Postmodernity Ahoy! (PT13)

Chapter 13: “The Intimacy of Terror” by Jean-Francois Lyotard

                It is painfully obvious that Lyotard finds language terrifying; to this extent, reading a book must be downright mortifying. Of course, Lyotard’s conception of terror from his 1997 book “Postmodern Fables” is more nuanced then a comma or sentence fragment “shanking” you in the shower. Rather, what haunts him is his obsession with how logocentrism and tradition have remained-somehow- interact despite the numerous assaults upon its edifice. As Michael Drolet explains, “Lyotard’s assessment of modernity’s terroristic totality is an Orwellian nightmare vision which offers few possibilities of escape. (121)” Needless to say the solution to this abomination is an artistic aesthetic whose sublimity aims to liberate. Cue scene two!

It is for this reason why Lyotard spends so much effort outlining history. He builds towards this contemporary stage by waxing eloquently regarding the role of humans in capitalist society; charities, causes, and the like exist as part of what Lyotard calls “the system.” Nothing we can do is able to alter this system. It is seemingly all-powerful. Furthermore, it not only levels challengers through its totality but incorporates nemesis and antagonistic forces its its very being. One figures Guy Dubard to be close by (perhaps playing look-out for the renegade grammer). Though this is close to Lyotard’s conception it is not complete until he extrapolates the thesis: how, and why, were these great societal missions transmitted? Why, by oral, word of mouth, of course! “[Our ancestor’s] combat invoked some ideal… not yet received in the system at that time… For their speech was insurrectional. (183)” While our own, remains complicit in the system. And so the unwitherable assault on logocentrism is initiated.

Any assault is synonymous with terror so it is unsurprising when Lyotard teases out the connection between speech/language and terror. Stressing the point that commentary is “neither debating nor ‘finding where you are’” he emphasizes the allotment of artistic residue, left over from its resistance to being totalized completely, to “follow itself out and allowing one’s self to get lost in it: terror, once again. (184)” Such a frightful sojourn is dreadful precisely because of its relation: “our world (the system) is but the extension to language” which means that “words are exchanged for words as use value exchanged is exchanged for use value. (185)” There is no order- it is practically anarchy! The lingual superstructure lacks, in other (no less philosophically confusing) words, a concrete means by which to affix meaning; instead, all pretensions of writing and speech are crucified or exploded in a dynamic display. Even so it is a kind of controlled explosion, for Lyotard is insistent that language must be addressed to someone, ergo, it’s purpose.

Sometimes, however, this addresser-addressee friendship goes awry. Such as in the ultimate case of lingual terrorism, the French Revolution. Consider: the revolution began as a movement ushered in by free speech, that decree ridden concept which gave Monarchists a firm kick in the arse. So there is henceforth a relationship established, that of interlocution; which demands both a speaker and receiver of the spoken word. An avant-garde dictatorship, in other words. After all, there is no democracy in floating words free in the air. Someone must act in order to create a Republican liberty and that liberty cannot include figures who receive their just liberty from the Heavens; truly, such inclusion would kill the point to begin with. One could argue this is a vicious circle. This same person could therefore lament the absence of this tyrannical liberty’s cultural retainer- the written word, that arbiter of terror so confounding to stewards of the enunciated. Intimate terror (of both retention and liberty), therefore, is exerted without rest (186).

So if we ignore Saint-Just’s ignorance of the fate of a world abandoned to liberty, then we are able to navigate beyond consensus constituting the forgetting of a crime (187) and move to Baudelaire’s poignant concept of “joy” (liberty) and “terror” (written words). Joy leads to terror, which leads to new joys and new terrors in an effort to reach that utopian state of silence. It is for this reason why Lyotard saw it best to state, “that if one writes, it is forbidden to make use of language, which is the Other. One can, one must, do the intellectual thing on the speaker’s platform.” And the truly scarring part:  “But on the canvas or the page, consensus is null and void. (188)” So if you were looking to gloss over those monarchist war crimes, looks like you are out of luck buddy. This being said, nothing has been done to alleviate Lyotard’s debilitating phobia of syntax any more than that criminal sentence has been erased.

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