by Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert (eds). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 332pp. Hardback. $85.00/£51.00. ISBN: 9780521876278. Paper. $29.99/£19.99. ISBN: 9780521699761. eBook format. $24.00. ISBN: 9780511577345.

Reviewed by Kimberley Fletcher, Department of Political Science, State University of New York at Albany. Email: kf814553 [at]


STATES OF VIOLENCE: WAR, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, AND LETTING DIE, an edited volume by Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert re-evaluates “how, where and when states turn to violence” by bringing together a compelling set of essays that speak to different kinds of state violence, such as war, letting die and capital punishment. Each author acknowledges and examines the fundamentally complicated “character of the state’s relationship to violence” (p.6). Given this complicated character of state violence, the authors demonstrate that when the state does engage in violent acts, there is an urgency of legitimating these acts. This legitimacy is dependent upon the state “mounting a sustained effort at interpretation, sense making, and critique” (p.7) that resonates in the minds of its citizens as justifiable and acceptable in their daily lives. This sustained effort by the state to maintain its legitimacy over state violence is a major theme that many of the authors discuss because, as the volume asserts, the state preserves a monopoly over violence.

This volume is divided into two parts and takes a historical and sociological analytical approach. Part I addresses the different “Forms of State Killing,” which highlights the various ways state violence is present in the world today. While Part II focuses on one particular type of state violence, capital punishment by “Investigating the Discourses of Death.” This dual nature, the juxtaposition of the various modes of state violence in Part I with the more traditional form of state violence, capital punishment in Part II, is a necessary configuration to illustrate how and why the concentration of violence in the form of the death penalty persists.

In the first chapter, Robin Wagner-Pacifici sets the stage for the first section by asserting that while violence is a necessary role for the state to adopt during state formation and governance, it is the recent emergence of changing the direction of state policies from an offensive stance to a defensive one that must be addressed. To demonstrate this change, Wagner-Pacifici evaluates the policies advanced by the Bush administration in the 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSSUSA) reports, which changed rather drastically from strategies of war and aggression to defense and protection. Wagner-Pacifici illustrates well that when a state successfully advocates a defensive strategy, such as the one adopted by the Bush administration, the Weberian state is challenged, and a state can then monopolize violence without regard to borders (p.32). This recent [*545] transformation of the state redirects Weber’s definition of the state to conclude that the concept of legitimacy must inevitably introduce “ends” criteria. To legitimate the use of force extraterritorially, states argue that in order to secure borders the state must use violence as a defensive measure (p.49).

In chapter two, Jeremy Arnold introduces the issues associated with reinterpreting sovereignty by examining the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Arnold coins the phrase “Oedipal sovereignty,” suggesting, “Sovereignty is the cause of the very problems it claims the right to solve” (p.51). The Oedipus trilogy, Arnold asserts, teaches us to recognize the character of sovereignty because it reveals what happens once the sovereign has been instituted: “disorder is bound to erupt as the result of sovereignty” (p.65). Sovereignty both “preserves and destroys in the same act” (p.67). A case in point is the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war “produced a space of violence where one did not previously exist” (p.69). In an effort to ensure security, the United States created insecurity for both Americans, with a threat of terrorist backlash, and for the Iraqis, by producing a violent space within the Iraq borders (p.69). Arnold turns our attention next to the paradox of lives taken to protect life, evident by the justifications used by the Bush administration in the Iraq war. To adopt Oedipal sovereignty allows us to question how dead bodies are not counted or valued by the sovereign in the same way since the meaning of death, and the knowledge that death provides, is crucial to the success of the sovereign’s use of violence to achieve its ends. This somewhat startling yet necessary reality for the reader is further compounded by Mateo Taussig-Rubbo’s discussion in the following chapter.

Taussig-Rubbo reinforces this stark reality that dead bodies are not valued or counted in the same way by sovereign states by addressing the legal and policy forms of how the state manages and defines sacrifice. The focal point of this chapter is “how a state uses legal form to attempt to construe certain deaths as sacrificial and others as banal and meaningless in relation to a given audience (p.85). Taussig-Rubbo uses three case studies to evaluate the suffering borne by nontraditional heroic figures: outsourcing sacrifice to private military contractors in Iraq; the families of government-recognized service men; and the exclusion of detainees in Guantanamo Bay from the normal legal order. When we speak in terms of actual bodies being sacrificed, there is value, meaning and sacredness to the loss of life. As Taussig-Rubbo notes, the logic and rhetoric espoused by the state must be compelling in order to preserve the prerogative that it alone may designate which deaths are meaningful and which deaths are meaningless (p.125) in order to reinforce its monopoly on state violence. In each of Taussig-Rubbo’s examples, Giorgio Agamben’s concept of sovereign power is underscored. To ensure that the lay reader is not overwhelmed by this theory Taussig-Rubbo simplifies Agamben’s model of sovereign power: “that which can take life without the action being considered a sacrifice (or a homocide)” (p. 87). A footnote is used to cite Agamben’s definition of Homo Sacer, which provides not only accessibility to the [*546] reader for further analysis, but also ensures that nothing is lost in translation.

Colin Dayan shifts the focus from the War on Terror to the civil death that occurs in the phenomenon of supermaximum security prisons. This is a nuanced and compelling way of thinking about criminals housed in these prison systems. When the state redefines persons, it can legitimately sustain violence. For example, this is evident, Dayan asserts, when the Bush administration labeled individuals as “illegal enemy combatants” or “security detainees.” The legal ramification of these legal definitions is that “the disposed person seems to exist nowhere” (p.132). In these cases, the elimination of habeas corpus and the redefinition of persons in law prevented these individuals from challenging arbitrary detention or other constitutional violations in court, which ultimately gave the state the ability to “sustain a violence that goes beyond the mere logic of punishment” (p.129).

Thomas L. Dumm picks up where Dyan left off, arguing that we must take a step back when we think about criminal sentences in the form of imprisonment. We must begin by re-defining life so that death in turn can be re-defined. This chapter asks the reader to rethink the “question of torture and punishment through the perspective of what we might call the contemporary culture of Christian fundamentalist faith” (p.153). In so doing, Dumm carefully illustrates how a shift in the way we think about the meaning of life can then reshape the meaning of sentencing during a time of an emerging biopolitical security sensitive state. Dumm’s call to re-define life and therefore death is highlighted by the Bush administration’s link of “national security to the culture of life” which Dumm asserts invokes quite aptly Michel Foucault’s description of modern political regimes and Carl Schmitt’s characterization of the shift in the relationship between state and citizen. This shift is evident, not only in the Bush administration’s comment after Terri Schiavo’s death in 2005, but also in James Dobson’s letter to Congress which linked Schiavo’s death to the support for gay marriage and the opposition to the death penalty for minors. Dumm illustrates quite brilliantly that the “bio-political power to allow and sustain life comes to the bio-political power to force one to live. Mercy in the form of sustaining life therefore becomes a punishment” (p.166).

Another illuminating chapter is Elizabeth Povinelli’s case study of the relationship between the Australian government and its indigenous communities to illustrate the complexity of lethality. Lethality, as discussed by Povinelli takes two forms: state killing and letting die. This is evident in a detailed account of how Australia’s indigenous communities, both rural and urban, are rampant with disease, poverty and despair. As federal and state level agencies attempt to answer the question of who is to blame Povinelli asserts that the answer lies in the pivotal “discourses and imaginaries of the social and individual causes of poverty” (p.174). This chapter reveals it is the security state’s aptitude to create “energies and imaginaries” that thwart its citizens from recognizing and consequently holding accountable a state that creates an unequal distribution of life and death. Povinelli’s argument is another seamless [*547] transition from Dumm’s discussion of the Schmittian model of the sovereign state and the Foucauldian model of the bio-political state. It is clear from Povinell’s discussion, when we are talking about state security it is the Schmittian model of the sovereign state that is evident. However, in terms of bio-politics, we see how Australia is, albeit slowly, “installing neoliberal markets and cultivating the neoliberal subjects who will occupy them” (p.189).

Mark Antaki and Coel Kirkby shift the focus from Australia to a case study of Canada’s indigenous people. The authors trace the legal events that shape the Canadian states' relationship with its indigenous inhabitants and how the failure of the state to recognize the lethal cognition of this class of individuals was leading the country to a single homogeneous population. The movement towards equality in 1969 by the Canadian government masked the overarching goal of assimilation and almost resulted in a complete loss of identity for the indigenous people. As the authors point out, in 1982 Canada attempted to rectify the loss felt by its indigenous communities by recognizing the people that made up these communities and their homeland. However, this recognition, the authors argue, is still state bound – indigenous people remain submissive to state sovereignty.

At this point, there is a shift in gear. Part II focuses on the death penalty and asserts it is more complicated than simply reducing it to a morally normative debate. When the state executes an individual, we witness the full force of the state – the ultimate act of violence condoned by the state. This section begins with Peter Brooks’ insightful discussion of Victor Hugo’s first-person narrative that details a man’s last day before he is executed. Brooks carefully selects this piece of literature to illustrate the significance of execution by guillotine. First person narrative and decapitation not only make the reader extremely uncomfortable, but also ask us to contemplate Cartesian dualism of the “thinking self” detached (instantaneously) from the “living self.” What is striking about this chapter is that Brooks asks the reader to concede that when we talk about putting someone to death we are in reality arguing that society “needs human sacrifice for the rest of us to live better” (p.238). This question may not sit well with every reader but it is a question that should be asked of us all. Finally, Brooks's analysis of Hugo’s first person narrative also asks the reader to contemplate the following: Is it only when we put ourselves in the shoes of another can we truly act morally?

Ravit Reichman does not agree with Brooks that literature is the avenue by which to capture the true reality of state violence. Rather, Reichman reframes the influence of literature to suggest that it is the vehicle to illustrate “a culture’s relationship to capital punishment.” We are indifferent to state violence when asked to imagine it through literature. Only when we witness first hand are we exposed to the true horror of watching someone draw their last breathe and at the same time feel an overwhelming excitement of watching such a scene. This, Reichman argues, is the hypocrisy of capital punishment. While we might decry state execution, the speed of distribution of Saddam Hussein’s 2006 execution over the Internet characterizes [*548] the cultural relationship to capital punishment – a desire to see. It is only when we actually witness an execution, Reichman argues, that we are free from the fantasy of literature and when executions are conducted in private, we lose this essential connection to the condemned.

Adam Thurschwell takes up the political philosophical debate with respect to capital punishment. Thurschwell suggests the issue is not whether to reframe the debate from a moral to a political philosophical one in order to achieve abolition of capital punishment, but rather, what it means when we change the debate from issues concerning the state’s legal claim, ethical or moral authority or the state’s normative prerogative to exercise this power to capital punishment being another form of state regulation: a state’s defining power is justice. As the debate is transformed, and the political legitimacy of the state's inherent right to kill is challenged, we are then directly confronting the state. More will be achieved if we approach the debate over capital punishment from a philosophical standpoint because the “state’s power over death is an exception to the ethical, a political-philosophical concept that stands independent of the categories of ethical-moral philosophy” (p.285).

In the final chapter, Adam Sitze continues Thurschwell’s discussion of the political standpoint of state killing and abolition, but in the frame of clemency – “the most theological of all political powers” (p.299). An appeal for clemency is regarded as the state’s opportunity to show leniency. However, Sitze suggests, “the sovereign’s right to spare life is by no means a self-evident antidote to the sovereign’s right to kill” (p.308). Rather, when a state grants clemency, Sitze insists, it merely re-seizes the individual to be a perpetual slave to the state. In doing so, the state re-negotiates the relationship between itself and the prisoner and reasserts its right to let live.

This well-rounded collection of essays asks the reader to re-configure how we think of a state’s decision to use violence. It is not about the insistence of its citizens that the state only engage in justified acts of violence or about eliminating capital punishment, but rather how we evaluate the relationship between the sovereign state and its citizens. To better understand how the state legitimizes state violence we must, as the authors implore in a myriad of subject areas and theoretical commitments, re-evaluate the state's long historical and sociological influence over its citizens. When the state uses violence, its citizens must examine the legitimizing rhetoric advanced by the state in order to change their submissive relationship. This collection, gives these authors an opportunity to talk to one another and advance a much-needed dialogue. While a number of the authors in this edited volume discuss the liberal political traditions of Thomas Hobbes, Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben the reader should, at no point, feel discouraged by such discussions since each author more than adequately provides enough commentary to ensure that the novice reader can draw from the discussion the basic argument the author is asserting. It would therefore be remiss, not only for those already interested in issues dealing with states of violence, but also the novice reader, not to pick up a copy of this edited volume since it [*549] illuminates a state-constructing narrative and how discussions of “war, punishment and structural violence,” once discussed separately, can illuminate each other by discussing them side by side. One issue that is discussed more in passing is that if theorists of globalization are correct and the very nature of sovereignty is being transformed then we should see changes in capital punishment, but as Thurschwell observes, it is the supra-sovereign organization states of the European Union, for example that have abolished capital punishment, which draws attention to why the United States, a rententionist state, has not. To help answer this question or to better understand why the United States still uses capital punishment, each author systematically address how and why the state’s power to kill is an essential element of its sovereignty.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Kimberley Fletcher.