A sketch for an idea about Jean Francois Lyotard and the figure of St Paul

While most of this blog will be about pop culture, recent history, and ideas or events related to 1997, from time to time I'll post something a little different. This is a pre-amble to a conference paper that became an essay in Re-Reading Jean-Francois LyotardJean-Francois Lyotard. It draws on my fascination with Lyotard's work, and my hobbyistic excitement at the world of the Mediterranean basin from around 300 bce to about 300 ce. I am far from well informed about either.

‘...deposited in traces’: Lyotard, Paul, the hyphen


Even the story I am in the process of narrating reveals that any narrative begins in the middle of things and that its so-called “end” is an arbitrary cut in the infinite sequence of data - [1]


Lyotard’s Perigrinations is not a late book in the sense identified by this conference, though it is on the cusp of lateness. The collection of essays that ‘make it up’ are wide ranging and provide something akin to an intellectual autobiography within which the names that dominate Lyotard’s work (early, middle and late) are modestly but forcefully invoked: Kant, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Aquinas, Augustine, Marx to name a few.
 A name that is barely touched upon, that is left in the gaps, is that of St Paul. In some senses this is a little peculiar. St Paul is rarely at the forefront of Lyotard’s work but is often in its detail, as aside, example, reference, counter-point, juxtaposition or simply – apparently - as a name among names (which reminds us of Antony Huduk’s question: ‘how do you write a person or a name?’). Yet in this text, where the narrator-philosopher draws attention to his younger self as a would-be monk, an incipient scholast, this saint is, apparently, not invited.


Lyotard’s own ‘sequence of data’ later includes a series of essays that – together with a correspondence with Eberhard Gruber – ‘make up’ the book The Hyphen (or Un trait d’union).
In this book, St Paul certainly is at the forefront of the argument in one of the essays, and the monkish Lyotard asserts a relation between Jew and Christian that hinges on Paul, the ‘Christian Jew’[2] whose Mediterranean apostasy led to his execution in 66. His letters to the various peoples of the region had, by the time of his death, set in train the intellectual and theological debate that would sunder the Jew from the Christian through the Pauline dialectic between “slave and freeman”[3]. The specific arguments presented by Lyotard relating to Paul’s mission are not the main purpose of this paper, rather some of the ideas posed by Lyotard in this book and their relationship with other positions from earlier in his career are.

The Pauline dialectic asserts that the Christian is the fulfilment of the Jew. The importance of this for a notion of Judaism and Christianity, is fairly apparent. But it also has significant implications for Lyotard’s engagements with historicity and modernity.  In a passage from The Hyphen that is familiar in scope and tone, Lyotard says:


This historicity implies that the events that make up history not only cannot be forseen but cannot be completely shared or partaken of, even in the long run [...]

    It is not by accident that, since Augustine, Christian thought, having become the thought of the empire, has tried to gather up into a History (with a capital H), into a grand narrative, the promise of redemption.[4]


Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Lyotard’s work will recognise this idea. It is, effectively, a predicate of his middle and later thought. His letter of February 6th 1984 to Samuel Cassin makes the point most economically:

The “metanarratives” I was concerned with in The Postmodern Condition are those which have marked modernity [...] even – if we include Christianity itself in modernity (in opposition to the classicism of antiquity) – the salvation of creatures through the conversion of souls to the Christian narrative of martyred love.[5]


Though not mentioned by name, one could argue that the ‘martyr’ Paul provides a theological model for the dialectic of redemption that creates a structure of experience which informs a mode of temporality which becomes modernity. Lyotard would probably not allow that ‘becomes’ asserting as it does far too strong a notion of causality, but even if we place Christianity ‘in’ modernity as Lyotard would prefer, Paul’s place near the opening up of temporality into modernity is noticeable in his thought.

One of the peculiarities about Lyotard’s Paul is how he is so often present near the ‘opening up’ of Lyotard’s thought. The notion of ‘opening’ is presented at the start of Libidinal Economy where the reader is invited, wonderfully, to ‘Open the so-called body...’[6], and I am mindful that in implying, as I am, a body of Lyotard’s work, I must not forget (as Kirsten Locke’s paper reminded us we must be attentive to) to keep it open to the possibility of openness. Libidinal Economy is remembered by Lyotard in the first of his Wellek library lectures as ‘quite naive and a little compulsive’ with a stylistic goal of inscribing the passage of intensities directly in the prose itself without any mediation at all’[7]. Libidinality, compulsion, intensity – the book urges itself to find a move beyond / away-from ‘semiological being’, the ‘fusion of two nothings, past and future’[8]. For Lyotard, this ‘semiological being called consciousness will thereby produce what is called temporality, on the basis of the nihilism constitutive of the sign’[9].
The Hyphen, nearly three decades later (in nihilistic temporal terms) asserts the relation between historicity as a version of temporality and Christianity, a Christianity given dialectical birth by Paul...

Paul’s presence in Libidinal Economy is, as so often before The Hyphen, marginal. Working through a notion of alienation that will lead to the profound version of nihilism and temporality described above, Lyotard offers a genealogy of alienation via  Di Negri’s “L’elaborazione hegeliana di temi agostiniani’. Di Negri’s article uses Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2: 6-7) and highlights the phrase Christ ‘was utterly crushed by taking on a servile image’. From Paul’s Greek through the Vulgate via Luther into Hegel and on to Marx and the politicians, Paul’s sentence becomes for Lyotard, after di Negri, the seed for the entire ‘nihilist tradition’[10]. The whole process takes Lyotard less than a paragraph (which may explain why Vlad Ionescu is unable to take the book seriously as philosophy), and this paragraph is largely the work of someone else (Di Negri), yet Lyotard’s Paul is afforded a central (even seminal) moment in a certain tradition, but this is done from the margin. It is as though the full weight of such a momentous and monstrous responsibility can only be borne by one obliquely present.


In Libidinal Economy Lyotard accuses post-Pauline Christian theology of wanting to destroy the ‘affirmative madness’ Lyotard sees in Roman paganism in favour of ‘nihilist wisdom’, a ‘semiotic machine’ ‘the thesis of generalized Similitude’.[11]  The master-nihilist and semiotician  for Lyotard is St Augustine.

In the 14 page essay ‘On a Hyphen’, St. Paul is the central figure and this centrality links him (though whether as phrase or sign I am not sure) to the interrogative, questing, disjunctive ‘career’ of Lyotard, but it is only 14 pages. He appears elsewhere in the text, but more peripherally, and the real focus of the piece is not Paul as such, but the little line that sits between the ethical, juridical, aesthetical, political, social and temporal worlds Paul brought into being: and this line is, of course, the hyphen. Paul is, even here, in the work most intimately and explicitly given over to him, a guest, an outsider. But for this very reason, for the reason of his otherness, his partial presence, his sequestered state, he is essential to the uncurling, the slow process of thought: he is deposited at crucial moments. But these deposits are not always even of him, but are, rather, the traces of him.

In  1993’s ‘A Postmodern Fable’, Lyotard makes one of the clearest and least ambiguous claims for the role of Paul. This claim lies at the heart of every one of Lyotard’s concerns:

The first traits of modernity can be seen to appear in the work done by Paul of Tarsis (sic) [...] to make an accommodation between the pagan classical tradition and Christian eschatology.[12]


Eschatology is the defining conceptual break, is that which separates modernity from its predecessors and is the condition under which subsequent subjectivities have been understood (or otherwise).

Eschatology recounts the experience of a subject affected by a lack, and prophesies that this experience will finish at the end of time with the remission of evil, the destruction of death, and the return of the Father’s house, that is to the full signifier.[13]


The ‘lack’ produced by Paul in the eschatological vision (or at least, Lyotard’s claims regarding it), dominates all of Lyotard’s thought: whether it be the anti-semiological tensor sign, an encounter with Freud, notions of narrative (meta-, or otherwise), paganism, judgement, aesthetics, representation, the sublime – all in one way or another invoke / require / work through lack. It is, perhaps, then fitting, that Paul himself should be so frequently lacking from the debates and speculations he is deemed to have instigated.


For now, it is the lack he identifies (creates) when the Jew becomes the Christian and eschatology becomes the structuring principle of western thought, that I will briefly engage with. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes: ‘because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord’ (I Thess iv 16 – 17).  In other words, the life currently being lived is but a prelude to that which awaits at the end of history with the second coming of Christ and the judgement and reconciliation of the righteous. Life, then, is the on-going articulation of lack. Lyotard claims, in ‘The Intimacy of Terror’ that Paul – at least in his trace-vestige of Augustine, ‘ reveals that inner split between the ego and the Other, who within the ego is deeper than the ego. Deeper insofar as the ego cannot comprehend the Other [...] the God of love[...]’.[14]

          The tying together of historicity and subjectivity in the concept of a teleological principle that marks both experiential separation and temporal finitude in the form of desire fulfilled produces a fundamental category of existence. Lyotard, again in his later essay, ‘A Postmodern Fable’ asserts that the Ancients ‘invent history in opposition to myth and epic’ and, further, they ‘elaborate the concept of telos[15]. . But Pauline thought exerts an extraordinary force on these notions with the introduction of the rupture from the Father and desire to reintegrate wholly in order to find unity. Paul establishes a belief in the material resurrection of the body which will find bliss in its reunification with God and all other worthy people. There will be a restitution of the many to the One, of the individual to the Cosmos. Paul’s eschatology is both individual and cosmic, predicated on the soul’s worth but manifested in the materiality of the body.


Paul offers a great paean to the homogeneity of people under God in his letter to the Collossians: ‘There is no question here of Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman; but Christ is all, and is in all’ (Colossians 3, 11). Once the secret has been uncovered, each person is the same. This structure of desired redemption and the claim of equality before a greater authority have resonated throughout western history (as is expected, given the coterminous creation of the eschatological and historicity). Lyotard in ‘A postmodern fable’ no longer sees Christianity as a sub-species of a grand narrative, but rather sees eschatology itself as the predicative requirement of grand narratives:


But eschatology, properly called, which governs the modern imaginary of historicity, is what the Christianity rethought by Paul and Augustine introduced into the core of Western thought […] Although secularised, the Enlightenment narrative, Romanticist or speculative dialectics, and the Marxist narrative deploy the same historicity as Christianity, because they conserve the eschatological principle. The completion of history, be it always pushed back, will re-establish a full and whole relation with the law of the Other (capital O) as the relation was in the beginning: the law of God in the Christian paradise, the law of Nature in the natural right fantasized by Rousseau, the classless society, before family, and state, imagined by Engels.[16]

          If this is so, then the mystery of parousia, initially kept secret to thwart heathens and heretics, becomes the secret of history. It is the orienting principle of the notion of historical progress and human fulfilment. Further than this, Christian eschatology becomes the base of Modernity’s historicity. Modernity is not, then, an epoch or a period which can be demarcated as coinciding with the Enlightenment or colonialism, or the industrial revolution. Rather Modernity is an attitude to historical time that has co-existed with Catholic hegemony, with the Reformation, with the Enlightenment and so on. This attitude, that is Modernity, that orients historical time to a future point of reconciliation, indivisibility, full signification is what provides the other models of historical and political organisation with their power. Whatever the contingent, material, economic and political differences that separate these models, they all share the requirement of the fulfilment of the project, whatever that project might be. With the project’s fulfilment, historical time ceases because history is precisely that time during which the project exists. At its completion, the project is no more: history is fulfilled because reconciliation has occurred.


Paul, in Lyotard’s traces, is fundamental to this structure of human experience. As such, all aspects of organising, relating, confronting or examining that experience bear the mark of Paul’s absence – the absence that is the presence of lack. Reconciling this lack is what eschatology demands. The reconciliation, as with Christianity, is of all of humanity, either with God or with itself. The universal or cosmic aspect of eschatology qua Modernity requires, then, the reconciliation of humanity. However, humanity is, as was intimidated earlier, a self-fulfilling category: those who are reconciled are human, those who are not are not. The projects of Modernity are universal in scope, but universality is contextual in definition. Indeed, humanity is that which can be defined as having been initiated into the secret. Another way of phrasing this would be to say that Modernity assumes an initial alienation and the true human is s/he who has overcome this in order to fully be themselves by reviving the initial state in a later manifestation: whether the formal expression of this be through prayer or the shedding of ideology is immaterial to the structure of Modernity.

          Modernity, as an attitude towards historical time, provides the futurity necessary for social and political models of organisation to be developed that are eschatological in essence and as such are universal in scope. For the Lyotard who saw Modernity as a product of Grand Narratives, Modernity fails because the projects it supported were ‘liquidated’ under the sign of Auschwitz. While the periodization of Modernity and post-modernity were always troubling for Lyotard, it can be seen how a concept of post-modernity as a period of time following from the period of time known as Modernity would be easily intuited by other commentators and theorists.

          However, this periodization, even allowing for Lyotard’s continual insistence that postmodernism is not a period-bound concept  operates only if Modernity is misunderstood as an epoch or part of history. When Modernity is understood as the immanent motivation for historical time-as-eschatology, then Modernity can no longer be seen as the abstracted meta-definition of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment. Rather, these attempts to construct models of human organisation are modulations, contingent on previous versions and current perceived conditions, of Modernity.


Paul’s role in Lyotard’s assessment of the formulations of theories of subjectivity, eschatology and Modernity is essential. The impact of these on Judaism, or the Hebraic tradition as Lyotard prefers[17] is that the tradition has been in forced exile ‘imposed upon it by the different Christianisms and politics of Europe’[18]. Still admitting of a certain notion of the ‘differend’, Lyotard will not allow the ‘Jewish-Christian hyphen’ (Paul’s strongest trace) to be ‘answered’ or ‘understood’ by, as he puts it, ‘dialectizing’ it.[19] Refuting a claim made in the book The Hyphen  by his interlocutor-collaborator, Gruber, Lyotard insists the desire for dialectic be abandoned because it re-enacts ‘the strongest of post-Pauline gestures, the one that draws its strength from the power of the negative: the Greek intellect coming to sublate [relever] the Christian mystery and its relation to the first promise’.[20]. Here, the late and early Lyotard meet in the on-going refutation of the negative and the assertion of what Libidinal Lyotard calls ‘the jouissance  of immobilization’[21].


Paul’s traces are not uniform, they do not function as a single entity and each can be interrogated as a specific manifestation or moment. However, their deposited residue, their tacky adhesiveness mean that they can be seen as operating along the seams of Lyotard’s so-called body of work, stitching a line (involuted, recursive, gyratory as it may be) that goes from early to late and back again. In so doing Paul, especially Paul as reviewed through the anti-nihilism of later Lyotard which is, at least, a near cousin of the rather more voluptuary anti-nihilism of a certain early Lyotard, provides the focus for a lifetime’s questioning by the could-have-been Dominican (or painter or historian)[22].


[1] Lyotard, Peregrinations: Law, Form , Event p. 2
[2] Brault, P-A Peregrinations, p.26, n.4.
[3] P.19
[4] P.62
[5] ‘Apostil on Narratives’ in PMEtC p.29
[6] LE p.1
[7] P p.13
[8] LE 71
[9] LE 71
[10] LE71
[11] LE 69
[12] Lyotard, ‘A Postmodern Fable’, in Postmodern Fables, pp.83 – 102 (96).
[13] ibid
[14] The Intimacy of Terror in Pomo Fables, p.213.
[15] Lyotard, PoMO Fabel p.96
[16] Lyotard, ‘A Postmodern Fable’ in Postmodern Fables p.97.
[17] On a Hyphen, The Hyphen p.25
[18] ibid
[19] ‘Correspondence, The Hyphen, p.57.
[20] ibid
[21] LE 242.
[22] Peregrinations, p.1


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