Jean François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

Robert S. Leventhal

University of Virginia

In 1979, Jean François Lyotard's book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge appeared in France. The term "postmodern" was linked to the term "post-industrial," and the argument was that in the post-industrial era, knowledge itself had changed. It became, according to Lyotard, a form of discourse, and a productive force in its own right. Lyotard argued that from the threshold of modernity in the late 18th century until roughly 1960, Western societies had operated on a notion of knowledge under the aegis of a few dominant metanarratives. i.e. overarching, grand metaphysical explanations and teleologies of the history of mankind:

In contemporary society, the question of how knowledge is legitimated is formulated, according to Lyotard, in fundamentally different terms. All metanarratives have lost their credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses (PMC, 37). Lyotard thinks it does not matter whether it is Positivism's reliance on observation and experimentation, Heidegger's Rectorate Speech, Humboldt's University, or Marx and the idea of class struggle toward an emancipation from alienation, there is, for Lyotard, no longer any grand story to be told. In the Postmodern Condition, there is not one form of discourse that stands above all others; there is not one form of knowledge that is privileged and serves as the ground for all others. Rather, there is simply a multiplicity of various language games, a term which Lyotard borrows from the later Wittgenstein. The basic idea that Lyotard borrows from Wittgenstein is: of you want to know the meaning of a term, a phrase or a sentence, look at how it is utilized, how it functions in human interaction. There is no metalanguage that embraces and grounds all of the different types of statements and phrases; science gives us cognitive statements, to be sure, but there are many other, different kinds of statements that science is not concerned with at all. For example, the performative. When a President of a University declares at an open meeting of students and faculty "The University is open!" she is not making a cognitive statement, but rather performing an action. Likewise, when a preacher or a rabbi pronounce the words "I hereby pronounce you man and wife," s/he is actually accomplishing the task of marrying the people.

Lyotard's insistence on the legitimacy of the performative, of "small" narratives, of the multiplicity and heterogeneity of language games leads him to a mosaic fracturing or splintering of knowledges. There are no longer absolute and universal rules or conditions that are valid for all statements. Verifiability or falsifiability are only valid for scientific, cognitive, constative statements. Such rules or conditions are inappropriate for statements of modality, questions, exclamations, and commands. In this sense, Aischwitz and the Holocaust were already an important subtext in Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. The terror of the "one" absolute hegemony of one form of speech was likened to Fascism and the extermination of the Jews, where the Nazi's ideal excluded and ultimately tried to eliminate the language(s) of the Jews. In the Postmodern, narrative, not science, leads to an interrogation of the great variety of languages and language games; denotative, scientific statements about flora and fauna intermingle with deontic prescriptions and questions; the rules and conditions of discourse are not established in advance, but rather emerge in the conversation itself. To deny such difference, to invoke absolute conditions of discourse, to institutionalize one specific way of thinking and talking is fascist, according to Lyotard, and creates the basis for a violent expulsion and destruction of the Other.

Click here to listen to Amon Göth's Pronouncement of the End of Jewish Life in Krakow in Spielberg's Schindler's List

In The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Lyotard asks the fundamental question of the "name": to what does the term "Auschwitz" refer? How can we speak meaningfully about this referent "Auschwitz" if there is no final appeal to an absolute code of knowledge? if there is no absolute judge or criterion for validity? Lyotard is no doubt correct that there is a struggle or contest, a combat that revolves around this term. In a word, we have a rhetorical dispute with a proponent, and an opponent, but there is no praesus, no final judging instance. The Differend probes the possibility of the name and the referent after one has dispensed with the traditional knowledge-legitimating schemes. The phrase -- "Auschwitz was an extermination camp in Poland during the Second World War where many Jewish people and others were systematically murdered" exists in a paradox where there is no regulation of differences. The Nazi -- this is precisely the point of the testimony of the Nazis in Lanzmann's Shoah -- simply deny or dispute this phrase, and if there is no absolute standard or criterion of grounding statements, then the regulation of differences is always referred to and translated into the idiom of the other party. This is why Lyotard writes: "I would like to call a differend the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim." (9) In this sense, the Jewish witness of the Holocaust has been divested of the means to argue, for if they attempt to prove the above statement as an empirical fact, the moral garvity is lost; if they attempt to demonstrate the personal effect of Auschwitz, the general, universal is lost etc. The radical revisionist denies not merely the referent, but the sense, the addressee and the interlocutor as well. How, in a postmodern world, can we speak about Auschwitz? If there are no grand legitimating meta-narratives, how can we meaningfully speak about and listen to the stories of Auschwitz?

According to Lyotard, the fundamental unit of communication is a "phase." "To learn names," he writes, "is to situate them in relation to other names by means of phrases." (44) A specific referent first achieves its meaning or Sinn in and through its linkage with other phrases. A referent can be located within many different networks of names, and the linkages between phases are not "right" or "wrong," but rather suitable or unsuitable, useful or superfluous, meaningful or senseless. The statements of a witness to Auschwitz cannot defeat the revisionism of Faurisson; it is not a matter of making him submit to the verificationist game, because, in the final analysis, Auschwitz is a political and moral and ethical issue.








of storytelling

of commanding

of prescribing

of questioning

of convincing

of scientific proof

of exclaiming

Genres of Discourse

positive science

cognitive science



hermeneutics (interpretation)



agonistics (Lyotard would include his own "discourse" as one among many)

In this bottom-up model of communication, the "phrase" is primary, and there is no meta-language for "phrasing." Ultimately, there is no firm ground from which to adjudicate between different, heterogeneous "phrasings." There is no archimedian point outside of the agonistic struggle of the differend. The "phrase" is not identical to a sentence, a judgment or proposition: "eh?" "whoops" or "Oh, damn" are all phrases. Phrases always present a universe, a possible world; there is always an es gibt. or an il y a . or a "there is." The subject is situated by the phrase, and in turn situates itself in relation to others. The presentation (not representation!) is always, in a Kantian sense, a Dar-stellung, a placement or a placing. The phrase is, and signifies that something is taking place. Silence is also a phrase; one cannot not phrase, for even silence or the refusal to phrase is a phrase, a denial or a disavowal is also a phrase. The real offense is the hegemony of one phrase over another: to exclude, to rule out, to invalidate, to deny, displace, or to negate. Nazism is precisely such a denial, refusal, and an attempt to squelch all other forms of language games except its own. This, for Lyotard, is barbarism, terror in its purist form. Here, the scene from Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List can be instructive. As Amon Göth addresses the Einsatzgruppen SS directly before the liguidation of the Ghetto, he recalls six hundred years of Jewish Life in Krakow, and narrates how the Jews came there and prospered. After his story, he states: "After today, this story is a lie, it is a rumour, it did not exist." It is this radical closing off a phrase or set of phrases, the burial of an idiom, a culture, a history, the denial and negation of an entire manner of phrasing that concerns Lyotard.

Auschwitz -- the Nazi extermination of the European Jews -- is an event that destroys the very standard of judgment by which we usually assess things: "Suppose that an earthquake destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments used to measure earthquakes directly and indirectly. The impossibility of quantitatively measuring it does not prohibit, but rather inspires in the minds of the survivors the idea of a very great seismic force. The scholar claims to know nothing about it, but the common person has a complex feeling, the one aroused by the negative presentation of the indeterminate." In this sense, Auschwitz is the destruction of experience itself. What remains after Auschwitz is the witness-survivor who gives testimony to the unthinkable, the unpresentable. It remains a question whether this way of phrasing the Holocaust itself does not succumb to the seduction of the negative sublime, which places Auschwitz and Nazi Genocide outside of all possible rational discourse. The same danger is present, I would argue, in Shoshana Felman's and Dorie Laub's Testimony: Literature, Psychoanalysis, History (London: Routledge, 1991).