Missional Implications of The Differend by J.F. Lyotard pt.2

In the second part of this series, Lyotard’s exploration of the historical debate surrounding Auschwitz is a case study in The Differend in which he establishes a powerful message. What do you do when the victims of differend suffer without a voice and die in that state? This is the greatest injustice in Lyotard’s opinion.

The horrific acts that occurred at Auschwitz are the most extreme example of this principle. The idiom of the suffering that was experienced cannot be rectified by a legal idiom in a court of law before a “jury of peers” since there is no one living capable of relating to the degree of suffering that the victims encountered at the hands of the Nazi regime. Lyotard further explores this injustice, causing him to declare a chilling statement that has not been properly addressed in political philosophy. Speaking of Nazism, Lyotard declares: “It has not been refuted” (The Differend 106). For who could possibly refute the terrors of Auschwitz when the very individuals who were mercilessly annihilated cannot bear witness to the atrocities? Movie reels, photographs, and survivors’ testimonials do not account for the victims who have no voice. This is the paramount example of what the differend means, which is why Lyotard starts and finishes The Differend with meditations on Auschwitz.

The differend can be considered inexplicable since the victim does not have the means to justly communicate about the wrong. In an interview conducted by his translator Georges Van Den Abbeele shortly after The Differend was distributed in English for the first time, Lyotard explains, “Even Le différend (1984), which I spent nine years elaborating and writing, remains a sketch, whose master I have not been” (16). Lyotard himself has been reduced to silence to some degree because one of the fundamental aspects of the differend is its self perpetuating nature. In order to discuss a particular differend, there will inevitably create another gap in the dialogue that the original victim will feel by the attempt to discuss in the idiom of another party what the wrong done to him or to her has been. Silence best addresses the differend. In a book entitled Peregrinations written four years after the English translation of The Differend was published, Lyotard delivers a personal account of his understanding of the differend and its inexplicability, which typifies his personal sense of awe at the discovery of the differend. Speaking of the differend he suggests: “It’s the emptiness, the nothingness in which the universe presented by a phrase is exposed and which explodes at the moment the phrase occurs and then disappears with it” (Peregrinations 31). Although the emphasis upon silence and impermanence may seem to serve little purpose or to possess little value, there is an ethical implication found in it.  Nicholas Strobbe draws this out in his essay “Political Identification or the Differend:” “Lyotard constructs this concept in order to make possible an ethical response to silence, most particularly, to that of the ‘victim’ deprived of the means to articulate the wrong that is done to him or her” (10). The differend challenges philosophers to consider the ramifications of the victim who cannot speak on his or her behalf. Silence is meaningful to the victim without a voice and without an idiom.

In these historic moments of oppression and terror, recollection or remembrance does not resolve the injustice which stripped victims of a voice. Death silenced their narratives and stripped them of an idiom. For Lyotard, the consequential ineffability in the wake of such events demands silence in order to recognize the gravity of these injustices which cannot be legally resolved. The finality of the grave silences any efforts to linguistically vindicate the victims. Auschwitz happened as a historical series of events; subsequently, language games (narratives) emerged following the discovery of these events. If the events cannot be rightly adjudicated, so what purpose do the language games serve?Documentation of these events does not resolve the atrocity; it merely informs us. Both cases are atrocious. Both the events and the language games undermine the dignity of the victims. Both violate a most precious boundary of human experience.

The resulting silence Lyotard asserts evokes a few more missional implications. I find them to be poignant messages to 21st century Christian communication. Language games labeled evangelism or pastoral counseling are under scrutiny if we consider this a valid post-modern argument.

First, silence in missional/incarnational conversations can be as powerful as a phrase as any other. Oftentimes the best response is to sit silent and let the gravity of the moment speak on behalf of the victims.

Second, cases of differend pose tremendous ramifications for conversations surrounding the role of God in vindicating unrighteous deeds or human atrocities. Lyotard does not envision a divine deliverance, and to what extent should we?  I’ve heard arguments of God being in the moment with the victims or that character is built in the process. Such language  perpetuates the differend by imposing our Christian idiom in addition to the experienced atrocity which leads to a violation in the name of God on top of the human action. More succinctly, “Why do we need to involve God in these horrors?”

Finally, Lyotard’s philosophical/linguistic exploration speaks volumes when appropriated to the future of missional dialogues.

a) How do we move beyond Lyotard’s silence? Silence is not the only approach, but it is the most logical one he presents. Where do we go then from the silence to address the victims and offer healing and purpose? What message do we communicate when acts of human depravity strip the voice of the victim and impose an idiom that is controls the presentation of the case?

b) How profitable is it to insert Christian legal idioms concerning God’s role in these cases? Does the argument for divine vindication work in post-modernity  To attempt a platitude creates a further injustice that attempts to give reason to something indefensible. Whether it be God or humans, legal idiom is the problem, not the solution.

As post-modern Christians we need to have an in-house discussion about the nature of our language in these unique cases in order to profitably communicate a message of love and hope to victims. I believe firmly the life and death of Jesus can offer a phrase — a narrative. Jesus lived with those who experienced the pain of rejection through labels of “leper” and “unclean”, “prostitute” and “tax collector,” “demoniac” and “Gentile dog.”  Maybe the incarnational presence of Christ in our lives — the suffering silently alongside the survivors — is a “silent action” to begin the process of creating a new idiom?

Any other suggestions? What is that first word beyond Lyotard’s phrase of silence? [Continue to Part 3]


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