Parallel Gallery
and Journal

coup de grâce Linda Marie Walker
part 1
"She fell heavily and motionless to the earth in front of the stake. Eleven bullets were fired and then a cavalry sergeant walked towards the body and delivered the coup de grâce - a final shot into her temple." (Julie Wheelwright, The Fatal Lover, Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage, Collins & Brown, London, 1992, p. 99)

1. Death is physical, it hardly needs saying.

"It is well known that if there is one word that remains absolutely unassignable or unassigning with respect to its concept and to its thingness, it is the word 'death'." (Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993, p. 22)

2. It is more than can be written or read. Everything to say, but nothing near what 'a certain complete achievement of life' is.

Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self, in Technologies of the Self, ed. Luther H. Marin, et al., The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1988, p. 31 ("This achievement is complete at the moment just prior to death.")

3. Death is too much, and too far beyond the memory of living, of to-be-alive, its metaphysicality fades before the sound/sight/smell of the rifle, knife, hand. And fades and fades, while we, as watching beings, fade with that fading, as spirit, intellect, sense, motion: stop (dead). The body knows until its final split second.

"Excuse me if I go back to the same point: We are thinking beings. That means that even when we kill or when we are killed, even when we make war or when we ask for support as unemployed ... we are thinking beings, and we do these things not only on the ground of universal rules of behavior but also on the specific ground of a historical rationality." (ibid., p. 148)

4. Execution is power: social, political, military, personal. It's the deliberate making of the corpse, as the evidence, the sign, of correction, order, force, fear.

Heinrich Himmler speaks to leaders of the SS in Posen (4 October 1943) "without any circumlocution about the horror of genocide: 'Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lie side by side, or five hundred or a thousand.' But then he adds: 'To have stuck this out and excepting cases of human weakness - to have remained decent .... this is what has made us hard.' He elaborates on this decency by praising the virtues of SS men: their loyalty ... their ability to obey ... their bravery ... their truthfulness ... Despite the annihilation of millions, Himmler could assert that 'our inward being, our soul, our character, has not suffered injury from it'." (James Bernauer, Beyond life and death, in Michel Foucault Philosopher, trans. Timothy J. Armstrong, Routledge, NY, 1992, p. 273) "In his memoirs, Albert Speer identified the state of mind which permitted the monstrous evils our age has endured: 'It never occurred to us to doubt the order of things.'"(ibid., p. 274)

5. The corpse is a return to, and of, like the repressed, that which is (appears) inadmissable.

6. Execution is the excess which deals with excess. It makes the space where emptiness must be, and where forever after, in that hole, a haunting gathers, a ritual repetition of the fragment and the unfinished, of the bringing to and taking away, a rhythm, of the cut which narrates the endless stories that 'become' the ghost. The ghost is the speech, the writing, the sentence, of the executed, who come to be dead for the sake of the live.

7. There are several photographic images which shock me. They show an execution by torture, on April 10 1905, in Peking. The imperial decree read: "'The Mongolian Princes demand that the aforesaid Fou-Tchou-Le, guilty of the murder of Prince Ao-Han-Ouan, be burned alive, but the Emperor finds this torture too cruel and condemns Fou-Tchou-Li to slow death by Leng-Tch-e (cutting into pieces). Respect this!' This torture dates from the Manchu dynasty (1644-1911)."

Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1989, p. 204

8. Bataille thought the man had been given opium, which might explain his "ecstatic ... expression".

ibid., p. 205: Bataille was given one of these images by the French psychoanalyst Dr Borel in 1925: "This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, which was inaccessible to him, but who never witnessed an actual torture session." (ibid., p. 206)

9. The torture is called, writes Bataille, the Hundred Pieces, "reserved for the gravest of crimes".


10. The images are an intolerable-knowledge.

11. The narratives which come to fill the void (life taken by 'law', from criminal law to gang law) are themselves threads of the death drive, language re-presentations of the vanished body/person. They are never enough. It, the void, is interminable, inconsolable. Fire. Language can not be the thing, just shimmer on the surface, the residual impact of meaning lost.

"Every culture is characterized by its way of apprehending, dealing with, and, one could say, 'living' death as trespass. Every culture has its own funerary rites, its representations of the dying, its ways of mourning or burying, and its own evaluation of the price of existence, of collective as well as individual life." (Derrida, ibid., p. 24)

12. "In Lacanian theory, seeing, being, talking, thinking, reading, writing, feeling, and perceiving are all organized in networks of meaning and affect around a hole or void that pierces through the weave of introjected representations."

Ellie Ragland, Lacan, the Death Drive, and the Dream of the Burning Child, in Death and Representation, ed. Sarah Webster Goodwin & Elisabeth Bronfen, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1993, p. 81

13. Death comes always to everyone, execution (as decree) comes to few. There are slow and sudden and expected deaths. And execution can be all of these at once. It is, though, always, somehow, untimely. Out of time, time taken out, to be the time of dying, the end of 'you', who you 'are', in the fact of 'being' at all, and in the fact of not being 'something/one-else': early morning, before the complete arrival of the new day(light): "... at 3am Massard, the representative of the military governor of Paris, was woken by a phone call announcing that Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, known as Mata Hari, would be shot at 5.45am that morning."

Wheelwright, p. 96

14. At the moment of death, the person is all that they will ever be, in the real.

"By its very essence, death is in every case mine, insofar as it 'is' at all ... " (Derrida, ibid., p. 26)

15. The haunting which gathers at, which meets, the death by execution is aware of that, and of the rest, now a future memory, of what might have been, imagined. Psyche works forward, drawing from life yet unlived, as part of the 'living' present, as much as from the past, to be the comprised subject at any moment, to be 'is'.

16. "Ah, this flash of instants never ends. Will my song of the it never end? I'm going to end it deliberately, with a voluntary act. But it continues on in constant improvisation, creating always and forever the present which is the future.

"This improvisation is.

"Do you want to see how it continues on?

"Tonight - it's difficult to explain it to you - tonight I dreamed I was dreaming. Is it possible that death is like that? - the dream of a dream of a dream of a dream?"

Clarice Lispector, The Stream of Life, trans. Elizabeth Lowe & Earl Fitz, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 78 ("The now is and is not what it is. More precisely, it only 'scarcely' ... is what it is. Insofar as it has been, it no longer is. But insofar as it will be, as future to come or as death .... it is not yet." Derrida, ibid., p. 14)

17. Does one long to be killed, glimpsed in longing for end, for fitting-death, to the day, to the season, to the heat, to the work. Is there a dream of execution without fear.

18. Execution is about the act of dying, the act of killing, of being killed, it is only about knowing of the about-to-die. This is its exact purpose, the penalty of limit, to be there before (facing) the 'sword', taking last breaths, feeling heart beats, while so-very-alive, probably well, strong, and with all of memory and thought in focus and imminent.

"It is strange that people very rarely faint during those final seconds. On the contrary, the brain is terribly alive and active; it must be racing, racing, racing like a machine at full speed. Imagine how many thoughts must be throbbing together, all unfinished, some of them may be irrelevant and absurd: That man staring - has a wart on his forehead, and, here, one of the executioner's buttons has rusted. And at the same time he knows everything ... there is one point that cannot be forgotten, and he cannot faint, and everything turns around it, around that point. And to think that it must be like this up to the last quarter second, when his head is already on the block, and waits, and - knows, and suddenly he hears the iron slithering down above his head ..." (Dostoyevsky, quoted in Robert Johnson, Condemned to Die, Life Under Sentence of Death, Elsevier North Holland, Inc., NY, 1981, p. 98)

19. The (w)hole is left, where nothing is ever 'once and for all', where an economy of relations, a sort of proliferating forum of broken promises, of processes and struggles, perpetually seeks the real true story of the real true person, to close the case, to bound the carcass. But there is no bridging the gap here, of signifier to signifier, of signification. The rules of execution are determined by courts. This is, perhaps, the bigger trauma, and where the drawing together of edges, as a mechanism, a technique, might be itself a body, constituted in the (ir)rational setting up of language structures to formulate reasons to kill. A body (politic) which needs other bodies for its rituals.

"One would be concerned with the 'body politic', as a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communication routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge." (Foucault, p. 28)

20. Here the lines of power are written, the death drive falls into the open, as a matter of 'culling', known as punishment, discipline, retribution, alignment. Just like, in the individual psyche, the remainders of events, losses, are marks, knots of unassimilated meanings, made (up) by an inability or refusal to 'understand' what might be 'the personal devaluation implicit in them'.

Ragland, p. 82

21. And so ... "(a)s untranslated remainders, such knotty material becomes parasitical archaic letters that constitute death material. These letters (Lacan plays on l'être as the letter of being) maintain a power of death over life because and simply because they are present - embedded in flesh, in-corp-orated, repeated in behaviour and myth - but are inaccessible to reflection, contemplation, or undoing."

ibid., p. 82/83

22. What happens when there are knots of unassimilated meanings in the world beyond the body, that engage with the knots of the body, and not only that but with combinations of bodies, of groups, and conditions, and times - like war. What is it that speaks (and explains), both inside, to the world of oneself, and outside, to the world of others, and re-collects and re-produces, and de-tours from, the death (of someone). The constellation of knots - of stop and go, in-the-name-of-love (ourselves, life) - insures, underwrites, by maintaining tense psychic energy, the (a)parallel contrary movements of sameness and difference, of an ever present belatedness.

See Elisabeth Bronfen, Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation, in Death and Representation, ibid., p. 103-129

23. What is an execution. The word comes from the latin exsequi, meaning to follow (in sequence, consequence) ex or out, i.e. to the end, to the grave, and from (via late latin derivatives) exsecütio, judicial prosecution or sentence, and from the feminine word exsecütrix, one who carries out a task (the guillotine was known as la guillotine or Dame Guillotine).

The guillotine was the brainchild of Dr Guillotin. "Messieurs, with my machine I can whisk off your heads in the twinkling of an eyelid. You won't feel a thing." He said to the French Assembly in December 1789. (Camille Naish, Death Comes to the Maiden, Sex and Execution 1431-1933, Routledge, London & NY, 1991, p. 104) It came to be thought of as Guillotin's daughter. Sexed feminine through language, machine being feminine in French, and via birth, it soon became 'woman'. "Aided no doubt by features of design, such as the victim lying on his stomach with his head in the lunette, popular humour did not hesitate to compare loss of the capital member with that of another part. The guillotine inherited from the gallows the nickname of 'La Veuve', the Widow.' (ibid., p. 106) The Scottish beheading machine was called the Maiden. "The last man to die by the Maiden, the earl of Argyle in 1685, declared 'as he pressed his lips on the block, that it was the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed' .... Behind 'la veuve,' who has consummated her affair, and 'the Maiden,' who sheds her first blood, is the guillotine as a gaping, single-toothed vagina dentata." (Regina Janes, Beheadings, in Death and Representation, p. 255) "The guillotine became the subject of jokes and songs, and a significant proportion of them celebrated it 'as a gruesome femme fatale'." (Naish, p. 106)

24. Execution, then, is a sentence, a prosecution, followed, carried, 'to the grave', sanctioned by the law of any arranged system or order. The feminine, announced through the suffix 'trix', a feminine agential, is possibly an abbreviation of the suffix torix (a compound of male/female), as the true f 'answer' to (L) - or is (L) -rix.

Eric Partridge, Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, p. 864

25. So, let it be that the execution is a doubly gendered agent/carrier of the law (not forgetting that the law is 'her').

"What's more, the law absurdly credited me with all powers; she declared herself perpetually on her knees before me." (Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day, trans. Lydia Davis, Station Hill Press, NY, 1981, p. 15)

26. This is curious, as it places the onus onto the order, not onto those who order, or that which orders, or the 'one' who executes the order, the sentence. Execution is the burden of the (hermaphroditic) group. Hence, the executioner is anonymous at the public (there are always witnesses) site: torture, hanging, beheading, bullet, electric chair, lethal injection.

The firing squad share the killing. No-one knows whose bullet is fatal. And a blank is usually issued, so there is the 'fact' that any one of the squad can not kill. The shared responsibility and the total absolution are integral to the ritual or machine which executes.

27. The question, continuous, to the grave, of the semantic form of the execution, of fascination, which produces images of death in speech and writing, giving voice to violence, in all its subtle and gross aesthetics, is nothing more, and as much as, a means of confirmation that death is far off, separate: how did the victim 'look', how was the act carried out, the details, the fine precise knowledge which allows one to quote, as a gift, to repeat, to join the conversation, to compensate for the non-spectacle, and to somehow honour the inevitable.

"If we may be permitted to give our opinion, such sights are frightfully painful. The blood flows from the blood vessels at the speed of the severed carotids, then it coagulates. The muscles contract and their fibrillation is stupefying; the intestines ripple and the heart moves irregularly, incompletely, fascinatingly. The mouth puckers at certain moments in a terrible pout. It is true that in that severed head the eyes are motionless with dilated pupils; fortunately they look at nothing and, if they are devoid of the cloudiness and opalescence of the corpse, they have no motion; their transparence belongs to life, but their fixity belongs to death. All this can last minutes, even hours, in sound specimens: death is not immediate ... Thus, every vital element survives decapitation." (Medical report quoted in Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, trans. Richard Howard, Fridtjof-Karla Publications, Michigan City, 1960, p. 12)
28. Execution has a history as long as defeat, victory, pleasure, pain: death exercised (exacted) by the technology of power: "By the period of the [French] Revolution, the display of severed heads had long been one of the commonest ways a European sovereign demonstrated his power to his subjects. As part of his responsibility to control public violence, he reserved to himself and his officials the right to take and to display heads. ... When the sovereign displays a head, he shows it not to his equals but to his people. They are the objects of that display, both as raw material and as audience. Their heads are the heads that are elevated, and it is they who must learn the lesson taught by them."
Janes, p. 245
29. All deaths are killings: death by disease, by accident, by age, etc. "Lacan came to see death in drives or discrete bodies of meaning that control our destinies and write upon our bodies qua organisms."
Ragland, p. 83

30. Death is, according to Lacan, more than a fact of life, more than our 'self'. Its 'effects' emanate from loss too intimate to name, around which swirl love of pain, obsession, belief: symptom. Death is opaque. It is, as symptom, "a structural imaginary that dwells alongside the ego".


31. It anchors us to the pleasures of our desire, it closes us against what the ego reads as 'more' loss. It becomes the 'voice' in language, it marks language by arranging sound/tone via speech and writing. Death is language work. The subject of execution is always in-the-know. On death row for months or years.

"PRISONER: How am I going to approach and sit in that chair? How am I going to take it? What's it going to be like? How is it going to feel? I already have an understanding about electricity, you know; it's not hard for me to imagine what an experience it would be.
INTERVIEWER: I see. It's a very ugly-sounding experience.
PRISONER: Definitely. Just think about the insides of your body, you know, how such organs could be burned, you know, thousands of high voltage. Think about the precious brain that is in your head, you know? Think about your eyes? What will become of them through such hundreds of volts being ran through your body? It's just really unpredictable what all can happen through such an experience, and what it will be like to go through it, to die right there, strapped in the chair." (Johnson, p. 85/86)

32. Before the barrel for a second. An execution is exacted upon the consciousness of the person, they know, that is. Perhaps many murders are executions, and many suicides. The assassination though is out-of-the-blue. Kennedy did not see the rifle, or hear the shot. The assassin is hidden. The executioner is not.

What the assassination is, is not clear: see paragraphs 2 and 18.

33. An execution is an exercise of executive power. The executive must execute the body, and the icon that that body embodies, the psyche. The executive can change (hands): "When the rabble cut off the heads of the king's officers, they have redefined themselves as the sovereign people. Literally and physically, they have seized the ultimate power of the sovereign. Instead of learning, they teach. It is a disturbing lesson to those identified with the old order; it is an invigorating lesson to those who identify with the new. As for those identified with the old order who believe they identify with the new, they ignore the lesson or palliate it." Janes, p. 245

Linda Marie Walker is a writer/artist living in Adelaide, South Australia, and is working on a PhD at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean.