By Tia Wolf

“One of the aims of critical Philosophy is to dispute traditional modes of thinking and the historical categories derived from them, to disturb or undermine the foundations of social-political thought and practice.” [1]

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-98) was a French philosopher, lecturer and writer of various philosophical essays. To begin with simple definitions, philosophical texts aim to critique and investigate the ontological mysteries aroused by the human condition, and politics deals with the agency of this individual. Lyotard’s work, though not explicitly named by himself as ‘political’, is motivated by the hope that it could be useful within a political context.[2] In this essay, I will attempt to investigate Lyotard’s ideas on differends, silence, and the ‘political’ as opposed to political action, in regards to the possibility, and urgency, of rephrasing a political praxis.

In Lyotard’s The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Lyotard invents an ethical agenda addressed to any purveyor of philosophical thought. The Differend is above all an observation on judgement—who judges; whose authority is presupposed in such judgements. A differend differs from a litigation:

A differend would be a case of conflict between (at least) two parties that could not be resolved equitably for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to the two modes of argumentation. That one is legitimate does not imply that the other is not… The title of the book suggests… that a universal rule of judgement among heterogeneous genres is in general lacking.[3]

The Differend is Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases. I chose this quote as it highlights the main points in his work that I will attempt to unpack: judgement; the problem of heterogeneity; and genre (modes of language).

Lyotard introduces the fundamental problem of critique as being a condition of “constant dissatisfaction”. [4] Critical theory cannot be satisfied with just being critical (and theoretical). Lyotard proposes there is required of us a new method of criticism, one that confronts the limits of the critical and theoretical. His proposal is that we are required to invent new “idioms” or phrases to define what has previously been left unsaid—what he calls “silence”.

The differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be. This state includes silence, which is a negative phrase, but it also calls upon phrases which are in principle possible. This state is singled by what one ordinarily calls a feeling: ‘One cannot put into words,’ etc… What is at stake in literature, in a philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to bear witness to differences by finding idioms for them.[5]

What pure logic and rationalism in its scientific model fails to address is that intellect is a force that comes from a feeling (irrational) being. These irrational and ‘unscientific’ forces include sensation, emotions, love and desire. These unconscious forces are always prevalent in the conscious thinking being; intellectuals and academics are not exempt from this faculty of desire. In Lyotard’s essay, The Desire Called Marx, he addressesthis faculty of desire (“strange jouissance”) [6] that Marx and critical theorists in general fail to include in their political works. Lyotard could here be suggesting that by not addressing the silences between the philosophical treatise, “the vertigo of a terrible discovery”, [7] we are overlooking the human essence of knowledge and that epistemology is not possible without its inherent ontology. This is not to naively suggest we should replace all political theory with pure feeling, perhaps reverting to an archaic, chaotic mysticism that lacks critical thinking. The Differend’s goal is not to inverse the unjust situation of the silenced plaintiff with a new, all-encompassing idiom (thus inviting potential future injustice)—instead Lyotard aims to call to attention and rephrase the “reality” of the socio-political scape. David Carroll posits that The Differend’s goal is to formulate a political strategy and to practice justice in terms of the non-resolution of the differend.[8] This is a way to acknowledge the multiplicity and nuance of phrase and reality, without attempting to apply a totalistic one-size-fits-all system of justice.

This idea of desire and silence presupposes further investigations, particularly that of the idea of silence as a type of imposed violence and of the relations between women and silence. In Lyotard’s One of the Things at Stake in Women’s Struggles, written before The Differend and with no obvious prelude to it, he depicts Philosophy as a “masculine metalanguage which silences the voices and bodies of women”.[9] This isn’t to say Lyotard is the perfect model of feminist political thinking (he himself uses predominantly male pronouns and is prone to addressing humankind as simply ‘man’), though his idea of including desire in his philosophical works opens up a dialogue important to the task of rephrasing the philosophical and political metalanguages that have been instated to keep women silenced for, seemingly, social eternity. Dr Boulous Walker contends that “there is no idiom, recognised by this philosophical metalanguage, in which women may speak and as a consequence, women suffer by becoming the foundation of the social/political body without being recognised as legitimately part of it”.[10] Luce Irigray further explores this sexuate difference that is vital to supposing women as a kind of differend, and the impossibility of a heterogenic, supreme law suited to all of humankind:

There are still no civil rights proper to women and to men. This is particularly true for women, since existing law is better suited to men than women inasmuch as men have been the model for citizenship for centuries, the adult female citizen being poorly defined by rights to equality that do not meet her needs. Strictly speaking, there is still no civil law in our era that makes human persons of men and women. As sexed persons, they remain in natural immediacy. And this means that real persons still have no rights, since there are only men and women; there are no neuter individuals. The rights of theses abstract citizens are, to varying degrees, modelled upon or derived from religious rights and duties, in particular patriarchal ones.[11]

Irigaray contends that “in remaining indifferent to the sexuate dimension of discourse, we perpetuate a logic and rationality that silences by domination”.[12] Historically women and their voices have been obscured into passivity through violent, methodical, bureaucratic and capitalist means. Things that push women into silence include misogyny, rape, and societal and economical imbalance. This kind of silence isa violent imposition, and is exactly the kind of force that shelves the plaintiff into silence within Lyotard’s The Differend: “I would like to call a differend [différend] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim… The differend is signalled by this inability to prove.”[13]

Lyotard opens a dialogue that demands a rethinking of silence and the silenced within a political framework. (We can easily apply the idea of differends in contemporary examples of injustice—the Kavanaugh case, for example: a supreme judge permitted to judge though he is the purveyor of the same sexual crimes that are perpetrated to extinguish the agency of women; his crimes socially and professionally equated to mere “hearsay”, thus divesting the plaintiff of the means to be heard). Of judgement, total neutrality is impossible because all judgements must provoke differends since there is no universal society, no universal consensus, no universal law and thus no universal judgement. The title of the ‘supreme judge’ is a contradiction, and thus urgently requires of us new idioms, and perhaps laws, that recognise nuance and the impossibility of totality.

Carroll posits that the problem with rephrasing the political lies in the possibility of actually being able to conceive of the political outside of its influence.[14] This raises the importance of taking into account the notions of both the subconscious and the role of the various systems we live as microorganisms within. The systems we are imposed into upon being born insist of us a compulsive sense of order through the school, church, workplace, media, and culture. Even the personal (gender roles and presentation, sexuality) demand of us an aspect of uniformity (gender conformity, heteronormativity). This is the cold culture-machine of (a paradoxical) oneness. There is no escaping, at least, the pressure of cultural sameness. It is reasonable to contend the beliefs instilled in us in grade school and from other external sources, from our parents, from our teachers, when we were younger and more fallible, still have a subconscious effect on our ideas and actions.

Historically, and currently it is impossible to imagine a time where a rephrasing of the political would survive free of the influence of heterogeneity. Under capitalism, a just political system free of influence seems entirely impossible. Political action must not be confused with politics (as an institution, party or organisation), the former an active performance and the latter being an institution prone to the hands of heterogeneity and capitalism. William James posits that in Lyotard’s work, politics are not exclusive to political parties and institutions, and are in fact far removed from physical, tangible political action—a term defined by rethinking how active action can bring about valuable outcomes.[15]

Politics, too, is an institution. Fringe group politics is a miniaturised institution. The relation [between form and order of group political activity] is mediated, bureaucratised, abstract, preserved in the very form we inherit from our adversaries. The same goes for political discourse: There, too, a phraseology is handed down to us and we reproduce it faithfully.[16]

In Nanterre, Here and Now, Lyotard contends that the University is not exempt from bureaucratic forces pedalling pedagogical sameness. Unlike the common misconception that the University is an unbiased transference of pure knowledge, Lyotard argues that the University is intrinsically linked with capitalist forms and functions, and in that way cannot be a separate entity from the capital.

How do you get your diploma? By accepting the division and presentation of subjects as they are currently taught; by accepting the discipline of institutions and the discipline of the pedagogical relationship… It becomes difficult to ignore now, that the transmission of knowledge is at the same time the affirmation of the hierarchy that it allows the preservation in people’s minds of respect for powers exterior to teaching, the preservation of the power of capital.[17]

Historically, a large sum of political activity has taken place in the sphere of the University—but Lyotard’s contention that the University is a limb of capitalism begs the question—is political disruption (displays/protests) in the University permitted, and expected to fail to cause full-scale change? Lyotard argues yes, in that real critique can only take place through interventions of the immediate, here-and-now kind. “The critique of capitalism and of its university in meetings, even if they take place in teaching establishments, is immediately digested by the system. The organisation and its discourse, even if they are revolutionary in their signified, are made of the same stuff as the objects of their criticism.”[18]

 This broader definition of the political is to do with the physical act of action in the sphere of the everyday as opposed to the more tepid, or passive, approach of discourse and critique—a kind of discourse on discourse. Theoretical discourse is of course, a discourse that is only theoretical. This insinuates politics is a kind of inaction. What Lyotard offers is that what is required in political framework is an apedagogy [19] —an emphasis on the “here-and-now”, spontaneous, active method of the political, and the ultimate destruction of the powers that be, rather than an inverted seizure of power.[20] Lyotard argues that what is required of political action is an apedagogy, since “all pedagogy participates in…repression, including that which is implied in the internal and external relations of the “political” organizations”.[21] The obvious problem—how then, can group political action function effectively without functioning in the same way is its oppressors, and without mindless and sloganistic rehashing? James Williams contends that in rephrasing the political, Lyotard’s philosophy reminds us of the fundamental importance of difference in the face of an ever apparent force of totalisation, and that post-Lyotard, what is required of us is a constant, multifaceted, multi-field enquiry into language, ethics, art and politics.[22] An attitude of constant investigation and a refusal of devoted phraseology, this seems the only possible way to cater to the nuances of being without totalistic dogma.

To rephrase the political we must engage with political action as far removed from political institutions, and with critical contempt of heterogeneity, a refusal of indifference, and an understanding of the function of capitalism and how it is intrinsically linked with all our activity. Lyotard thus demands of us, not an application of theory, but rather an action—a kind of physical performance as a political praxis.

Tia Wolf is a BA undergraduate at UQ. Her favourite philosophically-minded works so far are Anais Nin’s diaries and anything by E. M. Cioran.


[1] David Caroll. Rephrasing the Political, p.74.

[2] Walker, M. PHIL2310: European Philosophy, Week 11 Notes, p.1.

[3] The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Jean-François Lyotard, p.9.

[4] Walker, M. PHIL2310: European Philosophy, Week 11 Notes, p.4.

[5] The Differend, p.xi.

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, The Desire Called Marx, p.73.

[7] The Desire Called Marx,p.74.

[8] Rephrasing the Political, p.78.

[9] Dr Michelle Boulous Walker, Philosophy and Silence, pp.118-119.

[10] Philosophy and Silence, p.74.

[11] Irigaray, L. Introducing: Love Between Us, p.2.

[12] Philosophy and Silence, p.79.

[13] Differend, p.9-10.

[14] Rephrasing the Political, p.75.

[15] James Williams, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy,Rethinking the Political, p.3.

[16] Jean-François Lyotard, Political writings, Nanterre, Here, Now, p.49.

[17] Ibid., 57.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Ibid., 59.

[21] Ibid., 59.

[22] Rethinking the Political, p.8.

Works Cited

Carroll, D. and Lyotard, J. (1984). Rephrasing the Political with Kant and Lyotard: From Aesthetic to Political Judgments. Diacritics, 14(3), p.73.

Irigaray, L. (1995). Introducing: Love between Us. Women: A Cultural Review, 6(2), pp.180-190.

Lyotard, J. (2007). The differend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J., Readings, B. and Geiman, K. (1993). Political writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp.46-58.

Sim, S. and Lyotard, J. (1998). Post-Marxism: a reader. Ch. The Desire Called Marx. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.70-80.

Walker, M. (1994). Philosophy and Silence. 1st ed. Routledge.

Walker, M. PHIL2310: European Philosophy, Week 11 Notes, [retrieved from :], p.1

Williams, J. (1998). Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, pp.1-8.

Featured image by Markus Spiske via flickr