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.

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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.”

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

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

[email protected]

Postmodernism and the Loss of Mastery


Feminism, Post-Colonialism, and the Loss of Mastery Over the World Picture

In 1986 Postmodern painter Mark Tansey (1949-) produced a large orangish monochrome painting of a long white fallen column. Broken in three places and lying next to a flight of stairs, the pillar vaguely resembles the Vendôme Column toppled by Gustave Courbet and his Communard comrades. The figure that was once on the top could be read as Napoléon in classical dress but over all the fallen totem allegorically reads as the fall of Western civilization and given that the column is phallic, that collapse seems specifically male. In the distance, a razed city spreads out and in the foreground the maternal is on full display: a woman and her children play among the ruins. Tansey, a well-read son of art historians, titled the painting, Triumph Over Mastery.

Modernism thrived upon the grand récits, or master narratives of modernity, which were narratives of mastery, each one a telos of conquest and fundamental solidarity. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expressed this confidence in “The Age of the World Picture,” a lecture given in 1938 under the title of “The Establishing by Metaphysics of the Modern World Picture.” For Heidegger, Being was “what is given to thinking to think.” As a teacher, Heidegger encouraged his readers and his audience in forceful language to think and to follow though through an evolutionary process of thinking. Humans relate to being through language, which is “the House of Being.” Following the metaphysical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger placed the self-conscious human subject as dominating through evaluation and judging the world. The modern world describes the world as a picture and conjures up the transformation of the world as a representation. The “world picture” is “taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”

It is the essence of the modern age is that the world becomes a picture. Everything exists only through representation and the world exists only in and through the subject. This narrative is the conquest of the world as picture, which is a structured image, the creature of production. Modernism is characterized by two events, the transformation of the world as a picture and the person as a subject. However, the “world picture” is a delusion and humans who seek to dominate the world can never know themselves or encounters himself and remains alienated from Being. As Heidegger wrote,

Where the world becomes picture, what is, in its entirety, is juxtaposed as that for which man is prepared and which, correspondingly, he therefore intends to bring before himself and have before himself, and consequently intends in a decisive sense to set in place before himself. Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.” Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

It is human beings who create the world picture and place themselves “in the picture” they create for themselves.“The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings,” Heidegger said. In contrast to the Greek world view or the Medieval world view, the modern world view or world picture puts humans in the center. As he continued,“Now for the first time is there anything like a position of man at all.”Because we have made the picture, we can place ourselves, position ourselves in the picture, where we wish. This ability to conflate Being with thinking and thus the will to power to create the world picture and to be in the picture–this is power indeed. To be able to create “the world as a picture” is mastery. Associated with Nazi thought (the epitome of mastery) and tainted forever by his association with Nazi ideology and damned by his treatment of his Jewish colleagues, Heidegger is a nearly irredeemable philosopher. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 in “A Master from Germany,” “Heidegger’s books will be read for centuries to come, but the smell of smoke from the crematories — the ”grave in the air” — will linger on their pages.”

Given that Heidegger was very important to the Postmodern thinkers in France, his continued presence in philosophy presents a problem. In his forward to the important 2009 book by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Tom Rockmore pointed out that the French scholars turned to Heidegger as an alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre and in the process successfully put his Nazi convictions aside and focused on a very narrow body of his writings. Rockmore stated that Faye’s book, originally published in France, was the first of force the intellectual community to deal with the extent to which, as Faye put it, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” Faye recovered neglected works by Heidegger, characterizing these writings as “..every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official “philosophers” of Nazism..they surpass the others by the virulence of their Hitlerism, which no other “philosopher” of the regime has equaled.” To this day, the debate over what to do with Heidegger continues. The past has a way of surfacing at inconvenient times but Heidegger managed to live out the rest of his life relatively unscathed (unlike the Jewish scholars he allowed to be expelled from the university) and the expatriate Yale scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983) was not exposed as a writer for the Nazi cause until four years after his death.

One of the problems of Postmodernism, diehard Modernists claim, is its relativism. If one follows the tenets of intertextuality, “the death of the author” then the writer must be divorced from his or her work and thereby has no moral responsibility for the contents. Heidegger was merely reflecting his own time; de Man was merely surviving during the occupation of Belgium. If it is impossible to “master” language, then this distancing from morality or ethics is an Adamic Fall from Grace. Therefore Postmodernism mourns this loss of mastery and reflects back on its reign with nostalgia. The “mastery” alluded to in Tansey’s painting and in the numerous writings on the fall of Modernism breaks, as did the column of Tansey, at numerous fracture points. The “fall” of the column of mastery was linked to the disillusionment over the failure of the humanist promise of the Enlightenment as exemplified by the stain of Nazism in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The drive towards the desired “end” regardless of the means during the Second World War fractured the moral core of the West. On one hand, the ethnics of ending a destructive war and putting an end to dangerous enemies was not in doubt but the way in which that end came about, whether the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden or the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provoked a moral quandary. In addition, over time, there was a slow realization that the “greatest generation,” whether in America or France or England, had fought a war for democracy and equality but were not willing to countenance racial or gender equality after the war in their own nation. Nor were any of these Euro-American powers willing to forego their respective empires without a struggle.

By the 1960s, there was the loss of control over the master narrative, the story that explained the world, which will be discussed in another post. Once the metanarrative could no longer be mastered, Postmodernism lost authority, and as the result of a multiplicity of cultural events, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Stonewall uprising, the Women’s Movement, to name a few, there was a decline in the belief system that “liberty and justice” was for “all.” In Europe, the Empire was coming home, forcing European nations to deal with the consequences of their “civilizing” projects and the transnational hybridity that provoked a diaspora and the post-colonial condition. Once the singular voice of the master narrative or the will to power of the dominant group is fractured from the univocal to the polyvocal, the Other began to emerge as an actor. In his seminal essay on women as the “Other,” Craig Owens (1950-1990) quoted Paul Ricour (1913-2005), who wrote in 1962 that “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other”among others.”

Ricour’s “we” was presumably in 1962 white males. In returning briefly to Heidegger’s world picture, one can assume that women were not part of the picture, because as has so often been pointed out by philosophers, women were outside of representation. Rooted in nature or in the pre-linguistic semiotic, women were pictured only in terms of the male symbolic. Michèle Montrelay’s 1978 essay, “Inquiry into Femininity” (Recherches sur la Féminité) coined the term “the ruin of representation. In many ways this essay should be considered a deconstruction of Freudian/Lacanian theory as it related to representation or the entry of the child into the symbolic. She exposed a contradiction lying at the heart of the theory in her recounting of the Oedipal complex. The inescapable fate of Oedipus lay in his inappropriate desire for his mother and the repression of this desire for the mother is the mechanism that brings about the entry into language: the symbolic. Representation, the symbolic substitution, is a creature not only of desire but also of the fear of castration, but as Montrelay pointed out, women have no stake in this game. Being the object of desire, they do not desire and do not have to be repressed; having no penis they do not have to fear castration and hence are not psychically wounded.

The sexuality of women remains, as Montrelay pointed out, “outside” of repression and “the stake of castration is displaced,” meaning that feminine sexuality is “outside of the economy of representation.” “Locating herself as maternal body (as well as phallus),” Montrelay wrote, “..woman cannot repress, ‘lose’ so to speak, the original stake of representation. As in the Greek tragedy, she finds herself threatened by ruin. However, in the principle of such a threat, different processes are at work. For Oedipus, the restitution of the stake occurred by chance or from the Gods. This restitution occurred despite an interdiction. For woman, on the contrary, nothing is forbidden. There are no enunciations, no laws that prohibit the recuperation of the stake. This is because for woman, the real that imposes itself and takes the place of repression and desire, is the real of the body proper.” Therefore the woman, described as the “Dark Continent,” have no stake in the game of representation and her presence serves to break down discourse and ruin representation.

One of the social breakdowns of Postmodernism is the realization that the Other has never had a stake in the game or a place in the world picture and those who are not include or who are excluded will not have the “mastery” of the tools of the master. The response of Postmodern theory to the recognition of the Other was one of passive aggression: to turn Otherness into theory to further silence the others under the discourse of the master who retained the power to represent, all the while critiquing representation. The late Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism noted that “The absence of discussions of sexual difference in writings about postmodernism, as well as the fact that few women have engaged in the modernism postmodernism debate, suggest that postmodernism may be another masculine invention engineered to exclude women.” Owens was writing in the wake of the realization that, contrary to Heidegger, language has no power to shape the world and the consciousness has no power to shape the subject. But he was also writing, in 1983, in the midst of a social revolution that had resulted in the rise of the Other, including women and gays and lesbians, who were very much involved in the protest against the government’s neglect of the epidemic of AIDS, voices that would have been silenced.

As a gay man interested in the Other, Owens was not alone. Along with many feminist writers, he was joined in his critique of the patriarchy which was extended to the exclusion and othering of people of color. A year after the publication of his essay which noted that the Postmodern male artists–think Julian Schanbel, were reduced to simulating “mastery,” a New York exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly presented another example of a nostalgic longing for a Eurocentric mastery long extinct, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Curated by an aging William Rubin (1927-2006) and the rising star Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), the show was blasted by one of the dissident generation of critics, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” He attacked the entire premise of the show which was that Western artists used art from “primitive” cultures to nourish itself, acting from a position of imperialism and exploitation. But the Museum of Modern Art undercut the power of the other and the extent to which the response of the Western artists was disruptive by making the strange familiar, thus mischaracterizing the violence of the “primitive,” decontextualized into vitrines and masking the exploitation of European colonialism. As McEvilley wrote referring to

“the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which isolated from one another in the virtrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far way…if the primate works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also..the show is about classical Modernism.”

Although today, it is easy to criticize McEvilley for writing in such Eurocentric language, he was quite correct in pointing out that the attempt to “master” the “primitive” was based on a discourse of dominance under the auspices of “affinity” which kept “information at a minimum,” relieving the non-Western objects of their own empowering context, thus bringing each object under Western control. As he wrote, “The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture..The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness..I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong..In depressing starkness, “Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects to itself.”

Published in Artforum magazine in the fall of 1984, this article engendered a series of angry replies from Rubin and Varnedoe and became a clarion call for a new generation of art critics and art historians who would fall into the category of Postmodernism, if only because McEvilley had rejected connoisseurship as the basis for an art exhibition. Whether or not the dominant male painters, who staged a vigorous comeback after a decade of feminist art, understood that their (male) social mastery was lost, they were aware that the only way to lay claim to the exhausted tradition of Western painting was to either parody the history of Modernism, like Mark Tansey, or manifest what Craig Owens called “symptoms.” As he stated,

Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent in cultural activity today–nowhere more so than in the visual arts..contemporary artists are able to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs;since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor–violent, “impassioned” brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal–and disavowal always pertains to a loss..of virility, masculinity, potency.

To women and people of color, still kept outside of the art world during the 1980s, it seemed that merely simulating mastery was sufficient to maintain mastery. It would take another generation and another century to find out the consequences of not giving half the sky a stake in the game of culture.

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-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)


“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”

Existentialism set the tone for Postmodern thinking by being negative: it is defined in terms of what it is not and discards previous systems rooted in the 19th century. The ideal philosophy for a lost and troubled century, Existentialism is against scientific positivism (Auguste Comte), materialism (Karl Marx), and technological pragmatism (William James). Existentialism discredited philosophical idealism (Emmanuel Kant), Hegel’s transcendental pan-logism and all assumptions of the absolute primacy and supremacy of human reason and intellect. In rejecting the metaphysical, Existentialism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, setting the reality of life as lived or “bios” against “logos” or abstract reason. Georg Hegel had identified human reason with concepts of Logos (coherent discourse), Absolute Reason, and the Absolute Idea or Spirit, and this philosophical concept can be summed up as immanence or the functioning of pure reason.

As Alexandre Kojève explained it, “Hegel insists at length on the passive, contemplative, and descriptive character of the “scientific” method. He underlines that there is a dialectic of “scientific” thought only because there is a dialectic of the Being which that thought reveals.” Opposed to the notion of abstracted “human reason,” existentialist thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, considered the human intellect as a practical tool, an instrument that was adaptable according to the need to create objects through the dynamic force of élan vital. In contrast to the philosophy of contemplation, the existentialist, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, was interested in the individual who is concrete, singular and unique, original, free and responsible–in other words a person of action. Previous philosophical traditions were centered upon a system of epistemology or the foundation of knowledge, which had to be reason. Reason could be justified only within as abstract structure which had to transcend the real, reality, in order to be universal. But existentialism shifted its focus to existence itself–what it means to live, to be alive, to the human experience–and, while accepting the irrational disorder of life, attempted to come to terms with the reality of being.

Therefore, Existentialism compares practical action to the contemplative intellect, which imposes logical forms that are arbitrary and abstract, the products of thinking (not acting). A (human) being is in a constant process of becoming and evolving. The knower is penetrated by the known. To express this always-becoming state of being, the existentialist writer must use literary tactics, such as metaphor, analogy, symbolic, and symbolic imagery. Intellectual knowledge is subjective or inward compared to “true reality” which is external and in a constant state of flux and change or caught up in a “creative evolution.” What gives Existentialism its unique position in 20th century philosophy is the time of its re-birth, the Second World War, and the place, Paris, a city under the occupation of a long-hated enemy, Germany. What did it mean to act or not act when one is under the all too watchful eyes of the Nazi panopticon? Now that the known world had come to an end and the age of reason had crumbled, it was necessary to re-write the terms of existence, without God,without Logos.

It is certainly correct to think of modern Existentialism as the product of World War II, but the specificity of its re-working should not be thought of as a limitation, any more than idealism should be thought of as being limited by the Enlightenment. The times forced the philosophy and this most terrible war waged against humanity demolished all the cherished assumptions of the Enlightenment and suggested a new role for philosophy. If God had gone into retreat during the Holocaust, then reason had also gone into hiding and philosophy had been rendered irrelevant. The task of building a philosophy for the end of the 20th century fell to a scholar, schoolteacher, intellect and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was part of the literary-philosophical world of war time Paris.


Jean-Paul Sartre about 1950

Sartre was hardly a man of action. His role, such as it was, as a warrior consisted mostly of being a prisoner of war, an unfortunate soldier caught up in the disaster of the French defeat. When he returned to Paris to be reunited with his on-again, off-again lover and companion, the independent minded Simone de Beauvoir (“Beaver”), Sartre had to consider the position of an intellectual who must retain honor, resist the occupiers, but also stay alive. Whether or not Sartre flew too close to the German wind in order to continue his work is a matter for others to decide (Sartre wrote for collaborationist or Occupied Zone publications), but he acted in such a way so as to get his work out in public and performed for audiences. There is no doubt that his experiences during the War, his brief tenure as prisoner of war, his devotion to the French Resistance, his determination to speak out against the Nazis, caused a creative explosion and an outpouring of his most important works: the 1943 production of The Flies, with its hidden protest against Vichy, the staging of No Exit, a contemplation of Hell (others) in 1944 just before the invasion, and, of course Being and Nothingness, the master statement of Existentialism.

There is no question that Sartre, before finding himself in the midst of a rather too cozy Occupation where the German army seemed less like active enemies and more like passive “furniture,” a typical insular intellectual, was naïve about world affairs. He had actually visited Germany in 1933 to meet with the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, but the letters of Sartre written during the 1930s indicate he had little awareness of the implications of Nazism which and already co-opted Heidegger. But Sartre changed. The Age of Reason written during the long war was a dialogue between Sartre and his leading character, Mathieu, both of whom were concerned with how to survive in wartime while retaining one’s own dignity. Over time, Sartre created a new character that essentially split the difference: the engaged intellectual who lived a life of political activism,but who managed to embed the politics in art.

Like most modern philosophers, Sartre was a “literary” figure, writing plays and novels, all of which were different expressions of the existential mood of the Second World War. Being and Nothingness, his major existential work, was written in 1943 and was translated into English and published in 1947. Heidegger was discredited due to his shameful treatment of his Jewish colleagues but was still producing a discourse on Being that was eloquent enough to be reckoned with, but Sartre emerged from the rubble of the war as the leading modern philosopher of existentialism. In a reply to his critics, in a 1944 article in Action, Sartre both brushed aside the charge that his work should be dismissed due to the association of existentialism with Heidegger and condemned the philosopher: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter…Don’t you know that some times the man does not come up to the level of his works?”

For decades French intellectual though had been impacted by Marxism, but Sartre was uneasy with economic determinism precisely because Marx proposed that society was determined, suggesting that humans were mere pawns of a dialectic. Although he would not discard Marxism, for Sartre, it was clear that human beings had to act alone. It was important for human beings to act out of choice. One’s existence is one’s character and that character depends upon the active choice of projects or what one choses to do or to act within. Writing just after the Occupation in “A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism,” Sartre remarked, “Since existentialism defines man by action, it is evident that this philosophy is not a quietism.” Although many misread Being and Nothingness as a monument to despair, a shout against God, Sartre insisted that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” As he wrote in 1946,

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Existentialism is about life’s concrete existence and how the human being constantly comes into being through inter/acting with the changing environment. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” “Truth” is “my truth” and “Being” is “my being.” The human reality is “being-in-itself (en-soi)” and “being-for-itself (pour-soi),” a combination that produces an ambiguity at the heart of humanity. Sartre would later add a third term: “being-for-others (pour-autrui).” Being-in-itself is actually nothing constituting an absolute polarity to Being-for-itself, which is free and unbridled but nothing else until it encounters the Other. Note that this is not a Hegelian triad, in which one term is deduced logically from the other, but a doubled and split Being that can only “encounter” the other. Sartre asserted, “We are completely alone with no excuses behind us or justification before us.” What Sartre is asserting is that because we are not a self but a presence to self–we are the Other to ourselves–we are free.

As free human beings, we are responsible for our own actions and our own lives. We must live with authenticity. Presumably, a Nazi could live with authenticity in the full belief that his or her actions constituted an ethical life, but Sartre would argue that the Nazi was acting in “bad faith” and was refusing to take responsibility for his or her own life. In thrall to Hitler, a Nazi cannot be free. Sartre asserted that “man” makes “himself” through “his” own activity. Obstacles to our freedom are “our past, our place, our surroundings, our fellow-brethern, our death.” We have the choice to be free and to be free we must freely accept the present. Freedom is being in control of the present and only when one is in control is one free to change. In many ways, Existentialism is an extension of certain aspects of the Enlightenment: the subject or the Self stands alone, all else—the reason for living, the purpose of life—is stripped away.

Many observers considered Being and Nothingness to be bitter and hopeless in its refusal to provide a purpose for life outside of existence. But what has really occurred for Sartre is the century in which he lived. The War changed the rules of the game of life, so to speak, and the idealism of older philosophy must be dismissed–logic, logos, and reason–all discarded in order for the human being to be set free to act as an individual. The acting human being may have no rules and no guidance from “higher powers,” whether philosophers or God, and the person who accepts this (unguided and unfettered) freedom is also taking on a burden of total responsibility. The moral and ethical goal of the post-war human was to be authentic. The final acceptance of the death of God, proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and proved by the Holocaust, would be the final assertion of individuality in philosophy and the final celebration of the free human being.

Sartre’s philosophy expressed an ontological fatalism: “Existence precedes essence”–we exist before we have any specific perfection or nature. But this essence, this being is all we are. In other words, breaking from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Sartre asserted that there is no unconscious mind lurking behind our actions and ultimately limiting our authenticity. The Ego is not in consciousness but can be described as a consciousness of oneself. We are conscious minds, and, if this is the case, we are thrust into being and we make ourselves through action. Our individual humanity is nothing but what we make through our individual actions. Every being is alone and every human activity is characterized by anguish. As Sartre wrote, “Anguish, abandonment, responsibility, whether muted or full strength, constitute the quality of our consciousness in so far as this is pure and simple freedom.” We must choose but nothing can assure us that we have made the right choice.

The true struggle is to make sure that we act with full understanding and cognizance of our own being and are acting in good faith. With the background of the Holocaust and the French participation in the extermination of the Jews, this refusal of moral absolutism takes on sinister tones and could slide dangerously into action justifying action for action’s sake. On the other hand, the Nazis were nothing if not morally absolute and exposed the dangers of existentialism (Heidegger) untethered to ethics. Existentialism was an angry and pained expression of the disarray of the European belief systems after the Second World War. It would take generations for a continent to restore its honor and to absorb the lessons of the 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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Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Anyone who has read the writings of Jacques Lacan came to the humbling realization that in any meaningful way s/he simply didn’t exist. Having gone through the boot camp of the Oedipal Order, the socialized (non)person emerges as an emotional cripple who will spend the rest of her life lying prone on a Freudian couch. Whatever shards of primal authenticity that might have been present at birth have been pummeled and buried under the threats of the Law of the Father who has Forbidden all manner of delights to a child who is stunned into submission. What is left behind after what appears to be two years of indoctrination, is not a shell, not a shadow of a former self, but a false impression of something called “ego,” a presumption to which one clings. It was the prime directive of Jacques Lacan to expose the false notion of the Cartesian self and to reveal the empty mask of a masquerading persona. From an emotional standpoint, the student must reject both Lacan’s enterprise and his conclusions, but from an intellectual perspective, Lacan’s position makes perfect sense.

Because the human subject is forged through the acquisition of language, the (faux)ego is an assumption—in that one assumes an ego as one dons a mask. Separated from “reality” which cannot be realized, Language is inherently and necessarily Symbolic. Lacan maintains that in order to achieve social personhood (persona), the child must submit to or accept the inevitability of the Symbolic. If language is split from reality, then when the subject acquires symbolic language, s/he becomes symbolized: the language speaks the subject. In order to be spoken, the subject must experience Loss (of the Forbidden Mother) and Gains entry into the social order. An Exchange, based upon Lack, has been made, the bargain has been struck and the ego or the subject does not and cannot exist.

But Lacan discussed the subject, which he asserted does not exist, at great length, so how are we to think of this non-existent “subject” of which so much is written? It is possible to resolve the dilemma by approaching it sideways. First, the subject does not exist and yet we must speak of it, or to put it more precisely, it seems as if we can, are able, to speak of subject (or ego). It is possible to speak of something that does not exist: we speak of ghosts, witches, zombies and vampires, and these are creatures of the imagination that do not exist. If you are Anne Rice, the non-existence of vampires does not trouble you, but if you are a philosopher, speaking of objects that are not objects or of the non-existent is troubling, especially when, unlike Anne Rice, you are compelled to address the non-addressable.

The solution was suggested by Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) who designated these troubling non-objects as “concepts,” and then proceeded on with the discussion. Another solution was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): silence. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) confronted the problem of how to write about the non-existent by accepting the idea of “concept” from Frege, but, in the base of Being, Heidegger put Being sous rature or “under erasure,” by allowing “Being” to be written but also written out by deliberately crossing over the word with a large X. Although he does not resort to the ploy employed by Martin Heidegger, Lacan who was very aware of Frege and Heidegger can be seen as following their lead: “subject” is a concept, but that is all it is—an idea.

Repudiating the Cartesian notion of self or what Lacan called a “false being,” and the Freudian insistence on the ego of the conscious mind, Lacan wanted to disrupt the notion of the unified subject and the idea of presence through inversion. For Lacan, the subject is split and it is the unconscious that must supersede the conscious mind, as in U/c, meaning that the conscious mind is always overridden by the forces beneath, so to speak. In fact as Bruce Fink pointed out in The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, “the subject is nothing but his split.” The “splitting of the I,” means that the subject is split when s/he is inserted into the Symbolic Order. The insertion, which is always forced, necessarily results in alienation of self from self and repression by the Law of the self.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81)

The split subject is mediated and can be understood only by being mediated through discourse, but this mediation, also a forcing event, creates a hidden structure: the unconscious. In Freudian terms, the end result of the “family romance” mans that the child is traumatized and the primal wound gives rise to the unconscious, where all that is not to be thought of is buried. But, in its raw state, the split create division and in order for the human being to function, if the (“social”) wound cannot be healed, the gap must be closed. Between the subject, which does not exist but thinks it does, and the world, which does exist but cannot be uttered, there must be a Third Order, referred to as the Suture. Think of the suture as a shunt or as a form of “stitching” the subject into society. But the Suture also represents the tear or splitting, which can only be mended but always leaves a scar–the trauma–behind.

When it is seen that the S/s (Signifier/signified) has a visible bar–the split/suture—is also the wound that causes the alienation of the subject within language. Because the subject is within language, as in caught or trapped inside, the subject is condemned to speak indirectly, through the assemblage piecemeal action of constructive collage, or through the animal-like mimicry of mimesis, and (self) representation. The subject, therefore, embedded in this indirectness, can never be an ego, in the Freudian sense, and can be only a persona. As as pointed out above, the self, the ego, the subject is formed as the result of Lack, which, in its turn, engenders need, desire, demand. Need, Desire, Demand—this is the the Triad of Lacan, replacing the Triad of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. In the Hegelian sense, the conflict or the dialectic between Desire and Law produces drives, named by Lacan using Freudian terms: “eros” and “thantos.” These binary drives are the engines of the “subject.” Love and Death become opposites or polarities at war within the subject. The paradox of the death wish is that wishing for Death is also wishing for completion.

The completion can come about only when one is re-fused with the original Forbidden object, the Mother, or a substitution for the Mother. Eros must be displaced elsewhere and a substitution must be found, and these mechanisms of “displacement” and “substitution” are also functions of language, as Metaphor and Metonymy. In order to illustrate the process of becoming, as Freud would have it, “civilized,” Lacan sets up the family (Freud’s “family romance”) as a symbolic structure which is social or cultural and is thus contrasted to the natural world of animal promiscuity. It is important to note that the family, as posited by Lacan, is tripartite. The “family” beings with two terms: the Mother and the Child.” The third term is the Father who must act, who must intervene and split or separate the dyad of Mother and Child. The triangulated family—the father and child fighting for ownership of the mother—is the transcendence of order and culture, which rises above of the instinctive and the natural. The family becomes a proper “family” only when it comes into being through the Forbidden and the force used to establish the cultural/symbolic order by Forbidding the Forbidden. Force assumes sacrifice (loss) on the part of the child who has no power and who will never grasp the depth of the loss and the extent of the trauma and may be unable to grasp the Gain.

Lacan seemed to assume that “natural” is also “profane” and that culture is superior, but even without assuming a hierarchy, it is possible to state that humans become humans, rise above the animal, through language or the capacity to symbolize. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Lacan does not accept language or langue as an inherently human capacity and leave it there. Lacan envisions an Oedipal narrative of punishment for desiring the forbidden–the blinding of Oedipus (his self-sacrifice and self-punishment) is the equivalent of the subject’s inability to “see” or to articulate the world. The “blinding” is also the Sacrifice of sexual relations with parents or siblings. The Sacrifice of Incest corresponds to Repression, the crushing down of the Forbidden Desires. The Sacrifice which is the precondition for transition to symbolic order, results in a Splitting (Spaltung) of the subject due to his/her forcible entry into society and into the symbolic order of language. Ultimately, the subject is alienated in language, and, like Oedipus, bears a social wound.

The ego/subject, which is a fabrication, comes from a system of translation from the unconscious to the conscious by means of symbolization which is a process of substitution, displacement, condensation and referentially. Thus language is the precondition for the act of becoming and social wound introduces the subject into a symbolizing language. But to state that the subject is alienated through language is to invite an interrogation of language itself. As was pointed out in previous posts, the logic is clear: if the subject is split, then the source of the split must be within language itself. (S/s) means that Language is alienated from itself. Just as there is no authenticity of self, there is no authenticity in language. The artificiality of language or the arbitrary (dis)connection between the sign and the signifier or the object and the word is the profound insight of Saussure. However, Lacan’s de-stabalized alienated language is very different from Saussure’s stabilized language.

Saussure created an elegant architectonic structure for the sign, the signifier, and the signified and his system assumed a fixed position from which meaning is constructed. For the purposes of establishing and explaining the system, it was necessary for Saussure to assume immobility. But, as art historian Erwin Panofsky quickly found out, the “Signified” as culture is a huge field and a constantly shifting one. Rather than attempting to fix the diachronic, Lacan addressed the problem by demoting the Signified (diachronic level) and elevated the Signifier, allowing it to float freely. As the Signifier floats, it shifts its position to another site, and if the Signifier can shift and move, then the Signified becomes less significant. Claude Lévi-Strauss also spoke of the signifier as a “zero symbol,” floating without clinging to the signified. A close reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Lacan, in turn, wrote of the impossibility of a one-to-one correspondence between the “tide” of signifiers and the “tide” of the signifieds that “float” one past another. Meaning becomes mobilized as the signifiers “cascade” down the signifying chain, or as Wittgenstein suggested “meaning is in the use.”

There can be no metalanguage.

What becomes important as a result of this line of reasoning is that the nature of the connections among the elements and not the elements themselves is most interesting. In other words, representation is not the equivalent of the thing itself, and, as Saussure pointed out, the nexus between words and things is broken. What is left behind is the in-between space in which writing is born of alienated language. The followers of Lacan took his ideas on language and extended them into writing that becomes materialized through the sounds and rhythms of language. Language and its floating signifiers is freed to revel in a plurality of meanings. The act of writing becomes an act of lived experience. Writing as jouissance or pure pleasure does not produce anything but is reminiscent of those deeply repressed but strongly remembered time of fusion with the original love object of desire.

Jouissance splits writing from itself and alienated already alienated language. A literature of experience is unreadable literature or limit-literature. In other words the writer accepts the alienated identity of language and reconfigures language into de-naturalized words, creating a new form of non-transparent writing called by Roland Barthes, écriture. Thus écriture transcends the instrumentality of language, or écrivance. The assumption that language is instrumental–can articulate or is transparent–écrivance—is broken. Breaking the assumed mask of the false and none-existent slink between language and thing is possible because language-as-message, communication to a receiver, is based already upon the “objectness” or the “object hood” or separateness of words which are homeless–floating signifiers. Thanks to Lacan,language is a representation of a representation. For Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, writing is not transparent but opaque. To write is not to reveal but to be performative and not informative. Jouissance is the experience of the limits of language and writing against the limits becomes a field, not of knowledge, but of enjoyment.

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

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

[email protected]


Jacques Lacan: Return to Freud

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Being a transitional figure, bridging Modernism and Postmodernism, Jacques Lacan was a complex and hybrid philosopher whose work is convoluted and complicated. As a Modernist, he favored models and structures, a methodology he inherited from both Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who worked from the dialectic, a triadic process. The combination of dyads and triads marks the efforts of Jacques Lacan who then layers the duos and trios in a series of strata. As a Postmodernist, Lacan was one of the earlier re-readers of Enlightenment ideas and did not hesitate to slice and dice and recombine ideas purloined from Modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Alexandre Kojeve, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et. al. Lacan used the works of all of these philosophers to re-interpret the books of Sigmund Freud. The one element that marks him off from his predecessors is Lacan’s use of language or appropriation of the linguistic theories of Saussure and the idea of “language games,” borrowed from Wittgenstein. The primary project of Jacques Lacan was to re-make Freudian theory by filtering it through the fulcrum of language.

In 1955 Jacques Lacan announced his famed Return to Freud, meaning that he had decided to take up the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as literature. As is clear by the date of is “announcement,” Lacan had read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s recently published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and had learned of Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.” Although Lacan had been working with Freudian theory and had even challenged the Freudian privileging of the ego, Wittgenstein gave him a new way to re-read Freud. Wittgenstein had used language games to demonstrate the difference between saying and showing and to search for the limits of “saying” or what could be said. These limits are reached when the question of defining “language” arises and any definition can only become another example, and never a definition, meaning that meaning is always deferred.

Lacan rediscovered the “essential Freud” through the early writings: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). These signature works are considered the canonical theories on the unconscious mind. Lacan referred to the Unconscious as the “Lost Object”, an object barred from the conscious. He was less interested in Freud’s archaeological project and more interested in the constitution of the individual and social beings and with the relation of the individual subject to the structure of language within the culture. The individual is formed/made/built in relation to the family and is integrated into the social matrix through the agency of language. Lacan asserted, <“I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words but that the unconscious is precisely structured.” “The meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud.”

The unconscious is structured like a language and functions in ways similar to language: sign, signifier, and signified. In giving agency to language in creating the human and by insisting on the primacy of language as generative of consciousness, Lacan expressed his opposition to the traditional notion of the Self as an independent or transcendent or an absolute entity in the world. The question is why language? Psychoanalysis has but one medium: the patient’s speech, and Freud taught his readers that “symptoms,” or uncontrolled manifestations of the unconscious, speak in and through words. Symptoms, like dreams, which are linguistic image based narratives, were constructed in phrases and sentences. Freud tried to use language to reach a source or an origin from which the primal pain was emanating, but Lacan insisted that origins can never be located. What is available to the observer is the capacity for symbolization, expressed as language.

The subject exists because of and through language. Because the human agent “knows” or “speaks” only through language, language is the determinant of intersubjectivity or consciousness. Given that the limits of language, not only is there no outside or no meta-language and also no access to the unconscious but there is also no ego without language. The ego or the conscious rational mind is the product of linguistic activity. In other words, the limits of the language and the limits of the consciousness are the same and inseparable. As Lacan expressed it,

…words are the only material of the unconscious…The subject does not exist prior to language, the subject comes into being through language…the concept…engenders the thing…the world of words…creates the world of things…

And as Lacan continued,

If I have said that language is what the unconscious is structured like, this is because language to begin with, does not exist. Language is what we try to know concerning the function of la langue.

Notice that Lacan used the term la langue or lalangue. This characteristic play with words is a nod to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who separated langue, or that which structured linguistics as it exists in the social collective, from parole or common speech acts. Scholars have debated the extent to which Saussure meant for the speaker to “possess” langue, but for him, langue was synchronic (based in structure), while parole was diachronic (based in time). According to Saussure, we communicate synchronically through the sign, the signifier, the signified, but Lacan added a third term, lalangue, or the language of the unconscious, which is the primal language heard by the infant from its mother. As Juan David Nasio wrote in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan,

Lalangue is something that one sucks, it is the maternal part of language that undergoes jouissance. Lalangue remains intimately linked to the body, and is thus eminently charged with meaning. Lalangue is the language of meaning, full of meaning.

Language operates in terms of connection or putting together and through substitution or alternative that are expressed in Freudian terms of “condensation” and “displacement.” Dreams are symbolic symbols that are condensed or combined from concepts that have been suppressed by the conscious mind. This displacement from the conscious to the unconscious forces metaphorical expression which is the stuff dreams are made of. Accordingly, language is not as much descriptive as it is symbolic. Linguistically, the Sign or the Letter is the material support, the Signifier or the Metaphor substitutes itself for the thing it represents, and the Signified—that which has been signified—or the Metonymy, is that which re-represents itself. The result of these processes of connection and substitution is a displacement of meaning along a chain of signification.

Lacan linked three terms: the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. The “Imaginary” was the earliest of these concepts and refers to the world we “imagine” or bring into being, and for Lacan it is this order of expression that is the proper study of psychoanalysis. The Symbolic is that which is signified through language. Because humans must express themselves through symbolic means, the “Real” is forever inaccessible. Lacan’s concept of the “real” evolved over this career. In the 1930s, the “real” was pre-symbolic, unreachable and unknowable. Because the “real” is unknowable and escapes language the real does not exist. If there is a “real,” then a Symbolic Real has priority over that raw reality as it exists before language, but paradoxically this “real” also limits that which can be imagined and thus restrains what can be symbolized.

Rather than revealing the unknowable “real,” the Symbolic Real hides and veils the unsymbolized and unsymbolizable real through acts of symbolization. Lacan expressed this strange unbridgeable divide through the algorithm “S/s.” S/s indicates that there is a split or a “bar” between the Symbolized and the un/symbolizable. There can be no true coincidence or semblance between the theoretical entities of the Real and the Symbolic. The line or forward slash between the S(ymbolic Real) and the (un)s(ymbolized real) is the essential fact of human existence. The bar is an imaginary filter between the real and the human mind: the real that is perceived but that can never be expressed except through the mediative process of language. Thus the human condition is constituted through language. Language is the Symbolic Real, which has two orders of reference: the Real, which cannot be articulated and Language, which functions metaphorically.

The slash or slanted line between S and s is significant and needs further discussion. By the 1960s, Lacan associated the real (that which cannot speak its name) with trauma or an original wound. Taking a word from Aristotle, tuché, meaning “cause,” Lacan transforms the word to mean an “the encounter with the real.” But because this encounter with the real must always be “missed,” not because it did not happen but because it cannot be internalized, this unassimilable event is re-written as trauma. There is a connection between language and trauma, for we enter into language through trauma. The birth of a human subject into language produces a disjunction (a bar, a slash) between the lived experience and the sign, which replaces reality. Language should be thought of as a reflection upon experience and yet is always divergent from experience. In other words, language is not reflective and can never be reflective–as in a reflection of reality—but can only reflect or think upon the experience. The word upon indicates a displacement: language is not a mirror which reflects; the language is a mechanism which allows thinking about.

We come into consciousness through language. We are ushered into society through language. The bar/slash between the S and the s is also the veil or the “splitting” that occurs when the unseparated (from the mother) infant is separated (becomes separate) from its mother and is initiated into society through language. The beginning of humanity is the end of the infant’s certainty of fusion and wholeness, the jouissance of bodily contact with the mother. S/he is forever barred and forever split from this undifferentiated fusion through the workings of symbolic (unreal) language. The result of this act of separation, this slash or division, is a trauma that splits the child off and sends him or her hurling alone into society. The map or topography of the resulting separation of the conscious from the unconscious is the alienation of the subject from itself.

The S/s separation of Lacan also divides the signified from the signifier and puts the Signifier over the signified and separates the sign from meaning and installs a barrier between subject and object. The word is subordinated to the concept, just as the signified is subordinated to the signifier. The counter-intuitive inversion was borrowed from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Hegel’s assertion that the Master was ultimately dependent upon the Slave for recognition. In the same way, it seems that the Conscious mind is the Master but it is the Unconscious mind that represses the conscious mind, and the thesis, so to speak, is made slave by the antithesis: U/c. The bar cites the presence of an inherent and inverted repression.

Reiterating but re-expressing the Freudian model of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, the Lacanian bar is also a gap between the signifier and the signified or a “topological substratum.” As Lacan explained why the Signified is ascendent,

…the signifying chain gives an approximate idea” rings of a necklace that is a rung in another necklace made of rings. Such are the structural conditions that define grammar as the order of constitutive encrohments of the signifier up to the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal locution.

The appearance of language is simultaneous with the primal repression, which produces the unconscious. The notion that the human being must be repressed in order to be socialized is a Freudian idea, but Lacan relocates the repression to the trauma of the initiation into the symbolic (language). For Freud, repression was divided into two stages: the primary or primal repression (Urverdrängung) which becomes a fixation that draws secondary repressions to it because the two forces cooperate. In 1961, Lacan interpreters Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire explained that primal repression was connected to metaphor in language. In primal language, the signifiers float without a structural network, as functions of “pure difference.” Secondary repression occurs when the signifier is not only doubled by the metaphor but is also fixed in the framework of signification,i.e., the metaphor signifies (something). As a result of these stages of repressions (two or three stages—Laplanche and Leclaire differ), consciousness of the self is now possible due to the ability of the subject to contrast the Self to Others (“I-thou” or the “me-non-me”) that defines subjects by mutual opposition or mutual dependency.

The process of repression/s are determined by the two “Narcissisms” or reflections upon the self which are experienced by the subject and creates the tension of attraction and repulsion. And yet the self and its Narcissistic development is dependent upon the formation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Because the Imaginary overlays the primal and perceptual real, the Imaginary structures a Real of cognition and this Imaginary produces knowledge. Just as the signifier is doubled by the metaphor, “reality” doubles and pairs, meaning that one object (the real) is obliterated by another (the imaginary) through the faculty of creation. Each term—real, imaginary—becomes its opposite and each is lost in the play of endless reflection. Just as the signifier is finally caught in the mesh of meaning, Language and the Symbolic arrest this play of reflections.

Lacan’s point de capition (upholstery button) is the point of convergence or stoppage or fixation where the signifier stops/halts the endless movement of signification. In other words, the Imaginary is stabilized by the subject’s (traumatic) acceptance of the Symbolic register. Finally, at the end of this endless process, the Symbolic overlays or veils or covers the Imaginary and restructures cognition. The Symbolic is characterized by mediation, or the filtering of the perceptual through linguistics, so that Language becomes dominant, but there is price for the triumph. Human alienation is the cost because the subject is constituted in the very gap or bar or split between the signifier and the signified. Constructed by this uneasy and alien place, the space of the gap, the subject and the language exist in this system of differences.

According to Freud and Lacan, the individual is inaugurated into society or become socialized through a series of traumatic acts. For Lacan this suffering is the price paid for the purchase of the pride of language. True to his method of modeling structures in opposites or in triads, Lacan reconsidered Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) distinction between “speech” and “talk” with his elaboration of “empty speech” and “full speech.” Empty speech implies a subject dispossessed and alienated and belongs to the imaginary autonomy of the ego. There is a debility at the heart of human speech–the emptiness. While full speech is incapable of being no more or less “true” (there is no truth) than empty speech; full speech is merely more functional or performative and uses language in a more transformative manner. Lacan used a comment by Stéphane Mallarmé to illustrate his point. Mallarmé referred to language as a coin with images on both sides. The coin is exchanged even though the images are not noticed and the image is “effaced” or not seen and is passed from hand to hand “in silence” or without speech. According to Lacan, the subject must cross over the “wall of language” to speak in order to say nothing. Lacanian “full speech,” “commits,” “acts,” “institutes,” and “transforms” as a “speech act.”

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

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Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

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

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

[email protected]