Art History Unstuffed: “The Differend,” Part Three

Art History Unstuffed: The Differend. Phrases in Dispute (1983)

 Jean-François Lyotard

Part Three. “Defining the Event” was posted on May 9, 2014.

With the backdrop of the intellectual debates over the Holocaust in France in the background, this series concludes with Lyotard’s concept of the “Event,” which stops “history” in its progressive tracks. Part of Lyotard’s distrust of the meta-narrative, his idea that certain events disrupt history itself and call the “story” we tell ourselves into question. It is during his discussion of the “Event” that Lyotard entered into another of his dialogues with other philosophers, this time Theodor Adorno who famous coined the phrase “after Auschwitz.”

Lyotard noted that “Auschwitz” is marked by two secrets, the secrecy of the Nazis about their deeds, and the secret way in with the victims died or the “deportee’s secret.” The Nazis were fanatical in their obsession with order and records and the Holocaust was meticulously chronicled: trains were scheduled, ovens were ordered, gas was packed into canisters, and tattoo ink was administered. The guards at the concentration camps made photo albums, as did the soldier stationed in ghettoes. Employees of the mass extermination wrote letters home to family. Millions of words were written. Thousands of images were taken, freezing onto film unspeakable deeds. And yet there was a collective silence, born of indifference or of terror or of satisfaction, followed by the collective silence, the selective amnesia of participation and guilt. It is those twin secrets allowed the Holocaust deniers a gap and an entry into a pseudo history, insisting that the Event never happened.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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