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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-François Lyotard’

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lyotard’s “Differend” and Torts

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Allen Mendenhall

 

“I would like to call a differend [différend] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim.  If the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony are neutralized, everything takes place as if there were no damages (No. 9).  A case of differend between two parties takes place when the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom.”

                             —Jean-François Lyotard, from “The Differend”

Lyotard’s term “differend” does not refer to a concrete, tangible thing; it refers to a situation.  The situation is one where a plaintiff has lost the ability to state his case, or has had that ability taken from him.  He is therefore a victim.  If the plaintiff has no voice, he has no remedies because he cannot prove damages.  Just as one cannot prove something happened if the proof no longer exists, so one cannot prove something happened if the proof depends upon the approval of another person or party denying or erasing the proof, or having the power to deny or erase the proof.  Lyotard describes this situation in relation to power or authority.  Because of the nature and function of power or authority, a person or group possessing power or authority can divest the plaintiff of a voice.  This divestiture results in what Lyotard calls a “double bind” whereby the referent (“that about which one speaks”) is made invisible.  A plaintiff who is wronged by the power or authority cannot attain justice if he has to bring his case before the same power or authority.  As Lyotard explains, “It is in the nature of a victim not to be able to prove that one has been done a wrong.  A plaintiff is someone who has incurred damages and who disposes of the means to prove it.  One becomes a victim if one loses these means.  One loses them, for example, if the author of the damages turns out directly or indirectly to be one’s judge.”  Specifically, Lyotard uses the differend to describe the situation where victims of the Nazi gas chambers lack the voice to articulate their case in terms of proof because, among other things, the reality or referent is so traumatizing and tragic as to be ineffable. 

If Entity A harms me in some way, and Entity A also represents the arbiter or judge before whom I must appeal for justice, Entity A can (and probably will) neutralize my testimony.  That is why a State may tax its citizens.  In effect, a State has the power or authority to do something—take a person’s earnings against his will and punish or threaten to punish him, by force if necessary, when he fails or refuses to yield his earnings—that a private person or party cannot do.  When a private party demands money from a person, and threatens to use force against that person if he does not yield the money, the private party has committed theft.  The difference between theft (an unauthorized taking by one who intends to deprive the other of some property) and taxation (an authorized taking by an institution that intends to deprive the other of some property) is the capacity or ability to sanction.  The difference depends upon who controls the language: who has the power to privilege one form of signification over another and thus to define, determine, or obliterate the referent. 

“Sanction” is a double-edged term: it can mean either to approve or to punish.  Both significations apply to the State, which, in Lyotard’s words, “holds the monopoly on procedures for the establishment of reality.”  (Note: Lyotard is not referring to any State, but to the “learned State,” a term he borrows from François Châtelet.)  Sanction is implicated when a party is harmed, or alleges to have been harmed, whether by the State or by a private party.  The State then resolves whether the harm, or the act causing the harm, is “sanctionable”—whether, that is, it receives State approval or condemnation.  The State either validates [sanctions] the alleged harm (in which case the alleged harm officially is not a harm), or it condemns the alleged harm (in which case the alleged “harm” is officially constituted as a “harm”) and then punishes [sanctions] the one who caused the harm.  In any case, the State sanctions; it enjoys the power to decide what the referent ought or ought not to be.  Read the rest of this entry »

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