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“Punishment: can we learn from Ionesco's allegory?” (juillet 2004)

Additional thoughts on the conference about “punishment” organised by the School of Criminology of the University of Montreal on 26/27 March 2004
Denis Salas

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1The debates which took place between historians, philosophers, jurists and sociologists during this seminar, have been punctuated by striking exchanges on punishment and the criminal law. The various interventions made together with their underlying representations have allowed the criminal system to swing between fears and utilitarian doctrines. Their setting is naturally dominated by an efficient democratic co-operation. The heart of their system relies on the trust that is put in rational citizens: the assumption is that these citizens will be able to anticipate sanctions. The existence of irrational behaviors can be solved by a “liability theory” under which freedom is used in a pathological or non-pathological way. The concepts of a “contract” and a “liability theory” remain two deep-rooted and renowned landmarks.

2In stark contrast to these reassuring theories, jurists and sociologists have opposed the cruel alliance of the free expression of public opinion and the criminal system. They adopt a dynamic view of the subject: they believe theories on sentencing are constantly challenged by public opinion. The latter frequently bursts into the legislative framework, mentalities as well as policing and judicial practices. How can we otherwise understand the increase in prescriptive periods and punishment, the emergence of victims, the birth of a victimary ideology and the impact of doctrines which are hostile to impunity? The legal (and judicial) arenas, which have been protected until now, are swamped and infected by wild political “queries”. The meaning of punishment cannot be controlled anymore. It is democracy itself and the rule of law which are endangered because a proper filter between our concerns and spasmodic and hesitating responses is sadly missing. The result is not pleasing: punishment models appear luxurious and obsolete. Criminal politics become a dismantled pantomime.

3Historians have appealed to the depths of their knowledge to arbitrate the debate from a distance. They reminded the audience of the secular violence dominating debates on sentencing and the bitter conflicts opposing ecclesiastical and political powers in their conquest of punishing. This is not a novel subject. Foucault raised it before. Philosophers then encouraged anguished sociologists to consider the virtues of positive citizenship: they likened citizens to actors who can either trigger an increase in punishment or favor the reinsertion of the most deserving delinquents. This reminds us that Rawls and his contractual philosophy should be read again to reap our optimism.

4Can we make any sense of radical pessimism and reassuring wisdom? The undecided author of this text has since then reread the classic play by Ionesco entitled Rhinoceros to help him answer this question.

5Rhinoceros tells the story of a small village whose inhabitants live peacefully with each other. One day, however, a cat is crushed by a rhino. Whilst the pain swells, eats away the community and the inhabitants of the village suffer from. The Logician decides to quarrel about facts: are rhinos Asian or African? Do they have one or two corns? Did they escape from a zoo or a circus? In response to these quibbles, the Grocer uses his common sense to argue the facts. He admits that there is some inherent logic in the Logician's arguments but cannot help from making one fundamental query: "Can we allow cats to be killed by rhinos before our very eyes? Does it matter whether these rhinos are African or Asian? Does it matter whether they have one or two horns? It does not. Such an event simply cannot be allowed to happen." This shows that in the presence of evil, some will always attempt to reason the events that are happening around them, others will simply struggle to preserve their humanity.

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Denis Salas, « “Punishment: can we learn from Ionesco's allegory?” (juillet 2004) », Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Archives, mis en ligne le 13 juillet 2004, consulté le 24 février 2018. URL :

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Denis Salas

Denis Salas est magistrat, enseignant à l'ENM (Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature) et membre de l'IHEJ (Institut des hautes études sur la Justice).

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