The French Review 63.4 (1990): 722-723.
LYOTARD, JEAN-FRANÇOIS. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Translated by George Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. Pp. xvi + 208.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
Jean-François Lyotard's The Differend: Phrases in Dispute is a dense work of philosophical, political and ethical reflection aimed at a specialized audience versed in current debates in logic, pragmatics and post-structuralism. Even George Van Den Abbeele's excellent translation, complete with a glossary of French terms not available in the original text (Paris: Minuit, 1983), does not, indeed cannot, alleviate the often terse prose with which Lyotard develops his reasoning. With this said, I must also observe that this work is of vital importance in a period when revisionism of all stripes attempts to rewrite, and often simply deny, the occurrence of historical and cultural events, i.e. in attempting to reconstruct 'reality" in the convenient names of "truth" and "common sense."
Lyotard's strategy is to pursue a line of reasoning through seven chapters corresponding to various "themes," each chapter consisting of numbered reflections between which are interspersed at intervals different notices which provide philosophical enrichment of and background for the reasoning developed in the tightly interlinked numbered entries. Their focus is the seemingly minute problem of adjudicating differends, or conflicts irresolvable "for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments" (xi). However, while Lyotard's strategy appears to privilege the particular differend among historians who seek to affirm or deny the existence of the Nazi death camps during World War II, this is also an opportune example for elucidating the broad problem of "phrases in dispute" lying at the heart of current critical debates in a wide range of disciplines. Furthermore, Lyotard conceives of this philosophical, political and ethical problem as an aesthetic one as well. Since his earliest writings, Lyotard has argued that art, and aesthetic ideals, constitute the foundation for any critical thought, indeed for formulating critical alternatives. The philosopher's task, of clarifying the opposition between disruptive and repressive discursive systems, is directly linked to the concept of the differend, i.e. of expressing (or "phrasing") what cannot be expressed, of discovering the means within critical discourse to enunciate disputes despite inherent discursive rules (linguistic, philosophical, political) blocking such enunciation.
To pursue his project of positing concepts and terms which might open up discourse to its outside while maintaining a struggle within theory, Lyotard has constantly sought alternatives not only for approaching art, philosophy and politics, but also for changing the rules of discursive games. Thus, to explore the differend, Lyotard posits the 'phrase' as an empty, operative concept, one from which all categories derive, but which itself is not determined by these categories. Rather than defining the notion of 'phrase," Lyotard employs this entity to develop possible rules of linkage, or relations between phrases. He thereby points to the heterogeneous, pluralizing concept of language, seeking not its ground, but rather the infinite deployment of phrases. The result of this strategy is to reopen constantly the question of linkage and to admit no final resolution, but rather a fundamental dispute, or differend, within the dispersion of statements in various discursive regimes. And beyond this apparently formal enterprise hes the broader problematics of undermining a totalizing (and totalized) conception of politics, philosophy and aesthetics by emphasizing the multiplicity inherent to any linkage of phrases. Since "what is at stake in a literature, in a philosophy and, perhaps, in a politics is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them" (13), Lyotard's task is to proliferate modes of phrasing these conflicts within and between discursive regimes and thus to maintain the unresolved status of critical discourse.
This overview must leave unexplored the broad philosophical bases from which Lyotard draws support, as well as important questions that he raises regarding history, justice and critical judgment. I can conclude only by suggesting that this work, despite the formidable difficulties inherent to its carefully articulated arguments, offers readers a rich formulation of precise questions for and about the current period of critical transition and re-opening in philosophy, ethics and aesthetics.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University