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Amnesty: Between an Ethics of Forgiveness and the Politics of Forgetting

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2019


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Given the remarkable consistency in Jacques Derrida's work over several decades, it is not hard to draw a line from “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” to his last seminars, on pardon and forgiveness. The aporias of forgiveness are analogous to those of the gift and of justice he had analyzed in detail in previous decades, as Derrida states in “To Forgive: The Unforgivable and the Imprescriptible” — to that extent his last seminars and lectures were part of the same deconstructive project on the possibility of justice. At the same time, Derrida postulates that forgiveness is an experience outside or heterogeneous to the rule of law. In considering this juncture in Derrida's work, this paper will juxtapose the logic and history of amnesty with Derrida's analysis of pardon: the latter pivots on a monotheistic heritage, a Biblical-Koranic sense that is demarcated from the former concept, that of amnesty between an ethics of forgiveness and the politics of forgetting.

Articles: Special Issue: A Dedication to Jacques Derrida – Justice
Copyright © 2005 by German Law Journal GbR 


1 Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”, 11 Cardozo L. Rev 920 (1990); Jacques Derrida, Given Time, I: Counterfeit Money (1991) (see especially the last chapter of this book entitled: The Excuse and Pardon); Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness 27(2001) (available in French as: Le siècle et le pardon, Le Monde des débats 10-17 (December 1999). See also Jacques Derrida, Declarations of Independence, 15 New Political Science 7 (1986); Jacques Derrida, Before the Law, in Acts of Literature (Derek Attridge ed., 1992).Google Scholar

2 Jacques Derrida, To Forgive: The Unforgivable and the Imprescriptible, in Questioning God 21 (John D. Caputo et al. eds., 2001). Compare also the transcription of the interview For a Justice to Come: An Interview with Jacques Derrida, The Brussels Tribunal (February 19, 2004), at Scholar

3 See, e.g., Briggs, R., Just Traditions? Deconstruction, Critical Legal Studies, and Analytic Jurisprudence, 11 Social Semiotics 257 (December 2001); J.M. Balkin, Deconstructive Practice and Legal Theory, 96 Yale Law Journal 96 743 (1987).Google Scholar

4 Derrida, supra note 2 at 25-26.Google Scholar

5 For the history of pardoning, see Jörg Fisch, Krieg und Frieden im Friedensvertrag. Eine universalgeschichtliche Studie über Grundlagen und Formelemente des Friedensschlusses (1979); Nicole Loraux, La Cité divisée. L'oubli dans la mémoire d'Athènes (1997); and Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives. Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987). More recently, see Edgar Morin, Pardonnner, c'est résister à la cruauté du monde, Le monde des débats, 24-26 (February 2000); Le pardon: Briser la dette et l'oubli (Olvier Abel ed., 1991); and Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli (2000) (which culminates in an “epilogue” on pardon). An English dossier on these texts is found in PMLA 117:2 (2002).Google Scholar

6 Loraux, Nicole, De l'amnistie et son contraire, in Usages de l'oubli (1988), translated in two versions as Of Amnesty and its Opposite, in Nicole Loraux, Mothers in Mourning 83 (1998) and in Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: on memory and forgetting in Ancient Athens 145 (2002). See, also, Louis Joinet, L'amnistie. Le droit à la mémoire entre pardon et oubli, 49 Communications 213 (1989). Some point out that the amnesty of 403BC was perhaps not the first known amnesty in Athenian history; there are sources that claim it was modeled on an amnesty after the Persian Wars. See Danielle S. Allen, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens 237-242 (2002); and Alfred P Dorjahn, Political Forgiveness in Old Athens: The Amnesty of 403BC (1946).Google Scholar

7 See Michael Caldwell McHugh, With Malice Towards None: The Punishment and Pardon of German War Criminals, 1945-1958 (Doctoral Dissertation, Miami University, 1991; DAI-A 52/07, p. 2676, Jan 1992).Google Scholar

8 See Meier, Christian, Erinnern – Verdrängen – Vergessen, 50 Merkur 937 (1996).Google Scholar

9 Schmitt, Carl, Amnestie oder die Kraft des Vergessens, in Staat, Großraum, Nomos 218-221 (1995), 218221. This article first appeared anonymously on November 10, 1949 as Amnestie – Urform des Rechts, in Christ und Welt. A modified version was printed on January 15, 1950 in Sonntagsblatt, Hamburg. Attributed to one Walter Masuch, it was plagiarized in Die Zeit on September 12, 1950, and finally appeared in Carl Schmitt's name in Der Fortschritt, Essen, with the title Das Ende des kalten Bürgerkrieges. Im Zirkel der tödlichen Rechthaberei – Amnestie oder die Kraft des Vergessens. Schmitt marshals as his crown witnesses Aristotle's The Athenian Constitution, Xenophon's Hellenica, JP Kenyon on The Stuart Constitution, and the Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Law by Thomas Hobbes. Contemporary with Schmitt's intervention were similar arguments by Ernst Achenbach, Generalamnestie!, 6 Zeitschrift für Geopolitik 321 (1952) and Friedrich Grimm, Amnestie als völkerrechtliches Postulat (1951).Google Scholar

10 However, in contrast to Schmitt, Renan warned that advances in historiography might pose dangers to politics. See Ernest Renan, Das Plebiszit des Vergeßlichen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (March 27, 1993). One of the rare serious inquiries into the conditions of amnesty in Germany (after 1945 versus after 1989) is the collection Amnestie oder Die Politik der Erinnerung (Gary Smith and Avishai Margalit eds., 1997).Google Scholar

11 Derrida, supra note 2 at 25.Google Scholar

12 Id. at 34.Google Scholar

13 Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 161 (1987); Thomas McCarthy, The Politics of the Ineffable: Derrida's Deconstructivism, in Ideals and Illusions: On Reconstruction and Deconstruction in Contemporary Critical Theory (1991).Google Scholar

14 Drucilla Cornell, The Philosophy of the Limit (1992).Google Scholar

15 Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship 144 (1997).Google Scholar

17 Derrida, supra note 2 at 23.Google Scholar

18 Margarete Mitscherlich, Erinnerungsarbeit. Zur Psychoanalyse der Unfähigkeit zu trauern 114-116 (1987).Google Scholar

19 Nicole Loraux formulates this structure as “faire taire le non-oubli de la mémoire.” See Loraux, La Cité divisée, supra note 6 at 171.Google Scholar

20 Ricoeur, supra note 5 at 586.Google Scholar

21 Ricoeur, supra note 5 at 593 and 610. See Le pardon: Briser la dette et l'oubli (Olivier Abel ed., 1991).Google Scholar

22 Jean-François Lyotard, A l'insu (Unbeknownst), in Community at Loose Ends, 42 (Miami Theory Collective ed., 1991).Google Scholar

23 Lethen, Helmut, Damnatio Memoriae und die Rhetorik des Vergessens, in Schweigen. Unterbrechung und Grenze der menschlichen Wirklichkeit 159-168 (Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf eds., 1992); Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (1998); Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (1999).Google Scholar

24 Jankelevitch, Like, Arendt folds biblical and classical Greek references into her discussion of the power to forgive. Hannah Arendt, Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive, in The Human Condition 236 (l958); Vladimir Jankélévitch, Le Pardon (1967); and Vladimir Jankélévitch, L'imprescriptible: Pardonner? Dans l'honneur et la dignité (1986).Google Scholar

25 See Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present (Mieke Bal et al. eds., 1999).Google Scholar

26 “Une institution pénale reposant sur une fiction et qui a pour but d'enlever pour l'avenir tout caractère délictueux à certains faits pénalement répréhensibles, et interdisant toute poursuite à leur égard ou en effaçant les condemnations qui les ont frappés.” Roger Merle and André Vitu, II Traité de driot criminel et de procedure pénale n. 1602 (1980). See J.M. Balkin, Tradition, Betrayal, and the Politics of Deconstruction, 11 Cardozo L. Rev. 1613 (1990).Google Scholar

27 Compare book 2, chapter 5 of Rousseau's Contrat social and book six, chapter 16 of De l'esprit des lois by Montesquieu. Kant likewise excluded amnesties in circumstances where they might give rise to danger; see Metaphysik der Sitten 460 (Werke vol IV).Google Scholar

28 See William O'Rourke, Remembering to Forget, in Signs of the Literary Times: Essays, Reviews, Profiles 1970-1992 169-182 (1993).Google Scholar

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