Debt, Guilt, and Hungry Ghosts: A Foucauldian Perspective on Bigert’s and Bergström’s Last Supper - Cabinet Magazine Online
Terri J. Gordon

Last Supper (2005), a new film by Swedish artists Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström, centers on the “paradoxical ritual” of the last meal served to prisoners before execution, a ritual in which, in the film’s opening words, “human mercy and cruelty … share the same dinner table."*1. The question at the heart of the film rejoins the larger debates concerning the practice of capital punishment itself, a practice that appears to stand at odds with the “humane” nature of the modern penal system.2 This essay takes up the paradoxical nature of the practice of capital punishment and the rituals surrounding it by considering the film from the perspective of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher whose work on the penal system has been formative to our understanding of modern modalities of power and punishment.

I. Foucault on Power and Punishment

Opening with a vivid account of the force with which violations of the law were met under the Ancien Régime in France, Foucault's Discipline & Punish (1975) traces out modes of punishment from spectacular public executions in the classical period to the birth of the modern prison system in the 19th century. Through this trajectory, Foucault aims to show that the progression in penal practices was not motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns, but rather by a new economy of power. He seeks to demonstrate how mechanisms of power have moved from the overt coercion by the rule of a sovereign to a more hidden form of power pervading the entire social body, a disciplinary power operating through a three-fold system of surveillance, normalization, and examination. In a larger sense, Foucault sees a movement from the right of death to the power over life, from a negative control over the body to a regime of “bio-power,” a regime intent on producing knowledge and useful and docile bodies.

Yet, the practice of capital punishment does not fit into this narrative. Contradicting the movement from overt to implicit control over the body, it exists as a kind of remnant of the sovereign’s absolute and arbitrary power. Foucault himself addresses this contradiction in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976): “How could power exercise its highest prerogatives by putting people to death, when its main role was to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order? For such a power, execution was at the same time a limit, a scandal, and a contradiction.”3 Foucault suggests that this “scandal” could be justified only on the grounds of life itself, on the grounds of protecting and safeguarding the lives of the innocent from the figure of the “monstrous criminal.”4

Bigert’s and Bergström’s Last Supper addresses precisely this “limit,” this “scandal,” this “contradiction,” in Foucault’s terms. As Foucault writes in Discipline & Punish, “There remains … a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice – a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.”5 In this essay, I will consider what remains in the modern practice of capital punishment, and, specifically, in the strange ritual of the last supper.

II. The Last Supper in Art and Culture

The Last Supper has been one of the most popular and enduring subjects in art. Drawing on the “love feast” (agape) depicted in Christian catacomb paintings, the earliest depictions of the Last Supper date back to the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century C.E.6 The most famous painting of the Last Supper is Leonardo da Vinci’s monumental fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, which depicts Christ and his Apostles at the Passover meal.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498, detail. Tempera on stone, 460 x 880 cm. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Leonardo’s Last Supper has inspired countless artists over the centuries. The most notable influence in the contemporary period can be found in the work of Andy Warhol, who produced an elaborate “Last Supper” cycle at the end of his career, a series of about 40 paintings that is considered by some critics to constitute his most important work.7

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (Pink), 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas.

A sustained refashioning of Leonardo’s masterpiece, Warhol’s work mixes the secular and the sacred, becoming more campy and kitschy with each iteration. For example, in The Last Supper (Dove), Warhol superimposes a price tag and the logos for Dove soap and General Electric over a line drawing of the Last Supper.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (Dove), 1986. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

In the contemporary period, artists have also turned their attention to the use of the ritual of the last supper in the practice of capital punishment. Three North American artists have recently done plate installations depicting the last meals served to prisoners to be executed.8 The following plate from American artist Julie Green’s The Last Supper, an ongoing series of over 200 china painted plates, illustrates the final meal request of a death row inmate in Texas in 2001.

Plate from Julie Green’s The Last Supper series. Final meal request of U.S. death row inmate, Texas, 18 Sept. 2001: Western omelet, fried potatoes, sliced tomato, pan sausage, cantaloupe.

In the past two decades, a number of films have been made as well, such as British filmmaker James Marsh’s 1992 documentary covering capital punishment in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.

Today, a whole “last supper” industry has emerged. Until recently, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website contained a “Final Meal Requests” page, a page that was removed in 2003 for reasons of taste. In its place stands a reactionary website, “Dead Man Eating” (, which provides a chronicle of hundreds of last meals ordered from prisoners across the nation. The home page features “the last ten diners,” and the web store sells “Dead Man Eating” t-shirts, mugs, and underwear.

What accounts for the persistence of the ritual of the last supper in capital punishment? And what accounts for our hunger for information, for the public consumption of this last meal?

III. Genealogy of the Last Supper

In good Foucauldian – or more precisely, Nietzschean — fashion, Bigert’s and Bergström’s film performs a genealogical study of the practice of the last supper. Last Supper is invaluable in that it undertakes one of the first sustained analyses of this practice, providing, in Bigert’s words, “a transcultural, transhistorical cookbook about the history and tradition of this ritual of the last supper.”9 On a transhistorical level, the film traces the ritual back to ancient Greece, where the condemned were buried with food to ensure a safe passage to the afterworld and to prevent them from returning as hungry ghosts to haunt the living, and follows it through the Middle Ages to the present. On a transcultural level, Last Supper shows the diverse ways the practice persists in America, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, and South Africa. I will focus here on three elements the film reveals to be common and fundamental to the ritual of the last supper: the sacred, the sacrificial, and the spectacular.

In Christianity, the Last Supper is one of the most sacred events as it provides the basis for the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which individuals ingest the symbolic body and blood of Christ as an act of devotion and atonement.10 This sacred consumption of the body has deeper roots in primitive totemic meals, which Freud considers “mankind’s earliest festival[s],” in which tribal communities consumed the bodies of the dead as a way to identify with them and acquire their qualities.11 It also recalls Freud’s founding patriarchal narrative of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo in which the band of sons consumes the body of the murdered father, an act that produces a sense of guilt and the incest taboo.12 As the film shows, the communal nature of the ritual has persisted over time. In Thailand, for example, the food of the condemned is shared with monks, who partake of it to ensure peace for the community.

In its Christian sense, the ritual of the Last Supper is also a fundamentally sacrificial one (Christ as sacrificial lamb whose blood was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28)). As the film demonstrates, from the sacrifice of Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome to the burning of witches in 18th-century Germany, sacrifice — and particularly female sacrifice — has remained fundamental to the ritual over time.

At the heart of this sacred and sacrificial ritual is spectacle. In line with Foucault’s reading of punishment in the classical age, the film highlights the spectacular nature of the ritual, pointing to the elaborate communal feasts that preceded the public execution in Germany in the classical period, feasts which were shared by the family, church members, judges and executioners alike.13 This Bacchanalian scene from the third plate of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1735), a series of plates depicting the demise of a social-climbing rake, parodies Leonardo’s Last Supper and satirizes the decadent nature of the banquet in Hogarth’s time.14

William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress, 1735, Plate 3.

For German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the spectacular nature of cruel public festivals in the ancient world was based on our “thirst for cruelty,” on our intrinsic aggressive drives and desires.15 Pointing to the etymological link between debt and guilt in the German word Schulden in On The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that we seek to inflict pain on wrongdoers because we derive pleasure from the suffering of others. “[T]o what extent can suffering balance debts or guilt [Schulden]?,” Nietzsche asks. “To the extent that to make suffer was in the highest degree pleasurable, to the extent that the injured party exchanged for the loss he had sustained … an extraordinary counterbalancing pleasure: that of making suffer – a genuine festival….”16 At work in these festivals of cruelty is, in Nietzsche’s eyes, the spirit of revenge, a spirit that is transformed into justice only by the institution of law.17

To return to the question posed at the outset, I want now to consider the extent to which elements of the sacred, the sacrificial, and the spectacular remain in the current practice of the last supper. On an individual level, the sacred ritual has taken secular form, although religious aspects may remain for individuals. As the film’s protagonist Brian Price points out, last meals afford the condemned final moments of comfort, comfort produced by a human connection in the present and a material connection to a more familiar past. In an interview in Legal Affairs in 2004, Price says, “I always thought of the last meals I prepared as a version of the Last Supper, when Christ knew that he would die the next day. I took my job seriously, and it made me feel good that I was able to give the condemned at least a piece of a free world as they remembered it.”18 On a public level, it seems to me that this ritual in the western world has moved largely from the sacred to the profane.19 As is indicated by the voyeuristic consumption of last meal minutiae in the media, a kind of “culture industry” of the last supper has emerged in recent years. The last meal and the last words of the condemned have become commodified objects circulating in the market, a trend that is receiving critical commentary in the recent artworks, films, and books treating the subject.

Andy Warhol’s Last Supper cycle, which incorporates items from consumer culture, the military, and the world of sports and fitness into Last Supper meals, provides a pop perspective and an ironic comment on this cultural commodification. Sixty Last Suppers, in particular, anticipates the proliferation of the discourse surrounding the ritual.

Andy Warhol, Sixty Last Suppers, 1986, detail. Synthetic polymer on silkscreen ink on canvas.

While the sacred aspect of the ritual seems to have disappeared in the communal realm, the sacrificial and spectacular elements remain. The striking visual imagery of the film, in which meat serves as the primary metaphor for the prisoners on death row, suggests that the death penalty is a kind of blood sacrifice, a suggestion which is made explicit in the final shots devoted to the figure of the sacrificial lamb.20

The element of spectacle also remains fundamental to current practices. Not only are the family and close friends of the victims invited to witness the execution, but the public is given access to the event as well through media broadcasts of the final 24 hours, the final words and the final meal of the condemned. Prisoners are subject to a “deathwatch,” a period of time ranging from a day to a week in which all of their actions are recorded.21 Thus, the last supper ritual does, in fact, conform to Foucault’s understanding of modern modalities of power. The prisoner on death row becomes an ideal figure in the panopticon, the model prison envisioned by Jeremy Bentham in which prisoners would be subject to constant scrutiny and would, thus, internalize the law and govern themselves. Subject to continued surveillance and normalization by the authorities and the public at large, the condemned serves as a figure for communal punishment, voyeuristic pleasure, and the production of knowledge.

IV. Considering Forgiveness

To conclude, I want to turn to the question of forgiveness, to consider how justice, forgiveness, and revenge figure in this “paradoxical ritual” in which “human mercy and cruelty … share the same dinner table.” On one level, the ritual constitutes both an implicit call for forgiveness on the part of the citizens of the state in whose name the executions are carried out and a demonstration of forgiveness as well, in that it shows kindness to the condemned and a recognition of their humanity and our shared humanity.22

But, more fundamentally, I don’t think we can separate the ritual of the last meal from the final execution. While the execution bears the mark of the sword, the rituals surrounding it, from the years on death row to final surveillance to public display, carry with them the kind of invisible control over the body that Foucault associates with disciplinary forms of power, a control that aims, according to James Marsh and Mats Bigert, to kill the spirit before it kills the body.23

Like the vengeance wrapped in mercy meted out to Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the merciful ritual of the last meal comes at great cost. The price of the last supper for the prisoner is a radical loss of personhood and privacy, a weird reduction of the individual for posterity to his/her last meal. The sacrificial and spectacular nature of capital punishment renders it a modern equivalent of the ancient public spectacles that Nietzsche attributes to aggressive, voyeuristic impulses. It also suggests that vengeance is primarily at work in the practice of capital punishment, that we are seeking justice in the form of a “pound of flesh.”

Perhaps the “hungry ghosts” the Thai people fear represent their own guilty consciences. Perhaps we feed the condemned to keep them from haunting us, to repress our own guilt at our role in this violent practice of state-mandated manslaughter. Perhaps we, like Freud’s primal horde, share in the consumption of the final meal in order to identify with the condemned and share in his/her guilt. Or perhaps we scapegoat and spectacularize the prisoner in order to cast away our own sins. In any case, I think debt and guilt remain close together in this strange ritual in which mercy and cruelty share the same dinner table. In the end, the practice of the last supper may reveal more about the public’s anxieties and desires than it does about the prisoner’s tastes.

*This essay is based on a talk given at “The Last Supper,” an event organized by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in collaboration with Cabinet magazine at The New School on April 3, 2006. Part of the Vera List Center’s “Considering Forgiveness” cycle, the event included a film screening and a panel discussion with filmmaker Mats Bigert, protagonist Brian Price and myself. I am grateful to Carin Kuoni and Sina Najafi for organizing this event and for giving me the opportunity to speak about Bigert’s and Bergström’s remarkable new film.

1 Last Supper (2005), written and directed by Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström, produced by Bigert and Bergström in co-production with SVT, DR, NRK, YLE, Nordiska TV-samarbetsfonden and pre-production support from The Swedish Film Institute, ch. 3.

2 The practice of capital punishment in the United States (which is the only post-industrial nation besides Japan to have the death penalty) has been critiqued on numerous grounds: that it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” that its application has been deeply racist, that it risks executing innocent people, and that it does not serve as a deterrent to violent crime. Currently, 38 out of the 50 states have the death penalty, and Texas maintains the highest number of executions. There have been about 150 executions in Texas since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

3 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. I, tran. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 138.

4 Foucault writes, “Hence capital punishment could not be maintained except by invoking less the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal, his incorrigibility, and the safeguard of society. One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (History of Sexuality I, 138).

5 Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tran. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 16.

6 Ludwig H. Heydenreich, Leonardo: The Last Supper (New York: The Viking Press, 1974), 32.

7 Jane Daggett Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (New York: Continuum, 1998), 10, 101.

8 See the works of the American photographer Celia Shapiro, the Toronto-based artist and designer Michael Alstad, and the American artist Julie Green. Julie Green is Associate Professor of Art at Oregon State University.

9 “Bigert & Bergström and James Marsh interviewed by Sina Najafi,” UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst 3/4 (1999).

10 According to the Gospel of Matthew, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26: 26-28). The New Testament, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., ed. Michael D. Coogan, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49-50.

11 Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, tran. James Strachey, Intro. Peter Gay (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), 176.

12 Freud, Totem and Taboo, 176-181.

13 In an interview with Sina Najafi, James Marsh comments, “Executions in 18th century England were a rather splendid public occasion, and the last meal was in fact an elaborate banquet which was served in the prison itself where prostitutes would also come along and service the condemned man” (UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst, 6).

14 Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1735) is a series of eight engravings that traces out the progressive downfall of Tom Rackwell, the son of a wealthy merchant whose extravagant lifestyle leads him to debtor’s prison and Bedlam.

15 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, tran. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 66. In this work, Nietzsche considers cruelty the “great festival pleasure of more primitive men” (66).

16 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 65.

17 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 75.

18 Brian Price, “The Last Supper,” Legal Affairs, March-April 2004.

19 In Last Supper, the German writer Aris Fioretos suggests that the last meal is an “obscene,” not a “scenic,” act, a kind of materialistic perversion of the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist.

20 James Marsh agrees with this sentiment: “[The death penalty is] very much a symbolic act: it’s serving to appease the people with a blood sacrifice…. [W]hat you get is a parade of rather arbitrary people who are slaughtered in public, or rather in the public’s name, to appease some deeper sense of anxiety about the kind of society they live in” (UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst, 11).

21 UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst, 3.

22 Bigert suggests that the practice of the last meal enables those working within the prison system to seek forgiveness: “The ritual of the last supper is also a way for the guards, or for the people working in the prison, to ask for forgiveness, to indicate to the prisoner that it’s not their fault, that it’s the system…” (UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst, 5).

23 UKS-Forum for Samtidskunst, 5.

Terri J. Gordon is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at The New School in New York City.

© 2006