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?

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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.

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

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

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

Part One: The Historical Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next post will discuss the theory of Le Différend.

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

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

[email protected]