Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part One

Discours/Figure (1971)

Part One

Perhaps because Jean-François Lyotard was a prolific and sometimes too hasty writer (as he termed himself), the reader is a witness to the development of the philosopher over time. Discours, figure was translated into English decades after its publication in French and was known to English readers only through commentary or the occasional translated bits and pieces. Despite its comparatively early date of publication, 1971, Discours, figure was not an immature work but a marker on the way to Lyotard’s own position in philosophy. In its own fashion, Discours, figure inaugurates or illustrates his incorporation of received and traditional ideas in Modernist philosophy but through critiquing the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), he adapts well-understood concepts of language and phenomenology for his own ends.

In 2001 Mary Lydon (1937-2001) wrote in Veduta on Discours, figure, Discours, figure is a notoriously difficult book. Bordering frequently on the impenetrable, it demands a level of concentration and intellectual stamina sufficient to give even the sophisticated reader pause.” Lyotard’s early work was written for his dissertation (thèse de doctorate de d’État), and Discours, figure (translated by Mary Lydon and Antony Hudek) explored the meaning between the discursive and the figure and discursive significance or meaning and that which resists representation. Her co-translator, Anthony Hudek agreed with the difficulty of the book, writing in 2011, stating,

The complexity of Lyotard’s pharasing with its words taken at face value (all their possible meanings layered one on top of the other) and neologisms (dé-jeu) is indicative not only of the often perilous task that awaits any translator of Lyotard’s writing, but also of the ambiguity Lyotard invests in the proper pronoun (s’attendre as waiting for each other/oneself”) and thus of the care he takes in foiling (déjouer) the grasp of the philosopher, the historian and the biographer-critic. This evasion is playful, no doubt, but also deadly serious: un-game, dé-jeu. The solution Lyotard proposes to translate this elusive strategy is to translate the verb s’attendre in the language in which it is written or writes iself—whatever language presumably this may be.

So one approaches this notorious book, not translated until 2011 and considered essentially untranslatable by one of its translators, Lydon, who worked in the translation for twenty five years, with caution. Just as another of his earlier works, Libidinal Economy (1974), came out of his time as a student of Jacques Lacan, Discours, figure was a product of Structuralism and its end at the hands of Deconstruction, a reiteration of Freud through the lingering ghost of Lacan and the always present political implications of Marxism. Considered one of his four “books” by Lyotard, Discours, figure also reflects the investigation into phenomenology of his first book, Phenomenology (1954) and laces psychoanalytical theory into its pages. As in all of Lyotard’s books, there are digressions and wanderings, thick layered footnotes, and what his translators termed a deliberate “elusiveness” as to a topic or a thesis or a goal.


The publication of the book, 1971, was significant in that it followed the impact of Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction upon the literary and philosophical scene. Wending his way through Saussure and Merleau-Ponty to get to Derrida, Lyotard arrived at his own version of language and its discontents. Discours, figure is all about the comma that divides the two words, inserting an element of incommensurability that sought to insinuate a diminutive radicality that allowed for the entry of an alien term, “figure,” into the warp and woof of “discourse.” Discourse is a conceptual view of language which flattens language into a system of pure oppositions, but the Figure is corporeal, connected to the eye which is never civilized and always mobile and is inevitably repressed by linguistics.

Lyotard privileged the eye in the opening sentences of his book. Quoting André Breton, “The eye exists in a savage state,” the philosopher wrote,

This book takes the side of the eye, of its sitting; shadow is its prey. The half-light that, after Plato, the word threw like a gray pall over the sensory that it consistently thematize as a a lesser being, whose side has been very rarely taken, taken untruth, since it was understood that its side is that of falsity, skepticism, the rhetorician, the painter, the condottiere, the libertine, the materialist—this half light is precisely what interests this book.

Readers of Lyotard’s later works, “books” or not, will recognize the seeds of these texts which crop up in Discours, figure. Discourse is representation by concepts that organize the object of knowledge as a system or units of meaning. These meanings are defined in terms of their positions in that particular discursive network. In other words, that discourse imposes what should be/can be thought or spoken by way of spatial arrangements. The resulting net(work) imposes itself upon objects that are rendered textual and lie down in opposition to one another. Lyotard envisioned this space as flat, like a table, where language and its grids could be conveniently laid out for all to see. Upon this (flat) “space” of arrangements, various texts coalesce into a “discourse,” or that which can be articulated, called the “discursivization of textual space.” In other words, signifiers morph into discourse and signifieds or meaning is produced by the oppositional play between signifiers.

For those familiar with Saussure’s Structuralism, Lyotard’s discussion is a familiar one, but he rejected the homogeneity of the discursive space asserted to be as purely textual and placed himself firmly in the Post-Structuralist camp by introducing the Figure into the undifferentiated space of Discourse. Although his insistence upon the alien and unwelcome Figure is akin to Deconstruction, Lyotard’s critique of both Saussure and Derrida was that both philosophers confined themselves to the “text” or that which was constructed through representational concepts. Famously Derrida asserted “There is no outside the text,” (il n’ya pas de hors texte”) but Lyotard begged to differ. The task of discourse is to represent, and, in taking up that task, language tautologically assumes that representation is possible. This assumption of control over language is linked historically to the invention of perspective in the Renaissance, a visual system of lines that “represented” space. But in order for language to represent, heterogeneous elements, such as the Figure or the Figural, had to be suppressed, written out of language, as it were.

It is important to note that both Saussure and Derrida conceived of language as a flat depthless site in which the signs were totally unmotivated or lying in arbitrary oppositions, activated only by or within the network of relationships. Lyotard was not so much asserting depth onto a spaceless plane nor was he inserting a materiality as he was introducing a form of thinking that was linked to seeing or the visible. The Figure lies just outside of language, at its periphery, on its edge, invading its well planned system and inserting itself without being acknowledged. The Figural cannot be acknowledged because it invokes that which cannot be represented. In its (non)function of designating or in its role in pointing to, the Figure can be linked to the “here” as opposed to the “there” as the finger points and the eye follows. In formal language “here,” “there,” “this,” “that,” “now,” “then,” and so on are designators and are, in linguistic terms, so vague and imprecise that they are useless as representations. That said, these physical and linguistic gestures refer to sensory and/or temporal conditions that are outside the discursive but are necessary to speech and writing or what Lyotard referred to as expression.

Lyotard, who wrote often of art, turned to the French scientist and expert on Prehistoric art, André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) to make a case for the expressive value of words. He stated that

One would be more inclined to back André Leroi-Gourhan’s well-argued hypothesis, according to which the oldest language performed a sacred function and the first significative spoken units were uttered by a narrator who simultaneously gestured toward the corresponding painted figures during ceremonial processions followed by the robe in temple-caverns. The hypothesis is very appealing since the function of designation immediately comes across in all its power and specificity. The latter hinges on two decisive points: speech is not uttered in the absence of the designated thing, but in its presence; and the designated thing is not a thing but a symbol which legitimately can be said from the outset to be opaque.

Therefore, it is this expressiveness, this pointing function of figuration–the sayer of the word pointing to (the picture of/the sign for) the thing that consists of the depth or the “thickness,” as Lyotard would have it, in the language. Rhetoric, then, partakes of the Figure in that, like the hand of the narrator, rhetoric gestures to that which is beyond uttering, that which escapes discourse or representation through concepts. The philosopher set aside linguistic models based on firmly opposed opposites and insisted upon the simultaneous presence of heterogeneity due presence of the (suppressed) other haunting the textual. As the example of the cave paintings suggested, vision is a necessary element of speaking and the glue of concepts and this physicality of language cannot be reduced to phenomenology, which seeks an impossible “pure” pre-cognitive vision untouched by words.

To envision, so to speak, the points that Lyotard was making, one would do no better than to return to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1897, published as a book in 1914). Lyotard lauds the poem’s “power to figure.” Mallarmé’s contribution was to call attention of the physicality of the marks on the page and to the visuality of the poem which rolls and bounds from page to page, shedding, in its exuberance, one font and trying on another, leaving gaps and spaces which assert themselves in a graphic negation. Here, on the white pages, the figural emerged to confront the reader with the dark ink forming physical lines that run erratically, like a tossed die, against the winds of chance. The figural is never discourse’s Other but always its ghost, vision separated from concept by a mere comma.

Discourse/figure is incommensurable in spatial terms and constitute a co-present of heterogeneous spaces, an informal mode of art work’s presentation of itself as is seen (literally) in the thick and materiality of Mallarmé’s poem. Lyotard referred to the intrusion of the figural as an intrusion of the “rhetorical” or that which discourse considers to be excessive and is incommensurable with discursive representation. There is something other than representation that cannot be contained by nor captured by discursive concepts. This something other, for Barthes, was “style”, for Lyotard it was “figure.” The second part of the discussion of Discourse, Figure will take up the role of art as the Figural.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard on the Sublime, Part Three

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime

Part Three

In Ticket to a New Decor, Jean-François Lyotard wrote of “anamesis,” a key concept in his account of the sublime. In the Platonic sense, anamesis is a form of pre-conscious collective memory that must be recovered through an act of conscious learning. Anamesis is a precondition for learning in the sense that there are certain innate ideas or internal concepts that are already present in the mind at birth. Kantian thought reconsidered these preexisting conditions as already-present conitive structures that make the instinctive understanding of certain concepts, such as “cause and effect” without having to re-experience or relearn on each occurrence that every effect has a cause. Because, as was pointed out in the past post, the Sublime is beyond the bounds of “normal” understanding and must be accounted for in another fashion, Lyotard applied anamesis to the Sublime stating,

All these wounds can be given names. Their names are strewn across the field of our unconscious like so many secret obstacles to the quiet perpetuation of the “modern project.” Under the pretense of safeguarding that project, the men and women of my generation in Germany imposed on their children a forty-year silence about the “Nazi interlude.” This interdiction against remembering stands as a symbol for the entire Western world. But can there be progress without remembering, without an act of anamnesis? Anamnesis constitutes a painful process of working through, a work of mourning for the conflicting emotions, loves and terrors, associated with these wounds.

Anamesis, then, is a form of recollection but, in the Lyotardian sense, it becomes a collective buried memory that resists being unearthed. Indeed Lyotard took the concept of the différend from his earlier book, The Differend, Phrases in Dispute (1983), and applied the idea to the sublime, suggesting a refusal or an inability for “phrases” to communicate with each other. In some ways, Lyotard solved a problem that Kant struggled with of how to fit the Sublime into his architectonic structure of Judgment and, in the end, as Lyotard pointed out, tacked his “analytic” of the Sublime to the larger book as an “appendix.” The Sublime is that human condition that refused to fit into Kant’s neat scheme that would allow it to parallel the Beautiful as an opposite pair. But there is a différend the prevents the Sublime from falling into Kantian place and due to irreconcilable differences, the Sublime dangles at the edge of Judgment as an appendix.

The Sublime is beyond defining in the positive sense of saying “this is what it is” and is (not)defined in its mute disability to present itself. Emmanuel Kant discussed the Sublime in terms of pure and present feeling, not discourse, but emotions that descend upon the body. It is not often noted, but the Sublime, as a feeling, is physical and sensual–breathlessness and speechlessness–as Kant noted,

The sublime moves; the expression of a person experiencing the full sense of the sublime is serious, at times rigid and amazed. On the other hand, the vivid sense of the beautiful reveals itself in the shining gaiety of the eyes, by smiling and even by noisy enjoyment. The sublime, in turn, is at times accompanied by some terror or melancholia, in some cases merely by quiet admiration and in still others by the beauty which is spread over a sublime place. The first I want to call the terrible sublime, the second the noble, and the third the magnificent. Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a terrifying way.

The Beautiful and the Sublime can be paired, but only to a certain extent. Both share the fact that both are feelings that must be expressed as judgments, both must lack and “interest” or private/individual concerns and therefore both must be universal. Although these judgments, being universal, are shared by the collective, these feelings are singular and are subjective. Both judgments also deploy the faculties of reason and understanding. So the judgments of the Beautiful and the Sublime are “pure” aesthetic concepts in that the beholder is “disinterested” but it is also impossible to point to any determinative reason for the judgment. Deciding upon what is Beautiful or Sublime is cannot be decided with finality because the concepts to which they refer are indeterminate, or without any finality. In writing to the confrontation with the Infinite, Lyotard stated,

Before this Idea, the dizziness of the thought that presents is transformed into a moral anguish. The imagination sinks to a zero of presentation,w which is the correlate of the absolute infinite. Nature founders with it, for nothing of it is presentable as an object of this idea.

Most aestheticians write more easily and more copiously of the Beautiful because the Sublime is so very divergent and escapes scholarly expression. The Beautiful is based securely within form and that form has limits, a shape and boundaries. The Beautiful, whether it is a beautiful woman, as imagined by Edmund Burke in Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), or a beautiful flower is always possible to understand. Because the beautiful form can be presented or represented, the viewer receives pleasure at the sight of something called “quality.” Of course the Beautiful is not necessarily connected to an object but, necessary to the concept of the beautiful, is its availability to understanding and to form and to pleasure.


Martin Johnson Heade, Mixed Flowers with a Box and Pearls (1869)

The Sublime, on the other hand, is unavailable: unavailable for limitation because one of its characteristics is its immense quantity, unavailable for the rules and order that guide beauty. When the Sublime occurs, it cannot be presented and it cannot be represented. As the result, the Sublime is unavailable for understanding and, therefore, belongs to the realm of reason. This is where the différend enters. When confronted with the Sublime, Reason demands satisfaction but satisfaction is unavailable because the Imagination, which is expected to be able to provide content for Reason, fails. Communication breaks down between the former allies: reason and imagination. The lack of or the impossibility of agreement or cooperation results in sharp feelings, not of pleasure and satisfaction, but of distinct displeasure. As Lyotard wrote,

This differend is to be found a the heart of sublime feeling at the encounter of the two “absolutes” equally “present” to thought, the absolute whole when it conceives, the absolutely measured when it presents..Their wing put into relation abolishes each of them as absolute..the conflict is not an ordinary dispute, which a third instance could grasp and put an end to, but a “differend.”

Above all else, the Sublime is Negative, it always eludes reason, imagination and understanding. The Sublime is on the wrong side of pleasure but in its very novelty or rarity, this overwhelming feeling fascinates some philosophers precisely because of its abject state for formlessness. This awakening interest in the Sublime is new, fueled undoubtedly by certain “sublime” events, such as the discovery of the concentrations camps and mass industrialized death and the dropping of two atomic bombs upon cities of civilians, and, more recently, September 11th. Lyotard, however, moved past actual events in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, and, in his later essays on avant-garde art, concentrated on one of his earlier passions, the visual arts. Indeed, many post-war artists have attempted to explore the Sublime but there is a real question (in my mind) whether the Sublime can possibly be “contained” within the boundaries of a work of art.

In the true Sublime, a very rare encounter, there is a suggestion of (the mind) being outside, of being a spectator watching or experiencing something over which one has no control or understanding. The Sublime, oddly enough, has not been applied to, for example, those who survived the Dresden bombing–those who were immersed in the event. For one who has experienced a Sublime event, feelings of fear and relief at having survived would dominate. But the outsider would view the Sublime experience with a mix of negative pleasure in that s/he is both attracted and repelled in the sense of “I could not look away.” The Sublime then is an Idea that cannot be articulated or brought under the precincts of comprehension and any pleasure that is attached to the Sublime is the Delight of the perverse relief at being a spectator. “Sublime violence, Lyotard said, is like lightening. It short-circuits thinking with itself.” He continued,

But the sublime is a sudden blazing, and without future..As it is expounded and deduced in its thematic, sublime feeling is analyzed as a double defiance. Imagination at the limits of what it can present does violence to itself in order to present that it can no longer present.

It becomes clear that the Sublime is not only singular, it is also internal and exists within an individual human being who has failed to comprehend precisely because there is no object involved. The Sublime, contrary to popular art thinking, never resides in nature because nature always has both purpose and form, while the Sublime lacks both purpose and form. Because the reflective quality of the Sublime, which is purposelessness (involuntary) feeling that takes over the mind of the beholder is on a repetitive mental loop, Lyotard refers to this state as “tautological” or a peculiarly repetitive form of a “statement.” So the mind, stunned and shattered by the event or occurrence recoils violently back upon itself and feel the pain of the limits of the Imagination. The mind, unable to present or to represent resorts to Reason or Idea, known as the super-sensible–outside the realm of sensible understanding.

Lyotard directly challenged Kant’s idea that Reason was supreme with the différend which kept reason and understanding forever apart and incompatible, unable to “speak” to one another, a “failure to communicate.” In order to explain the Sublime, Lyotard turned to the successive concepts of quod and quid: the quod is what is (and must occur first) and the quid is what happened. The mind cannot deal with the flash of the immediacy and the strength of the quod and even more stressful is the apparent immediacy of the quid, which seems to occur at the same time as the quod but is inherently different. The quod is the immaterial and the quid is that which is material. The struggle is always between the two: the quid which attempts to present or interpret the quod and the quod that resists representation, causing a différend, which with Lyoard is the Sublime itself.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part Two

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part Two

The definition of aesthetics has always been difficult to grasp and perhaps what is more interesting in attempts to define aesthetics is the fact that in the middle of the eighteenth century, philosophers deemed it necessary to return to ideas that had been languishing since antiquity. The eighteenth century is the century of reason and rationalism par excellence, but there was a category of thinking and feeling and reacting that fell between the rational and the irrational and the rest of the century would be spent in trying to bring “feelings” into the realm of reason. At first, these studies of what would later be termed “aesthetics” were extensions of pre-existing philosophical systems.

Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) is usually credited with being the first to lecture on the topic of aesthetics in 1742 and published Aesthetica in two volumes in 1750 and 1758. Written (and available today) in Latin, a language spoken only by ancient and long dead Romans in that period, the book defined aesthetics in the following fashion: “Aesthetics (as the theory of liberal arts, as inferior cognition, as the art of beautiful thinking and as the art of thinking analogous to reason) is the science of sensual cognition.” From its very inception, aesthetics was concerned with the senses and with feelings, which caused an immediate problem for philosophy, which always seeks the universal, namely that “sensual cognition” is personal and unique, belonging to the individual. For example, in the history of aesthetics, the concept of the beautiful has always seemed clear. In his well-known attempt to define and divide the Beautiful and the Sublime, A Philosophical Inquiry into our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) devoted more than half the book to the Sublime, a notoriously difficult concept. On the Beautiful, he concluded,

On the whole, the qualities of beauty, as they are merely sensible qualities, are the following: First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but, fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright, but not very strong and glaring. Seventhly, or if it should have any glaring colour, to have it diversified with others. These are, I believe, the properties on which beauty depends; properties that operate by nature, and are less liable to be altered by caprice, or confounded by a diversity of tastes, than any other.

Of the Sublime, Burke wrote,

..the sublime is an idea belonging to self-preservation; that it is therefore one of the most affecting we have; that its strongest emotion is an emotion distress; and that no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.

When one reads this book, written in 1757, it is clear that it is laced with the writer’s personal opinions on topics such as what makes a woman beautiful that have, with time, become dated. What Burke wrote about was “feelings,” but what was needed in philosophy, as Emmanuel Kant began to understand, was some kind of universal standard for the Beautiful and the Sublime. The mindset of the eighteenth century demanded an secular architecture for humanity that was all inclusive and, in his Analytic of the Sublime, Kant built a structure that included that most difficult of all topics in aesthetics, the Sublime. Kant differentiate between the “Mathematically” and the Dynamically” sublime, concluding,

Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us). Everything that provokes this feeling in us, including the might of nature which challenges our strength, is then, though improperly, called sublime, and it is only under presupposition of this idea wihin us, and in relation to it, that we are capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which inspires deep respect in us, not by the mere display of its might in nature, but more by the faculty which is planed in us of estimating that might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it.

The importance of Kant’s concept of the Sublime is that, unlike Beauty, which resided in object, whether natural or human made, is that the Sublime is a reaction within the mind. But in order to deal with the Sublime in a universal fashion, Kant needed an example of an Event that induced or caused a Sublime reaction. That Event had to have a universal basis (or as universal as a European philosopher in his era could conceive) and Kant’s choice example of an Event in the Critique of Judgment (1790) was the French Revolution. Even today it is possible to understand the feelings of joy, relief and hope for the citizens of Europe, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, and the feelings of fear and terror on the part of the ruling classes that would have been collectively aroused by the overthrowing of a class that had ruled France for centuries. These feelings, at least in France, would have been fueled by the spectacle of a huge and overwhelming public uprising that swept the spectators up into what Kant termed “enthusiasm,” an intense and shared reaction experienced by the witnesses.

But the task of Jean-François Lyotard in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991) differed from that of Kant. Following his train of thought from The Postmodern Condition to The Differend, Lyotard realized that the Sublime needed to be rethought in relation to current or recent Events, namely the Holocaust. The philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, was the precursor for Lyotard, entering into that most delicate and treacherous territory of mass murder, which is among the contemporary events that are simply “unrepresentable.” In Negative Dialectics, Adorno grappled with the problem wrought by Dialectics:

Dialectics serves the end of reconcilement. It dismantles the coercive logical character of its own course; that is why it is denounced as “panlogism.” As idealistic dialectics, it was bracketed with the absolute subject’s predominance as the negative impulse of each single move of the concept and of its course as a whole.

Negation is of paramount importance for the Sublime which is an odd combination of “Thou Shalt Not” and “Thou Can Not.” It is the issue of “presentability” or “representation” or the conditions of or the possibility of representability that became the mode of entry for Lyotard into the question of the Sublime and the Holocaust. The Sublime is a question of ability and inability. If “taste,” in the Kantian sense, is accord with the capacity or ability to present or to represent an object which can (has the ability to) correspond to a given concept, then the sublime is formlessness or absence of form–inability to conceive and to reason and to utter or to represent. Paradoxically and ironically the Sublime, described by Kant as mathematically infinite, is also about limits. The imagination, limited by the Event, fails to present any object that could possibly conform to the concept, which is, in itself, is incomprehensible. In its own way, the Sublime is iconoclastic and opposes graven images. Because the sublime is unpresentable, the figuration or representation must be avoided and what is (not)presented must be blank or blanche, not empty or wiped out but simply absent, to convey the limits of an imagination brought up short by the Event.


Joseph Mallord William Turner. The Slave Ship (1840)

The Sublime makes us see, shows us only through taboos and by prohibition, meaning that for the artist, the issue becomes how to present the unpresentable without presenting it. Thus the power of the poetry comes from not saying and the pleasure of not seeing comes from the pain of being deprived of the privilege of the direct gaze. That said, in the nineteenth century, many works of art were considered “sublime” in the general parlance of the time. For example, J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming On (1840) was described in 1843 by John Ruskin in the following terms, ..the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions—(completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner’s works)—the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea. One of the cornerstones of the nineteenth century mind was its supreme confidence in its ability to conquer, even the unconquerable notion of the Sublime. Turner’s The Slave Ship is surely an example of the concept of the Sublime of his century but it violated the “rules” of the Sublime, which are that the Sublime is an Event and that this Event cannot be depicted. But, in its assumption–manifested in Turner’s painting–that the Sublime can be viewed/seen–the reading of the Sublime has weakened and had been watered down over time. The vernacular interpretation of the Sublime as had been inherited by the twentieth century had to be contested and the meaning to of the Sublime needed to be brought back to its original sense–the Sublime cannot be thought much less presented. In 1991 Jean-François Lyotard set out to deal with that which is unpresentable, which will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part One

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part One

The way in which the mind of Jean-François Lyotard worked was slow and systematic and thorough. The notion of the potential injustice in language games appeared in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and was fully explored and applied to the Holocaust in The Differend (1983) where Lyotard brought up the Emmanuel Kant’s discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment (1790). Although almost two decades separate these two books, and Lyotard’s Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime continued a discussion on Kantian aesthetics that would culminate in a protracted encounter with the sublime in the avant-garde which played out in his late works. It is this culmination of the sublime into the avant-garde that has most interested contemporary writers who tend to avoid the more difficult work of 1991 in preference for the occasions where Lyotard wrote more directly of specific works of art. But, like most of Lyotard’s work, this book on the sublime has a long gestation.

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime was proceeded by several earlier books and by shattering political events that cast a shadow over much of Lyotard’s writing through the 1980s. The uprising of May 1968 seemed so significant at the time but, in retrospect, it is the aftermath of failure and a return to the “normalcy” of rule by Charles de Gaulle and the reactionary 198s0s that would inform Lyotard during that decade. Against this backdrop, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy held a seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and Lyotard, post his work on the “Postmodern Condition,” gave a paper called “Enthusiasm” in 1981 * and entered into his mature phrase. Post-Freud and post-Marx and post-May 1968 this short paper by Lyotard returned to Kant who attempted to interpret the ongoing French Revolution and the wave of feeling that swelled and filled Europe with a sense of political change and hope for the future as free people. Kant’s meditation on the “enthusiasm” that surrounded the Revolution was embedded in a small section in the Critique of Judgment, his chapter on the Analytic of the Sublime; and it is with this detail that Lyotard picks up a political discussion that led him to The Differend, which led him to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.

The intellectual journey of Lyotard to philosophy was a political one. In the beginning of Peregrinations. Law, Form, Event (1988), he explained witty that, due to his early marriage and fatherhood, becoming a monk was impossible, his next choice of vocation, art, was rendered moot due to “lack of talent,” and, finally, his desire to be a historian was thwarted by a weak memory. Philosophy was his last choice, and Lyotard spent years as a civil servant teaching high school students in France, but he gave up all but political writing in the service of the forthcoming Marxist revolution. In a way, it was the collapse of the “Days of May” that sealed the fate of Lyotard to evolve into a philosopher who sough a way to reenter politics without being (too overtly) political. The Critique of Judgment was a far more political document than the Critique of Practical Reason within Kant’s oeuvre, but his thoughts on politics never resolved themselves into a fourth book on, say Political Reason. On one level what Lyotard was attempting to do was to write a Kantian fourth critique, a political one in which political theory was elevated to the level of a philosophical critique. The former road for political critique, Marxism, seemed less clear, but Kantian thinking provided a higher ground from which to consider politics.

It is very Lyotardian to prepare the way to a new work over a period of years, moving from one territory to the other, and it was this 1991 excursion into the dusty and neglected topic of the sublime (and the beautiful) that shook aesthetics out of its formalist slumber. The problems Lyotard faced in returning to Kant were extensive, for fully two centuries had passed since the 18th century philosopher attempted to synthesize and surpass the earlier tentative writings on aesthetics. The 20th century philosopher re-entered Kant through the path of the “event.” The event of his century was, for Lyotard, the Holocaust, the event that stopped history and forced subsequent “history” to be written in a different fashion. The event of his century was, for Kant, the French Revolution. What connects these two “events” was that both were apocalyptical–both ended in disaster–and neither was witnessed nor experienced by the philosophers. However, what pulls the events apart was the fact that the French Revolution was a deliberate spectacle with thousands of witnesses and the Holocaust produced, not witnesses, as Lyotard asserted, but victims and perpetuators, both equally silent.


The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

Lyotard explained the Kantian concept of the Event, which is a “sign of history,” residing as part of but beyond the narrative of history, by writing

..what Kant called a Begebenheit, an event or “act of delivering itself which would also be an act of deliverance, a deal (une donne), if you will..The sought-after Begebenheit would have the task of “presenting’ free causality according to the three temporal directions of past, present, and future. What is this enigmatic, if not contradictory, “act of delivering itself?”

Kant’s event, Lyotard reported in Le Differend, was not a “momentous deed” or a revolution. The event, Kant asserted

“ simply the mode of thinking (Denksugnsart) of the spectators (Zuschauer) which betrays itself (such verrät) publicly (öffentlich) in this game of great upheavals (Umwandlungen, such as revolutions), and manifest switch a universal, yet disinterested sympathy (Teilnehmung) for the players on one side against those on the other..Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates (beweist) a character of he human race at large and all at once, and owing to its disinterestedness, a moral (moralisch) character of humanity, at least in its predisposition (Anlage), a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress insofar as its capacity is sufficient for the present.

Despite the disasters of the Terror and the Final Solution, these Events started the Modern and the Postmodern respectively. The French Revolution gave rise, despite the bloodbaths and rolling heads in city squares, to the Modern era and both responded to and gave rise to modern philosophy, while the Holocaust brought all the hopeful optimism of modernity crashing down. In a general sense, in Lyotard’s différend, the Holocaust is sublime because it defied comprehension, but he continued his discussion of the sublime in The Differend through the avenue of “enthusiasm” or Kant’s way of trying to understand the “feeling” of the French Revolution. The odd word, “enthusiasm,” was intended to connote the sense of being caught up in an “event” that was stronger than any one human being who might be swept up in the hope of the Revolution. Notably, Kant wrote the Third Critique years before the Terror broke out, so this sublime feeling of an enthusiastic response to the spontaneous outbreak of proletariat rebellion, like May 1868, utterly failed when Napoléon became Emperor. In his extended discussion of Kant in this book, Lyotard wrote that

Enthusiasm is a modality of the feeling of the sublime. The imagination tries to supply a direct, sensible presentation for an Idea of reason (for the whole is an object of an Idea, as for example, in the whole of practical, reasonable beings). It does not succeed and it thereby feels its impotence, but at the same time, it discovers its destination, which is to bring itself into harmony with the Ideas of reason through an appropriate presentation.

Kant’s Third Critique attempted to deal with judgment over human conditions and situations that defied reason and involved the domain of feelings, or what we today could call psychology, but which cannot be reduced to personal reactions and must be brought into the realm of universal judgment. This in-between zone, between the pure and the practical, needed its own critique in which Kant sought to investigate the grounds for judgment where the elements are indeterminate. There are certain objects (art) that give rise to feelings of pleasure, but there are experiences that give rise to displeasure, a level of displeasure that,when it exceeds the pleasure of agreeable beauty, is called the “sublime.” In the typical Modernist fashion, there is a structured binary, suggesting that the beautiful and the sublime can be contrasted along the lines of pleasure/displeasure or weak/strong and so on, but Lyotard seized upon a small part of the Critique, the Analytic of the Sublime and, within that section, one concept “enthusiasm.”

The feeling of enthusiasm was, par excellence, the experience of the sublime, sublime because the feeling could not be presented. The inability to present is related to the fundamental incompatibilities within the sublime itself, a clash between an intensity of pleasure that becomes pain. Enthusiasm is a knife edge sensation that teeters on the verge of what Kant called “dementia” or a kind of insanity, hence his odd insistence on disinterested sympathy, as a bulwark against a fall into madness, which is exactly what happened in France during the Terror. Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, the spectacle of the Fall of the Bastille, the drama of the Oath of the Tennis Court and the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man excited the imagination of those level-headed (disinterested) enough to see to the future. In other words, the Event of the French Revolution was less as sequential (and predictable) series of occurrences and more of a Begebenheit or a “sign of history” “delivering itself.” This is the sublime, Lyotard explained,

Great changes, like the French Revolution, are not, in principle, sublime, by themselves..the sublime is best determined by the indeterminate..The Begebenheit which ought to make a sign of history could be found only on the side of the audience watching he spectacle of the upheavals..The spectators, placed on other national stages, which make up the theater hall for the spectacle and where absolutism generally reigns, cannot on the contrary, be suspected of having empirical interests in making their sympathies public (öffentlich), they even run the risk of suffering repression at the hands of their governments..The Teilnehmung through desire is not a participation in the act. But it is worth more, because the feeling of the sublime, for its sake, is in fact spread out onto all national stages.

Closely related to the Differend, then, is the Sublime, a topic which Lyotard continued in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which will be further discussed in the next post.

*Published as Enthusiasm. The Kantian Critique of History by Stanford University in 2009.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “The Différend,” Part Three

The Différend: Phrases in Dispute, Part Three

Defining the “Event”

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the author of The Assassins of Memory, complained about the international spectacle of the 1978 American mini-series Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss and wrote a short article of protest of the dramatization of genocide. But more profoundly, the notion of the “spectacle” of a television miniseries–a visual to behold and entertain–was at such stark odds with the invisibility of the Holocaust itself, hiding in plain sight. Elie Wiesel also spoke out against the trivialization of a historical mass murder as what Jean-François Lyotard would have describe as a “regulatory” narrative, the kind of storytelling that seeks to achieve consensus. As objectionable as it might have been to take a tragedy and attempt to explain the unexplainable, the impact of the series was to change the term used to refer to the Nazi extermination of the Jews from “genocide” to “Holocaust,” which was to give the event a religious and a specifically Jewish definition to the horror visited upon millions of victims. Those victims were victims two times over, silenced before and after their summary executions. As Lyotard asserted,

It is in the nature of a victim not to be able to prove that one has been done a wrong. A plaintiff is someone who has incurred damages and who disposes of the means to prove it. One becomes a victim if one loses these means..the perfect crime does not consist in killing the victim or the witnesses…but rather in obtaining the silence of the witnesses, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony. You neutralize the addressor, the addresses, and the sense of the testimony; then everything is as if there were no referent (no damages).

There was no possible communication between the Jews and the Nazis–their “phrases” were “in dispute.” The cause and effect of the Holocaust was a “language game” that silenced the Jews, even in death. As a counterweight to dramatic license of Hollywood, oral history projects were established in which actual survivors related their unutterable memories. The current American President, Jimmy Carter, proposed the establishment of what became the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. A year later, in West Germany, the broadcast reached one third of the population and half of the adults, ten thousand of whom called into the station that broadcast the series. The Jewish historian Julius H. Schoeps wrote in Angst vor der Vergangenheit? Notizen zu den Reaktionen auf ‘Holocaust’ (Fear of the Past? Notes on the Reaction to ‘Holocaust’”) about the four nights that broke a silence of three decades:

After four evenings in Studio E of WDR, after roughly 10,000 incoming telephone calls, I had the feeling – and I still do – that something was set in motion. For many people in the Federal Republic, “Holocaust” was an emotional introduction, the first encounter with the almost incomprehensible horrors of the Nazi regime. More than just a few became aware for the first time that they had repressed the murder of the Jews that was committed in the name of the German people and had previously avoided dealing with the past. Did the Hollywood film “Holocaust” signal a turning point in these attitudes? Only the future will tell.

The comments ranged from the predictable, anti-Semitic, and the predictable, empathy towards the Jews, but a dialogue had begun. As absurd as it might seem, it was popular culture that produced a palatable opening to what would be an ongoing discussion as to precisely how to speak (or not speak) of the Holocaust. In reading Lyotard’s Le Différend, one realizes that his work is the French counterpart to Theodor Adorno who wrote the famous “After Auschwitz” passage in Negative Dialectics (1969).

One of the mystical impulses secularized in dialectics, was the doctrine of the relevance of the innerworldly, the historical, to what traditional metaphysics delineated as transcendence, or at least, less gnostically and radically, for the position of consciousness to the questions which the canon of philosophy assigned to metaphysics. The feeling which after Auschwitz resists every assertion of positivity of existence as sanctimonious prattle, as injustice to the victims; which is reluctant to squeeze any meaning, be it ever so washed-out, out of their fate, has its objective moment after events which condemn the construction of a meaning of immanence, which radiates from an affirmatively posited transcendence, to a mockery. Such a construction would affirm the absolute negativity and ideologically aid its continued existence, which really lies in any case in the principle of the existent society down to its self-destruction.

Adorno was announcing the end of the possibility of the kind of poetry that existed before the Holocaust.

What the sadists in the camps told their victims: tomorrow you will be smoke rising from these chimneys into the sky, names the indifference of the life of every individual, which history is moving towards: already in their formal freedom they are as fungible and replaceable as under the boots of the liquidators. Because however the individual, in the world whose law is the universal individual advantage, has nothing else except this self, which has become historically indifferent, the carrying out of the tried-and-true tendency is at the same time what is most horrifying; nothing leads beyond this any more than beyond the electrified barbed wire fences around the camps. Perennial suffering has as much right to express itself as the martyr has to scream; this is why it may have been wrong to say that poetry could not be written after Auschwitz. What is not wrong however is the less cultural question of whether it is even permissible for someone who accidentally escaped and by all rights ought to have been murdered, to go on living after Auschwitz. Their continued existence already necessitates the coldness, of the basic principle of capitalist subjectivity, without which Auschwitz would not have been possible: the drastic guilt of the spared. As if to make up for this they are secretly haunted by dreams in which they no longer live, but were gassed in 1944, as if their entire existence after that was purely imaginary, emanation of the vagrant wish of someone who was killed twenty years ago.

Although Lyotard was in an extended conversation with Adorno in The Differend, there is a tendency among his commentators to downplay the significance of Auschwitz in this book. True, The Differend devotes many pages to the epistemology of the sentence. The book is multifocal with many philosophers making appearances. It is as though the only respectful response to genocide would be the void of silence to mirror the silence of the victims and there is no attempt in this book to either describe or to represent. A recurring and repeating theme, the Holocaust is the vein that connects the various bodies of Lyotard’s mature works.

The unimaginable aftermath of mass death and the burden of dealing with the devastation was the unique burden of his generation, the sons and daughters of those who were guilty, either by omission or commission. Lyotard, who was not Jewish, had a task quite different from that of Vidal-Naquet or Wiesel who were related to the event. In his persistent attempts to (not) write the Holocaust, Lyotard respectfully distanced himself and focused on the mechanics of language and how victims are caused by/created by linguistics. Deconstructing the philosophy of the sentence (the phrase) was a distanced and cool way of addressing Auschwitz, the key “figure” of the discourse of the différend, but when, on occasion, the suppressing blanket of epistemology is lifted and the impetus of Lyotard’s mediations is revealed, the philosopher is quite eloquent.


Still from Shoah, by cinematographer William Lubtchansky

Stressing the significance of “feeling,” Lyotard was also the literary equivalent to Claude Lanzmann, whose Shoah (1985), was a documentary, a non-story, on the studied silence surrounding the “event” of the Shoah. In Shoah, the leitmotif was the last journey of the train, transporter of death, rolling toward the yawing mouth that was the gateway to Auschwitz. Lanzmann returned to that screaming orifice over and over, underlining the mechanical conveyance towards death and the technology that gave a new meaning of “terminus.” Just as Lanzmann showed no historical film footage and stressed the refusal of memory, the “differend” is used in Lyotard’s account of the Holocaust as a sign of the lack of recognition of the victim by the perpetrator and in its own (poetic) fashion, the différend became one of the most profound portraits of those who are usually invisible–the perpetuators. The différend became a mechanism of description that allowed the “event” to be presented in its singularity. The Event is the Holocaust, which is an unspeakable event. It (the unnameable) cannot be represented; one can only testify to it (the unspoken). Lyotard said,

The silence that surrounds the phrase, Auschwitz was the extermination camp is not a state of the mind (état d’âme), it is the sign that remains to be phrased which is not, something which is not determined..with Auschwitz, something new has happened in history (which can only be a sign and not a fact), which is that the facts, the testimonies which bore the traces of here’s and now’s, the documents which indicated the sense of the facts, and the names, finally the possibility of various kinds of phrases whose conjunction makes reality, all this has been destroyed as much as possible.

As Lyotard pointed out in his critique of the metanarrative, “History,” as the Modernist épistemé, is no longer possible and this event of the Holocaust is the end of history, or at least the kind of idealist history that so inspired the Modernists. In seeking to rewrite history as materialistic, Lyotard understood “History” is already rewritten as an anachronistic temporality or Freud’s nachträglichkeit or deferred action. History came too soon and arrived too late, becoming, as the European controversies over the Holocaust suggested, a site of dispute, of différends. It is the singularity of the event that disrupts history and forces a recognition that we are looking back on something that has already happened but that also cannot yet be explained. History is caught in a loop and cannot extricate itself because of the nachträglichkeit and history cannot go “forward,” as the Modernists had hoped.

The issue is, therefore, twofold–on one hand the Holocaust is denied through a variety of language games, which can include contentious attempts to “write” it. On the other hand, any effort to record the Event is thwarted because (the time of) the event is unaccountable–cannot be counted–through representation, because the figural excess of the event is the singularity of the event. This definitive and unavoidable excess is close to the ideas that Jacques Derrida put forward on the “supplement” or necessary “surplus” that disrupts or upends (language games) the rules and the proper functioning of the logocentric. The surplus or excess exceeds the supposed “self'” present in the text. Clearly, the event of the Holocaust caused a crisis in representation, because of it is by nature intrinsically defiant of representation and all its tropes and narrative structures. As a result, the Holocaust is an example of what Adorno would call “negative dialectics,” or a refusal of totality and an assertion of singularity against the insistence on “identity.” Adorno stated that

..totality is structured to accord with logic, however, whose core is the principle of the excluded middle, whatever will not fit this principle, whatever differs in quality, comes to be designated as a contradiction. Contradiction is nonidentity under the aspect of identity; the dialectical primary of the principle of contradiction makes the thought of unity the measure of heterogeneity. As the heterogeneous collides with its limit it exceeds itself.

It is Adorno who introduced the way in which the Holocaust re-defined death as negation, as an act or an outcome that had no meaning. Lyotard followed Adorno on the death (the end of the possibility of) of the “beautiful death” or a death that was meaningful and accepted by the one who was condemned. I am dying for a just cause or I am dying for an understandable reason can no longer be uttered. But the extermination camps did more than simply silence the victims by denying them plaintiff rights. The swift and arbitrary killing did not allow those who were put to one side in the line to die (those too old, those too young, those too infirm, and so on) to acquire a framework within which to confront death. Told that “showers” awaited them, millions marched, shorn of dignity and hair, walked with only hope and were summarily gassed without ever understanding why.

Lyotard referred to the “beautiful death” or the sacrificial death prevalent in Greek drama, where one dies in the name of the eschaton or the Die in order not to die. The dead of Auschwitz are deprived of their proper names and are deprived of the “we” of the collectivity. Lyotard stated that “Auschwitz” is the “forbidden” of the beautiful death.” The “we” which confronts the victim does not recognize the victim and there is no addressor or addressee. As Lyotard explained,

“ cannot give a life that one doesn’t have the right to have. Sacrifice is not available to the deportee, nor for that reason accession of an immortal collective name. One’s death is legitimate because one’s life is illegitimate.The individual name must be killed (whence the use of the serial numbers) and the the collective name (Jew) must be killed in such a way that no we bearing this name might remain which could take the deportee’s death into itself and eternalizes it. This death must therefore be killed, and that is what is worse than death. For, if death can be exterminated, it is because there is nothing to kill. Not even the name Jew.

Lyotard noted that “Auschwitz” is marked by two secrets, the secrecy of the Nazis about their deeds, and the secret way in with the victims died or the “deportee’s secret.” The Nazis were fanatical in their obsession with order and records and the Holocaust was meticulously chronicled: trains were scheduled, ovens were ordered, gas was packed into canisters, and tattoo ink was administered. The guards at the concentration camps made photo albums, as did the soldier stationed in ghettoes. Employees of the mass extermination wrote letters home to family. Millions of words were written. Thousands of images were taken, freezing onto film unspeakable deeds. And yet there was a collective silence, born of indifference or of terror or of satisfaction, followed by the collective silence, the selective amnesia of participation and guilt. It is those twin secrets allowed the Holocaust deniers a gap and an entry into a pseudo history, insisting that the Event never happened.

Indeed, The Differend began and ended with the sentence, “Arrive-t-il?” or “Is it happening?’

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part Two

The Différend (1983) as “The Postmodern Condition, Part Two”

Defining the Différend

Although Le Différend was the natural outcome of The Postmodern Condition, this book is also an overt return to politics and a reassertion of a life-long concern with justice for those oppressed by the meta-narrative on the part of Jean-François Lyotard. The philosopher grew up during the Second World War under Nazi occupation and because France surrendered, he, like many of his generation, was spared military duty. The invasion of the Allies in June 1944 interrupted what he described as a “poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living,” and his closest brush with the War was his service providing first aid during the fight to liberate Paris in 1944. Without the wartime disruptions that German or English of American men experienced, Lyotard was able to proceed with his life, marrying at age twenty four and fathering two children before he achieved his Docteur ès lettres in 1971. The War had shaken his earlier intellectual adherence to “indifference,” but his early work was indebted to the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who had a rather too close relationship with the Nazi Party and the Nazi ideology.

Lyotard’s acceptance of Heidegger was common among French philosophers, and nothing measures the journey he took better than the distance between La Phénoménologie of 1954 and Le Différend of 1983, which is informed by Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, Holocaust survivor. During this journey, Lyotard had become a committed Marxist and then a disillusioned Marxist and finally a philosopher who wrote, on occasion, politically activist works. Written in the midst of a public debate in Germany and France on how the history of the Holocaust should be written, Le Différend picked up the sub-text of oppression and silencing embedded in The Postmodern Condition and foregrounds what was a contest among academics and scientists for what constitutes “knowledge,” and shifts the ground to a question more highly charged: under what conditions is one party utterly silenced and what are the consequences? The meta-narrative is untenable, therefore, not just because it can no longer be believed, but because it is also terroristic. However, this narrative totalitarian can be countered by what Lyotard called “critical pragmatics,” or replacing the universal with the situational, or the pragmatic narrative, which legitimates itself simple through performativity or presentation.

The local and the specific (as opposed to the universal) now replace the narrative and is dubbed “the phrase” by Lyotard to denote its fragmentariness. Geoff Bennington pointed out in Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988) that the term “phrase” could be translated as “sentence.” In other words, a sentence (phrase) is a unity but is not also a part of a larger whole or narrative. Lyotard wrote of “phrases in dispute” or phrases (fragments) that cannot communicate with each other. He made the distinction between “negotiation,” in which both parties are allowed voice and “litigation” which is a language game that enforces silence upon the aggrieved party in order to empower larger forces, such as the state or the system. What if one cannot present? What if one is not allowed to speak? Lyotard recognized that political injustice and social silencing can operate with in the (idealized) language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lyotard borrowed what was, for Wittgenstein, a philosophical concept, and transformed the language game into the political. The language games have rules but the rules are hardly equitable and are built upon the “system” which empowers some and disempowers others. Into the language game, Lyotard interjected the phrase or the fragment, the fact of “it happens” that refers to the event as a “pure happening.” In other words, the phrase or event being fragmentary or singular cannot fit neatly into a metanarrative and points to the inherent injustice embedded in language.

Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases is called the différend, a play on the concept of “different,” indicating the “other” or something else, a variation or a disruption that that resists unification with a larger story. The différend is an ungovernable phrase and, although these phrases can be extended in a series, one linked to the next, the process of linking reveals difference/s among the phrases (sentences), or that which cannot be assimilated. Being part of litigation, not negotiation, the différend is that which stands alone. When foregrounded and recognized (a situation not always guaranteed) the différend is, and reveals itself to be, a unrepentant point of disagreement or dispute between at least two radically heterogeneous or opposing or incommensurable language games. In other words, the two speakers cannot speak to one another. There are rules in the game, which disadvantage one and favor the other. For example, a courtroom is an arena where a certain kind of restrictive language game is played under the guise (disguise) of being adversarial. In a rape case, the victim is presumed guilty and is silenced through questioning. A victim of discrimination has no legal standing in court if the court announces that discrimination does not exist. Language games, then, are exercises that are quite separate from the “truth” or reality.

The différend is a term based in the judicial concept of “obligation:” one party has a grievance and the tribunal (court) has the obligation to hear that grievance. However, the party which has been wronged cannot speak except in the language of the one who has caused the harm. Immediately, as has been seen, when the aggrieved one attempts to use the language of the oppressor, then the “obligation” vanishes. In other words, to assert “I have been discriminated against and here are the instances of discrimination” is to borrow a phrase that results in the speaker replying, “You are speaking, therefore, you are not being discriminated against,” and the victim is silenced. As Bennington noted, the victim is then forced to retreat into mysticism (or the irrational) and say something like “No one should be discriminated against,” which is true but non-functional within the rules of the tribunal.

It is possible to play a language game and substitute it for accurate history, a practice that, in France, was called “negationism.” As Stephen E. Atkins pointed out in Holocaust Denial as an International Movement (2009), the leading Holocaust denier in France was Robert Faurisson, the best known negator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faurison was the chief protagonist of Lyotard in Le Différend, which is a direct response to the denier’s claims (games). The game of denying the Holocaust had been going on for thirty years when Faurisson used linguistic slight of hand to erase the event, making historically meaningless claims but linguistically clever moves, such as pointing to the fact that extermination could not be “proved” because no victims had come forward. For Faurisson, the silence of the dead meant that no witness to the effect of extermination can come forward and therefore ispo facto the Holocaust never happened. For Lyotard, the silence in the death chambers that followed the screams is a phrase in and of itself. But how can a silence become a sentence in philosophy?


Auschwitz Today

Lyotard, who had earlier discussed the haunting of the written text by a visual figure in Discours, Figure (1971), used the Polish death camp, “Auschwitz” as an image, a traumatic memory that had become the most prevalent model (figure) of a name that functions figuraly or as a figure, because “Auschwitz” escapes conceptualization and expression within the usual rules of the language game. There is a connection between Lyotard’s announcement of the end of the metanarrative and his studies of the Holocaust, and the tie that binds his works together, from his early work on the figural to Le Différend, is his interrogation of authority and his interrogation of the possibility of representation. The Metanarratives of Modernism always supposed the possibility of representation, but Postmodernism resisted or refused the comfort of a position of authority or the assurance of a conscious stance or a position of knowledge, whether it be a critique or a historical survey.

A Postmodern analysis, from Lyotard’s perspective, considered the Figure, which is smuggled into the Narrative under the guise of “narrativity,” an anachronism in history. A form of a Figure would be “Progress,” a trope, which disguised disruptions and schisms in time in favor of picturing or imaging an unbroken chain of evolution and development moving along a teleological line. The Event, which occurs at a specific time, will disturb the flow of the “historical narrative.” Suddenly there is a disruption that inserts a very specific temporal event into/onto the “time line,” but history can be written only if such “events” are effaced. The excess of the “event” must be dealt with. In the case of the Holocaust, the “event” can be denied. Or the Holocaust can be written as a narrative, even as a regulating narrative, designed to produce a consensus. The next question or the more profound question then becomes, how can the Holocaust be written without desecrating the dead and disturbing their silence?

In writing the Holocaust, one incorporates the Holocaust into the larger flow of historical events, and its singularity is refuted. Because it is incorporated into the (meta)narrative, the happening can the be represented and reduced to a commodity that can be exchanged because it has been leveled. At that point the Event ceases to be an event. The Historians’ Controversy in Germany was an attempt to “normalize” or level the Event (the Holocaust) into a flattened time line, while in France, the efforts went to denying the Event (the Holocaust). Regardless of the motives of the historians in the 1980s, the refusal of the Event as an event was a reaction to the fact that the event itself was an excess that disrupted the traditional historical framing devices. If as Loytard stated, “The event is the occurrence after which nothing will ever be the same again,” then history is halted and the problem becomes one of how to write the event and how to restart history itself.

The discussion of the Event, the différend, and Auschwitz will continue in the next post, Part Three.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part One

The Différend (1983) as “The Postmodern Condition, Part One”

Part One: The Historical Context

The life path and careers of Jean-François Lyotard suggest that this philosopher needs to be understood as a bricoleur. A scholar who stood in a liminal position in history, Lyotard appropriated and borrowed concepts from other philosophers and refitted these ideas or motifs for a future he could not see but could part. Although he was criticized by more than a few fellow philosophers for incorrectly using the “language games” of Ludwig Wittgentstein, for example, Lyotard can also be seen as someone searching for the right philosophical tools to describe his unique task. The reader follows his trajectory, sometimes scattered and indirect, and finds the tracks and traces of Lyotard’s own biography upon his mature philosophical writings. He was frequently in a position to observe cultural changes that would leave lingering marks on society and his thought. Although he once considered becoming an artist (a desire that would manifest itself in other books), Lyotard became a teacher and was posted in Algeria in from 1950 to 1952, where anti-colonialism, once below the surface, was breaking through. He was in Algeria during the same period as Frantz Fanon, author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and left just before the arrival of historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930-206), who wrote scathingly of the use of torture by the French colonizers in Torture: Cancer of Democracy: France and Algeria 1954-1962 (1963).

Lyotard’s commitment to social activism and Marxism, which was triggered during his Algerian period, was tested ten years later when he was teaching at Nanterre, the Ur source of student uprisings that spread throughout France. Indeed, it goes without saying that anyone drawn to the vocations of arts and religion (he once toyed with becoming a monk) would be temperamentally disinclined to accept authority. Like many intellectuals of his time, Lyotard was a politically active committee Marxist, belonging to two separate groups, Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier, before disillusionment with what was an apparently a lost cause set in. The proletariat rose but the regime did not fall and, after the “days of May,” all went seemingly back to normal. But just as the barricades of the uprisings of May 1968 were dismantled, so too were the metanarratives of totalizing reason. While Lyotard abandoned the metanarrative of Marxism, the ingrained concern with social domination was never far below the surface of his works and he never stopped practicing critique and he never got over his suspicions of systems and of the machinations of those in power. Witnessing the injustice and brutality of French rule in Algeria apparently gave Lyotard a heightened sense of injustice and an instinct for situations which allowed unfairness to breed.

Indeed, far from celebrating “the Postmodern condition,” Lyotard critiqued the current state of affairs, in which the state owned and controlled knowledge, now computerized and contained in giant databases, poised to take away individual autonomy. As was pointed out in previous texts, he was viewing and reviewing what he clearly understood to be an apocryphal shift in epistemology and, consequently, an abrupt change–knowledge became information. Once in control of the mode of information production, the system could then instrumentalize students for performatativity for the state via education. The habit of a Marxist analysis existed as a subterranean subtext with in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge–the computer now became the mode of producing knowledge and, consequently, cybernetics was the new base throwing off and generating new superstructures that were incompatible with the creation of “pure” knowledge.

Certainly much of what Lyotard foresaw has come to pass: knowledge is used instrumentally by the system which educates its citizens so that they can perform in certain desired ways. It is at this point that Lyotard’s vision was halted: he could not see over the horizon, but we now know that the Internet has wrested control of information/knowledge and its production not only from the government but also from corporate interests. These very corporate and systems-based interests vie today to seize and control these new modes of production, as Lyotard would have predicted, but out of The Postmodern Condition came new concerns that still plague the culture today. The philosopher foresaw a silencing of non-compatible or noncompliant discourses by outsiders on the part of a system intent on maintaining itself. On one hand, the new épistemé is nurtured by performativity, based upon one’s competence with language games; and on the other hand there are ways to counter the imperialism of the game through “little narratives.”

It is at this point in The Postmodern Condition that Lyotard recognized the very real possibility that language games not only allowed for articulation within the rules but that also these very regulations could also be used for the silencing of some of the game players. Using the words “violence” and “terror” to describe this refusal to hear certain kinds of utterances, Lyotard signaled his next step in his investigation: his most formal and provocative work, an examination of what he called “le différend.” The word “formal refers to the measured pace of the book which is ordered into Wittgensteinian paragraphs, each of which has its own number. Nested inside this procession of propositions are intermittent series of paragraphs which discuss, in a smaller font, related writings of other philosophers and this internal progression of the argument has its own numbering system. The structure within a structure is rarely remarked upon in terms of its metaphorical value but it is worth noting that Lyotard included numerous other philosophical voices in a book which is devoted to examining the language games that silence one group so that another group can be empowered. He positioned a chorus of multi-vocaled discourses against the voicelessness of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Lyotard’s primary example of the result of a différend is Auschwitz,, which makes the timing of the writing and publication of Le Différend as interesting as its internal complexity. When he returned to France in the early fifties, Lyotard arrived in a nation that had allowed itself to forget the Holocaust and the fate of French Jews at the hands of the French collaborationists and had rewritten the story of the Occupation as one of brave resistance and victimhood. In her book, Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy (2013), Rebecca Clifford noted that it was not until the late 1960s that French historians gradually turned away from the narrative that the Vichy government was to blame for the victimization of all French people and began to examine the uncomfortable question of the fate of the Jews of France. In fact, the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, built in 1962, listed the names of all of the French who were deported under the Nazis and by the Vichy government and was, therefore not specifically a Holocaust memorial, thus denying the fact of deliberate extermination and hiding French guilt.


In her introduction to Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France (2004), Joan Beth Wolf explained the post-war discretion on the topic of the Holocaust in France as an understandable reluctance on the part of French citizens to identify themselves as “Jews” after the War. Like most Jews in Europe, those of France considered themselves assimilated and could not comprehend that they were not “French,” but Jewish and that that identity–one they and long considered secondary–would cost them their lives. It was the Six Day War of 1967 that awoke the not so dormant wartime trauma and the French Jews, alive to the existential danger to Israel, spoke against De Gaulle’s support of the Arab perspective and, as Wolf described, found a political voice. Two years later Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary of the German occupation, made for French television, was banned from French television. Composed of clips from eighty hours of testimony gathered by Ophuls, the series destroyed the myth of the brave French Resistance and detailed how French collaborationists were responsible for sending Jewish children to concentration camps. This odd lacunae in history–the reluctance to seek the truth and the resistance to the facts–was not a particular French fault but a generalized situation and the French Jews were actually early in their demands that history be correctly and completely recounted. After decades of disinterest in the fate of the Jews, America was riveted by a home-grown television mini-series, Holocaust, in 1979, and this series traveled to France and Germany, similarly informing a new generation of the pasts of their parents. On the heels of the slow unfolding of acknowledgement came Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985 in France and the “Historian’s Controversy” in Germany.

Although opposed by Lanzmann’s magisterial eight hour film about silence, France had its own version of historical revisionism in which the Holocaust was denied by pseudo-historians, Robert Faurisson, Paul Rassinier and Arthur Butz. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who had so strongly spoken out against torture in Algeria, then turned his attention towards this deliberate attempt to deny the historical truth in a series of essays published between 1981 and 1987 (later collected in one book, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust in 1992). Lyotard’s Le Différend was written in réponse to both The Postmodern Condition and to the early essays of Vidal-Naquet which attempted to reassert the power of actual lived history against the unimaginable absurdity of literary cant being used to obliterate the past. Lyotard often mentioned Vidal-Naquet, not a well known historian in the United States, in his book and like this younger writer, he made Robert Faurisson his chief foil or starting point for what was a contemplation on the inherent dangers of the rules of reason. Faurisson denied the Holocaust along the specious lines of deploying the clothing of reason and logic, unwittingly (perhaps) echoing the asserted rationality of extermination as uttered by the Nazis.

Against such word “play,” Le Différend, for all its careful structure and disciplined order, approached the question of the Holocaust from a careful intellectual distance that attempts to veil the undercurrent of political passions beneath the measured words. The text approaches the topic of Auschwitz with the care of a mandator confronting a bull: Lyotard suddenly focuses on the linguistic mechanics of the dehumanization of the Jews only to withdraw into long drawn out philosophical ruminations until suddenly he reverts and produces a few new paragraphs on the Holocaust. His is an elaborate and delicate dance with the most difficult of topics, a subject that defies language and explication. Wisely, Lyotard, not a historian (he once wanted to be an art historian), prised open the language game that deprived the victims of their right to speak: le différend.

The next post will discuss the theory of Le Différend.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-Francois Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part Three


The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Part Three

In writing of Lyotard in relation to history, F. R. Ankersmi in his chapter “Historicism and Postmodernism: A Phenomenology of Human Experience,” referred to the philosopher’s “deplorably sketchy tale of the life and death of metanarratives.” Ankersmi continued, noting, that “Metanarratives traditionally served rather to delegitimize science rather than to legitimize it.” History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor is an old book, written in 1994, but Ankersmi’s critique has merit. As was pointed out in the previous post, Lyotard did not expend much energy explaining his thesis “the death of the metanarrative,” because, it was noted, this idea was already old and did not need further discussion. Ankersmi made the same point, indeed the metanarrative had already been throughly slain in previous decades by earlier philosophers. But it is worth noting before concluding the discussion on The Postmodern Condition that the narrative, meta or not, is based upon the speaking of denotative statements which represent reality or tell a story. Thus what Lyotard discussed in his book, which is certainly meandering and disorganized, is the death of representation. But like the metanarrative and its demise, he took for granted that the reader understood that the book was proceeding from a starting point that was after these deaths of representation and the metanarrative.

Lyotard stressed that, now that large narratives had lost their potency or usefulness, petit récits and their validity (not truth) would be based on performativity and the performativity would be demonstrated in the playful arena of language games. Of course, as Lyotard himself would acknowledge later in The Differend (1983), to play a language game, to make moves, “imaginatively” is to be an individual or a “self,” an entity of which he was suspicious, who makes a difference by making a new “move.” Lyotard said, “Given equal competence (no longer in the acquisition of knowledge, but in its production), what extra performativity depends on in the final analysis is ‘imagination’ which allows one other to make a new move or change the rules of the game.” And in The Differend, Lyotard separated himself from the ideas of Ludwig Wittgentstein. That which passes for knowledge in the age of Postmodernism is formed within language games, which are unavoidably agonistic and social. Lyotard understood that these “games” are anything but playful and that the consequences are serious and connected to power, which is now both proscriptive and system-based. “The decision makers,” he asserted, who attempt to manage “sociality” do so by “following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and thea the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power.”

Indeed, Lyotard pointed out that scientists, along with other (non-human) instruments, are “purchased” not for the purposes of finding the “truth,” but in order to serve the needs of power. The way out of these attempts to control knowledge/information is the language game, which not only provides a field of play where legitimation takes place but also presents opportunities for progress in science: “..there are two different kinds of ‘progress’ in knowledge: one corresponds to a new move (a new argument) within the established rules; the other, to the inanition of new rules, in other words, a change to a new game.” Later Lyotard explained further “..the best performativity..comes..from arranging the data in a new way..what new performativity depends on in the final analysis is ‘imagination,’ which allows one either to make a new move or change the rules of the game.”Individuals are not only in charge of the game, they also set the rules and assume responsibility for their moves or their utterances. In other words, he suggested, the game is everything and performance supersedes any old-fashioned dedication to finding the “truth” and speaking the truth in denotative sentences which form a narrative.


The performance of the game player begins to become the new epistemology. “What their ‘arrogance’ means is that they identify themselves with the social system conceived as a totality in quest of its most performative unity possible.” In addition, Lyotard assumed that these games are being held, so to speak, on an official or legitimate field, such as the scientific profession or the university. These sanctioned venues are also halls of power and Lyotard realized that much was at stake and that simply attempting to play the game and to present new findings or to take a new approach or to make a new “move” was often insufficient against those who held the reins of power. Lyotard made one of his strongest statements, criticizing the ways in which language games can be played by vested interests:

“Countless scientists have seen their ‘move’ ignored or repressed, sometimes for decades, because it too abruptly destabilized the accepted positions, not only in the university and scientific hierarchy, but also in the problematic. The stronger the ‘move’ the more likely it is to be denied the minimum consensus, precisely because it changes the rules of the game upon which consensus had been based..Such behavior is terrorist..By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player form the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing). The decision makers’ arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences consists in the exercise of terror. It says: ‘Adapt your aspirations to our ends–or else.'”

At the time he was writing, Lyotard could see only one way out of the trap of the system that valued conformity over the innovations proffered by language games and that escape route was a “move” he termed paralogy. Paralogy, Gordon C. F. Bearn pointed out in his essay “Pointlessness and the University of Beauty,” is a critique that challenges the notion that the system is stable and produces, as a result, discord and “catastrophe,” as Lyotard put it. Writing for the anthology, Just Education (this essay also appears in Jean-François Lyotard: Ethics), Bearn noted that this notion of upheaval is present in Kant’s idea of an “invalid conclusion” and eloquently wrote that the system “inevitably throws off word and deeds which exceed the system, which do not quite make sense, and therefore these inevitable paralogical effects express the inevitable plasticity which is the essence of the system.” In other words, paralogy is a critique of the system, probing its weak points, seeking places where logic or practice falters and foregrounds the ultimate logic of its stated goals. Lyotard was led to the conclusion that, referring to paralogy, “It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, which expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basic difference understood as paralogy.”

Paralogy, Lyotard pointed out, “is a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge.” For Lyotard, paralogy was the necessary antidote to the structure of the system in which two competing language games confront each other. One could conceive of paralogy as a third party intervention inserted between two theses, a third way or an alternative, which does not offer a synthesis but a deconstruction of the system itself. Rubbing against the grain, paralogy brings attention to built in differences in power: there are those who are silenced (violently through terror) by language games that borrow (a canny move) the metadiscourse of universality to become dominant. Although Lyotard was interested in language games and their role in the construction of knowledge, he was not concerned with actual groups locked out of the system. That said, paralogy and its critical and invasive practices suggests that those who have been silenced or displaced might at some point find a role in a language game.

Indeed, the decades that have passed since Lyotard attempted to imagine the fate of knowledge in the postmodern era, it has become clear that the “condition” he predicted has, in fact, come true. On one hand, he foresaw correctly that the system of education and its home, the university, has resisted change, even for the sake of performance. Professors have not been replaced by computer terminals and corporations, calling themselves “databases,” have sprung up to contain knowledge and convert its distribution into cash for the service of redistributing the already distributed. Thousands of hapless students, laden with debt, graduate with degrees that reflect the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of acquiring knowledge and not the needs of the real world, graduate each year with increasingly dismal prospects. The language games are still played within the confines of the system and the rules are rigorously enforced, silencing, through various acts of terror, those who would question its control.

The benefits of a postmodern world where knowledge is digitized and spewed out of a computer is that, as Lyotard stated, multiple “little narratives” have sprung forward, whether on the Internet or on cable television stations or on international networks of information sharing. The amount of information available today is truly stunning, bringing a new meaning to the old word “enlightenment.” Knowledge has escaped the classroom and is popularized and dispensed throughout the infotainment sites of television and the Web. But another aspect of language games has also emerged–considered in passing by Lyotard–that which masquerades as knowledge, because this game follows the rules, or because the players change the rules of the game. The game which was meant to produce knowledge can be turned against the knowledge producers. Discourses, which are built on complete fabrication, now jostle confidently with actual proved and accepted science or co-exist with recorded facts and sanctioned discourses. Importantly, these untruthful and false discourses are not examples of paralogy, which is always a critique which provides a viable alternative, but examples of parallel language games that hijack the appearance of and the rules of existing and substantive and legitimated language games to put forward an alternative “little narrative.”

What Lyotard presented in The Postmodern Condition was not just a “report” on the future of education but also a road map for this future. An analysis of Lyotard’s interpretation of the coming “condition” shows that his was a structure of an “if-then” scenario which was a logical and systematic pathway to the change that would inevitably come. This change called the “postmodern” was an inevitable alteration to education through the rise of petit récits which led to a marked transformation of the collective mindset. People began thinking of a new way of subverting the prevailing power structures, whether it was the rise of Napster which led to downloading music à-la-carte or the death of the Canon, there continues to be a “casual collapse” of traditional centralized authority. “Authority” whatever that means today, and “totalizing” systems, those that survive, have proved both resistant to change and inadequate at preventing the communal knitting of a new social fabric based on different rules, such as the “share economy.”

Perhaps the grand narratives of the Enlightenment are passé, but the grand narratives of control are still alive and well, from cable TV to “common core” in education. Because, as Lyotard correctly intuited, the digitization of knowledge would result in a leveling and an equalizing of information, these petit récits are now the “postmodern condition” and this postmodern condition continues to be also a crisis of legitimation. The silver lining in a period of continuing disruption is the new opportunities opening for new narratives, a new game board has unfolded for new language games, where the new rules are spelled out as “paralogy.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part Two


The Postmodern Condition: Part Two

“In contemporary society and culture–postindustrial society, postmodern culture–the question of legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

When The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge appeared in print in 1979, it was in response to a request from the Conseil des Universités in Quebec to a famous famous French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, an authority on epistemology, to “report” on the state of “knowledge” now that the University was entering in to the computer age. The request and the commission was an extraordinary one, almost ahead of its time. It would be more than ten years, for example, before the Bibliothéque Nationale would computerize its vast holdings. The personal computer was a kit for hobbyists, and in 1979, BASIC programming language was only four years old. When Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak introduced the Apple II in 1977, it was difficult to imagine what the average person would do with such technology. The infamous and famously expensive “Lisa” model of the personal computer was still four years in the future, when Lyotard published this book. And yet, he appears to have grasped, as did the clients in Quebec, that the computer (in the abstract) would change knowledge and it was his appointed task to figure out how and what the consequences would be.

As was pointed out in the first part of this series, Lyotard disposed of the “old” vision of knowledge as a metanarrative, some kind of expansive explanation that encompassed all questions and presented all the answers. The mere idea that there could be a metanarrative had died over the early decades of the 20th century as the Enlightenment and its children, from Idealism to Marxism, proved inadequate to the actual workings of history and incapable of adequately explaining postmodern events. Out of the smoking ruins of atomic warfare and the painful memories of the Holocaust, where language was reduced to silence, Lyotard proposed that in the place of metanarratives, there would be “little narratives,” which could only be local and never overarching. However, if narratives are now small and contextual, then without the metanarrative, the problem of legitimation arises. The metanarrative/s had been legitimated by metadiscourses and supported by leading thinkers or by the state, but upon the collapse of such narratives, a new “condition” for or new epistemology of knowledge had to be established.

Given that the client was a group of universities, it should come as no surprise that The Postmodern Condition is about education, and predictably, the most extensive discussions of this book can be found in the field of, not so much philosophy but, education. Lyotard de-idealized the role of the university and reevaluated the place of learning in an age of what he termed “pragmatism” in which people would be educated so that they could “perform” or fulfill the needs of the society. Society, Lyotard explained, is not “organic” or natural but, because of technological advances in cybernetics made during the Second World War, contemporary social structures have evolved into “systems.” Indeed Lyotard compared society to “a giant machine.” “The true goal of the system,” he stated, “the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output–in other words, performativity.”Lyotard understood that, in this system, the university would serve and produce two kinds of students, the “professional intelligentsia” and the “technical intelligentsia.” If the goal is to “improve the system’s performance,” then knowledge can no longer be presented as metanarrataives or in chunks, or en bloc, as Lyotard put it, then knowledge must be broken down into useful and directed units, “served à la carte to adults” for purely practical purposes.


But there is more, if the university which serves the perforative needs of society and in a society where knowledge is information and information is easily stored in computer data bases, then all knowledge/information must be leveled for the purposes of being efficiently dispensed. “To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal.” Then Lyotard, having delivered a death sentence to the university professor, amusing reassures, “Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something; not contents, but how to use terminals.”Once again, the philosopher was astonishingly predictive–foreseeing the logical end to the classroom lecture and the end of the usefulness of imparting knowledge through personal delivery, and suggesting what is today the coming future of education, the coming change called “Massive Open Online Courses.” More painfully Lyotard did not shrink from “sounding the death knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmuting established knowledge..”

The new system, driven by machines and technology–computers and technology–is not only based upon optimal performance geared to maximum efficiency but is also based in information, which now becomes “knowledge.” Knowledge for the sake of knowledge and education for the sake of learning was now outmoded and people need to be trained specifically to be of use within the system. This “theocratic” system does not care about or take into account what individuals–now discounted along with the “self”–want or need.“The self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before,” Lyotard said.

If society was once imagined to be about the “self,” a metanarrative in itself, then the question becomes what does this new kind of social system demand of its denizens? What the system cares about, needs, demands, is performativity. More important is who runs (owns) or rules this system; in other words, who is in charge of information (knowledge)? “Increasingly, the central question is becoming who will have access to that information these machines must have in storage to guarantee that the right decisions are made. Access to data is, and will continue to be, the prerogative of experts of all stripes. The ruling class is and will continue to be the class of decision makers,”Lyotard predicted.

From our vantage point of almost four decades later, it seem possible that the philosopher could not grasp (like the inventors of the computers) the important changes that ownership of the personal computers by individuals (selves) would make, breaking the total control of access to data. But he did foresee the dangers of a single entity (the state) controlling access to information, for information, Lyotard grasped, was power. The postmodern condition of knowledge is complex and multifaceted, for it has become not a question of gathering and mastering data but of competence, including “notions of ‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to live,’ how to listen’ (savior-faire, savior-vivre, savoit-écouter)” Lyotard pointed out that in this new system-based society knowledge-as-information the nature of the game has changed. “ a society whose communication component is becoming more prominent day by day, both as a reality and as an issue, it is clear that language assumes a new importance.”

And Lyotard has a larger point to make, for, in the past, knowledge was produced and contained within the prevailing metanarrative, but once the metanarrative has fallen, then it must be acknowledged that knowledge (information) has always been created within language games and, in addition, it is now true that knowledge can be legitimated only through these games which are “played” through narration, or speaking, uttering, creating discourse. But who is allowed to narrate/speak? What is the criteria of competence? “..the language game known to the West as the question of legitimacy–or rather, legitimacy as a referent in the game in inquiry. Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has to right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture,they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” Thus the decline of the “lost narrative” became a crisis in legitimation.

Lyotard’s way out of the bottle of legitimation, so to speak, was to strike the “meta” and replace it with the “little” or local narrative and in order to establish even a little narrative, an intermediary step needed to be taken, a new set of rules needed to be established. The metanarrative, now extinguished by incredulity, would be replaced by the language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The language game, or language itself, rises to the foreground in societies that value information systems. These necessarily agonistic language games, in which utterances (knowledge) are given and received and acknowledged, are governed by contextual (local) rules. The agreed-upon rules exist through the consent of the players who are positioned in a confrontational (agonistic) relationship and any utterances made outside of the rules do not “count.” In other words, as in chess, language games have moves and one moves (utters, speaks) within the existing restraints. That said, there is room for critique or paralogy within the structure by making an unexpected move that is within but challenges the language game, changing the game. Legitimation is forged, not out of narration or seizing the “right” to speak, but by being a skillful player, and this idea of optimal performativity, when applied to language games, becomes a legitimating tool.

here are consequences to playing the language games, which now replace the metanarrative and the implications of the new means (games) of conflating knowledge with performativity will be discussed in Part Three of the series.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jean-François Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part One



The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)

A brief book, a small study, “an occasional one” that Lyotard himself did not consider either important or a work of philosophy, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) came to be his best-known and most referenced book for those seeking to “define” the Postmodern and its “condition.” Indeed, this is a remarkable little book: remarkable in that it is less about Postmodernism and more about knowledge, remarkable in that it was remarkably prescient in its predictions, and, therefore, remarkable in that the generation of the 21st century reads this book in a way quite different from those who read it in the 1980s. Written at the request of Quebec’s Conseil des Universités to re-consider knowledge in the new computer age, The Postmodern Condition is actually a book on science and how knowledge is formed and acquired and, most interestingly to us today, how this knowledge (conditioned by postmodernity) would be impacted by the new technologies of the computers.

For the Postmodern theorists reading Lyotard’s concise report for the first time, the discussions of computers was more abstract than real–after all, in the 1980s, personal computers were still uncommon and their potential was beyond the cognitive horizons of most academics of the period. Lyotard’s insights and predictions as to the impact of computer technology upon universities and learning were usually passed over in favor of his rather brief “definitions” of Postmodernism without taking note of precisely why and how his definition grew out of technology. Re-reading Lyotard from the future, so to speak, it is now possible to see The Postmodern Condition in an entirely new light–is computer technology the real “postmodern condition?” Experiencing the book is rather like entering the mind of Lyotard at a point when he was both looking backward and peering forward into the future. There are a few meanderings in the direction of the defender of Modernism, Jurgen Habermas, a pause to disagree on the question of Modernism vs. Postmodernism, now an old question in the post-postmodern era.

As though to point out the obvious and to establish the already established, Lyotard began the book with a now famous definition of Postmodernism: “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” This sentence is tossed casually into a short section on knowledge and its legitimation and reveals a Lyotard looking back and remarking on the fallen state of post-war culture, after the Holocaust, after imperialism, after the sciences had shaken the preexisting belief systems. Of all the Postmodern writers, perhaps he was the most political. With a career that dated back to the forties, Lyotard was an eyewitness to the Holocaust and to the end of French colonialism in Viet Nam and Algeria and to May 1968. One by one, the metanarratives of power and control came an end, totalitarianism (totalization) was (briefly) defeated, but the promise of Marxism as an alternative proved to be a delusion. For the post-war generation watching the crumbling of the comfortable sustaining narratives of received wisdom, the old stories could no longer be told and there was nothing left to believe in. Only science survived with any shred of authority.

Lyotard was criticized by some for not including culture or the humanities in his assessment of knowledge but culture is a metanarrative, history is a metanarrative and a scientist, he states, holds such tales in scorn, “Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children.” But because they purport to tell the “truth,” narratives are also dangerous: “We know its symptoms. It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization. It is important to recognize its special tenor, which sets it apart from all other forms of imperialism: it is governed by the demand of legitimation.” Legitimation is difficult territory for Lyotard who saw a crisis in legitimation, a symptom, as he said, of the contamination of “metaknowledge” by the poison of ideology. As he recounted, “The speech Heidegger gave on May 27, 1933, on becoming rector of the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, can be read as an unfortunate episode in the history of legitimation.” Unlike many of his confrères, Lyotard was an unsparing critic of Martin Heidegger and held him accountable for the Nazi ideology that left its traces within his philosophy. Heidegger managed to slide back into the good graces of French intellectuals, return to his university, and far too quickly the waters of the present closed over his past and intellectual and moral crimes evaded memory.

In contrast, Lyotard was of a different generation, intensely aware of the historical disruptions that had taken place, ending the Enlightenment, ending imperialism, ending colonialism, ending hope, ending Modern philosophy. Like other Postmodern writers, Lyotard rejected the notion of the Western master narrative, which was a narrative of command and control; and, in fact, he is the philosopher associated with the pronouncement of the end of the grand récit or the grand narrative. The collapse of the over-arching narrative happened, not just because science had confronted faith but because it was no longer possible to “believe” in the discourses that had once ruled. Lyotard was left with one haunting question: “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?” He continued, “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it redefines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.” And paralogy–or the challenge of an alternate discourse–disorder–is at the heart of Lyotard’s solution to the end of the metanarrative, which, oddly to those who have heard so much of this word, will be mentioned only a few more times in the report.

So, if the book disposes of metanarratives briskly, puts the past aside, then what future is the book about? Lyotard carried out his charge: “Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is know as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age.” The post-war age ushered in a period that would be dominated by science and by scientists who worked with the huge primitive computers during the Second World War and wanted to continue to develop this new technology after the war. These were the scientists who imagined the Internet and understood that knowledge could be, and already was, being stored on computers. Those involved in computers, science, and technology understood the implications of computerized knowledge, and institutions of higher learning, many of which housed the massive computers, grappled with the future possibilities.


The Apple II of 1977, capable of playing games, processing words and operating spreadsheets.

Hence, when the universities of Quebec hired a philosopher to re-imagine knowledge for an age already bereft of metanarratives (faith), they brought on board a non-scientist who stated,

“These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge. Its two principal functions–research and the transmission of acquired learning–are already feeling the effect..The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation..We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language.”

As we pass into the second decade of the 21st century, we recognize that Lyotard foresaw the slow death of print publications and the rise of digital publishing, and in addition he provided the vocabulary for that will be deployed by current theorists, such as Axel Bruns (Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage of 2009).

“The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers of the commodities they produce and consume–that is form of value.” Lyotard predicted. Then he continued with a famous statement: “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use value.'”

An incredulous Marxist, Lyotard feared now that knowledge had shifted its location (computers) the creation and accumulation of knowledge would move away from the control of the universities and would be under the rule of corporations, which he observed, were now “multinational.” Like Foucault, Lyotard understood that knowledge was power and he also realized that such corporations had “passed beyond the control of nation states.” In a post-war period that picked winners and losers, the wealthy nation states would have an advantage in the production and dissemination of this new kind of knowledge generated by computerization and that the poorer countries would be left behind, as receivers, producers or users. Lyotard feared that rich nations and powerful corporations would corner and command knowledge in order to retain their powers, fearing that computerized knowledge “could become the ‘dream’ instrument for controlling and regulating the market system..In that case, it would inevitably involve the use of terror.” The solution to this threat is “quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks.”

Lyotard considered that any form of control of knowledge was a form of violence and terror against intellectual freedom, using words, “violence” and “terror,” words that were strong and were laced with his past experiences with totalizing systems. For the current reader, these remarkable passages are early warnings of the fight to keep the Internet, a system that Lyotard did not live to see fully developed, free and open and accessible to it users on an equal basis. But in-between the pages where Lyotard announced the end of the metanarrative and the active participation of the public in the production (and control) of knowledge is his discussion of science/knowledge (information) and how knowledge can exist under the “postmodern condition” through language games. With a nod to Ludwig Wittgenstein, language games have the capacity to bring about counter narratives or “little narratives” or paralogy, which, as he said, was at the heart of postmodernism.

Part Two of this series on Jean-François Lyotard will discuss education in the computer age or the “postmodern condition.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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