The Différend: Phrases in Dispute, Part Three
Defining the “Event”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Still from Shoah, by cinematographer William Lubtchansky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[email protected]



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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