Postmodernity Ahoy! (PT15)

Chapter 15: “The Differend” by Jean-Francois Lyotard

                Density means different things to different people; to a chemist is may mean which liquid is heavier, to a English professor it may mean how rich and conceptual a block of text is, while to our good friend Jean-Francois Lyotard, density means esoteric monstrosities acting as a carte blanch cover for another aneurism concerning metanarratives. In this sense I feel surprised that Lyotard didn’t die from a stress induced heart attack; regardless, you will not be surprised that this piece has more obtuse, head-ache inducing passages to decode.

Lyotard’s concept here is that of the “differend.” He describes this concept as a reversal. Utilizing an example concerning legal procedure he says, “I would like to call a differend where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. (210)” A reversal such as this is connected to linguistics and narrative, of finding truth when there clashing are two opposed outlooks each with their own concept of right, wrong, and the constitution of reality and history.

Hence why communication becomes key. Language is connected to philosophy inasmuch as it is able to define how words like “death” “imprisonment” “liberation” and “ideology” are able to define both discourse and metanarrative; specifically, how interlocutors are able to formulate new expressions in order to legitimate their lingual differend. This is why referents, rules, and silences becomes so important in the communication game: because different means of playing, and defining what is seen as playing (speaking), determine, in turn, the outcome of each talk, debate, negotiations, and meaning of contracts both metaphysical and physical (labor).

Seen from this perspective it is easy to see how such connotation is able to be transplanted onto larger schemes. Namely, what Lyotard has called elsewhere “metanarratives.” Or those large nation spanning projects which presume emancipation from destitution (whether it be economic, social, or spiritual). So it is unsurprising when he introduces the concepts of cosmopolitan (international) and non-cosmopolitan (national, or savage) narrative and quickly likens it to linguistics and social movements. The rationale espoused earlier, of how lingual legitimation is accomplished, is merely superimposed onto a larger framework supposing a universal referent.

The piece is convoluted but once you make it past all the meandering figurative examples you have an idea of what Lyotard is talking about. Genres, nations, languages, and discourses all figure into a grand scheme of examining linguistics as it relates to social-history and grand narratives. It is, in the very least, intriguing and original. While initially explained with far too much mind boggling argumentative logic (X=Y-Y+B-D3), the concept is firmly within standard postmodern emphasis: there exists a tendency to monopolize thought and Lyotard is here to show the way to plurality. Battlefield: linguistics!


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