The Role of Aesthetics in the Politics of Jean-Francois Lyotard

By Fry, Karin | Philosophy Today, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Role of Aesthetics in the Politics of Jean-Francois Lyotard


Fry, Karin, Philosophy Today


There is no doubt that Jean-Francois Lyotard consistently gives an important philosophical role to aesthetic works. Towards the end of his career, the primacy of aesthetical thinking persists in the way in which he compares the political experience to an instance of the sublime. Because of his focus on aesthetics, particularly the sublime, the relation between his aesthetic thought and his political thought is often misunderstood. Lyotard's turn to reflective judgment and aesthetical thought has been interpreted as a turn away from ethics and political responsibility through an aesthetization of politics. For example, Claude Piche accuses Lyotard of turning politics into an object of aesthetic creation guided by the artistic genius who creates the political realm. Piche argues that Lyotard reduces politics to aesthetics, which leaves "fragmentation" and "particularism" as the only topics left for philosophy ("The Philosopher Artist," 158). In this essay, I will examine the complexities surrounding the intersection between aesthetics and politics in Lyotard's later work to see in what ways aesthetical thought assists politics and in what ways art and politics are different from one another. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I will argue that ultimately, Lyotard does not advocate an aesthetic form of politics, even though his reasons for why this is the case need further development and are curiously left unexamined in detail.

The Differend

Throughout his career, so many of Lyotard's works focus on aesthetical issues, that it would be impossible to recount the various descriptions and roles given to aesthetic experience. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the sublime and its relation to politics in the instance of the Differend because it is this relation that is most relevant to politics. For Lyotard, politics concerns the Differend which arises in the face of a dispute between phrase genres. Examples of phrase genres are the speculative genre, the ethical genre, the cognitive genre, the logical genre, the nominative genre, and the ostensive genre, but there are many more in addition to these.1 Phrase genres function teleologically and focus on attaining certain ends, like to know, or to be just, but the genres cannot be adequately translated into one another because the goal of each genre is different. Lyotard does not believe there is a hierarchy between language genres and therefore no particular genre can assert its authority over all the others. This makes the question of linking onto a phrase difficult, because there is not a universal genre that can settle cases of dispute. Lyotard defines the Differend as the "case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments" (D, xi, 9). With the Differend, a wrong takes place which cannot be compensated or repaired because there is no acceptable idiom in which this could occur. A wrong [tort], for Lyotard, is "a damage [Dommage] accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage" (D, 5, 18). A wrong is different from litigation, because in litigation, the existence of damage can be established according to the rules of a particular language genre. In the case of a Differend, at least two genres that seek different aims are battling for the power to settle the dispute. An offense [l'offense] occurs because one genre prevails through the usurpation of the authority of another genre (D, 84, 128). As Bill Readings describes it, what the Differend requires is not a re-trial, but "an as yet unthinkable tribunal" which would acknowledge an entirely new idiom (Introducing Lyotard, 124). Ultimately, what is contested in a Differend is the authority of the idiom that seeks to regulate and establish reality. The Differend cannot be eliminated for good, because Differends will always arise. However, one can bear witness to Differends, and even strain to hear their call. …

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