- Discourse, Figure by Jean-François Lyotard
Discourse, Figure signifies an event. I mean this in a variety of ways. There has been a recent event: the publication of an English translation of Jean-François Lyotard’s first major book. Its translation is an event forty years delayed and signifies the closing of a major gap in the translation of Lyotard’s work. Of course, both “signify” and “event” are important words for Lyotard. Discourse, Figure’s goal is to “signify the other of signification” (2011, 13, emphasis his). The question of the representability of events that concerns Lyotard throughout his career originates in Discourse, Figure. I use these two words to guide my review. First I outline the events of the book: its context and its argument. Within its argument, I focus on its central chapter in order to signify the uniqueness of Discourse, Figure. Finally, I offer some thoughts on what this event may signify for us now.
Discourse, Figure signifies an event in Lyotard’s career. It is tempting to think of his oeuvre as discontinuous: the early phenomenological work breaks off in a flurry of political writings and activism; the psychoanalytic work coalesces into Libidinal Economy, a positively derivative book that makes a radical break with Marxism; language games yield incredulity toward meta-narratives; and his later preoccupation with Kant becomes a critique of the third critique in both The Differend and his work on the sublime.
Situated between his phenomenological work and Libidinal Economy, before the break with Marxism yet already politically ambivalent, Discourse, Figure signifies schism—from its title to its organization. Its first half deals with phenomenology and the second half with psychoanalysis. Between these is only the trompe-l’oeil of a veduta, the section on which I focus in a moment. The temptation to take a discontinuous view of Lyotard’s career [End Page 122] now runs up against the temptation to see a continuity in which Discourse, Figure looks back at his first book, Phenomenology, and forward toward his next, Libidinal Economy. To look for such a continuity might be to attempt a narrative of which Lyotard himself would be incredulous. Nevertheless, there can be continuity without mastery: “To link is necessary; how to link is contingent”(Lyotard 1988, 29).
Lyotard only considered three of his books “real” books: Discourse, Figure, Libidinal Economy, and The Differend (Bennington 1988, 2). He regarded his other books as preparations for these major works. That it took forty years for the first of these “real” books to be translated is as remarkable as it is unfortunate. The translation had originally been undertaken by Mary Lydon, who published translations of two of its chapters in the early eighties. Her “Veduta on Discours, Figure,” a version of which was originally meant to serve as the introduction to her translation, opens by calling Discourse, Figure, “a notoriously difficult book” (2001, 10).1 Sadly, Lydon’s untimely death later in 2001 ended her role in the work. The translation, already delayed in 2001, had to wait another ten years. Antony Hudek took on what I can only assume seemed an impossible task.
The length of time Lydon spent translating Discourse, Figure, along with her awareness of its delay recalls a third event: the length of time Lyotard spent writing the book and his awareness of that time: “If I had to wait as long as I did to see my own resistance to writing it fall, it was (among other reasons) without a doubt out of fear of being seduced, distracted from this goal, mesmerized by language” (2011, 14). Seventeen years passed between Lyotard’s first book, Phenomenology, and his first “real” book, Discourse, Figure. During those intervening years he drifted, the collected essays of that period appearing as Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud. The drifting return to those two figures eventually became Discourse, Figure, his attempt to signify the other of signification without being mesmerized by signification.
Lydon’s statement that Lyotard’s book...