The Differend Deferred: Overcoming Silence through a Solidarity of Incomprehensibility

Lyotard’s Différend / Death of the Subject

With whose tongue do I speak? This is the tongue that hails the world into being—constructs street from air, right from wrong, being from non-being. Foucault saw power in language—an organisation of knowledge confined by the current paradigm of possibility (Foucault, 2002). Every episteme reorders the world, reconstructs knowable from unknowable. Again, I ask, with whose tongue do I speak?

Marxist accounts of language place its development on our practical activity (Harman, 2007, p. 116). The need to communicate amongst ourselves leads to the development of language, and subsequently, concepts unique to those experiences. As labour diversifies, so too does language. Ethnicity, gender, sexual-orientation, ability, a breadth of contingent identities develop further discourses. Language unfurls beyond its material roots as words, images and gestures take up new meanings through both cultural practices and media texts (S. Hall, 1997). This endless process of différance perpetually resignifies our understanding of the world.

In The Differend, Lyotard explores the breakdown of language. Moments when communication falters, and one is thrown into the state of victim, incapable of articulating oneself. The différend arises when two (or more) parties cannot be reconciled—their arguments so different, that the very words and concepts they negotiate in cannot be comprehended through a single overarching discourse (Lyotard, 1988, xi-xvi; Mishra, 1995, p. 88). To attempt such a thing does epistemic violence—erases the possibility of articulation for one, or both parties involved (Lyotard, 1988, p. 7; Pollack, 2012, p. 5; Spivak, 1994, pp. 76, 81-82, 91).


A victim does not merely lose their voice. Their knowledge becomes unknowable. Discursive imposition severs legitimation at four possible sites: i) the site of the referent; i.e. noumenal reality, ii) the site of the signifier, where symbolic construction occurs, iii) the site of the speaker, who must phase the signifier, and vi) the site of the listener, who must comprehend the phrase (Lyotard, 1988, p. 28). If at any site epistemic violence is done, the victim can voice no damage. This is the state of being wronged (Lyotard, 1988, p. 9).

In losing one’s voice, one loses the ability to hail the world. One loses their subject position. What the victim once believed was of their own making is revealed to be nothing but a discursive node, hailed into being through the Other (Lyotard, 1988, p. 23). The différend robs the victim of what was never truly theirs, but what is necessary to be. It commits violence for the sake of settlement—so that a judgement can be made between parties, even if that judgement, circumscribed by its own discursive bounds, cannot be fair (Lyotard, 1988, xi-xvi). The victim, then, shares a similar fate to the victima—the sacrificial animal that is robbed of its life for the sake of a higher power (Van Dijk, 2009, pp. 1-2).

The Colonial Différend / Discipline and Metanarratives

Universal judgement presupposes that a single narrative can twine together all beings who seek justice. That this narrative will not tear, hitch or break when these beings subsequently reject it. In defining the différend, Lyotard critiques the failure of the metanarrative. It is revealed as modernist naivety—or, perhaps more bluntly, colonial ideology. Utopia can be had, but only through the assimilation of all subject positions into one.

No subject position is free from ideology, and no ideology is free from power (Nicholls, 2014). An ideology is inescapably normative for its formation involves the interpretation of the world, and this construction legitimates certain knowledges over others (Diprose, 1989, pp. 28-30). Where discourse provides language (what can be spoken), ideology provides judgement (how it is to be spoken). The metanarrative’s rational is the unification of humankind—its reality is the erasure of plurality, and the victimisation of all who reject the global hegemony. It is under the metanarrative that the différend becomes most pervasive.

Western imperialism involved the dual subjugation of bodies and souls. Societies and their people were objectified, dehumanised and destroyed through slavery, genocide, torture, theft, biological racism and cultural erasure. For the imperialist, equality was the burden of lifting all non-Europeans to the state of European (see Kipling, The White Man’s Burden). Liberalism and empiricism were reified through racist discourses that made all narratives outside of such frameworks unknowable and undesirable. The white bourgeois man became the metanarrative heart of the world.


The empiricist dream of objectivity demands the abandonment of flesh—the renunciation of subject position so one may gaze from the transcendent void and see the world-in-itself (Haraway, 1991, pp. 188-196). This position cannot exist, for one is irrevocably embedded in language. One creates the knowledge they claim to only see. Bias is nothing more than a glimpsing of the subject position—its removal the reordering of discourse, to make what was clear, invisible once more. The empiricist who professes to have escaped bias, is simply all the more blind to it (Althusser, 1970).

Liberalism, with its normative bent to define human nature, does nothing but prescribe it. By claiming the individual self-determining, it ignores the effects of institutional structures and one’s own manifold identities (Baker, 2010; Crenshaw, 1991). By claiming the individual rational, it denies alternative modes of thought and expression. Liberalism makes abstract and isolated that which is our only source of connection to the world—our subjectivity.

The metanarrative is insidious for it wends its way into all aspects of existence until it seems natural, normal and necessary (Nicholls, 2014). Epistemic violence operates not simply through forceful obliteration, but psychological terror and coercion (R.E. Hall, 2010). Though the colonised would initially oppose colonial ideology, resistance always carried the risk of ridicule, exclusion or death. To defy the European norm was to prove one was not equal to Europeans, and therefore, not human. To accept it was to be abandon one’s culture, but be elevated in status. In the hopes of a better life the colonised would assimilate and let their culture die.

Here we see a variant of the différend that Lyotard does not touch on. The différend that arises through the conscious choice of silence. Why? Because to voice the damage dealt would incur a pain too great to bear, so the victim chooses a lesser pain—a self-inflicted pain—the quiet death of what was.

The Spectacular Différend / Simulacra and Representation

In time, the empires broke, leaving a damaged world in their wake. Some sought to undo the wrongs that had been committed, but their reliance of metanarratives left victims further from articulation.

The discourse of human rights attempted to reify itself as the ethical paradigm of the world, and the benevolent westerner, the saviour of the oppressed. Its self-evident and inalienable rights, were, ironically, in need of being taught to the supposedly less enlightened. Colonialism could continue, as usual, but through economic, political, and cultural means rather than overt military force (which was renamed global peacekeeping).

Early postcolonial scholars attempted to create a counterhegemonic discourse by reinterpreting history from the standpoint of the subaltern (i.e. victim). Despite their radical intentions, these efforts fell in line with other western metanarratives (Spivak, 1994, p. 93). The assumption of cultural solidarity among subalterns simplified the diversities that existed within populations. Additionally, by standing in for the subaltern, these scholars did not erase subalternity—they reproduced it (Spivak, 1994, p. 102).


Both discourses hail an absent victim—one who is reduced to abstraction, cultural unit, moral dilemma. The différend also disappears, for the representative, in being able to define the damage committed, escapes it. How then, can they be said to understand the victim?

It is the same story: the representative masquerades as the bearer of truth, transparent voice of the Other, but the process of representation necessarily entails the reconstruction of knowledge, the assimilation of the Other (Spivak, 1994, pp. 87-89). Epistemic violence cannot be avoided. This is the problem all metanarratives share. Their claims of totality negate any alternative discourses that may arise. In speaking for the victim, the representative robs them of a presence already invisible. In the victim’s place a simulacrum is hailed into being—a signification devoid of referent (Baudrillard, 1994). The original that never was slips from existence.

I fear I am failing to communicate the significance of this—falling into a différend of my own. What has happened is the compounding of the différend. The first struck the victim before representation. Their knowledge was rendered unspeakable, inaudible or incomprehensible through the erasure or lack of a legitimate discourse (Lyotard, 1988, xi-xvi). The second struck after representation. The benevolent representative, in standing for the victim, completely replaced them (Spivak, 1994, p. 102). The victim was subordinated beneath an artifice—a false image, incapable of relaying the specificities of their experience.

Lyotard’s différend victimises through the external enforcement of an inappropriate discourse. The colonial différend victimises through the self-imposition of a new discourse (out of shame or mortal necessity). This third différend, which I name the spectacular différend (see Debord, The Society of the Spectacle), combines elements of both. It victimises through the external enforcement of a discourse, that in naming itself representative, appears to be self-determined by the victim. The victim, in being presented as empowered, is doubly subordinated.

The Eternal Différend / A Discourse of One’s Own

We must wrest the victim back from the void of abstraction. Rediscover the subject position they had never left, but simply vanished from. There is a knowledge eager to be constructed into reality that has the potential to alter more than victim, perpetrator or judge. What is at stake here is the entire symbolic order. What is necessary for the victim to speak and be heard is the complete overthrow of the metanarrative episteme.

The existence of the différend testifies to the metanarrative’s symbolic frailty. It is the revelation of a nebulous imaginary struggling to materialised into symbolic form. The victim reaches out but is contained by the limits of present discourse, incapable of both communicating from and communicating with. The first step requires the victim’s articulation, the second, the listener’s comprehension. The metanarrative silences victims through disengagement at either step. Both human rights and early postcolonial scholars fell into this trap. Neither, however, did so intentionally, for, as Spivak puts it eloquently, “Who the hell wants to […] protect subalternity?” (de Kock, 1992, p. 46).

One does not speak for the victim, nor to the victim—one speaks with the victim (de Kock, 1992, p. 46). One hails them into discursive existence and through the dialectics of speech, makes lucid the unspeakable. No, it is not easy. We have been thrown into a senseless world, severed from the Other by the bounds of subjectivity, and left to the desolation of our own loneliness (Camus, 1955). This is the human condition none can escape. The world flows without beginning or end. We can never throw existence out of us, nor enter the subjectivity of the Other (Sartre, 2010). All knowledge is situated, and all understanding arises through interpretation (Haraway, 1991, pp. 197-201; Diprose, 1989, pp. 28-30). Perhaps, however, one may find solidarity in the shared incomprehensibility of the Other (Four Leaf Studios, 2012).


I must clarify a few things. I do not seek to reify the différend into a new metanarrative. A solidarity of incomprehensibility is not a state but a process, through which recognition of the incomprehensible expands the discursive field. If anything, what I propose is an anti-metanarrative. The metanarrative attempted to unite all under a single discourse. The anti-metanarrative seeks the opposite—to revel in the unique experiences of each. Knowledge is thrown from its objective throne and celebrated as it passes from one subjectivity to another, birthing new, monstrous amalgamations. Resemblance need not be kept for the original was never accessible to begin with. The différend is resignified as a site of discursive potential, where the incomprehensibility of the Other can be comprehended anew.


Through language, we are constructed into social beings. The différend turns one into victim through the denial of sense, credibility or sanity. I have explored two variants of the différend, tracing both origins and consequences. Though well-intentioned, both colonial and postcolonial metanarratives displaced the victim’s own discourse. The solution then, is a dialogue with the victim—a splitting of the metanarrative through the explosive unfurling of manifold knowledges. There is no end to this process, for the différend is only deferred, never destroyed. However, so too is knowledge.

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