Jean-François Lyotard 1924-1998
Lyotard was one of the seminal theoreticians of Postmodernism, a subversive and complex anti-systematic philosophy which challenges the belief that there can be an all- encompassing truth, categorical Idea, or defining “master narrative” as, historically, the dominant religious, political, economic, and philosophical systems have asserted there must be. Instead, Lyotard championed an open-ended philosophy of disagreement based on the existence of a multitude of small, sometimes irreconcilable “narratives.” Furthermore, he stipulated that not everything which exists can be represented, but that the unrepresentable can be approached through the sublime, which he defined as an intense experience of the discrepancy between what we can apprehend and what we sense we cannot.
Born in Versailles, Lyotard attended the Sorbonne after twice failing the entrance exam for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. In 1948, his essay “Nés en 1925” (“Born in 1925”) was published in Jean Paul Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes. In 1950, he moved to Algeria, then a French colony on the verge of a struggle for independence, to teach high school philosophy. In 1954, he published his first major work, La Phénoménologie (Phenomenology). Siding with the Algerian independence movement but wary of the value of a class analysis for the situation in Algeria and repelled by the Stalinism which had pemeated Marxism, he joined Socialisme ou Barbarie (socialism or barbarism), a group of radical, intellectual Marxists critical of the Soviet Union, and wrote analyses of the political situation for its journal. These were collected and published in 1989 in a volume called La Guerre des Algériens. He returned to France in 1959 to teach philosophy at the University of Paris. In 1964 he was among a group who split off from Socialisme ou Barbarie to form Pouvoir Ouvrier (worker power). He left the movement entirely in 1966, and in that year began teaching at Nanterre in Paris where he was an active participant in the revolutionary uprising which spread throughout France in May 1968. The failure of the official communist party to support and understand the uprising, which was about liberation from the spirit of alienation rather than simply controlling a reorganized means of production, or obtaining higher wages inside an unchanged society, drove him, as it did many others, away from Marxism. In 1973, his book Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud (Adrift from Marx and Freud) appeared, and in 1974, he published Économie libidinale (Libidinal Economy). These books signaled not only his break with Marxism, but his distrust of any unifying system of truth or analysis, which he defined as totalitarian because in its exclusionary practice it obliterates any other perspective. Lyotard continued to pursue this deconstruction of what he termed “master narratives” in his writing and teaching and, along with a number of rebel French academic intellectuals like Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, promoted a philosophy called Postmodernism, a term for which Lyotard gained international recognition with his book La Condition postmoderne (The Postmodern Condition) in 1979. Until his death in 1998, Lyotard continued his academic career, often as a visiting professor at universities throughout Europe and the Americas. He published more than forty books, numerous articles and was curator of an exhibition, Les Immatériaux [Immaterials], devoted to postmodernism, at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1985.
Devoted as he was to subverting master narratives and committed to the idea that there are incommensurable language games between which meaning cannot be negotiated, Lyotard sought non-authoritarian ways of establishing the grounds for authenticity, legitimation, and justice. He was also concerned with analyzing the rhetorical strategies of Holocaust deniers, and in Heidegger et “les juifs” (Heidegger and “the jews”) (1988), with understanding the German philosopher's active support of Nazism. Building on the work of Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Freud, Lyotard constructed a philosophy which set language against figure, and both against a fundamental, pre-linguistic human energy he called “intensity.” In Libidinal Economy, Discours/figure (Discourse/Figure) (1971), Au Juste (Just Gaming) (1979), and Le Differend (The Differend,) (1983) Lyotard set forth a critique of language, philosophy, art, technology, and social institutions as vehicles for conveying the “master narratives” which have mobilized masses of people in catastrophic, single-minded enterprises. In Instructions paìennes (Pagan Instructions) (1977) and Peregrinations (1988) he established an anarchic philosophy that privileged “drifting” over ideology, community stories over universal doctrines, and an appreciation of “incommensurables” as the democratic mechanism enabling peaceful and fertile human coexistence.
Lyotard has been both esteemed and reviled, depending on his critics' regard or distaste for postmodernism. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, his work had a major influence on thinking about philosophy, literature, politics, technology, art, and science. Opposition to Lyotard's work from the Left has usually concerned what critics perceived as relativism in his philosophy and abandonment of the struggle for social change and economic justice. Opponents from the Right have cited him for undermining traditional values and distorting history. Critics have found his prose difficult and full of jargon and the expression of his ideas incoherent. Other readers, however, argued that this apparent incoherence reflects Lyotard's use of text to present thought figurally, rather than to represent it discursively. Moreover, his way of writing, they asserted, may be seen as reflecting Lyotard's commitment to undermining textual authority and the sovereignty of all-encompassing narratives.
La Phénomènologie [Phenomenology] (philosophy) 1954
Discours/figure [Discourse/Figure] (philosophy) 1971
Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud [Adrift from Marx and Freud] (philosophy) 1973
Des dispositifs pulsionels [Pulsating Processes] (philosophy) 1973
Économie libidinale [Libidinal Economy] (philosophy) 1974
Instructions païennes [Pagan Instructions] (philosophy) 1977
Récits tremblants [Unsteady Narratives] (philosophy) 1977
Les Transformateurs Duchamp [Duchamp's Trans/Formers] (philosophy) 1977
La condition postmoderne [The Postmodern Condition] (philosophy) 1979
Au Juste [Just Gaming] (philosophy) 1979
Le Mur du pacifique [Pacific Wall] (philosophy) 1979
Le Différend [The Differend] (philosophy) 1983
Tombeau de l'intellectuel et autre papiers [The Tomb of the Intellectual and Other Writings] (philosophy) 1984
Driftworks (philosophy) 1984
Lès Immateriaux [Immaterials] (exhibition) 1985
Le postmoderne éxplique aux enfants [The Postmodern Explained to Children]...
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SOURCE: “Never Say Why?” in Diacritics, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-29.
[In the following excerpt, Blanchard offers an exegesis critical of Lyotard's Économie libidinale.]
If one were to go, one by one, over all the articles in Diacritics that deal with this or that manifestation of Continental philosophical and literary criticism, one would probably put the pile of issues back on the stack and sigh: what next? For it seems that, for the last ten years or so, much of structuralist criticism has been engaged in a constant game of brinkmanship and one-up-manship. Most of the linguistically oriented criticism, based on the work of Jakobson and Levi-Strauss, developed as a reaction against the school of psychological and historical criticism which had established itself in splendid isolation from all related disciplines, including a more recent existential psychology. This stage of structural criticism, which prevailed in France during the sixties and which, because of translation and communication problems, is only now and only partially available here, was soon to be left behind owing to the advent of Derrida and the Post-Structuralists. In America today, it seems that the last word on these and most any other critical revolutions can be found in De la Grammatologie, now translated after its original publication in French some twelve years ago. That Derrida has moved from a...
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SOURCE: “A New Philosophical Interpretation of the Libido,” in Sub-Stance, Vol. VIII, No. 4, 1979, pp. 87-97.
[In the following essay, Lingis describes the process of the libidinal economy as Lyotard conceives it to function in the individual.]
Working with new concepts of impulsive intensity—libidinal space, libidinal time, libidinal identity, Jean-François Lyotard's Economie libidinale1 sets out to interpret in a coherent discourse the essential data of psychoanalysis, which had been formulated in a fragmented—physicalist, mechanist, hydraulic and mythical—language, or, in the phenomenological reworking, in mentalist, intentional, language. But Lyotard's book does not only devise a philosophically more coherent language for the findings of psychyanalysis; it also elaborates an interpretation of the data themselves. Assembling literary and theological texts along with certain Freudian texts given a new importance, Lyotard's book shows how theoretical activity and political economy reverberate with libidinal processes, and how the primary process libido continues even in its matured and sublimated forms. This new conceptual elaboration is principally due to a divesting of the Freudian conceptual apparatus of its phallocentric and reproductive normativity, and even of the idea of organism as a norm. If wholeness, organism, is the general form of any norm, then we can say that...
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SOURCE: “Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to Jean-François Lyotard,” in New German Critique, No. 33, Fall, 1984, pp. 103-26.
[In the following essay, Benhabib traces the history and development of Lyotard's philosophy of language, and argues that it tends to justify a retreat from critical social judgments.]
In the recent, flourishing debate on the nature and significance of postmodernism, architecture appears to occupy a special place.1 It is tempting to describe this situation through a Hegelianism: it is as if the Zeitgeist of an epoch approaching its end has reached self-consciousness in those monuments of modern architecture of steel, concrete, and glass. Contemplating itself in its objectifications, Spirit has not “recognized” and thus “returned to itself,” but has recoiled in horror from its own products. The visible decay of our urban environment, the uncanniness of the modern megalopolis, and the general dehumanization of space appear to prove the Faustian dream to be a nightmare. The dream of an infinitely malleable world, serving as mere receptacle of the desires of an infinitely striving self, unfolding its powers in the process of conquering externality, is one from which we have awakened. Postmodernist architecture, whatever other sources it borrows its inspiration from, is undoubtedly the messenger of the end of this Faustian dream, which had...
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SOURCE: “The Letter and the Line: Discourse and Its Other in Lyotard,” in Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 40-9.
[In the following discussion of Discours, Dews explains the distinction Lyotard draws between the significations of words and the significantions of figures.]
There is a certain irony, but also an appropriateness, in the fact that Jean-François Lyotard should only recently have become more widely known in the English-speaking world for his work on the “postmodern condition,” on the intersecting aesthetic, political, and ethical problems posed by modernity and its—supposed—exhaustion, and that this work has been presented as the latest contribution to a continuing poststructuralism. Irony, because if poststructuralism as a whole can be characterized by its avoidance of the moral dimension of politics, by its assumption—explicit in works such as Foucault's Discipline and Punish—that normative thought can only operate in the interests of power, then in Au Juste, and in subsequent works, Lyotard can be seen as initiating a reflection on the limitations of poststructuralism itself, limitations which he had himself revealed in an exacerbated form in Économie libidinale. Appropriateness, because this subtle but unmistakable exit from post-structuralism reveals something more general about Lyotard's relation to his philosophical milieu. Lyotard...
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SOURCE: “Experiments in Postmodern Dialogue,” in Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 52-62.
[In the following review of Lyotard's Instructions païennes and Au juste, Lindsay discusses Lyotard's use of the philosophical dialogue as a device for deconstructing the authority of a centralized, universalizing narrator.]
We possess a remarkable document that reflects the simultaneous birth of scientific thinking and of a new artistic-prose model for the novel. These are the Socratic dialogues.
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination
Near the beginning of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a group of allied scientists in World War II tries to come to terms with the German V-2, a sinister new rocket which, traveling faster than sound, arrives before the noise of its own approach. The V-bomb statistics chart an equation of probability on the map of London; an aging Pavlovian scientist is appalled by the nonchalance of a younger colleague, a statistician named Roger Mexico, toward the absurd pattern of doom he projects and logs daily. The Pavlovian discovers that statistical probability provides no clues for shelter, since, unlike dogs, bombs have no memory and no prior conditioning—not an easy lesson for a Pavlovian to learn:
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Source: An interview in Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 16-20.
[In the following interview, Abbeele and Lyotard discuss Lyotard's attitude toward texts, contexts, language, names, and the use of philosophy as understood inside a postmodern framework.]
[Georges Van Den Abbeele]: In reading your work, one cannot help but be struck by its heterogeneity, its diversity, its relentless questioning of previously advanced categories. What one could call the protean or nomadic quality of your thought inevitably places its critic in the position of feeling already passed by, of being dépassé by your work, such that a potential point of disagreement may turn out no longer to be current in your thinking. The question raised then is that of the “responsibility” of your writing. More pointedly, your long-held allegiance to avant-garde esthetics (evidenced by numerous books and articles on contemporary art from Duchamp to Monory) makes your work open to the charge of seeking the new for its own sake. In the political sphere, the charge would be that of pursuing a liberalist pluralism, if not anarchism. Can you respond to this criticism by clarifying the underlying concerns of your intellectual project as a whole?
[Jean-François Lyotard]: If the heterogeneity of “my” work “passes by” [dépasse] the reader, it also “passes by” me, insofar as I am my first...
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Source: A review of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 874-77.
[In the following review of The Postmodern Condition, Conroy outlines and evaluates the principal concepts of postmodernism.]
Although there is considerable evidence that the phenomenon known as modernism has yet to be adequately grasped by those who would make cultural analysis their business, and that the current obsession with fin-de-siècle Vienna among other indices reveals an awareness of this inadequacy, nevertheless the pitiless onrush of events now deposits something called postmodernism for our consideration. The term thus far is as ill-defined as it is un-aesthetic: a colleague vowed once that he would not become interested in postmodernism “until they decided to call it something else.” This fact has not kept the problematic from assuming ever greater prominence; and the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, ever sensitive to seismic rumblings, has produced one of the first book-length treatments of the matter.
Actually, “book-length” may be stretching the term a bit; and in fact the structure of this book is that of two separate sections altogether, the first and major treating academic learning, the second discussing the arts and literature. This very split in the structure of the book is therefore...
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SOURCE: “A Reflection on Post-Modernism,” in Artforum, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, September, 1985, pp. 104-05.
[In the following excerpt, Linker reflects upon the significance of Lyotard's postmodern exhibition Les immateriaux.]
In 1968, London's Institute of Contemporary Art organized “Cybernetic Serendipity,” an exhibition intended to indicate the effects of technology on modern life. As its title suggests, this dizzying display of technology presented a paradisiacal vision of the capacity of the machine, and to this day it remains one of the central projections of a technological utopia based on the notion of modernization. Underlying it was the premise of “technoscience” as a prosthetic, or aid, to universal mastery; the cybernetic revolution appeared to accomplish man's aim of material transformation, of shaping the world in the image of himself. “Cybernetic Serendipity” was launched in the name of Modernity, an ideal that, since the time of Descartes, has focused on the will and creative powers of the human subject. But in two decades those terms have seemingly changed: in Les Immatériaux (Immaterials), an exhibition recently developed by the Centre de Création Industrielle of Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou,1 the effects of advanced science were examined under the aegis of the post-Modern. And underlying the show, instead of optimism, was a sense of instability, the...
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Source: A review of Le différend, in Sub-Stance, Vol. 15, No. 1, November, 1986, pp. 83-6.
[In the following review, Rappaport considers Le différend, its philosophical influences, its divergences from them, and an ethical looseness he finds in it.]
Le différend by Jean-François Lyotard develops further the French post-structuralist engagement with analytic philosophy and is very sensitive to questions which concern speech acts in the broadest sense of the term. In large part I find that the book develops ideas central to Ludwig Wittgenstein's On Certainty, in which the issue of validating or proving propositions is considered from the perspective of judgment.
We recall that in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein offered as one of the tentative conclusions that if one has to say a proposition is identical to what it represents, then such a proposition is necessarily not identical. In short, identity is not constative but inherent in the performance of the proposition's logic. “In logic, process and result are equivalent,” Wittgenstein writes.
But much later, after considering language games in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein, in the subtle volume entitled On Certainty, began an unsettling series of speculations stressing the constative—that is, assertions of fact. Very important is...
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SOURCE: “The Modern Democratic Revolution: Reflections on Jean-François Lyotard's La condition postmoderne,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, Spring, 1987, pp. 4-19.
[In the following essay, Keane argues that Lyotard's postmodernism can be seen as a “political ally of the modern democratic project” described by Alexis de Tocqueville.]
No sooner do you set foot upon American soil then you are stunned by a type of tumult; a confused clamor is heard everywhere, and a thousand voices simultaneously demand the satisfaction of their social needs. Everything is in motion around you; here the people of one town district are meeting to decide upon the building of a church; there the election of a representative is taking place; a little farther on, the delegates of a district are hastening to town in order to consult about some local improvements; elsewhere, the laborers of a village quit their ploughs to deliberate upon a road or public school project. Citizens call meetings for the sole purpose of declaring their disapprobation of the conduct of government; while in other assemblies citizens salute the authorities of the day as the fathers of their country, or form societies which regard drunkenness as the principal cause of the evils of the state, and solemnly pledge themselves to the principle of temperance.
Alexis de Tocqueville, De...
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SOURCE: “The Postmodern Kantianism of Arendt and Lyotard,” in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLII, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 51-77.
[In the following essay, Ingram compares how Hannah Arendt and Lyotard use Kant in their formulations of the basis for legitimate judgement.]
[O]nly a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l'ordre du jour—and that day is Judgment Day.1
The past decade has witnessed an extraordinary resurgence of interest in Kant's writings on aesthetics, politics, and history. On the Continent much of this interest has centered on the debate between modernism and postmodernism. Both sides of the debate are in agreement that Kant's differentiation of cognitive, practical, and aesthetic domains of rationality anticipated the fragmentation of modern society into competing if not, as Weber assumed, opposed lifestyles, activities, and value spheres, and that this has generated a crisis of judgment. Tradition is deprived of its authority as a common reference point for deliberation; judgment appears to be all but submerged in the dark void of relativism. Yet, having both accepted Kant's differentiation of reason as emblematic of...
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SOURCE: “Postmodernity, Narratives, Sexual Politics: Reflections on Jean-François Lyotard,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Fall, 1988, pp. 336-50.
[In the following essay, Leo explores Lyotard's postmodern critique of modernist doctrine.]
Beginning in the 1960s a group of skeptical (and mainly gay) theorists emerged in Europe (mainly France) whose common stance has been the decolonization of just about everything administered by a white, straight, occidental patriarchy.1 Figures such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Guy Hocquenghem, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, and Monique Wittig are just some of the thinkers who have changed irrevocably how we describe, understand, and participate in social formations. Their commentaries on sexuality, psychoanalysis, signs and codes, the pervasive power of the state and of institutions (“discourses”), economic exchange, and mass communications are today the core of European university curricula and the interpretive frameworks (and occasional inspirations) for work in the arts and literature. Theirs is not a thematic/semantic exposition on power but instead a practical anatomy of the secrets and interstices of its workings, a return of the repressed within and onto a modernist philosophy of logical language games in the name of...
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SOURCE: A review of Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event, in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, April, 1989, pp. 209-10.
[In the following review of Peregrinations, Bogue offers a lucid thumbnail sketch of that volume and of Lyotard's career.]
Where to locate the elusive Lyotard? Over the years, many have asked this question about the protean poststructuralist, and in 1986 the organizers of the Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California at Irvine invited Lyotard himself to respond. His answer, contained in the three lectures collected in this volume, is that he is not on any philosophical map, but off in the clouds—for “thoughts are clouds” (p. 5), fuzzy-edged, shifting, essentially temporal formations that summon us to their exploration. Lyotard calls that summons “law” and its proper response “probity”: “Imagine the sky as a desert full of innumerable cumulus clouds slipping by and metamorphosing themselves, and into whose flood your thinking can or rather must fall and make contact with this or that unexpected aspect. Probity is being accessible to the singular request coming from each of the different aspects” (p. 8). Lyotard sees law, form, and event as the three unavoidable themes that have infused his thought as it has drifted above the traditional domains of ethics, esthetics, and politics. In Chapter One, he describes thought and law; in Chapter...
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SOURCE: “The Differends of Man,” in Diacritics, Vol. 19, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1989, pp. 63-75.
[In the following essay, Ronell discusses the meanings of the term “différend” as Lyotard applies it to connections and disconnections made in the exchange of language and “phrases.”]
Lyotard has observed that Nazism, when it was “over,” was let down like a rabid dog but never as such refuted. To be sure, a number of persuasive assertions have been made, analyses have been attempted, and an indisputable sense of justice has seemed to reinstall itself. Still, these do not provide philosophical proof or a rigorous guarantee of the intelligibility of the Nazi disaster. In fact, the recourse to the sublime, to modalities of the unthinkable and uncontrolled, suggest to us that Nazism continues to place us before what Walter Benjamin has called Denkfaulheit: a failure or falling off of thinking, a kind of lethargy that overwhelms language. Among other things, this means that the gas has not been entirely turned off but continues to leak and to spread its effects.
Yet it may be that the stunning toxicity is wearing off, and thinking is beginning to stir, to come to. This does not mean that the technologically constellated torture systems have been shut down, of course. But thanks to a number of courageous individuals—I think proper names are...
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SOURCE: “Lyotard's ‘Kantian Socialism’,” in Philosophy & Social Criticism, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1990, pp. 23-37.
[In the following essay, Geiman characterizes Lyotard's arrival at the idea of dissensus-as-authentic-consensus as the evolution of a Kantian socialism he sees at the root of Lyotard's politics.]
The work of Jean-François Lyotard has been characterized as “an eclectic look at the overlapping boundaries between aesthetic, political and ethical territories.”1 This is not surprising. Like most French philosophers in the twentieth century—including Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—Lyotard pursues his philosophical investigations with a great sensitivity to contemporary political and cultural developments. What separates him from many of his former and present compatriots, whose work has been often deemed “bereft of any moral orientation,”2 is his active concern for the place and the character of ethics in this constellation. His more recent works, Au juste3 and Le Différend,4 reflect this concern. In them, Lyotard seeks to establish the outlines of a conception of justice that is not linked to consensus-formation. The immediate reference is to Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann; the protracted reference is to any form of social criticism that proceeds from a model (Lyotard will call it a “metanarrative”)...
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SOURCE: “Kant the Liberal, Kant the Anarchist: Rawls and Lyotard on Kantian Justice,” in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 525-38.
[In the following essay, May compares how Lyotard and the philosopher John Rawls use Kant's work in their formulations of justice.]
The current crisis of Marxist thought is certain to provoke renewed investigations by political philosophers of their field. Radical philosophers will cast about for a viable alternative, while liberal philosophers will turn back to their tradition either to account for its seeming success or to deepen it. In both cases, the question of justice will become central, since it is especially this dimension of social life that appears to be vitiated under communist rule. For Marxists, justice has always devolved upon an equitable economic order; thus the demand, particularly among East Europeans, for an irreducible political sphere—a sphere seeking just social relations—has raised fundamental questions about the viability of Marxist practice.
Liberal thinkers have long realized the necessity for a vital concept of justice. As the discussions from Rawls, Walzer and Gauthier show, the question of the nature of justice dominates their investigations. Radical thinkers, however, are beginning to discuss justice as well. Among these, Jean-François Lyotard has spent much of his recent work...
(The entire section is 5859 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 88-90.
[In the following review of Peregrinations, Ormiston outlines the meaning of thinking according to Lyotard.]
Peregrinations presents Lyotard's Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory delivered at the University of California at Irvine (May 1986). Titled “Clouds,” Touches,” and “Gaps,” these lectures recount the thoughts, borrowed idioms, phrasic connections, “reflective judgments,” and desires (the Kantian Ideas) that have led him on certain textual and narrative paths in the pursuit of “new artistic clouds and new clouds of thought” (p. 43). Peregrinations also includes a paper published originally in French, “A Memorial of Marxism: for Pierre Souyri,” which chronicles Lyotard's relation to the French Marxist Pierre Souyri, Lyotard's own involvement with Marxism (1954-1966), and his work with Souyri on the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie and the newspaper Pouvoir Ouvrier. The last section of the book is a “Checklist of Writings by and about Jean-François Lyotard: A Selected Bibliography” compiled by Eddie Yeghiayan.
Each part of this text narrates the very rich, complex and often contradictory and fragmentary positions that constitute Lyotard's intellectual and practical...
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SOURCE: “Lyotard's Combative Theory of Discourse,” in Telos, No. 83, Spring, 1990, pp. 141-50.
[In the following essay, Weber argues that, in his assertion of language as a means by which incommensurates challenge each other for dominance, Lyotard is assuming a position similar to nineteenth century Social Darwinism.]
“Parler, c'est agir” is an old rhetorical commonplace.1 Speech is generally regarded as an instrument of communication and understanding. Lyotard, however, wants to replace communication with agon; to him speech is a contest: “parler est combattre.”2 He emphatically rejects the humanist notion that language is in a state of harmony disrupted only by the speakers' opposing interests. For Lyotard, the idea that individuals control language is an anthropocentric illusion. The internal structure of language necessarily places it in a condition of bellum omnium contra omnes.
Lyotard finds this civil war in the heterogeneity of language. According to him, all phrases are formed according to certain rules—“régimes de phrases” (to reason, to know, to describe, to narrate, to ask etc.). Phrases pertaining to different “régimes de phrases” are incompatible. They can, however, be linked by different “genres de discours” so as to reach particular aims such as to know, to teach, to...
(The entire section is 4084 words.)
SOURCE: “Lyotard and the Jouissance of Practical Reason,” in Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 85-101.
[In the following excerpt, Pefanis traces Lyotard's career from Marxism to Postmodernism with an emphasis of his deconstruction of Marx and his valorization of libidinal intensities in Économie libidinale.]
The enemy and accomplice of writing, its Big Brother (or rather its O'Brien), is language (langue), by which I mean not only the mother tongue, but the entire heritage of words, of the feats and works of what is called the literary culture. One writes against language, but necessarily with it. To say what it already knows how to say is not writing. One wants to say what it does not know how to say, and what it should be able to say. One violates it, one seduces it, one introduces into it an idiom which it had not known. But when that same desire to be able to say something other than what has been already said—has disappeared, and when language is experienced as impenetrable and inert rendering vain all writing, then it is called Newspeak.
—Jean-François Lyotard, Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants
The struggle against totalitarianism—against totalitarianisms—has taken and takes many forms. The forms of this resistance are contingent upon the...
(The entire section is 10814 words.)
SOURCE: “The Postmodern Museum,” in Philosophical Events: Essays of the '80s, Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 105-17.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Rajchman describes Les Immatériaux, and discusses the nature of postmodernism and its relation to language, technoscience and modernism.]
Les Immatériaux (March 28-July 25, 1985) was the most expensive exhibition in the Beaubourg museum to date. A collective effort of more than fifty people working over two years under the auspices of the Centre de Création Industrielle, it was directed by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard and company transformed the fifth floor of the museum into a gigantic metallic maze, divided by gray gauze screens into sixty-one “sites”; these sites were arranged consecutively along five adjacent pathways. For the most part the sites consisted of small installations of various cultural artifacts; technological representations and electronic devices, and were titled by the ideas or conditions that they were intended to represent or demonstrate.
The visitor entered the maze equipped with headphones that furnished a sound track synchronized with the sites—a selection of dramatically recited classics mostly from French theory (Blanchot, Baudrillard, Barthes) and modern writing (Beckett, Artaud, Mallarmé, Proust, Zola, Kleist). In this manner one...
(The entire section is 4860 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 71, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 282-83.
[In the following review of Le différend, Manning places the work in the context of Lyotard's previous philosophical investigations and praises Lyotard for centering his inquiries inside the historical fact of the Holocaust.]
The Differend: Phrases in Dispute clearly illustrates two essential reasons why Lyotard should be considered one of the most important philosophers writing today. First, it shows (again) that Lyotard is one of those very rare philosophers whose work bridges the gulf between analytic and Continental philosophy. Second, although The Differend continues the discussion of language games and of justice begun in his two earlier works—The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) and Just Gaming (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985)—it also shows that Lyotard is not one who merely rehashes old themes but is unusually open to being challenged. In The Differend, the terror of history forces him to rethink the issue of justice in order to further his quest to write a philosophy that is thoroughly enmeshed in the political.
This book obviously owes much to the later Wittgenstein. With its numbered paragraphs, it even looks like the Philosophical...
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SOURCE: “Jean-François Lyotard's Postmodernism: Feminism, History, and the Question of Justice,” in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, March, 1992, pp. 259-72.
[In the following essay, McGraw discusses the importance of Lyotard's theory and critique of narrative for feminists in the pursuit of justice and reconstructing history.]
“Lorsque l'Un est pulvérisé et l'identité disloquée, et que règne le polémos, c'est alors … qu'il n'est plus question de faire n'importe quoi et qu'il est urgent d'être juste.” Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe. (La Faculté de Juger)
The capitalist game of competition waged between the Anglo-American type of feminist pragmatics and the various forms of French theoretical imports has resulted in a net loss: eight years of Reaganomics, prolonged by the present laissez-faire attitude, has just about cancelled any socio-economic advances made in the sixties and seventies by cultural feminists. Unmistakably echoic, an anxious literary establishment, scrambling for ever-diminishing funds, and perceiving theoretical investment negatively has rejuvenated the myth of a universal canonical truth to regain control over experimental forms of literary productions. Clearly, growing incidences of intellectual schizophrenia,1 coupled with the...
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SOURCE: “Ecriture judaique: Where Are the Jews in Western Discourse?” in Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question, edited by Angelika Bammer, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 182-201.
[In the following essay, Shapiro argues that, in “Heidegger and ‘the Jews,’” Lyotard replaces “actual Jews” with a universal category.]
In the dominant discourse(s) of the Christian/West1 the Jew has been located in a place that defines and fixes “his”2 identity stereotypically.3 Both in explicitly Christian discourse and in discourses derived from and influenced by it, the Jew has been figured in negative terms as that which lacks legitimacy or value.4 This negative figure (the Jew as the “Other” of the Christian/West) has been embodied in the trope of “the Jew,” and it is through this tropic lens that actual Jews have been seen. For example, the figure of the wandering Jew represented the punishment of the Jew exiled from home, condemned to diasporic suffering until the second coming (see Anderson; and Dundes and Hasan-Rokem). The perceived carnality of the “Old Testament” corresponded to the view of the Jew as overly or deviantly sexual.5 Taking circumcision as a sign of exclusivity, Jews were seen as intransigent, stubbornly particular, and particularistic.6 For continuing to identify and live as Jews,...
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SOURCE: “Rephrasing the Freudian Unconscious: Lyotard's Affect-Phrase,” in Diacritics, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 43-62.
[In the following essay, referring to Freud and Lacan, Tomiche explores Lyotard's psychology of irreconcilables, unrepresentables, and irreducibles.]
In the foreword of The Inhuman, Lyotard notes: “The irreconcilable is what, belatedly, I realize I have always tried to preserve—under various headings: work, figurality, heterogeneity, dissensus, event, thing” . From Discours, figure (1971), Lyotard's first major work, up to his most recent one, Lectures d'enfance (1991), the irreconcilable has indeed been, at different levels, at the heart of his work. At the historico-political level, the critical goal of such works as The Postmodern Condition, Just Gaming, and The Differend was to make it possible to phrase that which “reality,” a politics rooted in it, and political theory have not allowed to be phrased, have always attempted to reduce, suppress, or resolve. At the aesthetic level, Lyotard's valorization of the avant-garde in twentieth-century art stems from his interest in its use of pictorial, musical, or linguistic matter, an interest, that is, in what cannot be reduced by representation (and Lyotard links this aesthetic tradition to the Kantian sublime as the experience of a radical irreconcilability...
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SOURCE: “‘Games of Perfect Information’: Computers and the Metanarratives of Emancipation and Progress,” in Sub-Stance, Vol. XXV, No. 79, November, 1996, pp. 24-45.
[In the following essay, Porter contests the feasibility and the desirability of Lyotard's idea that a complete computerization of information would supply a democratically available resource, arguing—aside from the resulting information overload—that the language needed for such an enterprise would be the sort of “totalizing” grand narrative Lyotard condemns.]
In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard argues that “knowledge has become the principle force of production” in the modern world. Because information is indispensable to productive power, it “will continue to be … a major—perhaps the major—stake in the worldwide competition for power.” Consequently, “it is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information … and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor” (5, original emphasis). Of course, knowledge can empower or enslave individuals as well as nation-states. Those who are “in the know” hold an advantage over those who are not. To avoid an ever-widening gap between “developed and developing countries,” or, as I suggest, developed and developing individuals, Lyotard calls for providing the public...
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Nordquist, Joan. Jean-François Lyotard: A Bibliography. Santa Cruz: Reference and Research Services, 1991, 60 p.
A comprehensive listing of Lyotard's work and work about his work.
Atwill, Janet M. “Contingencies of Historical Representation.” In Writing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Victor J. Vitanza, pp. 98-111. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Applies Lyotard's conception of the différend to a study of historiographical method.
Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 189 p.
Provides a clear and thorough explanation of Lyotard's philosophy, by one of Lyotard's English translators.
Brons, H. R. “Philosophy under Fire: J. F. Lyotard: Transcending the Trenches of Postmodernity.” History of European Ideas 20, No. 4-6 (February 1995): 785-90.
Discusses Lyotard's strategy for enabling discourse in the face of disagreement.
Jay, Martin. “The Ethics of Blindness and the Postmodern Sublime: Levinas and Lyotard.” In Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought, pp. 543-86. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Analyzes the role...
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