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Discourse, Figure


Publication Year: 2011

Jean-François Lyotard is recognized as one of the most significant French philosophers of the twentieth century. Although nearly all of his major writing has been translated into English, one important work has until now been unavailable. Discourse, Figure is Lyotard’s thesis. Provoked in part by Lacan’s influential seminars in Paris, Discourse, Figure distinguishes between the meaningfulness of linguistic signs and the meaningfulness of plastic arts such as painting and sculpture. Lyotard argues that because rational thought is discursive and works of art are inherently opaque signs, certain aspects of artistic meaning such as symbols and the pictorial richness of painting will always be beyond reason’s grasp.
A wide-ranging and highly unusual work, Discourse, Figure proceeds from an attentive consideration of the phenomenology of experience to an ambitious meditation on the psychoanalytic account of the subject of experience, structured by the confrontation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis as contending frames within which to think the materialism of consciousness. In addition to prefiguring many of Lyotard’s later concerns, Discourse, Figure captures Lyotard’s passionate engagement with topics beyond phenomenology and psychoanalysis to structuralism, semiotics, poetry, art, and the philosophy of language.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-8


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pp. 9-11

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pp. xi-xxiii

On 21 April 1998, Jean-François Lyotard succumbed to an aggressive form of leukemia. Shortly after, at the annual meeting of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature hosted by the University of California, Irvine, an impromptu commemorative event was organized that included several “witnesses,” among them Dalia Judovitz, his colleague at Emory University, who read from his then-unpublished manuscript on Augustine, and Jacques Derrida, then in residence at Irvine. Among the several somber ...


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The Bias of the Figural

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pp. 3-19

For the eye “to recognize sound,” as Paul Claudel put it, the visible must be legible, audible, intelligible. The “second logic,” which he opposed to the first—the one that determined the nature and function of words—teaches “the art of fitting [them] together and is practiced before our eyes by nature itself.”1 “There is knowledge of each other, obligation between them, thus relationship between the different parts of the world, ...


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Dialectics, Index, Form

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pp. 23-50

With negation, reflection positions itself at the juncture between two experiences: speaking and seeing. A juncture, because each of these crosses paths: on the one hand the mouth sees—just as Claudel said that the eye listens— otherwise one speaks of nothing, even if one says something, for linguistic reference points to the depth of the visible. On the other hand, how would this depth itself, constituting things in thickness, with a front and a back, be ...

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Recessus and Hyper-Reflection

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pp. 51-71

Reflection, which thought itself comfortable in the negative, having set up camp there as if on a peak from which to contemplate both sides of language, now finds itself—after the structuralist critique of showing, and the dialectical-phenomenological critique of the system—turned out and apparently doomed to nomadism. It realizes that it is invested from both sides, by the unconsciousness of language as system [langue] and of sight, and that ...

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Linguistic Sign?

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pp. 72-89

One could start (again) by stating that language is not made of signs. It would be the same discussion as the one on the symbol in Hegel, but taken from a different vantage point. Turning around the object that interests us is far from useless; it is a task we cannot shirk as long as we remain in the order of signification. We only always perceive one side of this object at a time; it never changes, but if we have gone around ...

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Effect of Thickness in the System

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pp. 90-102

Once evacuated from the spoken and written chain through the elimination of the expressive function of sounds and lines, does opacity not retreat to a higher level, in signification? Is there not a thickness of the signified, in the very existence of words; for example, in the possibility of breaking them down into monemes?1 ...

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Thickness on the Margins of Discourse

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pp. 103-114

A decade before Saussure, Gottlob Frege had understood and developed this effect of positionality, establishing that the words’ opening onto reference belongs to actual discourse and not to the virtual system of language [langue], suggesting moreover that there is silent meaning or thickness on this side of significations, lodged this time at the heart of discourse itself, in its form. The separation of the two vectors that allowed Benveniste to locate ...

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The No and the Position of the Object

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pp. 115-128

Not by chance did Freud’s reflections on negation lead Émile Benveniste to recognize “the fundamental property of language” in the presumption of reference involved in all discourse.1 By drawing on Freud’s work, one can clear a path toward an essential aspect of the constitution of transcendence: the interlocking of the impulse’s silence with articulated language, which all at once erects desire, its object, and the dream or art. ...

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Opposition and Difference

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pp. 129-156

Signification does not exhaust meaning, but neither does signification combined with designation. We cannot be satisfied with this choice of two spaces, between which discourse—the system’s as well as the subject’s— insinuates itself. There exists another, figural space. ...

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pp. 157-201

...This corpus rests on a fractured topography that possesses, as Pierre Francastel has demonstrated in relation to pictorial space, a seismic scope and sensibility comparable to that of the Quattrocento, which is what authorizes a study of the latter. Admittedly, the relation between the two is not one of mere comparison. We are products of the Cézannian and Freudian revolution, thanks to which we ...


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The Line and the Letter

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pp. 205-232

Between opposition and difference lies the difference of the space of the text to that of the figure. This difference is not of degree; it constitutes an ontological rift. The two spaces are two orders of meaning that communicate but which, by the same token, are divided. ...

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“The Dream-Work Does Not Think”

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pp. 233-267

It should come as no surprise that the problematics of work versus discourse is the nub of chapter 6 of The Interpretation of Dreams. In the course of this chapter Freud examines the dream-work and enumerates the essential operations by which it proceeds. It is easy to show that each of these operations is conducted according to rules that are in direct opposition to those governing discourse. ...

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Desire’s Complicity with the Figural

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pp. 268-276

The figure enjoys a radical complicity with desire.1 This complicity is the hypothesis that guides Freud in his exploration of the operations of the dream. It allows for a strong articulation between the order of desire and that of the figural through the category of transgression: the “text” of the preconscious (day’s residues, memories) undergoes shocks that render it unrecognizable and illegible. ...

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Desire in Discourse

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pp. 277-326

Now I would like to turn to the presence of the figural in discourse. The field of inquiry is restricted to the work of poetry. The latter can be defined, hastily, as constituted by a text worked over by the figure. Here, then, is a paradox: how can a figural discourse—invested by the forms of desire, offering the illusion of fulfillment—perform the function of truth? ...

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Fiscourse Digure: The Utopia behind the Scenes of the Phantasy

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pp. 327-355

And that figure I named matrix, is it coherent? Can we say it is one: unified and unifying? What kind of unit does it have? The unity of a language? If so, is its unity that of a language-system [langue] or that of a discourse? What I want to show is this: that the matrix is not a language, not a linguistic structure [une structure de langue], not a tree of discourses. ...

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Return, Auto-Illustration, Double Reversal

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pp. 356-389

Here, then, is the question: if the phantasy is what produces figural effects in the text—transgressions to the norms of signification—can one be satisfied with the argument that the text is a phantasmatic expression by opposing it to the theoretical or scientific text? And if the text is indeed such an expression, should one allow oneself to posit and treat it as a clinical sign available to the analyst? ...

APPENDIX: Jean-François Lyotard’s French Translation of “Die Verneinung”

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pp. 391-396


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pp. 397-479

Image Plates

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pp. 506-536


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pp. 481-491


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pp. 492-502


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pp. 503-508


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pp. 509-516

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About the Authors

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p. 574-574

Jean-François Lyotard (1925–1998) was professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Paris–VIII (Vincennes, Saint-Denis); a founder and council member of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris; and the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of French and Philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of more than forty books and ninety articles of criticism and philosophy, including ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816673308
E-ISBN-10: 0816673306
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816645657

Page Count: 512
Publication Year: 2011