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Seeing Justice DoneThe Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France$
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Paul Friedland

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199592692

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199592692.001.0001

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A Spectacular Crisis

A Spectacular Crisis

Watching Executions in the Age of Sensibilité

(p.165) 7A Spectacular Crisis
Seeing Justice Done

Paul Friedland

Oxford University Press

In the mid-eighteenth century, France reached a crisis point as competing cultural trends and practices ran headlong into one another: the rising public fascination with executions, the logic of exemplary deterrence (predicated on the idea that the spectacle of execution terrified spectators and deterred crime), and contemporary sensibilities (which held that human beings were instinctively compassionate and incapable of watching the suffering of others). The execution of Robert-Francois Damiens in 1757, during which enormous numbers of spectators watched a human being torn to pieces and flayed alive, epitomized this cultural crisis, and marked a cultural turning point, after which the privileged classes would largely forsake the penal spectacle as “horrible.” The vulgarization of the penal spectacle marked a crisis in its own right, as the very individuals who continued to delight in the penal spectacle were precisely the ones who were meant to be the target audience for exemplary deterrence.

Keywords:   executions, exemplary deterrence, spectacle, sensibilities, Damiens, spectators, cultural crisis, penal spectacle

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