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On Lyotard and Thebaud’s “Just Gaming”

Posted on 09/17/2014by kunzelman

[I originally wrote this post in February 2014 and never published it for some
reason. A lot of it, especially at the beginning, is written for a specific time and
moment. Forgive me.]
As you may know, I am writing a thesis this semester, to my posts might veer
toward the note-based or short-argumentative or whatever for a little while. I’m
reading a taking notes constantly, and I would rather push those things publicly
(and invite you to comment/discuss) rather than have those ideas live in
notebooks forever.

I recently finished Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud’s Just

Gaming, which is a transcript of a conversation that the two philosophers had
about Lyotard’s then-current scholarly output like Libidinal Economy and The
Differend. Just Gaming is pitched as a book of clarifications, where Thebaund
attempts to wrangle Lyotard into some specifics about a set of theories and ideas
that are purposefully nonspecific and are often attempting to prove that there is
no “ground” for human life and language. In other words, Lyotard works in
theories that are ontologically and epistemologically slippery, and Thebaud is
working very hard to apply some friction to them.
That said, we can say that the large subject of Just Gaming is justice, where it
comes from, and if we can ever truly attain it. Lyotard is generally responding to
claims about justice that have haunted European models of political engagement
since the middle ages, and his central claim is that because the entirety of
expression is merely a game, then there is no firm ground for theories of justice
to land on. In other words, there is no eternal concept of justice, and the act of
appealing to it as if it existed only works to obfuscate the reality of politics — they
are grounded in nothing and are ultimately arbitrary.
I don’t think it takes a lot to get onboard with Lyotard’s claims here, particularly
in a political world that’s become just as much about the management of
language as it is about the collective (or atomized) actions of people. Lyotard
argues that the core of justice is the prescription, a demand from a figure to
change the world. He writes that:
This means that all politics implies the prescription of doing something else than
what is. But this prescription of doing something else than what is, is
prescription itself: it is the essence of a prescription to be a statement such that
it induces in its recipient an activity that will transform reality, that is, the
situational context, the context of the speech act. [23]

A couple pages later, Thebaud clarifies this point on politics, and Lyotard comes
down to justice.
JLT: In other words, justice can be understood only from the prescriptive.
JFL: It is the order of the prescriptive, in any case. [25]

To recap: a system of politics in the world, in order to justify itself, makes

prescriptions based on its own self-preservation and proliferation. Those
prescriptions enter into a large ecology of statements about the world and what it
should look like in the future (and what it looked like in the past), which we could
call something like a metagame of language in which there are competing worlds
that are arbitrarily chosen between due to their power to assert themselves as
the only prescription worth following. Lyotard’s key example here are the
prescriptions of the Judeo-Christian god in the form of the ten commandments.
While they are certainly rules for individuals, they are also rules for how a
people’s conception of world should be shaped after they are handed down. In
this sense, Lyotard’s statements about “language games” are eerily accurate, in
that prescriptions make for a possibility space that cannot be escaped while still
maintaining fidelity to the prescriptions themselves. In other words,
prescriptions and the politics and concepts of justice that follow them are a neat,
totally-designed game that we are constantly playing.
Lyotard contrasts these top-down prescriptions to an embracing of what he
calls paganism. This paganism is an active rethinking of “metalanguage,” or
“the famous theoretical discourse that is supposed to ground political and ethical
decisions that will be taken as the basis of its statements.”[28] That
metalanguage is the prescription that I wrote about up above; paganism is the
idea that there isn’t a single prescription, but a multitude of them that are all
equally true at one time: “we are always in judgments of opinion and not in
judgments of truth.”[28]
Lyotard is pitting a metaphor of the Abrahamic tradition against a metaphor of
the Greek tradition, neither of which map 1:1 onto a reality, but both of which are
a helpful illustration for understanding the world as it really is. The prescription
contains a logic of exclusion of all other prescriptions; to accept a prescription is
to accept that there is a single path in life. Lyotard wants us to embrace a
paganism that sees prescriptions always in conflict with one another, denouncing
each other as false prophets, catching us up in their argumentative flows and
demanding we heed their specific instructions. Accepting paganism means
accepting that the prescription is not sufficient in explaining the world, and that
one model cannot contain its outside.
Most of this might sound familiar, as contemporary debates around liberalism,
religion, and secular life seem to at least agree that there are multiple narratives
that run through the world. A conservative population of any sort will hold to
their prescriptions (to name a few: neoliberals, capital-L Liberals, hardline
Marxists, Christian fundamentalists) and declare any deviation of that some form
of the dreaded relativism, whether it be of the moral or political type.
Relativism is a word that gets thrown around as this sort of paralytic recursive
question about how we are supposed to act in the world: “if not X, then what?”
the prescription asks, where X is a traditional account of political action.
Lyotard’s response to pure relativism is to say that just because paganism exists
doesn’t mean that we cannot act whatsoever. On the contrary, he calls up
the Kantian concept of the Idea as a way of escaping a morass of political
indecision. Lyotard reads the Idea as “a sort of field where one can run and let
oneself go to see how far one can reach with a given concept.”[75] Later,
provoked to defend himself by Thebaud, he reduces the illustration down to “a
An Idea is a concept that is never exhausted or taken to it limit. As Lyotard says,
it is a horizon that structures thought, and ultimately provides something like a
set of political bumpers that guide but do not overdetermine thinking or politics.
An Idea is a way of structuring the world, but it does it through a certain
endpoint, and it might not exist in the world when it is initially conceived. For
example, an Idea might be “the abolition of zoos.” This certainly doesn’t exist in
the world right now, but it can be thought to exist, and by using the Idea as a
guiding principle, we can make active choices in order to reach that state.
The mistake that Lyotard warns against is turning this adherence to an idea into
mere Liberal political strategy (my words, not his). He argues this by saying that
taking the Idea as a starting point for politics presents us with a “field of ruses”
and a “field of finality”[80]. In the case of the former, he is referring to the
arbitrariness of how Ideas operate; in paganism, there are multiple truths, and so
they wrap around one another, turning the space where they argue against one
another into a field of argumentation and rhetorical dancing. In the case of the
latter, he is hinting again at the horizon function of the Idea, that it presents an
end point that always eludes us. In following the Idea, or using it as a guideline,
we aren’t actually hoping to reach an end point. Instead, we want it to take us as
far as it can, toward a point that might totally escape us, but toiling after it
nonetheless because we conceive of it as a political and ethical good. As I
mentioned before, the danger here is a basic Liberal acceptance and operation
within these fields. In accepting that there is no truth, only opinion and that there
is a possible finality to politics, it becomes very simple to work toward that end
dialectically through structures like the courts. In that case, Lyotard claims,
“there is no possible politics. There is only consensus.”[81] In the hunt for
consensus, a more insidious process takes place: “the manufacture of a subject
that is authorized to say ‘we'”[81]

A quotation from Lyotard, from the same chapter, before ending:

This is where the whole matter lies: one must not merely take into consideration
all of society as a sensible nature, as an ensemble that already has its laws, its
customs, and its regularities; but the capability to decide by means of what is
adjudged as to be done, by taking society as suprasensible nature, as something
that is not there, that is not given. [82]

I’m quoting at length here because it is one of the final places in Just
Gaming where Lyotard sums up his position. For me, this paragraph is a useful
and pragmatic way of thinking paganism. It is a mode of acceptance of what a
society claims and what it has disavowed. Another way of putting it is to say that
a society has an unthinkable part of itself that nonetheless can coincide with an
Idea that might govern a particular set of political strategies.
My purpose in writing this wasn’t to come down on a side here. I think Lyotard is
presenting an interesting argument, and I’ve done my best here to distill it into
something that is readable and maybe useful as a way of building an argument
out of Lyotard about a politics that is grounded in a specific ethical stance (an
Idea) but which can take many forms and isn’t overdetermined by a set of
strategies (the particular shape of society in time). The age of Twitter has
proliferated these ideas — paganism has become morepagan, if that makes sense
— and I like reading work from thirty years ago that seems to map onto and
matter for our contemporary modes of engagement.
Lyotard might be helpful for thinking through these things or he might not, but I
think there’s some useful thinking here that might be worth adding to anyone’s
political and theoretical toolboxes.