an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 10, April-May-June 2013, ISSN 1552-5112


Anima Minima: Lyotard’s Monstrous Infancy


Kirsten Locke



In one of his more ethereal later texts, the essay “Anima Minima,” from Postmodern Fables, Lyotard delivers a rewriting of an Aristotelian-inspired notion of the affective aesthetic body as penetrable to sensation and always under threat of annihilation. As a further incarnation of the ‘sublime’, the essay “Anima Minima” is explored here in terms of its double binding of life and death, anaesthesia and sensation, and the temporal disjuncture of the emergent aesthetic event. This paper explores this cluster of artistic-orientated phenomena within the realms of a specifically Lyotardian notion of infancy as a ‘zone’ of indeterminacy inherent to the body that is open to affect, and which eludes and escapes the determinations and certainties of the ‘adult’ laws from which it emerges. This potentiality for aesthetic affectivity is described as infancy because of the affective state of inarticulacy and muteness that occurs before meaning and signification. This affective state of infancy means that art exists, and any system or apparatus of the law cannot harness that creativity as energy precisely because this mute infancy lies outside the ‘adult’ world of articulation. 

The notion of infancy in Lyotard’s lexicon at this point is one of a radical encounter that engenders an enigmatic silence that both appends itself to and distends discourse. It is in this radical excess that Lyotard’s particular formulation of infancy pushes past the limits of a specifically psychoanalytic theory to a position of ethical listening that honours the inaudible infancy to words, speech, theory, and art. To listen for the enigmatic silence of the infant figure is, for Lyotard, the acknowledgment of the wound that infancy inflicts on the maturation of thought, discourse, and aesthetic matter; we write against words, we compose music against silence, we paint against the visible. Infancy haunts, but it does not speak, and the following text to be analysed is testimony to this haunting.

‘Anima Minima’ (the affectability of the soul by sensation)

The model of infancy, as constitutive of the negative traits of inarticulacy, of lost memory, and of lack of signification and meaning, is of course the exemplary example Lyotard drew from to help describe the ‘mute’ presence in art, (and more generally the silent affect-phrase in the continuation of his philosophy of phrases initially outlined in The Differend). It is from this silent site of deprivation that Lyotard mobilises the infant as a figure of disruption that both seeks and displays the limits of language. Following this negative form of ‘pragmatics’ Lyotard’s writings are by necessity elusive: art ‘strikes’, it comes upon us, it inscribes, it touches, but he warns, it does this without us knowing because we are unprepared for this strike and are constitutively unable to anticipate an event ‘before’ its arrival. Nor can we know it as an event upon its occurrence. Such is the ambiguity and opacity to art that renders us as infants, unable to say, know, or articulate the sudden jolt of being seized (“by the throat”, Lyotard will add enigmatically when writing on Malraux) by the artistic event. Signification as meaning and representation can only be apprehended ‘afterward’, in a backward glance.

To a certain extent Lyotard incorporates these infant traits, particularly the deferred passage toward meaning where signification is essentially ‘undone’, in the style and methodological approach to his writing. While explicitly turning to the unconscious in Heidegger and “the Jews” to talk about a mode of ‘otherness’ that is ‘there’ but unavailable, in other efforts he is less obviously psychoanalytic and instead is stylistically oriented to performing this mode of infancy in more literary-inspired fragmented forms such as the essay. As James Williams points out, the essay for Lyotard, was his favoured mode of expression in which he both revitalised and invigorated the conditions of its existence and artistic possibilities (Williams, n.d.). Lyotard himself cited Montaigne as not only the master of the essay form, but someone who explicitly dealt with a type of infancy as free association with no guiding rules in relation to this form. Lyotard explains: “And at the risk of seeming weird, I’d add that the procedure of freely and equally floating attention is what is at work in Montaigne’s Essais(Lyotard, 1991b, p. 31). The text under consideration in this section is a striking example of this essay-form, in this case classed as one of Lyotard’s ‘little narratives’ under the aegis of the fable.

Positioned at the very end of the group of essays collected together in the Postmodern Fables, the essay ‘Anima Minima’ (1997a) performs something of the negative ontology to which its content is devoted. By way of explaining the purpose of the collection as an important and little utilised form of questioning, in the cheekily short ‘Preface’ Lyotard reveals more about the purpose of deploying the short fable structure in terms of a critical stance to ‘postmodernism’:

Here then, are fifteen notes on postmodern aestheticization. And against it! You’re not done living because you chalk it up to artifice (Lyotard, 1997b, p. vii).

Stripped bare of discursive layers, Lyotard concentrates on the ‘minimal soul’ as a kind of ground zero of ‘the subject’, and the physical placement of the essay mirrors the sylphlike line of thought that has driven the preceding essays to this point. Working backwards, Lyotard has arrived at a moment that suspends ‘the soul’ in mid-air without corporeality and without consciousness and only ‘after’[1] postmodernity has raged and ravaged over its historico-political and aesthetic conditions of existence. The use of the term ‘soul’ here by Lyotard is of course not related to a Christian ‘soul’, or even any metaphysical notion of a higher or transcendental being. As Schwab points out, this term is often used by the French philosophers of the twentieth-century (including Deleuze, Derrida and also the French/Anglo Samuel Beckett) to explore the boundaries of the human. In these aesthetic and philosophical interpretations, including the current use to which Lyotard ascribes, the soul “is conceived as the site of a transference between the human and its other” (Schwab, 2000, p. 59). Despite the certainties and determinations of a sociological and philosophical milieu centred on rational mastery, the soul in this context has found itself pared down to something that exists only when affected without Enlightenment embellishments of self-knowledge and rationality. Not only is this soul only animated when affected or touched, but also this capacity for affection is derived only from the ‘outside’. The touch, according to Lyotard in this essay, is external, emerging from some origin distinctly inhuman. This inhuman is the ‘other’ to the inhuman of technological progress, and instead is derives its ‘inhumanness’ from artistic matter.

In a discussion of Lyotard’s treatment of the soul in the posthumous work on Augustine[2], Neal Curtis considers this externally driven, animated soul-formation to be Lyotard’s primary offensive against a dominant (Western) philosophical notion of the (Christian and/or Enlightened) soul as the main “motor of both humanity and history … understood as self-activity” (Curtis, 2003, p. 197).  Lyotard instead emphasises the need, the “connivance” between the soul and its openness to sensation and affectability. This “affectability of the soul by sensation … conceals an absolute dependency of each in relation to the other,” Lyotard goes on to say. “The anima exists only as affected” (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 242).

Lyotard further attends to questions posed by the anima to notions of the body, and the temporal displacement that occurs within bodily borders when affectation or excitement ‘befalls’ or touches the apparatus. Reminiscent of the human infant body as being at the very least physically and cognitively undeveloped, Lyotard chooses to emphasise an infancy that is unadorned and cognitively ‘naked’. It is important to note at this point that the lines Lyotard draws between the body as a flesh and blood material existence and this ‘originary’ naked infant body that inhabits art aren’t exactly clear and seem to be, by necessity, constantly blurred. Rather, the body of the infant figure is evoked as a site within the ‘adult’ body that is savage and unpredictable in its constitutive ‘lack’, both in the phenomenological sense and the artistic, in which the infant seems to be both driver and exciter. In an illuminating quote that effectively illustrates this paradox, the qualities of the body as ‘pregnant’ with this ‘nascent’ (Lyotard’s terminology) potentiality that draws its creative force from within these potentialities is described further:

The body is unique. But so singular that it is neither known nor understood. We do not refer here to the body in time and space which is claimed by the doctor, the legislator, the recruiting sergeant, the manager and the sexologist. It is neither the sensory body of the psychologist nor the culturally normed body of the anthropologist, but the monster inhabited by the Thing and, because of this, endowed with spatiality, temporality and materiality other than that known by the experts or even our own bodily consciousness. (Lyotard, 2004a, p. 113, italics in original).

The body is positioned as minimal and, by necessity, monstrous in its primal complicity with a seemingly innate infancy described above as the (Lacanian inspired) ‘Thing’. It is in and through the ‘Thing’, re-inscribed here as the infant body, where the potentially fertile ground for creativity can be located, and it is this ground of undetermined multiplicity that Lyotard sees in need of theorising. It is here that he turns to explicating a ‘minimal soul’ in which ‘the subject’ is a body capable of thought and creative energy that touches and renders this body an infant. Lyotard goes on to explain this touch as an event in more detail:

The event touches the soul-body, what I call here anima minima, and this touch is not represented. Lacking language, there is not yet here what Freud calls Vorstellung, or ‘representance’. It’s too early. It’s before. The soul-body is infant, without speech. The infant does not know how to speak, the infant cannot represent (Lyotard, 2004b, p. 104).

Like Augustine’s lament in recapturing the moment of God’s touch (as revelation and pure event), Lyotard’s minimal soul exists through a disturbance of pure affection as an event that displaces a modern-derived mastery of consciousness in both the realms of time and the body. A line is drawn between consciousness and the present, describing the “originary concordance” between “thought and the world” as the necessary dimension to the “spontaneous affectability of the soul by the sensible” (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 242). However, this line also crosses an abyss (a differend) of the incommensurability between the event, and the cognitive knowledge of the event only ever being known ‘after’, or belatedly. Lyotard illustrates this gap or lacuna in The Inhuman using Epicurus’ logic of human death: “that I have nothing to do with it, since if it’s present, I’m not, and if I’m present, it’s not” (Lyotard, 1991a, p. 11), and draws further inspiration from Augustine’s desperate opening line to his confession: ‘Late have I loved you’. For Lyotard, art is the testimony and passageway in which the soul as anima ‘bears witness’ to this disturbance and interminable chasm between the affect and it’s signification, as a minimal condition that is both an embodied and temporal touch like sensation. The nature of this sensation as affect in ‘Anima Minima’ is detailed in the following:

But sensation is also the affection that ‘the subject’ – one should say: the body/thought, which I shall call: anima – feels on the occasion of a sensible event. True or false, aisthesis immediately modifies the anima, displacing its disposition (its hexis) in the direction of well-being or ill-being. Philosophical aesthetics allows this connection as a principle. This principle, however, presupposes a substance-soul with the faculty of being affected (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 242).

What emerges from this analysis is a non-form of the ‘body’ as untameable, uncontrollable, unknowable, and savage. The affective body is one that is monstrous in its savagery because it is not endowed with the ‘humanist’ characteristics of cognition and memory. Sensations remain ungraspable by consciousness in the same way as the time of the unconscious affect remains elusive to diachronic time. This ‘monster’ exists only when prodded out of anaesthesia, inciting a move away from idleness by the aesthetic affect, and Lyotard doesn’t shy away from ascribing a certain threat of menace and darkness to it, “it merely has manere, sistere in it” says Lyotard (rather too innocently). “The soul comes into existence dependent on the sensible, thus violated, humiliated” (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 243) he goes on to say, letting the sinister dimension come to the fore. This is especially the case in regard to the parasitic tendency to ‘house’ (inhabit) the mysterious and faceless ‘thing’ that Lyotard draws from Lacan (with undertones of Levinas’ face of the Other), as constitutive of this monstrous body and the power-inducing force within art. It is here that the mysterious ‘thing’ is aligned with the shocking, that is constitutive of the sensing body. He continues:

Sensation makes a break in an inert non-existence. It alerts, it should be said, it exists it. What we call life proceeds from a violence exerted from the outside on a lethargy. The anima exists only as forced. The aistheton tears the inanimate from the limbo in which it inexists, it pierces its vacuity with its thunderbolt, it makes a soul emerge from out of it. A sound, a scent, a color draw the pulsing of a sentiment out of the neutral continuum, out of the vacuum (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 243).

Lyotard chooses the description of monstrous to describe the body in a state of inarticulateness before articulation, as the ‘moment’ before cognition and rationality. In the context of this paper, the ‘aistheton’ as the monstrous zone of affectability aligns with the excitable zone of infancy that eludes consciousness and conscious action and that drives the desire to be touched by affection and excitation through the singular aesthetic experience. “Existing is to be awoken from the nothingness of disaffection”, Lyotard continues, “by something sensible over there. An affective cloud lifts at that moment and deploys its nuance for a moment” (ibid). Here, the anima as outlined by Lyotard, is always under threat by the ‘nuance of the moment’, the “time to time” of the (monstrous) infancy, but at the same time is utterly dependent on (violently wishes for, Lyotard describes elsewhere) these sensorial modes of affection in order to exist. “Even while the event brings the soul to life, casts it into the living heart of pain and/or pleasure” continues Lyotard with this paradox, “no matter how carried away it might be, the soul remains caught between the terror of its impending death and the horror of its servile existence” (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 244).

Lyotard’s overall approach is to try and think the temporal structure of the oscillating tensions of existence and non-existence through the affectability and receptivity of the soul by sensation. The negativity that Lyotard exhibits in aligning the event with the terror of its non-existence, with the position of the ‘subject’ permanently held in limbo between life and death, enables him to leverage open the space between meaning and signification as fundamentally incommensurable. The ‘time’ between these dialectical oppositions defies a Hegelian synthesis, and instead Lyotard focuses on the anaesthesia of the event as arriving alongside the affect that snatches existence “out of nothingness”. “That there is something anaesthetic in aesthetics is a lesson that the arts are the first to give us,” he continues (Lyotard, 1997a, p. 245). As the carrier and reminder of the absence of sensation through initiating the sensational event as a series of beginnings, art is charged with the duty of honouring the ‘precarious’ situation between nothingness and a ‘some’-thing. Art, as infancy, occurs before signification and only as a series of beginnings despite its negativity. The beauty and function of art is to provide a reminder that death is inevitable, even immanent, but that grace and hope belong to this inevitability. Art, Lyotard implores “is the vow the soul makes for escaping the death promised to it by the sensible”. This escape though, as we know, is only ever temporary, and arrives always as an infancy of new beginnings. “Art, writing give grace to the soul condemned to the penalty of death” says Lyotard in ‘Anima Minima’,  “but in such a way as not to forget it” (ibid). Rather than outright negativity in the shadow of the threat of death, Lyotard installs a sense of hope and new beginnings, a constant renewal that is ‘provoked’ and ‘prodded’ out of the negative threat of affect.


This paper has linked the notion of infancy to the formulations of an aesthetic soul that exists through affect in the essay ‘Anima Minima’. At the centre of the analysis is to find and help explain the fragile but persistent impetus for art and the potential resistance art holds, through an inherent infancy that can’t be acquired, against an apparatus of power and domination. There are many dimensions to support this argument, and the deep analysis of this text and the introduction to the broad themes of infancy, attest to this. One of the main tenets of this paper is to explain the debt, in terms of infancy in this context that is a continuous element to human existence. Infancy is what lies outside the reaches of the apparatus conceived as broadly as possible, and as such, cannot ever be acquired. Rather, it is only as a series of beginnings that infancy can be approached, ensuring that artistic creation will continue as long as people are subject to birth and death.


an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 10, April-May-June 2013, ISSN 1552-5112



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[1] In parenthesis here to emphasise the non-diachronic version of time that is emblematic of the term ‘postmodern’ as arriving at the same time in the manner of the Freudian ‘deferred shock’.

[2] Published as Confession of Augustine (Lyotard, 2000).