On Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure

RP 176 () / Article

Discourse, Figure* represents an early transition in Lyotard’s eclectic philosophical development.1 And yet it has acquired a certain authority in the field of Cultural Studies, attracting enthusiasts who are willing to make significant claims on its behalf: it overturns the distinction between theory and practice, it reconciles aesthetics with both historical materialist and psychoanalytical theories, and it returns us to Marx and Freud. Other readings add to a seemingly inexhaustible list of reconciliations, citations, profiles and trajectories. All are ‘plaited’ together with what Lyotard himself calls the ‘wild beauty’ and ‘mad love’ of art.

Callan and Williams describe the book as follows:

What is remarkable about Discourse, Figure is how Lyotard takes three separate strands of intellectual enquiry – (1) philosophy, in particular phenomenology, (2) structuralist linguistics and poetics and (3) aspects of Freudian theory – all of which he has mastered to a very high level, and plaits them together in such a way that each strand is continuously stretched and re-configured by the other strands to produce an approach to desire, artistic expression and being-in-the world that is much more complexly layered and subtle in its dynamics than any of its three component parts. The continuous stretching and re-configuring takes place on both micro and macro levels. The detailed and knowledgeable readings of material within the individual strands are always informed by fully internalized perspectives drawn from the other strands. For example, the notion of opacity in signification that Lyotard prises out of the linguistics literature owes an enormous amount to the concept of thickness explored in his reading of phenomenology, but there is a kind of blending: neither philosophy nor linguistics is made to predominate.2

Our sense of confusion and anomie dissipates for a moment. However promising their idea appears at first sight, these commentators fail to show us clearly how the plait is put together – indeed, fail to show any plait at all, but rather a set of bittily concatenated fragments. Later, they drift into an absorbing description of a very interesting and potent troubadour verse. Their drift is, however, terminated in a predictable show of dummy force: the first line of the troubadour verse is ‘I will make a song of pure nothing’ and this is made by Callan and Williams into something that has an ‘affirmative quality’, a bit like an ‘imaginary number’: ‘Lyotard’s profound use of scepticism, multiple perspectives and negation in a search for truth has many affinities with what is going on in Farai un vers de dreyt nien and imaginary numbers.’3


*Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. A. Huddek and M. Lydon, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2011. 544 pp., £30.00 hb., 978 0 8166 4565 7.


1. From the 1950s Lyotard’s voice had been associated with the Socialisme ou Barbarie movement and, after a falling-out with Castoriadis in the 1960s, with its less prominent rival Pouvoir Ouvrier. Published in French in 1971 by Klinksieck, Discourse, Figure was Lyotard’s thesis, presented for a doctorate in literature. It represents his first sustained foray into (one of) the genres of French Theory. After developing and augmenting some of the motifs of this thesis in the Économie Libidinale of 1974 (Libidinal Economy, trans. 1993; see below) Lyotard’s philosophical tastes were stimulated by the Wittgensteinian notion of ‘language games’. He achieved universal renown in 1979 with the publication of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984.

2. Guy Callan and James Williams, ‘A Return to Jean François Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure’, Parrhesia, A Journal of Critical Philosophy 12, 2011, pp. 41–51; p. 41.