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Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie | Translated by Lara Vergnaud

What remains anti-democratic in our criminal justice systems, and where does it come from? Geoffroy de Lagasnerie spent years sitting in on trials, watching as individuals were judged and sentenced for armed robbery, assault, rape, and murder. His experience led to this original reflection on the penal state, power, and violence that identifies a paradox in the way justice is exercised in liberal democracies. In order to pronounce a judgment, a trial must construct an individualizing story of actors and their acts; but in order to punish, each act between individuals must be transformed into an aggression against society as a whole, against the state itself.

The law is often presented as the reign of reason over passion. Instead, it leads to trauma, dispossession, and violence. Only by overturning our inherited legal fictions can we envision forms of truer justice. Combining narratives of real trials with theoretical analysis, Judge and Punish shows that juridical institutions are not merely a response to crime. The state claims to guarantee our security, yet from our birth, we also belong to it. The criminal trial, a magnifying mirror, reveals our true condition as political subjects.


Geoffroy de Lagasnerie is a Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at the École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts de Paris-Cergy and the author of The Art of Revolt (Stanford, 2017).

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