In the Death Penalty seminar, Derrida is on the side of abolition. The seminar has in mind an end: the end of the death penalty. But this end is not simple or straightforward, for as Derrida explores, the death penalty is nothing other than an attempt to control the end by making death (the end of all ends) calculable. The death penalty aims to put an end to the surprise of death. Though Derrida announces an aim for the Death Penalty seminar, at several key moments he is at pains to distinguish the work of reading, the work of the seminar—the work of a seminar that reads, that develops a reading—from what he calls the “militant activist cell.” The militant activist cell aims for direct intervention; it aims, for instance, to abolish the death penalty. Derrida’s Death Penalty seminar teaches us much about the death penalty, but the death penalty, as read through the seminar, also teaches us about the seminar. How does the aim of the seminar—a seminar devoted to reading—differ from that of the militant activist cell (with its imagined telos, aim, or end)?

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