McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Differend, Lyotard, Negative Theology, Postmodernism, Pseudo-Dionysius
What is an expression that can express that which cannot be expressed? Logic and grammar will declare it to be an impossibility and its expression, a mistaken use of language. Yet, humanity's archive persistently attests to both the legitimacy of the inexpressible expression and the multiplicity of ways to give it voice. While heterogeneous in time, place, and philosophical situation, the contemporary French father of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard, and the late antique, presumably Syrian father of Neoplatonist Christian mysticism, Pseudo-Dionysius, both intimately consider the inexpressible expression. Both are provoked by the witness who is silenced by the binding limits of grammatical possibility, even while called to testify to an ineffable. Both define this inexpressible as precisely that which must be expressed in the face of logic deeming it absurd. To endeavor under the weight of impossibility reveals both Lyotard's postmodernism and Pseudo-Dionysius' philosophic-theology as pedagogic pursuits, as spiritual exercises in the originary sense of philosophy as the love of wisdom, rather than analytic treatises of self-subsistent theories.
The plight of bearing witness to the ineffable is explored through the guiding example in Lyotard's The Differend, the differend created by historical revisionism's logical bind that forbids the Auschwitz survivor to testify to the existence of gas chambers (there cannot be a living survivor to a death camp). By taking the challenge seriously, Lyotard reveals that the force of this differend is not its circularity, but the mind's conceptual deficit before the Holocaust: the singular event overflows its possible comprehension. The witness' case is parallel to how reason can silence the faithful's testimony of God, He who exceeds all that we could know of Him. But faith demands the pursuit of this knowledge in the face of its absurdity. The radical conjunction of apophatic and cataphatic theologies in Pseudo-Dionysius' The Divine Names reveals a productive, stuttering method to name He who exceeds all names. Pseudo-Dionysius' most remarkable divine name is Eros. Its exceptionality in capturing an expression of the inexpressible prompts a demonstration of a Lyotardian rereading of the conjunction of eros and silence as a productive phrase to dissolve differends.
Walton, M. (2009). Expressing the Inexpressible: Bearing Witness in Jean-François Lyotard and Pseudo-Dionysius (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1332