The Art of the Sublime: Lyotard and the Politics of the Avant-Garde

By Ross, Alison | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Art of the Sublime: Lyotard and the Politics of the Avant-Garde


Ross, Alison, Philosophy Today


Jean-François Lyotard's writing on politics conceives of political problems principally as problems of judgment. In his now famous account of the post-modern condition Lyotard identifies the defining feature of our age as the absence of any authoritative, uncontested criterion, out of a multiplicity of contending criteria, for the judgment of events.1 Lyotard's account of the consequences of this condition is partly guided by his fascination with Kant's aesthetics. The account of reflective judgment outlined by Kant in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment differentiates judgments of taste from determinative, cognitive judgments primarily because there is no given rule or law for beauty, and the judgment of a particular form as beautiful in "pure taste" is pleasurable only as a result of the reflective search by the faculties for such a rule. Lyotard sees in Kant's injunction against a science of the beautiful (in which particular objects would already be determined as beautiful and thus make redundant the pleasure in the feeling of reflective judgment by legislating to the subject how it should feel) a direct analogy to the absence of given criteria in political judgment. To explicate this view Lyotard cites events in which criteria of judgment accepted as given were surpassed by events they were unable to judge.2 Accordingly, the "rule" of judgment is for Lyotard the need to invent new idioms for judgment, idioms that are themselves called forth by, rather than furnishing a readymade framework to judge, particular events.

The approach to politics that emerges from this account of judgment receives its most influential formulation in the work Lyotard saw as his most important: The Differend. This book sets out the inadequacy of the conception of justice as the litigable articulation of damages [dommages] by pointing to instances of damages "accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage." Such instances compound the privation of the damage adding to it "the impossibility of bringing it to the knowledge of others, and in particular to the knowledge of a tribunal."3 Lyotard defines such damages as wrongs [torts]. In The Differend he describes a différend as the particular wrong that arises from an incompatibility between discursive genres. This incompatibility results in a différend (a wrong) when one genre imposes its rules on another. What is crucial for Lyotard is that this very imposition also silences the means by which the wrong suffered could be phrased. In the examples that open the first chapter of the book, Lyotard lists the holocaust survivor whose testimony is met by the revisionist historian's demands for proofs; the assertion of the view that major pieces of literature remain unpublished and the counter demand by the press editor to name one such work; and the Ibanskian witness who has to testify before the communist authorities. From these examples Lyotard shows the différend to be the impossible task the plaintiff faces in demonstrating the existence of what is in dispute. The différend manifests itself as an "affect-phrase," or sentiment, whose defining feature is its silence. Neither able to be expressed as a mere damage nor, as a consequence, remedied in juridical processes the différend requires, on Lyotard's view, the invention of new idioms by thinking, literature and art.

A number of paradoxes condition this conception of the différend and especially the way that Lyotard attaches to it an injunction for the thinker, writer, and artist to invent new idioms to "bear witness" to the silence of the différend. In particular, given the status of the différend as a wrong as yet unphrased, critics have asked whether the injunction to form new idioms for such wrongs aims to bring them into articulation as damages and thus to bring these wrongs into an economy of remediation and deny the différend its status as a différend, or whether this injunction involves "inventing idioms that express the différend as itself, as the differend itself, le différend même"? …

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