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Biography 24.4 (2001) 942-943

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Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard. The Confession of Augustine. Trans. Richard Beardsworth. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. 111 pp. ISBN 0-8047-3792-4, $39.50 cloth; ISBN 0-8047-3793-2, $12.95 paper.

This is not an easy book to review for an academic journal. It does not have a thesis; the work does not constitute an argument or a demonstration. This book then is unlike The Differend or The Libidinal Economy or The Postmodern Condition or any of the essays which comprise The Inhuman. This book is a meditation that takes places not on the text of Augustine's Confessions but from within it, blurring the distinctions between Augustine's voice and Lyotard's. Because part of the mediation concerns authorship, and inhabits Augustine's understanding of the author being authored by the divine, the subject being always a sub-jectum not an autonomous agent, then we cannot even call this work an act of ventriloquism. Augustine's words become Lyotard's; Augustine's worldview is occupied by Lyotard. This is not then an interpretation of Augustine, and therefore cannot be examined alongside other interpretations of the Confessions--by O'Connell, for example, or Henry Chadwick. This is a confession of Augustine's Confessions; a taking up of Augustine's words and leitmotifs (time, readings, the interpretation of signs, the world suspended in being by the continual operation of grace, etc.) and the playing of them in a slightly modified key. It is as if the Confessions were a musical score (an opera in the Latin sense of that term), and Lyotard, himself a skilled rhetorician and orator, employing his own skills in a performance of that text. No critical gaze is unfolded; rather, we have here a series of prose poems.

So what then is the importance of this work, this "remarkable posthumous work," as the writing on the back cover informs us? Its importance, that is, for whoever constitutes its readership; in this case, a theologian concerned with the politics and the rhetorics of belief. For several of the smaller pieces added to the main essay (grouped under "Notebook," "Fragments," and "Pencil Sketch") betray an innerness that marks the importance of these mediations for Lyotard himself. That is in no doubt; these philosophical meditations articulate, albeit self-consciously in re-vocalising the prayers of Augustine, Lyotard's own confession. But that does not render the significance of this work simply autobiographical--if there is ever a simply autobiographical, an act of autobiography that does not also raise questions of time and the nature of subjectivity. Nevertheless, the importance of The Confession of Augustine lies not in what Lyotard has to say about Augustine's Confessions--the Patristics scholar, the cultural historian of early mediaeval [End Page 942] society, the systematic theologian will find nothing here to chew upon and include in a footnote. Its importance, I suggest, lies in the explicit Catholic coda it supplies to Lyotard's oeuvre. For along the sinuous lines of its prose Lyotard's own project with the unpresentable, the other, the irreducibility of the sign, and the materiality of the text is rephrased in accordance with a Catholic worldview that embraces the divine tu and even "the ministry of your son." It is as if the theological undercurrent evident throughout Lyotard's work (in Peregrinations he confessed an early desire to be a Dominican monk) is suddenly, "remarkably," and abruptly consummated. For it is not as if this book comes as a surprise--not only because of Lyotard's last book, his critical engagement with Eberhard Gruber in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity, but also because this interest in confession and St. Augustine by one of the leading French thinkers has been rehearsed elsewhere by Jacques Derrida in his own Circumfession.

And this does raise a significant question about the role theological discourse, a theological heritage, plays in several contemporary critical theorists. One thinks of the closet Catholicism of Kristeva and Irigary, Derrida's commentaries upon mystical writings, Levinas's rabbinic readings, de Certeau's Jesuit background, Zizek's Lacanian...