In a famous "report on knowledge" for the government of Quebec, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard hazarded a definition of postmodernism and, unfortunately, people read little else. Since I've addressed that side of Lyotard in Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, I thought it might be fun to take the next couple of newsletters to introduce readers to one of his less well-known books called Just Gaming. In particular, I think it's illuminating to read Lyotard in the light of the Babel narrative in the book of Genesis, especially in light of Jacques Derrida's own reading in "Des Tours de Babel" (that play on words is vintages 80s deconstruction!). But Just Gaming is also intriguing because it is a point of intersection between so-called "continental" philosophy and the Anglo-American stream that comes down to us via Wittgenstein and his notion of language games.
And in an unsettling way, this might be a fitting exercise to consider on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, complicating and expanding our sense of the "terror" involved and that ensued.
The Justice of Multiplicity and Multiplicity of Justice
The project at Babel--the quest interrupted by Yahweh in the name of justice--represented a form of what Lyotard describes as "terror": the violent attempt to impose one language and one tongue as the language, eliminating all that is alien or different. Like the so-called "Semites" at Babel, modern Aufklärers carry on this terrorism in the name of "consensus"; the terrorism is located in the fact that one game is imposed upon all other games as the conditions for discourse. Thus, "[b]y terror," Lyotard remarks, "I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing)" (pp. 63-64). The nature of injustice is precisely this terror: "obviously, all terror, annihilation, massacre, etc., or their threat, are, by definition, unjust. The people whom one massacres will no longer be able to play the game of the just and the unjust" (p. 67). What terrifies Lyotard--and Yahweh in Genesis 11--is just the kind of linguistic imperialism we see at Babel where, as Derrida describes, "the Semites want to bring the world to reason."
The laments of moral philosophers such as MacIntyre and Tristan Engelhardt might betray a nostalgic longing for a lost unity and universality; that is, they may echo a "Babelian" note: an underlying desire for one language and tongue. Faced with the "chaos" of the postmodern legitimation crisis, these jeremiads continue to link justice to sameness and unity. But as Lyotard suggests, this craving for unity results in the most terrifying violence for any who are different, who don't speak the one language or the language of the One: "The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one" (p. 81). This is precisely why we find Yahweh disrupting the building of the tower, descending to scatter the Semites in order to protect those who are different ("the stranger"). In the name of justice, Yahweh multiplies language games, disseminates the descendants of Sem, in a proliferation of tongues. Restoring a creational plurality ("Be fruitful and multiply"), Yahweh disrupts the consensus of those in power and affirms the justice of dissensus, where confusion is a mode of protection.
This affirmation of plurality and renunciation of terror is just what Lyotard describes as "a first step" toward justice (p. 66). Looking to "arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus," we must first gain "recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games." Justice is not achieved by overcoming this multiplicity, but rather in making room for the multivalent chorus of moral tongues. A postmodern "legitimation" is achieved not by reaching a consensus (contra Habermas), but rather through "dissensus," or what Lyotard describes (both pace and contra Kant) as "paralogy" (p. 61)--a production of meaning and understanding that is the fruit of our debate and difference, an understanding that emerges alongside (para) what is established as "rational" (logos) in the reigning discourse. This paralogistics affirms that there is both a "multiplicity of justices, each one of them defined in relation to the rules specific to each game," as well as a "justice of multiplicity" which prohibits terror and "prescribes the observance of the singular justice of each game" (p. 100).
Paganism: Judging Without Criteria
Given the irreducible plurality of moral tongues, ethico-political judgement in postmodernity is "without criteria" (p. 16)--in the sense of transcendental or universal criteria. And it is just this "situation" which Lyotard describes as paganism, (though, ironically, one could say that this same situation--a situation of contested plurality, without recourse to "objective" consensus--is what St. Augustine describes as the saeculum. What would ultimately distinguish Augustine and Lyotard is an eschatology.).
Here's what Lyotard means by "paganism": "one will have to judge therefore by opinion alone, that is, without criteria. [...] We are always within opinion, and there is no possible discourse of truth on the situation. And there is no such discourse because one is caught up in a story, and one cannot get out of this story to take up a metalinguistic position from which the whole could be dominated. We are always immanent to stories in the making" (p. 43). In other words, we cannot appeal to evidence except from within a language game, which has particular, determinate rules not shared by other games. Thus, what counts as "evidence" is different from game to game; and accordingly, what counts as "the good" or "right" varies with the rules of each game. To say, however, that we are without criteria, is not to say that we refrain from judgement:
Absolutely. I judge. But if I am asked by what criteria do I judge, I will have no answer to give. Because if I did have criteria, if I had a possible answer to your question, it would mean that there is actually a possible consensus on these criteria between the readers and me; we would not be then in a situation of [post]modernity, but in classicism. What I mean is that anytime we lack criteria, we are in [post]modernity, wherever we may be, whether it be at the time of Augustine, Aristotle, or Pascal. The date does not matter (p. 15).
Though judgement is without ground, neither is it without respite; in fact, the absence of criteria only heightens one's responsibility.
This "justice of multiplicity," then, visits upon us only one injunction: "Be pagan"--which is to say, "Be just" (p. 19). If judging without criteria is the situation of paganism, the affirmation of this multiplicity is its motto. In contrast to a piety which seeks to elevate one game above all others, or a terrorism which seeks to eliminate every game that is different, paganism is the celebration of invention and multiplication of tongues. The Idea (pace and contra Kant) of justice which paganism seeks is precisely an Idea of multiplicity, a maximization of plurality. "And from that," Lyotard concludes, "'one ought to be pagan' means 'one must maximize as much as possible the multiplication of small narratives'" (p. 59). Justice is found not in bringing the 'chaos' of multiplicity in line with the Good (which will, at any rate, be only the pious/terroristic establishment of one game among many), but rather in the proliferation of goods. On this account, Yahweh appears to be rather pagan, a creator of diversity and a lover of difference, intent on disrupting towering projects that seek to establish the hegemonic impostion of one language upon all who are different. Whether at Babel or Pentecost, Yahweh is an "enthusiast," Lyotard would say, a lover of many tongues and as such, one committed to justice.
Next time: Honi Fern Haber locates a contradiction in Lyotard, "his downfall": "The part of him that is not pagan demands more than that legitimacy reside in multiplicity, it demands a transcendent standard according to which multiple justices could be assessed. It wants to constrain the plurality endorsed by pluralism, to limit the definitions that could 'legitimately' be placed on the definition of Stalin or Nazism. [...] So it is not the case that any and all multiplicities are to be allowed in Lyotard's ideal of justice." I think Haber is both right and wrong on this point: she is right to note that there are limits to the multiplicity celebrated in Lyotard's paralogistics, but she is wrong to think this signals a contradiction. I think she (as many others) mistakenly reads "plurality" to mean "infinity," a multiplication without limit. If we recognize that a plurality is not an infinity, then it is not a contradiction to affirm both multiplicity and limits on such. This is where we'll pick up the discussion in the next installment.
For Further Reading
If all this talk of "paganism" makes you nervous, you might consider William Connolly's provocative book, The Augustinian Imperative, which could be read as an in-depth exploration of my suggestion above: that Lyotard's paganism is just a post-Christendom label for what Augustine sees as characteristic of the saeculum.