Expressing the Inexpressible: Lyotard and the Differend Jacob M. Held Marquette University Department of Philosophy Coughlin Hall P.O. Box Jean-François Lyotard, who coined this term in his book Le Différend (), translated as The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (), took as his key exhibit. The Différend () as “The Postmodern Condition, Part One”. Part One: The Historical Context. The life path and careers of Jean-François.
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French post-structuralist philosopher, best known for his highly influential formulation of postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition. Despite its popularity, however, this book is in fact one of his more minor works. Lyotard’s writings cover a large range of topics in philosophy, politics, and aesthetics, and experiment with a wide variety of styles.
His works can be roughly divided into three categories: For Lyotard, this fact has a deep political import, since politics claims to be based on accurate representations of reality. Lyotard’s philosophy exhibits many of the major themes common to post-structuralist and postmodernist thought.
He calls into question the powers of reason, asserts the importance of nonrational forces such as sensations and emotions, rejects humanism and the traditional philosophical notion of the human being as the central subject of knowledge, champions heterogeneity and difference, and suggests that the understanding of society in terms of “progress” has been made obsolete by the scientific, technological, political and cultural changes of the late twentieth century.
Lyotard deals with these common themes in a highly original way, and his work exceeds many popular conceptions of postmodernism in its depth, imagination, and rigor. His thought remains pivotal in contemporary debates surrounding philosophy, politics, social theory, cultural studies, art and aesthetics.
His father, Jean-Pierre Lyotard, was a sales representative. His mother’s maiden name was Madeleine Cavalli. His early interest in philosophies of indifference resulted in his M.
Lyotard describes his existence up until the Second World War as a ‘poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living. Lyltard Constantine Lyotard dkfferend Marx and became acquainted with the Algerian political situation, which he believed was ripe for socialist revolution. In Lyotard joined the socialist revolutionary organisation Differrnd ou Barbarie Socialism or Barbarism. Lyotard had met Souyris at a union meeting late inand they had a long and close friendship, eventually troubled by political and theoretical differences.
Lyotard became an intellectual militant, and asserts that for fifteen years he was so dedicated to the cause of socialist revolution that no other aspect of life with the sole exception of love diverted him from this task. His writings in this period are solely concerned with ultra-left revolutionary politics, with a sharp focus on the Algerian situation the war of independence had broken out in He contributed to and edited the Socialisme ou Barbarie journal, and wrote pamphlets to distribute to workers at protests and at factory gates.
In a schism erupted in Socialisme ou Barbarie over Castoriadis’ new theoretical direction for the group. Lyotard, along with Souyris, became a member of the splinter group Pouvoir Ouvrier Worker’s Powerbut resigned in He had lost belief in the legitimacy of Marxism as a totalising theory, and returned to the study and writing of philosophy.
There he took part in the May political actions, organising demonstrations for the “March 22 Movement. The publication of The Postmodern Condition brought Lyotard worldwide fame, and in the s and 90s he lectured widely outside of France. Lyotard died of leukaemia in Paris on April 21, Lyotard’s first book, published inis a short introduction to and examination of phenomenology. The first part introduces phenomenology through the work of Edmund Husserl, and the second part evaluates phenomenology’s relation to the human sciences particularly psychology, sociology, and history.
In the second part the focus shifts from Husserl to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Throughout, Lyotard is concerned with phenomenology’s attempt to find a “third way” between subjectivism and objectivism, avoiding the problems of each.
In particular, he is interested in the bearing this problem has on the question of whether phenomenology can think history politically, thus potentially contributing to Marxism. This theme the relation of phenomenology to Marxism was a prime concern for French thinkers of the fifties, and Lyotard’s book is a useful documentation of the issues at stake.
Much of his exposition and discussion is positive, and Lyotard argues that phenomenology can make valuable contributions to the social sciences, where it should serve two functions: Lyotard argues, for example, that sociology has need of a phenomenological definition of the essence of the social before it can proceed effectively as a science.
While he sees the usefulness of phenomenology in many disciplines, however, Lyotard’s conclusions about the usefulness of phenomenology to Marxism are largely negative.
He argues that phenomenology does not represent progress on Marxism, but is in fact a step backwards. For Lyotard phenomenology cannot properly formulate a materialist worldview and the objective nature of the relations of production; it ends up interpreting class struggle as taking place in consciousness.
Lyotard rejects phenomenology’s attempt to find a third way between subjectivism and objectivism, and asserts Marxism’s superiority in viewing subjectivity as already contained in objectivity. In differens fifteen years between his first two books of philosophy, Lyotard devoted all his writing efforts to the cause of revolutionary politics.
His most substantial writings of this time were his contributions to the Socialisme ou Barbarie journal on the political situation in Algeria [many of which are collected in Political Writings ]. The project of Socialisme ou Barbarie was to provide theoretical resources to contribute to socialist revolution, critiquing other existing socialist strands particularly Stalinism and the French communist party as a hindrance to revolution, and with a particular emphasis on the critique of bureaucracy.
In the essays on Algeria, Lyotard applies this project to the French occupation, trying to determine the potential for socialist revolution arising from this situation. He pays close attention to the economic forces at work in occupied Algeria, arguing that it is in the economic interests of France to keep Algerians in a state of underdevelopment and poverty.
Furthermore, Lyotard introduces a notion of ‘terror’ that he develops more fully in his later works, indicating the suppression of Algerian culture by the imposition of foreign French cultural forms. The conclusion Lyotard comes to is that the occupation must end if the Algerian people are to prosper, but he remains ambivalent about the possibility of revolution.
He surmises that a nationalist, democratic revolution will only lead to new forms of social inequality and domination, and insists that a socialist revolution is necessary. This ambivalence was reflected in Socialisme ou Barbarie ‘s debate about whether or not to support the Algerian war of independence, fearing that its democratic and nationalistic leanings would not bring about the result they desired.
In “Algeria Evacuated,” written after the end of the occupation, Lyotard regretfully asks why a socialist revolution did not take place, concluding that the social and political upheavals resulted in an opportunistic struggle for power rather than a class-based action. The end result of Lyotard’s work on Algeria and the disappointment at the failure of socialist revolution to take place led him to an abandonment of revolutionary socialism and traditional Marxism on the grounds that social reality is too complex to describe accurately with any master-discourse.
Lyotard’s second book of philosophy is long and difficult. It covers a wide variety of topics, including phenomenology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, poetry and art, Hegelian dialectics, semiotics, and philosophy of language.
Jean François Lyotard (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
The main thrust of this work, however, is a critique of structuralism, particularly as it manifests itself in Lacan’s psychoanalysis. The book is divided into two parts: Lyotard begins with an opposition between discourserelated to structuralism and written text, and figure a visual imagerelated to phenomenology and seeing. He suggests that structured, abstract conceptual thought has dominated philosophy since Plato, denigrating sensual experience.
The written text and the experience of reading are associated with the former, and figures, images and the experience of seeing with the latter. Part of Lyotard’s aim is to defend the importance of the figural and sensual experience such as seeing.
He proceeds to deconstruct this opposition, however, and attempts to show that discourse and figure are mutually implicated. Discourse contains elements of the figural poetry and illuminated texts are good examplesand visual space can be structured like discourse when it is broken up into ordered elements in order for the world to be recognisable and navigable by the seeing subject.
He develops an idea of the figural as a disruptive force which works to interrupt established structures in the realms of both reading and seeing. Ultimately, the point is not to privilege the figural over the discursive, but to show how these elements must negotiate with each other.
The mistake of structuralism is to interpret the figural in entirely discursive terms, ignoring the different ways in which these elements operate. In the second part of Discours, figurestructure and transgression are related to Freudian libidinal forces, paving the way for the libidinal philosophy developed in Libidinal Economy. In the early s Lyotard developed a philosophy based around Sigmund Freud’s theory of the libido.
For Lyotard, libidinal energy can be used as a “theoretical fiction” to describe the transformations that take place in society. After his break with Marxism and rejection of totalising theory, he sought to develop a theory that will take account of multiple and different forces and desires at work in any political or social situation, from the writing of theory to revolutionary politics to global economics.
Libidinal Economy is an unusual and difficult work, and encompasses a complex set of theories concerning politics, economics, theory, academic style, and readings of Marx and Freud.
It is written in a bewildering combination of styles at times reading more like an avant-garde novel than a philosophical texta method Lyotard uses in an attempt to overcome the limitations he sees in traditional academic theory. The libidinal philosophy begins Lyotard’s general commitment to an ontology of events, which also underlies his later postmodern philosophy. Lyotard sees reality in terms of unpredictable happenings eventsrather than structured regularities.
These events can be interpreted in different ways, and no single interpretation will capture events accurately. Events always exceed interpretation; there is always something “left over” that an interpretation does not account for.
In the libidinal philosophy Lyotard uses the idea of libidinal energy to describe events and the way they are interpreted or exploited, and he develops a philosophy of society and theory in terms of the economy of libidinal energies. These intensities and affects are, in more common terminology, differenv and desires.
In the terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, they are the “primary processes” of the libido, the forces that exist in the body on a more basic level than the “secondary processes” of the conscious mind. In particular, Lyotard focuses on sexual desire. He uses these terms metaphorically, however, to describe the workings of reality and society as a whole, divorcing them from their usual attachments to human beings.
Lyotard describes the wholly impersonal as well as the personal in terms of feelings and desires, and paints a picture of the world that moves and is moved in the ways that feelings move people.
Lyotard admits that this description of everything in libidinal luotard is a “theoretical fiction,” merely a way of speaking which gives us useful terms for theorizing about what happens in the world. Metaphysically, Lyotard is a materialist, and for him affects must be understood as concrete material entities.
An affect might be a sound, a color, a smile or a caress: Affects are structured and interpreted in systems made up of dispositifslibidinal dispositions or set-ups, and society is composed of multitudes of different dispositions that compete to exploit the energies of libidinal events.
Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part One
Lyotard develops a complex set of figures to describe how this process takes place. Libidinal Economy begins with the figure of a body ambivalently sexedbeing cut open and spread out to form a flat, band-like surface.
Lyotard is here beginning to describe a region on which libidinal intensities take place and on which they meet with the dispositifs that channel libidinal energy.
This region is material like the body, but it is not yet organizedthus the figure of dismemberment. The flat band that the body has become is then given a twist and joined end to end, forming a moebius strip a circular figure which has only one surface due to the twist it contains; a line traced along one side of the strip will end up on the other side without breaking contact with the surface.
This strip is then set in motion, circulating so fast it glows red with heat. This is the libidinal band sometimes called the libidinal skin. It represents the “primary processes” of desire and libidinal intensity in which libidinal energy circulates in an aleatory fashion, not yet investing anything. Because the libidinal band is a moebius strip, desire circulates on only one surface; there is no inside or outside. In time the band begins to slow and cool, and forms what Lyotard calls “the disjunctive bar.
As the bar slows, sometimes it invests this region, sometimes that. It becomes disjunctive, distinguishing this from not-this. This stage in the transformation of the libidinal band represents the formation of rational thought, dominated by binary logic and the law of noncontradiction. Finally the bar stops and forms a stable disjunction. Lyotard describes the bar as then turning around on itself and creating an enclosed space, a theatrical volume.
This is the particular transformation of the libidinal band – or the particular dispositif on the libidinal band — that gives rise to representation and theory. The theatrical space has an inside and an outside, a clear disjunction between this and not-this. Lyotard’s image of theory as theatre is based on the etymological relationship between the two terms; they are both derived from the Greek theasthaimeaning to look at, contemplate, or behold.