the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Un Petit Mort

In a current commercial for A1 steak sauce, a prisoner on death row about to dig into a final meal consisting of a steak and said steak sauce when a guard happens to pull off a patch covering the prisoner’s name tag…and discovers that he is actually an imposter, a different prisoner altogether. The prisoner is then unceremoniously hauled away, gazing regretfully at the uneaten meal.

The commercial is amusing, and disturbing. It is unclear, for instance, whether the prisoner was planning to reveal his true identity following the meal, or whether he was planning to go through with the actual execution simply on account of being sick of standard prison food. Was this supposed to be an isolated incident, or are we to imagine Mr. Moeller pulling the same scam over and over each time one of his colleagues is scheduled to die?

This image of a prisoner stepping to the brink of death simply for the culinary pleasure of a fine meal is disconcerting, in part because it hews so close to reality. A1 steak sauce, for instance, is apparently a common choice of actual prisoners awaiting execution (e.g., John Glenn Roe on Feb. 3, 2003: T-bone steak, A-1 Steak Sauce, onion rings, macaroni and cheese, butter-pecan ice cream and root beer; John Hicks on Nov. 29, 2005: two medium rib eye steaks, a baked potato, a chef salad, garlic bread, apple pie a la mode, potato chips, A-1 Steak Sauce and a Pepsi; and John B Nixon, Sr on Dec. 14, 2005: T-bone steak (well done) with salt and A-1 steak sauce, asparagus spears (buttered and salted), baked potato with salt, pepper and sour crème, peach pie, vanilla ice cream and sweet tea….the meticulous recording of these menus is curious practice in its own right). Furthermore, the name of the prisoner in the commercial (Moeller) evokes the figure of Donald Moeller, currently on death row in South Dakota for the rape and murder of a nine year old girl (prompting outrage on the part of some of locals).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the way in which the A1 commercial taps into the cultural theme which we might describe that of a “petit mort”—a fantasy of jouissance during a brief moment of suspended time. In Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” for instance, Jaromir Hladík is a Jewish dramatist and scholar who is to be executed by the Germans in 1943. In a Matrix-like moment at the precise instant in which he is about to be executed, with a drop of rain water suspended half-way down his cheek, the story notes dryly that, “the physical universe came to a halt.” Hladík eventually realizes that God has granted him a full year of borrowed time (while the rest of the physical universe remains immobilized) in order to complete his magnum opus, before the rifle bullets recommence their inexorable trajectory toward his heart.

This notion of a suspended existence immediately preceding death is, of course, not merely the purview of fiction. There are currently more than 3000 prisoners on death row in the US, and on average they spend more than a decade on death row. To date, Project Innocence has helped to exonerate 175 death row prisoners prior to their executions (including Clarence David Hall, who died 12 days after being released, having spent the previous 16 in prison for a crime he did not commit). Even for those who are unquestionably guilty, the sheer length of time spent on death row raises potential questions of rehabilitation and repentance. Beyond the sheer statistics, a number of recent cases have helped underscore these issues, from Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams (who became a respected author, artist, and activist during the two and a half decades he spent in prison before ultimately being executed in December 2006); to Clarence Ray Allen (who was executed in January at the age of 76 (diabetic, legally blind, and in a wheelchair), after having spent more than a quarter of a century on death row; and even to Slobodan Milošević (who died of a heart attack on March 11th as his nearly five-year long trial for genocide was on the verge of wrapping up).

The most horrifying aspect of capital punishment is perhaps not the actual act of execution (itself certainly horrifying enough in its own right, particularly given recent debates over the efficacy of the cocktail of injections which is commonly used) but rather the extended period of suspended temporality which precedes it. The question of the State’s control over this period of suspended temporality is illustrated dramatically in the case of Clarence Allen. Not only was Allen virtually incapacitated by old age by the time he was scheduled to die, but furthermore, as the Sacramento Bee reported, prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said that if Allen were to have a medical problem before his execution he would be unceremoniously revived (despite his having signed a “do not resuscitate” order following a heart attack last year): “Because we do believe in the sanctity of human life, we will do whatever is necessary.”

At issue here is not merely the State’s power to kill, but equally importantly its power over death, its attempt to police the boundary between life and death. As Baudrillard argues in a slightly different context in Symbolic Exchange and Death, “Power is possible only if death is no longer free, only if the dead are put under surveillance, in anticipation of the future confinement of life in its entirety…. Power is established on death’s borders.” Baudrillard goes on to argue that death functions as a general equivalent, and as such constitutes a constant threat to the life as value:
Our whole culture is just one huge effort to dissociate life and death, to ward off the ambivalence of death in the interests of life as value, and time as the general equivalent….. [A]s soon as the ambivalence of life and death and the symbolic reversibility of death comes to an end, we also enter the field of the equivalent production of death. So life-become-value is constantly perverted by the equivalent death. Death, at the same instant, becomes the object of a perverse desire.
Death, then, is not simply the antithesis of life, but rather it becomes the object of a peverse desire in its own right precisely as a function of society’s attempt to regulate and circumscribe it. It is this twin logic of avoidance and desire, therefore, that underlies the A1 commercial: death is the purview of the State, which polices the boundary between life and death to reassert its own power. At the same time, however, this liminal zone at the border of death becomes an object of libidinal investment in its own right, a literal “petit mort,” a point of intersection of consumption, sexuality, and mortality. As Bataille argues in Eroticism,
[W]e can lo longer differentiate between sexuality and death [, which] are simply the culminating points of the festival nature celebrates, with the inexhaustible multitude of living being, both of them signifying the boundless wastage of nature’s resources as opposed to the urge to live on characteristic of every living creature.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"la petite mort" = "the little dead girl"
"la petite mort" = "the little death"
presumably the latter is intended.

2:16 PM  
Blogger crojas said...


10:39 AM  
Blogger crojas said...

'"la petite mort" = "the little death"'
you, too, appear to have dead girls on the brain

10:59 AM  

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