File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 131

Date: Wed, 25 Jul 2001 06:36:44 -0500
Subject: Re: Plea: help


Please ignore my pervious post.  Through a glitch, I sent the same
message twice. 

I am addressed by you.  You do not know who I am.  I do not know who you
are. Yet there is an obligation to the extent that I feel the need to
respond to you in some way, to answer your questions.  You, as the
sender, are left vacant is some way.  You are not an authority who
obligates me.  You are just a person who calls. The obligation comes
from elsewhere. 

Lyotard says rhetorically the commands of God are always just.  He adds
slyly, however, how do we know the commands issue from God and not a

Levinas constantly points out that obligation is a different category
from commentary.  One of the examples he gives is the Torah.  The Jews
were given the Torah, the Law, and told to obey it.  They were not given
the why, but simply the command.  As Levinas says: "Do before you
understand."  Similarly Lyotard echoes him.  "Be just."

Lyotard also distinguishes prescription from description and explicitly
says the ought can never be derived from the is.  As he says in "The
Differend" (166): "It is impossible to deduce a prescription from a
description. The fact that two million people are unemployed in a
country does not explain that unemployment must be remedied.  For this
to take place, a minor premise must be understood or presupposed,
namely, the prescription that all those who can work ought to work.  The
blindness or transcendental illusion resides in the pretension to found
the good or just upon the true, or what ought to be upon what is.  By
found, I simply mean the seeking and articulating of implications which
allow a prescriptive phrase to be concluded from cognitive phrases."

The mention of transcendental illusion brings us around to the Kantian
Idea.  It doesn't appear to me that obligation is an Idea in this
Kantian sense, although it can become that.  Kant also says that Beauty
analogically is a symbol for morality and Beauty, as he points out, is
nonconceptual feeling. It is the disinterested judgement that states "X
is beautiful" and that this is true for all.

I may be stretching a bit here, but I think of the abolitionists.  They
began with the simple feeling "Slavery is wrong" and this feeling was
present before any intellectual arguments such as "what kind of
political system could make this possible?"  I would argue that the
point both Levinas and Lyotard make about the difference between
obligation and description is very similar to this.  It is the
difference between addressee and referent - second and third person.

I see your suffering and feel I must respond even before I know what I
must do or why.

This may become a Kantian Idea when I dialectically move from this
judgement to expound the nonempirical idea that "All persons must be
free" and enthusiastically engage this morally and politically as a sign
of history, but this then becomes a quite different topic from that of

One last point with regard to the concept of pagan.  I have always felt
that Lyotard does not use pagan in the normal way others do. It seems
what Lyotard means by pagan is primarily someone who is impious and who
is therefore incredulous about metanarratives.  In other words, the
pagan for Lyotard is simply the figure for what he means by the

This stance originates from sublime feelings, as you say.  The
obligations this gives rise to, however, cannot not be deduced from the
objective conditions that govern the epoch. No pomo skyscraper with a
Chippendale top creates the sublime. The sublime feeling, like
obligation, always comes from elsewhere.

Hope this helps a little.


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