Lyotard's Politics of Difference and Equivalence

By Inston, Kevin | Philosophy Today, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Lyotard's Politics of Difference and Equivalence


Inston, Kevin, Philosophy Today


The resistance throughout Jean-Franqois Lyotard's work to the reduction of phenomena to simple oppositions or binary sets alerts us to the necessity of hesitating before interpreting in that binary way his thinking on difference and equivalence, particularity and universality. His first major philosophical work, Discours, figure,1 criticized the tendency of structuralism to reduce difference to the oppositional movement of language. Radical difference emerges within the textual space in the form of figures, whose unsystematic meaning disturbs linguistic clarity by not yielding to its demand for categorization into conceptual oppositions. The persistence of this notion of radical difference2 in Lyotard's thinking frustrates any attempt to force his philosophy into a binary structure where difference opposes equivalence or the particular opposes the universal as discrete terms. Instead, it works to foreground the complex interaction of these terms, which repudiates the outright valorization of one over the other. Lyotard, however, frequently attacks what he views as the deceptive principle of equivalence governing liberal democracies that tries to make diverse activities, discourses, or values conform to a facile notion of specular identity. This reduction of difference to the same strives to conceal the political inequalities generated by the system through its exclusion and disavowal of diversity.3 While critics commend Lyotard's deconstruction of oppressive forms of unity and his insistence on the intensity of differences, they reproach him for not addressing the question of how a politics of difference can be integrated and maintained on a wider scale.4 This essay aims to respond to these reservations by demonstrating how Lyotard's politics of difference reinscribes a notion of equivalence as its necessary obverse, that is, as its condition of (im)possibility. Equivalence,5 in this context, does not amount to sameness, but to its inconceivability, that is, to the inherent incompletion that marks all identities, protecting them and preventing any one of them from subsuming all the others as the authentic identity underlying their multiplicity. At the center of Lyotard's political thinking, the equality of incompletion founds the justice of plurality. I shall explore this inter-penetration of equivalence and difference, the particular and the universal, with reference to The Differend: Phrases in Dispute,6 principally focusing on its last two sections where Lyotard more explicitly elaborates its political implications.

The Differend

Before developing my own line of argument, I shall remind readers of the basic tenets of Lyotard's approach in The Differend. The Differend adopts the phrase as its primary focus of analysis: "What escapes doubt is that there is at least one phrase, no matter what it is."7 Any refutation of this statement ends up proving it because "There is no phrase is a phrase."8 The inevitability of a phrase does not make it a meaningful unit in itself; its meaning is an effect derived from a process of phrasing. Before being integrated into a sequence, the phrase can be understood as a singular occurrence, an empty marker of an event. A phrase occurs without determinant rules or criteria for its mode of linkage. However, any phrase automatically presupposes another one; each one being linked to the next in an infinitely extended series. The need to link phrases therefore proves unavoidable. While linkage is necessary, the mode by which it takes place is purely contingent. The heterogeneous nature of phrases opens them to numerous modes of linkage. By connecting them, we inevitably deny other legitimate possibilities of connection. This gives rise to a differend where the singularity of a phrase becomes dissimulated by its inescapable articulation in a defining sequence. The modes of linkage are called genres. Genres provide rules or criteria that help to select the linking phrase among the many choices.

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