the coin of white bourgeoise life, of settler white bourgeoise life, right? The life protected by biopolitical calculation, right? The life behind the walls of the gated community or the so-called safe campuses, and so on. So can you talk a little bit about that and what is really at stake and what the problem is also of –which I think often does happen in our movements, right– affirming abolition of the death penalty and of the social death of prisons for some kind of human dignity or some kind of concept of life.

Lisa Guenther: Yes. Yeah. I think so much depends on how we understand life. Do we understand life as the property of an individual, as a property that is sacred or sanctified, property that you can– that you have rights in relation to and that you may have the right to defend to the death. Or do we understand life as a matrix of living relationality, or of living-dying relationality, which involves both active and passive or responsive and essential relations to other living beings — both human and more than human. Do we understand life as a process of living that is not centered in the individual subject and cannot be reduced to or reified as property or as a thing to be worshiped or defended?

Lisa Guenther: I think so much depends on the way that we understand life and I think as a phenomenologist I approached this question of life and of living relationality in terms of a kind of– what I call a critical phenomenology. So if we understand life as a kind of a thing, or a property, that one could have or lose, then we are in effect naturalizing a separation between a subject and their own life; the subject’s life and the lives of other beings. And this is akin to what I think Kim TallBear, an indigenous scholar, calls thingification, or it’s akin to the Marxist concept of reification. We turn life into a valuable or devalued property that can be won or lost. But if we approach that kind of reified or thingified sense of life as a kind of property, as a critical phenomenologist, then we’re called upon to sort of bracket the naturalization of life as valued or devalued property.

Lisa Guenther: And to lead back from the thing as a separate entity to all the relationships that constitute the meaning of that –no longer thing, but– of our relationships that constitute the effect of a life and of a living community. And so one of the things I really appreciate about Derrida’s work on the death penalty, although I don’t think that he develops this analysis far enough, is the way he talks about… he sort of leads back from, for example, Victor Hugo’s affirmations of the dignity of life as a hyper-valued kind of property that he understands himself as being deeply invested in. And one of the reasons why Victor Hugo was against the death penalty is because he doesn’t want the blood of others on his hands. That it paints and it renders guilty his own life. Derrida I think rightly finds this too narrow a kind of investment in life. And He leads us back –I don’t think Derrida would say this is a critical phenomenology that he’s offering, but– he’s deconstructing that sense of sanctity of life as a kind of thing that can be won or lost. But from my perspective as a critical phenomenologist, he’s leading us back to the sort of relational entanglements of what he calls the heart.

Lisa Guenther: And so the living heart is this affective relationship that one is not in control of, this what sustains one’s living becoming. And that is what I think needs to be at the heart of our abolitionist movements — and that is at the heart of many abolitionist movements. And so I’m inspired by the work of Alexis Gums who challenges us to reflect on the place where we stand and our relationships to the soil, to the other living beings, to the living and the dead, and to root our abolitionist movements in a kind of a reclamation and affirmation of all of these complicated relationships, that are messy, that are not at all pure and that aren’t really based on principles but rather based on relationships.

Lisa Guenther: I see this kind of conversation arising in the context of, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. So when Fred Moten offers his analysis of the murder of Mike Brown and says that what Darren Wilson was shooting into on that day was not just the life of an individual who was black, but rather shooting into black life as a form of sociality that challenges the very kind of investments in propertied personhood that sustain white supremacy. Then I think he’s also articulating something like this affirmation of living relationality as a political force and as a kind of ontological force, that is so important both for our political movements and for our thinking.

Alejo: Yeah, thank you so much. I mean, there’s so much, it feels like this just opens up a whole series of other questions for us to think about. I mean, how we think about life in relation to not only the death penalty, but as you say, as being the world.

There’s a world that is precisely as you said, a world that is thingified and reified rather than a world of relations, is precisely what abolition seeks to –in a way– interrupt. This kind of circulation and this kind of economy of punishment and so on.

Alejo: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add? We know that you are kind of rethinking some of previous work in relation to the scholars like Glen Coulthard and others around settler colonialism. Would you like to talk about that?

Lisa Guenther: I’ve been really inspired by indigenous accounts of relationality and of what Glen Coulthard calls grounded normativity or a praxis of thinking and acting that is responsive to place and to the particular relationships that constituted a place. And in thinking through the interrelationship of carceral power and colonial power and the sort of sovereign power that underwrites slavery, I suppose in my own work, I’m struggling to make sense of how the, the places where we live and the ground that we walk: what does that ask of us and what sort of critical interruptions do we have to make both in our own thinking, in our own relationships, and also in broader relationships in our communities in order to even just make visible where we are and how that shapes who we are.

Alejo: Totally. Thank you so much for joining us today, Lisa. Hopefully we’ll be able to talk with you soon.

Lisa Guenther: Thank you so much for the conversation.