Missional Implications of The Differend by J.F. Lyotard pt. 1

Jean-Francois Lyotard by Wikimedia Commons - Bracha L. EttingerDuring a graduate course in Postmodernity I took a few years ago, I stumbled upon a work by Jean-François Lyotard which continues to resonate in my emerging faith. Though I have never read this elsewhere, I firmly believe Lyotard’s exploration of language games ties in perfectly with the emergence and missional conversations. I’ve excerpted a paper I wrote on the topic to provide some background and philosophical material to explore the ethical and missional implications of the differend for Emergence Christianity.

The Postmodern Condition established Lyotard as one of the great post-structuralist philosophers and a father of postmodernity. Lyotard’s body of work explores numerous schools of philosophy including epistemology, political philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. The Postmodern Condition analyzes the changing epistemology we now understand as the consequence of technological and philosophical shifts that happened in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

However his later work entitled The Differend addresses instances of linguistic injustice where the victim is rendered speechless due to her/his inability to use the language dictated by the abuser. This stripping away a victim’s voice is a greater offense that the violation in the first place.

In The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Lyotard’s philosophy of narratives is broken down further into a philosophy of phrases. Lyotard discusses an especially polarizing subject – the historical depiction of Auschwitz – to demonstrate his similarly controversial theory about the politics of phrases and the subsequent injustices resulting from the exclusive nature of phrase regimens and genres of discourse. Since he is not able to respond to the various comments of fellow intellectuals, Lyotard allows himself to be victimized by those who struggle to accept the differends existing in their respective fields of study. The brilliance of The Differend is that it creates what it analyzes through the interplay of the reader with the text and, subsequently, intellectuals with the academic discourses it arouses.

By way of definition, Lyotard offers a few keys statements that should be addressed before his colleagues’ ideas are presented. In the initial chapter, Lyotard defines a differend as, “[. . .] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim” (The Differend 9). A differend is a relational concept that applies to an infinite number of contexts. A “plaintiff” in the case of Auschwitz refers to the deceased and their failure to communicate on their own behalf regarding the wrong done to them by the Nazi hegemony. The injustice of the differend is not just that a wrong has occurred, but that the victim is not able to communicate about it due to the measure of control imposed upon him or her by the victimizer through a domination of the language used or the linguistic rules applied pertaining to the wrong done. Lyotard develops his initial definition on the subsequent page: “The differend is signaled by this inability to prove. The one who lodges a complaint is heard, but the one who is victim, and who is perhaps the same one, is reduced to silence” (10). Herman Rapaport, in his review of The Differend, provides a helpful clarification of Lyotard’s language:  “The différend is a difference which exists in a blatant manner but which is structured such that the victim cannot find a means by which to address it” (84).

It is for this reason that differends are not litigious in nature but philosophical. Lyotard clearly states this following his previous comment about the victim’s silence: “the differend is not a matter of litigation” (The Differend 10). A few chapters later, he offers a clearer example of the differend, which also explains why the differend is not a legal matter:  “In this sense, a phrase that comes along is put into play within a conflict between genres of discourse. This conflict is a differend, since the success (or the validation) proper to one genre is not the one proper to others” (The Differend 136). Legal discourse has its own rules that are independent from and prior to the personal experience of injustice; it has an idiom that governs how cases are resolved which does not take into account the emotive genre of the victim. Following his initial definition, his first example of a differend addresses this issue of idiom: “A case of differend between two parties takes place when the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom” (The Differend 9). To address the differend in a court of law cannot expedite justice since the legal idiom is not the idiom of the victim.

Granted Lyotard specifically applies cases of differend to language, however there are tremendous ethical implications as well. The first implication concerning the nature of cases of differend offers a missional opportunity for Emergence. Legal intervention in verbal disputes of differend will not provide justice. If not in legal discourse, where can a victim of differend turn? I believe this is where Christianity can step in and provide advocacy for the speechless victims once a  new idiom is developed to advocate for victims of differends. Emergence in this light can be seen as a linguistic bridge for victims of differends to develop a voice to protest their voilation. Lyotard’s reference to the historical narrative concerning Auschwitz as a prototype of differend illustrates the severity of these cases when they are unchecked.

So the initial challenge is this: where are those communities or sub-cultures where victims are stripped of a voice? Where can Emergence offer not only advocacy but also a megaphone to promote to the world cases that have been victimizing and yet silent?

One example of this can be seen in a documentary Desert Flower I recently viewed about female genital mutilation in Africa. It’s not a new story, but it put depicts a tremendously powerful case of a cultural differend where young girls are taken by their mothers or aunties and forced into a horrific experience of suffering in the name of local cultural norms which renders them incapable of sexual gratification, and, even worse, susceptible to genital and urinary disease, infertility and death. This indigenous narrative must be confronted in order to protect young girls from this terrible practice.

This might be new language for some, but cases of differend exist in 21st century narratives, and, I contend, it’s our mission to expose them, advocate, and empower the victims. This will necessitate growth in narrative discourse in a variety of genres to intervene wherever cases of differend may occur. The next post will explore ethical implications of the differend in regard to Auschwitz. [Continue to Part 2]

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  • http://thebridge-cu.com Ron S

    Identifying and addressing systems that methodically strip groups and individuals of any language with which to empower a response is a powerful challenge. And, it is often a language game controlled by the socially empowered. I look forward to seeing how you further develop this challenge. Thank you.

  • Timothy Reynolds

    I am reminded of my own power, especially of my own words. Imagine a world where everyone considers carefully the use of words as well allowing others to use their own words to build a more just society. What a powerful piece you have started here. No doubt, it will ignite some conversation or thinking about faith and action.

  • http://notapastor.wordpress.com notapastor

    Thank you for your elegant unpacking of Lyotard. I’ve never fully understood postmodern theory, but I have seen many pomo’s effective work in the world of psychotherapy. It’s a reminder that the highly literate post-modern community is more than just another language game (as they’re often accused of), but might be just the opposite of that. Infecting existing meta-narratives, the postmodern seems to seek to beat them at their own game. Except the agenda is not to solidify existing structures but to “emphasize dissension.”