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Dana Lev Levnat, Untitled (Permanent Vacation), inkjet Print, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

The thought of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924 –1998) is often discussed in connection to philosophy of language, cultural studies, and aesthetics, with a focus on certain concepts he theorizes: “discourse,” “libidinal economy,” and most of all, “postmodernism.” I will focus on a lesser-known term, “differend,” which appeared in what he notoriously called “his real philosophy book,” Le Différend (1983). I will show how political theology in general and Schmittian ideas in particular relate to Lyotard’s thought in a way that makes their joint reading not only important, but critical. Specifically, I will show how Lyotard’s concept of the differend crucially informs and problematizes two intertwining Schmittian terms: sovereignty and the state of exception. I argue that the differend is a way of developing these concepts, and that the human attention to instances that remain outside of articulate language associated with the differend prescribes a type of faith. 

Lyotard bases his claims in Le Différend on the structure of language, especially the phrase. The phrase includes what he sees as the four poles defining articulation: an addresser, an addressee, a referent, and a sense, a meaning. He places the phrase in a justice system, the tribunal (5). The tribunal illustrates how phrases exist: they are judged. Under different regimes, they are accepted — or are not. Phrases can be accepted through linking (enchaînement), when one phrase can be replied to, or, more generally, reacted to, in a logic of continual, and rational, phrasing. Different regimes can intersect in an economy of exchange. As such, linking shifts phrases, and phrases shift through linking. A differend occurs when a phrase cannot be uttered (xi). 

Lyotard’s chief illustration for a phrase judged illicit is Holocaust denial. He points to Robert Faurisson’s infamous claim that one must see a survivor of the gas chambers in order to believe the Holocaust existed (3-4). The impossibility that someone was both present in this deadly room and is able to speak of it annihilates any possibility of phrasing. In other words, it results in a differend.

The Holocaust survivor’s example is important for Lyotard because it demonstrates how, within language, phrasing is disabled. Yet, as he attempts to bring awareness to invisible linguistic elements always present in language, his theory does not rely solely on horrors such as the Holocaust as occasions of incredulity towards a phrase, or on Auschwitz as a singular event, but on any experience where human language evades logical deductions. In “The Phrase-Affect” (1989), Lyotard describes how that which is unable to be said is inherent in language (234). He offers accounts of states that cannot be named, attesting to the everyday presence of “testimonies that represent nothing to anyone” (236). In so doing, Lyotard draws attention to the instants before the construction, and consequently the verdict, of logos, when none of the four poles of articulation are present (235). 

When nothing can be said and linking is impossible, the differend and the phrase-affect insinuate a destabilizing political standpoint, calling out overlooked lacunas in language. Although they evade the jurisprudence of a tribunal, Lyotard argues that they suggest a form of human attention through which they could be attested to, through which justice will be done and they will be believed. Nevertheless, these concepts still undermine prevailing ideas of both justice and faith. It is to this point that Carl Schmitt’s concepts of the state of exception and the political theological are useful, further elaborating on the political significance of Lyotard’s insight.

In his book Political Theology (1922), Schmitt describes a state of exception as a juristic problem declared of by the sovereign (5). This state is neither “codified in the existing legal order” nor “anticipated in advance” (6). At first glance, it may seem as though Lyotard’s differend may fit this depiction, in the very declaration of a wrong. Nevertheless, Schmitt’s thinking implicitly assumes two preconditions that would not fit in Lyotard’s thought. 

Before anything, the idea of the state of exception depends on the supposition that the exception can be extended as such. Furthermore, since it is declared by the sovereign it is implied to be available to language. In Lyotardian terms, Schmitt’s idea of the state of exception would describe a sovereign as an addressor uttering a reference and a sense: not a differend or an affect-phrase, but a legitimate phrase. It follows that Schmitt does not take into account a state of exception so exceptional that it cannot be named, where the person experiencing it is deprived of language. The exception resides outside any ability to declare it as such, an exception within the exception, that which remains unutterable, invisible. As both a juristic and linguistic problem, in an attempt “to save the honor of thinking” (The Differend, xii), Lyotard’s concept of the differend therefore indirectly calls for a re-examination of these Schmittian terms.

With the differend, Lyotard evokes the constant, inevitable conflicts occurring in language, where phrases are abandoned, disregarded, unheard. When he thinks of the legitimacy of the judgment we carry toward speech, attending to the differend is intended to “convince the reader… that thought, cognition, ethics, politics, history or being, depending on the case, are in play when one phrase is linked to another” (xii-xiii). Differends are present before, alongside, and after the terms Schmitt describes, in inaudible statements and states that cannot be declared. As such, the state of exception is not attested to but is always on the verge of appearing, implying not an impossible sovereignty but a sovereignty that, in silence, is forever impending, attesting to a state of exception so exceptional that it is the only one worthy of its name. The differend declares the exception by the very impossibility of declaring it, and it does so without the differend being considered a negation.

In this impossible declaration, Lyotard’s differend may seem to refute, or contradict, the very foundation of the Schmittian doctrine. Nevertheless, the key for the differend’s inclusion in Schmitt’s system could be found in his definition of the political theological. It is one of Schmitt’s primary observations that the political is based on secularized theological concepts (Political Theology, 36). This claim could, for example, describe how laws can be seen as spiritual forces to which people comply. It follows that that, for Schmitt, behind the declaration of the state of exception rests a belief for the possibility of change (ibid., 48). 

Schmitt’s idea of faith thus refers to both the ways in which people abide by the law and aims to elaborate on it, suggesting that the political realm is able to bring about what is missing from it. This is to a similar notion of faith that the differend calls for: faith in the unpronounceable utterance, to its inherent void. While not faith in a worldly object, the differend forms a belief in the existence of that which evades the system. In thinking the differend, faith is thus expanded, perhaps made more deeply theological: the belief it prescribes is the faith in this exceptional state that remains unobservable. In its attention to fragile, indeterminate Otherness, the differend implies the paradoxical belief in the unbelievable.  

Belief and faith, in Lyotardian terms, will therefore not stand in relation to a particular entity, a formal institution or a law, but rather to something never explicitly heard. Lyotard suggests how this could be voiced in a recurring question: “Is it happening?” (“arrive-t-il?”, xvi). The interrogation is set to continue forever. In its repetition, the question identifies the event that it probes for as that which will not simply appear. Thus, with the differend, we are not asked to believe something particular, but to believe in that which is the differend; to acknowledge that some things cannot be uttered, yet their presence nevertheless matters. 

As the question is forever asked and never answered, it echoes. The question in itself is put into question, prescribing a constant, infinite checking: What is heard? What is not? This form of questioning conveys a unique temporality of an ever-present “now” (“The Phrase-Affect, 236), recalled by the French “maintenant”, evoking that which will never be maintained, captured, or retained. The question “is it happening?” simultaneously evokes the possibility and impossibility of the declaration of any state of exception. The constant questioning involves incessant wondering about the present conditions, examining how things are yet to be declared. It also involves asking whether anything can be spoken definitively by anyone.

While Carl Schmitt puts the emphasis on the human’s articulated demand for political change, Lyotard’s thought reminds us that we do not only bear witness to defined things, nor do we do so directly. While the phrase-affect is indifferent to articulation, we ourselves cannot remain indifferent to it. This form of attentive being is a declaration of a state of exception that remains ambiguous, outside of any criteria, where sovereignty steps out of a comfortable resting space within knowledge, language, and any form of reasoning, and is a presence standing with open ears, eyes, and heart towards what seems like nothingness. We are asked to listen, to look, and to believe in silent testimonies within nothingness. 

The thoughts of Schmitt and Lyotard are less antagonistic than they are resonant. While Lyotard illustrates an Other state of exception as well as a different kind of sovereignty, Schmitt gives us tools and words to further describe the delicate attitude that the differend prescribes. Although beyond language and outside any ability to be explained or accounted for in speech, this everlasting humming disturbance that has no name, no voice, no sound must resound. Although it is not a revelation — it is impossible to bear witness to it — the differend makes a political demand for faith in the exceptional outside any designation. 

Lyotard did not write explicitly about politics since he seeks to avoid the enunciation of any explicit order. This is not the avoidance of making any political claim but a political call for awareness of every utterance. The question “is it happening?” perdures along with the silence of the differend, and things are always yet to be declared by a sovereignty yet to be able to do so. Alas, we are to remain in this dim present of an unknown presence, haunted by the danger of indifference. As Lyotard puts it, “All I know how to do is to say that I no longer know how to tell this story. And this should be enough. This has to be enough” (Heidegger and the Jews, 47).

Annotated Bibliography

Lyotard, Jean-François. Le Différend, Paris: Minuit, 1983.

—.  The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, translated Georges Van Den Abbeele, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. 

Is an essay describing language and its limits, Lyotard discusses and delineates linguistic problems pertaining the ability and inability to say something. Lyotard develops themes from the history of philosophy, from Aristotle and Plato to Kant and Levinas, to emphasize how the question of language and the ability to argue is pertinent to philosophy itself. 

—.  Heidegger et ‘les juifs’, Paris: Galilée, 1988 

—.  Heidegger and “The Jews, translated Andreas Michel and Mark S. Roberts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

In this book Lyotard expresses, under the expression “the jews” (les juifs), a human state to which Jews were particularly, but not solely, subject. He is not interested in describing Jews as such but the human condition of annihilation. This state includes, at its root, a form of forgetting in response to which one should always attempt, as a political act, to remember. As part of this imperative, Lyotard aims to avoid locating Heidegger as a counter to “the Jews” (i.e., as “Nazi”) but instead to show how philosophy in general deals with this forgetting. 

—.  “La Phrase-Affecte” in  Misère de la philosophie, Paris: Galilée, 2000, pp. 43-54.

—.  “The Phrase-Affect (From a supplement to The Differend),” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol. 32, no. 3, October 2001, pp. 234-241. 

Following The Differend, in this essay Lyotard continues to describe the inarticulate phrase. This text shows the influence of psychoanalytical thought on the definitions of the differend, depicting the affective nonlinguistic state as a moment of pleasure and/or pain. Lyotard also develops the temporality of differends and phrase-affects while giving several examples of this elusive linguistic and essentially human moment.

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