Last time we considered themes from Lyotard's too-much-neglected work, Just Gaming, particularly the way in which pluralism is not just something to be endured or managed but, in some sense, fostered--like Yahweh's taking the side of many tongues in the face of Babelian hegemony. Lyotard describes this situation as "pagan," but I think there are ways, per Augustine, that it could just be described as saecular [sic] or part of the post-secular condition.
But does that just mean "anything goes?" Are there any guardrails? Is "paralogy" just another name for anarchy?
The Limits of Paralogistics
While Yahweh is pagan--a paralogistic pluralist--there are nevertheless limits to Yahweh's paganism (thank God); though both a creator and restorer of diversity, Yahweh remains attentive to the boundaries of such multiplicity. While Yahweh is interested in the multiplication of tongues and the production of difference, he is also very attentive to cries of pain from the oppressed, particularly the voice of spilled blood crying to him from the ground. Thus, it is important to note, I think, that paganism has its limits, for both Lyotard and Yahweh. A commitment to pluralism and a multiplicity of language games is not an endorsement of all games. In other words, a celebration of plurality is not an affirmation of an infinite number. To encourage the multiplication of moral tongues is not to endorse every game that is offered, nor does it prohibit one from excluding certain games. Many, such as Haber, seem to assume that if one is committed to pluralism, then one can place no limits on ethico-political games. But giving up the notion of One, True Interpretation does not mean opening the door for any interpretation (as some wrongly suspect deconstruction suggests). Opening a space for a plurality of interpretations does not mean allowing for an infinity of true or justified interpretations. What we find in Lyotard, I suggest, is just such a pluralism with limits.
What haunts Lyotard is the conventialism of paganism, not in the sense of being "typical" or common but in the sense of being based on consensus, a social pact of sorts. Being always and only within 'opinion' (doxa) would seem to consign us to the conventialism of the Sophists where 'justice' is simply a matter of agreement or convention (nomos). "A rule by convention," Lyotard notes, "would require that one accept, let's get to the bottom of things right away, even Nazism. After all, since there was near unanimity upon it, from where could one judge that it was not just?" (Just Gaming, 74). In the immortal words of Walter in The Big Liebowski: "Say what you will about National Socialism, at least it was an ethos."
Lyotard knows what we're thinking: "This is obviously very troublesome," he adds. It is precisely this troublesome aspect of paganism which keeps Lyotard awake at night, hesitating between two positions: a paganism, which slides toward conventialism, and a Kantian Idea of justice, which slides toward piety.
The question is this: Can we have a politics without the Idea of justice? and if so, can we do so on the basis of opinion? If we remain with opinion, what will be just ultimately is that upon which people agree that it is just. It is common opinion. This is an extraordinarily dangerous position. If, on the contrary, we take a Kantian position, we have a regulator, that is a safekeeper of the pragmatics of obligation (p. 76).
If Lyotard's paganism were the pure celebration of multiplicity, why would this conventialism haunt him so? If Lyotard were really committed to a pluralism without limits, why would the conventialism of paganism be considered so "troublesome" and "dangerous"?
Locating the Limit in the “Differend”: The Body as Limit
In Just Gaming, Lyotard avails himself of the Kantian notion of a "regulative Idea" in a way that will surprise a lot of people who thought they knew Lyotard. In other words, Lyotard appeals to a kind of transcendent Idea that puts limits on convention.
But in a later book called The Differend, Lyotard locates this "limit" in what Lyotard describes throughout The Differend as "feeling." The reason that there is a limit to the multiplication of language games is because the differend "suspends," "interrupts," and "disrupts" each game. Or to describe this differently, the differend 'transcends' or "exceeds" language games, and thus confronts every language game with its demand for justice which is not simply "imported' from a different game. (For those of you familiar with Habermas, this might sound familiar.)
Thus, Lyotard suggests that there is "a transcendence of justice": "When I say 'transcendence,' it means: I do not know who is sending me the prescription in question"--and Lyotard acknowledges his debt to Levinas in this regard (p. 71). The differend would be transcendent--that which stands outside of language games and interrupts each game. While the differend could only be `referred to' or `interpreted' from within a particular, determinate language game, insofar as it transcends the game it also resists appropriation and in fact disrupts the game with its demands.
As that which exceeds or transcends every game, but also confronts every game with its demand for justice, the differend is precisely the sort of quasi-criteria which delimits the sheer multiplication of language games--serving as a quasi-cultural universal which demarcates the boundaries which paralogistics cannot transgress. And it derives its prohibitive energy precisely from the suffering of the differend, and more particularly, the suffering body. The suffering body doesn't "speak" in the sense of a communication, let alone an argument, but with what Lyotard describes as an "affect-phrase"--not unlike Abel's blood that cries out from the ground. And it is precisely because of this non-cognitive witness that the differend functions as a limit for the multiplication of games. Unjust or oppressive games are excluded not by an appeal to transcendental criteria or a rational consensus, but rather by recognition of the quasi-criteria of the differend's suffering impressed upon us by the affect-phrase.
Much of the discussion in these texts is arcane (as is some of the discussion here, no doubt!). But I'm interested in people actually encountering these texts of proverbial "postmodernists" to recognize that they almost never conform to the caricatures of them that are bandied about--and that, in fact, there is a rigorous concern for justice here that deserves our attention.
For Next Time
What are some philosophers or texts you'd like me to engage here? Requests welcome (though no promises made). I'd be intrigued to know what interests you, readers.