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The ‘Use and Abuse of History’ According to Jean-Franc ois ¸ Lyotard 1
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 lling up those abysses at the cost of the destruction of whole worlds of names. Jean-Francois Lyotard ¸ The precursor arrives too late. Jean-Francois Lyotard ¸ Jean-Francois Lyotard’s apothegms stress the conjunctions between violence and ¸ what Westerners call historical sense, consciousness, and knowledge. The 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 justi ed by appeal to things/it happened. The intersections and slippages of historical representation and language were theorized by Lyotard, who brought its politicalepistemic 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 AntiOedipus, ‘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
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a ‘local’ narrator yet endlessly invoked as the ‘creator’ of a successful political and pragmatic universal model of narrative.5 A short phrase. self-baptized as ‘realism’ – competition for the ‘public mind’. The creation of all sorts of hierarchies and many types of simpli cation are coextensive with the reach of historical thought. of correcting reality. I bring forward Lyotard’s critical reading of historiography and. There is no historical writing that does not exist without this sense of rivals. Lyotard asked why aren’t such presuppositions aÝ rmations of discordance instead of stable concepts? For example. in the second half. I am not referring to his withering criticism of the ‘grand narratives’.g. the emerging psychohistory.3 Any genealogy of historiography.discord per se. which Croce took to mean that: ‘the present state of my mind constitutes the material and consequently the documentation for an historical judgment. taken up below. If there are always presuppositions in any act of representation. there is no lack of evidence of this coming-forward of ‘history’ as a quasi-transcendental of words/ things. then: is there any sense of history that does not strive to insert its ‘moral point’ into words/things. in his 1941 book. this ‘vital necessity’. history. Benedetto Croce cudgeled the rival claims of Marxists. all the better to re-install them on a local level. focus on con ict between contemporary criticism and historical representation. among other rivals.Since Thucydides. in moral and temporal terms.4 ‘Living documentation’ means one knows why the present is the way it is: one knows about the ‘point’. and what such versions eliminate . making other words/things ‘in’ and ‘out’ to lines of succession. 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. Croce’s catch-all phrase for accepting ‘realism’ – things as they are. and uses language as a device to install mediations of temporality and hierarchy. by proclaiming that ‘The practical requirements which underlie every historical judgment give to all history the character of ‘‘contemporary history’’’. 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 rst half of this paper. Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques is one of a number of ur-texts). by any fair account. Gentilian idealists. ‘get your facts straight’) that have replaced each other with dizzying frequency. statist thought and transcendental illusions were Cohen 100 . In turning toward any given present’s ‘laws of reality’ one will. accept that the past can’t be changed and one should submit to ‘vital necessity’. No writer went farther than Lyotard in raising unpleasant aspects of historiography. these unpleasant aspects are shown in the rivalries between the ‘oÝ cial’ versions of ‘historical sense’. among others. In the genealogy of Anti-Oedipus and much of what can be called French Theory (here. 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. A rst question. and Diltheyian empathy. In the lm Uncommon Valor (1982) a man is dropped to his death from a helicopter to the accompaniment of the words ‘you’re history’ or. More immediately. ‘audience share’ of all sorts. History as the Story of Liberty. from the academic domain. the living documentation which I carry within myself ’. Mario Biagioli has convincingly argued that a discipline as speci c as ‘science studies’ gained ground as a scholarly practice by attacking grand narratives. Croce insisted.
Lyotard reminds us that to historicize. to which Hitlerism promised a way out – so that ‘the historiographical operation’8 turns on the ceaseless lling of a void that cannot be lled. especially the subject who is ‘restricted to suÚ er or observe’ the has happened (an ‘ideal reader’ of despotic signi cation). Odo Marquand has an acute evaluation of this despotism – ‘history’ results in everyone competent to narrate what is. rendered in images and senses of lines of succession threaded to hierarchical rankings. Mahomet began as a robber of caravans [. where image blends with identity. why it did what it did. narrative representations construct a past by eroding others – no. in 67 A. poet and doctor. or is so ceaselessly lled that this void is the logical parallax 101 .6 We can rank ‘ rst. the postmen came to the houses in the mornings bringing news by word of mouth about the latest executions: world history. yes. what it meant. nally history. as Michel de Certeau put it. past and future. its historiography oscillating between conservatism and utopianism.?. it was the hatred toward the industrial that blueprinted such passivity. etc. Obligation and time. As a didactic discourse that turns metaphor into enthymeme. experience had to be signi ed from ‘on high’. Nazism thus becomes the site of both ‘exoticism and criticism’. history and memorialization. for survivors and spectators.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’.] an unimaginable crime. Perhaps we should – but will Nazism be judged by ‘history’. expressed one side of this ‘of history’. from key texts to popart ‘authenticity’. because the power of to historicize is thoroughly embedded in signs and syntax. in nitive mode. why it happened. a singular universal that could claim to judge/evaluate all actions. ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’ for us. 7 Most Westerners cringe at Benn’s brutal satire of historical knowledge. this transcendental illusion was of a deprivation of the polyvocity and diversity of experience. or the outcomes of pragmatic actions: Five hoplites [armored infantry] armed with machine-guns attack a boy they had promised not to harm. the despotic moment of an obligation that can be neither rejected nor satis ed (e. representation is secured and anchored to a time outside of time. including breaks and. As the examples already given suggest. language coheres with timepoints. Nazism given its ‘point’ in time.. 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 signi cation.D..g. second. not even the ‘whole German people’ can correct the history of Nazism). Gottfried Benn. then they march in somewhere – : history. then religion. third. irreversibility and necessity.. etc. from ‘history’s’ height. since all letters were opened.. ‘history’ ushered in a ‘you must’ attached to ‘now’. history and statist writing. Under Nero.] poisoned the wells in the desert [.’. but now ennobled by divine and racial needs: rst theft. some sole story grafted to some existing ‘sole power’. for them. it wasn’t the Luther-eÚ ect that ‘caused’ German passivity. anything now. in short. history and sanitized names – such are some of the (anti-)connections that ensure subjectivity will merge with the categories of already and to come.. private correspondence in Rome had ceased entirely.
to just a few main ‘names’. To narrate or write history is itself a duplication. historiography has to evoke transcendental illusion: an ideal that drives representation in the hopes of a satisfaction that cannot arrive. or ‘salvation in evolution’. the ‘unemployment’ of the dialectic and the negative. 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. Narrative historiography must reduce the present to something like a ‘switching-station’. history will put (has put. messianism. a ditto-machine. and there is hardly any uni ed position. can only mean scathing intellectual analysis toward narration and the construction of better intellectual problems than those posed by historians. As a socializing discourse. that of reconciliation between oppositions. 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. one that gives to subjects noti cation of acceptable diÚ erences. Lyotard speaks of present experimentations with narrative which would weaken the sense of the future’s continuity with the present instead of big. this inaction itself is nothing but the triumph of a particular kind of action. ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’. For Kojeve. medium and small stories that RE-establish continuity that satis es present political and mythic requirements. as Nietzsche put it. the results of action coming to a termination in the success of inaction. Upheaval toward historiography. 1 1 For readers not familiar with Lyotard’s many writings that dovetail with historiography.1 0 The sheer absorptive power of narrative is a ‘drag’ on experimentation – experience habitually self-censored by telling stories – whether textual or not. Kojeve actually believed that homogeneity ` trumped adversity. post-histoire is ` called ‘idleness’ and ‘aimlessness’. First of all. Or. and the ‘new scholar’ of the messianic urged on us by Derrida in his Specters of Marx attests. Post-histoire runs through French Theory since the 1920’s. is putting) an end to history. then. as ‘brakeshoe’ on present intensity and critique. it might be best to analyze an essay published in The Postmodern Condition. where narration is the preferred form of cultural identi cation. As Nietzsche emphasized in his Use and Abuse of History (l872). Lyotard’s contribution to post-histoire is radically diÚ erent from the arguments raised by Alexander Kojeve when the latter insisted that la n de l’histoire involved the triumph ` of happiness and the cessation of action.12 Cohen 102 . as the recent association of historiality. ‘history’ is of especial concern to artists and writers insofar as it is usually employed as antiproduction.9 Lyotard’s writings on historiography pertain to ‘French Nietzscheanism’ or upheaval brought into models of temporality. Lyotard acutely noted that the operation of historiography which inserts time-points is predicated on the suppression of time-voids. 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.equivalent of meaning. of the violence (voids) Benn returned for consideration to the philosophy of history. according to Bataille. or. alienation of every sort would simply dissipate.
the October group in the United States. These modernist visions are. its reliance on narratives of outcomes and ends. the integrative myths. that of challenging any existing mode of representation. popularized by.g. In social terms. that cut made on a body. not representor. of dislocating cultural ‘intuitions’ of sense and direction as transmitted by the ‘grand narratives’. If incredulity toward meta-narratives is the elementary condition of criticism. or. Unlike Kojeve.. that wrapping of a building. for example. those pebbles placed on the ground.As Lyotard takes up these issues in the context of ‘what is postmodern?’. so too Capital forms greater social tangles and complications toward strategies of resistance and opposition. The argument. or the victory of knowledge. aÝ rmatively. where Lyotard emphasized movements like Pop or Op when they intensify the destruction of everyday terrorism (e. it is not post-histoire as victory over con ict. and at the same time a eld where the whole point is always to try out whether that situation. Again. Lyotard relates incredulity to widely shared current feelings such as ‘there is a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist’. from Mythologies . that event. the liberation of the subject. where art-history according to Lacan replaces that of Freud-Marx. Suspending genetic patterns is complementary with posthistoire as experimentation. of that very modernity – the myths of the emancipation of humanity. today (1979). is continuous with that of Barthes’ where. the postmodern is understood as a ‘condition of possibility’ that requires strategies of post-histoire .. he emphasizes that ‘postmodern’ is derived from a shift in the 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. those trompe l’oeil sculptures. the historicity of modernism. The modernist intellectual – ‘having reproduced power [writers] put them [stories] into circulation [. and all the rest [. art torn between politics and taste) or lend themselves to small bursts in the liquefaction of identities. incredulous because they were sustained by the monomyths. then it is satire that is sarcasm’s complement: Don’t [the arts] form both a satire through the immense diversity of the genres. or representation in itself.1 5 but postmodernism has a stronger sense. as the avant-garde is assimilated – an assimilation that is exemplary for everything coming under the term culture -. for example.] of parallax 103 .] at the same time using them to curse power’16 – gives way to the intellectual as faber... but post-histoire ` as critique of assimilation and integration that Lyotard celebrates. there is ‘toleration for incommensurables’. is undercut by Lyotard’s argument that incredulity must accompany our representational schemas. postmodern is not post-histoire as the dismantling or re-assembling of modernism. where ‘thousands of uncomfortable little stories’ 1 3 in a ‘constant state’ of aesthetic experimentation add to ‘ nalities without end’1 4 instead of insertion in ‘great histories’. that hole in the ground. sarcasm toward society’s so-called revealed truths ‘ lls [the myth-reader’s] task to the brim’. inserting genetic patterns in every cultural and political act. Postmodernism is continuous with modernism insofar as the latter is about the destruction of universalist claims. or Godard’s insistence that ‘in every image we must ask who speaks’. that illustrated diary of a schizophrenic. its overall self-consummation.
like speech or language. for holistic works. the artist and intellectual is urged to ‘investigate what makes [. is itself an event. and perhaps Western social systems do not require any meta-narrative integration. to ‘ ush out arti ces of representation’ and what can it mean to ‘assay’ an ‘increase of being’ without historicization. and nonidentity championed by Adorno and others.S.1 7 So postmodernity involves both experimentation and terror. with Nietzsche. of identities. social relations are more plasticized (e. Art making.] This is our postmodernity’s entire vocation.2 1 The unpresentable is not another version of what is ‘lacking’ and ‘missing’ from representation. 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 [. of blind aÝ rmation.] 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’.1 8 Further. contemporary art-movements have been so monumentalized that an artist has to ask how it is even possible to ‘humble and disqualify reality’. In short. Where Deleuze and Guattari called Capitalism an ‘add an axiom’ ruse. in that ‘nonthought’ constitutes experiences notyet 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. are now part-time. As Nietzsche argued.22 The unpresentable is not riveted to nostalgia for masterpieces.. of simple opposition. 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’. alienation.1 9 this in the face of rampant and incessant rehistoricizaton . and.] an art object and whether it will be able to nd an audience’. 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. imagistic systems organize the exchange of unrealities rather than directly exploiting people according to industrial models. For example. ends are vague and more sinister. Unlike the historicist versions of Habermas where a clear goal is maintained for art (social consensus) or Jameson. but rather those experiences unable to be fully historicized . adjunctive). 2 0 Lyotard’s contribution to post-histoire. Lyotard maintains such practices but put to the task of an intensi cation of dispossession of the impositions by which the rules are incessantly remade. is to conceive the unpresentable so as to expand uncomfortable speaking and thinking.g.. an action before it is a representation. Artists and intellectuals who choose to add to the cultural endowment of a ‘unitary end of history and of a subject’ are simply recapitalized. Lyotard hews to strategies and tactics of experimentation. thereby preserving that domain.. ‘Answering the Question’ does not dismiss out of hand the use of categories of negation. over half of all professors in the U. where transition to a better future is to be historically imagined by sifting positive and negative for progressive purposes.. the instant the rules don’t work in a given domain. it may well be that ‘the goals are missing’ in every sense but that of accumulation/survival. like that of Nietzsche’s. And experimentation Cohen 104 . Under the general conditions of postmodernity..sensing and phrasing are being probed on the limits of what is possible [. Lyotard urges dispossession of rules. which is diÚ erent from negation and ‘no’. a generalized undoing of the politics of the signi ed – any group’s transcendental illusion..
in being materialized in representation. the news of which also died long ago.] under the scholar’s hood’?24 History always comes to mean unity. where diÚ erence becomes more urgent. when it could. whether we can thicken the unpresentability of the unpresentable. which usurped its rivals.] and only recognizes one law – the law of that which is to come’. no founding negation attached to either ‘end’. the State. and probes that constitute cultural endeavors today. but we make-believe in it out of self-imposed censorship. In the parallax 105 . post-histoire is a test. insofar as capitalist ‘input/output equation[s]’ and ‘context control’ have replaced ‘history’ as the medium of social bonds. 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. time-insertion: the highroad in the writing of German history as Tragedy. by incorporating ‘convulsion’ into time-line.2 3 Despite the ominous possibilities of the latter part of that formulation. historical thought only knows how to present its results in a beautiful way. In the essay ‘Judiciousness in Dispute. scientists and intellectuals know all too well. the ‘unpresentable’ an orphan from parentage and heirs. ‘history’ is another of those constructs that died long ago.. Has the social bond – usually believed to operate both as a macro-explanation and microdescription.ourishes only by a forgetting.26 Even when it admits irony as undeniable...g. suspends the great game of pessimism and optimism. l9th century historians who insisted they straddled art and science) slipped inside the implicit terror of ‘be operational or disappear’? Indeed.] discourse’. one that aÝ rms injustice ‘to what is behind [. Humanity.. everything that goes by the names/relay of public importance. which artists. as when there is said to be ‘trust’ gluing subjects together – slipped out of narration? Has historical writing.28 In this sense. historical thought cannot sever its ties with the beautiful. all between. the ‘unpresentable’ dances with forgetting. or joined with them when it had to (e. sensations. the very concept of subjective performance grafted to objective history wavers. and makes life all middle. waste and unnecessity entered into historical narration. linearities that render truth as ‘before’ and ‘after’.2 5 Despite the turmoil and carnage... must legitimize their objectness by addressing the ‘masters’ of recognition. 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. That means resistance to every mode of accommodation to the powers that be. or Kant after Marx’. among other connections. etc. Perhaps the ‘unpresentable’. past and future made into roads with clarity and truth as their guides. Its magical term is ‘synthesis’. Lyotard argues that narrative continuity succeeds only when it suppresses a ‘convulsion in which ‘‘before’’ and ‘‘after’’ lose their co-presence in [. speaking in a ‘strange voice [. and the University can be conceived today as language-particles in a more violent scene of fractured social bonds. particularly those stemming from university-based art and criticism. or completion in the mode of an exhibited absence. Further.2 7 In Lyotard’s view. by good forms. necessary components of dialogue. the satisfactions of the Apocalypse in writings about Los Angeles. simplicity and communicability. We are enjoined to instead make new presentations.
Greil Marcus on Elvis).).] nd their ultimate meaning in the accomplishments of a universal subject. approximating the sense of an event. there is no longer any internalized system of rules that would permit a sorting out [. ‘modern’.. but that could also be the result of a failure to challenge writing and institutions in a more interesting way. and increasingly every other layer as well. fright in the face of metanarrative dissolve and reconstitution. This is the subject to whom I speak: I communicate what I have to say in its name. ‘they’. Cohen 106 . is saturated with mediations that transform objects into quasi-insider chit-chat. Any object/text that gave an opportunity for some dissension and contestation was welcomed.] We are without interlocutors’. its relations to ‘us’. Lyotard was constantly asking about the ‘we’ of art and writing. It is the idea of such a subject that modern artists refuse. To represent present actualities or situate a present as something ‘historical’.g. since there is no longer any taste. Artists and writers were enjoined by Lyotard’s texts to start with the actually existing plurality of games and moves that can be exploited. All highculture. 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. Instead of return and recoding. but as a call for ‘new eÚ ects’ and connections. Lyotard notes that ‘eÚ ects’ (of text. [that someone] no longer knows for whom he writes.29 That’s the kind of statement that has made many American commentators on Lyotard apoplectic. etc. of painting) can always be sent to the bin marked ‘failed’ and psychotic because they went too far. ‘them’. certain representations are preferred over others. as does neopsychoanalysis which wants to make interlocutors crazy unless they know who they are talking-to. To presuppose such an addressee or tutor. or a critic such as Bruno Latour decry Lyotard as mad. rampant experiences of obsolescence. The edi ce. there are values that arranged in a speci c way form a subject..g. as he did in We Have Never Been Modern. well. to make new games not exploitable by system-performativity or history-synthesis. revivals. In Just Gaming.contentious stream of competing claims for painting. is to admit that all the actions that form history [. Lyotard’s writings evoked the motions of concepts. where to historicize 5 legitimation goes a bit haywire – but does not disappear. yes. we are inundated with xed time-inserts (e. one has no choice but to accept the existence of norms whose audience (interlocutors) gives legitimation.. Here is how Lyotard puts the problem: one cannot work telling oneself that.. The actual near in 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. about-. as in necessary edi cation. utopian today. To welcome experience in art and criticism might sound. Lyotard sought out the links between these domains.. etc. Lyotard blasted connoisseurship exactly as high-cultural senses of connoisseurship were extended to the general culture (e.30 Constantly moving between the concerns of contemporary criticism and the already discussed issues of to historicize. 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. ‘postmodern’.
no matter its scale.] what remains to be phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase [.] in a diÚ erend between genres of discourse [. and dialectic cease representing and become contested concepts. artist.] to institute idioms which do not yet exist’. Temporalities of every imaginable relation are presented as discourse. knowledge.. or in societies that have passed through the agonistics of Western modernization.g.3 3 Once we stop using historical discourse in its ordinary way. identities are ‘cosmopolitical’ – the types called scientist..] genres of discourse [.. one is under the obligation to signify diÚ erently. is to pry apart the fusions in which ‘to declare the world to be historical. these stories are the way in which a community or society. ‘reactivates names and nominal relations [. and] reassures itself as to the permanence and legitimacy of its world of names’.31 The concept of a ‘diÚ erend’ was introduced so as to account for the incommensurability between genres of discourse. even if anti-identitarian. and experiences that don’t ‘ t’ with inheritance. belief in decline completely restores history.. parallax 107 . So even ‘little stories’ can convey an inexpungeable sense of tautology – stories are ultimately about identity preservation. Domination and loss are a nice married couple. who argued that ‘genetic models’ that schematize ‘an intent oriented towards an end’ are predicated on confusion between rhetoric and reference... With post-histoire . While ‘little stories’ have the advantage of signifying to other senders and receivers the tempo or beat of experience. but transmit local realities. idealization of an origin) is unavoidable in narrative worlds. and Lyotard never tired of emphasizing what is at stake: ‘No matter what its regimen. say. the Idea of emancipation is disconnected as inherently the good form of narrative history.. Like Nietzsche’s Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.. every phrase is in principle [. since the ‘history of loss’ is as self-deceptive as any other temporal or genetic pattern. 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’. temporalized language. Lyotard gestured toward ‘little stories’.35 In Lyotard’s version of counter-history. Once the tacit acceptance between the genre of a speculative regime and. which asked about language’s value since it can engender truth and error at the same time. as common and good sense. Lyotard’s arguments are consonant with those of de Man. where names mean proper names and units of value.institutionalized and marginalized in language/institution mixtures. of disjunctions between inherited.. between an ameliorative sense and one that provokes. with continuity. then the linking concepts are deposed: redemption..3 4 Because of the weakening or defaillancy of the modern project of emancipation. between an order and a request. is to assume that it can be treated in narrative terms’. in the same phrase. But this type of discourse simply repeats the implicit terror of narrative history (to be historicized).] ll the void between phrases’. primary narcissism (e. ‘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 [..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’. de Man even suggested that such ‘confusions’ require the deception of believing in an end without deception. The sense of a diÚ erend or a possible incommensurable between evaluation and description.. global intellectual. universal civic identities are then ‘spongy’ in relation to metanarratives. switched from ‘incredulity’ to a ‘loss’ that must or can be made good.
narration. This is perhaps the strongest sense of post-histoire : where the historian insists that something happened.non-government oÝ cial – and on this dimension. in the aftermath of the West’s actual violence having created skepticism toward its own metanarrative ideals. Post-histoire means that instead of chronology or ‘before and after’ treated as sure criterion. etc. but the West has moved this game into every present socio-economic function. For Lyotard. the contemporary challenge is to work against any certainty of sign-resemblance. the university). obligation. in dialectical argumentative Cohen 108 . history can today employ integrative or disintegrative techniques toward rival claims.3 8 Is the contemporary American university driven by an ‘aim’ or by competing claims for inclusion.37 Such ‘temporary criteria’ are required because ‘reason is not suÝ cient to make links in accordance with an aim’. contemporary narratives from accredited domains (e. not more myth).36 Universal history may be discredited by deconstructionists and other dissident types. nd it necessary to beat back the question ‘whether or not there is a human history’. Judgment concerns the ability to make cases: ‘in cognitive phrases under the rule of the schema. In this kind of scene.g. as well as counter-claims by leaders like Matahir Mohammed in Malaysia that local narrations there must protect ‘tradition’. But did it take an Auschwitz to show this. or history as genetic reconciliation. to expose historical writing as ction with teeth? Lyotard asks us to consider current modes of political and cultural violence. then post-histoire is an opportunity: the invention of temporary criteria. big and small. but that doesn’t stop the universal being invoked to discredit groups. and supports this by stressing the pre-existence of rules (for example. one has only signs. the repetition of claims that Western Capitalism will genetically lead to more democratic societies. may be less or more misleading. posthistorie sketches only an ‘opening’ or a way of working representation ‘in suspension’ from universal and local history. for advancement. of synthesis. that Auschwitz is like/unlike other barbarities) and schemas (that Auschwitz is incontestably a knowledge. 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. ‘Little stories’. Auschwitz is a ‘name’ that destroys speculative history.. but every narration is potentially illegitimate . which are less ‘aims’ than reproductions? Lyotard asks us to re ect on ordinary terror. modes of psychological slavery. because they are closer as language to ‘facts on the ground’. publicity. determined as it is by the results of chance.: 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. The artist and intellectual is enjoined to experiment. there being no ‘we’ that can be found other than as alibi for the very stories we tell. rules of coherence. secret meetings. subjectivity requires subservience to a particular story. Contemporary American political and academic practices have thoroughly destroyed the university as Ideal community. personal relations. The game of giving and withdrawing ‘historical signi cance’ might be a local Western language game. said to ‘lack’ the universal. et al. as Auschwitz exposed the inanity of ‘the real is rational and the rational real’. and not subject them to metanarrative. of appropriateness of anecdotes. say. since our stories are always those of particular groups. for social recognition. signs thoroughly stripped of any intuitive certainty. but this occurs in the rivalry between.
not mechanical.40 This afterness of historical representation turns event/sign into a genetic or telic pattern. 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. progress and decline. subject to cognitive rules and a rule of telos. sensibility. domination. to ‘an event. precisely what ‘sign’ resists. the history of the subject’s subjections seems to require a ‘sign’.. a milieu in which or through which it makes transitions between understanding. As Lyotard points out. dialectical and prescriptive. say. what event indexes the Idea of free causality? 4 1 As subject to history – power. a deal (in the card-playing sense) [. ‘The Sign of History’. post-histoire is thus itself the name and sign of the risks and dangers of interpretation and analysis of a ‘present’ not yet historicized. i. In this sense. of the type in which the present is judged adequate or inadequate. allowing for an aÝ rmation that the historical world exempli es an Idea of progress and decline. where some event marks a ssure between mechanism and liberty. which do not exhaust modes of judgment – the faculty of judgment operates as an internal faculty. codes –.3 9 Insofar as historical thought or historiography as such wishes to make such judgments – cognitive. say – is signaled in subjective-teleological phrases. an assessment. of ‘common being’.. which means it is already connected to and closed oÚ from other signs.phrases under that of the symbol. so that there is an index as to a ‘moral disposition within the human race’. Lyotard asked. But. a demand makes Auschwitz ‘ rst’ in disasters. etc. reason. or any other explanation that installs ‘history is’. acceptable or unacceptable. For example. social ‘laws’. but what’s the ‘I’ that says so worth? ‘I’ is a sign.] which would only indicate and not prove that humanity is capable of being not only the cause but also the author of its progress’. symbols and types don’t work without the presupposition of identity. force. authority. or strong re ection on ‘history’. then the historian’s research is no guarantee of objective sense. If names semi-dissolve into the more uid ambiguities of interpreting signs. all of them suspended – and used by diÚ erent audiences for vastly diÚ erent purposes. or nality. pragmatic-morality requires an undetermined cause so as to allow humanity or any cognitive subject to schematize history as freedom. 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 parallax 109 . or a rationalization precludes asking whether or not Capitalism is rational or has a ‘proper goal’. Historians need to make what happened appear necessary but not determined by.e. at best.. one can say that Capitalism doesn’t mistreat one too badly. ‘The Sign of History’ has it that our very attunement to historical experiences has been based on a ‘common being’. if all one has in making the present ‘historical’ are signs. But schemas. Acceptance of such ‘common being’ – toleration for capitalism’s ordinary violence. ‘human nature’. as we make more of them. or reducible to mechanistic causation. but only another medium of cultural ltering – and to what end? Signs require an assay. institutions. will elucidate. The pragmatic and moral dimensions of historical writing need Ideas of continuity and discontinuity. that of the workplace. the con icts of contemporary historiography. A discussion here of Lyotard’s essay. and refer. I think. and in prescriptive phrases (in evaluation of responsibility and morality) under that of the type’.
lyrical.g. symbols. which presupposes a capacity of the subject to experience history as sense and confusion. There is no denying that in moving toward Kant’s discursive arrangements about history and signs. indiÚ erent to politics?). this is to say that the medium of any such linkage can be only that of feeling. discordant. In failing to do so (e. the dialectical. signs indicate that things have happened that require phrases which have not been said. a tensor’ in which an object like the French Revolution is both attracted and repulsed. but when such conditions don’t lead to more uncomfortable. rationality. historical connection as such is thus established on the basis of sublime feelings – the formlessness and potential un gurability of events and actions. the feeling of the sublime gives way to – historicization : Cohen 110 . their indeterminacy. and more all at once. continuously aÚ ecting its possessor.decline. how can the Terror of l791 take place?. elimination of actions that fall outside the protocols of writing. a failure which acts as subjective cause ‘of having to supply a presentation for the unpresentable’. could narrating such feelings prove their historical validity? In ‘The Sign of History’. of history as the medium of human realization. so long as we let ourselves be aÚ ected by signs. Again. Lyotard theorized ‘history’ as closer to pathology. the so-called subject of modernity and postmodernity may be ‘in trauma’. cognitive and moral claims of history vanish. or humanity’s progress. epic history. The very form of narrative is inseparable from possible links to confusion. if there is such a conceptual entity as historical experience. since these schemas. the Terror is necessary). and colossal self-deception. or people are aÚ ected only aesthetically. schizo. or an ‘agitation on the spot’. Lyotard worked back to that territory ploughed by Nietzsche. Even more strongly. One makes mistakes in interpreting. aÚ ects.) 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. the imagination must then make a presentation that allows for synthesis of the type whereby an Idea of humanity is conserved (e. is secured only on the sublime feeling of an incommensurability between Ideas and their presentation. Enthusiasm is such a feeling: it requires a presentation that cannot be presented and in that way drives itself further into the mediums of signi cation. experiencing. as Nietzsche put it. and types can only be rendered in good forms that annul the experience of the sublime. well. Darwinist. such experiences – like enthusiasm – contest historical narration.42 As Lyotard reads Kant. enthusiasm ‘an energetical sign. why are contemporary Americans so. An event transmits an excess and surplus that might unravel the historian’s carefully chosen criteria of judgment. and making signs. and other writings. written history can then be conceived as sometimes the destruction of events. and once this is acknowledged. The genres of historiography (e. especially arguing that historians must not have the last word(s) on anything of intellectual dispute. sacri cing Ideas of critique to subjective narcissism. since enthusiasm is an aÚ ection where ‘nothingness’ is experienced. etc. In other words. 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.g. 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. The Idea of humanity.g.
as Nietzsche put it in The Birth of Tragedy. always make something out of events that were once themselves actual lives. For. which tries to ‘correct existence’. The authors of a recent work on the historian’s practice acknowledge that narration is often ctitious or mythical. Nietzsche and Lyotard as one on this. Let us recall Nietzsche’s arguments. lives unhistorical. is precisely the disavowal of historicism and its ever-present aestheticism of past. aesthetic. political or moral. of installing the ‘blind power of the actual’. the need for ‘the soul’ to have resolution of its temporal fate –. A typical historical narrative has the eÚ ect. the historical profession continues to believe in its own essential ground or mode of deployment – ‘telling the truth’ is the most often heard phrase. the most destructive things wrapped in discourse which remains unaÚ ected by what it recounts. aestheticism aÝ rming itself through political-moral signi cations. where they might ‘push philosophy and politics into a re exive. whether it be a government or a public opinion or a numerical majority. continuous with the whole of Western priestliness. then – down on your knees quickly. to every power. 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. it turns narrative into aesthetic pleasure. with their mixture of literary and philosophical discourse threaded to rhetoric. critical mode. 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. historiography can be de ned as that kind of writing which does not really want readers as much as it craves admirers. Always insisting on some mode of transcendence – the transcendence of facts. but the need for identity is greater than the hazards: narrative is essential both to individual and social identity. in all of its rami cations. present.44 End-less – such is one of the results of Lyotard carrying analytic criticism into contemporary historicism. the demand for closure. and the parallax 111 . future. Historians. It is consequently a de ning element in history-writing. isn’t it the ‘job’ of the historian to provide such corrections? 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. 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 pastfuture to the dominance of present actualities – such writing is anti-interpretive insofar as it does not let ‘signs’ fulminate. the naturalness of narrative. like a Chinese doll. If each success has come by a ‘rational necessity’ and every event shows the victory of logic or the Idea.the man who has once learned to crook the knee and bow the head before the power of history nods ‘yes’ at last. after all is said and done. ‘After’ Nietzsche and Lyotard. and his limbs move correctly as the power pulls the string. This sense of without-end. to defer inde nitely the imposition of an end on the historical-political process’. 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.
6 Odo Marquand. History as the Story of Liberty (London: Allen and Unwin.204 [Emphasis added]. p.) (London: Verso. The Lyotard Reader.346-72. chapter one. l989). p. Farewell to Matters of Principle (Oxford: Odeon. ‘Lessons in Paganism’.165.) (London: Bodley Head).149. 13 Jean-Francois Lyotard. ¸ The Lyotard Reader. 19 Lyotard. . 21 This is the argument made by Deleuze and Guattari in their last joint work. Philosophical Writings (New York: Continuum.2730. 2 See Reinhart Koselleck. as experimentation with subjectivity. Use and Abuse of History. This is another version of accounting for the mediative function of the historical.100.24-25. 25 The Lyotard Reader. 6 (1998).190. Ashton (ed.20. identity after narration. p. p. The Use and Abuse of History (New York: Bobbs-Merrill. Andrew Benjamin (ed. p. Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn.127..) (Oxford: Blackwell.. p. Thanks to Elie During for sending me this volume. 8 See the great essay by Michel de Certeau.4 7 Of this. 1989). as well as for some discussions on this topic. there bolts through Lyotard’s texts Nietzschean ‘joys’ and exhilarations toward the welcoming of events without to historicize. Notes 1 Thanks to Beatrice Dumin for her critique of an early draft of this essay.historiographical tradition [. 1985).73. While it can have a reactionary edge to it (e. 3 See Mario Biagioli. p.10.75. Emergences. p. Hiding in the Light (London: Routledge. History as the Story of Liberty. 1995). 9 See Sande Cohen Passive Nihilism (London: St. 1949).141-47. 18 Jean-Francois Lyotard. 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. Martins. p. 12 Cited in Vincent Descombes.9. this to the point where one might ‘invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented’. 1989). Postmodern Condition. 98. 27 In terms complementary with those of Lyotard. The Writing of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. of writing as satisfaction. both for historians in a profession and for citizens in modern societies. Postmodern Condition. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchill (trans. p. p. pp.94-97. pp.87. eco-purists).4. 90. 11 ‘Save the future’ is heard more and more these days. pp. among other phrases. p.325.133. or Language Denied’. ‘Hide Your Commodi cation: Art and Criticism in Los Angeles. Use and Abuse of History. The Postmodern Condition ¸ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. pp. p. 23 Nietzsche. 7 Primal Vision. 17 Jean-Francois Lyotard. in nitive mode.80. 4 Benedetto Croce. Michel de Certeau has argued that historical concepts are now inside scienti c protocols in terms of research and setting of problems.4 6 remains open. ‘Contribution to an idea ¸ of postmodernity’. p. 24 Friedrich Nietzsche.) (Oxford: Blackwell. pp.80. pp. 22 Nietzsche. l988). 45 Identity before narration. manifested in Lyotard’s writings. notably theorized by Roland Barthes as the possibility of all sorts of ‘middle voices’. Andrew Benjamin (ed. l998).g. 28 Lyotard. 5 Croce.B. 20 Lyotard. ‘The Historiographical Operation’. historiography wants to know nothing. l957). E. 1984). Cohen 112 14 15 Lyotard. ‘Not to drag their generation to the grave’ was the injunction of Nietzsche’s unhistorical and super-historical self-experimental quasi-subject. What is Philosophy?. 10 Friedrich Nietzsche. 16 Lyotard.46-47. p. 26 See Sande Cohen. pp. ‘Lessons in Paganism’. ‘Lessons in Paganism’. 9/2 (November 1999).] is an important element in identity. Modern French Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. Postmodern Condition. p. l988). ‘The Scienti c Revolution is Undead’. Futures Past (Cambridge: MIT. See Dick Hebdige.81. l980). Consonant with experimentation and ‘middles’. the intellectual problem of the future is as undescribed as ever. while its mode of presentation serves the interests of making a place for death. (1994) (1991)). p. Con gurations.
Telling the Truth About History (New York: Norton. ‘Universal History and Cultural DiÚ erences’.321. ‘Universal History and ¸ Cultural DiÚ erences’.394. 38 39 Lyotard. p. p. ‘The Sign of History’. l985) p.404. Just Gaming (Minneapolis: ¸ University of Minnesota.414. l994).52. ‘Universal History and Cultural diÚ erences’. 30 Lyotard.116. l987). The Postmodern Condition.) (Oxford: Blackwell. Thanks to John Tagg for this reference.10. 1988). Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press. Just Gaming. Andrew Benjamin (ed. 32 Lyotard. 1989). Andrew Benjamin (ed. 47 Lyotard. The DiÚerend ¸ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Use and Abuse of History. p. He teaches at CalArts in Southern California. p. ‘The Sign of History’. p. Passive Nihilism (St. 34 Paul de Man. parallax 113 . p. 1998) and the forthcoming (November 2000) French Theory in America. 1993).13. ‘The Sign of History’.397. 36 Lyotard. Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minnesota.182. p. Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob. 31 Jean-Francois Lyotard. 40 Lyotard.318. 43 Nietzsche.399. p. 44 David Carroll. p. 45 See Joyce Appleby. Martins. The Lyotard Reader.235. Lyotard. 37 Lyotard. 35 Lyotard. Sande Cohen is the author of Historical Culture (University of California 1986). ‘The Sign of History’. p.400. ‘The Sign of History’. 33 Jean-Francois Lyotard. p. The DiÚerend.29 Jean-Francois Lyotard. Someone might do an interesting study of references to this ‘middle’ vis-a-vis the language of ends and nalities. ‘The Sign of History’.81. The Lyotard Reader. p. p. p. 42 Lyotard. 41 Lyotard. p.137-38. l983). 46 The refrain of being ‘in the middle’ runs throughout post-60 something French Theory.386. Paraesthetics (London: Methuen. edited with Sylvere ` Lotringer. p. pp.9.) (Oxford: Blackwell 1989).
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