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parallax, 2000, vol. 6, no.

4, 99–113

The ‘Use and Abuse of History’ According to Jean-François

Lyotard 1
Sande Cohen

The purposiveness that the 20th century has witnessed has not consisted,
as Kant had hoped, of securing fragile passages above abysses.
Rather, it has consisted of Žlling up those abysses
at the cost of the destruction of whole worlds of names.
Jean-François Lyotard
The precursor arrives too late.
Jean-François Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard’s apothegms stress the conjunctions between violence and

what Westerners call historical sense, consciousness, and knowledge. The Ž rst
apothegm reminds us of the violence of actualities, whatever processes and
mechanisms are named as causal, however responsibility is parceled out; the second
apothegm suggests that when we believe we have ‘historically’ grasped something,
even ourselves, that such possession is irremediably asymmetrical with itself. For
Lyotard brought the concept of incommensurability into historiography; the violence of
actuality carries over into the violence of historical writing and such writing transmits
the eÚ ects of its own form of violence. Incommensurability suggests that the language
that installs ‘history’ is more of a command or even demand than can ever be justiŽ ed
by appeal to things/it happened. The intersections and slippages of historical
representation and language were theorized by Lyotard, who brought its political-
epistemic connections to the surface. This essay is a re ection on these apothegms
as well as a more general contemplation on Lyotard’s writings on ‘the use and abuse
of history’ after Nietzsche.

The concept of history comes into its own with the State, say the authors of Anti-
Oedipus, ‘history’ having partially severed narrative and magic and dislocated all sorts
of local forms of life; with the advent of ‘history’ came the destruction of names and
genealogies – what was discredited or placed ‘outside’ lines of succession and ascent.
History – as discourse – was always pragmatic, political – moral, a fusion of logical
and aesthetic elements. Is narrative ‘coherence’ separable from aesthesis, and is it not
Darwinian avant la lettre? As a ‘point’ discourse, often called ‘referential’, or the
insertion of ‘before and after’ into everything it narrates, historical discourse has
been remarkably consistent as a language/cultural operation, as a ‘temporalized house
of correction for morality’, in Reinhart Koselleck’s phrase, borrowed from Kant.2
ISSN 1353-4645 print/ISSN 1460-700X online Ñ 2000 Taylor & Francis Ltd parallax 99
Since Thucydides, a ‘local’ narrator yet endlessly invoked as the ‘creator’ of a
successful political and pragmatic universal model of narrative, there is no lack of
evidence of this coming-forward of ‘history’ as a quasi-transcendental of words/
things, making other words/things ‘in’ and ‘out’ to lines of succession. In the Ž lm
Uncommon Valor (1982) a man is dropped to his death from a helicopter to the
accompaniment of the words ‘you’re history’ or, from the academic domain, Mario
Biagioli has convincingly argued that a discipline as speciŽ c as ‘science studies’ gained
ground as a scholarly practice by attacking grand narratives, all the better to re-install
them on a local level.3 Any genealogy of historiography, by any fair account,
demonstrates such mixed ‘origins’ that the very concept of ‘history’ descends as much
from cultural usurpation as it does from any of the various ‘objective’ regulative ideals
(e.g. ‘get your facts straight’) that have replaced each other with dizzying frequency.
A Ž rst question, then: is there any sense of history that does not strive to insert its
‘moral point’ into words/things, an insertion that is suspect given the ‘impure’
genealogy of historical writing? A second question: given the mixtures of history as
actuality and historical writing – the thing itself and its representations – how are
these junctions today organized? In the Ž rst half of this paper, I bring forward
Lyotard’s critical reading of historiography and, in the second half, focus on con ict
between contemporary criticism and historical representation.

No writer went farther than Lyotard in raising unpleasant aspects of historiography.

I am not referring to his withering criticism of the ‘grand narratives’, taken up below.
More immediately, these unpleasant aspects are shown in the rivalries between the
‘oÝ cial’ versions of ‘historical sense’, self-baptized as ‘realism’ – competition for the
‘public mind’, ‘audience share’ of all sorts, and what such versions eliminate - discord
per se. If there are always presuppositions in any act of representation, Lyotard asked
why aren’t such presuppositions aÝ rmations of discordance instead of stable
concepts? For example, in his 1941 book, History as the Story of Liberty, Benedetto
Croce cudgeled the rival claims of Marxists, Gentilian idealists, the emerging
psychohistory, and Diltheyian empathy, among others, by proclaiming that ‘The
practical requirements which underlie every historical judgment give to all history
the character of ‘‘contemporary history’’’, which Croce took to mean that: ‘the
present state of my mind constitutes the material and consequently the documentation
for an historical judgment, the living documentation which I carry within myself ’.4
‘Living documentation’ means one knows why the present is the way it is: one knows
about the ‘point’, in moral and temporal terms. In turning toward any given present’s
‘laws of reality’ one will, Croce insisted, accept that the past can’t be changed and
one should submit to ‘vital necessity’, Croce’s catch-all phrase for accepting ‘realism’
– things as they are.5 A short phrase, this ‘vital necessity’, but it makes present and
past hang together – cohere – and can easily be used to eliminate – as Croce tried
to pit ‘vitality’ against the Fascist State of his day, among other rivals. There is no
historical writing that does not exist without this sense of rivals, of correcting reality,
and uses language as a device to install mediations of temporality and hierarchy.

The creation of all sorts of hierarchies and many types of simpliŽ cation are co-
extensive with the reach of historical thought. In the genealogy of Anti-Oedipus and
much of what can be called French Theory (here, Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques is
one of a number of ur-texts), history, statist thought and transcendental illusions were
fused in the mixed genealogy of ‘history’ and the resulting concept of history (as
word-thing) installed a despotism in which ‘history’ became ‘of history’, a singular
universal that could claim to judge/evaluate all actions, past and future; this
transcendental illusion was of a deprivation of the polyvocity and diversity of
experience; experience had to be signiŽ ed from ‘on high’, from ‘history’s’ height,
rendered in images and senses of lines of succession threaded to hierarchical rankings.
Odo Marquand has an acute evaluation of this despotism – ‘history’ results in everyone
competent to narrate what is, for them, some sole story grafted to some existing ‘sole
power’.6 We can rank ‘Ž rst, second, third, etc.’, anything now, from key texts to pop-
art ‘authenticity’, because the power of to historicize is thoroughly embedded in signs
and syntax. As the examples already given suggest, ‘history’ ushered in a ‘you must’
attached to ‘now’. Obligation and time, irreversibility and necessity, history and
statist writing, history and memorialization, history and sanitized names – such are
some of the (anti-)connections that ensure subjectivity will merge with the categories
of already and to come, where image blends with identity, language coheres with time-
points, including breaks and, in short, representation is secured and anchored to a
time outside of time, the despotic moment of an obligation that can be neither
rejected nor satisŽ ed (e.g. not even the ‘whole German people’ can correct the history
of Nazism). Gottfried Benn, poet and doctor, expressed one side of this ‘of history’,
especially the subject who is ‘restricted to suÚ er or observe’ the has happened (an ‘ideal
reader’ of despotic signiŽ cation), or the outcomes of pragmatic actions:

Five hoplites [armored infantry] armed with machine-guns attack a

boy they had promised not to harm; then they march in somewhere
– : history. Mahomet began as a robber of caravans [...] poisoned the
wells in the desert [...] an unimaginable crime, but now ennobled by
divine and racial needs: Ž rst theft, then religion, Ž nally history. Under
Nero, in 67 A.D., private correspondence in Rome had ceased entirely,
since all letters were opened; the postmen came to the houses in the
mornings bringing news by word of mouth about the latest executions:
world history. 7

Most Westerners cringe at Benn’s brutal satire of historical knowledge. Perhaps we

should – but will Nazism be judged by ‘history’, Nazism given its ‘point’ in time,
why it happened, why it did what it did, what it meant, etc.?; Nazism thus becomes
the site of both ‘exoticism and criticism’, as Michel de Certeau put it, its
historiography oscillating between conservatism and utopianism, ‘beginnings’ and
‘endings’ for us, for survivors and spectators.

Lyotard reminds us that to historicize, inŽ nitive mode, is to subject the innumerable
happenings of life to functions of time-management and social regulation – the
famous phrase ‘coming-to-terms-with-the past’ marks one of contemporary
humanism’s ideal regimes of signiŽ cation. As a didactic discourse that turns metaphor
into enthymeme, narrative representations construct a past by eroding others – no,
it wasn’t the Luther-eÚ ect that ‘caused’ German passivity; yes, it was the hatred
toward the industrial that blueprinted such passivity, to which Hitlerism promised a
way out – so that ‘the historiographical operation’8 turns on the ceaseless Ž lling of
a void that cannot be Ž lled, or is so ceaselessly Ž lled that this void is the logical
equivalent of meaning. Lyotard acutely noted that the operation of historiography
which inserts time-points is predicated on the suppression of time-voids. As a socializing
discourse, historiography has to evoke transcendental illusion: an ideal that drives
representation in the hopes of a satisfaction that cannot arrive. To narrate or write
history is itself a duplication, a ditto-machine, of the violence (voids) Benn returned
for consideration to the philosophy of history.

There are so many contributions to the concept of post-histoire that one hesitates to
make any statement that unnecessarily reduces the contention around this particular
post- to just a few main ‘names’. Post-histoire runs through French Theory since the
1920’s, and there is hardly any uniŽ ed position, as the recent association of
historiality, messianism, and the ‘new scholar’ of the messianic urged on us by Derrida
in his Specters of Marx attests.9 Lyotard’s writings on historiography pertain to ‘French
Nietzscheanism’ or upheaval brought into models of temporality. As Nietzsche
emphasized in his Use and Abuse of History (l872), ‘history’ is of especial concern to
artists and writers insofar as it is usually employed as antiproduction, as ‘brakeshoe’
on present intensity and critique, where narration is the preferred form of cultural
identiŽ cation, one that gives to subjects notiŽ cation of acceptable diÚ erences, or
‘salvation in evolution’, as Nietzsche put it.1 0 The sheer absorptive power of narrative
is a ‘drag’ on experimentation – experience habitually self-censored by telling stories
– whether textual or not. It can hardly be intellectually accidental that years of
con ict in Bosnia resulted in political disaster with dozens of historical narratives
justifying images of impasse and impossibility instead of radical experimentation – a
Bosnian local experiment with their ‘history’ and politics could not escape from
factions armed with their own ‘sole’ story and ‘sole’ power rivalries. Narrative
historiography must reduce the present to something like a ‘switching-station’, making
it as smooth and consistent as possible in reducing the virtual and the futural to
points of continuity with the dominant formations of the present. Upheaval toward
historiography, then, can only mean scathing intellectual analysis toward narration
and the construction of better intellectual problems than those posed by historians.
Lyotard speaks of present experimentations with narrative which would weaken the
sense of the future’s continuity with the present instead of big, medium and small
stories that RE-establish continuity that satisŽ es present political and mythic
requirements. 1 1

For readers not familiar with Lyotard’s many writings that dovetail with
historiography, it might be best to analyze an essay published in The Postmodern
Condition, ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’. First of all, Lyotard’s
contribution to post-histoire is radically diÚ erent from the arguments raised by
Alexander Kojève when the latter insisted that la Žn de l’histoire involved the triumph
of happiness and the cessation of action. Kojève actually believed that homogeneity
trumped adversity, alienation of every sort would simply dissipate. Or, history will
put (has put, is putting) an end to history, the results of action coming to a termination
in the success of inaction, this inaction itself is nothing but the triumph of a particular
kind of action, that of reconciliation between oppositions. For Kojève, post-histoire is
called ‘idleness’ and ‘aimlessness’, or, according to Bataille, the ‘unemployment’ of
the dialectic and the negative.12
As Lyotard takes up these issues in the context of ‘what is postmodern?’, he
emphasizes that ‘postmodern’ is derived from a shift in the Ž eld of architectural
practice and discipline away from visions like the Bauhaus’ rebuilding of the human
environment by means of a direct economic/stylistic integration/organization. These
modernist visions are, today (1979), incredulous because they were sustained by the
monomyths, the integrative myths, of that very modernity – the myths of the
emancipation of humanity, the liberation of the subject, or the victory of know-
ledge; Lyotard relates incredulity to widely shared current feelings such as ‘there is
a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist’, or, aÝ rmatively, there is ‘toleration for
incommensurables’. In social terms, as the avant-garde is assimilated – an assimilation
that is exemplary for everything coming under the term culture -, so too Capital forms
greater social tangles and complications toward strategies of resistance and
opposition. Unlike Kojève, it is not post-histoire as victory over con ict, but post-histoire
as critique of assimilation and integration that Lyotard celebrates; postmodern is not
post-histoire as the dismantling or re-assembling of modernism, popularized by, for
example, the October group in the United States, where art-history according to Lacan
replaces that of Freud-Marx; the postmodern is understood as a ‘condition of
possibility’ that requires strategies of post-histoire , where ‘thousands of uncomfortable
little stories’ 1 3 in a ‘constant state’ of aesthetic experimentation add to ‘Ž nalities
without end’1 4 instead of insertion in ‘great histories’. Postmodernism is continuous
with modernism insofar as the latter is about the destruction of universalist claims,1 5
but postmodernism has a stronger sense, that of challenging any existing mode of
representation, or representation in itself. The modernist intellectual – ‘having
reproduced power [writers] put them [stories] into circulation [...] at the same time
using them to curse power’16 – gives way to the intellectual as faber, not representor.

Again, the historicity of modernism, its overall self-consummation, its reliance on

narratives of outcomes and ends, inserting genetic patterns in every cultural and
political act, is undercut by Lyotard’s argument that incredulity must accompany
our representational schemas. The argument, for example, is continuous with that
of Barthes’ where, from Mythologies , sarcasm toward society’s so-called revealed truths
‘Ž lls [the myth-reader’s] task to the brim’, or Godard’s insistence that ‘in every image
we must ask who speaks’. Suspending genetic patterns is complementary with post-
histoire as experimentation, where Lyotard emphasized movements like Pop or Op
when they intensify the destruction of everyday terrorism (e.g. art torn between
politics and taste) or lend themselves to small bursts in the liquefaction of identities,
of dislocating cultural ‘intuitions’ of sense and direction as transmitted by the ‘grand

If incredulity toward meta-narratives is the elementary condition of criticism, then

it is satire that is sarcasm’s complement:

Don’t [the arts] form both a satire through the immense diversity of
the genres, and at the same time a Ž eld where the whole point is
always to try out whether that situation, that event, that hole in the
ground, that wrapping of a building, those pebbles placed on the
ground, that cut made on a body, that illustrated diary of a
schizophrenic, those trompe l’oeil sculptures, and all the rest [...] of
sensing and phrasing are being probed on the limits of what is possible
[...] This is our postmodernity’s entire vocation.1 7

So postmodernity involves both experimentation and terror. Under the general

conditions of postmodernity, imagistic systems organize the exchange of unrealities
rather than directly exploiting people according to industrial models; social relations
are more plasticized (e.g. over half of all professors in the U.S. are now part-time,
adjunctive), and perhaps Western social systems do not require any meta-narrative
integration; ends are vague and more sinister, and, with Nietzsche, it may well be
that ‘the goals are missing’ in every sense but that of accumulation/survival. Artists
and intellectuals who choose to add to the cultural endowment of a ‘unitary end of
history and of a subject’ are simply recapitalized.1 8 Further, ‘Answering the Question’
does not dismiss out of hand the use of categories of negation, alienation, and non-
identity championed by Adorno and others. Lyotard maintains such practices but
put to the task of an intensiŽ cation of dispossession of the impositions by which the
rules are incessantly remade. Where Deleuze and Guattari called Capitalism an ‘add
an axiom’ ruse, the instant the rules don’t work in a given domain, thereby preserving
that domain, Lyotard urges dispossession of rules, of identities, of simple opposition,
of blind aÝ rmation, a generalized undoing of the politics of the signiŽ ed – any
group’s transcendental illusion. In short, the artist and intellectual is urged to
‘investigate what makes [...] an art object and whether it will be able to Ž nd an
audience’,1 9 this in the face of rampant and incessant rehistoricizaton . For example,
contemporary art-movements have been so monumentalized that an artist has to ask
how it is even possible to ‘humble and disqualify reality’, to ‘ ush out artiŽ ces of
representation’ and what can it mean to ‘assay’ an ‘increase of being’ without
historicization. 2 0

Lyotard’s contribution to post-histoire, like that of Nietzsche’s, is to conceive the

unpresentable so as to expand uncomfortable speaking and thinking. The notion of
the unpresentable has a similar status to Nietzsche’s sense of Eternal Return and
can also be compared with Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of ‘nonthought’, which is
diÚ erent from negation and ‘no’, in that ‘nonthought’ constitutes experiences not-
yet placed in historical language and representation – and may not be able to be –
since thought-as-such is always in some ‘middle’ without origin and end.2 1 The
unpresentable is not another version of what is ‘lacking’ and ‘missing’ from
representation, but rather those experiences unable to be fully historicized . As
Nietzsche argued, the point of ‘historical culture’ was to create people who are as
little aÚ ected as possible by experience – who become ‘careless and accommodating
in external matters [...] if only their memories are kept continually titillated and
there  ows a constant stream of new things to be known that can be neatly packed
up in the cupboards of their memory’.22 The unpresentable is not riveted to nostalgia
for masterpieces, for holistic works. Here Lyotard lines up with authors like Joyce
or Woolf when they made works the rules of which those very same works did not
possess. Art making, like speech or language, is itself an event, an action before it is
a representation. Unlike the historicist versions of Habermas where a clear goal is
maintained for art (social consensus) or Jameson, where transition to a better future
is to be historically imagined by sifting positive and negative for progressive purposes,
Lyotard hews to strategies and tactics of experimentation. And experimentation
 ourishes only by a forgetting, one that aÝ rms injustice ‘to what is behind [...] and
only recognizes one law – the law of that which is to come’.2 3 Despite the ominous
possibilities of the latter part of that formulation, the ‘unpresentable’ dances with
forgetting, among other connections, and makes life all middle, all between, no
founding negation attached to either ‘end’, the ‘unpresentable’ an orphan from
parentage and heirs. Perhaps the ‘unpresentable’, in being materialized in
representation, suspends the great game of pessimism and optimism, which artists,
scientists and intellectuals know all too well, speaking in a ‘strange voice [...] under
the scholar’s hood’?24

History always comes to mean unity, simplicity and communicability, past and future
made into roads with clarity and truth as their guides, linearities that render truth
as ‘before’ and ‘after’, or completion in the mode of an exhibited absence. In the essay
‘Judiciousness in Dispute, or Kant after Marx’, Lyotard argues that narrative
continuity succeeds only when it suppresses a ‘convulsion in which ‘‘before’’ and
‘‘after’’ lose their co-presence in [...] discourse’.2 5 Despite the turmoil and carnage,
waste and unnecessity entered into historical narration, historical thought only knows
how to present its results in a beautiful way, by good forms, by incorporating
‘convulsion’ into time-line, time-insertion: the highroad in the writing of German
history as Tragedy, the satisfactions of the Apocalypse in writings about Los Angeles.26
Even when it admits irony as undeniable, historical thought cannot sever its ties with
the beautiful. Its magical term is ‘synthesis’.2 7

In Lyotard’s view, the postmodern leaves oÚ from the institutionalized games of

pleasure derived from pain – which might include kitsch as well as the most re ective
mourning – so as to suspend the beautiful and the exquisite gravitas of the negative.
We are enjoined to instead make new presentations; post-histoire is a test, whether we
can thicken the unpresentability of the unpresentable, where diÚ erence becomes
more urgent. That means resistance to every mode of accommodation to the powers
that be. Further, the State, Humanity, and the University can be conceived today
as language-particles in a more violent scene of fractured social bonds. Has the social
bond – usually believed to operate both as a macro-explanation and micro-
description, as when there is said to be ‘trust’ gluing subjects together – slipped out
of narration? Has historical writing, which usurped its rivals, when it could, or joined
with them when it had to (e.g. l9th century historians who insisted they straddled
art and science) slipped inside the implicit terror of ‘be operational or disappear’?
Indeed, the very concept of subjective performance grafted to objective history
wavers, insofar as capitalist ‘input/output equation[s]’ and ‘context control’ have
replaced ‘history’ as the medium of social bonds.28 In this sense, ‘history’ is another
of those constructs that died long ago, the news of which also died long ago, but we
make-believe in it out of self-imposed censorship. What is one to make of evolutionary
models again in ascendance in setting intellectual agendas in numerous areas of
study? Perhaps criticism hasn’t experimented enough?

The concepts, sensations, and probes that constitute cultural endeavors today,
particularly those stemming from university-based art and criticism, must legitimize
their objectness by addressing the ‘masters’ of recognition, everything that goes by
the names/relay of public importance, necessary components of dialogue, etc. In the
contentious stream of competing claims for painting, one has no choice but to accept
the existence of norms whose audience (interlocutors) gives legitimation. All high-
culture, and increasingly every other layer as well, is saturated with mediations that
transform objects into quasi-insider chit-chat. The actual near inŽ nity of objects that
could constitute and could be considered as constituting works of art is so
immeasurably big that judgments of ‘reason’ on these objects sounds increasingly
terroristic, reducing this manifold by exclusions unsaid or by more direct acts. The
ediŽ ce, as in necessary ediŽcation, where to historicize 5 legitimation goes a bit haywire –
but does not disappear. Lyotard blasted connoisseurship exactly as high-cultural senses
of connoisseurship were extended to the general culture (e.g. Greil Marcus on Elvis).
Artists and writers were enjoined by Lyotard’s texts to start with the actually existing
plurality of games and moves that can be exploited, to make new games not exploitable
by system-performativity or history-synthesis. Lyotard was constantly asking about
the ‘we’ of art and writing, its relations to ‘us’, ‘them’, ‘they’. Any object/text that
gave an opportunity for some dissension and contestation was welcomed. To welcome
experience in art and criticism might sound, well, utopian today; but that could also
be the result of a failure to challenge writing and institutions in a more interesting

Instead of return and recoding, fright in the face of metanarrative dissolve and
reconstitution, Lyotard’s writings evoked the motions of concepts, approximating the
sense of an event. Lyotard insisted that the strong sense of a critical/cultural event
went hand in hand with a sense of cultural enigmatics: ‘I believe that it is important
that there be no addressee, [that someone] no longer knows for whom he writes,
since there is no longer any taste; there is no longer any internalized system of rules
that would permit a sorting out [...] We are without interlocutors’.29 That’s the kind
of statement that has made many American commentators on Lyotard apoplectic,
or a critic such as Bruno Latour decry Lyotard as mad, as he did in We Have Never
Been Modern. But how many histories of modernism are expended on narrating some
monomyth of ‘loss’ instead of antagonizing one’s contemporaries! Lyotard aÝ rmed
the ‘without’ interlocutors not as absence, as does neopsychoanalysis which wants to
make interlocutors crazy unless they know who they are talking-to, about-, etc., but
as a call for ‘new eÚ ects’ and connections. In Just Gaming, Lyotard notes that ‘eÚ ects’
(of text, of painting) can always be sent to the bin marked ‘failed’ and psychotic
because they went too far. Here is how Lyotard puts the problem:

one cannot work telling oneself that, yes, there are values that arranged
in a speciŽ c way form a subject. This is the subject to whom I speak:
I communicate what I have to say in its name. To presuppose such
an addressee or tutor, is to admit that all the actions that form history
[...] Ž nd their ultimate meaning in the accomplishments of a universal
subject. It is the idea of such a subject that modern artists refuse.30

Constantly moving between the concerns of contemporary criticism and the already
discussed issues of to historicize, Lyotard sought out the links between these domains.
To represent present actualities or situate a present as something ‘historical’, certain
representations are preferred over others; we are inundated with Ž xed time-inserts
(e.g. ‘modern’, ‘postmodern’, revivals, rampant experiences of obsolescence, etc.),
institutionalized and marginalized in language/institution mixtures. Temporalities of
every imaginable relation are presented as discourse, and Lyotard never tired of
emphasizing what is at stake: ‘No matter what its regimen, every phrase is in principle
[...] in a diÚ erend between genres of discourse [...] genres of discourse [...] Ž ll the
void between phrases’.31 The concept of a ‘diÚ erend’ was introduced so as to account
for the incommensurability between genres of discourse, of disjunctions between
inherited, temporalized language, and experiences that don’t ‘Ž t’ with inheritance,
with continuity. ‘The diÚ erend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein
something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be [...] what remains
to be phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase [...] to institute idioms which
do not yet exist’.3 2 Incredulity toward metanarrative does not mean there isn’t furious
competition in and of ‘the present’ over the very same things we use and abuse
history ‘for’. The sense of a diÚ erend or a possible incommensurable between
evaluation and description, between an order and a request, between an ameliorative
sense and one that provokes, is to pry apart the fusions in which ‘to declare the
world to be historical, is to assume that it can be treated in narrative terms’.3 3 Once
we stop using historical discourse in its ordinary way, as common and good sense,
one is under the obligation to signify diÚ erently. Once the tacit acceptance between
the genre of a speculative regime and, say, the Idea of emancipation is disconnected
as inherently the good form of narrative history, then the linking concepts are
deposed: redemption, knowledge, and dialectic cease representing and become
contested concepts. Lyotard’s arguments are consonant with those of de Man, who
argued that ‘genetic models’ that schematize ‘an intent oriented towards an end’ are
predicated on confusion between rhetoric and reference; de Man even suggested that
such ‘confusions’ require the deception of believing in an end without deception.3 4

Because of the weakening or defaillancy of the modern project of emancipation, the

incredulity of the ‘great narratives’ carries with it its own potential self-deception: ‘it
is therefore tempting to lend credence to the great narrative of the decline of great
narratives’.35 In Lyotard’s version of counter-history, belief in decline completely
restores history, switched from ‘incredulity’ to a ‘loss’ that must or can be made
good. But this type of discourse simply repeats the implicit terror of narrative history
(to be historicized), since the ‘history of loss’ is as self-deceptive as any other temporal
or genetic pattern. Domination and loss are a nice married couple. Like Nietzsche’s
Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense, which asked about language’s value since it can
engender truth and error at the same time, in the same phrase, Lyotard gestured
toward ‘little stories’, where names mean proper names and units of value, but
transmit local realities. While ‘little stories’ have the advantage of signifying to other
senders and receivers the tempo or beat of experience, these stories are the way in
which a community or society, no matter its scale, ‘reactivates names and nominal
relations [... and] reassures itself as to the permanence and legitimacy of its world
of names’. So even ‘little stories’ can convey an inexpungeable sense of tautology –
stories are ultimately about identity preservation, even if anti-identitarian; primary
narcissism (e.g. idealization of an origin) is unavoidable in narrative worlds.

With post-histoire , or in societies that have passed through the agonistics of Western
modernization, universal civic identities are then ‘spongy’ in relation to metanarratives;
identities are ‘cosmopolitical’ – the types called scientist, artist, global intellectual,
non-government oÝ cial – and on this dimension, contemporary narratives from
accredited domains (e.g. the university), Ž nd it necessary to beat back the question
‘whether or not there is a human history’.36 Universal history may be discredited by
deconstructionists and other dissident types, but that doesn’t stop the universal being
invoked to discredit groups, big and small, said to ‘lack’ the universal. The game of
giving and withdrawing ‘historical signiŽ cance’ might be a local Western language game,
but the West has moved this game into every present socio-economic function. How
is it possible to believe in the innocence of history? Or what do we do with history’s
innocence as constantly recoded? These questions are more urgent than ever. The
artist and intellectual is enjoined to experiment, but this occurs in the rivalry between,
say, the repetition of claims that Western Capitalism will genetically lead to more
democratic societies, as well as counter-claims by leaders like Matahir Mohammed
in Malaysia that local narrations there must protect ‘tradition’. ‘Little stories’, because
they are closer as language to ‘facts on the ground’, may be less or more misleading,
but every narration is potentially illegitimate , since our stories are always those of
particular groups, there being no ‘we’ that can be found other than as alibi for the
very stories we tell. For Lyotard, narration, obligation, subjectivity requires
subservience to a particular story. In this kind of scene, in the aftermath of the West’s
actual violence having created skepticism toward its own metanarrative ideals, history
can today employ integrative or disintegrative techniques toward rival claims; post-
historie sketches only an ‘opening’ or a way of working representation ‘in suspension’
from universal and local history.

Auschwitz is a ‘name’ that destroys speculative history, or history as genetic

reconciliation, as Auschwitz exposed the inanity of ‘the real is rational and the
rational real’. But did it take an Auschwitz to show this, to expose historical writing
as Ž ction with teeth? Lyotard asks us to consider current modes of political and
cultural violence, and not subject them to metanarrative. Contemporary American
political and academic practices have thoroughly destroyed the university as Ideal
community, determined as it is by the results of chance, secret meetings, modes of
psychological slavery, personal relations, publicity, et al.: why put all this in the form
of a story we already know? What form is required to bring out the unpresentability
of the thing evoked? If historical narration presupposes certain rules, rules of
coherence, of synthesis, of appropriateness of anecdotes, etc., then post-histoire is an
opportunity: the invention of temporary criteria.37 Such ‘temporary criteria’ are
required because ‘reason is not suÝ cient to make links in accordance with an aim’.3 8
Is the contemporary American university driven by an ‘aim’ or by competing claims
for inclusion, for social recognition, for advancement, which are less ‘aims’ than
reproductions? Lyotard asks us to re ect on ordinary terror.

Post-histoire means that instead of chronology or ‘before and after’ treated as sure
criterion, one has only signs, signs thoroughly stripped of any intuitive certainty.
This is perhaps the strongest sense of post-histoire : where the historian insists that
something happened, and supports this by stressing the pre-existence of rules (for
example, that Auschwitz is like/unlike other barbarities) and schemas (that Auschwitz
is incontestably a knowledge, not more myth), the contemporary challenge is to work
against any certainty of sign-resemblance. Judgment concerns the ability to make
cases: ‘in cognitive phrases under the rule of the schema, in dialectical argumentative
phrases under that of the symbol, and in prescriptive phrases (in evaluation of
responsibility and morality) under that of the type’.3 9 Insofar as historical thought or
historiography as such wishes to make such judgments – cognitive, dialectical and
prescriptive, which do not exhaust modes of judgment – the faculty of judgment
operates as an internal faculty, a milieu in which or through which it makes transitions
between understanding, sensibility, reason. But schemas, symbols and types don’t
work without the presupposition of identity; a demand makes Auschwitz ‘Ž rst’ in
disasters, or a rationalization precludes asking whether or not Capitalism is rational
or has a ‘proper goal’. How does one judge – historicize – Capitalism to be rational
since our phrase-regimes can always be treated as rationalizations? Post-histoire is the
suspension of these kinds of phrases, as we make more of them, all of them suspended
– and used by diÚ erent audiences for vastly diÚ erent purposes. A discussion here of
Lyotard’s essay, ‘The Sign of History’, will elucidate, I think, the con icts of
contemporary historiography.

‘The Sign of History’ has it that our very attunement to historical experiences has
been based on a ‘common being’, subject to cognitive rules and a rule of telos, or
Ž nality. Acceptance of such ‘common being’ – toleration for capitalism’s ordinary
violence, that of the workplace, say – is signaled in subjective-teleological phrases,
of the type in which the present is judged adequate or inadequate, acceptable or
unacceptable. For example, one can say that Capitalism doesn’t mistreat one too
badly, but what’s the ‘I’ that says so worth? ‘I’ is a sign, which means it is already
connected to and closed oÚ from other signs. If names semi-dissolve into the more
 uid ambiguities of interpreting signs, if all one has in making the present ‘historical’
are signs, then the historian’s research is no guarantee of objective sense, of ‘common
being’, but only another medium of cultural Ž ltering – and to what end? Signs require
an assay, an assessment, or strong re ection on ‘history’, and refer, at best, to ‘an
event, a deal (in the card-playing sense) [...] which would only indicate and not prove
that humanity is capable of being not only the cause but also the author of its
progress’.40 This afterness of historical representation turns event/sign into a genetic or
telic pattern, precisely what ‘sign’ resists. In this sense, post-histoire is thus itself the
name and sign of the risks and dangers of interpretation and analysis of a ‘present’
not yet historicized.

The pragmatic and moral dimensions of historical writing need Ideas of continuity
and discontinuity, progress and decline; pragmatic-morality requires an undetermined
cause so as to allow humanity or any cognitive subject to schematize history as
freedom, i.e. not mechanical, or reducible to mechanistic causation. Historians need
to make what happened appear necessary but not determined by, say, ‘human
nature’, social ‘laws’, etc., or any other explanation that installs ‘history is’. But,
Lyotard asked, what event indexes the Idea of free causality? 4 1 As subject to history
– power, force, domination, authority, institutions, codes –, the history of the subject’s
subjections seems to require a ‘sign’, where some event marks a Ž ssure between
mechanism and liberty, allowing for an aÝ rmation that the historical world
exempliŽ es an Idea of progress and decline, so that there is an index as to a ‘moral
disposition within the human race’. As Lyotard points out, what Kant set out to do
was to synthesize deeds and misdeeds with spectators disinterested enough so that a
conjunction between subject and object yields criteria for assessing progress and
decline. Sublime feeling is the phrase given to spectators when they re ect on events
before them: Kant’s ideal subject of history is the one who attempts to present an
object that will satisfy Ideas. In failing to do so (e.g. how can the Terror of l791 take
place?, why are contemporary Americans so, well, indiÚ erent to politics?), the
imagination must then make a presentation that allows for synthesis of the type
whereby an Idea of humanity is conserved (e.g. the Terror is necessary). The Idea
of humanity, or humanity’s progress, of history as the medium of human realization,
is secured only on the sublime feeling of an incommensurability between Ideas and
their presentation, a failure which acts as subjective cause ‘of having to supply a
presentation for the unpresentable’. Enthusiasm is such a feeling: it requires a
presentation that cannot be presented and in that way drives itself further into the
mediums of signiŽ cation, continuously aÚ ecting its possessor. There is no denying
that in moving toward Kant’s discursive arrangements about history and signs,
Lyotard theorized ‘history’ as closer to pathology, since enthusiasm is an aÚ ection
where ‘nothingness’ is experienced, enthusiasm ‘an energetical sign, a tensor’ in which
an object like the French Revolution is both attracted and repulsed, or an ‘agitation
on the spot’.42

As Lyotard reads Kant, historical connection as such is thus established on the basis
of sublime feelings – the formlessness and potential unŽ gurability of events and
actions, their indeterminacy, which presupposes a capacity of the subject to
experience history as sense and confusion. The very form of narrative is inseparable
from possible links to confusion, rationality, and colossal self-deception. One makes
mistakes in interpreting, experiencing, and making signs. Again, this is to say that
the medium of any such linkage can be only that of feeling, and once this is
acknowledged, the dialectical, cognitive and moral claims of history vanish, since these
schemas, symbols, and types can only be rendered in good forms that annul the
experience of the sublime. In other words, if there is such a conceptual entity as historical
experience, such experiences – like enthusiasm – contest historical narration. The genres of
historiography (e.g. epic history, lyrical, etc.) are dependent upon a condition of
representability they cannot account for without unraveling their public claims – if
a feel for the sublime makes ‘historical experience’ possible, written history can then
be conceived as sometimes the destruction of events, elimination of actions that fall outside
the protocols of writing. Even more strongly, signs indicate that things have happened
that require phrases which have not been said, and may not be sayable: one has a
feeling that the American middle-class has voluntarily chosen formal democracy as
a means of preserving economic self-interest, sacriŽ cing Ideas of critique to subjective
narcissism; could narrating such feelings prove their historical validity?

In ‘The Sign of History’, and other writings, Lyotard worked back to that territory
ploughed by Nietzsche, especially arguing that historians must not have the last
word(s) on anything of intellectual dispute. An event transmits an excess and surplus
that might unravel the historian’s carefully chosen criteria of judgment, so long as
we let ourselves be aÚ ected by signs; the so-called subject of modernity and post-
modernity may be ‘in trauma’, schizo, Darwinist, and more all at once, but when
such conditions don’t lead to more uncomfortable, discordant, aÚ ects, or people are
aÚ ected only aesthetically, as Nietzsche put it, the feeling of the sublime gives way
to – historicization :
the man who has once learned to crook the knee and bow the head
before the power of history nods ‘yes’ at last, like a Chinese doll, to
every power, whether it be a government or a public opinion or a
numerical majority; and his limbs move correctly as the power pulls
the string. If each success has come by a ‘rational necessity’ and every
event shows the victory of logic or the Idea, then – down on your
knees quickly, and let every step in the ladder of success have its
reverence! 4 3

All of this is to say that not only does ordinary historical writing reduce the past-
future to the dominance of present actualities – such writing is anti-interpretive
insofar as it does not let ‘signs’ fulminate, where they might ‘push philosophy and
politics into a re exive, critical mode, to defer indeŽ nitely the imposition of an end
on the historical-political process’.44 End-less – such is one of the results of Lyotard
carrying analytic criticism into contemporary historicism. This sense of without-end,
in all of its ramiŽ cations, is precisely the disavowal of historicism and its ever-present
aestheticism of past, present, future. All of Lyotard’s discourse on these matters is
intended to neutralize our use of the past and the future – in the name of a disruption
of the present’s lines of access to past and future. The sublime or sense or feel for
the ‘unpresentable’ isn’t another intellectual hunting license for the imposition of
temporal ‘cleansing’ but a perpetual suspension of any Idea, aesthetic, political or
moral, which tries to ‘correct existence’, as Nietzsche put it in The Birth of Tragedy.
For, after all is said and done, isn’t it the ‘job’ of the historian to provide such

Lyotard’s re ections on historiography turned the latter into a zone of such intense
contestation that his work has simply befuddled the vast majority of historians – but
they prefer it that way. Always insisting on some mode of transcendence – the
transcendence of facts; the naturalness of narrative; the demand for closure; the need
for ‘the soul’ to have resolution of its temporal fate –, the historical profession
continues to believe in its own essential ground or mode of deployment – ‘telling the
truth’ is the most often heard phrase. Let us recall Nietzsche’s arguments, with their
mixture of literary and philosophical discourse threaded to rhetoric, which is so
singular of his writing: what is ‘wrong’ with historical discourse or historical culture
is that it serves to give ‘the actual’ the form of an apology; it turns narrative into
aesthetic pleasure, the most destructive things wrapped in discourse which remains
unaÚ ected by what it recounts. Historians, continuous with the whole of Western
priestliness, always make something out of events that were once themselves actual
lives, lives unhistorical. A typical historical narrative has the eÚ ect, Nietzsche and
Lyotard as one on this, of installing the ‘blind power of the actual’. ‘After’ Nietzsche
and Lyotard, historiography can be deŽ ned as that kind of writing which does not
really want readers as much as it craves admirers, aestheticism aÝ rming itself through
political-moral signiŽ cations. The authors of a recent work on the historian’s practice
acknowledge that narration is often Ž ctitious or mythical, but the need for identity
is greater than the hazards:

narrative is essential both to individual and social identity. It is

consequently a deŽ ning element in history-writing, and the
historiographical tradition [...] is an important element in identity,
both for historians in a profession and for citizens in modern
societies. 45

Identity before narration, identity after narration; the withdrawal of the sublime –
is it really diÝ cult to understand that investment in this transcendence of identity is
the subject of a typical historical text?

The commitment to experimental criticism, notably theorized by Roland Barthes as

the possibility of all sorts of ‘middle voices’,4 6 remains open. Consonant with
experimentation and ‘middles’, there bolts through Lyotard’s texts Nietzschean ‘joys’
and exhilarations toward the welcoming of events without to historicize, inŽ nitive
mode. ‘Not to drag their generation to the grave’ was the injunction of Nietzsche’s
unhistorical and super-historical self-experimental quasi-subject, manifested in
Lyotard’s writings, among other phrases, as experimentation with subjectivity, this
to the point where one might ‘invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be
presented’.4 7 Of this, historiography wants to know nothing.


1 14
Thanks to Beatrice Dumin for her critique of an Lyotard, ‘Lessons in Paganism’, p.133.
early draft of this essay. See Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light (London:
See Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past (Cambridge: Routledge, l988), p.81.
MIT, 1985), p.204 [Emphasis added]. Lyotard, ‘Lessons in Paganism’, p.149.
3 17
See Mario Biagioli, ‘The ScientiŽ c Revolution is Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Contribution to an idea
Undead’, ConŽgurations, 6 (1998), pp.141-47. of postmodernity’, The Lyotard Reader, Andrew
Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty Benjamin (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p.190.
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), p.20. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
Croce, History as the Story of Liberty, p.165. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), p.73.
6 19
Odo Marquand, Farewell to Matters of Principle Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, p.75.
(Oxford: Odeon, 1989), pp.94-97. Thanks to Elie Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, p.80.
During for sending me this volume, as well as for This is the argument made by Deleuze and
some discussions on this topic. Guattari in their last joint work, What is Philosophy?,
Primal Vision, Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, E.B. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchill (trans.)
Ashton (ed.) (London: Bodley Head), p.87, p.100. (London: Verso, (1994) (1991)).
8 22
See the great essay by Michel de Certeau, ‘The Nietzsche, Use and Abuse of History, pp.24-25.
Historiographical Operation’, The Writing of History Nietzsche, Use and Abuse of History, p.9.
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, l988), Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophical Writings (New
pp.80, 90, 98. York: Continuum, 1995), p.4.
9 25
See Sande Cohen Passive Nihilism (London: St. The Lyotard Reader, p.325.
Martins, l998), chapter one. See Sande Cohen, ‘Hide Your CommodiŽ cation:
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History Art and Criticism in Los Angeles, or Language
(New York: Bobbs-Merrill, l957), p.10. Denied’, Emergences, 9/2 (November 1999),
‘Save the future’ is heard more and more these pp.346-72.
days. While it can have a reactionary edge to it In terms complementary with those of Lyotard,
(e.g. eco-purists), the intellectual problem of the Michel de Certeau has argued that historical
future is as undescribed as ever. concepts are now inside scientiŽc protocols in terms of
Cited in Vincent Descombes, Modern French research and setting of problems, while its mode
Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, l980), pp.27- of presentation serves the interests of making a
30. place for death, of writing as satisfaction. This is
Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Lessons in Paganism’, another version of accounting for the mediative
The Lyotard Reader, Andrew Benjamin (ed.) (Oxford: function of the historical.
Blackwell, l989), p.127. Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, pp.46-47.

29 38
Jean-François Lyotard, Just Gaming (Minneapolis: Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, p.386.
University of Minnesota, l985) p.9. Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, p.397.
Lyotard, Just Gaming, p.10. 40
Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, p.399.
Jean-François Lyotard, The DiÚerend 41
Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, p.400.
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988), 42
Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, p.404.
pp.137-38. 43
Nietzsche, Use and Abuse of History, p.52.
Lyotard, The DiÚerend, p.13. Thanks to John 44
David Carroll, Paraesthetics (London: Methuen,
Tagg for this reference. l987), p.182.
Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Universal History and 45
See Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret
Cultural DiÚ erences’, The Lyotard Reader, Andrew Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York:
Benjamin (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p.414.
34 Norton, l994), p.235.
Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: 46
The refrain of being ‘in the middle’ runs
Yale University Press, l983), p.116.
35 throughout post-60 something French Theory.
Lyotard, ‘Universal History and Cultural
Someone might do an interesting study of
DiÚ erences’, p.318.
36 references to this ‘middle’ vis-a-vis the language of
Lyotard, ‘Universal History and Cultural
diÚ erences’, p.321. ends and Ž nalities.
Lyotard, ‘The Sign of History’, The Lyotard Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.81.
Reader, Andrew Benjamin (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell
1989), p.394.

Sande Cohen is the author of Historical Culture (University of California 1986),

Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minnesota, 1993), Passive Nihilism (St. Martins, 1998)
and the forthcoming (November 2000) French Theory in America, edited with Sylvère
Lotringer. He teaches at CalArts in Southern California.