Suicide and Biopower



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Suicide and Biopower

Foucault, Derrida and Autodestruction

Scott Stoneman

CSCT 774


Dr. David L. Clark

Fall 2005



What Do We Do With the Determined Desire to Die?
It is not surprising that suicide... became, in the course of the nineteenth century, one of the first conducts to enter into the sphere of sociological analysis; it testified to the individual and private right to die, at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life. This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction



This equivocal passage from Foucault explodes the possibilities for theorizing suicide. But what, I wonder, are Foucault’s specific motivations for entering this particular dialectic1—what productive “distortions” or epistemic agitations do his observations provide to the discourse on selbstmord, or “self-murder”?2 What use does Foucault make of caching these two critical sentences in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality within a broader formulation of bio-power (a thing which, as we will see, is at once productive of and threatened by suicidality)? More precisely to the point: what are the implications for framing suicide as a kind of resistance vis-à-vis a technology of power that, in Foucault’s account, grows out of the seventeenth century? I contend that Foucault’s concern with suicide is allegoric. This is not to trivialize or understate the complexity of his diffuse consideration of the subject. What I mean here by allegoric is the sense that Walter Benjamin gives the term: a peculiarly methodological tool or turn used to explain a certain theory by reducing it to a specific, emblematic scenario. Foucault is interested in the intersticiality and peripherality which suicide embodies: a thing which operates “at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life” (HS 139). He is invested, moreover, in what discursively is yielded up by preserving the singularity of suicide as an event that, precisely because of its singularity, exceeds the regulative purview of biopower. But it is imperative that the consequential shortcomings of treating this matter “allegorically” (the likely deliberate disavowal of the bleakness and misery of real suicides) be resolved if a meaningful and engaged consideration of suicide is to be formed. This move, it seems, can only be accomplished by means of a complicity with “sociological analysis” in considering the question of how and under what pretenses to intervene in suicide. Indeed, if we accept Michael J. Cholbi’s provocative and convincing claim that there are situations in which suicide not only authorizes, but demands precisely the kind of coercive surveillance and brute interruption characteristic of the operations of biopower, we are forced also to acknowledge that Foucault’s theory of the suicidal astonishment needs some nuance. Additionally, in order to consider the broader question of the relationship between sovereignty and suicide I will look to an interview conducted by Elisabeth Roudinesco with Jacques Derrida, in which Derrida provides the possibility of thinking the death penalty as an event of disciplinary suicidalization. Derrida’s brief theorization—one might even call it an intimation—of the ways in which execution is made autodestruction, of the manner in which being condemned to death is discursively reformed into an event of taking one’s own life, is one which idiomatically exceeds the critical capacity of available theories and taxonomies of suicide, and will provide the primary means through which to consider a Derridean re-reading of biopolitics.

Where precisely in Foucault I find the treatment of suicide too lean is in his (no doubt strategic) dissociating of the effects of biopower from suicidality, or the contemplation and/or completion of suicide. Like Maurice Blanchot, Foucault is invested in the symbolic preservation of suicide, in deliberately belying those modes of suicidality which are the regulated result of biopower. Where he is concerned with suicide Foucault is never concerned about suicide, about the possibility that it is an event in the lives of the broke, broken and berated bound by those operations of biopower which constitute a subject whose life is inscribed not worth living, whose subjectivity consists precisely in exclusion and execration. Were he to treat the two forces (suicidal and biopolitical) contiguously, he would be forced to account for situations in which power is less troubled by than responsible for suicidal ideation and commitment—which he does not precisely do. I will argue later that Blanchot, while he shares much of Foucault’s heartened attitude towards suicide, in fact provides the dialectical thinking about the subject that the discourse on what I have elected to call autodestruction in Foucault ostensibly lacks. What Blanchot’s capacious consideration of the question makes most apparent, though, is the extent to which Foucault’s calculated deferral of a dialectical consideration of suicide is precisely that, a calculation. But we must then ask, what is the object of this rhetorical and political calculation, and what are its rhetorical and political consequences?

It becomes markedly clear in considering in particular the exemplary case of the marginal position of the queer community—and especially the position of queer youth—that taking one’s life is seldom emblematic of a radical reclamation of agency, less often an event that takes place in the interstices or in ways properly discrete from power. Suicide—for those foreclosed and atomized for the modalities of their desire, lack of ambition, failure to conform to normative ideals of body shape, to name only the most obvious examples—is something characterized by “nihilistic disenchantment,” to use Cholbi’s phrase (Cholbi 245). It is a “conduct” contemplated and completed as an effect of power’s “intersticialization,” its normalizing and docilizing efforts to blight and jettison the threateningly abnormal in an act of, remembering Judith Butler’s term, “founding repudiation”—or a formative foreclosure that seeks the elimination of certain bodies and, conversely, the affirmation of bodies in alignment with a particular “regulatory ideal” (Butler 3, 1). The question is, what does it mean when normalizing discourses succeed by shame in persuading a person that the body they occupy is abject and unmournable, or that the only means of valorizing their presence is by annihilating it? The lives of such subjects, incorporated to be excluded,3 are made to mean nothing to them, and are thus taken. What do we then do with, how do we make meaning of, and what does it mean to make meaning of the person, regulated, as Emile Durkheim writes, to death?

A founder of modern sociology, Durkheim’s taxonomy of suicidal causes in his major work, Suicide, is especially interesting in the context of a discussion of Foucault. Indeed, though he never mentions Durkheim, the 19 century sociologist’s work is certainly the textual referent in the above epigraph where Foucault outlines what we might term the “invention” of the exasperating suicidal astonishment which becomes an ideal target for the burgeoning field of sociological analysis. Interestingly, Durkheim’s Suicide is, in fact, less concerned with his title subject than with designing a methodology of sociological research staged around the phenomenon of suicide.th Despite his apparently indirect interest in the subject,4 Durkheim defines a series of suicidal types: the first he calls “anomic suicide,” which is produced through “anomie or normlessness in modern society” (the suggestion being that without an efficient regulatory matrix, a biopolitical matrix dedicated to the normative regulation of bodies, rates of suicide increase); “egoistic suicide,” which is symptomatic, for Durkheim, of “modern individualism” (a consequence, one might speculate, and this requires some elaboration, of anomie; by which I mean, forms of egoistic self-destruction which occur as a consequence of atomization might be better understood if we look at the ways in which what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as “sense endowing” structures have begun to disintegrate under neoliberalism). There is also, conversely, what Durkheim terms “altruistic suicide”—a thing caused by a “too weakly developed individuality,” where the subject devises no means of attachment to oneself and thus disregards self-preservation. The final category, which Durkheim relegates not inconsequentially to a footnote, is “fatalistic suicide,” a form of self-murder which is the end result of excessive regulation or intensive coercion—what Judith Butler terms a “shaming” and “injurious interpellation” (Butler 1993:226, 1997:104). In Durkheim’s account this last class of suicidality is less relevant in a postcolonial landscape where no subject’s freedom is perceivably or overtly compromised, where none are actually enslaved. (Andersen 18-19)

Were Durkheim interested in extending his consideration of the fourth category of suicide, were he to, hypothetically, make the focus of his study the pernicious effects of foreclosure or injurious interpellation, the study would have to become a manifesto on social reform akin to social critic Jacques Peuchet’s 1846 tract On Suicide, translated famously by Karl Marx.5 Durkheim does not elaborate on fatalistic, or what we might more usefully call “hyperregulative” autodestruction because he is interested in more overtly “perplexing” examples of the criminal astonishment of suicide: i.e. the “egoistic” self-murder of those unrepudiated bodies that do, by all accounts and according to a prevalent discursive matrix of social possibilities, matter. But my intervention is, of course, quickened in particular by the reality of suicide committed as a “predictable” or supposedly unperplexing result of the most unapologetic execration of certain subjectivities.

Writers like Peuchet, Cholbi and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick insist that we engage the irrefutably wretched “material” aspect of suicide and treat it responsibly, as part of what D. G. Myers (perhaps too neatly) calls “a counterfactual moral response” (Online) or a response that admits complicity in wrongdoing, faces the shame of enacting foreclosure, even as it accepts additionally that no appropriate restitution is possible, but nonetheless operates with unanticipatible altruism at the moment of the greatest consequence: when the execrated subject is confirmed precarious life. Sedgwick, at the outset of her Tendencies, gives us the facts:

To us [those who work in gay and lesbian studies], the hard statistics come easily: that

queer teenagers are two to three times likelier to attempt suicide, and to accomplish it,

than others; that up to 30 percent of teen suicides are likely to be gay or lesbian; that a

third of lesbian and gay teenagers says they have attempted suicide; that minority queer adolescents are at even more extreme risk. (Sedgwick 1)


But Foucault enlists us to see what happens when we re-consider and destabilize the avowedly incontrovertible employment of demographic statistics in the study of suicide, particularly the suicide of the “marginalized” or repudiated. In an interview anthologized in Foucault Live as “The Simplest of Pleasures,” Foucault gestures to, but does not elaborate on, his fascination with the function of the word “often” in the sentence from a psychiatric study which reads: “Homosexuals often commit suicide” (FL 295). Reading this declaration of critical curiosity alongside Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality’s inaugural formation of biopower, we realize that Foucault is expressing a certain wariness regarding the technology of demography as a means of panoptic surveillance. With the development of the science of population study, suicide is invented for the present as a particular type of problem, and becomes an unacceptable astonishment for a capitalist hegemony interested in “the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production” (HS 141). At the risk of sounding too hyperbolically dismal, “insertion” in this context necessitates preservation, and preservation requires certain forms of surveillance. Margaret Pabst Battin notes that in the US a notable number of court decisions “at all levels have referred to ‘the State interest in preventing suicide’” (Battin 17). What is interesting for the field of queer theory and for our account of the unperplexing case of hyperregulative suicide, is deciding what to do with the unaccountable State concern for the preservation of lives constituted, using the case of queer, according to desires and pleasures impugned according to an alliance of discourses—medical, religious, juridical—which are buttressed and mobilized by State influence. The irony of the situation is indelible: the supplementary local apparatuses of biopower, or hegemonic normativity—institutions such as hospitals, police departments and Senate chambers—are called upon to perform, with unprecedented and unexpected compassion, an “intervention” aimed at preserving those forms of human life that have been systematically divested of meaning, which it has brought to the borders of bare life.

Of course, representatives of hegemony do not unanimously share an (ostensibly) altruistic interest in the controlled surveillance of suicide patterns among abjected bodies. Sedgwick cites a vexing 1989 statement by US secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis W. Sullivan in response to a paper on “Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide” (Sedgwick 154). Sullivan takes issue strenuously with the recommendation that efforts be taken to reform and relax heteronormative constraints6 in order to destigmatize queer subjectivities—efforts designed to reduce instances of hyperregulative queer suicide among youth. The gay or lesbian adolescent is represented by even and especially high-ranking government officials as undeserving of protection, even of mourning, as a consequence of the popular assumption and vehement defence of heterosexuality’s privilege as the sole acceptable locus of desire. Most often considered entirely licit, even heroic, Battin informs us that, “In no state is it a legal wrong to prevent a suicide” (18), even and especially when that prevention is performed unconsentually (and of course suicide within a biopolitical framework is precisely a question of consent, and not least a question of what we mean by consent).

But, indeed, even for those interested in the “benign” surveillance of gay and lesbian suicidality the motive is not innocent or idle. Consider that the ultimate aim of Micah Lebson’s 2002 article, “Homosexuality and Suicide,” is to devise effective methods of intervention. Lebson’s call for a “population-based, longitudinal study on an unprecedented scale” seems to be occasioned less by the sense that homophobia is discursively in need of elucidation and targeting, than a simplistic will to know. While more or less benign in intent, the study is replete with assumptions of hetero- desire’s normalcy, and allots little time to issues of social reform—suggesting, in fact, that such a thing as “social reform” is unrealistic when it comes to the issue of queer subjectivities (Lebson 115). The basic issue in the article—and it is an interesting, if misplaced one—is how to most effectively and persuasively intervene at the often too-late point of suicidal ideation. I want to begin to consider not the pragmatic question of what methods to employ when interrupting self-murder, but the question which animates Michael Cholbi’s paper: the ethics of intervention.

Cholbi’s article is prompted by the issue of what the required psychological conditions are for the “manipulation, coercion, or paternalism” involved in suicide intervention to be morally permissible. He argues that if we acknowledge serious suicidal ideation as symptomatic of the condition of dis-order, as a position that is severely “non-ideal,” a term Cholbi takes from Kant, we must infer that the intervention of even a criminalizing or pathologizing biopower (a matrix of body regulation and production which potentially impelled the suicidal subject to take recourse to autodestruction to begin with) ought to be granted license to preserve the irreducible dignity, singularity and rationality of the suicidal subject—even if the “methods of intervention... violate” the “private” and “individual” character of suicidal conduct (Cholbi 245).



There is no arguing with the bleak and deplorable “non-idealness” of suicidal ideation and attempt. However, the dialectic on suicide is quickened by the issue of one’s duty to the suicidal other. Peuchet writes that thinkers in the Western philosophic tradition who work to rationalize suicide “speak of our duty to this society, but not of our right to expect explanations and actions by our society” (Peuchet 48). Peuchet’s observations are themselves aggressive (if not always carefully composed) interventions in the discourse on suicidality. In particular, his inversion of accountability and recognition of the mortal effects of atomization constitute a direct affront to a history of theorizing suicide as an act of ignoring social duty. If one may not, then, intervene under the pretense of protecting a subject from perpetrating a crime against the social body—where the social body has disavowed the suicidal subject—is it acceptable to act in order to preserve some fundamental morality or dignity of the human being under threat? Cholbi writes that the destruction of a human life, even if self-willed, is the destruction of something invested, in a Kantian economy, with an essential value; the act, then, always represents a moral wrongdoing. But again I insist on aiding a philosophic awareness of the peculiar position of queer adolescents (and certainly adults, as well—among a whole range of injuriously interpellated subjectivities) on this issue. If a regulatory force of cultural representation vigorously rescinds all dignifying indicia of one’s “humanity,” the “fundamental dignity” of one’s life, how can it be appropriate to figure that person’s act of taking their own life as a moral infraction? Peuchet expresses it flawlessly: “When one has noted all these things, one cannot comprehend how, in the name of what authority, an individual can be ordered to care about an existence that our customs, our prejudices, our laws, and our mores trample under foot” (Peuchet 49). And in a different diction Cholbi asserts something similar, returning to his notion of nihilistic disenchantment: “suicidal agents care little for their own happiness, because their state is such that they have come to have a diminished conception of the personal good that constitutes their happiness” (Cholbi 247). Suicidal ideation for Cholbi is precisely the annihilation of the possibility of conceiving self worth, the evacuation of all that is possibly self validating. Intervention in these cases is seldom about compassionately convincing the suicidal subject that the life which heretofore had been denied an intrinsic meaning or meaningful singularity, possesses distinct subjective value, and is more often about moralistically averting the “crime” of suicidal conduct, thereby reaffirming the unpreservably, unmournably abnormality of the autodestructive other.

Curiously, rather than advocating thoroughgoing social reform, Cholbi is content to concern himself with negotiating the moral justifiability of “manipulation, coercion, or paternalism” in thwarting the determination to die. It ought to be said that Cholbi’s explicit target of analysis is the figure of the person afflicted with “mental illness,” or, what he terms a “compromised psychological ‘immune-system’” (Cholbi 246, 248). That being said, however, he is explicit about the general relevance of his theories on suicide. He tells us that the conclusions made in his paper are widely applicable: writing that the “connection between mental illness and suicide” is “so intimate” as to be (very inappropriately) ignored by critics (Cholbi 246). It strikes me as more than a little hazardous to risk such a severe and intimate conflation of suicidality and mental illness. For instance, following a “rational” progression: if, for example, one were to theorize that the cause of suicidal ideation, attempt and completion is a sort of psychological deficiency, and if one were to observe that “homosexuals often commit suicide,” would it be exceedingly difficult for a heteronormative hegemony invested in naturalizing its dominance to infer that homosexuality—demographically identified as the frequent “root” of suicidality—is the pathology responsible for the non ideal circumstances under which the distressed adolescent commits suicide? Rather than holding itself accountable, would it be so hard for power to efface the pernicious and even murderous effects of hyperregulation by reinforcing that suicide is not just a fundamentally individuated crime against the social body, but a crime against the social body that confirms a kind of madness?

It is pertinent here to ask again: why is Foucault interested and, more particularly, invested in suicide? Moreover, it is pertinent to consider what it might mean to model a theoretical intervention on suicide around the work of a thinker whose perspective on the subject is so palpably counterintuitive. Does aligning with Foucault’s insistence that taking of one’s life (though not, as Blanchot points out, one’s own life7) takes place in the interstices of biopower helpfully test our basic assumptions about the social and political implications of self-murder, or does it somehow contaminate a spontaneous moral response to the profoundly “non-ideal” nature of the event? Foucault in 1983 gave an interview to Robert Bono that has since been anthologized under the evocative title “The Risks of Security.”8 At the end of this interview Foucault says something curious and telling about his relationship with suicide. Bono asks a question that this paper gestures toward, “How, when all is said and done, can social security contribute to an ethic of the human person?” Foucault responds that, above all else, what we are dealing with works to problematize what we mean by “the value of life and the way in which we face up to death” (78). Here the exchange becomes especially strange. Foucault does not merely give the example of suicide, or what he here calls “the recognized right of each individual to kill himself” (78). In order to illustrate the point he elaborates a sort of Soylent Green scenario, explaining: “If I won a few billion in the lottery, I would create an institute where people who would like to die would come spend a weekend, a week, or a month in pleasure, under drugs perhaps, in order to disappear afterward, as if erased.” Bono presses him: “A right to suicide?” he asks. To which Foucault replies tersely, “Yes” (78). What could it mean to posit such a right? Blanchot argues emphatically that intervention, the interruption of autodestruction (in his estimation an “absolute right”), represents a disruption whose consequence exceeds both Nietzsche’s sense in Beyond Good and Evil of “powerful solace” in the thought of suicide (70), as well as the assertion in Sophocles that “Mere death is not the worst; this is the worst, / To long for death and be compelled to live” (134). Suicide for Blanchot is an “exemplary death” because it affirms a certain immanentism (96). The repudiated body must have suicide sovereignly within reach or the divestiture that biopower avows to accomplish will be itself absolute. Death, in the \sect plain biopolitical framework that we have adopted, is relegated to a regulated non-event. Because it cannot happen under normative conditions as an event which asserts any sort of radical singularity, death becomes another place that power penetrates.

There would be no sense here of speaking to Blanchot’s consideration of suicide were it not one that, as I said earlier, qualifies the un-dialectical thinking in Foucault on the subject. Blanchot is concerned about the “illogical optimism” that seems to characterize contemporary critical interventions on, as well as literary representations of suicide (102). While it may retain, as he puts it, “the power of an exceptional affirmation” (103), there is the valuable residual sense in Blanchot that the annihilation of the autos- is most often a practical response to abject suffering. In this sense, the suicidal subject who claims a sovereignty over the body and a constituent power to effect death, effects a death which is not his own. It is on the question of the autonomous negation of the autonomy of the autos- that Blanchot seems to open to the forms of interruptive and invasive paternalism propounded in Cholbi. This is the principal site of self-difference in Blanchot, for whom the person whose actions announce, “I withdraw from the world, I will act no longer” paradoxically affirms a kind of heteronomy under biopower by negating the future possibility of any autonomous action (Blanchot 102). The self-willed destruction of the autonomy of the suicidal other may signal a “desire to begin, to find the beginning again in the end, to inaugurate in that ending a meaning,” it may, if it affirms, for these philosophers, a certain invaluable immanentism, necessitate forms of intervention (Blanchot 103). But if it is a defeat of or affront to biopower, suicide is a profoundly pyrrhic victory. Indeed, how robust an alternative is Foucault’s advocated right to self-murder if his concern with suicide much too expediently displaces an important concern for the ways in which killing oneself not only or simply takes place as the effect of being broke, broken or berated, but as the discernible consequence, the endgame, as it were, of certain strategies that characterize biopower as a regime of power/knowledge? The institutionalization of the suicidal astonishment in the only half-facetious manner in which Foucault describes it to Bono, while it may strike us as “merely” a joke, in my reading attests to the extent to which Foucault is vulnerable to a reading of his discussion of suicidality that, in recognizing the institutional force of biopower to produce suicide, must resist the lure of allegoricizing autodestruction.
Sovereignty and Suicidalization

[T]he guilty party should acknowledge the reason of the sentence, he would have to

acknowledge the juridical reason that gets the better of him [a raison de lui] and leads

him to condemn himself to death. To follow this consequence to the end, the guilty party

would symbolically execute the verdict himself. The execution would be like a sui cide.

There would be, for the autonomy of juridical reason, nothing but self execution. It is as

if the guilty party committed suicide.

Jacques Derrida, “Death Penalties”


The diffuse collection of sites where Foucault explicitly addresses suicide is occasioned consistently and constitutively, even if it is not stated, by the question of sovereignty; just as biopower itself, as a critical theoretical vocabulary, is occasioned, indeed haunted, by the implications of violence and the force of law inherent to the functions of sovereignty. Yet as a whole the discourse in Foucault on autodestruction either masks or is reticent to consider the powerful interrelationship between suicidality and sovereignty. Treating the two forces contiguously means taking seriously Blanchot’s question of whether or to what extent, in all rigour, one has the power to die (Blanchot 96). Am I, the I who writes this paper, if I desired death and the affirmation of the singularity of my end, sovereignly capable of exercising the finally ungovernable right to individual power over life? Or is my end other and alien to myself? Is our response confined to either/or? And here, then, is the real question for our engagement with sovereignty and suicide: are there instances in which the act of killing onself, taking one’s own life, constitutes a suicidalized event, an event not merely precipitated by the forces of normalization that bayonet the subject on all sides, but coerced by the technologies of objective totalization that persist under biopower? Derrida discusses with Roudinesco the problematic ways in which autodestruction becomes a thing discursively constructed in the interest of refining and effacing the sovereign exception, of refining the exceptionality of the suspension of law, as it were, out of existence. Expanding from the implications of this exchange, the issue becomes whether, in claiming suicide “a marvellous resource” and celebrating “[h]aving death within reach, docile and reliable” (the condition of possibility, insists Blanchot, for life itself9), we are underestimating sovereignty’s persistent hegemonic power over life, and in ways that call for the translation of Giorgio Agamben’s decidedly less auspicious views on the life not worth living into the discourse on suicidality (Blanchot 97).

Agamben’s Homo Sacer does, in fact, name suicide as a troubling philosopheme, but defers a more thorough examination of the particularities of the question. While he understands clearly that suicide “seems a challenge in defiance of an exterior omnipotence” (Blanchot 97), Agamben withdraws, for reasons that will need to be considered in some detail, from the contemporary theoretical reclamation of suicide as immanent allegory. For Agamben to align with such a radical reclamation would be to diminish the violence of the force of law which is enacted by the sovereign on the body, and to model in ways that are fundamentally antithetical to the theoretical project of Homo Sacer a figure of the immanence of the interstitial body that fails to account for the production of bare life as the inaugural (and eminently racist) formation of the polis. Relatedly, when Derrida explains to Roudinesco that the death sentence may not be executed under any conditions but the sovereign exception, he is stating something which registers, for him, as self-evident: sovereignty is the site at which the law collapses into violence; which is to say, the point at which justice is undercut through (its) execution. Derrida asks us to consider the implications of the death penalty’s dependence on the sovereign exception and, more to the point, of the possibility that, key to the persistence of the death penalty, the sustainability of the sovereign exception is contingent on the making-autodestruction of execution.

Derrida engages with suicide as a disciplinary event, as the moment at which capital punishment becomes a scene of the symbolic power of suicidalized violence. And his theorization suggests something quite other to the expression of an immanent agency outside or in the interstices of a power exercised over life. Indeed, it inverts Foucault’s fantasy of an institutionalized suicide by describing the manner in which the penological activity of being condemned to death gets discursively recast as the repentant event of taking one’s life. The philosopher names an institutional effect of biopower exercised in the interest of penalty (and under at least the pretense of justice) which produces the suicidal body of the convicted at and as the event of execution. But what relationship could there be between execution and suicide? And what might the Foucault we have to this point been reading, who hallucinates a resort that shepherds the suicidal comfortably into the desired object of death, have to say to another more familiar Foucault that is concerned with the manner in which disciplinarity is undertaken to circumscribe the souls of the convicted? This, to ground a question that has too seldom been posed: where is Derrida of use, and where is he put to use in the theorization and respecification of biopower? Derrida has perhaps most saliently and most consequentially been put to use by Agamben, who finds immense philosophical capacity in the comments made about sovereignty and the “force of law” in parts of Derrida’s corpus. But even here the discourse on biopower appears accommodating but still inattentive to Derrida. The following section of this paper, then, will turn to the task of bringing Derrida into dialogue with the question of intervention and the symbolic power of suicide using, in particular, the epigraph for this section, which leaves the question of what it means for the death penalty to take place as the regulated result of disciplinary suicidalization suspended.

Agamben speaks of a “threshold beyond which life ceases to have any juridical value and can, therefore, be killed without the commission of a homicide” (139). The question of the death penalty is, for the majority of social critics, reducible to the question of how a nation-state comes to “authorize” murder. Derrida underlines the baleful simplicity of this position. What is new about biopolitical disciplinarity as it pertains specifically to the question of the death penalty is the manner in which power not only suspends the law, but extricates or emancipates itself from the state of exception. Deciding still, of course, whether the body of the abjected or convicted will live or die, sovereignty today manages the elimination of the traces of exception. And it does so, in the case of capital punishment, through suicidalization. The distinction between an immanent death penalty, one that is self-willed, “interior and privated,” and a punishment which is inflicted by the judicial apparatuses of a society on the body whose survival and sacrificiality10 it is judged to have forfeit, collapses, and the disciplinary functions of biopower effects a calculated condition of indistinction between autodestruction and execution, “self-punishment and hetero-punishment” (Derrida 150). It is a condition of indistinction which, by refining the effacement of the state of exception, signals the self-preservation of sovereignty against the possibility of culpability for homicide.

The elimination of traces is a term that is of particular interest to Derrida and his interviewer on the question of the death penalty. It is true, as Roudinesco says, that executions in the United States are undertaken in the most painstakingly “civilized” ways. This would seem to occur in the interest of subsuming all signs of pain in the passage from life to death, thus confirming the interiority of the force of law as suicidal self-punishment. That which is (necessarily) violent about this passage is camouflaged through certain material technologies of putting to death. The force of biopolitical disciplinarity, in no insignificant part, relies on these technologies to enable the performative interiorization of punishment. And it is the juridical principle of equivalence and “calculability” which grounds a force of law that retains the performative possibility of the death penalty (Derrida 151). “This concern with equivalence,” writes Derrida, is not simply “literal or quantitative, but spiritual and symbolic;” it is a principle which insists upon a certain Kantian isomorphism between the crime and its punishment. But what is the relationship here between autodestruction and execution? In what sense does the suicidalization of execution accomplish the equivalence on which the law is in part based? To move on this question, it is helpful to ask why the event of execution must be recognized as self-willed in order for the regulatory function of equality to “work,” and precisely what kind of work it is meant to perform.

The suicidalization of execution exemplifies the radical ambitions of biopower. Suicide becomes, under biopower, less a thing which occurs singularly “at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life,” than the primary tool of a juridico-biopolitical dispositif which seeks the effacement of the sovereign exception endemic and essential to the possibility of capital punishment. The death penalty, in Derrida’s words, “has no chance” (Derrida 141), is indebted and constitutively rooted to the state of exception, which it sustains through the production not merely of consent in the docile bodies of the convicted to capital punishment, but through the calculated simulacra of self-punishment. “There would be, for the autonomy of juridical reason, nothing but self-execution” (Derrida 150). A self-execution whose function, the legitimative recasting of execution as something that cannot be recognized as homicide, requires not merely the docilization of the convicted whose life is forfeit, but of also those citizens who come to comprise, in Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase, a “community of accomplices” (15). This second, more broad docilization posits one of the most significant impediments to the elaboration of a substantive abolitionist discourse.

In an affecting article written on the occasion of his friend Gilles Deleuze’s suicide, Derrida explains that while “Each death is,” of course, “unique” and “unusual,” the unusual becomes a thing which “multiplies in this way in the same ‘generation,’ as in a series—and Deleuze was also the philosopher of serial singularity” (Online). The term of greatest note here is, of course, “serial singularity,” which underlines the extent to which “singularity as such implies repetition” (Derrida 231). The notion of serial singularity is useful to this paper, to accounting for the aporia of theorizing suicide, which is a project which takes as the object of its analysis the matter of an event characterized by, remembering Foucault, “particular circumstances and individual accidents” (139). Indeed, the explication of a certain “serial singularity” endemic to instances of suicide makes the hazardously generalized theorization of suicide both possible and pressing, and makes the extant modalities of theorizing the matter fundamentally deconstructible. What I have sought here is precisely, I would argue, what is made available in a Derridean re-reading of biopolitics: the vigorous destabilization of the borders which render the discourse on self-murder intelligible, a deconstruction of those “oppositional distinctions that would allow one to say: yes, there is suicide, there is execution and/or murder. Or: that was an execution or murder and not a suicide, and this was a suicide and not the opposite” (Derrida 151).

Works Cited
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Cholbi, Michael J. “Suicide Intervention and Non-Ideal Kantian Theory.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2002): 245-259.
Battin, Margaret Pabst. Ethical Issues in Suicide. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.
Bauman, Zygmunt. In Search of Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955.
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Derrida, Jacques. “Death Penalties.” For What Tomorrow... A Dialogue. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. 139 165.
Derrida, Jacques. “I’ll have to wander all alone.” Tympanum: A Journal of Comparative Literary Studies, v. 1. 16 Dec 2004. http://www.usc.edu/dept/comp lit/tympanum/1/derrida1.html

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. [HS]


Foucault, Michel. “The Risks of Security.” Essential Foucault. New York: New Press, 2003. 68 79.
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Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 12(1): 11 40. 2003.
Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
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of Interpretation.” Texas A&M University Website. Online. 1999. Available URL: www english.tamu.edu/pers/fac/myers/responsible.html


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Peuchet, Jacques. “On Suicide and Its Causes.” Trans. Karl Marx. In Marx on Suicide. Ed. Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Andersen, 43-75. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
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1While his writing on the matter ought to be regarded as independent of biography, the James Miller’s infamous, The Passion of Michel Foucault, maintains that Foucault was consumed by suicide his entire life (Miller 194); and Jeffrey A. Weinstock’s article, “This is Not Foucault’s Head,” reports that the philosopher, in fact, attempted suicide several times during his adolescence (Weinstock 179).

2Here at the head of our discussion it is important to underline that historically, as Margaret Pabst Battin tells us, philosophical negotiations of suicidality and suicidology (the sociological study of suicide) have had a significant, and perhaps unexpectedly significant, influence on public policy (Battin, 21).

3Giorgio Agamben: “We must instead ask why Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life. What is the relation between politics and life, if life presents itself as what is included by means of an exclusion?” (7)

thWe might, incidentally, draw an analogy between Durkheim’s appropriation of self-murder for his own heuristic means and Foucault’s employment of “sexuality” as a means by which to renegotiate contemporary perspectives on power.

4This, of course, begs the very important, indeed the central question of whether or to what extent isolating a social phenomenon like suicide as a pretext for the development of a particular methodology could be considered more or less “direct” than the study which, in a move that deliberately shirks self-reflexivity and circumvents any reflection on methodology, trivializes concerns of methodology out of an avowed interest in getting to the heart of the “real” problem.

5Interestingly, Peuchet’s book is sometimes read as a book by Marx on the subject; which brings unexpectedly into question the degree to which any of these theorists on the grave question of suicide can be said to author their own theories.

6“Constraints” in the Foucauldian sense of something productively restrictive: a power which “limits” knowledge in ways that produce the possibility of subjective identity.

7“The expression ‘I kill myself’ suggests the doubling which is not taken into account. For ‘I’ is a self in the plenitude of its action and resolution, capable of acting sovereignly upon itself, always strong enough to reach itself with its blow. And yet the one who is thus struck is no longer I, but another, so that when I kill myself, perhaps it is ‘I’ who does the killing, but it is not done to me” (Blanchot 107, emphasis mine). Why, I wonder, does Blanchot—by insisting that while the suicidal wills death, he is not the object of the action—work to reaffirm and reinscribe at the site of the suicidal event the existence and persistence of a power relationship?

8Foucault and Bono are concerned specifically, in the exchange, with the problems that seem to arise or obtain when health has nothing of what Foucault calls an “internal principle of limitation.” When the demand for health becomes unruly and over-penetrating, and the phenomenon of dependency is one which sees “systems of social coverage” institute certain forms of subjugation.

9Heidegger, of course, argues that the“being toward death” for the human is, in the words of Achilles Mbembe, “the decisive condition of all true human freedom.... one is free to live one's own life only because one is free to die one's own death” (Mbembe 37 38).

10Derrida is aware, incidentally, that when he “use[s] the name sacrifice” he “designate[s] less a clear and distinct concept than an immense problem to be reelaborated from top to bottom in one of the most obscure, most fundamental, least circumscribable zones of the experience of the living” (Derrida 141). This is surely one of the most apparent points of contact between Derrida and Agamben, and one which presents us with the question of whether the life of the executed is sacrificed, and what function suicidalization serves to negate or preserve the possibility of sacrifice.


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